They Hung Their Harps in the WillowsPosted August 2nd, 2012
by Bert Williams
A friend reached out to Facebook friends for support not long ago. “Trying to trust all things to work together for good,” she wrote. “In theory this promise is beautiful. When in the midst of heartache, it is a much bigger challenge.”
The friend has not shared the details of her heartache, and I am one of more than a thousand of her Facebook friends. So I think it’s up to her to say whatever she chooses, and it’s up to me simply to let her know I’m praying for her. She has said enough, though, to make it clear that she and those closest to her are in deep distress.
Is it true?
So what about this promise? “All things work together for good.” Is it true?
I am confident that Paul intended for it to apply to everyone who has ever read his letter to the Romans, and I do believe that—ultimately—the promise proves true. But have you ever experienced the challenge my friend is facing?
“In theory the promise is beautiful,” she says.
Yes, and can’t you just hear, resonating in your mind, the word that sometimes follows?
“But . . .” (And most anyone can fill in the blank about a personal experience.)
More than a few people, during times of personal crisis, have lost their faith right at this spot in the road. That is true, I am sure, for some of my other Facebook friends who no longer hold belief as the key that unlocks their understanding of life on planet Earth.
I can hear them in my mind’s ear:
“Don’t tell me, when my 45-year-old mother dies of cancer, that it’ll all work out for the best.”
“Don’t tell me, when my 3-year-old is killed by a drunk driver, that ‘it’s OK. God is in control.’ It is not OK, and if God is in control, it’s time somebody else took over.”
A full-blown lament
In a short reply to my Facebook friend, I suggested that Romans 8:28 doesn’t always seem to apply as directly as we might wish. “Sometimes,” I suggested, “a full-blown lament is the appropriate response: ‘O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed’ (Lamentations 1:9).”
Romans, after all, is not the only book in the Bible. Sometimes Lamentations speaks directly to our experience.
To many readers of Scripture, Lamentations is a strange book. It is dark. It is lonely. Much of it is just desolate. Lamentations does not fit the mood that the worship leaders seemed to be trying to create at my church last week.
Oh, wait. I was one of the worship leaders at church last week. And I have to admit that when we are up there behind the microphones, the book of Lamentations is not the first Scripture that comes to mind. It is our purpose to be cheerful and encouraging. Our goal is to lift hearts to the Lord in praise!
However, as Solomon once wrote:
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven: . . .
A time to break down,
And a time to build up.
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh.
There is a time, I would suggest, for lamenting.
Rooted in history
The book of Lamentations is rooted in the history of Jerusalem. The city had withstood the siege of Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Samaria from 734 to 732 B.C.
Jerusalem held out against Shalmaneser in 722. Jerusalem prevailed against Sennacherib in 701. Egypt’s Pharaoh Nicho II failed to conquer Jerusalem in 609.
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had taken some captives in 605—including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and Ezekiel was taken captive in 597, but Jerusalem still stood.1
However, after years of repeated apostasies and repeated divine warnings, according to the prophet Jeremiah (who also wrote Lamentations), here is what happened:
“In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchad-nezzar king of Babylon and all his army came against Jerusalem, and besieged it. In the eleventh year of Zedekiah, . . . the city was penetrated. . . . When Zedekiah the king of Judah and all the men of war saw them, . . . they fled and went out of the city by night. . . . But the Chaldean army pursued them and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. . . . The king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes in Riblah; the king of Babylon also killed all the nobles of Judah. Moreover he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, and bound him with bronze fetters to carry him off to Babylon. And the Chaldeans burned the king’s house and the houses of the people with fire, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 39:1-9).
It was a full-blown catastrophe. It was not just physical devastation—like the 2011 Tohoku earthquake that flattened northern Japan. It was moral devastation. For many people of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem flattened their confidence that they were chosen by God. It flattened their faith. A deeply grieving poet, in response, wrote Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down
and wept when we remembered Zion.2
There on the willow-trees
we hung up our harps,
for there those who carried us off
demanded music and singing,
and our captors called on us to be merry:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4, RSV).
It was at this time that Jeremiah wrote the five poems we know as Lamentations.
Tough and Real
The third chapter of Lamentations is the centerpiece of the book. So take some time now and listen to Jeremiah weep:
I am the man who has seen affliction
By the rod of His wrath.
He has led me and made me walk
In darkness and not in light.
Surely He has turned His hand against me
Time and time again throughout the day.
