The Old Testament book of Lamentations might be one of the least visited books in the entire Bible. You are undoubtedly familiar with that refrain, “Great is your faithfulness,” found in the third chapter of the book since it has served as the inspirational source for all manner of religious media for centuries. In fact, we repeat that mantra often, almost without realizing the horrendous setting in which that refrain was originally uttered. “Great is your faithfulness” is a stanza that emerged out of one of the worst catastrophes to ever befall the people of God — namely, the collapse of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.
This is a devastating piece of history, as the people of Yahweh are, by all accounts, abandoned by Yahweh himself. That’s what it felt like, at least. It’d be hard to believe otherwise, what with Babylonian invaders running rampant throughout the city. Jerusalem, that once-sprawling citadel that served as an emblem of God’s blessing, was reduced to ruin and rubble. This event, recorded in Scripture no less than five times (2 Kings 25; 2 Chron. 36; Isa. 29; Jer. 39, 52), is like the Bible’s version of a flashing neon sign: “You should pay attention to this!”
With Judah now decimated, as Israel was before them, some of the residents are hauled off to Babylon as prisoners of war. Others make the fateful decision to flee to Egypt in a tragic reversal of the Exodus centuries prior. The prophet Jeremiah was among those who escaped back to the land of their forefathers’ captivity, though not by choice. In fact, Jeremiah issues a stern warning to all those who were considering solace in Egypt as a viable option (Jer. 42:15–17). But, like many of his words, his warning fell on deaf ears. He is detained and taken to Egypt, where tradition says he lived out the rest of his days until he was stoned to death.
Some believe that it was during those years of exile in the land of the Pharaohs that the Lord’s prophet penned the gut wrenching words of Lamentations. (Others, of course, take a different approach and see this book as being written by someone else entirely. But I won’t bore you with all that.) What is conveyed throughout the grim poetry of Lamentations is a despairing and discouraging portrait of God’s people. This book is brimming with grief. And yet, at the same time, there is good news to be found in the middle of it all.
As Jeremiah writes these heartbreaking songs of lament, what is revealed is what we might call the gospel of grief. This is especially true of chapter 3, in which the prophet lives up to his nickname, “the weeping prophet.” He is the “man who has seen affliction” (Lam. 3:1) who gives voice to that affliction in painstaking detail. And through this sorrowful song, the prophet-turned-poet helps us to grasp the gospel of grief alongside him.
Part of the good news is accepting the bad news — and there’s perhaps no worse news than what Jeremiah describes in the opening verses of Lamentations 3 as he puts the collective pain of Israel in the first person. Our disconsolate prophet personalizes the national despair of Judah, painting a horrific picture of what suffering looks like and feels like (Lam. 3:2–16). He is broken and besieged and beleaguered by oppression and tribulation. He feels “enveloped,” “walled in,” and “blocked” on every side. Everywhere he looks, there is more and more evidence of desolation and reason for despair, especially since there seems to be an embargo on his prayers (Lam. 3:8). His dwelling place is the “darkness,” with no light to be found at the end of the tunnel (Lam. 3:2, 6).
In every which way, this is the miserable midnight of Jeremiah’s (and Judah’s) suffering and sorrow. Indeed, so pointed is his grief that he confesses that he doesn’t remember how to be happy. “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord’” (Lam. 3:17–18). These are some of the most devastating verses in all of Scripture, as the prophet of Yahweh admits that both his endurance and his hope have all but completely evaporated.
This is what hopelessness sounds like.
This is what suffering feels like.
But Jeremiah’s confessions take on a more jagged edge when you realize who it is that he sees as his oppressor — namely, God himself. In verses 2 through 16, Jeremiah identifies God as the assailant, the persecutor, and the source of all grief, some nineteen times. “He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me,” etc. What makes the prophet’s grief all the more grievous, his pain all the more painful, is that Yahweh’s hand seems to be behind it all. The very one whom Jeremiah was called to proclaim had turned against him (Lam. 3:2–3). Or so it seemed.
God had become the oppressor. No longer was the Lord the Great Shepherd of his sheep; now he had become the predator who was waiting to tear his prey into pieces (Lam. 3:10–11). It felt as though there was a target on his back, with God the archer letting one of his arrows fly, landing a kill shot (Lam. 3:12–13). No wonder Jeremiah’s hope had all but vanished. No wonder his thoughts are filled with “wormwood and gall” (Lam. 3:19–20). All his past memories are tainted by the bitterness of the present.
While we might be taken aback by most of these eye-brow-raising confessions, they are preserved in Scripture for a reason. In particular, they show us that God can handle our midnight cries. When we are at our lowest and life seems to have gone dark, gone off the rails: God wants to hear from us. Midnight isn’t a time to go mute; it’s a time to give voice to all of our grief and pain and suffering and sorrow. The Bible never encourages sufferers to bottle up their suffering. In fact, the prevailing testimony of the Bible is that ours is a God who is powerful enough and patient enough to weather our midnight cries of misery and despair, no matter how twisted they might sound. Even if they put God himself in the crosshairs of our grief. The gospel of grief begins at midnight because that is where God hears us. That’s where he finds us. That’s where his mercy meets us.
