By GARY ALLEY
Tonight, Monday, July 31st, begins the 25 hour Jewish fast of Tisha b’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av) which commemorates the destructions of Jerusalem’s Temple, first in 586 BC by the Babylonians, and then again, by the Romans in 70 A.D. The book of Eicha (Lamentations), is read in synagogues as part of its commemoration.
The writer of Lamentations sits astonished. The unbelievable has happened. It is the 6th century B.C. and the holy city of Jerusalem is no more, and its temple—the House of God—is razed. The city of the Judean kings is plundered and left bare. David’s descendants have been murdered, raped, and enslaved. Bodies of old and young lie in the road; like an apocalyptic nightmare, the famished survivors wander the ravaged streets like zombies, even eating their children. The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, watched his sons slain before his eyes; then, with that last cruel image burnt on to his retinas, his eyes are taken out. He is then led to Babylon as prisoner to suffer his remaining days in darkness and haunted memory.
So too, the eyes of the writer of Lamentations cannot comprehend what he is witnessing. His dirge for Jerusalem resounds in anguish and incredulity. How could this have happened? His pain raw, and his feelings uncensored, his transparent testimony is preserved for us nearly 2,600 years later.
My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint in the streets of the city.
“Look, Lord, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for?
Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?
“In the day of the Lord’s anger no one escaped or survived;
those I cared for and reared, my enemy has destroyed.”
Lam 2:11, 20, 22
Just like the ruins of the Lord’s Temple, the faith of the writer lies smoldering. In the depths of the writer’s despair, life’s discordance dictates his words.
Jerusalem has sinned greatly…
let all my enemy’s wickedness come before you; deal with them as you have dealt with me.
The Lord is like an enemy—He has swallowed up Israel…
because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed.
You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation…
Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?
Lam 1:8,22; Lam 2:5; 3:22; Lam 5:19-20
Lamentations even ambiguously ends with…
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.
Yet, despite the senseless tragedy of the moment, this was a watershed moment for the offspring of Abraham. Those who were enslaved for 400 years in Egypt, those who survived forty years in Sinai, those who defeated the nations of Canaan, those who had outlasted the Assyrian Empire, were now prostrate and utterly crushed before the feet of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. And the Lord’s Temple, His home, was decimated.
This event for God’s people was quite different from those adversities of the past. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Israel’s religious nerve center since the days of David and Solomon, was shocking and other-worldly. Yet, from the ashes of this unbelief, during the exile east, a new nation would be born, a Jewish nation, and more importantly, late biblical thought would begin recalibrating its understanding of God’s character.
Just as blessing and prosperity could be signs of God’s favor upon the righteous, so too, suffering and punishment could be understood as a similar display of that favor. As a father corrects his son, so the Lord chastises His people. If the Lord allowed a son of David, wicked King Zedekiah, to be tortured for sins committed, how much more in our unjust world could a righteous one suffer for the sins of his people? If God Almighty, the Creator of the Universe, would not defend His home—the Holy Temple—from invasion, humiliation, and annihilation by the unrighteous Gentiles, how could Second Temple Jewish sages not entertain fresh thoughts on the God of their fathers with less pretense and more paradox?
The destruction of the Lord’s Temple by Babylon was a defining moment where the human issue of injustice was overshadowed by the hope of divine mystery. Suffering was not just a consequence of a sin but also a reality of life. Suffering always invokes more questions than there are answers. What developed in later biblical thought because of Jerusalem’s devastation was that when God’s people suffer, whether rightly or wrongly, He suffers with them. That is a demonstration of His faithful love. With that knowledge, there is hope for all who struggle in this life while seeking the Lord. While we may seek a rationale for suffering, often, it is difficult to find. For those who cast their affliction upon the Lord, suffering is not the focus nor the end; God’s faithful love is.
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him.