Covenant Love and Faithfulness in Brutal Circumstances
When I was first saved I soon immersed myself into the Christian subculture. Like so many baby believers, to some degree, I mistook it for sanctification. In my teenage years, I had not only my first Christian books but Christian albums (vinyl in those days) and Christian posters.
One of the posters I had was, as I recall it now, of a kitten curled up with a duckling. A cute picture accompanied by a Bible verse wrenched from its context. The verse in question was 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."
I'm not sure exactly why the picture was deemed appropriate to the verses (or vice versa). Perhaps the carnivorous kitten seemingly protecting the helpless duckling was considered to be representative of a sovereign God loving humanity. I suspect it involved little more than, "Aw! That's cute!" Either way, the picture seems to me to be wholly inappropriate for Lamentations 3 as any inclusion of surrounding context would make clear.
The Septuagint (Greek translation) of Lamentations has an opening paragraph that is not in our Hebrew Bibles. Probably a later addition (hence it not being in your Bible), it nevertheless gives us a succinct summary of the backdrop to the book. "And it came to pass after Israel had been taken captive and Jerusalem had been laid waste, Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lament over Jerusalem, and said….”
Poor Jeremiah! For years he had prophesied and warned Jerusalem of the coming judgement. For that ministry, he was mocked, beaten, imprisoned and rejected. The people wanted to hear the "best life now" preachers of the day - "tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies!" And yet his warnings went unheeded and he got to witness the fruit of that rejection.
Lamentations 3 is a hard passage to read, but read it we must. And we shall. Right from the beginning, it is clear that Jeremiah understands that this is God's sovereign judgement on Israel, but at the same time, he sees himself, as a member of that nation, as being a recipient of God's wrath. Consider the first 3 verses: "I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me, He turns His hand, again and again, the whole day long."
Jeremiah's description goes beyond the nation's suffering and speaks of his own physical and mental devastation. "He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; He has broken my bones; He has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; He has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; He has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, He shuts out my prayer; He has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; He has made my paths crooked." (v4-9)
It never backs off and only intensifies as the chapter progresses. He uses vivid and brutal descriptions of God actively targeting him for harm. He speaks of Him as a bear or a lion crouching silently awaiting His prey to pounce upon him. "He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; He has made me desolate; He bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver." (v10-13)
God's judgement of Israel is unrelenting and His chosen prophet, despite being the one to warn of its arrival, is not immune from it. Moreover, it seems as if, because of his ministry, his righteousness and his love for the things of God, it hurt him most of all. Those who care the most invariably hurt the most. There is no hint of "told you so" from Jeremiah - that wounds of this judgement simply compound the pain of rejection he still feels.
"I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; He has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord." (v14-18) Jeremiah is beaten, broken, depressed, and, most shockingly, bereft of hope. He has no assurance that God will relent from wave after wave of attack.
Many of us have been in such a place; a place where our souls are bereft of peace, where we don't remember what it is to be happy, and our endurance and hope are gone. Perhaps we were tempted to turn away from the hand that so brutally beat us. Perhaps we did.
Jeremiah, though, turned to the LORD. He cries out to Him. Like the Psalmists' laments before him so often did, his lament begins with a simple acknowledgement of his woes. The previous eighteen verses are bundled up into this cry: "Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me." (v19-20) It is as if he is saying, "I cannot forget my suffering, why have You? Look at me! Help me!" His is a desperate cry.
The important and astonishing thing to see here is that Jeremiah turns to the one who wounded him. The hand that beat him is the hand he cries for to lift him back up. Why? Verses 21-23 explain as we now arrive at the "pussy cat poster" verses, now painfully aware of their context. "But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness."
How is his hope renewed? Because he meditates on the character of God. The "steadfast love" and "faithfulness" of God refer to His covenant love an faithfulness. He had made promises to Israel. Promises that were yet to be fulfilled. Right now, it seemed impossible that they would be. But Jeremiah that God would keep His Word. And so he trusted Him in the midst of the deepest darkness. He trusted God when He beat him, broke him, tormented him, and destroyed him. He knew that despite all the pain and devastation that God was in control and that He was good. He was not a duckling cuddled up to a fluffy kitten, as the poster implied - he was prey in the mouth of a lion! Yet He trusted that lion and cried out to that lion. That is astounding faith!
And so Jeremiah had chosen to trust Yahweh. He chose to wait for God to bring goodness and mercy in time. He chose to wait and endure again. "The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in Him. The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults." (v24-30). More so, he saw that there were things he could learn from the hand of God in His wrath. It was good to trust Him in the midst of sorrow and darkness, even as the suffering continues. God had a purpose, even in this.
"For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth, to deny a man justice in the presence of the Most High, to subvert a man in his lawsuit, the Lord does not approve. Who has spoken and it came to pass unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? " (v31-39)
He saw God as a righteous, sovereign judge. He would not cause harm without reason. Had they done wrong? Yes, they had. Not all suffering we endure is a direct result of sin, but sometimes it is. Yet we are all sinners and worthy of God's wrath, and every time we suffer God does has a purpose in it. Can we see it? Probably not. But we trust and wait knowing who He is.
And how do we know who He is? How do we know He can be trusted? In the prologue to his gospel, John says that Jesus is "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). These terms are thought to be representative of the Hebrew combination of "steadfast love" and "faithfulness". Or to put it another way, in Jesus we have the fullest expression of the covenant-keeping love and faithfulness of God. As his gospel progresses, it becomes clear that John sees that being most clearly manifest on the cross. When Judas goes out to betray Him, Jesus says, "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him." (John 13:31)
When we face darkness and suffering, when it seems that God has turned His mighty hand against us, let us cast our eyes on the cross and know this: that even in the worst of times, God is good and in control. His covenant promises to us can never be broken. The greatest of sins can be turned by His sovereign hand.
If you fled in the darkness, there is yet still redemption. If you turned from him in your suffering, turn back. He is good. He has a plan. Nothing, not our sin, nor our rejection, nothing on Heaven or earth "will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:39)
"Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” (Lamentations 3:40)