Some of my friends have named Lamentations 3 as one of their go-to passages during tough times–or the regular tough days of chronic illness.
I’ve always seen Lamentations as a beautiful (if not a little depressing) book, but it wasn’t until October when I read it in my devotions that this passage became that life-giving solace for me too.
God really spoke to me from that reading, and I decided to dig deeper in my own personal study. I read, re-read, and re-re-read the book–chapter 3 especially–scoured my Nelson Study Bible notes, and borrowed an armful of commentaries from my pastor.
The results of this study have immensely blessed me, and I can’t wait to share them with you over the next few weeks.
Before we jump into chapter 3, we need to know a bit about the whole book. First, there’s the historical context: the prophet wrote the book of Lamentations (technically five separate lamentations, each one a chapter) in response to the destruction of God’s city, Jerusalem, and the captivity of God’s people, Israel.
What the Israelites had thought to be infallible had just been irreparably destroyed, and it seemed like many of God’s promises–the glory of Jerusalem, an heir of David on the throne, God’s favor upon His people–had been broken. No wonder Jeremiah wept, and no wonder God’s people needed a reminder of God’s steadfast love and unbroken promises.
“The title in the English Bible comes from the Latin Vulgate lamentia, ‘funeral dirges.’”Wiersbe, 1511
“The title of this book in Hebrew is taken from the word how! [the first word of laments 1, 2, and 4] The title in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) means ‘Tears of Jeremiah.’”Geisler, 2692
Then there’s the poetic structure: all but the last of these lamentations are written (in the original Hebrew language) as acrostic poems, with the first word of each line beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Chapter 3, however, is the linguistic and poetic crown of the book, with each line containing THREE verses (instead of just one) and EACH verse beginning with that letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Basically, an acrostic in triple form. If you’d like to learn more about the poetry of this book and read an acrostic lamentation I wrote in response, you can check out this post of my personal blog.
Now that we’ve reviewed the historical context and poetic structure, let me explain what you’ll find in this study. I’ve organized the Scriptural text, my comments, and quotations from commentaries into tables, with verses grouped into their poetic lines and the corresponding Hebrew letter at the top of each group (because I think it’s important for us to keep in front of us the reminder of the poetry that gets lost in translation).
The entire chapter has been copied and pasted into these posts, but I encourage you to read it–and the whole book–on your own, without additional comments, before coming to this study. Look at the words, ask yourself questions, get the context of the big picture–for the chapter and the book–and then jump into this study with me.
Part 1: Verses 1-18
|1 I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath.||Jeremiah speaking from both personal experience as well as a singular representation of Israel’s collective suffering |
rod = Isaiah 53, Ps 23:4, instrument of correction/chastening
|2 He has led me and made me walk|
In darkness and not in light.
|depression||“The rod of discipline was bad enough, but the darkness made it even worse (v. 2). In Scripture, darkness is often a picture of defeat and despair (Ps. 107:10, 14; Isa. 9:2) because sitting in darkness is like dwelling with the dead (v. 6).” Wiersbe, 157|
|3 Surely He has turned His hand against me|
Time and time again throughout the day.
|4 He has aged my flesh and my skin|
And broken my bones
|the physical results of Jeremiah’s captivity and trauma as well as the emotional toll on his body|
|5 He has besieged me|
And surrounded me with bitterness and woe
|“surrounded” – not just one distress but distresses literally everywhere he turned, no reprieve Ps 142:4|
|6 He has set me in dark places|
Like the dead of long ago.
|shut up, enclosed, no life|
|7 He has hedged me in so that I cannot get out;|
He has made my chain heavy.
|like the Fellowship reading about the dwarves in the Mines of Moria; no escape|
|8 Even when I cry and shout,|
He shuts out my prayer.
|We don’t see answers to pray and it feels like God isn’t even listening to us|
|9 He has blocked my ways with hewn stone;|
He has made my paths crooked.
|hewn stone = rough-cut stone you can climb up; smooth stone gives no way to climb, no way out|
crooked = hard to see, frustrating to navigate
|“The poet was like a man trapped in a maze. The walls were so well built—‘with blocks of stone’—that he could not glimpse the right way through any cracks in them, while side paths led to dead ends or away from escape.” Expositor’s, 7183|
| 10 He has been to me a bear lying in wait,|
Like a lion in ambush.
|11 He has turned aside my ways and torn me in pieces;|
He has made me desolate.
|you think you’re going one way and he closes it/makes you go in another|
desolate = ruins on a windswept plain, no life, no structure, empty
|12 He has bent His bow|
And set me up as a target for the arrows.
|This paints a very cruel portrait of God; not always rational/spiritual mind talking but emotional/carnal reaction; does God really use us as target practice? no, but can it feel that way sometimes? yes; key is not to let our feelings rule us|
|13 He has caused the arrows of His quiver|
To pierce my loins.
|Loins = kidneys; fatal wound|
|14 I have become the ridicule of all my people—|
Their taunting song all the day.
|Instead of “Old MacDonald” or “blonde jokes” it’s “Old Jeremiah” and “Jeremiah jokes”|
|15 He has filled me with bitterness,|
He has made me drink wormwood.
|I’ve never had wormwood, but grapefruit seed extract must come pretty close|
|16 He has also broken my teeth with gravel,|
And covered me with ashes.
|Study Bible: “The people had sensed that they were so associated with dust and sackcloth—symbols of mourning—that it was as though they fed on dirt. The dust became gravel which broke the people’s teeth.”4 Ash = symbol of mourning|
|17 You have moved my soul far from peace;|
I have forgotten prosperity.
|I know how this is; when you’ve been sick so long you sometimes don’t even remember what it was like to be healthy (or healthier)|
|18 And I said, “My strength and my hope|
Have perished from the LORD.”
|Even his hope has died||“The glory of the city had vanished and along with it, the hope in the heart of God’s suffering servant.” Wiersbe, 157|
This paints a pretty depressing picture, but I promise it gets better. Before we get to the more hopeful passages, however, I want to point out the value of dwelling on passages like this.
1. We relate to the writer
When I read this chapter in my devotions, I found myself nodding along and agreeing with (and sometimes crying with) each of these verses.
Yep, I’ve felt like that. I know how that is. Me too, Jeremiah, me too.
I like how the Nelson Study Bible puts it:
Rather than explaining away pain, the book helps us face pain. By avoiding cheery clichés, the Book of Lamentations provides companionship for those who are suffering and plants seeds of hope for rebuilding after the suffering is over.p. 1321
In Jeremiah’s laments as well as the many Psalms, God has given us the comfort of sharing the emotions of other suffering believers.
2. We relate to Christ
As The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says,
God’s revelation in word and act consistently shows his justice and covenant love; yet there is always a residue of human experience that demands our bowing to a wisdom too high for our understanding. This finds its supreme example in the Cross and in the cry of Jesus in Mark 15:34.p. 699
Norman Geisler agrees that “behind the movement of the whole book, Christ is the man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief (cf. Isa. 53:3)” (270).
Even if Jeremiah weren’t viewed by the Jews as a type of Christ because of what he experienced, his suffering as well as ours ultimately links us to the suffering of Christ.
What losses, hurts, or deaths are you lamenting right now? Do you feel like you could have written these words by Jeremiah? Are you expressing your emotions to God?
1Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary: Prophets. Victor, 2002.
2Giesler, Norman L. A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Baker, 1977.
3Gæbelein, Frank E., editor. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan, 1986.
4Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible. Nelson, 1997.