Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Some of you will know that the hymn When Peace Like a River was written after the author’s four daughters died by drowning. And there are many other hymns also that were written in the wake of a single, major, traumatic event. But the hymn we sung earlier, Great is Thy Faithfulness, is not one of those hymns. It was written by Thomas Chisholm. He spent many years living and working as a life insurance agent. But he struggled with health issues, sometimes more and some times less, until he eventually died at the ripe old age of 94 in 1960. So Chisholm’s life was one of ‘ordinary’ or ‘every day’ struggles, we could say. But while he was away from home on a missions trip one time, he sent some poems to his good friend, William Runyan, a relatively unknown musician. And Runyan found the poem based on Lamentations 3:22-23 so moving that he decided to compose a musical score to accompany the lyrics. And so the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness was published in 1923 as a celebration of God’s faithfulness over a lifetime.
Well, many people see vv22-23 as the centre or high point of the Book of Lamentations. And the beautiful words of those verses certainly do shine very brightly against the backdrop of 5 chapters of devastation and despair. But while the words of those two verses are relatively well-known, because of the hymn, the rest of the chapter will be largely unfamiliar to many of us.
• Lamentations, for those of you unfamiliar with the Book, is a collection of 5 lament poems about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians around 600BC.
• And those of you who have been present for the first two sermons will know that we have heard from the poet, whom we have called the Narrator, and we have heard from the personification of Jerusalem, whom we have called Lady Zion.
o But we will not hear from Lady Zion again in the rest of Lamentations. As you can see from v1, the speaker here in ch. 3 is male. And most likely he is our Narrator from ch’s 1&2. And indeed, a very good case can be made for this man to be none other than the prophet Jeremiah himself, as we shall see.
• But those of you who have been present might also remember that there are three major themes in Lamentations. And they are that man is really, really bad, that God is really, really angry, and that grace is really, really powerful. And we will see more of those three themes today.
• And we shall see them against the background of the sorrow and suffering experienced by God’s people in Jerusalem. For out of that suffering arises the despair and the very difficult Why, Lord? questions that we encounter in these verses. And we dare not, for a moment, minimize the despair we encounter here. For whether it be in the wake of a single, major, traumatic event, or because of the more ‘ordinary’ struggles of life, every Christian will encounter times when he or she struggles to understand why the Lord has brought a particular circumstance into his or her life. Indeed, some of you may have come to church today with that very question weighing heavily on your heart.
So as we turn our attention to this chapter, we read in v6 of the narrator dwelling in darkness, and in v53 of him being “flung into the pit.” But we also read in v22 about the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases. So here in the third of the five poems of Lamentations, A RAY OF HOPE SHINES OUT OF THE DARK PIT OF DESPAIR. And we shall see this as we consider the five sections of this poem, where we see that Hope FADES, Hope REMEMBERS, Hope INSTRUCTS, Hope CRIES, and Hope PLEADS.
I. So first of all then, in vv1-18, we see that Hope FADES.
A. Towards the end of ch. 2, the Narrator called on Lady Zion to confess her sin to the Lord. However, Lady Zion was not yet at the place of truly recognizing her sin and confessing it. She still saw God as her angry enemy, as we saw in v22. So as we come to ch. 3, we see the Narrator change his approach somewhat. And basically what he does in this chapter is to speak of his own personal experience in the past as a lesson to the current situation of himself and the people of Jerusalem.