As stunning as Jeremiah’s despair appears to be, what he says in verse 21 might be even more stunning: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” The man who was wallowing in unimaginable grief is now calling “something” to mind, which causes his hope to return, however faintly. This is a deliberate action on the part of the prophet as he chooses to remember “something.” Even as affliction and anguish flood his memory, something deeper and truer comes to mind — and what is that “something”? It is the never-ceasing, never-stopping mercy of God. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22–23).
This is what he is choosing to “call to mind.” The prophet is found clinging “to the gracious character of Yahweh,” writes Mark J. Boda, “and it is this that gives him hope” (486). The thing with suffering is that it can very quickly lead you to believe something that is false about God. Was it really the Lord who was behind all of those horrendous atrocities? Was he the author of his people’s grief and suffering and despair? Well, yes and no. There is, certainly, an element of judgment in what befell Jeremiah and Judah. And deservedly so. They had turned their backs on Yahweh for decades, even after prophet after prophet warned them, including Jeremiah himself. But to understand our suffering and sorrow, I think we must also understand that God is not the author of suffering.
God is not up in heaven rubbing his hands together as he thinks of new ways to terrorize and agonize his people. Indeed, God never delights in seeing his children suffer. Jeremiah says just that in verse 33, a verse that just so happens to be the exact middle of Lamentations: “For he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” And so it is, then, that we find the most crucial truth of all at the heart of Jeremiah’s lament — namely, that God’s heart is not filled with judgment. He never delights in dishing that out. Although it feels that way, doesn’t it?
Jeremiah’s and Judah’s experience of grief came about because of their own rebellion (Lam. 3:39–42). As a result, the Lord God withdrew his hand of blessing and protection from them. But the point is, even when we endure God’s apparent withdrawal, that’s not his eternal posture. That’s not his heart. That’s not what is most true about him. What is? “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he causes grief he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Lam. 3:31–32). What fills the heart of God is an abundance of “steadfast love” and compassion.
In the middle of suffering and sorrow, there is hope to be found in the remembrance of God’s merciful heart.
There is a depth of mercy in the heart of God and all it takes is the slightest murmur of repentance and a flood of mercy gushes forth. “Divine mercy,” writes Dane Ortlund, “is ready to burst forth at the slightest prick” (148). This is just who Yahweh is, who he’s always been, and who he always will be. He is a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod. 34:6–7; cf. Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Nah. 1:3). This is God’s heart. This is what’s most true about him.
In the middle of suffering and sorrow, there is hope to be found in the remembrance of God’s merciful heart. How else can we account for the prophet’s sudden turn from such a horrific view of the Lord to one that says that “the Lord is good”? (Lam. 3:24–33). He had been reminded that God’s heart is overflowing with steadfast love and God’s heart never changes. You and I are made to endure the darkest of days only by realizing that the mercy of God meets right there: at midnight. In the darkness. The gospel of grief tells us that’s where God shows up to lavish us with his mercy.
There is a particular beauty to that phrase in verse 23 in which God’s mercy is said to be “new every morning.” This, of course, speaks to his constancy. As surely as you can count on the sun to rise, those who are suffering can count on the mercy of God to meet them “in the morning.” This wasn’t only Jeremiah’s testimony. A litany of biblical authors give credence to the same hope (Ps. 46:5; 59:16; 90:14; 92:1–2; 143:8). “His anger is but for a moment,” says the psalmist, “and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). It’s always darkest before dawn. Before morning there is midnight. That’s not meant to be just some pithy line of poetry. This is the hope that’s found in the middle of our wreckage and ruin. “The beauty of brokenness,” Steve Smith comments, “grows in the dark” (286).
In verses 46 through 54, Jeremiah returns to confessing words of despair and hopelessness, this time using a real episode from his own life by way of illustration. He recalls a time when he was “flung alive into the pit,” an event that actually happened (Jer. 38:6). The Lord’s prophet was, at one time, thrown into a pit by his own people, by those to whom he was called to preach. This is Jeremiah’s literal “pit of despair” and it was there that he cried out to the Lord. And God heard him and came close to him, and gave him the simple promise, “Don’t be afraid” (Lam. 3:57). These words revive Jeremiah, filling him with the assurance that the Lord will, once again, take up his cause and redeem his life (Lam. 3:58).
It’s worth noting that those are the only recorded words of God in this entire song. Those simple albeit significant syllables are the most affecting words for sinners and sufferers, no matter what form their suffering might take. “Don’t be afraid,” he says, “I hear you. Trust in me, for the morning will come.” And why can we trust him? Because he has come near to take up our cause and redeem our lives. This is precisely what he has done in the person of Jesus Christ, who himself declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20).While midnight might seem long, the mercy of God assures us that the morning will come. Jesus’s passion and resurrection are our guarantee of that. And though the mercy that’s found at midnight doesn’t necessarily make the misery go away, it does, however, assure us that there is Someone who is with us right in the middle of it. God’s Word of promise assures us that at midnight we are greeted by none other than the embodiment of his lovingkindness. All the pain and grief and despair you endured is real, painfully so. But so is the one who is with you in it and through it. So is the Lord. “He is goodness, mercy, faithfulness, and compassion on two feet,” writes the late Lutheran pastor Jobst Schöne (136). The gospel of grief assures us that there is one who feels our grief with us because he has endured our grief for us. And in that, we can hope.