Colin Smith is senior pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church—a thriving, multi-campus church located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago—and a TGC Council member. He’s also president of Unlocking the Bible, a ministry that seeks to root people in the Word of God through their website, publishing, podcast, and radio program.
When Smith asked me to read his newest book, For All Who Grieve: Navigating the Valley of Sorrow and Loss, in view of offering an endorsement, not only was I glad to endorse it, I discovered the book is really an exposition through Lamentations. Lamentations is a book few preachers and teachers seem to teach all the way through. Written by Jeremiah, who endured one manifestation of the divine judgment the Bible consistently calls “the day of the Lord,” this brief book not only includes vivid descriptions of judgment; it also offers compelling prayers that confess sin, express renewed hope, and declare total dependence on God’s grace.
In our conversation, Smith explained how he structured his own sermon series on Lamentations into four messages on: (1) Tears and Talk, (2) Guilt and Grievance, (3) Hope and Healing, and (4) Prayer and Praise. He also explained some of the ways this book, written by a prophet weeping over Jerusalem, points to the greater prophet who will also weep over Jerusalem. The man of sorrows seems to speak through Lamentations, saying along with the writer, “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath” (3:1) and, “Though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer” (3:8).
- The Message of Lamentations by Christopher Wright
- Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope by Philip Graham Ryken
- Lamentations, Habakkuk and Zephaniah: A 12-Week Study by Camden Bucey
- Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther by Barry Webb
- Bible Book of the Month—Lamentations by Meredith G. Kline
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Colin Smith: I think of preaching or teaching the Bible as being like a little humpback bridge over a river. You’ve got the world of the Bible, and you’ve got the world of the people to whom you’re privileged to speak, and you’re going in the course of your Bible teaching, you’re speaking for half an hour, 20 minutes or whatever it is. You’re going over backwards and forwards over that little bridge time and time and time again how long is it since you went over the bridge? You know, you’re telling me something about what’s happening in the Bible, now, get over the bridge and tell me what it means to me as I listen to you.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach The Bible” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach The Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org
Well, I think it’s the third time since I started “Help Me Teach The Bible” five years ago, that I am once again in the office of one of my favorite Bible teachers. And that’s the office of Colin Smith here in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Colin, thank you so much for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Smith: Oh, that is a pleasure and grateful for the opportunity. Thank you for coming.
Guthrie: You’ve been here at the Orchard for how many years now?
Smith: Twenty-four years. I’ve only pastored two churches, 16 years in North London and 24 years and counting here. And I am so blessed and privileged to serve two very wonderful churches.
Guthrie: And so many people literally around the world benefit from your ministry through your Unlocking the Bible website, I assume…podcast.
Guthrie: Radio, are you still on the radio? That was a thing in the past.
Smith: Radio ministry, yes, I think around 300 radio stations. And the Lord has really blessed that in a remarkable way. People are hungry for the Bible, you know this from your ministry, Nancy, that there is a hunger for the word of God. Many people have come to know that they don’t know it and then to have an interest in knowing it. So these are great days of opportunity for those who want to faithfully teach the word of God.
Guthrie: Well, I’m excited to be talking to you today about a book we haven’t covered yet on “Help Me Teach The Bible” which is the pretty short little book of Lamentations. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon series on Lamentations in churches I’ve been in. It caught my attention with a book that you’ve just had come out called, “For All Who Grieve.” And as I looked through the manuscript of that book, I recognized, you’re really working your way through the book of Lamentations, but it has turned into this very helpful, scriptural book for people who are grieving. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about how those things came together, teaching Lamentations and writing this book.
Smith: Well, you know, I was on a study retreat and had begun to think about teaching Lamentations. Simply, this is a part of the Bible that I’d never really gone through with either of the congregations I’ve been privileged to pastor. And while Karen and I were there, we got a phone call to the effect that a couple in our church had lost their adult son in a terrible accident, and I had the privilege as their pastor of walking them through the funeral and so forth. And then after that, I said to Greg, and to Pam, “You know, there are other folks in our congregation who have gone through this grief of losing a child, would you be interested in meeting with others?” And they jumped at that.
