Monday, January 10, 2011

Hope in God's Character

The final installment in this five-part series on lessons about suffering righteously that we can learn from Jeremiah as we study the book of Lamentations has been a long time coming. The big crunch at the end of last semester prompted me to take a break from the blog in December, and visiting home over the last couple of weeks -- during which time I've had the opportunity to prepare and deliver a sermon -- has monopolized much of my time. I apologize for any of you who have been waiting for this final post. I also hope any of you who have surmised that this blog must just have "gone dark" will come back and continue reading, as I plan to post more regularly again.

That said, now we come to the final, and perhaps most important, lesson that Jeremiah teaches us on suffering well and according to righteousness and faith. In the midst of his intense suffering and deep anguish, Jeremiah does not mourn as one who has no hope (1Th 4:13). Rather, he sets his hope entirely on, and rests in, God's character. He hopes in the restoration of God's people according to His character and His covenant.

Even though there has been broad devastation, Israel was not utterly destroyed. Jeremiah attributes that to Yahweh’s compassion, lovingkindness, and covenant faithfulness. Because his words are so powerful, I simply want to reproduce them here. Please read them thoroughly, and give them much thought. The juxtaposition of "affliction," "wandering," "wormwood" and "bitterness," along with "hope," "lovingkindess," "compassion," and "faithfulness," is so striking and spurs the heart unto much worship.

Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Yahweh's lovingkindnesses [His chesedim] indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.

"Yahweh is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I have hope in Him." Yahweh is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of Yahweh. It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and be silent since He has laid it on him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, perhaps there is hope. Let him give his cheek to the smiter, let him be filled with reproach.

For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.

I hope you lay hold of the magnitude of those words. They come at the dead center of the book of Lamentations (Lam 3:19-32). Yahweh's great covenant faithfulness and loyal and steadfast love according to His own character and name is the centerpiece of Jeremiah's lamentations in his great suffering.

And that is deliberate. Lamentations has the most deliberate, symmetrical structure of any book in the Bible. In chapters 1 and 2, even in the original Hebrew, there are 22 verses that are composed of 3 lines in each verse, for a total of 66 lines in each of the first two chapters. And each verse begins with the successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. In chapter 3, there are 66 verses of one line each, again totaling 66 lines in the chapter. And again, each cluster of three verses begins with successive letters in the alphabet. (So, verses 1-3 start with aleph, 4-6 with beth, and so on.) Chapter 4 has 22 verses composed of two lines each, and chapter 5 has 22 verses with one line each.

All of this gives form and shape to Jeremiah's mourning. Because of Yahweh's great faithfulness to His own name, His steadfast, loyal, covenant love expressed in the repeated term chesed (Lam 3:22, 32), Jeremiah's suffering is not just unbridled grief and despair. Yahweh's fresh mercies and abundant lovingkindnesses keep him from losing control and despairing entirely as those who grieve with no hope (1Th 4:13).

Therefore, though Israel has been exceedingly unfaithful to the covenant which God made with them at Sinai, and though God has chastened them greatly because of it, nevertheless their unfaithfulness will never nullify God’s faithfulness to the word which He spoke to Abraham: to give His people the land He promised (Gen 15:17-18). That is why Paul says in Romans 11 that, from the standpoint of God's election, Israel is beloved for the sake of the fathers (Rom 11:28). God will not violate His covenant. Neither will it nullify God's faithfulness to the word which He spoke to David: to send the Messiah to reign over them forever on the throne of David (2Sam 7:10-16; Ps 89:34-35). And so with the New Covenant: "'If this fixed order departs from before Me,' declares Yahweh, 'then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever.' Thus says Yahweh, 'If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,' declares Yahweh" (Jer 31:36-37; cf. Ps 89:36-37). It is for this reason that Jeremiah can come to the end of his lamentations and declare: "Restore us to You, O Yahweh, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old" (Lam 5:21).

And so in our trials of suffering, we also, as God's people, should faithfully turn to trust in His own faithfulness to His promises. He has sworn by the greatest thing by which there is to swear: Himself. God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb 6:17-20).

We must locate our hope entirely in the covenant faithfulness of God, specifically in His promise of the blessings of the New Covenant:
that the Spirit guarantees our inheritance of dwelling with God in His presence forever – that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:38-39).

Our hope, just as Jeremiah's, is in the Lord’s grace, His ceaseless lovingkindnesses, His never-failing and always-new compassions, for God will always be faithful to Himself (2 Tim 2:13).

Jeremiah's Five Lessons
  1. He identifies with, and suffers alongside, his people.
  2. He acknowledges that sin is at the root of suffering (even though not all suffering is a direct result of personal sin).
  3. He acknowledges God’s absolute sovereignty in his suffering.
  4. He recognizes that although God is sovereign, He is not the enemy.
  5. He sets his hope entirely on, and rests in, God’s character.


Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

I always check in from time to time, and appreciate your commitment to this blog. So, yes, there are many of us out here, who I am sure, watch this blog, love the truth and appreciate those people who teach it and hold fast to its beauty.

It is a great addition to my other Bible studies. I am a bit weak in the OT.

Thank you!

Mike Riccardi said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, Mary! You are an encouragement to me!