Therefore I Have Hope
A Journey through the book of Lamentations
This is a series on finding hope in the midst of what can be the most difficult times of our lives – situations of loss. When we think of loss, we tend to think first of the event of losing a loved one. And of course that can be one of the toughest events we face in our lives. But the pain of loss can cut deep in lots of other ways as well. It might be the loss of a job, it could be a loss of independence because of a deterioration in our health. Perhaps our circumstances mean the loss of a dream, something that we deeply hoped would happen. We might, for instance, have really hoped that someone would become a close friend, but it didn’t turn out that way. Any experience of separation in a relationship is an experience of loss, whether that’s a divorce or a situation of being estranged from someone. We could extend the examples of loss to quote other situations I haven’t mentioned.
At the end of 2014, my sister in the UK was diagnosed with a fairly advanced ovarian cancer. Chemotherapy didn’t work because she had an allergic reaction to some of the drugs. I prayed for her healing because I believe that it is part of our calling as followers of Jesus to do the things that Jesus did. And Jesus’s core business was the Kingdom of God and one aspect of that is praying for healing. However, despite my prayers and those of others, my sister died in July 2015, around 6 months after diagnosis. I was able to be at her bedside with her husband, children and my mother when she died.
I have walked a journey of loss since my sister died. And part of that journey as a Christian has been to wrestle through big questions about God when we face things like this. I had to ask questions like, Why wasn’t my sister healed, even when lots of people prayed? Was it because my own praying wasn’t good enough? Should I have had more faith or prayed in a different way. Where was God in those circumstances? Was He absent and if so why? Or if He was close, why didn’t we feel Him closer?
These kinds of questions have been huge for me and of course none of these big questions can ever have a simple answer.
The kind of questions I have wrestled with regarding my sister’s death illustrate the kind of journey that each of us travels whenever we experience a time of loss. At such times, a key question to ask is this – how do I find hope in the midst of loss? What does it look like to journey in a healthy way through a situation of loss so that hope is a genuine experience in the midst of it all. When we suffer loss, that experience cannot be magically removed with the click of our fingers. In the case of a loved one or a situation like a job, who or what we have lost cannot be restored to us. And so what we face into is the need to journey on in life with a significant gap. Our journey of life still goes on, but it’s a different journey, because we didn’t choose to experience this loss. But now the gaping hole is part of the picture of our lives.
This series about hope in the midst of loss is based on perhaps the most real, raw and poignant book in the whole Bible. It’s a book that you rarely hear about, people rarely read and to hear a talk on it is even rarer. This series is based on the biblical book called Lamentations. When I preached a series on Lamentations at the church I pastor, South Harbour Vineyard Church in Auckland, in June and July 2023, I asked for a show of hands to see how familiar people were with the book. Only a fraction of people had ever read the whole book and no one had ever heard a sermon specifically based on the book. This Bible reading series is derived from that teaching series. You can listen to the spoken version of the series at this link:
My earnest hope and prayer for this series is that we will each be deeply moved towards hope. It’s a series both to help us in our times of loss and about how to help others find hope in their times of loss.
The nature of the book of Lamentations means this series will stretch us. In this series we must dare to confront the reality of the things we experience during a time of loss. We must also dare to engage with questions about God and be prepared for our present limited understandings of Him to be more deeply shaped by all God shows us through the challenges of the biblical text.
So how did this remarkable book called Lamentations find its way into the Old Testament of our Bibles?
The book is a response to an historical event that was cataclysmic for the Jewish people. 600 years before Jesus, the super-power in the Middle East was the Babylonian Empire. They pursued a vicious foreign policy of territorial expansion. The way Nazi Germany sought to occupy Europe is probably the closest modern equivalent of this. In the year 587BC, the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem, finally breaking through the walls to destroy much of the city, including the beautiful Temple built by Solomon, the heart of the worshipping life of the Jewish people. The most capable of the populace were then taken into exile in Babylon.
It is hard to imagine just how devastating this was for the Jewish people. It represented an experience of loss in multiple dimensions:
They had lost their capital city
They had lost dignity in the sight of other nations, mocked and ridiculed
Many had lost relatives
Many had lost homes
Many were displaced to a foreign land
They had lost the precious Temple
And by consequence they felt they had lost their God
This was a calamity on a national scale. And one Jewish eyewitness of these terrible events gave voice to their experience of loss through a book of 5 poems of lament originally written in Hebrew. This is the book that we call Lamentations.
It features some of the most remarkable sections of writing in the whole Bible. Searingly-honest and relentless in its poignancy, in this book we hear the deepest struggles of the writer in all its raw detail. The Jewish people came to understand that the fall of Jerusalem came about as a judgement from God for the way they had turned away from Him. And in the book we see the writer trying to make sense of God, His people and how that judgement came upon them.
