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The Book of Lamentations normally and naturally follows the prophecy of Jeremiah. In this little book the soul of the prophet is laid bare before us. These are the lamentations of Jeremiah.
Dr. Alexander Whyte, one of the great expositors of the Word of God of days gone by, has said: “There is nothing like the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the whole world. There has been plenty of sorrow in every age, and in every land, but such another preacher and author, with such a heart for sorrow, has never again been born. Dante comes next to Jeremiah, and we know that Jeremiah was the great exile’s favorite prophet.”
Jeremiah began his ministry during the reign of Josiah. Both he and Josiah were young men, and they were evidently friends. It was Josiah who led the last revival in Judah. It was a revival in which a great many hearts were touched, but on the whole it proved to be largely a surface movement. Josiah met his untimely death in the battle at Megiddo against Pharaoh–nechoh, a battle that Josiah never should have been in. Jeremiah, however, continued his prophetic ministry during the reigns of the four wretched kings who followed Josiah: Jehoahaz, Jeoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. His was a harsh message as he attempted to call his people and his nation back to God, but he was never able to deter the downward course of Judah. He witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem; and as he saw it burn, he sat down in the warm ashes, hot tears coursing down his cheeks.
The Book of Lamentations is composed of five chapters, and each chapter is an elegy, almost a funeral dirge. These elegies are sad beyond description. In them we see Jeremiah as he stood over Jerusalem weeping. This book is filled with tears and sorrow. It is a paean of pain, a poem of pity, a proverb of pathos. It is a hymn of heartbreak, a psalm of sadness, a symphony of sorrow, and a story of sifting. Lamentations is the wailing wall of the Bible.
Lamentations moves us into the very heart of Jeremiah. He gave a message from God that actually broke his heart. How tragic and wretched he was. If you were to pour his tears into a test tube to analyze them from a scientific viewpoint and determine how much sodium chloride, or salt, they contained, you still would not know the sorrow and the heartbreak of this man. He has been called the prophet of the broken heart. His was a life filled with pathos and pity. His sobbing was a solo. Ella Wheeler Wilcox has written a piece of doggerel that goes like this:
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone:
For this sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But it has trouble enough of its own.
Tears are generally conceded to be a sign of weakness, crying is effeminate, and bawling is for babies. Years ago when I was pastor of a church here in Pasadena where I still live, the playground for our summer Bible school was right outside my study window. One little boy brought his even younger sister, and it was interesting to watch how he hovered over her and watched after her. Neither one of them was very big. But one day she fell on the asphalt and scratched her knee. She began to cry, as a little child would. He tried to give her a sales talk in order to quiet her down. Oh, she shouldn’t cry, he said, only women cry. Well, I don’t know what he thought she was, but nevertheless it worked, and she stopped crying.
This man Jeremiah had a woman’s heart. He was sensitive. He was sincere. He was sympathetic. He was as tender as a mother. Yet he gave the strongest and harshest message in the Bible: he announced the destruction of Jerusalem, and he pronounced judgment, counseling the people to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar. His message did nothing but get him into all kinds of trouble.
Now what kind of a man would you have chosen to deliver such a rough, brutal, tough message as that? Would you have wanted Attila the Hun or a Hitler or a Mussolini? Of one thing I am sure: none of us would send Casper Milquetoast to give the message! But God did choose such a man, a man with a tender heart.
Dr. G. Campbell Morgan tells the story about Dr. Dale of Birmingham who used to say that Dwight L. Moody was the only man who seemed to him to have the right to preach about hell. When someone asked Dr. Dale why he said that, he replied, “Because he always preaches it with tears in his voice.” That is the type of man God wants today. We have too many who are not moved by the message they give.
David Garrick, one of the great Shakespearean actors of the past, told about the day he was walking down the street in London and found a man standing on the corner just yearning over the people. Garrick said, “I stood on the outside of the crowd, but I found myself imperceptibly working my way in, until I stood right under that man, and there came down from his breast hot tears.” He went on to say that there was a woman there, pointing her shaking, withered finger at the man who spoke, and she said, “Sir, I have followed you since you preached this morning at seven o’clock and I have heard you preach five times in the streets of this city, and five times I have been wet with your tears. Why do you weep?” That preacher was George Whitefield, a cross–eyed man who was burlesqued on the English stage and denounced from almost every pulpit in the country. David Garrick went on to say, “I listened to George Whitefield, and as I listened to him I saw his passion and his earnestness. I knew that he meant that without Christ men would die. As I listened to him, he came to the place where he could say nothing more. He reached up those mighty arms, his voice seemed almost like a thunderstorm as he said one final word: ‘Oh!’” Why, he could break an audience with that word! When George Whitefield said “Oh!” men bowed before the Holy Spirit like corn bows under the wind. Garrick went on, “I would give my hand full of golden sovereigns if I could say ‘Oh!’ like George Whitefield. I would be the greatest actor that the world has ever known.” The only difference was that George Whitefield was sincere—he was not acting. Jeremiah was that kind of a preacher also.
I am afraid that we have developed a generation in our day that has no feeling, no compassion for this lost world. There is little concern for getting out the Word of God. There is little attention given to moral fiber or a high sense of duty.
Several years ago in a Reader’s Digest article, young people were counseled that their highest chances of success in life would be found “by engaging in work you most enjoy doing, and which gives fullest expression to your abilities and personality.” If Jeremiah had read that article and heeded its advice, he probably would have gone into some other kind of business. But Jeremiah could say that it was the Word of God that he rejoiced in: “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16). How wonderful this man was!
The young people today who have been trained—even many in Christian work—are simply looking for a job where they can punch a clock, go home to watch TV, and forget all about it. They hold their feelings and emotions in reserve and are unwilling to become really involved in getting out the Word of God.
I don’t always understand Jeremiah, but I admire him and look up to him. Mrs. Elizabeth Cook wrote this about him:
A woman’s heart—tender and quick and warm;
But man’s in iron will and courage strong.
His harp was set to weird, pathetic song,
Yet when time called for deeds, no wrathful storm
From throne or altar could his soul disarm—
His disheartening battle fierce and long.
This is Jeremiah, the man who had a sorrow.
Jeremiah reminds us of Another who sat weeping over Jerusalem. The only difference is that Jerusalem was in ruins and the temple already burned as Jeremiah gazed upon the debris. Jesus wept over the same city about six centuries later because of what was going to happen to her. To Jeremiah the destruction of Jerusalem was a matter of history. To Jesus the destruction of Jerusalem was a matter of prophecy.
The key verse in the Book of Lamentations explains the reason Jerusalem lay in ruin: “The LORD is righteous; for I have rebelled against his commandment: hear, I pray you, all people, and behold my sorrow: my virgins and my young men are gone into captivity” (Lam. 1:18).
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 24: Jeremiah & Lamentations. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)