by Paul Sumner
This website advocates a "chronological" reading of the Bible. That means reading it with a sense of its progression and history: looking at events in sequence and meditating on the words of Scripture in their time-and-space locale. From there, one can then bring those texts into our own days and see what impact they make on us.
The Book of Lamentations [Sefer Echah] is one striking example when knowing the sounds, smells and feelings at the time of composition deepens the impact of certain passages we may be familiar with.
Most Bible historians believe the prophet Jeremiah wrote the "book of laments" — actually it's a meditative poem of only a few pages. The setting and occasion for his writing are the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonian armies in 586 BC(E).
Jeremiah was a priest in the Jerusalem Temple (Jer 1:1), but he was now in exile in Babylon. He had witnessed brutal massacres of men, women and children. He heard their cries, smelled burning buildings and human bodies, and trembled with horror at seeing the House of God pillaged, pulled down and torched.
He knew the Event was orchestrated by the God he worshiped. He knew it was all a judgment on a nation that had — except for a few — repudiated the holy God by their indifference and disobedience to His law.
Even though the prophet understood the Why of the Event, it still pierced his soul. He nearly lost his faith in the God whom he had loved and trusted.
Lamentations is the outpouring of his soul in the aftermath of Jerusalem's descent into ruin. It expresses the mind of a man who struggles to believe, when his present reality gave him ample reason to give up belief and faith.
In chapter 3, Jeremiah prays to God:
Remember my affliction and my wandering,Then suddenly, his burdened, bi-polar soul turns around, as if true thoughts burst forth within him as sun through storm clouds:
This I recall to my mind,His soul then shouts upward:
Great is Your faithfulness [emunah]! (v. 23b)
This passage has been set to music over the centuries, especially the last declaratory line.
The Hebrew behind the phrase "steadfast love" is most striking here. It is the word hesed. It means a love that is based on covenant commitment. It is loyal or faithful love. It is the love that God, over and over, expressed to Israel his people.
In fact, hesed is one of the "character definitions" of God's personal name:
The LORD [YHVH], the LORD [YHVH] — a compassionate and gracious God,
In Psalm 136 praise of God's steadfast love occurs 26 times, following the opening affirmation: "Give thanks to YHVH, for he is good . . ."
For his hesed is everlasting. (vv. 1—26)
When Israel heard God's sacred Name (YHVH), they were to remember that He loved them forever — even if they descended into sin and darkness. Jeremiah reminded them as he spoke in God's voice:
I have loved you with an everlasting love [ahavah olam],
Jeremiah himself remembered this promise as he endured the tragedy and horror of the Fall of Jerusalem and Exile into pagan Babylon.
For us, it's good to remember the context of the famous hymnic lines:
The hesed of the LORD indeed never ceases,These words were not uttered by a man living in relative comfortability in a Western culture, surrounded by ample sources of material and spiritual support. They came from a heart that was nearing despair for hope, in light of the searing suffering caused by the willful sins of his fellow humans.
If Jeremiah could rejoice — in spite of all this hardship — knowing that God's love is steadfast and God's compassions come like manna and dew every morning to those who wait for them ... then can a person living today experience the same?
Are God's hesed and compassions only for those living 2,600 years ago? We need to know.
The affirmation in John 1:14 that Yeshua was "full of grace and truth" alludes to the Hebrew words "steadfast love and truth" [hesed ve-emet] in Exodus 34:6. For in Greek the word "grace" [charis] is often used in place of the Hebrew hesed in the Greek Septuagint Bible. [*]
Thus, the essence of God's Name recorded by Moses in Exodus and the promise to Jeremiah that God would love His people with everlasting love, meet in Yeshua.
For in him, the Name of God finds full expression (John 17), and all "the promises of God ... are yes ... and amen" (2 Cor 1:20). In Yeshua, all Israel and all Nations can look upward in praise to God:
[*] In the Septuagint (LXX) the Greek words in Lamentations 3:22-23 are:
It is the mercies [eleos] of the Lord
In the NT the noun pistis is usually translated "faith" or "trust."
At John 1:14 three modern Hebrew NT versions translate the phrase "grace and truth" with hesed ve-emet — "steadfast love and truth [or faithfulness]" (Salkinson, Delitzsch, Israel Bible Society).