Do the words ‘lament’ and ‘church’ go together? Should ‘lament’ and ‘church’ go together? Does our faith have room for lament?
To lament is to express grief or sorrow. It’s something that happens a lot through the Bible. The whole book of Lamentations is a lament on Israel’s destruction. The writer pours out his heart as he reflects on the people’s suffering. The Bible is full of laments. But is Christianity today?
I’m not good at lamenting. I don’t like to pour my heart out. If I get upset in front of people I feel embarrassed. I feel I need to apologise and pull myself together. Suck it up and put on a smile. That’s the culture I’m part of, but not all cultures are like that. Micah’s certainly wasn’t!
In the prophet Micah’s culture, grief was expressed outwardly. When someone was upset, everyone knew about it. When someone died, their family members would rip their clothes, cut their hair, or even shave their heads. The mourners would weep and wail loudly. If you couldn’t see the mourners, you would have heard them. Their wailing created a lot of noise, and the commotion drew a crowd that would then comfort the grieving. In Micah’s day, grieving wasn’t done alone.
Micah had plenty of things to lament. So he did. He put his feelings into words, and we can read his lament in Micah 1:8–16. At the time that Micah penned his lament the Assyrian Empire had taken over the 10 Northern tribes of Israel and removed most of her people. The Assyrian armies had plundered the countryside of Judah where he lived. Lives had been lost and property destroyed or taken. As well, the Assyrian Empire had placed burdensome taxes on those in Judah. Many were left poor and/or displaced.
At the very moment that Micah wrote, the Assyrian army was trying to break though the walls of Jerusalem, to capture the capital city. No wonder he was upset! So Micah expressed how he felt.
He said: … I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl. (Micah 1:8) Why does Micah mourn? Because, as he says: Samaria’s plague is incurable; it has spread to Judah. It has reached the very gate of my people, even to Jerusalem itself. (Micah 1:9)
Micah sees the destruction that has taken the north, with her capital Samaria. And he sees that this destruction is heading south. Micah goes on to lament the fall of 11 towns in Judah, which had already been plundered by the Assyrians as they approached Jerusalem (Micah 1:10–15). The towns he mentions include his own, Moresheth Gath, as well as several other towns very near to where Micah lived. No doubt he’d been to many of these places. He may well have had family and friends that lived in them. These were places he knew. It was personal. No wonder he mourned.
Micah employs his skill as a poet as he describes the destruction of these towns, but unfortunately this gets lost in translation. As Micah lists the towns, their doom is described with a word that sounds like the name of the town. So, for example, he says, ‘In Beth Ophrah roll in the dust’ (Micah 1:10). Beth Ophrah means’ house of dust’. The wordplay emphasises Micah’s point. These places would be destroyed and exile would follow: Shave your head in mourning for the children in whom you delight; make yourself as bald as the vulture, for they will go from you into exile. (Micah 1:16) It’s not a pretty picture. A lament was appropriate.
Micah understood that the disaster that loomed was sent from God (Micah 1:12). It was God’s judgment on his disobedient people. But we must be very careful about making such judgements today. Th ere can be many reasons why disasters happen, and in many cases we may not discover the reason behind them. But in Micah’s case he did know. God had given Micah a vision (Micah 1:1). The vision was of a scene familiar to Micah’s audience. It was a vision of courtroom, and began with a summons for all the peoples of the earth to come that the Lord might witness against them (Micah 1:2). Micah saw God arriving as both judge and plaintiff . And this was a terrifying picture!
Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling place; he comes down and treads on the heights of the earth. The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fi re, like water rushing down a slope. (Micah 1:3–4)
Biblical scholar Leslie Allen depicts God’s supernatural power melting mountains ‘at the intense heat of his wrath, and his heavy tread shatter into yawning chasms the valleys’. The picture Micah paints is of the immense power of God. Nothing can resist it. In Israelite thinking, if God was coming to judge, it would be to judge their enemies, not them. The Old Testament is filled with stories where the Israelites were in trouble from surrounding people, and God always came and rescued them. From their escape from Egypt, through Joshua, Judges and up to King David, God gave the Israelites military success. God kept them on top. He judged the pagan nations that would oppress his people and they came off second best.
