“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
It’s a verse I have loved for a long time, but she asked me a question I had never really thought of before: what does it mean that the LORD is our “portion”? What exactly is he saying? Whenever I hear that phrase, I think of the Shane & Shane song, “My Portion,” which comes from Psalm 73 (one of my favorite Psalms). So I love the phrase, and the imagery, but I’ve never really connected that idea with how it works in the rest of Scripture. And prompted by my friend’s question, I was amazed by the depth of beauty in the phrase when it is put within the context of the whole book of Lamentations.
For Israel, the idea of “portion” (or “inheritance”) was specifically tied to the land. When they entered into the promised land at the end of Joshua, each tribe of Israel was given a portion of the land that was theirs to inhabit. This was a big deal for them, because land was part of the promise of Abraham their father. For an agrarian society, land meant everything – it meant that they had a means of living. Without land, you couldn’t survive (which is why there are so many laws about providing for widows, orphans and foreigners). The only tribe that didn’t receive land as their portion was the Levites, because for them the LORD is their portion (Num 18:20). They received their living from service in the temple and the provision of those who worshipped YHWH – so God provided for them their necessities through the land (“portion”) of others. Now this provides some context for what Jeremiah is talking about in Lamentations 3:24. When he says that God is his “portion,” he means that YHWH is the means of his living – He is his life.
But the real beauty of this passage becomes apparent when you put it within the context of the whole book. Lamentations is exactly what the title suggests: a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The structure of Lamentations actually builds up around this destruction with the five chapters (which are five laments), and climaxes at the middle (in typical chiastic structure). Below is an outline I did in college demonstrating the structure of Lamentations:
1:1-22 A Sorrow over sin & judgement of Jerusalem
2:1-22 B God’s wrath towards daughters of Zion
3:1-20 C Afflictions from God
3:21-38 D Hope in God for relief
3:39-66 C’ Affliction of enemies
4:1-22 B’ God’s wrath against Zion completed
5:1-22 A’ Cry for restoration of Jerusalem
What you see from the structure is that the context is Jerusalem and it’s destruction (A, B, & C), but the emphasis is on the climax of the hope in God (D). So this verse (3:24) about God as our “portion” is right in that middle section. This creates a beautiful contrast in the whole book, between two different portions! Most likely, when Jeremiah says that He remembers that the LORD is his portion, he is quoting David in Psalm 16:5-6. Now David is of the tribe of Judah, so his portion is Jerusalem, that’s where his means of living was found (especially since he was king of Israel). But right now, Jerusalem is in ruins – so his portion is destroyed. And Jeremiah was a Levite, so his portion and living came from the temple. But right now, the temple is also in ruins – so his portion and means of living is destroyed.
So the context of the destruction of Jerusalem sets a beautiful background for Jeremiah saying that God is his portion. Because what would seem to be the pride of Israel, both the portion of David and Jeremiah: Jerusalem and the temple – are both in ruins. The whole book is a lament over the destruction of their portion. But within that context, Jeremiah “recalls to mind” that YHWH is his portion, and therefore he “has hope”(3:21-24). It seems that all that Jeremiah might find hope in (his means of living) needed to be destroyed to show that the LORD, the Holy One of Israel is his only hope, his only portion. Surrounded by a burning city and a broken temple, Jeremiah realizes that all that he needs for life is found in God. The background of what a portion is gives so much more depth to the statement of 3:24 — “The LORD is my portion.”
I think we have to come to that same place at times, when God takes from us all that we have always thought was necessary for life. And when it is all gone, when it is all destroyed, burning in heaps around us – then we recall that God alone is our portion. He alone is our hope. He alone is our joy. He alone is our life! All around us can be destroyed and taken, but He will be faithful (3:22-23). I pray that we would be able to see and understand that truth without our Jerusalem being destroyed. I pray that we might not need to see the temple in flames to realize that God is our only hope. But if needed, I thank God that He is gracious enough to show us how transient everything we might put our hope in is, as we stand in the midst of all the rubble and see that only God is always faithful with steadfast love – that He alone is our hope. That the LORD is our portion.