Grief that Heals (Lamentations 3:25-33, 55-58)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 23, 2007)
The book of Lamentations provides commentary on the prophecies that signaled the end of the Hebrew nation-state of Judah. It contributes to our understanding of the prophetic witness in the generations prior to and following Judah’s end. However, Lamentations also provides words of comfort and insight that speak to other times of grief and loss.
Lamentations reminds us of the consequences of unfaithfulness. But the loss of the temple and the loss of the nation-state did not signal God’s defeat but witnessed to God’s reality. When the people were warned, God meant it. These consequences vindicated the prophets’ warnings.
This prophetic insight played an enormous role in sustaining faith among the covenant people. God and Torah transcend Judah, providing hope that Yahweh’s justice and steadfast love continue regardless of human unfaithfulness.
A God who grieves
Lamentations makes very clear the grief God shares with the people following their terrible losses. Even if the losses had meaning, validating the call to justice and faithfulness by showing the consequences of injustice and unfaithfulness, they also brought tremendous pain and loss. God shares in the mourning over this loss. God is present even among those who had turned from God time after time.
The trauma loosed upon Judah–most directly seen in the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple and king’s palace–was the just judgment of God on Judah due to the people (especially their leaders) seeking wealth instead of justice. However, God does not simply punish the people for the sake of paying them back. God allows consequences for unfaithfulness in order to move the people to healing. God’s call to the covenant people to bless all the families of the Earth remains in effect.
This leads to the most important message in Lamentations amidst the tears and grief. God’s steadfast love is more permanent than God’s wrath. On the one hand, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lam. 3:22). On the other hand, “the Lord will not reject forever” (3:31). God’s steadfast love is everlasting; God’s wrath is not.
In 3:25-33, we receive a lesson on the character of God. “The Lord is good to those who wait….It is good for one to bear the yoke [of suffering brought on by unfaithfulness], to put one’s mouth to the dust, there may yet be hope….For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”
Both mercy and judgment
Lamentations makes clear the underlying message of all the prophets we are studying. With God, there is no conflict between mercy and judgment. Only mercy lasts forever. But God’s mercy underwrites a moral universe. Resisting this mercy brings consequences (judgment). God does not simply let injustice reign. However, in the end, God’s judgment serves God’s mercy. God hears the cries of those in need (Lam. 3:56) and brings healing (3:58).
Though Lamentations speaks directly to the fall of Judah, its truths speak to all times. Whenever people hurt and oppress others, whenever injustice, greed, and violence wreak their havoc, we rightly grieve the pain and loss that result. And we rightly call upon God–for God’s comforting presence and for God’s justice.
However, in the end–if we are to be true to the prophetic message (later embodied by Jesus)–we most of all pray for God’s healing power for victim and offender alike and for empowerment ourselves to be agents of that healing power.