Why Preach Lament?
Lament is common in the bible. We see lament in the Psalms, Job, Jeremiah, and even the New Testament (for example in Acts 20:22-30, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, and Revelation 6:10). Of course, the most obvious biblical book of lament is Lamentations. Lament is also a normal season in a Christian’s life. Mark Vroegop, in his book Dark Clouds Deep Mercy, says, “To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.” Vroegop is highlighting that no-one ever had to teach us to cry, for from the moment of birth we have all been able to shed tears. Vroegop says, however, that lament is different. Lament is more than just crying. It is “the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.” Because lament is an important biblical topic, it should be studied and preached from the pulpit.
The Book of Lamentations
The book of Lamentations is a much-neglected book. I preached from the book of Lamentations recently. It was the first time many in my church had heard a sermon from it. However, I quickly discovered, like many others before me, the reason why Lamentations is much neglected. It is a hard and depressing book to preach from. Peter Lee says this:
No other book within the biblical Canon is as dark and depressing as this one. It says much about the Christian church (and the academic community) that they pay little to no attention to this book. Sunday school classes rarely tackle it. Pastors generally stray from it… We can only ponder the reasons for this neglect, although it is not difficult to perceive why. It is due to the morbid depiction of suffering and pain. These are human experiences that many would rather not remember or reflect upon, yet they are sadly unavoidable.
Tragedy is unavoidable. Don Carson, in his book How Long, O Lord, writes: “All we have to do is live long enough, and we will be bereaved. All we have to do is live long enough, and we will die.” Death and grief are a normal part of life, and it is therefore vital to know how to comfort and equip God’s people on what it means to grieve. May I be so bold as to say, to not do so would be a disservice to the church.
The book of Lamentations comprises of five poems that describe the most tragic day in Judah’s history, the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Lamentations’ first four chapters are alphabet poems, each verse starting with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter three is an exception with 66 verses; the verses are grouped in threes, with each successive group of three verses starting with the same Hebrew letter before moving to the next group of verses and the successive letter. The fifth poem of Lamentations is not an acrostic poem. Why is that? I want to suggest that, unlike the other poems, it is not communicating the raw immediate grief of the destruction of Jerusalem but the ongoing grief of the survivors in the coming days, months, and years.
In Lamentations, each poem is given from a different point of view, five different voices that speak and describe in raw and honest emotional words the horrors of the destruction of Jerusalem. I want to suggest that the first four poems are different but the same. Each of the four is reliving the immediate impact of the destruction of Jerusalem from a different point of view, four different voices describing the sorrow and pain felt at the sight of the destroyed city. This makes the earlier part of Lamentations cyclical in nature rather than linear. Think of it like the movie Groundhog Day. For most of the movie, the character Phil Conners relives the same day again and again and again. That’s the first four chapters in Lamentations. The same scene is being described to us from four different viewpoints. In these chapters, we see bodies lying in the temple, babies dying in their mothers’ arms, elders sitting in the street in sackcloth unsure what to do, and tears flowing down each of the speaker’s cheeks. What they describe to us is heart wrenching.
Lamentations five is different. It doesn’t have what has been described in the first four chapters. Why is that? As mentioned previously, chapter five is not describing immediate grief but ongoing grief. It is a grief that is felt the day, the month, and the year after the destruction of Jerusalem. In other words, Lamentations 5 says to the reader that grief does not necessarily have an endpoint. There are no twelve easy steps or ten-week course that one can do to make the hurt and suffering end. Lamentations 5, however, does tell us that in ongoing grief we need to keep coming back to the Lord. And that is the story of Lamentations! It is a story of people dealing with profound grief and yet trying to reconcile their grief with the good promises of God, seeing the need to keep coming back to him in their darkest moments.
What follows is how I preached the book of Lamentations:
In chapter one, we hear from an abandoned widow. In chapter two we are given a tragic report from our reporter. In chapter three we feel the struggles of an afflicted man. In chapter four we see the futility of sin from an average citizen. Then, in chapter five, we hear from the community as a whole expressing its ongoing grief.
Below are my sermon outlines. The full sermons can be found at https://cornerstonehobart.org/series/1412. It is my hope that these will help those studying the book get a better grasp of its contents, and for those walking in a season of lament, that as you read Lamentations, it would help you to wrestle with the paradox of pain and God’s good promises.
Lamentations 1 – The Abandoned Widow
- The Widow’s Pain (1-7)
- The Widow’s Past (8-9)
- The Widow’s Punishment (10-15)
- The Widow’s Plea (16-22)
Lamentations 2 – The Tragic Report
- The Reporter’s Comments (1-10)
- The Reporter’s Cry (11-17)
- The Reporter’s Conclusions (18-22)
Lamentations 3 – The Struggles of an Afflicted Man
- An Afflicted Man’s Helplessness (1-20)
- An Afflicted Man’s Hope (21-39)
- An Afflicted Man Holds Fast (40-66)
Lamentations 4 – The Empty Promises of Sin
- The Futility of Prosperity (1-12)
- The Futility of Prestige (13-16)
- The Futility of People (17-22)
Lamentations 5 – Ongoing Grief
- A Community’s Ongoing Hardships (1-10)
- A Community’s Ongoing Humiliation (11-13)
- A Community’s Ongoing Helplessness (14-22)
Some helpful references
Carson, D. A. How long, O Lord?: Reflections on suffering and evil. Nottingham, England: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Lanahan, William F. “The Speaking Voice in the Book of Lamentations.” Journal of Biblical Literature 93, no. 1 (1974): 41-49.
Lee, Peter Y. “Lamentations,” in A Biblical – Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, edited by Miles V. Van Pelt, 457-474. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016.
Vroegop, Mark. Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019.