Today is Tisha be’Av – the ninth of Av. A date that is forever engraved in the conscience of the Jewish people as a day of fasting and mourning. On this day, the first and the second temples were destroyed in 586 BC and 70 AD respectively. In the Talmud the Rabbis made up additional stories, such as the sin of the 12 spies in the book of Numbers occurring on Tisha be’Av. In the 2,000 years of diaspora, confirmation bias has made us, as a people, notice the calamities that have befallen us on Tisha be’Av more than the calamities that occurred on other dates. Irregardlessly (yes, I love to use that word, it’s horrifyingly beautiful), Tisha be’Av is a day of mourning and of reading the scroll of Lamentations.
In Jewish tradition we have five smaller scrolls we read on special occasions. The three we read in Spring, Esther, Song of Songs and Ruth, are all full of hope and spring and renewal. The two we read in late summer and fall, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes are filled with horror, gloom and darkness. Just like the season. For some reason, they also happen to be the two scrolls with names almost impossible to pronounce in English, possibly to add to the gloom.
Originally, when Lamentations was written, Tisha be’Av was instituted as a fasting day, together with three other ones. One for when the siege started on the tenth of Tevet, one for when the Babylonians broke through the walls on 17th of Tamuz, one for the destruction of the temple on 9th of Av, and finally one for when Gedaliah was murdered, on 3rd Tishrei. (That murder is described in Jeremiah 41 and it marked the definite end of Jewish presence in Judea, until the time of Zerubabel). Much later, the prophet Zecharia mentions these four fasts in Zecharia 8:19, promising that one day they will turn into days of joy. That hasn’t happened yet.
Lamentations is a fascinating read. It’s not easy to read, but if we read it while keeping in mind that this is the inspired Word of God, not less holy than the gospels or Paul’s letters, we can learn a lot about how to look to God during times of trouble, and how to conduct ourselves when we are forced against our will to live in times of great worldwide calamity. I am writing this in 2020, in the midst of the largest global pandemic since 1918, so it feels more relevant than ever.
When the Babylonians come to destroy the temple, many Jews are already in Babylon, including Daniel and Ezekiel. They were sent there eleven years prior, when the elite were removed from Judea. 2Kings 24 gives the details on this. Jeremiah is still there, and he is traditionally seen as the one who wrote Lamentations. For years he warned against the idolatry, against the sinfulness, and against the rebellion that the king arranged against Babylon. No one listened to him. So what does he say when his prophecy is fulfilled? “Haha, what did I tell you”? Not at all. Jonah might have done so, but not Jeremiah. Jeremiah is crushed. Lamentations is weeping, it’s crying out to God, it’s a long scream of anguish. It is not just scribbled random thought, though. He has been sitting down choosing his words carefully, even writing them in alphabetical verse. Why did he write it? To whom? Did he send a copy to Babylon? Did Ezekiel and Daniel get a chance to read it? I’d say “probably” to all those questions. What would a scroll like this do for Jews who were already in Babylon? Two things. It would update them on the horrifying state of Jerusalem and what has happened. But more than that – it would also encourage them.
What’s encouraging about Lamentations? “Chapter 3” you might say, but you’d only be partly right.
There is a reason the more encouraging chapter 3 comes after two long chapters of mourning and anguish. If we read those two chapters there are two very noticeable things. One ting that sticks out for us modern readers, and one thing that we easily miss, but that would stick out for the original audience.
What sticks out for us is that he doesn’t hold back his anguish. He is not saying “well, this was a just punishment from God, so I don’t really have a right to be sad about it.” There is none of “just accept it as God’s will for your life” kind of mentality here. No, he cries out his despair. He sees dead bodies in the streets. He sees the temple, which always had existed for him, utterly destroyed. When we go through hard times, we shouldn’t have a bad conscience if we do the same. We are allowed to mourn, to scream in anguish, to be sad. I don’t like the “spoiled corona generation, what about the holocaust” mentality. As if worse historical suffering would diminish our current suffering. I know of people who died from corona. It is very real and very sad. The destruction Jeremiah describes is sometimes incredibly hard to bear. In chapter 2 verses 11-12 we have horrifying descriptions of hungry and suffering children. If you have ever read testimonies about children during the holocaust, you know exactly what Jeremiah is witnessing. It’s some of the most horrifying things you can hear of, and yet it happens. Jeremiah doesn’t stop and say “where is God?” nor does he doubt God’s goodness or existence. When horrible things occur, I sometimes get the question “well, where is your God now?” He is where he has always been. The Bible has never pretended that this horrible reality doesn’t exist. It deals with it, head on.
