Nathan Pitchford has just posted the text of a sermon he preached on Sunday past on Lamentations 4:20-22 — Christ the Breath of Our Nostrils. I’ve only read the introduction, and it prompted me to read Lamentations before I continued with his sermon. I only managed the first chapter today, and it prompted me to reflect on it in the light of Holy Week.
A quick summary of Lamentations 1 might go like this:
- Zion’s situation graphically portrayed (Lam. 1:1-4). We get a detailed picture of how dire the situation is.
- Zion’s situation theologically explained (Lam. 1:5-11). We realize, as does Jerusalem, that the affliction has a two-fold cause: YHWH has directed it, and the people’s sins have caused it. The situation is deserved, but it is not impersonal, God is behind it all.
- Zion’s witness to the nations (Lam. 1:12-19). Zion is able to explain that she is being punished by God because of her rebellion. God has done it. I have deserved it.
- Zion’s prayer to God (Lam. 1:20-22). In contrast to the brief prayers in verses 9 and 11, Zion is able to pray a more extended prayer that asks for God to be just and punish all sin.
But is all this just about Jerusalem? There are distinct echoes of this scene in another. The latter is more distressing, and differs in a fundamental way.
“Is it nothing to you who pass by?” triggers the link, not to a solitary city in distress (Lam. 1:1), but to a solitary man in terrible anguish. Not to the victims of war, but to a victim of justice. Just like the city whose majesty had departed (Lam. 1:6) “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him” (Isaiah 53:2).
The city could witness, “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” (Lam. 1:12). And of him it was said “it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.” (Isaiah 53:10)
The more you read the lament, the more you see the parallels. A word here, a phrase there, sends you to Calvary.
But among the parallels is the stark contrast. The city could declare with absolute justification, “The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word.” (Lam. 1:18) Jerusalem deserved God’s punishment, but Jesus deserved nothing that he suffered. Pilate said more than he realised when he declared, “I have found in him no guilt deserving death.” (Luke 23:22)
Pilate was unable to punish and release Jesus because it was not God’s will. “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
Zion’s lament brings us face to face with God’s justice. Zion deserved her punishment, and it serves as a warning to every nation and every person that God will punish sin.
Jesus’ punishment brings us face to face with God’s mercy and grace. But God’s will to crush Jesus was not all that he had in mind. “The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. ” (Isaiah 53:10-11)
Zion prayed for God to punish, but Jesus prayed for God to forgive. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he said (Luke 23:34). Surely these words were not for the soldiers alone. He died not that four men might be forgiven, but that many might be forgiven, and more than that, many might be made righteous. The delightful blessing of Jesus’ death was that while we are able to offload our sin on him, he makes us as righteous as he himself is. Calvary is not tit for tat, an eye for an eye. Calvary is lop-sided, it is a Great Exchange, where we gain much more than we lose. In his mercy God withholds the punishment we deserve, and Christ suffers in our place. But in his grace God clothes us with righteousness we certainly don’t deserve.
Zion’s call to look (Lam. 1:12) can only bring judgment and despair. The message of the lament is the certainty of God’s deserved punishment for sin.
But the call of Calvary is one of life and hope. To the dying thief Jesus could say, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) and to us, as we look today he says, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” (Isaiah 45:22) The message of the cross is the certainty of God’s loving forgiveness to the repentant sinner.
The hymnwriter summed up the Easter message well when she wrote:
There is life for a look at the crucified One,
there is life at this moment for thee;
then look, sinner, look unto Him and be saved,
unto Him who was nailed to the tree.
Look, look, look and live!
There is life for a look at the crucified One,
there is life at this moment for thee.
It is not thy tears of repentance or prayers,
but the blood that atones for the soul;
on Him, then, who shed it, thou mayest at once
thy weight of iniquities roll.
His anguish of soul on the cross hast thou seen?
His cry of distress hast thou heard?
Then why, if the terrors of wrath He endured,
should pardon to thee be deferred?
Then doubt not thy welcome, since God has declared
there remaineth no more to be done;
that once in the end of the world He appeared
and completed the work He begun.
But take with rejoicing from Jesus at once
the life everlasting He gives;
and know with assurance thou never canst die,
since Jesus, thy righteousness, lives.
Amelia Matilda Hull, c.1825-82