New Mercies Recalled When Hope Perishes
July 28, 2019 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: Lamentations | Weeping in Darkness; Waiting for Mercy
Topic: Suffering & Sufficient Grace Passage: Lamentations 3:1–3:33
God's Mercies for those in Darkness
Walking through a gift store, maybe the card isle, you might find these words: “God’s mercies are new every morning.” Behind these words, you’ll also find a rather nice vacation spot: pleasant meadows, beautiful flowers, vibrant sunsets, a peaceful breakfast. Much like this one on the screen…or this one…or this one. Nothing wrong with these. They represent good gifts to be enjoyed.
The problem comes when they lead us to forget the dark context in which these words came. They weren’t recalled at a picnic. They didn’t come at a quiet breakfast table. They came in the face of unspeakable darkness. Lamentations is a response to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. God’s wrath turned against them. He sent Babylon to destroy them. They starved the people, ransacked the city, burned the temple; and those who survived became slaves. To anybody on the ground, all hope seemed lost.
A better backdrop would look something like this... Lamentations was written for people sitting in that sort of darkness. That’s the context in which God’s mercies are recalled. You might not be in a war zone. But perhaps darkness has settled around you relationally and you’re on the brink of losing hope. Perhaps you’re facing the dark consequences of your sin and you’ve given up hope. Perhaps you watch the moral fabric of nations and even churches unravel, and you think, “This is hopeless.”
Listen, God’s mercies are for people sitting there, in that hopeless ruin without escape. This whole book revolves around the center piece of God’s steadfast love and mercies. Chapter 3 is the summit. Lamentations contains five poems. Chapter 3 is the center; and like chapters 1 and 2, it’s an acrostic. The only difference is that chapter 3 triples the pattern. It’s now a-a-a, b-b-b, c-c-c, and so on. The intensity heightens. Then right when you think all hope is lost, God’s new mercies pierce the dark clouds.
The darkness remains; but the ray of hope shines. That’s where we’re heading. In chapter 1, the author simply described lady Zion from outside. In chapter 2, the author comes beside lady Zion and advises her to pray. In chapter 3, though, the author himself becomes one with lady Zion. He describes Zion’s sufferings as his very own. But more than she’s able to do, this Man turns his mind to consider the Lord’s mercy. He wants Zion to hope again. The more we draw near to this Man, the more we’re taught how to wait for the Lord’s mercy while weeping in darkness.
Hope Perished beneath the Wrath of God
We’ll only take half of chapter 3 today. I’ll break it into two parts: hope perished; hope revived. Then we’ll tease out some implications. So first, let’s look at hope perished beneath the wrath of God. Verses 1-18 describe this well…
1 I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; 2 he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; 3 surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. 4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; 5 he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; 6 he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. 7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; 8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; 9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked. 10 He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; 11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; 12 he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. 13 He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; 14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. 15 He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. 16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; 17 my soul is bereft of peace; I’ve forgotten what happiness is; 18 so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.”
Not until verse 18 does he mention the Lord by name. But the Lord is the main Actor throughout. The Man experiences the rod of God’s wrath. Remember, God’s wrath is a pure expression of God’s holiness. It’s not the work of a capricious God flying off the handle. The Lord’s wrath is controlled by his character and used toward good ends—restoring the good, removing the evil. At this point, that meant Israel suffered greatly under God’s curses. God gave the people a covenant—blessings if they obeyed, curses if they rebelled. They broke the covenant. Now the curses fall with devastating force.
The Man first compares God to a shepherd driving him away. Shepherds protect sheep, don’t they? When doing so, they used a rod and staff. The rod amounted to a modified bat to drive predators away. You’re familiar with that image from Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
But here in verse 1 God turns his rod against the people. Their rebellion has turned them into predators. God must drive them away. When he does, God drives them into darkness without any light. They had no choice now. The dark clouds of Babylon’s fury was upon them; and God made them walk into it. Then verse 3—what was normally the nurturing hand of the shepherd was now turned against the people all day long.
Next, he compares God to a master builder walling him in. Verse 4 speaks of his flesh and skin wasting away. That’s because he’s starving inside a besieged city. Quite literally Babylon built a siege around the city. The effects were awful: as we noted in chapter 2, even mothers were driven by hunger to eat their children. And not just the physical armies surrounding them, but the whole bitter experience walled him in. So he says in verse 5, “he has besieged…me with bitterness.”