1. Let me explain. If you are familiar with the story of Jeremiah the prophet, the words here in ch. 3 might seem familiar.
a. In Jeremiah 37, for example, Jeremiah was suspected of being a deserter, so he was beaten and put in a dungeon for “many days,” before being released. And so, in v2 and v6, we read of a place of darkness. In v7, we read of being walled about and heavy chains. In v9 we read of being trapped, as it were, by “blocks of stones.”
b. And then in Jeremiah 38, because the people and the king did not like what Jeremiah was prophesying, they cast him into a well or a pit. We read that he was “let down by ropes. And there was [mud] … in the cistern … and Jeremiah sank in the mud.” So again, a place of darkness would be a fitting description of that cistern. And v53 speaks of being “flung alive into the pit” and water closing over his head.
c. Now all of this happened in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Jeremiah was hated by the King and the people; he was very much a lonely and despised voice. And there were many times when it seemed that he was certain to be executed but it did not happen. So, it is quite possible that our Narrator is none other than the prophet Jeremiah who is recalling what happened to him back then.
d. And it seemed to him then that God had abandoned him. His prayers, as we see in v8, seemed to be unheard and unanswered. It even appeared to Jeremiah, as we read in v12, that God was using him for target practice. Things seemed so bleak and hopeless that we read in vv17-18, “My soul is bereft (or empty) of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.”
(1). Have you ever felt like that? It is not an uncommon place to be in for believers.
(2). The Psalmist knew this same feeling. Psalm 88 is known as the darkest Psalm. It has very similar language to what we read here. And unlike other Psalms that end on a note of hope or praise, Psalm 88 ends with these words, “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”
II. And so, as we come to v18, we see that hope FADES. But that is not the end of the story because as we come to vv19-24, we see that hope REMEMBERS.
A. But to help us understand the significance of vv19-24, for you and me today, we must first note one more thing from v18. And it is the last word of v18, which is? “LORD.” And because it is in capital letters, we know that it is the special covenant name of God that the Narrator uses; it is the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush. God said I AM WHO I AM. I AM the unchanging, everlasting, faithful God of covenant mercies. It is the name of God by which He revealed Himself to the people of Israel as a symbol of His close, personal presence with them. So we could call it His ‘relationship name.’
1. Sometimes husbands and wives have special names that they call each other and that are especially meaningful to them as husband and wife. Sometimes a Father might have a special name for his daughters that makes no sense to anyone else but it has to do with the closeness of their relationship. Well, that gives us some idea of how special LORD was to the Jews.
2. And so, even as hope fades for the Narrator, even as his own strength and commitment ebbs away, he preaches to himself just by using the covenant name of the LORD.
3. And you know, you can do this to yourself, people of God; you must do this to yourself, when it seems to you that hope in God is pointless.
4. You see, no matter how bad the Narrator’s circumstances were, and no matter how bad your circumstances are, there is one whose circumstances were far worse than those of any other human being, past, present, or future. And that person is JESUS. The Narrator and you and me have something in common – we are sinners. There is truth in what we read in v39, “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?” Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” We really have no right at all to complain or be upset with any suffering or sorrow we experience, because we are sinners. But Jesus never sinned; He did nothing wrong. And yet, He suffered unspeakable anguish of body and soul, because of your sins and mine, which He took on Himself. He is Immanuel – God with us. Jesus is His relationship name.
5. So when you read a part of the Bible like Lamentations 3:1-18, by all means see your own situation described for a short while, but ask the Spirit of the Lord to quickly turn your attention instead to the suffering and sorrow of your Saviour and Lord, Jesus.
B. And this is what our Narrator does, by faith, in vv19-24, as hope remembers. In vv19-20, he briefly remembers his own situation. But then he ‘CALLS TO MIND’ something else.
1. And that phrase, “call to mind” is very instructive. It is an active choice. He chooses to meditate on something else instead of his own situation/circumstances.
a. And we find this idea used often in Scripture. The fourth commandment has to do with the Lord’s Day. In Deuteronomy the commandment to observe the day is given and then a reason to do so is given. Do you recall how the reason is introduced in Deut. 5? “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” And quite obviously this was not about a trip down memory lane or sweet reminiscing of the good ol’ days for Israel. This was an active calling to mind; a deliberate replaying of the horrible truth of slavery in Egypt as motivation to observe and delight in the rest and freedom of the Lord’s Day.
b. In 2 Timothy 2, Paul writes to Timothy, who was finding the ministry very hard going. He said, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.”
c. Hebrews 12:2 says the same thing to struggling Christians, “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith…” Turn your gaze from yourself and your circumstances to Jesus; fill your thoughts with Jesus.
