Mourning the Destruction of a Great CityPastor Lutzer | November 24, 2013
Selected highlights from this sermon
The book of Lamentations contains funeral dirges for the devastated city of Jerusalem. Tragedy enveloped the city, and Jeremiah wept over her demise. God had destroyed her, for the people had refused to heed the prophet’s call for repentance.
As we consider our own nation, we must remember that God can bless and destroy nations. Will we weep like Jeremiah for the sins which pile up among us – hate, violence, child abuse, and family divisions? Even in the midst of destruction – which may or may not be coming for America – we can find hope in Jesus Christ. His steadfast love will never fail us.
When I taught preaching to young seminarians I used to tell them that a preacher should think clearly, feel deeply and cause his hearers to do the same. Today I hope that we do indeed think clearly, but I also hope that we feel deeply.
If you are not touched emotionally today it may be because you have really developed a hard heart, maybe because of some bad experiences, because today’s message in one respect is very difficult. It is intended to touch the emotions, but it is intended to do more than that – to show us the grace of God in the midst of the most awful devastation that we could describe. So at the end of the message you will be given hope no matter who you are, and no matter what your problems are. You may be a drug addict. You may be going through a time of depression. I promise you hope, but first of all we have to look at a few texts.
You know there are different reasons why it is that cities can be destroyed. One reason may be because of natural disasters. We think immediately of Katrina. We think of New Orleans being destroyed largely. We think, for example, of Tuscaloosa, and even Washington in the middle of the state of Illinois where a tornado comes and basically destroys a town.
We can also think of times when cities are destroyed because of war. When Rebecca and I were in Belarus we took a trip out to what is known as Kechian. I wish I could take all of you to it. It is a place that is devoted to the destruction that took place under the Nazis. What happened is the Nazis came and in retaliation they decided to destroy 189 villages, and to destroy everyone in those villages. So at Kechian, what they did is they took the townspeople – about 145 – and forced them into a barn, and then they lit the barn. There was hay in the barn, and if anyone ran out of the barn they shot them. 75 of the 145 were children. Today there’s a monument where the barn was. There’s a monument where the ashes of all the dead were, and many of the names of the children are listed. Can you even imagine the devastation?
But you know, there are other times when a city is destroyed because of the direct judgment of God. I think, for example, of the instances I mentioned – natural disasters and war. We could refer to those often as undeserved judgments, but when you get to Jerusalem in 586 B.C., that is a deserved judgment predicted by God, and it wasn’t God just acting randomly from our standpoint. God was fulfilling His Holy Word, and if I might say it plainly, Jerusalem was getting exactly what it deserved.
Now, for example, Jeremiah was preaching things like this. Listen to his words: “Oh Jerusalem, wash your heart from evil that you may be saved. How long shall your wicked thoughts lodge within you? For a voice declares from Dan and proclaims trouble from Mount Ephraim. Warn the nations that He is coming; announce to Jerusalem, ‘Besiegers come from a distant land; they shout against the cities of Judah. Like keepers of a field they are against her all around, because she has rebelled against Me,’ declares the Lord.” God is speaking. “Your ways and your deeds have brought this upon you. This is your doom and it is bitter. It has reached your very heart.” Deserved judgment!
And of course you know what happened. In the last message I mentioned that the Babylonians came, destroyed the city, burned the city, took about 15,000 to Babylon, and you have huge starvation along the way. The suffering was unbelievable and all deserved (Wow!) which leads me to the book of Lamentations. And I want you to take your Bibles and turn to it. It comes after the book of Jeremiah, and it’s important for you to have a Bible in your hands. And the book of Lamentations is the book that we are looking at. Lamentations is five funeral dirges. It is elegies. That is to say it is songs composed in a graveyard. The book of Lamentations exposes the heart of Jeremiah and the heart of God as he looks at this devastated city. Somebody has said that the book of Lamentations is really a cloudburst of grief. It is an ocean of sobs and a river of tears. We’ll get to it in a moment.
Your Bibles are open and notice that the chapters (except for the middle chapter) all have 22 verses. Chapter 1 – 22 verses; chapter 2 – 22 verses; chapter 3 happens to have 66; chapter 4 – 22 verses; chapter 5 – 22 verses. What’s going on there in the text? In Hebrew it is actually an acrostic. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and each of these verses in four of the chapters refers to and begins with another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Now in the case of the middle chapter, chapter 3, as I understand it, the letters of the alphabet are again used, but in each instance there are three verses connected to one letter, so 3 times 22 is 66. And that gives you a bit of an outline of the book.