Verse 6 says, “he made me dwell in darkness like the dead long ago.” Nothing has changed for those who died long ago. They’re still dead and forgotten. The grave doesn’t let go. He saying, “I mine as well be dead too. But I still breathe and have to put up with feeling death all the time. I dwells there. I sleeps in it. I wake up again with death all around me. There’s no escaping it either. Verse 7, “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…” Notice, blocks of stones. Meaning, they’re carefully cut and intentionally placed to block him in. At every exit he finds another wall. All he has is prayer, but even that gets shut out.
He also compares God to a hunter pursuing his prey. Hosea 13:4-8 is helpful. Hosea prophesied before the exile. God explained that he saved Israel. He cared for them in the wilderness. He gave them everything in the land. But then “they forgot me,” he says. “So I am to them like a lion…I will fall upon them like a bear…” God turned on them like a predator because they forgot him. They abandoned God for idols.
Therefore they had to suffer his judgment. Lamentations 3:10 is the fulfillment of Hosea’s words. “He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces.” Even more, “he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver.” Babylon fired the shots. But from God’s perspective, Babylon was but an instrument in his hand.
What’s the result for this Man? Absolute humiliation and hopelessness. Verse 14, “I’ve become the laughingstock of all peoples…” The NASB has the better translation: “I’ve become the laughingstock to all my people.” The humiliation is worse than a bunch of pagan nations scoffing. His own people laugh at him. This is the same guy trying to get lady Zion to pray in chapter 2. In just a moment, he’ll encourage them to hope. They’re laughing at him like, “What planet are you living on?”
The man thirsts for something different to ease his pain, but all the Lord gives him to drink is bitterness and wormwood—verse 15. Wormwood was a bitter herb. It’s the opposite of what God did for the people in Exodus 15, when he made the bitter water sweet. Deuteronomy 29:17 and Jeremiah indicate that God gave bitter water to punish idolatry. The people said, “I shall be safe though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” But here we see that to follow the stubbornness of your heart isn’t safe; it’s deadly.
Verse 16, “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes.” Utter humiliation. Face shoved in the dirt. Verse 17, “My soul is bereft of peace; I’ve forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.’” This is rock bottom. There’s nothing left. No peace. No blessing. No happiness over the bounty of God’s favor. It’s all gone.
And why? Because of their sin. Because they wanted to do things their way. In verse 42 he’ll say they transgressed the covenant and rebelled. Sin made God their enemy; and as long as the Lord is your enemy, you have no hope. Doesn’t Ephesians 2:12 say the same? We were strangers to the covenants, having no hope and without God in the world. When God is your enemy, hope perishes.
Hope Revives before the Mercy of God
What, then, can anybody do? In such a hopeless ruin without escape, where does one turn? The Man can’t look to himself? He’s powerless. The Man can’t run to the world? That’s what got him here to begin with. The Man can’t even run to his own people. They’re in the same boat. Even worse, they laugh at him. His only hope is for the Lord to show mercy. Somehow, someway for the Judge to show mercy and pardon him.
So that’s where he turns. Hope revives before the mercy of God. Verse 19 could be an initial prayer: “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!” Or it could further describe his desperate state: “To remember my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall. My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.” Layer upon layer of pain crushes his soul.
But right in the middle of that pain, God’s mercy give birth to hope. Verse 21, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” He doesn’t have hope because of his mental wherewithal. This isn’t the power of positive thinking. He has hope because of this—something outside himself; and here it is: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they’re new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”
What gives him hope? The steadfast love of the Lord. Even better, it’s in the plural: the steadfast loves of the Lord. His love is kaleidoscopic. But let’s focus on this word. Translations will use “kindness” or “loving kindness.” The ESV has “steadfast love.” The word describes God’s unwavering covenant commitment to glorify his mercy in saving a people when those very people can’t offer anything in return.
Now, to see the beauty of this steadfast love, we’re going to zoom out. I’ll explain how it came together for me; and you can test it. But since Mount Sinai, the people are under the Mosaic covenant. The blessings of that covenant were conditioned on obedience. If they broke the covenant, they had to endure the curses. Well, on multiple occasions, Israel breaks the covenant. What’s interesting, though—when they break the covenant, the faithful would ask the Lord to forgive them according to his steadfast love. Or whenever God renews the covenant, it’s always based on his steadfast love.[i]
That made me wonder: when they appeal to God’s steadfast love, are they appealing to a commitment God made that stands above the Mosaic covenant? Was there a commitment God made to save a people prior to the Mosaic covenant; and on the basis of that unwavering commitment, they’re hoping for forgiveness? Yes!
Deuteronomy 7 helped me connect the dots. The Lord explains to Israel that he didn’t love them because they were so great. He loved them simply because he chose to love them, and because he was committed to the oath he made with their fathers—namely, Abraham. That’s where God made an unwavering commitment to glorify his mercy in saving a people for himself when those very people couldn’t offer anything in return. How do we know they couldn’t offer anything? Enter Mosaic covenant—fail, renewal, fail; renewal, fail; renewal, fail; renewal, exile. They can’t offer anything.
