Honestly, I have to give this disclaimer: I’ve never experienced hopelessness. I have never experienced what we’re going to talk about, hopelessness. Maybe you have or maybe you’re involved with people who would say, “I’m absolutely hopeless.” There are many people in the world that are hopeless, obviously. I don’t just mean that they’re having a bad day; I mean that they see no prospect that life is going to be any better. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and the devastation that those leave, turmoil in families, and fill-in-the-blank, there are people that absolutely feel like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen the rest of my life.”
The prophet Jeremiah—I will talk about more of this in a moment, but I think he’s the one that wrote Lamentations—experienced hopelessness and lived in a culture and a country that was experiencing it in a rampant way. He wrote this book to minister to people who had lost hope.
BACKGROUND OF LAMENTATIONS
Let’s talk about Lamentations.
Jeremiah lived through something that I can’t even fathom. His God-appointed task was to minister to a nation and tell them, “You have gone past the point of no return. You have sinned against Me, sinned against Me, sinned against Me, and you’re going into captivity.” The people said, “We don’t want to change.” His appointed task was to say, “This is what’s coming: there’s going to be judgment coming on our nation.” His task was not just to tell them; he was going to go through it with them. In three waves, he watched the destruction as the Babylonians came into the southern kingdom. The exile happened with the first deportation in 605 BC, which included Daniel and his three teenage friends and a bunch of others. The second wave happened in 597 BC, which would have included Ezekiel and others. Then the third deportation was in 586 BC, which would have affected him directly. That’s when the city was destroyed, the temple was destroyed, and the people were carried away in chains. That’s where he was. I don’t know how many thousands and thousands of people lost their lives during that 20-year nightmare, but Jeremiah heard the wailing firsthand. He smelled the smoke and the stench of what had happened to his homeland personally. He did his own share of wailing and he wrote a God-inspired book to talk about the question: How do you move on when that happens as a person that belongs to the Living God?
Now, his name doesn’t appear in the book of Lamentations, so we can’t be definitive that he wrote it. We know that he wrote lamentations (with a small L) because we’re told in 2 Chronicles 35:25: “Jeremiah composed laments for Josiah, and to this day all the male and female singers commemorate Josiah in the laments. These became a tradition in Israel and are written in the Laments.” Whether he wrote the book of Lamentations or not, I don’t think it really matters. We know that this man, Jeremiah, went through the experience and composed something that was intended to help his people. I’m just going to assume that this book was written by Jeremiah.
ACROSTIC STRUCTURE OF LAMENTATIONS
The book of Lamentations is sort of forgotten territory in most churches for several reasons. If you’ll take your Bible, I want you to actually see the text for a moment because one of the things that strikes you (if you’ve never seen this before) is that even the way the book is composed and put together is so very significant. We’ll be in chapter 3, but just take a look at chapter 1 and notice:
How many verses are in chapter one? 22
How many verses are in chapter two? 22 again.
In chapter three? 66 (three times 22).
In chapter four? 22.
In chapter five? 22.
What is going on here? Twenty-two, of course, is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. We can’t see it in our English Bibles, but this is an acrostic. Alef, Bet, Gimel, all the way to Tav. A, B, C, D, all the way to Z. It’s the alphabet. Why? What is going on here?
He’s using an acrostic and the triple acrostic in chapter 3. Now, it’s kind of interesting. Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4 are the acrostic (Alef to Tav). Chapter 5 looks like it—22 verses—but the acrostic drops out. It’s all scattered. What’s going on here? He’s communicating something as the Spirit of God is directing him.
The acrostic accomplishes a couple of objectives:
- It comforts grieving people.
The first objective is to comfort grieving people. How would that be the case? The nature of an acrostic communicates a limiting factor. It starts with A and it finishes with Z. If I start going, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G,” you might say, “Man, this guy does not have a good voice, but okay it’s going to end pretty soon,” because you know Z is coming, right? That’s the nature of an acrostic. As he writes this mourning, grieving acrostic poem in chapter 1, you know it’s coming to an end. You can see that from the outset. A, B, well Z’s coming. That’s what he wants them to think about in their suffering. This chaotic nightmare that felt like it would never end—this meaningless, endless judgment and misery, like waves pounding the seashore—the acrostic helps them to get a handle on their situation and understand that it’s going to end. It is going to end.
- It forces people to mourn thoroughly.
