Summary: How could God have let this happen? How can we speak to God of what has happened? How can we respond to the need before us?
Lamentations 2:11-13, 18-19; 3:19-23, 40-42, 46-57
The Lamentations were written by someone, probably Jeremiah, who observed the devastation of Jerusalem following the Babylonian invasion in 586 BC. Jerusalem was literally leveled. The temple was destroyed. Anybody who was anybody was carried off into exile. Everybody else was either killed or left amidst poverty and ruins.
Parts of the Lamentations almost could have been written by someone observing the devastation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
The Hebrew title of the Book of Lamentations is ‘ekah, which means “how.” Most of the books of the Old Testament are titled according to the first word of the book. In the Book of Lamentations, “how”—an exclamation of dismay—is the first word of the first chapter, “How deserted lies the city…” (1:1), and the first word of the second chapter, “How the Lord has covered the Daughter of Zion with the cloud of his anger… (2:1), and the first word of the fourth chapter, “How the gold has lost its luster…” (4:1).
The word “how” was also the first word on many of our tongues as we saw news accounts of New Orleans, but our dismay frequently is expressed in the form of questions: How could God have let this happen? How can we speak to God of what has happened? How can we respond to the need before us?
First how question: How could God have let this happen?
It’s an appropriate question. After all, our God is the maker of heaven and earth. He is sovereign. He is in charge. Nothing happens without his knowledge. Nothing happens without his consent. If he did not make it happen, he allowed it to happen.
It can be tempting in a situation like this either to blame God or to defend God. I will seek to do neither. I don’t have the answer to how God could have let this happen, but there are several possibilities.
1—We live in a fallen creation. Because of that, humans are prone to sin. Because of that, animals face brutal competition for survival. Because of that, the earth itself convulses with natural processes that bring life and bring destruction.
The Bible proclaims that God is the one who opens his hand to satisfy every living thing and witnesses to his power and willingness to intervene in natural processes for his purposes. But God created this world in freedom, and he honors that freedom even in our brokenness. He promises to uphold those who fall and lift up those who are bowed down (Psalm 145:14). He doesn’t promise that there will be no hazards to make us fall or burdens to bow us down.
2—Sin has consequences, even as water flows downhill. Water doesn’t think about going down hill; it doesn’t need to be encouraged; it just does it. It’s the same way with sin. Sin doesn’t think about it; it doesn’t have to be encouraged; it just has consequences.
What human arrogance led us to build a major city below sea level in a hurricane prone region?
What human neglect led us to ignore engineers’ warnings that the earthen levees that protected New Orleans from being reclaimed by the Gulf of Mexico were inadequate and bound to fail eventually?
What human injustice led to the poorest of us living in the most vulnerable areas and being least equipped to flee when the storm came?
Sin has consequences, and frequently those consequences fall hardest on the innocent.
3—Reasons 1 and 2 are sufficient. There need be no further explanation. However, every time there is a major natural disaster, or even man-made disaster, somebody out there proclaims that it is God’s judgment. … Well, this is a possibility.
The Israelites understood that the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC came at the hands of powerful earthly enemies. They also understood that their enemies were tools in the hands of the sovereign God of Israel, and the destruction of Jerusalem was a direct consequence of their rebellion against God.
Still, it may be that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina has nothing whatsoever to do with God’s judgment. The brokenness of creation and human sin are more than sufficient explanations, and God is more interested in turning us away from sin and healing our brokenness than punishing us. Lord knows, our sins have a way of punishing us enough all by themselves.
Nevertheless…if, just if, God’s judgment is involved, be assured that you and I stand with our fellow citizens in New Orleans under the same judgment. If he is seeking to humble us, be assured that that it is indeed we who need to be humbled; it is not something we can pass off on others simply because we live a little farther north than the path of the hurricane. God does not send destruction on cities because of the personal sins of a few people, but he has been known to humble nations because of their rebellion as a people.