Praying with Jeremiah[1]

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

                                    Lamentations 3.19-24

How do we pray when we can’t pray? How do we speak to God when we are stung speechless by circumstance? How do we find the words when our tongues are thick and paralysed by the mix of angst and rage and shock that surges in our blood? How do we summon a voice when silence is all we have inside? How do we pray when we can’t pray?

The prayer of Lamentations 3 was written and prayed in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasion (587BC). The aspirations of the Jews as the covenant people of God were reduced to a smouldering ash heap. It was a fitting symbol of their spiritual reality; it also came at great physical cost. The people starved to death; the army fled; the king had his eyes put out; the nation was humiliated and exiled.  We understand why the writer would want to cry to God, but how did he find the words?

He offers us a very simple pattern: Call your pain to mind; call the LORD to mind; hope in Him.

Call your pain to mind

The writer’s soul is tormented by the bitterness of his experiences (“the wormwood and the gall”), and the torture is relentless (v20). He may have felt smothered and trapped, indeed his soul was downcast (v20), but he does not collapse into himself. He begins by inviting the LORD into his world of pain. He asks him to “remember” his affliction in the same way his own soul “remembers it continually” (v19-20). In this, is the wonder of lament. Lament is, by its mere presence in the Bible, an invitation from God Almighty to tell Him how we really feel. We are not called to censor any of it, or to gather ourselves before we enter His presence, we are simply called to come as we are and lay it all bare before Him.

Call the LORD to mind

At some point we will have exhausted all we have to say. And then we will lift our eyes to see the One who is listening. For the writer, that point comes in v21. In v21 he literally “brings his heart back”. There is a wilful turning in his contemplation. Having spilt all the pain, he stops to consider the LORD himself (v22-23). He ponders a love that never ceases, an undeserved love that endures all of our rejection and still persists. He ponders the mercy of God, a mercy that re-invents itself every morning as the LORD finds new ways to be kind to us. He ponders a God who is always faithful to his promises, and never tires in his commitment to the faithless. He ponders all this and his conclusion is simple: “therefore I have hope”.

Hope in him

As the writer pours out the affliction of his soul, and then turns his gaze to the LORD, he discovers that a soul which was mute in its suffering, a soul which simply could not pray, has once again found its voice (v24): “’The LORD is my portion’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” The writer, who stands in the rubble of Jerusalem with no prospects, can confidently proclaim his inheritance. It is an inheritance, a hope for the future, that cannot be touched by circumstance. It is the LORD himself.

In these few verses we have a pattern for lament: call your pain to mind; call the LORD to mind; hope in Him. We have a prayer to pray when we just can’t pray. We have a map from the desert to the living water. But we who read this prayer this side of the cross have so much more than a map. In Jesus, we have a friend who has gone before us, and will show us the way.

[1] The author of Lamentations is unknown, but church tradition is that the work was written by the prophet Jeremiah.

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