The book has found a vital place in the life of Jewish people even to this day. In the Jewish calendar there is a special day of mourning and fasting, when Jewish people corporately remember various tragedies that have befallen them as a people, including the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC and the Holocaust in our more recent history. And on this day, the book of Lamentations is read as a corporate act of remembrance.
And so, this biblical book is a collection of 5 poems of lament. At the heart of biblical lament is the struggle between the raw reality of the loss we have experienced and the true nature of who God is. On the one hand is our suffering, on the other hand there is God. How do both hold together? I love how OT scholar Chris Wright explains biblical lament:
“It is faith struggling with vertigo over the chasm between what it knows to be true about God and the realities of what it sees or experiences in this fallen world.”
In the book of Lamentations, what helps the vertigo of the writer is his hope, grounded in God. Despite the horror, despite the pain, despite the questions, the person realises that hope in God will see them through. In this series we’ll be discovering how the writer’s sense of hope guides them in their journey of grief and loss.
There is a fascinating structure to the book of Lamentations which contributes to our journey of finding hope in the midst of loss. There are 5 chapters to the book of Lamentations and each chapter is a poem with a special structure. To illustrate, here is a simple 5-line poem I have made up linked to an old English legend:
Armed with his bow, the archer readied himself.
Bow bent back, he let the arrow fly.
Curving through the air, the arrow found its target,
Deep through the apple resting on the head of his young son.
Echoing down the years, this legend of William Tell will be told.
Now I don’t expect to receive a Nobel Prize for my poetry(!) but I want you to look carefully at the lines of the poem. Can you see I have actually incorporated a visible structure to how each line reads?
You can see that each line begins with the next letter of the English alphabet. This makes what is called an acrostic poem. In the book of Lamentations, chapters 1-4 are acrostic poems. There are 22 letters in the biblical Hebrew alphabet, and so in chapters 1, 2 and 4, there are 22 verses and each verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 is special in that the poem is 3 times as long, with each Hebrew letter beginning 3 lines of the poem, before the next letter is used. That’s why chapter 3 of the book is 3 times as long, 66 verses.
So there is a very deliberate kind of order to the poetry. Bible scholars speculate as to why such a structure was used by the writer. What we know is that it is definitely planned. You can’t write an acrostic poem without planning it! But it looks like the writer is using his poetry as a kind of protest to the way in which grief disorders our lives. When we suffer a loss, particularly a sudden loss, it cuts across what has been a known status quo. It introduces an unwanted disorder to what we thought was reality. It looks like the writer chose to use a very ordered style of poetry as a way of expressing his desire for a sense of stability to return to their lives. In the chaos of the poet’s experience, their writing expresses an attempt to impose order.
What about chapter 5, the last chapter of the book? Chapter 5 interestingly breaks the pattern of the other chapters. Chapter 5 still has 22 verses, but there is no acrostic structure, the final poem has lost the order of the previous chapters. This seems to point to the fact that our journey through grief doesn’t follow a particular pattern. Whilst there can be features of grief that are common to most experiences of loss, no single person travels their journey of loss in quite the same way as someone else. So the disorder of the final chapter points to the way in which our journeys of grief are not normally neat and tidy journeys.
But the most important thing about the structure of the whole book is what is placed at the very centre – in other words in the middle of the chapter 3. It is here that we find the most stirring words of hope in the whole book. And the positioning of these words cannot be accidental. The author wants to express the sentiment that despite the calamity that has befallen them, at the heart of their experience, there is hope. Hope is placed centrally in the book because hope needs to be central if we are to journey through loss in a health way. And because the centre of chapter 3 is the hopeful summit of the whole book, this series ends by looking at chapter 3. So the order of our series will be chapters 1, 2, 4, 5 and then ending with 3.
It's important for me to say that this series will not be a complete guide to all aspects of our journeys of loss. This is a Bible teaching series, so our aim is see what God is saying through the book of Lamentations. And this book is not an exhaustive textbook on the psychology of grief and loss. However, having said that, we will discover in Lamentations dimensions of grief and principles to help us that you might well find in a specialist book on the subject.
In this series, we will spend several days dwelling with each chapter of the book. As we come to each chapter, we will read the whole of the chapter first. And then on subsequent days, we will focus on some selected verses from the same chapter. Each daily section ends with three ways to respond. There are some questions for you to ponder as you apply the learning to your own context. There is a prayer to pray. And there is a section which commends more practical actions. All these responses point us towards a hope-filled journey with God through any time of loss.
I have been stretched as I have prepared this series. We will all be stretched as we follow from one section to the next. But as we dare together towards greater hope, it’s a journey I believe none of us will regret.
 Wright C, The Message of Lamentations, IVP Academic, Downers Grove, 2015, p39