I want you to understand that Lamentations wasn’t just Jeremiah walking through the city making random comments. It was really a poem composed of these five different laments. It was composed by him very carefully so that it could be used in liturgical worship and so that the Jews were able to use it. They use it today at the Wailing Wall. They use it on special occasions when they lament the destruction of Jerusalem and their history. Also it reminds us that God’s destruction is from A to Z, as we say – from the beginning of the alphabet to the last of the alphabet.
Now I’m only going to introduce you to the first two chapters, and then we are going to make some observations and I’m going to be giving you hope, but what chapters they are. Let me read a few verses of chapter 1 but first of all I have to comment before I do that. I want you to visualize the city. Visualize the devastation that takes place, not only when there is a tornado but also when there is a fire that burns the city. So there you can see some of the dolls that the girls played with, and you can see the toys that the boys had. And they are all gone. They are all destroyed. They are all either dead or with their moms and dads on the way to Babylon. Visualize your area. Visualize also the devastation that you are going through. Some of you may say, “This is the story of my life.” If you are saying that, remember that I am going to give you hope, but I want you to enter in to what Jeremiah is saying and seeing. He’s weeping for not only what happened but also the good that could have been. Wow!
“How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!”
Verse 2-3: “She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she now dwells among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”
I’m skipping to verse 9: “Her uncleanness was in her skirts (That is to say she was filled with immorality.); she took no thought of her future (Isn’t that America today?); therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter. ‘O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!’ The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom You forbade to enter Your congregation.”
What’s going on there? Israel thought to itself (Judah thought to itself), “We have Jerusalem and the Temple, and this is where the glory of God once came. There’s no way that God is going to destroy us. We are His chosen people. We have ‘God bless Jerusalem’ stickers on the back of every one of our chariots. There’s no way that God is going to destroy us.” God says, “Foreigners have entered into your sanctuary. Your Temple is gone. Your Temple is destroyed. You are going to have to learn to live without the Temple.” We’ll find out what that is like in a future message.
Verse 11: “All her people groan as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. ‘Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised.’”
Now that’s verses 1 to 11. When you get to verse 12 Jeremiah now personifies the city. It is as if the city is speaking. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
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.”
And on it goes. Let me read a few other verses. Let’s go to verse 16. “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.” Verse 19: “I called to my lovers, but they deceived me; my priests and elders perished in the city, while they sought food to revive their strength.”
You’ll notice what the priests and the false prophets were doing if you can glance quickly to Lamentations 2:14. “Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading.” I preached about false prophets with all kinds of visions, you know, of happiness and money and wealth, but no exposure of sin. Wow!
When you get to chapter 2 what you find here is that God over and over again takes personal responsibility for what happened – for the destruction.
Chapter 2, verse 1: “How the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud!” Verse 2: “The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob.” Verse 3: “He has cut down in fierce anger,” and in the midst of these verses it keeps saying, “He did this. He did this.” Verse 4: “He has bent his bow like an enemy.” Verse 5: “The Lord has become like an enemy. He has swallowed up Israel.” Verse 6: “He laid waste.” More than 30 times in this chapter God says, “I did it.” Wow!
You’ll notice what Jeremiah says now in verses 11-12, “My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint
in the streets of the city. They cry to their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they faint like a wounded man
in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out
on their mothers' bosom.”
My mom and dad lived through World War I. They were Germans but they were living in the Ukraine, and my mother once turned away with tears in her eyes and told me what it was like to see a baby die because of starvation and hunger. And she told me of how they’d cry and cry and cry, but there was no food, even if the parents were there. There was nothing to drink, and eventually it would be a whimper and then they would cry no more. And that, of course, is happening even around the world today because of starvation and hunger.
God says, “This is what I did because, you know what, I hate sin and I hate your idolatry?” This takes my breath away.
Now, in chapter 3, he goes on to talk about his own sorrow, and there is much there also that reiterates it, but what I want to do is to take and just back off a little bit and ask ourselves the question, “What does this book mean for us?” I mean, where does this take us as a congregation, as a church and as a nation? So I’d like to leave some lessons with you and then refer to the text again in a few moments.