And so I began to look at Lamentations and we ended up the following week with a small group in our home, and Karen and I had the opportunity of helping them to share their stories. And then in the subsequent weeks, we got the book of Lamentations open before us and found, in a very powerful way, that this book that I just really began to study was speaking right into the reality of grief and of loss. And I began to think, why in the world, when there is a book in the Bible called Lamentations that’s actually about grieving, and the immense sorrow that comes from extraordinary loss, and loss is something that every Christian experiences in multiple ways, why in the world have I not yet gone through this book of the Bible?
Now, of course, it’s set in a particular historical location. We want to talk a little bit about this, but really what got me going on this was seeing there really is a connection between what this book addresses and the realities of our lives and of our experience. The different ways in which we experience loss and the different ways in which we grieve. And God has put a book called Lamentations in the Bible. I don’t know how many times, Nancy, I’ve heard someone say, “Pastor, I’m not sure I ever grieved properly.” Well, what does it mean to grieve properly? Well, there’s a book in the Bible about lamenting, about lamentations. And every part of the Word of God is given because we have a need of it and that includes this book. Why had I not got to it sooner?
Guthrie: Well, let’s begin to work our way through it a little bit. But maybe, first, maybe we should talk about the historical setting because I wonder if that’s why more of us avoid it, because it seems very distant from our setting. In these short five chapters the person who wrote the book, and by the way, who do you think wrote the book?
Guthrie: Yes. So Jeremiah, and it’s at this particular time after Babylon has come in and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and carried her people off to the Kebar Canal over in Babylon. And Jeremiah is just kind of letting loose with asking God how this could happen. I read that Lamentations that the word is, E-K-A-H I don’t know how to speak Hebrew, which is, how. That’s the first word, you know, how, and I think just as you were talking about, you know, everyone has experienced loss, boy, that’s got to echo in someone’s soul when you go through loss. That’s, you know, how? Why? What’s going on? So, help us set the scene, because we do wanna understand the original context well before we move on to trying to apply it to whatever we’re teaching.
Smith: So, as you’ve said, Nancy, you have the Babylonian army laying siege to the city of Jerusalem. And what then follows, of course, is the horror of starvation, people without food and without water. And of course, the weakest are the first to die, and so, many would have lost younger children. And then the walls are breached and this brutal army comes in, destroys the city. So the temple is destroyed, people’s homes are destroyed, hardly one stone on top of another. So you’re in this environment that’s a little bit like some of the horrific scenes that we see from a warzone where there’s just a shell of homes remaining. And there’s a small community of people trying to eke out a living in that environment.
Some would have lost younger children because they were not able to sustain life with the absence of food. Then many would have lost older children because, you know, the stronger were taken away, deported and so parents never seeing them again. And then they’re under this new regime which has effectively enslaved them. So, you know, here’s the temple destroyed, and many people had looked to the temple as being like, now, this is the hope, you know, as long as the temple is there, we’ve got God for us. Now it appears that God is against them, and there’s no temple and the smoldering ruins are all that’s left in this little community of people. And Jeremiah is kind of picking his way through the stones as it were.
And so at the beginning of the book, it starts like this, as you said, Nancy, it begins with the word how. “How lonely sits the city that was full of people.” You know, it once was a bustling community and now it’s like a ghost town with only a few folks who are left. “How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations. She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.” And then straightaway “She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks.” So now we’re into it, just the weeping, the loss, the tragedy, the pain of it all.
And that runs right throughout the book of Lamentations. It is a lament over an absolute tragedy that has taken place. And of course, it has taken place under the judgment of God. This is the culmination of God’s judgment, from generations of rebellion against Him and against idolatry. And now all that has been prophesied in regards to the judgment that was to come has happened, and people are picking out a life in the ruins that are left.
Guthrie: It seems that one thing we have to figure out in Lamentation that there are different voices that are speaking throughout it. So, you’ve just begun this first part, this lament, and in my head, I’m picturing Jeremiah saying these things as he is looking at Jerusalem and speaking for his people. What other voices are we going to hear talk in this book?
Smith: Well, towards the end, and it’s very fascinating to me for the very first time the people themselves speak. So, as you look through Lamentations, and I’ve kind of marked this up in my Bible because it was so striking to me, particularly in the earlier chapters. I’m looking at chapter 1:14, “My transgressions were bound into a yoke.” Or verse 16, “The Lord rejected all my mighty men in my midst.” Verse 16, “For these things, I weep.” You see, I and my all the way through there.
