Many times when we suffer, the first Bible book and Bible character that pops up in our mind is Job. And that makes sense. That’s why the book of Job is in the Bible—to teach us how to actually trust in God’s sovereignty and respond to suffering righteously.
But the suffering that Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, endured at the time of the Babylonian captivity was just as severe. Job’s sufferings were indeed horrifying, yet there’s something to be said for the fact that his sufferings were fairly personal. Jeremiah’s sufferings, on the other hand, were on behalf of an entire nation wickedly brutalized and ripped from its land. On top of that, Jeremiah himself had not followed in the unfaithfulness of his countrymen which brought this judgment upon them. All the while, he acted righteously and proclaimed the word of Yahweh as the sole voice of faithfulness. Certainly his suffering is worth considering, and the way he responds is worth imitating.
Spread out over a few posts, I want to take a look at how Jeremiah responded to the suffering of Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile, in the hope that we can glean some principles or lessons on how we can righteously respond to suffering.
Some of you might be thinking, “But things are actually going pretty well right now. I mean, nobody’s life is perfect and stress-free, but I’m not really going through any serious suffering.” These posts are especially for you. In fact, it’s best to be equipped with a rock solid theology of suffering while not yet in the midst of it, so that when we do go through various trials we will be able to fight the unbiblical attitudes, thoughts, and actions that we are tempted to have in those trying times. The best defense against responding to suffering unrighteously is to prepare to suffer well before that suffering comes.
He Weeps with Those Who Weep
So, what are some ways of thinking, believing, and acting that would indicate that we are suffering well? The first lesson that I’d like to consider today is that Jeremiah identifies with, and suffers alongside, his people.
What is immediately identifiable at the opening of Jeremiah’s lamentations is that he himself laments and mourns over the destruction of his people. He shares in Israel’s pain, by identifying himself with her. He even personifies Israel and speaks for her as if they were interchangeable. Notice, in 1:2 he says, “She weeps bitterly in the night and her tears are on her cheeks…” But then he switches to the first person: “For these things I weep; my eyes run down with water; because far from me is a comforter,” and so on (Lam 1:16, 18, 20–21). Later he identifies himself with Israel by referring to them and himself collectively in the first person plural (Lam 3:40–47). He also speaks as himself and tells of his own tears and trouble (Lam 2:11; 3:48–50), his own affliction and brokenness (Lam 3:1–4), and his own shame and despair (Lam 3:14–18). Though he has spent forty years telling them that this destruction would come unless they repented, he did not celebrate their destruction in spiteful vengeance, as if to say, “I told you so!” Rather, their misery moves him to compassion and to prayer.
In a similar way, this godly compassion and love-for-God’s-people-because-they’re-His ought to cause in us the same sentiment. We are to identify with the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, suffer with them, weep with them (Rom 12:15), and comfort each other out of that genuine compassion.
If One Member Suffers
This principle is carried through into the New Covenant ministry of the Church. 1 Corinthians 12 says that the Church collectively is Christ’s body, and that those who make up the body are its individual members. And so, Paul reasons, if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Cor 12:27, 26). Because we belong to the Lord, not one of us lives or dies to ourselves (Rom 14:7), for we are united to Him as His body (Rom 6:3–7). And if we are united to Him, we are united to one another (1 Cor 12:12–14).
When Lazarus had died, and Jesus had finally arrived at Bethany, Mary was so grieved that she didn’t even leave the house as Jesus was approaching (John 11:20). When she did get up to meet Jesus, those around her thought that she was simply going to weep further at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:31). Then, in her grief, she falls at Jesus’ feet and almost blames Him for her brother’s death. You can almost see her incredulous, tear-filled gaze at Jesus as she says through the sobs, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). She was heartbroken.
Then the text says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled” (John 11:33), and then in verse 35: “Jesus wept.” Though the Jews interpreted His weeping as love for Lazarus—which of course had something to do with it—notice that the text says that it was Mary’s weeping in grief that moved Jesus in spirit. Jesus is grieved not only out of compassion for Lazarus (whom, by the way, He knew He would raise from the dead within minutes), but because He identified with the suffering of Mary, who was dealing with the pain of losing her brother.
In the same way, then, friends, if the love of Christ is in us, the compassion of Christ must be in us. This compassion was in Jeremiah for Jerusalem at the time of the exile. And the man who wept with them for 40 years, warning them of the coming judgment that had now taken place—the only man who did not deserve the punishment brought upon Israel—did not stand self-righteously aloof with his arms folded and a smirk on his face, saying, “I bet you wish you would have listened to me!” Nothing could have been further from the truth. Instead, he identified with his people and suffered along with them.
And so should we.
My eyes fail because of tears,
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is poured out on the earth
Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.
– Lamentations 2:11 –