First of all, it’s very clear that God can bless a nation, but God can also destroy a nation. God said to Israel in Deuteronomy 11, “Behold I put before you both blessing and cursing. Follow me and you get blessing. Don’t follow me and you will be destroyed.” In fact, Deuteronomy 28 talks about all of this. Everything that happened is foreshadowed in Deuteronomy 28. There are scholars who have taken Deuteronomy 28, the judgments that God promised, and they have put them up against the book of Lamentations and they’ve seen the parallels. God says, “You have a choice.”
You know, after 9/11, God was brought off the reservation and it was okay to say, “God bless you,” in the public square. Even our Congress together jointly, I think if I remember correctly, sang God Bless America of all things, you know, in the public square. God Bless America signs were everywhere. In fact, there was a God Bless America sign on a porn shop in Nashville. People said, “Well, of course, we’re better than they are. God can bless America.” Now, after He was used to kind of mop up after 9/11 God was put back on a shelf, and they said, “You can’t intrude in the so-called public square.”
What makes us think that God can only bless America? God may also judge America, and the day may come. I hope I don’t see it. I hope your children don’t see it when God can, if He wishes, destroy America, because God says, “If I don’t have your heart, God Bless America bumper stickers simply will not work.”
I mean I look at this and I am incredulous. I mean, “God, these are your people. You chose them. I mean this is Jerusalem where You put Your glory.” I mean, don’t You remember the Shekinah Glory coming after Solomon built the Temple?” God says, “It doesn’t mean a thing to Me if I don’t have your heart.” That’s what God says. So God can bless us.
I don’t pray for justice for America. I do pray for mercy because we have turned away from so much light, and we continue to do so very deliberately, and I could give you lots of evidence for that, but I assume that you know what is happening in the world and in our government and so forth.
Secondly, God has various forms of judgment. You know, you think back to Adam and Eve. They had specific judgments, didn’t they? God says, “You can’t go back into Paradise,” and so He puts up the cherubim to make sure that that wouldn’t happen. And then, lo and behold, sin enters into the world and they have the first very, very dysfunctional family. And Cain kills Abel so they’ve got a problem with one of their sons and the whole history of the human race. And so there are some immediate judgments, and then you think of the way in which the judgments begin to boomerang all throughout history.
You know there is such a thing as sin having immediate judgments. And some of you know about that, don’t you? Yesterday, Rebecca and I were talking about someone who was hooked on drugs and how eventually they were found dead. And you know there are immediate judgments, and God says, “I will rescue you. Behold I put before you as individuals both blessings and cursings.” Some of you have to choose God and to choose that which is right because you have understood that the unintended consequences of sin are very bad, and they have long-term effects – immediately and then long-term effects. And sometimes God destroys a civilization or a city, like He destroyed Jerusalem. And sometimes that destruction is internal, as is happening in America today with the destruction of our families, and with the rise of hostility toward the Christian message. There is no doubt that we are under some kind of a judgment. And we are to be a people of God in a nation that clearly has lost its way.
You know, when I read this, and I read the book of Lamentations a couple of times in the last few weeks, I think to myself, “Wow! It says in the Psalms, ‘Zion is the place where I have put My name, and I love Zion.’” Oh really! Well, it doesn’t seem as if there is a lot of love lost here. But if God is willing to do that to Jerusalem, the city that He loved, temporally in this life, I read this book and I say, “What must hell be like?” God has various judgments, but beware, you as an individual (I talk both as a nation today but also you as an individual.) that sin has immediate judgments always and sometimes they accumulate to something very, very catastrophic.
There’s another lesson and that is (I’m just sharing my heart with you today.) that we should weep over our nation even as Jeremiah wept over his nation. I told you last time that there were many prophets in Israel but there was only one Jeremiah, and he’s known as the weeping prophet. And all throughout this book and throughout his book of Jeremiah, what is he doing? He is weeping. Now he’s being thrown into a dungeon and the whole bit because the people are saying, “We don’t want to hear you.” And so he pretty well has to stand for truth alone, but he’s a weeping prophet.