And then when you go to chapter 3, you have the same thing. “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath. He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light, surely, against me, he turns His hand.” So it’s all personal…
Guthrie: Very personal.
Smith: …it’s all one person speaking. Then you go to the end, chapter 5, and suddenly you have this breaking out of our. “Remember, oh Lord, what has befallen us, look and see our disgrace, our inheritance has been turned over, our homes to strangers and foreigners. We have become orphans and fatherless, we must pay for water and drink.” This is them under the brutality of the regime. So very significant that only at the end do the people speak, until then someone is speaking for them, and someone is speaking to them.
And, you know, I thought, when a person is grieving, who speaks for them and who speaks to them? In our culture today, we would call such a person a counselor. You sit down and a counselor tries to put into words what a grieving person isn’t able to say for themselves, and gradually to bring themselves to a place where they are able to speak and articulate what has happened. I think that’s what’s happening in the book of Lamentations, that the prophet acts as a counselor, he speaks for the people, he speaks to the people. And he brings people who, for the first four chapters really can’t say anything for themselves, to a place where out of great pain, finally, they’re able to pray to God and express faith in God.
And then, of course, the greatest voice, and this is a theme that you bring out so regularly in your ministry, Nancy, and I so appreciate it. That all scripture points us to the Lord Jesus Christ. And so throughout the Old Testament, and in every Old Testament book, you have whispers of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and clearly, along with the prophets voice and the peoples’ voice you have the voice of the Lord Jesus. And never more clearly, I think, than in chapter 3, where you read again, “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath, who is it that can uniquely say, I’ve been afflicted under the wrath of God?”
I mean, here is a whisper, an anticipation of the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. “Though I call and cry for help…” chapter 3:8, “He shuts out my prayer.” Well, there you have “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s just full of allusions to Christ, and anticipations of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His suffering on the cross. And so you have these various voices that run throughout the story of Lamentations.
Guthrie: For someone who’s thinking about teaching through this, Colin, maybe you could recommend to us how you would break it up into a series. One, two, three, four lessons, how would you do it? How would you organize teaching through this book?
Smith: I found that it was helpful to draw out the main themes that actually pretty largely follow the chronology of the book, so it’s pretty much the same. The reason that I didn’t do it strictly chapter by chapter, is that the nature of a lament is that it is somewhat circular, there’s a lot of repetition. Actually, that is part of all grief. Any grieving person, I use the analogy of a broken vase is what I say, but I should translate it and say vase, shouldn’t I?
Guthrie: Probably so.
Smith: Okay, so imagine this beautiful vase and it’s smashed and here is a woman and she’s picking up these pieces and she’s looking at these pieces. And grief is like that, you pick up the pieces and you hold them up to the light. Why? Because something precious is no longer there to be held. And you find that in the book of Lamentations, as you find that with all grief, a person will tell a story, and you say, “Well, why is that important?” It was important to them, because it was a tiny little part of someone really, really loved. So Lamentations is like that, it feels like if you just read it, you’ll say, we’ve heard this before.
Guthrie: I did feel that reading through the book, especially the first couple of chapters, just goes…It’s almost as if he is walking around the city and circling it and he keeps coming by the same things and talking about that aspect of the devastation.
Smith: Right. And that’s why I find it helpful to pick up on some of the main themes that recur in that circularity. And clearly, tears is the first. I mean, again and again, there are tears on every page in Lamentations. And then talk…I mean, the whole book is an articulation of sorrow. And in any process of grief, to be able to articulate it in some way and to express what builds up as a pressure inside is so important.
Guthrie: So important.
Smith: And when the people aren’t able to say it themselves, the prophet is saying it for them, he’s helping them to get it out.
Guthrie: Isn’t it too bad that in many quarters of the church today, they have the impression, “Well, if I’m facing this loss with faith, that somehow I won’t be sad.” And certainly doesn’t come from the Bible, does it?
Guthrie: I mean, here there’s been devastation and these tears are open and they’re out there, there’s no shame in them because something genuinely good, and beautiful, and loved has been lost.