The acrostic does something else. The acrostic forces the person who’s in the midst of this crisis to mourn thoroughly, and that’s something we resist. If you have ever been through a season of suffering in your life, you know how much you long for that to end, how much you want to just get on with life. The acrostic says, “No, no, no. You can’t do that.” A, then comes B. Don’t jump to Z, not yet. C, D, etc. The acrostic forces you to step-by-step work through what you’re experiencing. Then comes Z, and then it’s, “Okay, now it’s time to move on. No more continuing in this mode of mourning and grieving. It’s time to move on.”
Therefore, the acrostic—just the nature of the book—communicates these two important things.
SIGNIFICANCE OF CHAPTER 3
Now, we want to look at chapter 3. Chapter 3 is the heart of the book. It’s this triple acrostic, 66 verses. There’s something about chapter 3 that grabs your attention. If you’ve read through the book of Lamentations—and I know most of you probably have in your Bible reading—chapter 3 will be the only verses you’re going to be starring, right in the middle actually. Because it’s sort of like a Thomas Kinkade painting. When you look at a Thomas Kinkade painting, what strikes you? It’s always the light, right?
The book of Lamentations is like an oil-based painting, a canvas:
Chapter 1: Black, gray.
Chapter 2: Deep purple.
Chapter 3: Begins with more dark colors and concludes with more dark, purple, deep colors.
Chapter 4: Dark.
Chapter 5: Dark.
But right in the middle of chapter 3: Yellow, pink, white.
Chapter 3 grabs your attention as you’re reading the book, so we want to look at chapter 3. Chapter 3 shows us that there’s a way out of the darkness. That’s something that people who’ve lost hope desperately need to know, right?
Where do you find hope when hope seems gone? In chapter 3, we see hope presented from four perspectives: hope sought (verses 1-18), hope gained (verses 19-24), hope shared (verses 25-48), and then hope in the real world (verses 49-66).
My hope is that, as a result of this time, you will go back and just read and reread and think about Lamentations chapter 3 and let it shape you and mold you. You’re not going to come away from this message with, “Okay, this is what you do,” so much as, “This is the way to think about suffering and how to come alongside those who are in the midst of hopeless situations.” I think that is what we need more than just, “Okay, this is what you say. This is what you do.”
We’re going to spend quite a bit of time just reading because I want you to see that the Word is powerful. I re-read it again this morning myself and was just like, “This is such a dynamic chapter.”
Verse 1 begins: “I am the man who has seen affliction.” Commentators are divided on who the man is. Some think it’s King Jehoiachin; others think that it’s the personification of the nation speaking. I think it’s Jeremiah. I think it’s specifically Jeremiah speaking for the benefit of and on behalf of his suffering people. He puts into words what he’s feeling for this is what they are feeling. He’s a prophet, he’s a minister of God, and he’s seeking to help his people. He’s writing what they’re feeling; he’s talking about it. It is ugly, it is dark; and he puts it into words for them. He affirms that he is suffering. Some of us feel uncomfortable with this, but Jeremiah does not back away from affirming that the Lord is over his suffering. When I say “over,” I mean that He’s in control of it. We see that in chapter 2; we see it in chapter 3. Jeremiah does not attribute what just happened to his country and what’s happening to them presently to fate or to the Babylonians. Even though the Babylonians were the immediate cause, the ultimate, he says, is the Lord. He actually makes the Lord the subject of at least 20 pain-producing activities in this first section (verses 1-18). I group them into six categories. Jeremiah says:
- He took away my light. (v. 1-3)
By “He,” Jeremiah is talking about God.
“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the LORD’s wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.” (v. 1-3)
To Jeremiah, it felt like somebody turned out the lights on life, and that someone he identifies as the Lord. The Lord has turned out the light. The Babylonians were the rod of His wrath, but He’s the one swinging the rod—that’s how he puts it. He took away my light.
- He took away my health. (v. 4-6)
“He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship. He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.” (v. 4-6)
Sometimes, when you’re going through suffering, you feel like you’ve been beat to a pulp. Some of you know about that through chronic pains. I’ve done previous sessions on how to pray when the pain doesn’t go away from Psalm 13. My battle with migraines has been going on for about 28 years and so the short answer when people ask how it’s going is that not much has changed. They keep trying different things. I’ve been to five neurologists and a bunch of other doctors. But God has just opened up in the last several years, “I want to minister through not without the suffering. I want to minister through it.” He uses it. It’s a platform on which I have the opportunity to stand. I’m thankful that I don’t have any head pain right now, so it’s easy to talk about it right now.
