The Dark Night
The Dark Night
Main Idea: There is a dark night when the discipline of the Lord falls on us. When tragedy happens, we respond humbly because we don’t know why it happens, and we soberly examine ourselves.
- Action: God’s Rebuke (2:1-9)
- Silence: Reacting to God’s Rebuke (2:10-17)
- Prayer: Responding to God’s Rebuke (2:18-22)
Walter Brueggemann observed that the Psalms move from orientation to disorientation to reorientation (Spirituality of the Psalms, passim). Life is oriented in a certain direction, and then tragedy brings disorientation. We want to go back to the original orientation. This is not how God works. Rather, ultimately he reorients us to a new reality. In this reorientation we often experience triumph—the end of the story, the reason all this has happened to us. We are sheep who walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But in the end God is no longer the shepherd; he is the host who prepares a table before us, and in a lavish display of abundance, our cup runs over.
Orientation, disorientation, and reorientation are familiar to us. It’s the template of the gospel. This is the life of Christ and the life of Christ in us. Our lives are oriented toward God, we realize the disorientation caused by sin, and then God reorients our lives. This reorientation is the wonderful hope of the gospel. God’s pattern of redemption is so familiar we might look for it, and even expect it, in Scripture. However, it’s not here in Lamentations 2. If you are looking for a classic story structure that moves from plot and rising tension toward release of tension, Lamentations 2 only gives us the first two. And in this case two out of three is bad.
The Dark Night
Perhaps chapter 2 is the heaviest of all the poems in the book. It is heavy because, as verse 1 says, “The Lord has overshadowed Daughter Zion with his anger!” Judah feels the cold, dark night, and God casts the shadow. This is a shocking twist in the story. God the protector has become God the destroyer. The comfort of his presence is now cold.
The poetry itself is dark. The shadow of God’s anger hangs over a city. When God directs his anger against a city, God is not, of course, angry at the latitude and longitude. God’s anger is not aimed at a location but a people. A city is its people. God’s anger is directed toward a people collectively. Thus, in contrast with the many passages that address personal sorrow, this is a chapter about corporate sorrow. The people are paying the price for bad decisions.
When we see a city broken, a people broken, we intuit that they are victims of their own bad decisions. This is the law of the harvest: they are reaping what they have sown. Paul applied the law of the harvest to the Galatians when in 6:7-8 he wrote,
Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a person sows he will also reap, because the one who sows to his flesh will reap destruction from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
This law is what David feared in Psalm 51 when, after sexual sin, he feared that he would be banished from God’s presence, have the Holy Spirit taken from him, lose his joy, and not be sustained by God (Ps 51:11-12). A wicked seed grew a wicked weed. Sin has results. No sin is committed in a void of consequence.
In the same way, the people of Judah are reaping what they have sown. True enough, but that’s not the focus here. The thrust of Lamentations 2 is what God is doing to them, not what they have done to themselves. The chapter is a working out of the anger of God against Zion. What is remarkable in Lamentations 2 is all the things that are attributed to God. Just think about the twenty-six action verbs attributed to God in the first nine verses (emphasis mine):
- He has thrown down Israel’s glory (v. 1).
- He did not acknowledge his footstool (v. 1).
- The Lord has swallowed up (v. 2).
- He has demolished (v. 2).
- He brought them to the ground (v. 2).
- And defiled the kingdom and its leaders (v. 2).
- He has cut off every horn of Israel (v. 3).
- And withdrawn his right hand (v. 3).
- He has blazed against Jacob like a flaming fire (v. 3).
- He has strung his bow like an enemy (v. 4).
- He has killed everyone who was the delight to the eye (v. 4).
- He has swallowed up Israel (v. 5).
- He swallowed up all its palaces (v. 5).
- And destroyed its fortified cities (v. 5).
- He has multiplied mourning and lamentation (v. 5).
- He has wrecked his temple (v. 6).
- The Lord has abolished appointed festivals and Sabbaths in Zion (v. 6).
- He has despised king and priest (v. 6).
- The Lord has rejected his altar (v. 7).
- He has repudiated his sanctuary (v. 7).
- He has handed the walls of her palaces over to the enemy (v. 7).
- The Lord determined to destroy the wall (v. 8).
- He stretched out a measuring line (v. 8).
- And did not restrain himself from destroying (v. 8).
- He made the ramparts and walls grieve (v. 8).
- He has destroyed and shattered the bars on her gates (v. 9).
