This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
Strength and Hope
The overwhelming message of Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah is “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,” as Thomas O. Chisholm wrote in the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” He based his beloved hymn upon Lamentations 3:22–23: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah are rich with God’s truth about our sin and need of redemption as well as his love for us in the savior Jesus Christ. Together, these prophets express the pain and suffering of God’s people as they live in a fallen world. The people suffer at the hands of their enemies, which have been sent by the Lord himself. But they are not without hope, because God uses this form of fatherly discipline to sanctify and restore them.
Lamentations is the cry of God’s people who have experienced devastation. The book was most likely written just after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C. The author writes from personal experience and describes many horrific things in detail. The book conveys the sense of recent suffering as the people bear an open wound that has not yet begun to heal.
The history of God’s dealings with Israel is a larger lesson about our bondage to sin and need of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Habakkuk likely was written several years prior, between 640–609 B.C. The prophet delivered the word of the Lord just before the fall of Assyria, prophesying that God would use Babylon to punish Judah just as he used Assyria to punish Israel in 722 B.C. (1:6). When this prophecy was fulfilled in 587 B.C. it was also the occasion for the suffering described in Lamentations. Habakkuk understood that judgment was imminent, because the people of Judah were spiraling in unfaithfulness. They had devolved into syncretistic practices, worshipped Baal on the high places, and even offered child sacrifices to Molech. This was abhorrent to the Lord, and he was preparing to pour out his wrath upon them. Habakkuk prophesied in a tense political climate. By this time, Assyria had ruled Judah for over a century, but they were becoming weaker. Babylon would soon conquer them.
Zephaniah prophesied during the reforms of King Josiah (640–609 B.C.), who is described as a king who “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the ways of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2). Through his reforms, he sought to restore the nation of Judah by returning her to covenant fidelity after the reign of the wicked king Manasseh.
The nation experienced a brief return to faithful practice, but it did not last. They quickly fell away from the Lord once again after Josiah died. “Israel” is mentioned in Zeph. 2:9; 3:13–15, but the northern kingdom had already been taken into exile by Assyria in 722 B.C. In these verses, Israel refers to Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, which had not yet fallen. Jeremiah, Nahum, and Habakkuk prophesied at the same time, and together they described the need for spiritual transformation. While the word of the Lord had been declared at many times and in many ways, there were many who still refused to respond in faith and repentance.
A Better and Coming King
These prophets reveal an important part of covenant history. Israel was chosen and set apart as a holy nation unto the Lord (Ex. 19:5–6; 1 Pet. 2:9–10), who set his love upon them and called them out of Egypt. He protected and led them through the wilderness into the Promised Land. Though God was faithful to his covenant, the people were not. They rejected him, and the Lord sent his wrath, removing the people from the land of blessing and into exile in Assyria and Babylon. The history of God’s dealings with Israel is a larger lesson about our bondage to sin and need of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Whether warning of coming judgment or lamenting its realization, Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah wrestle with the reality of sin and its consequences. These are truths that apply today as much as they did when they were first uttered. But we have a blessed hope, because the Lord triumphs over sin through the truly faithful one, Jesus Christ. God’s justice must be satisfied, but the good news is that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to save his people from the wrath.
Jesus recapitulates the history of Israel (see Matt. 1–4), though he succeeds in every way. As the truly obedient son, Christ reverses the curse by bearing the sin of his people, suffering the full wrath of God in their place, and giving them his perfect righteousness. In Christ, there is a restoration greater than any return to Old Testament Canaan. There is the promise of dwelling with the triune God in the New Heavens and New Earth (Psalm 84:10; Isa. 65:17–25; Heb. 3–4, 11–12; Rev. 22:1–5).
We should study Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah to understand more deeply the pain and suffering of life in a fallen world while also having our gaze directed toward our blessed hope of salvation in Jesus Christ.