Having said that, when you’re suffering and the suffering doesn’t end, it just takes a toll on you in lots of ways. That’s what Jeremiah says. Jeremiah says, “Lord, you’re the One that has done this.”
- He took away my freedom. (v. 7-9)
“He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains. Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.” (v. 7-9)
“He has taken away my freedom. I feel like I’m a bird in a cage. I’ve lost my freedom,” he says. Again, we don’t have time to go through this slowly, so we’ll just quickly look through it.
- He took away my life. (v. 10-11)
“Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he [referring to the Lord] dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help.” (v. 10-11)
“He took away my life, my health, my freedom, my life as I knew it.”
- He took away my respect. (v. 13-15)
Now if you know anything about Jeremiah, I think what happened to him is what we so admire about him.
“He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and given me gall to drink.” (v. 13-15)
His own people—we’re not talking about the Babylonians now—his own people thought he was a traitor and that he was a lunatic. I mean, how could they but think that in one sense. Jeremiah’s task was to say to his people as the army was approaching, God wants us to put down our arms and surrender to these people because we’re going into captivity. Try that message in the United States of America, right? You’re a preacher, representing the Living God, and your task is to say, “We might as well just lay down our arms because God says it’s over. We’re going into captivity.”
Therefore, they attacked him. They verbally attacked him. They physically attacked him. You remember Pashhur. Pashhur was the chief officer in the temple and he heard that Jeremiah preached that kind of message. He had Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks for it. I love Jeremiah’s response to him in Jeremiah 20:8-9: “…the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” He says, “I know what it’s going to cost me, but I’ve got to say what God has told me to say.” Now, as he’s thinking about this and helping his people, he says, “Lord, You’re the One that brought this into my life.”
- He took away my peace and prosperity. (v. 16)
“He has broken my teeth with gravel…I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, ‘My splendor is gone…'” (v. 16)
And on he goes. The word pictures are so vivid. Jeremiah paid a great price to obey God, and this includes what he endured before the Babylonians came.
Did you realize God actually told Jeremiah not to marry and have children. Check out Jeremiah 16. There was no good life for this man. “He took away my light, my health, my freedom, my life, my respect.” Again, he’s not just talking about his own suffering here. He is speaking on behalf of a nation. There are multitudes and multitudes of people that are in the same situation. He’s also speaking beyond his own people and that day; it’s for us, because we too suffer. But, as with all of the law, the prophets, the writings, it all points to someone who suffered more than anyone else suffered. Do you see Him in this third chapter? This all points to, of course the One who bore the rod of God’s wrath and who God:
- made walk in darkness (verse 2)
- turned His hand against as it were (verse 3)
- walled Him in so He couldn’t escape (verse 7)
- shut out His prayer when He cried for help (verse 8)
- pierced His heart with arrows (verse 19)
- made Him the laughing stock of His people (verse 14)
- filled Him with bitter herbs and gall (verse 15)
“Man of Sorrows—What a name for the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim; Hallelujah, what a savior!” This is, of course, the ultimate hope for those who have lost hope is to know that the God who is administering this is not a harsh, far off, uncompassionate deity. He is the one who Himself experienced it to the nth degree so that we could be with Him forever and ever and experience life that never ends.
This brings us to the second movement in this poem: Hope gained.
Now, by the way, just a word of practical application as we’re ministering to suffering, hurting people: don’t rush them quickly through the first process here, hope sought. Let them verbalize what they’re feeling. “I feel like God has forgotten.” Don’t rush to say, “Oh, no, no, God never forgets.” That’s what they’re feeling. Let them communicate that. That’s not all they need to communicate as we’ll see, but it’s a part of mourning and grieving God’s way to communicate in reverent ways. “God, I feel like this is what the Lord is doing in my life and I don’t understand why.”
Watch how the darkness begins to turn to light in this second movement:
Verses 19-20: “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet…” There goes the yellow onto the canvas. “… Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.'”
He’s painting with different colors now, isn’t he? He’s telling in writing for the benefit of his people and for us now, how do you move from hopelessness to this gaining of hope? What’s changed? The situation hasn’t changed. It’s going to get worse, but he has changed. He says, in verse 21, “I have hope.” When someone in the midst of the horrendous things that he’s experiencing can say, “I have hope,” I want to pay attention to him. I want my counselees to pay attention to him. This will be of great help to us.
What brought about this change? If you’ll notice, he says that he called something to mind. He began to think about something other than how hard life had become. He engaged his mind in thinking about different things. He has been reflecting on the hardness of life for two and a half chapters, and now he says, “Okay, this is how I got out of that mode: I started thinking about something different.”
