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Ministering the Book of Lamentations: Helping People Find Hope When Hope Seems Gone

I’m always a little skeptical of people who try to give advice concerning things they know nothing about. For instance, if I told you I was offering a class on cooking this Thursday, I wouldn’t come if I were you. Nor if I offered a class on sewing, or glass blowing. You’d be wasting your time to listen to me talk about those subjects, since I know nothing about them.

On the other hand, if a person has been there, done that, he’s gained my attention. I may not buy what he says entirely, but his experience merits at least a listening ear in my book.

That leads to the following disclaimer. I’m about to address the subject where to find hope when hope seems gone. The disclaimer is, I’ve never experienced hopelessness before. Oh, I’ve faced some hard situations, but nothing that qualifies as hopeless.

Yet I know that for some people in the world, it’s a present reality. It is for hundreds of thousands of refugees, for instance. More than one Syrian could say, “I have no house, no food, no money, no means of making my life any different. I feel hopeless.”

I’m also aware that hopeless is a word that describes how some people in our community are feeling about life right now, those who have lost the child of their dreams, for instance, or the spouse they’ve always depended on, or their health. Along with such losses comes hopelessness at times.

It’s to those who feel hopeless, or want to minister to others who feel hopeless, that I have good news. God’s Word provides us with the testimony of a man who faced horrendous circumstances, yet experienced hope right in the midst of it all. Furthermore, he wrote a God-inspired book to show others how to find and minister hope in hopeless times.

Jeremiah the prophet lived through a nightmare I can barely fathom. God gave him the task of telling his people that judgment was coming, and then going through that judgment with them.

That’s precisely what happened. Jeremiah watched the Babylonian army invade his homeland, destroy his country, murder his people, and then haul the survivors away in chains. I don’t know how many thousands of people perished, but Jeremiah heard the wailing firsthand. And after doing his own share of wailing, he wrote something to help his people grieve God’s way.

Lamentations. We’re told in 2 Chronicles 35:25, “Jeremiah composed laments for Josiah, and to this day all the men and women singers commemorate Josiah in the laments. These became a tradition in Israel and are written in the Laments.”

I realize that saying Jeremiah wrote laments doesn’t mean he wrote the book we call Lamentations. Whoever penned the book did so, it seems, while the stench of death was still fresh in the air. I think it was Jeremiah.

In the Hebrew text, the book is actually a series of five acrostic poems. Chapters 1 & 2 have 22 verses (for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet) with three lines of poetry per letter. Chapter 3 is a triple acrostic with 66 verses. Chapter 4 has 22 verses with two lines per letter. In chapter 5 there is no acrostic, yet it too has 22 verses, each verse containing one line.

Why the acrostic?  It accomplishes a couple of objectives.[1]  The first is to comfort the grieving people.  How so?  The nature of the acrostic is that it communicates a limiting factor.  It starts with the first letter aleph and ends with the last letter tav.  Put yourself in the people’s shoes.  They were living a chaotic nightmare that felt like it would never end.  It seemed like there was meaningless, endless judgment and misery coming their way, like waves pounding the seashore.  But not so.  The acrostic helped them get a handle on the reality of their situation.  The very structure of the acrostic says, “There is a limit to all this.  It will end.”

But the acrostic poems do something else.  They force the reader to mourn thoroughly, and that’s something we resist.  When life is hard, we don’t want to face the hard questions as to why it might be hard in the first place.  We just want to get on with life, and so we gloss over the situation, or make jokes about it, or put a positive spin on it.  But the book of Lamentations won’t let us do that.  By using five individual acrostic poems, Jeremiah forces us to go over the painful story again and again and again and again and again.

And then stop going over the story, for the book is over and it’s time to move on with life.

The book of Lamentations is sort of like a dark and dreary oil base painting.  The canvas is filled with blacks and dark grays and deep purples.  That’s what we see in chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5, and most of chapter 3, as Jeremiah expresses in vivid, horrid detail the pain and agony of God’s people experiencing God’s judgment.  But in the middle of chapter 3 we see a small but unavoidable pool of brilliant color and light.  Indeed, the brilliant light stands out all the more because of the frighteningly dark background the rest of the book provides.

It reminds me of a Thomas Kinkade painting.  It’s the light that grabs your attention.  In this Lamentations portrait, the light doesn’t change the fact that the rest of the canvass is depressingly dark, but it does give us a way out of the darkness.

So where do we find hope when hope seems gone?  God provides us with the answer in Lamentations.  This October at the ACBC annual conference, we’ll zero in on the third chapter where we see hope from four perspectives: hope sought (1-18), hope gained (19-24), hope shared (25-48), and hope in the real world (49-66).

 

If you would like to attend Brad Brandt’s session “Ministering the Book of Lamentations” at the ACBC Annual Conference, you can find more information about registration for the conference by clicking here.

 

[1] I am indebted to Walter Kaiser’s commentary on Lamentations, A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering, and found his explanation of the use of acrostic and the structure of the book quite helpful.

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Brad Brandt
Brad Brandt is a certified biblical counselor and Fellow with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). He has been the pastor at Wheelersburg Baptist Church since 1987, serving along with his wife, Sherry. They have two daughters, Julie and her husband Blake, Katie and her husband Luke, and a grandson Elias.
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