A Study of Lament: The Prophets

{read the rest of the series by clicking here}

Perhaps the most well-known lament is the book of Lamentations, written by Jeremiah. But much of the book of Jeremiah, as well as Habakkuk, Ezekiel, and parts from Hosea, are also laments. They are, however, different from the laments of David and Job, whose sufferings were, for the most part, innocent. The suffering the prophets lamented about was the suffering of judgment, suffering because of sin. The bulk of pain in the world today is from sin: whether unrepentant sin in our own lives or the sin of others affecting us – and either of those can lead to depression. Like the rest of God’s works, judgment and sorrow are used to bring us back to Him, and the prophets make this very clear in their writings.

The book of Jeremiah is one long lament. The specific laments have no turning point, but it is still there: mixed in with the weeping are promises of hope and faithfulness.
There’s something else that sets the laments in Jeremiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel apart from other laments. Most often, they aren’t the cries of men, but of God. He is angry over sin and is coming in judgment, yet does not desire their downfall. The clearest example of this is in Hosea 11.
“Though they cry out to the Most High, He shall not raise them up at all,” God says, but then adds “How can I give you up, oh Ephraim? How can I hand you over, oh Israel? …my heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.”
Even as He brings righteous judgment for sin upon His people, God longs for them to repent, remembering His steadfast love for His children. In Ezekiel 18 He says:
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

When the prophets, particularly Jeremiah and Habakkuk, lament, they make it clear that lament is a conversation with God. In the latter, Habakkuk pleads with God, telling God exactly what he thinks about the current situation. He mentions aspects of God’s character, pointing out that what God is going to do seems inconsistent with that. But by the end of the book, Habakkuk starts remembering more of who God is – no longer seeing what seemed to be inconsistency, but remembering the things God has done for His people. Rather than being upset at God for His wrath, Habakkuk sees that it is just, and asks for mercy. But the book doesn’t end until Habakkuk has seen enough of God to know that God is enough. No matter how devastating the judgment that’s coming – though the fields yield no food and there be no herd in the stalls – Habakkuk will still rejoice in God.
In Habakkuk, we never see the end of the story. We don’t see Habakkuk’s response to the actual judgment. But we do see something very similar in Lamentations. In Hebrew, the book of Lamentations is called “How.” It is not “why,” because Jeremiah does not need to ask “why.” He knows why, and makes that clear early on. God is judging Judah for her sin.

In the first chapter, Jeremiah outlines the destruction Judah has gone through. It’s more awful than anything most of us have gone through or will go through in the United States. Zion is abandoned; her people are afflicted. In verse twelve the cause becomes clear: The Lord has done this. In verse fourteen we see why He has done it: because of sin. But even in the weeping and sorrow, Jeremiah knows: The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against His word” (1:18). The rest of chapter one and all of chapter two are about more of the devastation brought upon Judah. The darkness grows – there were days he didn’t stop crying (2:18), the children were dying (2:19), and the enemy rejoices over them (2:16). They are left with nothing – their false hopes were never fulfilled (4:17).
It is here that the cries for mercy begin. “Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children… Look, O Lord, and see! With whom have you dealt thus?” (19-20).
In true lament, Jeremiah begins to ask God to remember His mercy.
Then it becomes more personal, as Jeremiah writes not of Zion but of himself. He reaches the bottom: “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” (3:17-18).

Out of nowhere, the vav, a change, comes. It’s unexpected – but it happens, pointing to how it doesn’t come out of our own strength but because the Holy Spirit causes us to remember who God is.
Jeremiah remembers, even in this devastation, that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”
He speaks of waiting for the Lord in affliction, sitting in silence, waiting quietly for Him to come. Because He will come:
“The Lord will not cast off forever, but, though He cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” (31-33).

Jeremiah knows that God is just (34-36), and who is man to question God when God is judging us for sin (39)? Instead of balking at the judgment, Jeremiah says to test and examine our ways and return to the Lord (40-41), because the One who afflicts is the One who saves. The judgment is from Him – but so is the cure.

In the final chapter, Jeremiah comes to God in total honesty, telling Him exactly what is happening, though He knows God is the one who has brought it. Then Jeremiah arrives at another turning point: “But you, O Lord, reign forever.” Zion may no longer have her king, but the Lord still reigns. So Jeremiah asks for mercy, but he also asks that God remain God – “unless you have utterly rejected us” (22). He doesn’t want God to compromise His justice, but Jeremiah does want God to remember His mercy, because both are a part of His character.
So what if we are suffering because of our own sin?
Confess. In Psalm 32, David writes of being afflicted until he confessed his sin. In Psalm 51, he prays for God to restore the joy of salvation to him after sin.
Remember that our sin is covered by Christ and forgiven, taken care of on the cross. The devil may tempt us (though our sin is ultimately our responsibility), but he cannot destroy us or take us from God (Romans 8:33-34). He may remind us of sin, past or present – but we are forgiven, fully justified in Christ.

I think it is wise for people in depression to examine their lives and see if there is sin they need to confess. This is not morbid introspection but rather seeking the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting!”
(Psalm 139:23-24)

However, I strongly believe that not all depression is caused by sin and so don’t want to imply that if someone is depressed they must have done something wrong. It is a possibility and should be ruled out, but we shouldn’t be like Job’s friends who pestered him to repent, seeing no other possible cause for his suffering, because innocent suffering is a very real thing. The prophets may not have had to deal with it, but Job certainly did.

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