“I call this to mind and therefore I have hope.” What is this? What subject enables a person in the midst of their hopeless feelings to have hope? He tells us that he made himself think about the Lord’s attributes.
1. He meditated on the Lord’s love and compassion.
This knowledge of God gives him hope and he specifically focuses first on the Lord’s love and compassion.
“Because of the Lord’s great hesed…” (v. 22)
Hesed is the Hebrew word. It’s a wonderful, wonderful word. “Because of the Lord’s hesed, we are not consumed.” This is one of the most important words in the Old Testament. It would be a great word for a word study to just really get the depth of this because there’s no one English word that captures it. Take love, mercy, grace, compassion, covenant faithfulness, loyalty, devotion. You just put all that together and you have hesed. That’s what this word is. It appears 250 times in the Old Testament.
Hesed refers to God’s gracious love to His covenant people. It’s because of His hesed that He chose this pagan man named Abram, an idolater, and said, “You’re mine. I’m going to take you and I’m going to form a relationship with you. I’m going to bless the world through you and your descendants. In fact, it’s through you that I’ll give hope to the world”—anticipating the Messiah coming. It’s because of His hesed that He chose this nation of Israel. They weren’t a good catch for God—any more than we are, of course. But it is hesed. He set His affection on them and said, “You’re mine. I’m going to bless you. I’m going to use you. I’m going to work in and through you.”
Here Jeremiah says that hesed is the reason his nation, though terribly devastated, wasn’t completely destroyed. “Because of the Lord’s hesed, we are not consumed,” he says. Then, why is it that you and I woke up this morning and were able to enjoy a day of life? I think sometimes we forget this: the wages of sin is death. We’ve all sinned, right? Why is it that we are not consumed? It’s because of the Lord’s hesed, it’s because of His kindness, and His forgiveness. It’s been given to us undeserved as we are.
Now, when we’re suffering, we tend to focus on what we’re not getting out of life that we think we should be getting. Jeremiah says that he begins to get hope when he starts focusing on what he and the nation ought to be getting out of life that they were not. He said, “We ought to be absolutely no longer in existence, but because of the Lord’s hesed, we haven’t been consumed yet.”
“When I call God’s hesed and compassion to mind, I have hope.”
2. He meditated on the Lord’s faithfulness.
He meditates secondly on the Lord’s faithfulness.
“…great is your faithfulness.” (v. 23)
This is probably the verse that most people think of when they think of the book of Lamentations.
But when do we tend to say that? It’s usually at the Thanksgiving prayer service, you know, when I just want to say, “God is so faithful this year. He’s blessed my family; He’s blessed my business, my ministry; good things are happening.” There’s nothing wrong with that. That truly is evidence of His faithfulness.
When did Jeremiah make this pronouncement? I love Walter Kaiser’s commentary on Lamentations. I quote: “The startling fact about this announcement is that it is made against one of the bleakest backgrounds in the Old Testament. It would be as if someone stood up in one of the prison camps of the Third Reich and announced loudly, ‘Great is God’s faithfulness.’ That might seem ludicrous enough to bring the scornful sneer of every destitute soul confined to those barracks.”
Think about what this sounded like to the people of Judah when Jeremiah said, “Great is God’s faithfulness.” They must have thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve got to be kidding me.” Keep in mind what Jeremiah and the people have lost. They no longer have a son of David reigning as their king. The city of Jerusalem is in shambles. The promised land is in the hand of foreigners. The temple is in charred ruins. The ark of the covenant is gone. The mercy seat is gone. The altar, the priests, the table of the presence of God, the morning and evening sacrifices, the festivals. It’s all gone. Their homes are gone. Their family members are either dead or in chains. Their next meal is a question mark. It’s at this lowest point that Jeremiah says, “Great is your faithfulness.”
This is strange. Kaiser rightly observes: “It is not sung as we so often sing the hymn based on this verse immediately after a body of believers has just experienced another evidence of God’s blessing in their lives. On the contrary, this word came when nothing looked possible, hopeful, worthwhile, or comforting. Jeremiah and his people have lost everything important to them. ‘No!’ says Jeremiah. ‘We still have the most important thing. We still have the Lord. Great is His faithfulness. He is faithful. God’s compassions are new every morning because He’s faithful. He will always be what He’s always been to us. He may have taken things from us but He has not taken Himself from us.’”
This is what sustained this man. This is what gave him hope. Humanly speaking, he’s lost more than probably anybody we know. Personally, at the level of family, nationally, he has lost it all, but he says, “No, no. We still have the most important thing. We have the faithful God.” This is such an encouragement to me.