Smith: Yes. You know, I’m moved by this that when I spoke on tears from Lamentations and drew out what the scripture says about this, and of course, where that takes you is Jesus wept. And then of course ultimately when it takes you is one day he will wipe all tears away from our eyes. So, I mean, that’s the theme that we’re tracing.
Guthrie: Our tears matter to him, isn’t that a beautiful thing?
Smith: Yes. Beautiful statement in the Psalms that God collects our tears in a bottle. I just love that, that there’s never a tear that is shed or even a turning over when we’re on our beds that God does not know and that He does not completely understand what is going on, that is marvelous. But I hear people saying, thank you for speaking about this, because…I had a letter from a lady who said, “I’ve had two miscarriages and I felt that I had to hold myself together and that if I was to break down in this way that I was not being a good faithful Christian and really trusting God.” And just the simple fact that there’s tears on every page of Lamentations, and Jesus wept was releasing for her, you know.
Guthrie: I remember about three months after my daughter, Hope, died, I went on a choir retreat with the people from my church, and I can remember standing up at that retreat and just saying to everyone, “I’m not losing my faith, I’m not depressed. I’m just sad and I need time and space to be sad.” I think so often what happens in a church is someone has a loss and, you know, someone will say to someone else, “Well, how do you think she’s doing?” “She was crying last week during the service.” And they can sometimes interpret that, oh, she must not be doing very well because she’s crying, well…
Smith: As if there was something wrong with that…
Guthrie: As if…
Smith: …or unusual.
Guthrie: That person was valuable and so they’re worthy of those tears. Tears don’t reflect the lack of faith. I’ve come to think of tears as a tool that God uses to wash away the deep pain that life in this broken world brings into all of our lives.
Smith: I like that. I’ve described them similarly as the shuddering of the body at the pain of the soul, and I think it really is that. And I think it’s one of the ways in which the pain that is in the soul actually is released and got out. And God gave us tear ducts for a reason, didn’t he?
Guthrie: So it was interesting, as you were describing this chapter, and you were talking about these people losing their children, even in this time when Babylon came and swept in. It seems to me, as a teacher, you’re maybe trying to do something there and you’re trying to take this out of the category of just a military battle that can sound very impersonal. And so, you know, if you’re grieving now you think, well, what does my grief have to do with that? But you made this personal, these were real people living in this city, and real people that they lost. The impact of Babylon coming in wasn’t merely that the temple got burned down and the walls were torn down. The impact on people and families was significant.
Smith: Yes, that’s right. And I think of preaching or teaching the Bible as being like a little humpback bridge over the river. You’ve got the world of the Bible, and you’ve got the world of the people to whom you’re privileged to speak, and you’re going in the course of your Bible teaching, you’re speaking for half an hour, 20 minutes or whatever it is. You’re going over backwards and forwards over that little bridge time and time and time again. I try and think of it that way, and then working with our younger folks who are teaching, I try and talk about it that way.
I say, how long is it since you went over the bridge? You know, you’re telling me something about what’s happening in the Bible, now get over the bridge and tell me what it means to me as I listen to you. Then go back over the bridge and give me a little more from the Bible, backwards and forwards all the time, not, here’s 25 minutes and then I’ll tell you how it relates to you. So, part of biblical meditation is, I think…I think of it this way, Nancy, to meditate on the scripture as a prophet, a priest, and a king. And the easiest one of these to do is to meditate as a prophet, that is, what is the truth here to speak?
But a priest who wears, you know, the names of the people close to his heart, to meditate sitting where people sit. So you see, that was why the experience that Karen and I had of being with these people who had lost loved ones, that was immensely helpful to me in preparing to preach Lamentations. I owe this series under God to these people, because it was sitting with them that brought the dimensions of this book, which is all about lament to life for me. I, at least in some degree, tried to see it through their eyes and as much as one is able to enter in a toll to another person’s grief and experience.
But that’s the privilege of pastoral ministry, you walk with people, and then you have the privilege of opening up the word of God to them. And the blessing of this part of the word of God is that it speaks very, very powerfully to all who grieve.
Guthrie: So let me see if I’m right about where we are here. Your first section was about tears and talk because he’s open with his tears, but he’s also processing what he has seen. So, how far would that take us in Lamentations? You begin in chapter 1 and go through about where?