2. But let’s listen to our Narrator remembering. I am sure you have heard the Hebrew word HESED mentioned before. It is translated in v22 as “steadfast love.” It is the word that best describes the faithful love of the LORD toward His people, Israel. Every verse of Psalm 136 ends with this refrain, “His hesed/steadfast love endures forever.” So our Narrator remembers this truth; he remembers this attribute or characteristic of God. The steadfast love of God toward His people endures forever.
a. Now, in v55 we see that our Narrator called out to God when he was in the pit and the Lord heard his cry and came near and redeemed his life. So our Narrator had personal experience of God’s steadfast love and mercy.
b. And with these words he was calling in the people of Jerusalem to remember the many times that they had experienced God’s steadfast love and mercy.
c. And you and I also, if we were to take out a sheet of paper and a pen, could surely build up quite a list of the times when we personally experienced God’s steadfast love and mercy.
d. But even if the healing we seek from the Lord does not come or the change in circumstances we seek from the Lord do not happen, that does not mean that God has stopped being a God of steadfast love. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Believer, sometimes you will experience the mercies of the Lord with another morning of this life, but one day you will experience the mercies of the Lord with the morning of eternal life!
III. This is the encouragement we receive as hope remembers. And it leads in to vv25-39 where Hope INSTRUCTS.
A. And the instruction of the Narrator is aimed firstly at the people of Jerusalem. He wants them to make good use of the circumstances of hardship that they are experiencing. But his instruction is just as necessary for you and me today. So as we scan our eyes over vv25-30, we see a repeated call to patience and reflection and endurance in the face of trouble.
1. Our Narrator wants God’s people to know that it is spiritually useful to endure times of hardship, like times of injury or illness or injustice or insult.
a. Our Narrator experienced the steadfast love of the Lord, himself, most deeply when he was in the pit.
b. The Apostle Paul experienced the sufficiency of the grace of Christ most when the thorn in his flesh was not removed.
c. Thomas Chisholm, who wrote the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness, experienced that truth most in his frequent times of illness.
d. Robert Browning Hamilton has a poem that goes like this:
I walked a mile with Pleasure; She chattered all the way,
but left me none the wiser for all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow; and ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her when sorrow walked with me.
And I think many of us here will say a knowing Amen! to Hamilton’s poem? We learn so much about the Lord from times of hardship.
2. And what should be learned in times of hardship is what we read in vv31-33: “The Lord will not cast off for ever … Though He cause grief, He will have compassion … He does not afflict from His heart.”
a. And I hope these words remind you of what we read earlier in Hebrews 12 about the discipline of the Lord: “The Lord disciplines the one He loves … He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness … For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
b. So as we come to verse 38, our narrator reminds his readers that both good and bad come from the Lord. And sinners have no right to complain about any hardship they endure. Lady Zion should not be angry with the Lord and see Him as her enemy. And you, dear Christians, must remember that the only one that the Father truly punished was His beloved Son, Jesus. You, He does not punish; you, He disciplines. And there is a world of difference between punishment and discipline; “He disciplines the one he loves … for your good, that you may share His holiness.”
IV. So these are the words of instruction that our Narrator speaks to the people of Jerusalem and to all who would read these words. But next, as we see in vv40-51, Hope CRIES OUT.
A. And what we read here is our Narrator urging his people to confess their sins.
1. 4 or 5 years ago now, as I lay in my hospital bed with a suspected heart attack, I recall receiving a letter that urged me to use this sickness as a call to self-examination. It was not a letter of accusation and it was written very graciously. It simply echoed the Biblical exhortation that we find here and elsewhere in Scripture that we ought to “test and examine our ways” when hardship or crisis comes into our lives. We ought to receive such times as an opportunity from the Lord to ‘take stock,’ as it were.