3. He meditates on the sufficiency of the Lord.
He talks about this in verse 24 as he meditates on the Lord’s sufficiency.
“The Lord is my portion,” says Jeremiah, “therefore, I will wait for Him.” (v. 24)
What’s a portion? If we were sitting down at lunch now and I offered you a portion of my dessert, I’m taking some of what is mine and I’m giving it to you. That’s a portion. This is what the Lord is. He’s our portion. He’s the source of our nourishment and joy.
This was so helpful for me—I think Kaiser pointed this out—and I want you to see it. I want you to notice that Jeremiah didn’t just think these things. Notice that verse 24 says, “I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion.’” He talked to himself. You’re not crazy if you talk to yourself. In fact, if you want to have hope in hopeless situations, you need to learn to talk to yourself.
He chose to talk to himself rather than listen to his feelings, which are screaming at him. As a pastor, I’ve marveled at why it is that two people who know Jesus Christ can go through the same kind of suffering and one exhibits joy and the other exhibits bitterness. What’s the difference? Basically, one is active and the other is passive. One is talking to himself or herself; the other is listening to the feelings in the situation he or she is in. Now, I appreciate so much D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ counsel in his chapter “Feelings” in the book Spiritual Depression. I really recommend it. You can even get online and Google it to get it as a PDF. You don’t even have to buy it. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression is the book, Chapter 8 titled “Feelings.” It’s really, really helpful. I want to just quote from him now. He writes:
“You have to speak to yourself…Remind yourself of certain things. Remind yourself of who you are and what you are. You must talk to yourself and say: ‘I am not going to be dominated by you, these moods shall not control me…’ …If you allow these moods to control you, you will remain miserable, but you must not allow it. Shake them off.”
This is how Jeremiah moves from hope lost to hope gained: he’s talking to himself. He calls these things to mind, he says, and he affirms them. “My God is loving and compassionate and faithful. He’s my portion, regardless of how I’m feeling right now. Therefore, I have hope.”
I remember when Amy came to our Counseling Discipleship Training that we had at Wheelersburg Baptist maybe six or seven years ago. She came in in her wheelchair. She had a body that was twisted by cerebral palsy. I knew her. She wasn’t from our church, but she was from the community. I knew her just because of other connections. I thought, “She’s coming to counseling training just get some help for what’s going on in her life.” No, that wasn’t it. I went up to Amy and said, “Amy, great to have you. Why have you come?” She said, “I’ve come because there are a lot of hurting people out there with disabilities, and I want to get training so that I can help them.” That’s a person who has been talking to herself rather than listening to thoughts and feelings that say, “You know, what a bum rap I got out of life. All of my peers are out.” Instead, it’s a person who says, “No, God, you are good. You have given me a platform right now that I have the privilege to minister from.” She’s talking to herself.
This is what Jeremiah does. Hope sought, hope gained, and then, you can’t keep it to yourself.
He’s going to start helping his people in a very specific way. He shifts in verse 25 from the first-person pronoun, “I,” to the third-person pronoun, “him,” because in section 3 he’s going to encourage others to do what he has been doing. This is so helpful for us. You can’t encourage others to do what you haven’t done yourself, but having done it and having experienced hope, don’t hold back. You encourage others to do this.
He specifically encourages them to do two things.
1. Affirm what he has affirmed—this hope-giving truth about the Lord. (v. 25-39)
He highlights five such traits or truths about the Lord in verses 25 to 39.
- The Lord is good.
“The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.” (v.25-27)
The emphasis on the goodness of God is even more obvious in the Hebrew text: tov, tov, tov. That’s the Hebrew word for good. “Good. Good.” Remember what they’re going through. Remember how dark the situation is. “Good. Good.”
The Lord is good; but who benefits from His goodness? “He is good,” Jeremiah says, “to those whose hope is in Him, who seek Him, who wait quietly for Him and His salvation, who bear the yoke when they are young.”
That reminds me of Wendell Kempton. I think the only message that I’d ever heard from the book of Lamentations before I preached the series on it—I hear myself talking, so I’ve heard that series—but before that, the only one was a message Wendell Kempton preached when I was a teenager at a camp. This was his text: “It is good for a man to bear the yoke when he’s young.” He just really developed that and challenged us. Wendell Kempton is in heaven now. He had a way of looking you right in the eye and it felt like you were the only one he was talking to as he said, “It’s good for a man to bear the yoke when he’s young.” That was the only message I’d ever heard from the book of Lamentations, and it was on this verse right here.
