The Heart of the Matter
The third lament is 66 verses long, as each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet is used to begin three consecutive verses. This dirge details the personal complaint of the poet. The writer identifies himself in the opening verse as "the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath." Again, the book is traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, and that seems likely. Yet there is clear identification throughout with the entire nation (verses 40-47 even being written in first person plural). However, the words of this chapter could not have been written by just anyone.
The Expositor's Bible Commentary does not agree with the assessment of some "that 'every man' is speaking. It would be an exceptional Israelite who could use this language, and some of his experiences could hardly be generalized. The commentary [here] is based on the assumption that Jeremiah is speaking... The reminiscences of many psalms [in what is written] is one of the arguments used against authorship by Jeremiah. Behind this lies—consciously or unconsciously—the supposition that many of these were written later than the prophet, an assumption that modern psalm-studies have almost completely dissipated. If the prophet adopted the difficult treble acrostic...as a curb on his anguish, the adoption of familiar phrases from the Psalms, especially from the psalms of lamentation, should create no psychological or literary difficulty in the ascription of this lament to him" (note on Lamentations 3).
Verses 1-18 appear to describe Jeremiah's own suffering at the hands of his people—ultimately ascribed to God since He has ultimate oversight of all things. Verses 6-9 seem to describe the time Jeremiah spent in the prison dungeon. The statement "He shuts out my prayer" in verse 8 may recall God forbidding Jeremiah to pray for Judah's deliverance (see Jeremiah 11:14; Jeremiah 14:11). Of course, it may also refer to times Jeremiah called on God to rescue him and didn't immediately hear from Him. Yet we can also see in these verses the entire nation describing its plight of being bound in the chains of Babylonian captivity. (There is some irony, and justice, in the comparison in that the people are crying out in their affliction just as Jeremiah cried out over what they did to him.)
Verses 10-12, about God being like a bear or ambushing lion who has torn in pieces, seem more a reference to what the nation experienced. Yet Jeremiah may have felt this way at times during his own suffering, thinking that God was responsible for it since He could have prevented it if He chose to. Verse 14's statement "I have become the ridicule of all my people" fits Jeremiah and does not seem to fit the Jews as a whole. Nevertheless there is a parallel in that the Jewish nation became the ridicule of all the nations around them. We should also bear in mind that what happened in Jeremiah's day—to himself and his people—was a forerunner of what all Israel will experience at the end of the age.
Regarding verse 16, "some suggest the feeding on gravel and dust (or ashes) [is] in mockery; some, the violent grinding of the face in the ground by others. The latter seems the more probable. Yet again it could be argued that it refers to the type of bread made from the sweepings of the granary floor that Jeremiah must have received toward the end of the siege" (Expositor's, note on verse 16).
In verses 19-20 it appears that Jeremiah is praying, "Remember all the terrible things I've gone through. I remember them—and, alas, I feel worse than I did before." Then, in verse 21, he seems to recover, saying essentially, "But!...I also remember how I came through it all." That is, "I survived—You have not abandoned me." "Jeremiah's remembrance of God's faithfulness brought about a change in the prophet's emotions. As long as we contemplate our troubles, the more convinced we will become of our isolation, our hopelessness, our inability to extricate ourselves from the present trouble. But when we focus on the Lord, we are able finally to rise above, rather than to suffer under, our troubles" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 21).
Verse 22 is truly remarkable. Jeremiah expresses his conviction that in all the troubles, God is yet being merciful. For the entire nation to be totally exterminated would be justice—because the penalty for sin is death—but God continually shows mercy. "This verse seems to contradict all that had been written up to this point (see 2:1-5). Yet the very fact that there was a prophet left to write these words and a remnant left to read them show that not every person in Jerusalem had been consumed. The fact that there was a remnant at all was due to the mercies and compassions of God. Even in His wrath (2:1-4), God remembers to be merciful" (note on 3:22). Indeed, God's compassions "are new every morning" (verse 23). "Every day presents us with a new opportunity to discover and experience more of God's love. Even in the midst of terrible sorrow, Jeremiah looked for signs of mercy" (note on verse 23).
And then the pinnacle confession: "Great is your faithfulness" (verse 23). "Here is the heart of the Book of Lamentations. The comforting, compassionate character of God dominates the wreckage of every other institution and office. God remains 'full of grace and truth' in every situation (see Exodus 34:6-7; John 1:14)" (note on Lamentations 3:23). Verses 22-24 are like a balm on a sore. Jeremiah is reminding himself of the true good and loving nature of God. That is one vital point that will strengthen a person throughout a trial.