This Man in Lamentations knows that. He knows they deserve God’s wrath. How then can they be saved?! Through the covenant God made with Abraham. That one is based wholly on God’s grace and not works. It’s based wholly on God’s unwavering commitment to glorify his mercy in saving a people. And how committed was he? So committed that if the people themselves couldn’t hold up their end of the covenant, then God himself would come and fulfill it for them. More than that, he would take on himself the punishment they deserved for breaking the covenant. All this to ensure all the families of the earth would be blessed in Abraham’s offspring.
So this steadfast love has a history to it. When you see the faithful leaning on God’s steadfast love as their only hope, they know they’ve got nothing to offer God in return. Their only hope is that he glorify his mercy in saving them. But this steadfast love also has a future. It climaxes in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In Jesus we find the full revelation of God’s steadfast love. In Jesus we find God becoming man to fulfill what we couldn’t keep. In Jesus we find God the Son taking on himself the punishment we deserved. In Jesus we find not the old covenant renewed once again; we find the old covenant fulfilled and, even better, surpassed by a new covenant that can’t be broken.
And you know what happens under the new covenant? A divine reversal of the curses in Lamentations. Here God’s curse was likened to a shepherd driving them away. But in Christ he says “I give [my sheep] eternal life…and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Here God’s curse forced them to walk in darkness. But in Christ we’ve been saved from the darkness and brought into God’s marvelous light. Here the Man has no peace. But in Christ we gain peace by the blood of his cross. Here the Man has no home. But in Christ we’re made part of God’s household—we find an eternal home.
The gospel of Jesus proves that this Man of Lamentations 3 didn’t hope in vain. His hope was realized in Christ; and there’s more to come with the new heavens and earth. That’s why it says “steadfast loves” in verse 22. They’re many! More than that, they never cease. Why? Because God never ceases to exist. They’re bound up with his character. As long as he lives, he’s committed to pouring out love on his people. His mercies never come to an end for them. They’re new every morning.
Circumstances will fluxuate. Sufferings will come and go, and sometimes come to stay. But for his people, God remains totally committed to saving them. His love toward them never changes. Great is his faithfulness! Think about those words. God has been faithful to his word in judging them. But there’s hope even in that, because that means God will also be faithful to his word in saving the people he loves.
Now, we know this fuller revelation in Jesus Christ. This Man didn’t. But he clung to what he did know of it. In fact, he clung to it so much that God became his portion—“The Lord is my portion,” he says. He didn’t need the dark circumstances to change in order for him to have hope. For so many people—hard times hit and they spend every waking moment trying to change their circumstances to produce hope and they find hope constantly fleeting. Where was his hope? In the Lord himself. He is constant in love and unwavering in his commitment to save his people.
He then moves to explain the Lord’s goodness further, as well as how they should respond. God’s steadfast love is awesome; but it wasn’t like the darkness was going to suddenly lift. Everything is ruined. Invaders control the place. Even if God returned them to the land immediately, nothing was left. So the next few lines teach them how to respond while they wait for God’s mercy. Verse 25,
25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. 26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. 27 It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. 28 Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; 29 let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; 30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.
What should their response be? Wait before the Lord in a posture of humility. Trust that his purpose is ultimately good. He’s thankful some of them are younger—better to enter the rough days of exile while young. He’s telling the young people not to miss the lessons the Lord wants to teach them through their sufferings. There’s a purpose to the sufferings, in other words.
“Sit alone in silence,” he says in verse 28. Not absolute silence. The whole book is teaching them how to lament. But once you’ve cried out, learn to sit and wait patiently for the Lord to act. Verse 29 describes a posture of humility. Verse 30 takes it further—“Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes…” Meaning, the exile isn’t in vain. It’s not pointless suffering. God is at work in and through it. He disciplines his people there. They must learn to receive the pain from his hand.
Even in the pain, he’s trustworthy and good. That’s where verses 31-33 enter the picture. “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” So, he causes grief in the sense that he stands behind it—that’s verse 32. But it’s temporary, he will have compassion; and when the pain comes, know that he doesn’t afflict or grieve you from his heart.
Meaning, God isn’t a bloodthirsty sadist. He’s not scheming and getting his pleasure from afflicting his people. Rather, he is good to those who wait for him. His affliction has a good purpose. To cause his people to return. We’ll talk about that more next week. Today, let me close with a few implications.