Doesn’t that remind you of someone else standing on the Mount of Olives? “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou who kills the prophets and stones them which are sent unto you, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you wouldn’t. Behold your house is left unto you desolate.” The Bible says in the book of Luke that Jesus Christ wept over the city, and when He wept over the city He predicted its demise and its downfall. And this is what He said, “Would that you, even you had known this day the things that make for peace, but now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up a barrier around you, and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another because you did not know the day of your visitation.”
And the same thing that happened in 586 B.C., as you well know, happened in 70 A.D. when Titus came. After Herod builds that massive temple (that all of us wish was still standing so that we could go see it when we take a trip to Jerusalem), six years after it was totally completed (in 64 A.D. I believe it was) it was destroyed. God says, “You don’t love Me. You don’t accept Me. Your heart is not with Me. I’ll destroy even the very place dedicated to My name.”
We should weep over the violence of the city. We should weep over divorce. We should weep over pornography. We should weep over child abuse. We should weep over the destruction of the family, as we saw it here in Illinois, further adding to the destruction of the family just recently through same-sex marriage legislation. We should weep over the growing hostility. You see we are too self-absorbed sometimes to weep, aren’t we? You know, like Francis Schaeffer used to tell us, the average American is content with personal peace and affluence. “Just not in my world, not in my neighborhood, thank you very much,” but it can happen somewhere else.
God may in this congregation be looking for a lot of Jeremiahs, both men and women, to intercede and weep for a nation that has lost its way, and not only weep and pray, but witness and do something wherever God has planted us. May that be true!
But, number four, we should weep with hope. I told you that we were getting to hope. You have to trust me. We are getting to hope. Look at chapter 3. Jeremiah is so overcome by his sorrow that he says in verse 17, “My soul is bereft of peace.” Maybe that’s you today. Maybe you parked your car in the parking lot at Moody Church and you dried your tears and you came to worship, and after this service you are going to go back into the car and you’re going to start crying again. If that’s you, just know that you are welcome here because we are a place where we are welcoming to all sinners, and God knows that that’s what we are about, and I’m not saying that that is a sin necessarily to weep. I just mean that we here at the congregation of Moody Church are welcoming to all.
But he says, “I have forgotten what happiness is (verse 17); so I say my endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” Maybe you are here today and that’s you. Ah! Verse 19, “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!” Verse 20, “My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.” Verse 21 - Oh, thank you, Jeremiah; I needed this. “I remember something,” he says. “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.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.”
In other words, Jeremiah says, “I was so overcome by grief that for a while I forgot that God was there.” And then he says this. “The steadfast love of the Lord is still there.” The Hebrew word is hesed. It means God’s covenant loyal love is still in place. Does this mean that because of the destruction of Jerusalem God is through with the Jews and says, “Enough already?” No, in fact, later on we’ll discover that it was Jeremiah himself who predicted that they would be in Babylon for 70 years. At the end of 70 years they would return. They would rebuild the Temple, and God would, in effect, start over again. And eventually, of course, you know that many of the Jewish people are in the land today, and many of us believe that God has a great future for a remnant of the people of Israel – the Jews.
And God says, “I’m not going to break my covenant over this.” Do you know what the Bible says in Timothy? It says, “Even when we believe not, He cannot deny Himself.” God is faithful!
Today you may be in darkness, but I am reminded of the disciples out in the boat. You remember Jesus went into the mountain to pray and the disciples couldn’t see Jesus but Jesus could see them. He could see the longitude and the latitude of their little boat. He knew the strength of the waves. He knew the strength of each board. He knew the depth of the water. And today in your distress God sees you and I encourage you to take heart in the steadfast love of the Lord which never ceases.
And why are his mercies new every morning? Well, it’s because when you wake up in the morning there has to be enough strength to get through the day, and your day may be very dark, and you may be sorrowful because of your own loss, or the country’s loss, as we’ve been speaking about our country. And what we need to do is when we wake up in the morning we need to say, “God, I need your mercies today. They have to be new to me because yesterday’s mercies don’t help me through today.”