This is not the mere painting of a happy face over a grievous situation. There is great blessing for those who wait on God (verse 25). "The idea here is the acceptance of God's will and His timing (see Psalm 40:1; Isaiah 40:31)" (note on Lamentations 3:25). This idea carries through to verse 33 and helps us to understand the meaning of verse 27, which states that it is good to bear the yoke while young. The idea is that of a person of full vim and vigor willingly and humbly accepting the judgment God has placed on him. This is more clearly stated in verse 28. Putting one's mouth in the dust in verse 29 means willing lying prostrate on the ground with, by implication, the conqueror's foot on one's back.
In verse 30, we see the idea of turning the other cheek in the face of oppression and maltreatment, just as Jesus would later direct the Jews of His day to do (Matthew 5:39). The point in Lamentations 3 is that we must not fight the judgment of God. We must bear it willingly and patiently, waiting on Him, with full hope and trust in the next verse: "For the LORD will not cast off forever" (verse 31). This is exactly why God's message to the Jews of Jeremiah's day was that they surrender to Babylon. Whatever the chastening, we must remember that it is only a temporary condition. God is full of mercy and compassion (verse 32). He does not afflict men willingly or easily (verse 33), but only when He, in His omniscience, deems it absolutely necessary. It hurts God to hurt His people—just as it does human parents to discipline their children. As many scriptures show, after Israel is humbled and repentant, God's plan is to regather and restore His nation.
Jeremiah uses his own experiences that kept him humble to show the way that his people could once again regain the blessings of God. Verses 40-41 are a call to self-examination and change, which will renew the relationship with God. That is the path for all people ultimately. Repentance is required. This was the answer the apostle Peter gave to the Jews of his day in Acts 2:38: "Repent and be baptized." Action is required to "be saved from this perverse generation" (verse 40). So, too, Israel was encouraged to act.
When the people lament their suffering at the hands of their enemies in verses 46-47 of Lamentations 3, Jeremiah in verses 48-51 again describes his own uncontrollable weeping and grief over what they must endure. He then looks back at his own sufferings at the hands of enemies (verse 52)—those enemies being some of the same people he is now weeping for. Jeremiah's time in the cistern or dungeon is evidently referred to in verse 53 and 55, though the pit could also figuratively represent any dire situation. It appears that in verses 52-66 Jeremiah's personal situation is again being used to represent the situation of the whole nation. His words in verses 55-58 are words of hope. God rescued Jeremiah in the past—and He would do so again. Just the same, God had rescued the Israelites in the past—and He will do so again.
Though calmed through renewed hope, Jeremiah "cannot contain a last cry to God to judge those enemies whose brutality has brought him and his people such pain (vv. 58-66)" (Bible Reader's Companion, chapters 1-3 summary). Again we can see the irony and justice here. Jeremiah was personally referring to what many of his own people had done to him—and that they deserved to be judged. And they are judged—by the enemy nation God has brought against them. Now they plea for justice using Jeremiah's own words. (In the last days, we can perhaps imagine true Christians crying out over persecution they experience from fellow Israelites—and later those same Israelites crying out in the same terms over what they will suffer at the hands of end-time Babylon.)
Serving God included suffering for the prophets just as it did for the apostles of Christ centuries later. Christians today also suffer for their beliefs and their work, as well as in the normal course of life. Yet there is a purpose to all of these experiences as each human being is carefully prepared for a future that is much more wonderful and rewarding than anything we can comprehend. Even Jesus was made perfect for a position in the future through what He suffered (Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 5:8; 1 Peter 5:10). James 1:2 tells us to rejoice when we face a trial. It takes a strong belief in God's overshadowing care for a follower to accept that the negatives that often come will ultimately work toward his good (see Romans 8:28).
Almost all of the prophets of God, and in all likelihood all His people who have suffered, have at times experienced moments of weakness and discouragement. Depression was the result for a time. God also experiences hurt and is afflicted by the suffering of His children. But there is purpose to it all. We learn genuine empathy for the sufferings of others by sharing their experiences. Paul wrote of how the experience of suffering, coupled with God's comfort during the trial equips us to serve others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Sometimes, we also have to learn the hard lesson that giving in to Satan's temptations or to our human nature brings painful consequences. Jeremiah felt forsaken at times—and we see his depth of feeling over it portrayed in this powerful book. There are profound lessons for all of us in his experiences and in his emotions.