The world says it’s good when you get what you want out of life. God’s word says it’s good when you bear the yoke God puts on you in life. That’s a tough thing to work through, but it’s good when you bear the yoke that God has put on you in life because He’s the wise master. We were created to serve Him. Jeremiah is ministering to his people now and telling them, “You need to affirm. You need to talk to yourself and say, ‘The Lord is good in what He has brought into my life.'”
- The Lord is sovereign.
Meditate on this reality: the Lord is sovereign.
“Let him sit alone in silence, for the LORD has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust— there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.” (v. 28-30)
Now in these verses Jeremiah is showing us how to put verse 27 into practice. This is what it looks like for a man to bear the yoke. It’s the picture of living like a servant. He sits in silence. He buries his face in the dust. He offers his cheek. In other words, he submits himself to God’s will entirely and unreservedly come what may. He does so because he knows that the God who is good is also sovereign, so he waits quietly for Him. If it happens, whatever it may be, we know that the sovereign God has something He’s up to in and through us. That just makes all the difference, doesn’t it? Jeremiah affirms that and he’s encouraging his people to affirm that so that they can have hope.
- The Lord is compassionate and loving.
Also so that they can have hope, he’s wanting them to think about the fact that the Lord is compassionate and loving.
“For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” (v. 31-33)
It’s really a matter of perspective, isn’t it? If you think you deserve the world, you’re not satisfied with a mansion. But if you realize you deserve destruction and yet your life has been spared, you have hope and you are thrilled.
This is Jeremiah now praising God for His unfailing love. Why? Because though life was hard and he knew it was going to get even harder, he was still alive. Though Israel had been chastised severely, God had not eliminated her from the earth. He left a remnant through which He would fulfill His promise to send the Messiah into the world. This is Jeremiah’s hope, and this is why he can praise God in this desperate situation because of God’s hesed, his unfailing love.
I want to go back to verse 33. This is so helpful. There’s just a little comment there—a little statement—that helps us address this difficult question: If God is good, sovereign, and loving, how can He bring suffering in the lives of His people? This doesn’t seem very loving, does it? You’ll hear that. Jeremiah’s answer—if you notice the text there in verse 33—”He does not willingly bring affliction” (emphasis added). In the Hebrew, willingly literally means from the heart. This is key. The Lord brings the affliction or it wouldn’t happen. He’s sovereign. But the affliction doesn’t come from His heart, says Jeremiah, since He’s loving and good, and He’s not sadistic. If it doesn’t come from His heart, where does it come from? I can’t answer the question fully, but I think every parent can answer the question. I can illustrate it as a dad. As a dad I have done things freely to my two daughters that I didn’t want to do. I brought pain into their lives. I have actually inflicted pain upon them, but it didn’t come from my heart. Now it came from me or it wouldn’t have happened, but it wasn’t from my heart. It was something that I knew would be good in the light of the big scheme of things, but in the moment, that’s not what I had a heart to do towards them. In fact, you know the old line: “It’s going to hurt me worse than it hurts you.” What child ever believes that? I think that’s getting at this point here. He brings affliction our way at times, but He doesn’t do it willingly. He does it because He knows we need it. It’s a part of His plan. He loves us enough to give us what we need no matter how painful it might be for us and for Him.
- The Lord sees injustice.
Then he meditates on this fact: the Lord sees injustice. He says, “Okay, if you’re going to have hope like I have hope, my people, you need to meditate and see that the Lord sees injustice.”
“To crush underfoot all prisoners in the land, to deny people their rights before the Most High, to deprive them of justice— would not the Lord see such things?” (v. 34-36)
It’s a rhetorical question. Yes, He would see. He sees everything. The Lord sees the injustice.
- The Lord is the One who decrees both calamities and good times.
This is going to make some people feel uncomfortable, but this is truly Bible and it says: the Lord is the One who decrees both calamities and good things.
“Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? Why should the living complain when punished for their sins?” (v.37-39)
See what Jeremiah is doing? He told us that he found hope by meditating on the character and attributes of God. Now he’s encouraging us to do the same. Are you facing some hardship right now in your life? Some turmoil that doesn’t seem to want to end? Then affirm the truth about your God: He’s good; He’s sovereign; He’s wise; He’s in control; He does things we may not understand.