So Jeremiah said, “You know, for a few moments I just forgot that I can still find hope in God,” and he uses the word hope now positively two or three times in this passage. Furthermore he says, “It is good for people to wait on God. The soul who seeks Him, God is good to that person.” And so what Jeremiah does is he encourages us in God that in the midst of devastation, no matter what happens to America (And I hope that everything that happens to America is good. I’m not a prophet so I’m not predicting anything except the fact that what I see happening gives me a great deal of consternation.), the Bible says that for those who seek God, and for those who understand His mercies, God will be there for them every single day. Aren’t you glad for that? (applause)
Now before we close this book we have to take one more glance over our shoulder and ask a question. If it is true that Jerusalem took a direct hit (And by that I mean that what happened to them was a direct judgment of God.), and if that is true, and clearly it seems to me that it is, where else do we see anyone, or anything or any city, where else do we see a direct hit of the judgment of God?
I’m in chapter 1, verse 12. “Is it nothing to you all you who pass by? 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?” Doesn’t that remind you of Jesus on the cross? And think, for example, of chapter 2, verse 15. “All who pass along the way clap their hands at you. They hiss and they wag their heads at the daughters of Jerusalem.” That’s an expression used in the book of Mark for all those who looked at the crucifixion of Jesus. They clapped their hands. They hissed. The wagged their heads. They said, “He’s dying but He deserves it.”
Look for example at chapter 3, verse 14. Doesn’t this sound like what Jesus endured? “I have become the laughing stock of all the peoples, the object of all their taunts all day long.” It looks like Jesus endured that. The fact is this, that when Jesus died on the cross He took a direct hit. God says, “I’m going to lay upon Him the iniquity of all who believe. I am going to inflict in it,” and that’s why the Bible says, “It pleased the Lord to bruise Him.”
I hope that your theology is great enough to accept the fact that God took responsibility for the destruction of Jerusalem, and actually God also takes responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus ultimately. Though evil people do it, yet because of secondary causality, ultimately God says, “Even Babylon is My Babylon, and the wicked men who crucified Jesus are My wicked men.” It doesn’t mean that He condones what they have done, but He uses what they have done to accomplish His purpose.
Now young people, you’ll discover this. On the Internet there will be those saying, “You know, Christianity is just like all the other religions of the world. You know they have this God who needs a sacrifice,” and so they’ll go into the pagan religions and explain to you how God needs a sacrifice, and how pagan religions also needed a sacrifice. Here’s something for you to remember though. While it is true that pagan religions needed a sacrifice, there is no pagan religion in the entire world where God demanded a sacrifice and ended up being the sacrifice. (applause)
God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. And Jesus said, “I will take the direct hit of the wrath of God against sin. I will take your hell. If you believe on Me, there is now therefore no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” (applause)
In the Old Testament Jerusalem took a direct hit from God’s wrath and anger. In the New Testament Jesus takes that direct hit when He cries out and says, “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?” And then for three hours He suffers under the hand of God, a kind of suffering that is so severe that even God closed the heavens and darkness was upon the face of the earth, so that people would know that what was happening between Him and His Father was hidden from the human eye.
But this is what it means. It means that no matter how great your sin is, if you believe on Jesus Christ, you are exempt from eternal judgment. No matter how deep the pit is that you are in, God is deeper still, and no matter how much you mourn there are still mercies for you that are new every morning if you come to Jesus Christ and believe on Him. (applause) Even if we do go through temporal judgments there is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ. And Jesus said, “He who believes in Me there is no condemnation.”
As a hymn writer once put it,
Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free,
For God the just is satisfied
To look at Him and pardon me.”
That pardon is offered to you today. “Behold I put before you blessings and cursings.” Will you respond to Jesus today? And then we can all sing together, “The mercies of the Lord never cease. In fact, they are new every morning.” And I have to find the text to remember the words.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is Thy faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion. In the midst of devastation God comes to bless and encourage His own people. But do you know the Savior? I am talking to those of you who are here today and you have huge problems. You maybe came to this church even unintentionally today, but here you are. In the midst of your sorrow God is there through Jesus to pardon you and to set you free.
Can we join together as we pray? And if God has talked to you, even where you are seated or where you are listening to this (You may be listening on the Internet or on the radio, whatever way.), would you just stop now and say, “Jesus, I thank You today that You absorbed the judgment of God so that I could be free, and I receive that gift of eternal life. I put my faith and trust in You as my Savior.” Would you tell Him that?
And now, Father, we thank You that Your mercies never cease. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.