Philip Graham Ryken summarizes the tone well when he writes,
What was amazing about these losses was that they were all the Lord’s doing. To be sure, they were the result of Judah’s sin. But the reality still had to be faced: God had turned against his own people. He had not simply allowed his own city to be defeated—he had helped to destroy it. . . . In a strange twist on the Old Testament motif of the divine warrior, God was not fighting for his people but against them. (Jeremiah and Lamentations, 749)
If it was not clear enough that God was responsible for the destruction, in verse 17 Jeremiah writes,
The Lord has done what he planned;
he has accomplished his decree,
which he ordained in days of old.
He has demolished without compassion,
letting the enemy gloat over you
and exalting the horn of your adversaries.
Verse 22 affirms the same idea: God has done this.
Jeremiah is lamenting the actions of God toward his people. Again, the driving idea of this chapter seems to be the overshadowing of God’s anger against his people. They have provoked the anger of God, and now God is responding. The chapter is in the form of an acrostic poem, and thus the thoughts are not developed in a linear sequence. Yet Jeremiah 2 does have progression. The flow of the chapter could be expressed according to the outline above.
Action: God’s Rebuke
The Lord has not acknowledged his footstool, which represents the city (Ps 132:7). In his anger he cut off the horn of Israel. The horn was the symbol of power. Now they have none—no horn, no power. The citadels are torn down, and the army is a wreck. Similarly, he has destroyed everything that “was the delight to the eye” (v. 4), meaning the best things about their nation are gone.
To make things worse, God plundered his own temple (v. 6) as if it were a shack in a field! What seemed unshakable was ransacked. The walls were a symbol of protection; they were a fortress and defense. However, the walls have been handed over to the enemy (vv. 7, 9). This is a football team with no line, an army with no foot soldiers. Without walls this city will not stand a chance against her enemies. Even if the people now decided they wanted to learn what the Lord requires, they would not be able to because the prophets receive no more instruction (v. 9). The reaction that follows is fitting to the disaster.
We can all relate to a time when we thought we were untouchable. Like Jeremiah in chapter 1, we can relate to great movements or institutions that were formerly glorious but are no longer. This is not to suggest that in these cases we see it represents the rebuke of God. We simply cannot know that; it is in the mind of God. So when we see trouble somewhere, we are not to immediately assume God’s rebuke. We do not do this with others, and we do not do it with ourselves. It may be clear to us that we are facing a difficult time as a response to some sin. But we are not Jeremiah, and we certainly are not God. We just cannot know with any certainty why bad things happen. We do not have the inspired certainty Jeremiah had.
Silence: Reacting to God’s Rebuke
The familiar phrase shock and awe has its roots in military theory. The idea is to gain dominance over the enemy as quickly as possible. A nation that was awestruck by the power of another would more quickly surrender (Bromwich, “Meaning of Shock and Awe”). As the city of Jerusalem lay in devastation, Jeremiah records the reaction as silence (v. 10). They sit there unable to articulate what they are experiencing.
Jeremiah is weeping. This pathetic scene is almost too much to bear: children crying to their mothers for food while they die in their arms (v. 11). Jeremiah concludes that it is helpless. None can heal her. The nation is terminal. Dr. Jeremiah looks to the nation and says, “I’m so sorry. There’s nothing else to be done.” There is nothing left. Nothing.
What makes this tragedy so bad is that it could have been avoided. The sting of regret makes the moment worse. If only they had listened to the prophets, and if only the prophets had given them a clear word. Yet many of their prophets were deceptive inasmuch as they were unclear (v. 14).
The reaction from others compounds the suffering. Those who pass by scorn her. Taking credit for what God has done emboldens the enemies of this nation.
Anyone with any sympathy whatsoever is disturbed by this image of a city destroyed at the hands of God. What are we to make of this? How do we explain God’s action? First, remember the uniqueness of this situation. This nation is the (singular, definite article) chosen people of God. They are unique. They were to have a love relationship with God like a bride to her groom. As such, God would use them to be a blessing to the nations and to fulfill all his covenant promises. Their rejection of their groom/God was serious because their responsibility to their God was great. Knowing this instructs us not to attach divine motives on national or natural disasters when they occur in other times or to other nations. Israel is unique, and so is her relationship with God. This uniqueness is clear in the summary verse quoted above (v. 17).
While we are cautious not to compare certain disasters to Judah’s disaster in Lamentations 2, what is instructive is how we should respond to God in moments of crisis. This is found in the final section of the chapter.
Prayer: Responding to God’s Rebuke
God is not an impersonal force. God is not an entity void of reason and relationship. We can communicate with him, and we are compelled to initiate communication with him. The people respond to God by crying out to him. The activity of prayer is at once reflexive and right. It is our impulse and our only hope. Some impulses can harm you; other impulses can save you.