Smith: Tears are all over the book, but especially in the first couple of chapters.
Guthrie: All right.
Smith: And of course, by definition, my point about talk is the whole five chapters are an expression of this grief. And God has put this whole book here…
Guthrie: So you’re going more thematically, you’re gonna draw from the whole book from that?
Smith: That’s exactly right.
Guthrie: And you are going to get to Christ…
Smith: Yes, absolutely.
Guthrie: …as you said, Him weeping at Lazarus’ tomb, and then, of course, the fact that He one day is gonna wipe away all tears.
Guthrie: So there’s one message. Message number two that I think you have done when you’ve done this before is guilt and grievance. Where do you get that?
Smith: Well, here’s the thing, and here’s where it’s very important to make distinctions where applications are made from the scripture. All over Lamentations, you have very, very clear expressions of the fact that the suffering of these people was a direct result of the judgment of God. And we’ve looked, for example, at the clearest expression of that in chapter 3:1. “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath.” What happened here in the destruction of Jerusalem was an outpouring of the judgment of God. And going through the book that is written all over which is why, again and again, there are these expressions of pain towards the Lord for what He has poured out and it’s all in relation to these folks’ sins.
Now, here’s the thing by way of application. God has put not one but two books in the Bible that directly speak to suffering and loss. Lamentation obviously is one, the other, of course, is the book of Job. Now, here’s the big difference, Job is very clearly presented to us as a righteous man and at the end, he’s vindicated. And his suffering is not because of the judgment of God, it remains a mystery within the sovereignty of God. So we’ve got one book in the Bible that says, here is immense suffering, and it’s nothing to do with guilt. And here is another book, Lamentations in the Bible, that says here is immense suffering, and has everything to do with guilt.
So I think it’s very significant that we have both of these in the Bible. My own experience is that when grief comes our experience is almost always somewhere in between, that we all have our what-ifs, and we all have our own if only’s. And therefore, if God had only given to us a book that was for a person who had done everything right, we would be missing something we desperately need.
So I want to warn people in the study of Lamentations not to assume that because the Lamentations suffering was an expression of the judgment of God that that means that all suffering is thereby an expression of the judgment of God. That was the great mistake that the disciples made in John 9, the blind man. “Why is this man blind, is it because he’s sinned or because his parents have sinned?” “No,” says Jesus, “but that God should be glorified in him.”
So, this is where, as Bible teachers, we need to be awfully careful in terms of not making a false application, just because here it is the judgment of God doesn’t mean that everywhere it is the judgment of God. And I find, of course, that very, very important in regards to the dear folks who had suffered so greatly in their loss. And I know this is…
Guthrie: Who quite often feel guilty.
Smith: This is part of your ministry too, Nancy, and so you know this. Was God punishing me? And the answer to that is, no. And the reason that you know that is that punishment, as far as we are concerned, was absorbed fully, finally, and completely in and through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Guthrie: Either it was all laid on him, or it wasn’t. He doesn’t reserve some for us.
Smith: But what is helpful here I think is to say, and yet we do live with our what-ifs, and we do live with our if only’s. And what we are pointed to here when we experience guilt is that there is only one place that we can take it and that is to the foot of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. So I found that it was immensely helpful having made this distinction. Don’t think that just because Lamentations is about the judgment of God that that means that all suffering is about the judgment of God. But nonetheless, there are some things to learn here about guilt and the place that we take it.
Guthrie: You’re talking about seeing their guilt here in this passage. I just wonder, are there one or two passages within Lamentations that you really drew that message from?
Smith: Yeah, I mean, it’s widely across the book, but just to take one or two examples, chapter 1:18 for example, “The Lord is in the right for I have rebelled against His word.” Or verse 20 of chapter 1 again, “Look, oh Lord, for I am in distress, my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me.” I love the stomach-churning and my heart wrung within me, why?
Smith: “Because I have been very rebellious.” So, these expressions of ownership of the guilt that we are aware of run throughout the book, and they prompt taking our guilt to the only place that it can ever be taken, and that is to the foot of the cross of Christ. These are not people who are saying, “I never did anything wrong.” These are people who know that they have walked at a great distance from God and have been very far from the life that He has called them to.
