Lesson 9: Lamentation, Baruch, Ezekiel

Lamentation: (5 chapters; Ca. 587 B.C.)

The book of Lamentation offers a sustained lament over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. It was the Lord who brought this disaster on his people because of their sins. But because of the Lord's promises to Moses and David, the psalmist is certain that, if Israel repents, confesses her guilt, and trusts in the Lord, she can count on his mercy and forgiveness. There will come a time of restoration.

Each of the five chapters is an individual psalm which is complete in itself. The first four are "acrostic," that is, each of the 22 sets of verses begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, one after the other--AA, BB, CC, etc. The purpose of this acrostic device seems to be to establish some sense of divine order in the midst of suffering and social chaos.

Here is the basic movement of each psalm: 1) two speakers, the psalmist and Zion herself, lament the destruction of Jerusalem; 2) the psalmist and Zion describe the Day of the Lord that has happened; 3) an individual laments and expresses his hope for deliverance; 4) the people express a communal lament in which they survey the desolate city; 5) the community humbly appeals to the Lord from its present pitiable state.

The five psalms express the viewpoint of someone standing in the desolate city, in the midst of the ruins of the Temple, who raises his sorrowing heart to the Lord. They recognize the prophetic truth that there is a direct connection between sin and suffering. Because Judah was not faithful to the Covenant with the Lord, she is punished with destruction. The prophets, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, had warned her again and again, but to no avail.

The Lord, however, is faithful; he is merciful and compassionate and will restore his favor to his people when they have a change of heart. So the poem is not all despair; it contains an undercurrent of hope and trust in God, which becomes explicit in the fifth chapter or psalm.

In the NT there are no direct references to Lamentations. But for centuries Christians have been in the habit of praying the psalms of Lamentation during Holy Week as a part of Matins in a solemn liturgy called "Tenebrae" (Latin = "darkness") because they were celebrated in the evening before holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Baruch: (6 chapters; ca. 125 B.C.)

Most scholars today hold that Baruch is a composite of writings by three or four different authors, but it is attributed to Baruch, the secretary and companion of Jeremiah. The characteristics of the book point to a composition in the latter part of the 2nd century B.C., sometime after the Maccabaean revolt.

This book helps us to understand the inner spiritual life of the Jews in the diaspora, especially in Babylon and Egypt. The book gives expression to the following beliefs: loyalty to and love for Jerusalem and the Temple; obedience to the Law of Moses and to the distant authority of Jerusalem; emphasis on prayer; hope for the future and resistance to pagan influences of idolatry.

After a brief introduction which names Baruch and locates him in Babylon, there is a lengthy prayer which contains a confession of national guilt, a plea for forgiveness, and a hope for the restoration of Israel in accordance with God's promises in the past.

The heart of the prophecy is found in the poem which praises wisdom as a unique gift which the Lord has bestowed on the people Israel (3:9 - 4:4). This is followed by a psalm (4:5 - 5:9) in which a personified Jerusalem addresses her children. She reminds them of their sins and encourages them with the hope of the messianic blessing of the future. The final section contains "Jeremiah's Letter" addressed to the exiles in Babylon. It is a fierce polemic against idol worship (6:1-72).

The purpose of Baruch is to call his people to repentance, conversion and faith. The Deuteronomic Theology appears here again.

The poem in praise of wisdom is the center of the book. This wisdom is unfathomable for man; it is not the intellectual speculation of philosophers but is actually identified with the Law of Moses as found in the Pentateuch. Israel lives on by conforming herself to the wisdom of the Law of Moses, basically the Ten Commandments.

In the final psalm (4:5 - 5:9), Jerusalem is personified and pleads with her children to put their trust in the goodness of the Lord. God is using present suffering to chasten his people, to teach them humility, so that he may bless them in his own good time. God will eventually reveal his glory and gather his people together from all corners of the world.

Ezekiel: (48 chapters; ca. 550 B.C.)

Ezekiel is profoundly aware of the majesty and transcendence of God. He emphasizes the glory of the Lord, His holiness and His utter otherness. He is preoccupied with the Temple and its liturgy. The main theme of the book is the need for inner conversion on the part of each person. Men must attain a new heart and a new spirit (18:31) in order to be acceptable to God. He goes so far as to say that God himself will bestow a new heart and a new spirit on his people (11:19; 36:26).

In the first three chapters Ezekiel describes his calling to be a prophet; in the process he offers a powerful and graphic description of God Almighty. The body of the book is divided into four parts: 1) chapters 4-24 contain prophecies of threats and reproaches directed against Jerusalem and Judah for their sins; 2) chapters 25-32 contain the oracles against the surrounding pagan nations, a feature common to the other major prophets; 3) chapters 33-39 offer comfort and a promise of a better future to the Israelites during the siege of Jerusalem; 4) chapters 40-48 describe the new community and the new Temple which will be established in the future.

Since Ezekiel was a priest, he was deeply concerned about the Temple and its worship. He is very conscious of the guilt of Israel--it is a point he keeps repeating. When he reviews the past history of Israel, he sees it as an unbroken series of infidelities (see. chs. 16, 20, 23).

Ezekiel was a prophet of action, and more than the other prophets he uses symbolic gestures to get across his message, such as building a model of Jerusalem under siege, lying on his side for long periods of time, cutting off his hair and shaving his beard, joining two sticks together to make one, symbolizing the future union of Israel and Judah.

To a great extent Ezekiel was a visionary. His visions bring the reader into a new and fantastic world, such as the four living creatures of Yahweh' s chariot, the dry bones in the desert that come to life, and the mighty river that flows from the new Temple to produce a fertile land like unto the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-3.

Ezekiel repeats and develops the idea of Jeremiah (31:29-30) when he stresses the principle of individual retribution over collective: each person is responsible for his own good and evil deeds and will be rewarded by God accordingly (see chs. 18 and 33). In the subsequent prophets this insight leads gradually to the realization that full justice and retribution will take place in the next life.

Ezekiel influenced Jesus' frequent use of the term "Son of Man" which is the most common title He uses to refer to Himself in the Gospels. Ezekiel also influenced the book of Revelation since St. John took over some of his powerful images: the four living creatures, a voice like the sound of many waters, Gog from the land of Magog, and the prophet's being carried to a high mountain.

Finally, it should be noted that what is called "apocalyptic" literature, such as it is found in prophets like Haggai, Zechariah, Joel and Malachi in the OT, and in the book of Revelation in the NT, found its beginnings in the prophecies of Ezekiel.

Reading Assignment

Read the three books covered in this lesson. Read the commentary on the first three chapters of Ezekiel in The International Bible Commentary (1998), pp. 1050-1058.

Writing Assignment

Write an essay of about 1000 words on one of the following topics: Hebrew acrostic poetry as found in Lamentations and Psalm 119; Ezekiel's vision of the majesty of God; apocalyptic literature in Ezekiel and in the Bible; the importance of the Temple in Ezekiel.


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