2. So the Narrator puts himself with Lady Zion; with the people of Jerusalem, and says Our situation of devastation and death should not lead us to point an accusing finger to heaven but instead to get out the mirror of self-examination. Let us “lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” and confess our sins.
B. Now, as we come to v42, where it says, “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven,” we might wonder if this means that the Lord doesn’t always forgive those who confess their sins? But that is not the case. 1 John 1:9 is plain, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
1. What we need to remember is that God had previously told the people of Jerusalem that they would be in exile for 70 years and then He would restore them and rebuild Jerusalem. But at this moment the destruction and exile is still very fresh. As you read on in vv 43-51, their current situation of destroyed walls and dead bodies and the scorn of the surrounding nations reveals that they are still experiencing the discipline of the Lord; the visible time of God’s forgiveness is still in the future.
2. Now is the time for GENUINE CONFESSION AND REPENTANCE. So far, Jerusalem’s tears have been tears of sorrow and grief and even anger at her circumstances but not sorrow for sin.
a. One thing we learn pretty quickly as children is how to pretend we are sorry to avoid punishment or to end it sooner than might have been the case. Do you boys and girls know what I am talking about?
b. Well, we adults know how to play this game too, don’t we brothers and sisters.
c. 2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” The sooner we learn to be sorry for our sins because of what they cost Christ and because they are offensive to God, the sooner we will experience the sense of being forgiven through Christ.
3. Our Narrator knew this. Our Narrator knew that Jerusalem had not yet come to the place of true repentance. And that is why he literally cries in vv48-51; three times we read of him crying because of Jerusalem’s devastation.
V. And so, finally, as we come to vv52-66, Hope PLEADS.
A. You will notice in vv40-51, that the pronouns were “us” and “we” and “our”; the Narrator and the people. But in this section, he goes back to “I” and “me” and “my.” And that is because our Narrator is once again to recalling his own past experience as an encouragement to the people of Israel now; a kind of This is what I experienced then so this is what we all should be praying for now.
1. As we have already said, our Narrator, who might well be the prophet Jeremiah, had personally experienced the Lord’s saving grace.
a. He had been rescued from a pit when death seemed certain. That’s what we read about in vv52-58 as he thought he was lost but he then called on the Lord who redeemed his life.
b. But while he was in the pit, Jeremiah had pleaded with the Lord to punish those who had persecuted him, and the Lord did that. This is what we read in vv59-66 as he calls on the Lord to judge those who plotted against him and to repay them and “to pursue them in anger and destroy them.”
c. So the Narrator is pleading with the people of Jerusalem. He is saying, Trust in the Lord for your deliverance and plead with Him to pour out His vengeance on the Babylonians for what they have done. And we know, from later in history, that the Lord did deliver His people and punish the Babylonians.
2. Now, the language of vv65-66 is what we call IMPRECATION. Imprecation is a prayer that calls down a curse or calamity on someone. You find this language also in the Psalms that are known as the imprecatory Psalms.
a. So if we are being bullied at school or at work or if we are being persecuted for our faith in Christ, should we call on God to destroy the bully or our persecutor?
b. Well, we need to remember that the world of the OT was a world divided into two groups: The Jews – God’s chosen people, and the Gentiles. God had made it very plain that at that stage in history that His saving love was focused pretty much exclusively on the Jews.
c. But you and I live in a time where God has His chosen people in every ethnic group and in every socio-economic group, etc. And God says to us, from Romans 12, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
d. So our calling, looking to Christ and the example He set for us, is to show kindness to our enemies. But even those words in Romans 12, where we are told to leave room for the wrath of God, remind us that God does not and God cannot ignore the continually unrepentant wicked who trample on others. There will come a time when the whole earth – all that lies “under the heavens,” will be cleansed from all evil and evil-doers.
Believer, the Lord Jesus is with you. His steadfast love never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is His faithfulness. Remember that it is good to sit alone in silence and wait for the salvation of the Lord. And do that by turning to Him, each day, in confession and repentance. He says to you, “Surely I am coming soon.” So let your prayer be, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus.”