He has aged my flesh and my skin,
And broken my bones.
He has besieged me
And surrounded me with bitterness and woe.
He has set me in dark places
Like the dead of long ago. . . .
He has been to me like a bear lying in wait,
Like a lion in ambush.
He has turned aside my ways
And torn me in pieces;
He has made me desolate
Why is this desolate language in the Bible? It’s because the Bible is real. It does not duck trouble. It does not dismiss our personal chaos. Sometimes Jeremiah’s lament describes, quite simply, our own bleak experience.
Though Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet—and for good reason—we should not think that he was a weak man. He was complaining to God one day:
Let me talk with You about Your judgments.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?
You have planted them,
Yes, they have taken root;
They grow, yes, they bear fruit.
You are near in their mouth
But far from their mind.
But You, O Lord, know me;
You have seen me,
And You have tested my heart toward You
I suppose Jeremiah was hoping for some sympathy. Instead, here is what he got from God:
If you have run with the footmen,
And they have wearied you,
Then how can you contend with horses?
Come on, Lord! Just a little compassion here? Maybe?
They gave it and they took it
But an easy life was not what Jeremiah was facing, and God did not sugar coat Jeremiah’s reality. He was called by God to be a prophet in a difficult time. It was going to be tough. Might as well get on with it. And that is, in fact, what Jeremiah did. But it wasn’t always with a buoyant spirit.
A few chapters later, Jeremiah is praying: “O Lord, you have deceived me. . . . I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (Jeremiah 20:7, ESV).
Tough words from Jeremiah—accusing God of deception! Well, it was a tough relationship that God and Jeremiah shared. They both gave it and they both took it. It was real.
Above all else, it is reality that we each need in our own relationship with God. That is what Jeremiah needed. It is what my grieving Facebook friend needs now. It is what Lamentations provides.
Some scholars study the Old Testament purely as an academic exercise. Academics with this frame of mind will sometimes suggest that various parts of a particular biblical book, contrary to traditional belief, were composed by more than one writer. This might be what such scholars would be saying about the third chapter of Lamentations. However, in this case it is simply not a possibility.
Lamentations is an anthology of five poems. The poems of chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 are each 22 verses long, and each verse begins with a successive letter of the 22-character Hebrew alphabet—A to Z if it were the English alphabet. So, even though we don’t see it in our English Bibles, each chapter is a carefully composed acrostic—a common poetic form in Hebrew.
Chapter three is the centerpiece of the anthology. It is 66 verses long—3 times 22—including three complete cycles of the Hebrew alphabet. There is no possibility, with this carefully crafted literary work, that various parts could have been composed in different times and places by different writers. This is one unique and cohesive piece of literature.
That being the case, the contrast is startling. It is literary whiplash. Several verses beyond those quoted above we read this:
Remember my affliction and roaming,
The wormwood and the gall.
My soul still remembers
And sinks within me.
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
Wait! What? Hope? Where does that come from? Then these verses follow:
Through the Lord’s mercies
We are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,”
Says my soul,
“Therefore I hope in Him!”
The Lord is good to those
Who wait for Him,
To the soul who seeks Him.
It is good that one should hope
And wait quietly
For the salvation of the Lord.
So, in the aftermath of the chaos of Jerusalem’s destruction, when Jeremiah is feeling the crushing weight of Judah’s moral failure and his appointed task as a prophet of God bearing witness to that failure, he still writes of hope. He finds reason to “wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
This is not the first time my Facebook friend has faced tragedy in her life. It probably will not be the last time. Planet Earth can be a brutal place. From a strictly earthly perspective, the future looks grim. That is why we need the hard, brutal dose of reality that is found in the book of Lamentations. It was God, after all, who oversaw the inclusion of Lamentations in the Bible.
It was also God who oversaw the inclusion of His own beloved Son in the woeful history of our planet. Gaze intently at that scene in the Garden of Gethsemane on that awful Thursday evening where Jesus prayed desperately—hour after hour—clawing at the ground, sweating blood. There you see Lamentations personified.
Stare, long and hard, at the cross. There you hear the great lament of all the ages: “My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Ultimately, it is because of Gethsemane and the cross that, in the very heart of his great lament, Jeremiah could write about God,
His compassions fail not,
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
1 James T. Dennison, Jr., “The Lament and the Lamenter” (www.kerux.com/documents/keruxv12n3a2.asp)
2 Zion is a name for the city of Jerusalem.