Guthrie: Should we see this as Jeremiah presenting God’s people with words to confess their very real guilt? Because he’s not particularly talking about himself, is he? Although he’s identifying with his people.
Smith: That is right.
Guthrie: He recognizes there’s a corporate sense of guilt here. But it’s my understanding that sometimes Lamentations was, you know, later a song sung. And so it’s like he’s giving God’s people words to confess their real guilt…
Smith: That’s right.
Guthrie: …in the middle of experiencing judgment.
Smith: And the way you put it is, I think, exactly right. He’s identifying himself with God’s people, he’s standing as one of them and he’s speaking to them, and he’s speaking for them.
Guthrie: All right, so the other side of guilt was grievance. So I assume that what you mean by that was that, not only is he giving God’s people words to confess, he’s also giving them divine words to complain, is that right?
Smith: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Guthrie: So what would be some examples of that?
Smith: Well, this runs all through chapter 2 and all through chapter 3, I mean, it’s a relentless. Chapter 2, “How the Lord in His anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud.” And so now we have a list of complaints against the Lord. And as folks are perhaps looking at the scripture, just see how every verse, sometimes even every line in chapter 2 begins with He. “He has cast down from heaven to earth, the splendor of Israel. He has not remembered His footstool in the day of His anger. The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob.”
Down through verse 3. “He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel.” On and on. Verse 4, “He has bent His bow like an enemy.” Notice, not an enemy, but He seems like He’s an enemy, it seems like He’s against me. Thank God for the word like, He’s not the enemy, but He seems like the enemy and that’s the point that’s being made here. “With his right hand set like a foe.” Verse 5, “The Lord has become like an enemy, He has swallowed up Israel.” And then if you go over to chapter 3, I mean exactly the same as you look at it in the ESV here.
Guthrie: He, he, he.
Smith: He, he, he. The beginning of every verse. Again, it starts “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath, but then he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light.” Think of that on the lips of Christ, by the way, as the darkness covers the land when he’s on the cross and it’s the Father who’s done it. “He has made my flesh and my skin waste away. He has made me dwell in darkness.” verse 6, “Like the dead of long ago. He has walled me in so that I cannot escape.”
So, what you have here is two chapters really, chapter 2, the whole of the first half, and certainly, chapter 3, the whole of the first half are an outpouring of grievance before the Lord. And of course many of the Psalms are like this too, and Job has long passages that are the same. I say to people from this, don’t complain about God behind his back, you can’t do that, he knows what you’re thinking. And the safe and the right place to tell Him what you’re thinking and to tell Him what has grieved you is in his own presence. All relationships of trust are based on honesty, and better than bottling it up is to come and tell the Lord. And that’s not the end of the book of Lamentations, but it’s an important piece in it.
Guthrie: Tell him those things, but then prepare yourself to hear from him too by opening up your Bible. I find so oftentimes grieving people, they have the sense that God has gone silent on them because they’re expecting God to speak to them in their subconscious thoughts and give them answers to these very difficult questions that they have. Well, God is speaking and He speaks through His word. I don’t think we can ever think that we’re going to get clarity to the deep questions we have in the midst of suffering and loss with our Bibles closed.
Smith: That’s right.
Guthrie: We can’t expect to hear him speak, to give us that clarity without it.
Smith: My pastor said to me years ago, and it has always stayed with me, always pray with an open Bible. So helpful, so simple, but we can use the scripture not only to form our teaching but also to form our praying. And that’s a great gift. And again, with the group of grieving people that were so much a part of this in my life, it was fascinating listening to their testimonies of how the use of the Psalms became really important for several of them. That when they didn’t have any words to pray, they found that they could put themselves into the Psalms and that helped them.
Guthrie: What a beautiful thing that our Father would give us a book of divine words to say back to Him at the lowest points of life. That’s a good Father. All right, from grief and grievance, then you went to, and I must say, I feel a little bit relieved to get there. When we get finally to your third message, hope and healing. And just even reading through Lamentations, I mean, it is all so dark, so hard and then all of a sudden, in the middle of verse 21, I mean, it’s not even a new paragraph, so it almost catches you unaware. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” And you just think for the first time, okay, finally.
