[dropcap3]I[/dropcap3]n the 1941 Philadelphia School of the Bible yearbook, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is noted as the school hymn. When PSOB merged with the Bible Institute of Philadelphia in 1951 to form Philadelphia Bible Institute, the hymn continued as the official hymn. Therefore, for over seventy years, thousands of Cairn students have routinely sung Thomas Chisholm’s 1923 composition to accompany significant events in the academic year. The hymn, based on Lamentations 3:22-23, describes the unchanging nature of God’s character and creation and concludes with a statement of God’s forgiveness of sin, strength, and hope. A deeper look at the book of Lamentations will hopefully expand our appreciation of our University hymn.
The Book of Lamentations
From reading the book of Lamentations, it is clear that the fall of the Davidic kingdom and its exile to Babylon form the background to the book. In our English Bible, Lamentations is found as a sort of appendix to the book of Jeremiah. Although Jeremiah’s name is not found in Lamentations, there is a tradition going back to the Septuagint that the book contains Jeremiah’s words. Before Lamentations 1:1, the Septuagint includes the following historical superscription:
The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin: to whom the word of Yahweh came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, to the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, to the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month. Now the word of The Lord came to me saying…
The Hebrew text does not include these words, and as a consequence, it allows readers to more easily pay attention to the different voices in the text. There are four distinct voices in the book of Lamentations: Lady Jerusalem, a prophetic observer, a chorus of people from Jerusalem, and a suffering man. The message of the book is that Jerusalem has died because they did not uphold the covenant of the Lord. Lady Jerusalem confesses her sins, acknowledges her guilt, and describes the horrible suffering that has ensued. The prophetic observer describes the faithfulness of the Lord to bring about the curses of the covenant in His angry judgment of the people. This is the darkest day in the history of Israel; everything that the Lord brought about since the exodus of Egypt has been completely undone. The people of God are once again in slavery to a Gentile nation and suffering affliction in bondage. However, within the depth of such dark hopelessness, suffering, and sorrow, a stunning light shines in the middle that ultimately shapes the conclusion. The hope is that the Lord would restore His people and renew the Davidic kingdom.
The Suffering Man
There is an interpretive question as to the identity of the man in Lamentations 3. In my opinion, it appears that he is a different character than the prophetic observer of chapters 1-2 and 4. The prophet describes the suffering and judgment of Jerusalem, whereas the man in Lamentations 3 suffers in like fashion as Jerusalem; he shares in her suffering and is the voice in the book that turns the depth of despair into hope and promise. For some interpreters, this man is similar to the suffering servant of the book of Isaiah or the Davidic sufferer of Psalm 23.
Lamentations 3 provides for the reader a new and different perspective. It also stands out in terms of the structure of the chapter. Lamentations 1-4 are written as alphabetic acrostics with each verse beginning with the succeeding letter of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet. (Lamentations 5 has 22 verses, but is not an alphabetic acrostic; it only mimics it.) Whereas Lamentations 1-2 and 4 have 22 verses, Lamentations 3 has 66. This means that the alphabetic acrostic is made up of three alphabetic units. This chapter, then, is more than the numerical center of the book; it is the turning point around which the whole book pivots. The suffering of this man and his words make all the difference to the meaning of Israel’s suffering, as well as the book of Lamentations.
In the first eighteen verses, the man details the extent of his suffering from the Lord, much like Lady Jerusalem does in Lamentations 1-2. There are echoes of the book of Job and Psalm 23, which help us to understand the depth of the man’s loss. In Lamentations 3:18, he concludes, “My strength has perished and my hope from The Lord” (NASB). However, from 3:19 to 3:38, we have one of the most powerful statements that in His wrath, The Lord has not forgotten mercy.
The turning point for the suffering man is the Lord’s loving-kindnesses, compassions, and faithfulness (3:22-23). It seems significant that the first two nouns are plural. I can imagine the man rehearsing in his mind the many acts of loving-kindness and compassion that the Lord exhibited throughout Scripture. He concludes that the overwhelming evidence of God’s acts with His people is that He faithfully demonstrates his loving kindness and compassion, and that no matter how dark, hopeless, and full of despair a person or people may be, the Lord is faithful and true to His person and His word. They never cease, they never fail, they are new every morning. The greatness of the Lord’s faithfulness obliterates the man’s experience of affliction, suffering, and despair.
[blockquote align=”right”]The Lord is my portion; therefore I have hope in Him” (Lam. 3:24, NASB)[/blockquote]After remembering these great truths, the suffering man declares, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I have hope in Him” (3:24, NASB). From here, the man goes on to declare that the righteous must wait for the salvation of the Lord and His compassion. He affirms that he is an innocent sufferer and concludes with the hope of his deliverance and vengeance upon his enemies. In Lamentations 5, based on the suffering man’s words, the Jerusalem chorus petitions the Lord to remember their affliction and, as the King of creation, to restore the people and kingdom.
A Christian reading of Lamentations understands the suffering man in chapter 3 as none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, who in His suffering identifies with the sin of Adam’s race, but as an innocent sufferer, is able to provide hope and salvation for all who believe. No matter our sin, we can come to the book of Lamentations and understand sin’s consequences, but have hope in God’s faithful provision for our deliverance. As a University, the book calls us to remember the many loving kindnesses of the Lord, great and small. The overwhelming evidence of seventy-plus years (indeed, for a century) is that the Lord has provided – strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
[framed_box]Dr. Brian Toews is the University Provost. He has been on Cairn’s faculty since 1993. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.