The other thing, that we might easily miss, but that the original audience would catch on to, is that Jeremiah goes the total opposite of other peoples at that time. The idea for them was that “in war, our gods fight against your gods, and whichever gods win are the strongest ones.” But Jeremiah doesn’t imagine for a second that the gods of Babylon won against God. He doesn’t talk about God being weak. On the contrary, he says God DID THIS. OUR God did this to us! He scarcely even mentions the enemies who did this. They were mere tools in God’s hands. In chapter 2 verse 7 he even says that God did this to his own temple.
How is that possible? How can God do such things?
Because God is not a humanist. We often assume that things good for humans are objectively good, and things bad for humans are objectively bad. That’s the basic tenet of humanism. It is often true, and we are definitely called to live that way. We are not to inflict harm on others, judge other people, kill people. But God is sovereign, and he forbids us doing those things because it is his job to do it. You know those people with tattoos or shirts that say “only God can judge me?” They are right. And it’s terrifying, because he will – and you have no idea how and when he will do it. It is not a good idea to make God your enemy. And that’s what they had done. Chapter 2:4-5.
The destruction of the first temple was a judgement on their sin. Jeremiah is very clear on that, and so is 2nd Kings. Is Corona also a punishment for sins? If something bad happens to me, is it because I did something bad?
Yes. But no.
All suffering in the world is because of the sin in the world. All of it. But is your specific suffering related directly to a specific sin you personally did? Probably not. Jeremiah, Job, Daniel, Ezekiel, Noah, they all lived in times when God brought calamities and judgements upon the earth, and it ruined their lives. All their future plans, dreams and aspirations were gone just like that. Were they sinful? Yes. Was the calamity that occurred their specific fault? Not at all.
God being the author and the maker of this destruction is an encouragement to the people in Babylon. To everyone who read it, really. Why is that? When I was little I grew up in a church where they taught that God only wants good things for you. It’s often known as the prosperity gospel. Anything bad that happens are attacks from Satan. Pray it away. And if it doesn’t go away, you probably didn’t pray right. Or you had too little faith. This is a very dangerous theology. It’s getting dangerously close to duoteism. Making Satan equally powerful to God.
I would ask my younger self who believed that – why pray to a God who is apparently too weak to help you in the first place? If things happened to you that were against his plans, he is not a very powerful god, is he? That’s a god who wakes up in the morning and says “oh, man, Satan really fooled me today, I didn’t expect him to do that.”
NO!!! That NEVER happens with God! God is all powerful, all good, all knowing, all present, and all sovereign. And THAT’S the comfort that Lamentations brings us.
HE caused this to happen. And we can turn to HIM for comfort. Because he has the POWER to do something about it! Chapter 2 verse 19 even says to cry out to him! Pour out your heart to him! What do we get when we do that?
That’s when we reach the comfort in chapter 3. Even if nothing changes in circumstances. Even if you feel so downbeat like he describes in the first 21 verses of that chapter. Still what does he say in verse 22?
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.”
My grandfather who survived the holocaust held on to that verse. He named his memoirs after it. Only at this point can the comfort start – once we understand that the suffering occurred within God’s sovereignty can we turn to him for comfort and help.
Unlike other peoples that the Babylonians destroyed, the Jewish people survived. They had promises, they had a Messiah in the future, God had a redemptive plan, a goal with this people. He wouldn’t let us die out. We can take comfort in that as well. No matter how gloomy and impossible things look – God is always in control.
One day this day will turn into a day of joy, as Zecharia prophesied. Until then, we can remember in whatever difficulty or turmoil that we are going through what Jeremiah says: “For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” (Lam 3:31-32)