Surprisingly, I am a couple of days ahead of schedule in my efforts to work through the Bible in 90 days. I’m in Lamentations now, which, as the name of the book would suggest, is not a real literary party. But, in reflecting on a few things this morning I was caught up in something I’d never thought of before that really put this book into perspective.
Lamentations comes on the heels of the intensely depressing prophetic writings of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is, in fact, credited as the author of Lamentations as well, which makes sense because the tone is roughly the same. The lions-share of Jeremiah’s writing deal with God’s dedication to bringing the Hebrews into captivity and exile under Babylon. The last chapter of Jeremiah chronicles this very movement from freedom to siege to surrender to slavery. Lamentations is an addendum of sorts that offers the mood of the captives as they are under Babylonian subjection. After having read through Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes at such a sweeping pace, I’ve arrived at Lamentations with those books still fresh in my mind, and here is where the unique thought struck me.
In the wisdom / poetry literature (Job, Psalm, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon), there is a duality in the life philosophies represented. The Proverbs, and in many of the Psalms, contain a very pragmatic, “if-then” view of life. If you act wisely, then you will prosper. If you treat people well, then you will have friends. If you keep your mouth shut, then you will look like a genius. And so on, and on. But just a few pages backward from Proverbs is the curious narrative of Job, also a wisdom / poetry book. For Job the “if-then” life didn’t work out so well. He was wise, righteous, generous, and holy and he experienced death, poverty, sorrow, sickness, and emotional isolation. We see this in some of the Psalms as well, with David’s cries to God asking Him to get busy busting his enemies teeth out because he had done nothing to deserve their ire. This is the same David who we know to be an upstanding, brave, and God-loving/trusting young man. Ecclesiastes, for what it’s worth, is a bit of a hybrid. It makes the statement that wise actions beget good things, but in the end none of it will actually give you lasting pleasure. The “under the sun”/”over the sun” idea is pressed vigorously as it makes the point that life without God, no matter how pleasurable or prosperous, is pointless.
So, with all of that summary work done I get to the point. What the synthesis of all of these books are saying is pretty simple, not necessarily intuitive, but simple in the end. They tell us that there is another dimension to life that we do not see, and that our situations are floating on top it, like driftwood on an ocean. Do good things happen to good people? Yes. But do bad things happen to good people also? Yes. So what gives? Is there really a rule that can be followed? Yes.
The reality of Lamentations, that is shown in the other mentioned books, is this: regardless of the despair you see in the current moment, there is the underlying, unseen, even un-felt reality that beneath all we know, there is a constant that is bigger than any moment. That constant is the loving Creator of the universe, God.
Was wise and righteous Job betrayed? Did he get what he didn’t deserve? Well, that all depends on how far you read his story now doesn’t it?
Was David abandoned by God? Did his faith in God while standing alone in the Valley of Elah count for nothing? Again, how far are you willing to read his story?
Was Israel left orphaned by their God? Was Babylon really the end of the road for the chosen, elect ancestors of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Hmm, it all depends on how far you’re willing to read.
Lamentations is a sorrowful cry by a people who were simultaneously getting what they deserved and what they could never deserve. Yes,they were in the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian pagans due to their sin. But part of what makes Jeremiah’s book so revealing is that on the cosmic stage that this story line was playing out there was not only the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, for underneath his royal paw there was a much larger hand, the hand of God, holding up the hand of the Babylonian monarch. Not once was Israel outside of the hand of God, God merely allowed another hand to grip them, which was also under His control, as a form of discipline to recalibrate His people’s hearts and minds.
Was Job ever outside of the hand of God? No. We see Satan asking permission to do certain things but always there was the understanding that God was drawing the lines. Does wise, righteous, and holy living always pan out to look like prosperity, peace, and happiness? Well, I suppose, at the risk of redundancy, that it all depends on how far you’re willing to read the story.
Solomon was convinced that good things come to good people. Job was convinced that, at least some times, bad things come to good people. Solomon was certain that to live at peace with people was a recipe for experiencing peace yourself. David was convinced that injustice experienced is not always injustice deserved. And the crazy thing is this: they were all right. How? Because underneath all of our existential, “driftwood” experiences there is an ocean of love that is God’s grace toward mankind. At some point, in every story of every righteous peacemaker there is a submersion into the sea of grace. We get splashes of it every day. Want to know why the Bible says that the rain falls on the just and the unjust in the same way? The splashes of common grace spray us all. But there is a day coming for those who are citizens of God’s kingdom where the sprays and splashes will give way and the borders of our driftwood will be overcome by the seas of His love, mercy, joy, goodness, grace, and beauty.
Lamentations is just as much a book about Jesus as John’s Gospel. It’s just that Lamentations is floating on the seas of grace, whereas John is dunking his head over the edge and, in the person and work of Jesus, telling us what it looks like below the surface.
The unseen reality is there for us all. Perhaps our best efforts at prudence and wise, righteous living seem to have produced very little in the way of practical help, but if you, my friend, would allow me to encourage you, there is a flood coming. Everything Solomon said is true, regardless of what you are experiencing. Perhaps the antidote to keep us from misinterpreting the simplicity of the Proverbs is to read the Beatitudes at the same time. All of the Scriptures contend that when God is involved in a life, a situation, or a story, there is always hope. If we are brave enough to lift our heads from out of our momentary mire we will see as clear as the dawn that the end of the story isn’t Gethsemane, Gabbatha, or Golgotha…it’s Glory.