Smith: And what has been so striking to me about this, Nancy, is, where the hope is found in the book of Lamentations. And this came to me as something of a surprise because if you think about it, the city of God has been destroyed, the temple has been destroyed. Now, you emphasize in your ministry and I try and emphasize in mine how the Bible story goes forward. So my guess would be that what you would get coming out of that is, ah, but one day there’ll be a new Jerusalem, and there won’t even be a temple there. You know, all that’s there in the book of Revelation about how it will be made right in the end times.
And that, of course, is where the Bible takes us, the glorious hope that we have for the future. I can’t find anything about that in Lamentations and that puzzled me. Why would we not have the new Jerusalem being anticipated in this book? And I think the thing that helped me was, when we came with the group of folks in our home to talk about where hope lies, of course we talked about heaven and we talked about the glorious hope that lies ahead. And it was a conversation… You know how sometimes conversations take-off and other times they don’t? It was a good conversation, but it never took off. And I pondered that, and I pondered that and I went back to Lamentations I looked at it and I thought, “You know what? The hope that is in Lamentations isn’t heaven.”
And the reason for that is that, for a grieving person, heaven seems a long, long, long way away. And the question is, how am I gonna get through today? And that’s where the hope of Lamentations is found. So, just to read the context here, because it gives…He says, verse 16. So this is the end of the complaint against God. “He,” this is God, “Has made my teeth grind on gravel.” My goodness. “And made me cower in ashes, my soul is bereft of peace. I have forgotten what happiness is.” So I…
Guthrie: That sounds so modern, doesn’t it?
Smith: “My endurance has perished and so has my hope from the Lord. Remember my afflictions and my wanderings of wormwood the gall, My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But, this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, His mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion says my soul, therefore, I will hope in Him.”
And the hope that is given here is that the Lord’s mercies are new every morning, that God’s grace is sufficient for you today. And you know what? When you get up tomorrow, God’s grace is gonna be sufficient for you tomorrow, that’s the hope. Now, isn’t that marvelous that that’s the hope…
Guthrie: It’s beautiful.
Smith: …that’s given to those who are in the depths of sorrow?
Guthrie: It makes me think of Jesus when Paul is begging three times to have the thorn taken away. And Jesus’ answer is, “No, I’m not gonna fix that for you. My grace is sufficient.”
Smith: Sufficient for you.
Guthrie: Kind of a similar idea, isn’t there? That I’m gonna give you what you need for today and then, as you said, tomorrow morning when you get up, there’ll be more grace, more mercy as you need it.
Smith: Yeah, sufficient for the day.
Guthrie: That’s pretty significant hope, isn’t it? To hand to people.
Smith: The purpose of this conversation, I think, Nancy, is to help people who are teaching the Bible, and what a wonderful privilege that is. The mistake that I made was to assume that I knew the answer before I’d really looked that closely at what the Bible was actually saying. Hope I know about hope, hope is in heaven. And what I missed was that that’s actually not the hope that’s being spoken about here. The hope that…I mean, yes, the hope of heaven is very great, and I must speak about that. But the hope that is here is the hope that comes from knowing that God’s grace is new every morning and that His mercies therefore are sufficient for every day.
Guthrie: The Lord is my portion, He’s gonna be enough for me.
Smith: And you see when the following week we came back and I said, “You know, I’ve been looking at this more closely, look at this.” We began to talk about grace sufficient for today, that was a conversation that took off because it was coming right out of the word of God rather than my assumptions about what we should say about hope.
Guthrie: And they were probably able to testify that this has been true in their lives, right?
Smith: Right, yeah.
Guthrie: They’re saying, every day, I’ve gotten up and he’s been enough for me to get through that day.
Smith: That’s a wonderful promise, isn’t it? For all of us.
Guthrie: It is.
Smith: And we need that, and we need that every day.
Guthrie: Now, earlier, we talked about how when you get to chapter 5 of Lamentations, the voice speaking changes, it becomes more this should I say community calling out to God? What do we do with Lamentations 5, how is it different from where we’ve been so far?