But not this time. This time God was judging his own people. Th is was even more terrifying. But why must God come as judge? Micah tells us it is: ‘… because of Jacob’s transgression, because of the sins of the people of Israel. What is Jacob’s transgression? Is it not Samaria? What is Judah’s high place? Is it not Jerusalem?’ (Micah 1:5) Sin is the reason God is coming to judge. His charges are particularly against Samaria and Jerusalem, the capital cities of the north and the south. They were the heart of the regions. From there, decisions were made. There the leaders lived. The cities were places of power and infl uence, and they were not using that power and infl uence well! They had sinned and there would be consequences.
In chapter one, the specific sins of Samaria and Jerusalem aren’t spelled out. They are left fairly general. But in chapter two, Micah begins to get to heart of the sin of Jerusalem: Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.’ (Micah 2:1–2)
God was angry about injustice. He was angry that his people were deliberately scheming to do evil. They didn’t even wait till dark to carry out their wicked plans so they couldn’t be seen; they brazenly carry it out in the light of day. Perhaps this suggests that no one would stop them. Maybe they were so powerful that no one could stop them. These people apparently saw land and wanted it. They did whatever was necessary to get what they wanted. They took land they weren’t entitled to and robbed people of a lot more than their homes.
In Israelite culture, the land itself is sacred. It was understood as God’s precious gift to them. The land had been divided up and each family had their allotment, which would be passed on to future generations. The land was their inheritance. It was bad enough that people had their homes and perhaps livelihoods taken from them by their own people. But these thieves took so much more. They took a sacred gift. They took people’s rights—with many rights based on land ownership. They took people’s futures. This was just not fair.
The poor got poorer, and the rich got richer! And the poor had no power to do anything about it. But God did have the power to act, and he spoke up for them. The Lord says: ‘I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves. You will no longer walk proudly, for it will be a time of calamity. In that day people will ridicule you; they will taunt you with this mournful song: “We are utterly ruined; my people’s possession is divided up. He takes it from me! He assigns our fields to traitors.” Therefore you will have no one in the assembly of the Lord to divide the land by lot.’
In other words, those evildoers would be brought down a peg or two. They would lose the precious possessions they coveted. They would be overcome by disaster, and when the land was redistributed, they wouldn’t even be there. Unsurprisingly, Micah’s message of judgement and destruction didn’t go down terribly well.
Other prophets told Micah to be quiet: ‘Do not prophesy,’ their prophets say.’ Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.’ (Micah 2:6) No one wanted to listen to Micah’s message. After all, it wasn’t a ‘nice’ message. They wanted to be told that everything would be okay. That God wouldn’t let anything happen to his people. That they would all be quite safe and that all would be well.
But it wouldn’t be. At least not immediately.
In the near future they were headed for disaster, and only in the long term, would all be well. The book of Micah is fi lled with bad news, but that bad news is always interspersed with little glimmers of good news. The first section of Micah, which covers Micah 1–2, ends on a note of hope. Yes, bad things were going to happen, but that wasn’t the end.
God said: I will surely gather all of you, Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. The One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their King will pass through before them, the Lord at their head. (Micah 2:12–13)
Again, Micah used a familiar image—that of the shepherd. Leaders were thought of as the shepherds of the people. They were meant to guide the people, protect them and care for their welfare. But it seems they hadn’t been doing a great job!
Psalm 23 declares that ‘the Lord is my shepherd’. God is the perfect shepherd, who will truly guide, protect and care for his people. Micah speaks of God gathering his scattered people and that, instead of having the enemy camped outside the gate, God would now lead his people as they leave the city through the gate in freedom.
These two concluding verses create such a contrasting picture to the ones before them. In the end, oppression would be turned into freedom. Judgement to restoration. Lament would be turned into rejoicing.
1. Has the church lost its ability to lament? Come to think of it, has the church ever had the ability to lament? And should the church lament? If so, how and what might the church lament?
2. Do we, like Micah’s audience, prefer to listen to ‘nice’ messages and ignore those we don’t like?
3. Where might we see similar injustices today to those that Micah saw? How can we speak up for those with no rights?