1. You have no hope without the Lord’s steadfast love in Jesus Christ. Trust in him.
The first 18 verses paint a clear picture. God’s wrath is all consuming. He wrecks people caught in their sins. He closes you in on every side till all hope perishes. He may be wrecking some of you right now. You’ve hit rock bottom; you can’t see up. If you don’t turn to God’s steadfast love in Christ, you will perish without hope.
But if you trust in the Lord’s steadfast love—if you cherish Jesus and what God did in Jesus to save you—there’s an abundance of hope. Your sins forgiven, your guilty conscience cleansed, God becomes your Father, the Holy Spirit becomes your assurance, the kingdom becomes your inheritance, resurrection your hope.
Look at these people. These were covenant breakers just like you. Yet they appeal to God’s steadfast love. No human wrong is beyond God’s mercy where true repentance exists. Turn from your sin and to the Lord Jesus and find a good Father in God. He abounds in steadfast love and mercy, one committed to your hope in him.
2. In Christ hope is always possible, even in the darkest of circumstances.
Maybe you think you’ve strayed too far into sin. Maybe your life is filled with darkness—sin has wrecked your family; you’ve hurt other people; a spouse has been unfaithful and sent you reeling. Maybe you’ve seen the rapid moral decline in our nation; and that increasing darkness frightens you for coming generations. Maybe you’re in a place like the family I read about earlier this week. The kids were playing with their daddy at the ocean. A wave knocked his head against a rock and the Lord took him.
Hope is still possible there. Why? Because God’s steadfast love never ceases. He is unwaveringly committed to glorifying his mercy in your life. Lamentations exists to help us trust this God in the darkness. To trust his heart when we can’t trace his hand, as someone once said. It teaches us how to wait and learn and submit to his good purposes even in pain. God meets his people there in the darkness to bring us hope.
Just look at the cross again. There’s no greater darkness than the darkness Jesus knew at the cross. He suffered the rod of God’s wrath like no other. All our sin upon his shoulders. He lamented, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?!” Yet in and through it, God the Father remained faithful to him. He raised him from the dead three days later, vindicating his glory and securing our hope in a new heavens and new earth. That’s why hope is possible (indeed, guaranteed!) for God’s people: Christ died—darkness. But Christ is risen and Christ will come again!
3. Learn to lament. Be honest about the darkness while recalling the good news of God’s mercy.
This Man doesn’t shy away from acknowledging sin. He’s very real about how awful things get. He doesn’t ignore reality. He processes his despair: “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord…my soul is bowed down within me.” He doesn’t even ignore the Lord’s hand of judgment. He knows God is behind it. But he doesn’t stop there. Many people stop at the despair. They wallow in self-pity. Some get so used to the darkness, they stop trying. Some miss the fullness of God’s character; they only see wrath but forget to see his steadfast love.
But this man rehearses the good news of God’s mercy: “but this I call to mind.” The Hebrew has, “I cause this to return to my heart.” We have to be disciplined thinkers in the darkness. This Man does what we see David do in his laments. “Why are you downcast, O my soul…Hope in God!” He argues with himself. He preaches to himself. Sometimes the darkness will cause us to say things like, “It’s just hopeless! Nothing can change this! I’m stuck!” But we have to argue back. Make concerted efforts to recall the good news of God’s mercies. And when you see a brother or sister too weak to recall those mercies—do what this man does here. Go sit with Zion in her pain and then walk her up to the summit of God’s never ending mercies.
They’re new every morning. Everything we need to walk through the darkness, to wait on the Lord, he will give us. Morning by morning new mercies he will give. Including the best and most hope-giving gift of all, the gift of himself! Which leads to another implication…
4. True hope isn’t determined by your circumstances but by the Lord being your portion.
Verse 23 again: “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The God who abounds in steadfast love—that God is his portion. Therefore he has hope. Hope will not last for you, if your trust is in your financial freedom. Hope will not last, if your trust is in a perfect marriage, or in your dream career, or in a healthy immune system, or even in your local church. In our culture, so many people are jaded and depressed and anxious right now. The Lord needs to become their portion.
When you have the Lord, you have everything. He is more than enough. The only hope that lasts is one that’s bound up with the God whose love is forever. Church, the Lord has given us a sign that points to the Lord’s forever love. While we wait in the darkness, he has given us a sign pointing to his never ending mercies. Here at the Lord’s Supper is a perfect opportunity to make the Lord your portion once again. To have him is to have all you need. To have him is to be reassured of his unwavering covenant commitment to glorify his mercy in saving you. Ben, would you come lead us?
[i] E.g., Exod 34:6-7; Num 14:18; Ps 25:6-7; 50:1.