Smith: Well, the first very wonderful thing is that here at last people are able to speak to God and that is a triumph of grace. That is an effect of the ministry of Jeremiah the prophet to them. He’s brought people who just wouldn’t be able to articulate a prayer because they’re stunned. That word is used in chapter 1, I’m stunned. They’re brought to the place by chapter 5, where they really are able to speak and it’s a painful prayer. I mean, it’s full of some gruesome realities that were experienced as well. I mean, Lamentations is not easy reading, you learn more about the horrors of starvation than perhaps a person would want to know or to visualize, but they’re able to speak to God.
And then what happens at the end, this is where it goes, verse 19, “Having described Mount Zion that is desolate, lying desolate, but,” the but is always important in the Bible, isn’t it? “But you, oh Lord, reign forever, your throne endures to all generations.” That is amazing. Here are people who have suffered unspeakable sorrow, and they’re brought to a place where they can confess the sovereignty of God. And that there is hope in the fact that God is still on the throne even despite the fact that their lives are in ruins and in chaos as a result of…
Guthrie: It’s like they’re taking hold of that promise that was made to David so long ago and they’re not letting go of it.
Smith: Yeah, that’s right. And then you have this, “Restore us to yourself, oh Lord, that we may be restored.” So here’s a marvelous prayer, a cry that, Lord, You hold the future and if You restore us, then we will be restored, we can’t restore ourselves. But You hold the ability to build a new life for us. Then I find this very interesting, because you read verse 21 of chapter 5, “Restore us to yourself, oh Lord, that we may be restored.”
Guthrie: Let’s just stop there.
Smith: Yeah, let’s just stop there. “Renew us as in days of old unless You have utterly rejected us and You remain exceedingly angry with us.” You think, why put that on the end?
Guthrie: What do you think?
Smith: Well, you know, isn’t it significant that a book on grieving isn’t left with a tidy ending? There is that which we can affirm, and there are the questions that are left unanswered. Now, of course, this question is not absolutely unanswered, because they say, “Unless You remain exceedingly angry with us.” Well, there is an answer to that question, God does not remain exceedingly angry with us. And that question is answered at the cross where the wrath is poured out, in its fullness as far as all of God’s children are concerned, and it’s absorbed by the Lord Jesus, so there’s no more left for us. So the question of Lamentations is answered, but it’s not answered finally in Lamentations because this isn’t the last book of the Bible.
Guthrie: But of course, we don’t want to teach Lamentations as if the Bible ends with the Old Testament ever, do we?
Smith: That’s exactly right, yeah.
Guthrie: But it’s such a beautiful opportunity, the way this book ends, really, we could see it, couldn’t we?
Guthrie: That we would say, this points to the need for one who will come, who will provide that restoration, and how will He provide it? By taking all of that judgment, all of that anger upon Himself. And that is how He will restore and renew, and heal us.
Smith: And thinking too, Nancy, about the role of the prophet Jeremiah, and as you said, his is the first voice that is heard, and how he speaks to the people and speaks for the people. And how, through the pattern of the book, he brings the people to a place where they’re able to affirm faith and to speak to God and so forth. Clearly that is pointing us forward to our Lord Jesus Christ. And how wonderful that his ministry is that he is the Wonderful Counselor, that he is the one who comes to us in our sorrows and speaks to us, and speaks for us before the Father. And is with us in it, and is able to say to us, in the words of Lamentations, come and see if there was any sorrow like my sorrow, right out of Lamentations.
That he is our Wonderful Counselor, and it is through his ministry to us in our sorrows and in our struggles, that we do find light and hope. And we are brought to the place where faith is sustained, and we’re able to pray, and we are able to look to the mercy of a sovereign God who alone is able to restore us and to take us forward.
Guthrie: Colin, when we finish teaching the book of Lamentations maybe we do it in one lesson, maybe two or three like you have done. What do we hope the impact has been on those we’ve been teaching?
Smith: Well, you know, when you come to the bottom line, you always want to have Jesus in the bottom line. And as I thought about teaching this, the aim and the prayer that I was bringing before the Lord was, let your people find what it is to walk with Jesus on sorrow’s path. Because He is the man of sorrows and He is familiar with suffering as Isaiah put it. Nobody wants to walk the path of sorrow, but those who walk the path of sorrow find that Jesus is on that path. And there is a fellowship with Him that is found on that path that is different from what is found anywhere else, and I think Lamentations points us in that direction.
Guthrie: Thank you so much, Colin. You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach The Bible” a production of the Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org.