At the end of chapter 4, the prophet says in verse 22:
The punishment of your iniquity,
O daughter of Zion, is accomplished,
he will keep you in exile no longer;
but your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will punish,
he will uncover your sins. (Lamentations 4:22 RSV)
The daughter of Zion is Israel. The daughter of Edom refers to the country bordering Israel that was always a thorn in their flesh. Edom is always used in scripture as a picture of the flesh. The Edomites were related to Israel. They were the children of Esau, who is always a picture of the flesh. The prophet is saying, “God will set a limit to the punishment of his own. He never drives them too far. He never disciplines them too harshly. There is a limit. The punishment is accomplished. He will keep them in exile no longer; but as to the flesh, it has been utterly set aside and Edom will be punished.”
Chapter 5 describes the humiliation of judgment, but in the end, Jeremiah comes to another flash of insight (verse 19):
But thou, O Lord, dost reign for ever;
thy throne endures to all generations. (Lamentations 5:19 RSV)
What does this mean? Well, it means that though man may even perish in sorrow, God endures. And because God endures, the great purpose and workings of God endure. God never does anything temporarily; all that he does endures forever.Jeremiah sees that what God has taught him in his grief will have a practical use. Even if he were to die in the midst of his grief, God’s purposes endure. God is simply preparing now for a work yet to come. God is not limited by time. He is eternal. His throne, his authority, endures to all generations. In practical terms, the prophet is realizing that after he has been through this time of grief, he will have learned a truth about God that will make him absolutely impervious to any other kind of test. Once he has been through this, nothing can reach him, nothing can upset him, nothing can trouble him, nothing can touch him or overthrow him. He is now ready for anything. And in God’s great purpose there will be an opportunity to use that strength.
I often think of those words of our Lord recorded in the fourteenth chapter of Luke when he tells his disciples the two parables about counting the cost. One involved the man who went out to do battle and met a king coming against him with an army. Jesus said, “What man of you will do that and not sit down first and count the cost?” Or, in the other parable about building a tower, who will not count the cost to see if he has enough to finish the building?
Usually we interpret this as our Lord saying to us, “If you are going to become a Christian, you should think it through. You should count the cost. You should see if you really mean business and are going to carry this through.” Nothing could be further from the Lord’s meaning. What he is saying is, “I am the one who has to count the cost. I, as your Lord and Master, do not go out to build a tower without sitting down first and counting the cost. Nor do I go out to do battle with a fierce king without first being sure that I have what it takes to win this battle.”
In this passage, Jesus is explaining why he said to the disciples, “Except a man forsake his mother and father and son and daughter he cannot be my disciple.” As they wondered at this, he said “You are wondering why I am so severe with you. I will tell you. It is because I am going out to do a great work of building. I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I am going out to do battle with a great foe, a foe of cleverness and ruthlessness, and I have to be sure that the men who follow me are men on whom I can depend. I have to count the cost.”
In other words, “I have to get you ready for a battle that is going to go on far beyond this life. So I want men who will be mine. who will be absolutely, wholly mine so I can train them, prepare them, and bring them through trials and hardships, teaching them the great principles. When we finally get up against it, up against the real conflict, I will have men that I can depend upon. But I will have counted the cost.”
That is what he is talking about. When we learn our lessons here — when we learn how to handle sorrow and heartache and desolation of spirit in this limited way here — we will be prepared so that nothing can overthrow us; we will be unconquerable in the battle that God faces in the subjugation of the entire universe.
I often think of this: What lies beyond? Is not God preparing us now to do a mightier work in the future? Is he not getting us ready to carry on a conflict that will extend to the uttermost reaches of this vast universe of ours? Of course he is. God never does anything without a purpose. He never creates anything without intending to use it. And all this lies ahead of us. That is why it is so important that we learn how to face up to sorrow and to learn what God would have us to learn in the midst of it.
Our Father, thank you for this book of Lamentations. for its lesson to our hearts, that we may learn to be strong for your name’s sake. to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might, to be ready for that great day and that greater conflict yet to come. In Christ’s name, Amen.