This week's verse is an easy one for me to do. Back on Good Friday, I had a 24-hour fast, no food, no internet, and a huge night of Bible study that was extremely rewarding. And our passage is right in the midst of one of the passages I was led to that night- Lamentations 3:16-
Lam 3:16 And He breaketh with gravel my teeth, He hath covered me with ashes.
So I want to go two ways with this, but let me start with the necessary background. Lamentations is the Prophet Jeremiah's book of prayers and pleading to the Lord during his persecution just prior to the fall of Jerusalem for the last time in the Kingdom era. He has been imprisoned under the worst of conditions by Zedekiah and his so-called advisors, and weeps as much for the city itself as for his own condition. But at this point, he's pretty focused on where he's at, and I want to look there first.
Jeremiah is basically coming to God in bitterness in his complaint at this point. He has complained about his physical state (VV1-7), the fact that God seems to be ignoring his pleas (vv 8-13), and that the wicked people of the city are all laughing his cries with scorn (vv 14-15). He is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel with this verse, though. And it was interesting to read the takes of the commentators on this. The gravel and ashes, one brings up, are reminiscent of the way bread was made back then- baked in a clay oven with coals, so that you are not careful, gravel can get into the dough, and ashes on the crust. But another says, no, that is forgetting the circumstances. The city is under siege and starving; they are to the point of eating babies that die of starvation and drinking urine just to stay alive. How on earth would a man cast into a pit by an unrepentant king rate getting bread? No, this is more like we here from the children starving in Africa and Syria today- making cakes of mud and gravel, his teeth breaking as he tries to chew.
And the ashes? Well, many commentators mention this as the "sackcloth and ashes" that you read so much about. But others say this goes a bit farther. The word translated "covered" is literally "to tread down"; One commentator put it like this:
“he hath plunged me into the dust.” To be thrown into a mass or bed of perfect dust, where the eyes are blinded by it, the ears stopped, and the mouth and lungs filled at the very first attempt to respire after having been thrown into it - what a horrible idea of suffocation and drowning! One can scarcely read this without feeling a suppression of breath, or a stricture upon the lungs! Did ever man paint sorrow like this man?
Now, the turning of this whole passage comes in the next few verses. He hits rock bottom in v 18:
Lam 3:18 so I say, "My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD."
Note that he says here, "So I say..." Because the human body, human emotions have their limit. And when God had taken him to that limit- just as He was doing to Israel- an interesting change occurs:
Lam 3:21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
Lam 3:22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
Lam 3:23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Lam 3:24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."
Note that this time, it is his SOUL that speaks out and finds comfort in God. For however weak the body is, the connection between the believer and God is yet stronger, and survives. He begins calling to mind all the great ways God has been there for him, and he knows that he hasn't been abandoned. Then, looking at the whining and bitterness he has been entreating God with, he makes a brilliant deduction:
Lam 3:37 Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?
Lam 3:38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?
Lam 3:39 Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?
Lam 3:40 Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!
Yes, he puts the blame back on himself- he asks God to examine him, just as David had 400 years before:
Psalms 139: 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts![a]
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
Maybe he himself didn't have a sin worthy of what he was going through, though the nation surely did- but God had a purpose for the suffering, and just like Job, Jeremiah was letting it get to him in the form of bitterness against God. And that's nothing unusual; we all do that at times, usually under much less duress. But Jeremiah realized that if he confessed that bitterness, God would again regard his prayer. The problem was, WHEN was God going to get around to it? Because, not long after he settled the matter, Jeremiah went right back where he was:
Lam 3:51 my eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the daughters of my city.
Lam 3:52 "I have been hunted like a bird by those who were my enemies without cause;
Lam 3:53 they flung me alive into the pit and cast stones on me;
Lam 3:54 water closed over my head; I said, 'I am lost.'
Lam 3:55 "I called on your name, O LORD, from the depths of the pit...
Right back where he was, "in the depths of the pit". Because sometimes, even if God has forgiven you, He's not quite ready to move on. Maybe because we get all pumped up and forget God as soon as the pressure is off. God has something yet to teach. It reminds me of a passage in Psalms...
Psa 107:28 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
Psa 107:29 He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Psa 107:30 Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.
Notice the progression.
1- The storm
2- They cry to God
3- He stilled the storm
4- They thanked Him
5- THEN, and only then, did He bring them to where they wanted to be. Just because He stills the storm doesn't mean you are in from the "ocean", yet; and if you are not grateful, the storm may well rage on. Jeremiah figures this out...
Lam 3:56 you heard my plea, 'Do not close your ear to my cry for help!'
Lam 3:57 You came near when I called on you; you said, 'Do not fear!'
Lam 3:58 "You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life.
Jeremiah was being taught an extreme lesson in having confidence in the Lord, because God had given him the most terrible mission of all- being there for his people as his nation died. And not only that, but died rejecting everything God told them through Jeremiah that might have saved more alive. As Christians, we are increasingly facing a world on the same trajectory as that of Jeremiah. This passage is a powerful reminder of trusting in God, rejecting bitterness, and being thankful for His watchfulness even if were aren't where we want to be. Because, after all, that desired haven ain't in this neighborhood.