In fact, why would we expect to understand the mind of this infinite God that has created us and redeemed us? He decrees both what happens in the good and the bad. He’s in control of it all, so we can trust Him. We can bear the yoke while we are young. He is our portion. Now, you say, “Is that all it takes, just a change of thinking?” No.
2. He encourages others to respond as he responded.
Remember he was speaking to himself and he’s encouraging the others to respond as he responded.
There’s another pronoun shift in the text when we come to verse 48, this time to “we” and “us.” This is because Jeremiah is inviting us to join him in making three life-changing responses.
- Let’s take inventory and return to the Lord.
He says, “We need to do this now: let’s take inventory and return to the Lord.” He’s talking to the people there in that horrendous sixth-century situation.
“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD.” (v. 40)
See, this is not a given for sure. When hardship strikes, people always turn to the Lord, right? God kind of gets their attention. No! When hardship enters their lives, many people run from God. They turn from Him, thinking “I can’t believe in a God who would allow…” Jeremiah says to his people, “Don’t do that. Don’t turn from Him. He’s getting our attention. Let’s turn back to Him in repentance.”
- Let’s acknowledge our sin to the Lord.
“Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say: ‘We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven.’” (v. 41-42)
“Verbalize this, don’t just think it,” he says. “Say it together, ‘We’ve sinned.’ Say it to the one you’ve sinned against.” This is national repentance now for this nation. This is personal for those that are in the nation. “We’ve sinned.”
- Let’s acknowledge our desperation for the Lord.
“‘You have covered yourself with anger and pursued us; you have slain without pity. You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through. You have made us scum and refuse among the nations. All our enemies have opened their mouths wide against us. We have suffered terror and pitfalls, ruin and destruction.’ Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed.” (v. 43-48)
Now the colors are dark again and they will be dark the rest of the book of Lamentations. The splash of brilliant light in the middle of chapter 3 is gone. Has Jeremiah lost his hope? No. He’s helping his people put their desperation into a prayer.
This brings us to the final movement. Hope sought, hope gained, hope shared. Now, hope in the real world.
HOPE IN THE REAL WORLD
There’s not much in terms of color at the end, just these dark colors because this is the way hope works in the real world. Four things are true.
1. In the real world, you see things that break your heart. (v.49-51)
I say that because that’s what Jeremiah says here in verses 49-51.
“My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the LORD looks down from heaven and sees. What I see brings grief to my soul because of all the women of my city.” (v. 49-51)
I was thinking about that this morning, just that phrase there. What seems to have particularly struck him is what he saw happening to the women. You don’t have to let your mind wander very long to see what he was seeing and thinking: what happens when an army comes in and devastates a country.
I remember my conversation with her. I was in Khao Lak, Thailand three months after the tsunami devastated the country back in 2004. We were there around March of 2005. We had the privilege to go and work with some of the Thai believers and some of the missionaries that were in the country to do some training in the area of grief counseling and to help them set up a Counseling Center in Phuket, in the area in the south where so many had lost their lives (10,000 or I forget the exact number). As we were down there, just literally setting up this training center and cleaning the place out—this was like a row of businesses, not far from the water—there was another business just 20 yards down. I saw there was a lady and a couple little kids there. They were just cleaning stuff up. She spoke just a little bit of English. I remember going up and just talking small talk. I asked if the kids were her boys (she answered, “Yes”), and then I said, “Where’s your husband?” I saw this look that was like, I wish I hadn’t asked the question. Because I realized that her husband was no longer living. She had lost him in that horrible situation.
Jeremiah says that it was this thought about the women that struck him. In the real world, you see things that break your heart.
I teach on “How Not to Counsel, Learning from Job’s Three Friends.” I get that from Job 42:7 where the Lord says, “I’m not pleased with you, Eliphaz, you and your friends, you’ve not spoken of Me what is right.” I think one of the dangers for biblical counselors is we tend to say, “Here’s a problem. Let’s fix that problem. Let’s move on with life without problems.” That’s not how it works in the real world. Particularly when we’re dealing with people who have complex problems, it just doesn’t work in the real world. Hope in the real world is not an absence of problems. We have to be very careful to not give that indication to people.
2. In the real world, not only do you see, but you experience things that break your heart. (v. 52-54)
“Those who were my enemies without cause hunted me like a bird. They tried to end my life in a pit and threw stones at me; the waters closed over my head, and I thought I was about to perish.” (v. 52-54)
Jeremiah is a man of God, but he’s not immune from what’s happening in the suffering of the nation. Jesus Christ is the perfect man of God—the God-Man—this did not immunize Him from pain either, of course. He felt the hatred of wicked men who responded by nailing Him to the cross. On that cross, He felt the fury of His Father’s wrath against sinners as He’s bearing their sin, taking their place.
