16 Jul 2021

Lamentations and the Wrath of God

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Discipleship, Faith, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Lamentations, Ministry, Suffering, Worship
A Wonderful Study of Lamentations based on sound exegesis showing it powerfully relevant message in 2021

All scripture is inspired by and is useful for teaching … and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.15-17).

Serious Stuff

The book of Lamentations is a scripted liturgy that Jeremiah (there is no better candidate as author) took survivors of the catastrophe of 586 through. The prophet Zechariah (7.3-5) mentions those who gathered at the remains of the temple in the fifth month (that is Av) to fast and mourn the destruction of God’s temple (Leslie Allen’s A Liturgy of Grief is a remarkably insightful engagement with this book). Thousands of years later, Lamentations is still read on Tisha B’Av, בְּאָב תִּשְׁעָה, which will occur on Saturday night July 17 to Sunday night July 18.

In the book of Lamentations, or “How” according to its Hebrew title, horrific disaster has fallen upon Jerusalem. Lamentations freely admits this disaster is the result of a long history of blatant sin. That sin was idolatry. That sin was failure to set the slaves free (cf. Jeremiah 34.8-22). Lamentations reminds us that God takes sin seriously.

In Lamentations 4.13-14, we read of the prophets and priests being responsible for “shedding innocent blood.” Looking in Jeremiah and the prophets (like Ezekiel) this phrase means abusing the poor, the widows, the aliens. In fact, Jeremiah accused the “clergy” of the day in his epic “Temple Sermon” of “shedding innocent blood” (7.5-9). Ezekiel boldly compared Judah’s sin to infamous Sodom and said they were “arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned for the poor!” (Ezekiel 16.49). God did not nuke Judah for petty stuff. God did not send Israel into Exile because of a failure to live up to precision obedience.

Not a Hybrid God

Not infrequently some Christians believe that God is some hybrid composed of equal parts: love and wrath; mercy and justice. It might look like this:

Love = 50%
Wrath = 50%

This is simply not something, I believe, Scripture will sustain. Not even Lamentations. We are often petty in our reading of Scripture but God is not petty within the biblical narrative. God has no sadistic tendencies and no crises of identity.

In the structural heart of the book, the middle of the “liturgy,” we hear something astonishing from the gathered people. After line upon line of lament at Israel’s deserved punishment, the worship leader (a priest perhaps) declares these astonishing words (as the representative of the entire people united before God).

I call to mind, therefore,
I have hope,
Yahweh’s HESED has not ended
His mercies are not finished.
They are RENEWED
[hadas] every morning –
Great is your faithfulness! …

For the Lord
does not reject forever
But brings affliction and has compassion
according to the abundance of his HESED;
For he does not afflict FROM THE HEART
or make humans suffer
.” (Lam 3.21, 33, my translation)

In light of texts from Jeremiah (chapters 8-9) we are not sure who suffers more when punishment finally arrives: God or the People?

But, what our Worship Leader does in chapter 3 is tell us that Exodus 34.6 is actually true. God does not punish “from the heart.” Traditional translations like the NRSV will have “he does not willingly afflict.” Such is true. But “willingly” in the NRSV is milibow, “from the heart.” This action does not arise from the core of God’s being.

It is almost as if the act of punishment will be the “death of God!” Those of us who believe in the canonical Story know that is exactly what happened. How else do we explain the Crucified King of the Jews?

What is the heart of God? Steadfast love – HESED – is the what comes from “the heart of God.” HESED comes from the core of God’s being.

Here in the middle of unbelievable disaster, the Worship Leader has the audacity to claim the story is not over. It does not continue because of us however. No! A thousand times, No!!

Lamentations insists we brought this upon ourselves through the ancient form of the health and wealth gospel where we aggrandize ourselves at the expense of the helpless poor, the widows, and aliens while making idols of our lives and goods.

It is not over because God HESED, even for us, will be just as infinite tomorrow morning as it was yesterday. In the face of catastrophic sin, Hesed abounded even more! The prophet Isaiah before the destruction of Jerusalem once declared that God’s wrath was actually his “strange” and “alien” work. It is just not who God is (Isa. 28.21).

It is not the case that God is 50% love and 50% wrath. Rather God is 100% love. God did not become a “Christian” when Jesus was born. Rather Jesus comes from the heart of the Father … Yahweh IS love!

In our God, Hosea noted, love over rules punishment.

My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no human,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath
” (Hos 11.8-9, cf. 1-11, NRSV)

God will protect the innocent. Jerusalem knows that now.

Yet even those who deserve it as badly as Israel did, Yahweh’s HESED still reigns supreme and will be renewed in the morning. He will not cast-off Israel. It is not in God’s heart. HESED, God’s self-declared nature, is the basis of hope in the middle of the ashes of Jerusalem.

Lamentations reminds us that wrath does sometimes come. But the first, the middle and the word that is renewed everyday is … God’s never ending steadfast love. The depths of death, God’s people discovered Hesed was already there.


Of Related Interest

Lent, Lamentations, and Renewal: The Hurt of the World

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