In prayer, ironically perhaps, they are suggesting that the one who is destroying them is the only one who can save them. The one who is the enemy is now their only hope and salvation. Thus we see this beautiful cry come from this destitute wasteland.
Verse 18 is a powerful plea for a gut talk with God: do not let yourself rest until you have prayed all of this through. Pour yourself out like water to God. They had some specific topics to pray about: the lives of their children (v. 19), cannibalistic infanticide (v. 20), and the death of people of all ages (v. 21).
Unlike some passages this one does not end optimistically. Terror is on every side, no one has escaped, and Jeremiah is watching the demise of those people he has cultivated (v. 22).
When life is tragic, how do we respond? What are we to think about the relationship of evil and suffering? The only response is humility and sobriety.
The inevitable question is, What about now? This is a theodicy for a people, for a community. If today God’s anger is provoked with a people—a community of believers—does he react in the same way? Does the coming of the Christ insulate us from corporate discipline?
First, Israel as a nation is unique. As mentioned above, Israel is the one and only people of God. There is no nation like her, nor will there ever be one comparable to her. As a Gentile Christian I know I am grafted into this nation and find mercy before God in that way (Rom 11:11-31). So again, when disaster happens in a community today, we should be slow to assume we know God had a motivation for allowing this.
Second, remember that the ways of God are higher than ours. Meaning, as was the point of the book of Job, we are not created with the capacity to understand all that happens in the world. While this does not scratch our itch of intellectual curiosity, I find it satisfying to know that even with the greatest education, the greatest minds could not understand why evil happens in the world. It is beyond our capacity to grasp.
Third, God specifically warned the churches of the New Testament that he reacts in demonstrable ways to disobedience. Some examples would include God’s killing Ananias and Sapphira for lying about their gift (Acts 5:1-11) and the threat of illness and even death for those taking the Lord’s Supper without discernment (1 Cor 11:27-32).
These are individual examples. So, what about a local church corporately? The final book of the Bible includes seven examples of Jesus’s addressing specifically the needs of a congregation. If for no other passages in Scripture, pastors should be motivated to lead their people in purity against the backdrop of these warnings.
Ephesus lost her first love and was warned:
Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:5)
Pergamum was listening to false teaching and was warned:
So repent! Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Rev 2:16)
Thyatira was guilty of tolerating false teaching and was warned:
I gave her time to repent, but she does not want to repent of her sexual immorality. Look, I will throw her into a sickbed and those who commit adultery with her into great affliction. Unless they repent of her works, I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am the one who examines minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works. (Rev 2:21-23)
Sardis was asleep and was warned:
Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before my God. Remember, then, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. If you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come upon you. (Rev 3:2-3)
Laodicea was admonished to find again her first love:
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,” and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see. (Rev 3:15-18)
Then Jesus comes to a full stop. The summary in Revelation 3:19 is stunning and breathtaking: “As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be zealous and repent.” As many as Jesus loves. Does God discipline communities of faith? Yes, the ones he loves.
This, in a real sense, is glorious. The beginning of Revelation makes it so clear that God is not an impersonal force; he is a loving Father. A force, an abstract automaton, does not discipline. God loves people and God created churches. Each church, like a child, has strengths and weaknesses and areas that need affirming and challenging.
We began by asking the question about the reason behind suffering. This, in complete honesty, is the best answer we can give: For someone in Christ, God disciplines his children. And what God does individually, he still does corporately to local bodies of believers. Again, without the mind of God, we do not know when or how this happens, so we respond to tragedy with humility and sobriety. When tragedy happens, we respond humbly because we don’t know why it happens, and we soberly examine ourselves.
Certainly, we don’t look for equivalency in tragedies that happen to others. We don’t say, “Hmm, I wonder what God is up to there.” Israel, and her discipline, was unique. They were God’s people. Yet, as those grafted in, we can’t be dismissive about God’s ways. God has not changed. He loves his local churches; and, as the letters to the seven churches testify, he relates to each church individually, he encourages each individually, and he disciplines each individually. God, have mercy!
Reflect and Discuss
- What is meant by orientation, disorientation, and reorientation?
- If you are comfortable doing so, discuss a time when God allowed your life to be disoriented.
- How can we explain that God seems to be the agent acting against his people?
- How do the promises of the covenant help us understand this?
- How might you attempt to justify Jeremiah’s apparent despondency?
- How does God still bring corrective discipline in extreme cases against individuals?
- What New Testament examples for punitive discipline on individuals do we have?
- How does God still bring corrective discipline in extreme cases against churches?
- What New Testament examples for punitive discipline on churches do we have?
- How does God’s discipline encourage us?