My friend, I have good news for you, though. You entered this world as a sinner cut off from God. You can be reconciled to God because of what His Son has endured on the cross. Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Jesus Christ took the wrath of God that we might be His. What was ours has been taken away by the One who identified with us.
But realize this: it’s a hope in the real world for if you come to Christ, you—like your Savior—will experience things that break your heart. When we come to Christ, we’re entering into the fellowship of His sufferings. I think we can make the case that it is through suffering that the gospel goes forth and through the sufferings of God’s people that the platform is opened up most effectively for the message of the gospel to go forth. God doesn’t take the suffering away. He can; sometimes He alleviates, but His way is to work through it. What do you do in the middle of it? Well, Jeremiah says, in the real world you must talk to the Lord about the things that break your heart.
3. In the real world you must talk to the Lord about the things that break your heart.
Jeremiah gives us three reasons why we can and must.
- He hears our cry.
“I called on your name, LORD, from the depths of the pit. You heard my plea: ‘Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.'” (v. 55-56)
- He takes away our fear.
“You came near when I called you, and you said, ‘Do not fear.'” (v. 57)
Oh, that was so beautiful. Jeremiah heard the Lord say, “Do not fear.” That’s exactly what he felt like doing. “Do not fear.” He’s helping his people think about that.
- He takes care of our concerns.
“You, Lord, took up my case; you redeemed my life. LORD, you have seen the wrong done to me. Uphold my cause! You have seen the depth of their vengeance, all their plots against me.” (v. 58-60)
I mean, this is real praying. This is the way you and I can pray for in Christ, “You took up my case.” We have a defense attorney in heaven and our case is His.
Then he ends with this sort of surprising twist at the end.
4. In the real world, you must turn over to the Lord the people who are breaking your heart.
Now it’s on this note that he concludes.
“LORD, you have heard their insults, all their plots against me—what my enemies whisper and mutter against me all day long. Look at them! Sitting or standing, they mock me in their songs. Pay them back what they deserve, LORD, for what their hands have done. Put a veil over their hearts, and may your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the LORD.” (v. 61-66)
You might say Jeremiah doesn’t sound very spiritual there. Yet he is. He’s not being vindictive. Throughout this whole book and in the part that we’ve just been considering, he has been reaching out to his people, ministering to them, trying to help them experience hope. He has been trying to minister to the very people who have spurned His prophetic ministry, but now in his final prayer he does the only thing you can do with people who refuse to change: you turn them over to the Lord. “Lord, You deal with them. Please deal with them.”
This is the way hope works in the real world. Again, these are realities that we need to minister to people that are suffering and hopeless. When the night is the darkest, even a little light makes a big difference. I think that’s the message of Lamentations 3.
I remember many times going to visit Nancy Rae Litteral. In 1954, Nancy Rae was an 18-year-old getting ready to graduate from high school when a drunk driver hit her car and she became quadriplegic. She almost died, and then when she didn’t, she wanted to die because life had changed. She was planning on going off to school and college in the fall, and life had changed overnight.
In God’s wisdom and sovereign kindness, she was taken to Ohio State University for rehab and learned as a part of the rehab how to paint by mouth. She found out that she had amazing artistic ability that she didn’t know that she had or God just gave it to her—we don’t know which. She started not just painting, but eventually she became a member of the International Handicapped Artists Association—Joni Eareckson Tada and others. Her paintings were sold and she began to support missionaries, such as her own brother who became a missionary to Papua New Guinea in 1964 to go and live with basically a stone age people (the Angor people), learn their language, and translate the Bible into their language. There’s a church there now. I had the privilege to be there when they had the Bible dedication back in 2001.
When Nancy had a bed sore, they had to just lay her flat for however long it took to heal, which could take weeks. I remember going to see Nancy and thinking, “What am I going to say to her?” She had a wonderful sense of humor and you just had to be honest with her. I went in and I said, “Nancy, what do you think about when you’re laying there like this?” She said, “Oh, I just view it as though I’m taking a vacation from sitting up.”
See, there’s a person who was talking to herself and not just listening to those feelings. Her memorial service happened just a few years ago now. It was one of the highlights of my pastoral ministry. I encouraged people to bring the paintings that she had done if they had one—portraits of children, whatever she had done. They were all around the building and we celebrated God’s amazing goodness in a very difficult, difficult situation of a woman that spent 54 years in a wheelchair.