Trusting the Lord When Darkness Lingers
August 4, 2019 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: Lamentations | Weeping in Darkness; Waiting for Mercy
Topic: Suffering & Sufficient Grace Passage: Lamentations 3:34–66
Descending the Mountain of Lament
Last May, Rachel and I enjoyed a trip to Colorado. The mountains were majestic—my first time to see them. One morning we hiked a short path up the side of a mountain. At the top of the trail was a beautiful waterfall. The snow melt and rains had it gushing. Really stunning. Truly amazed by the grandeur of God’s creation. The only negative was eventually having to descend. We had to come back down…and then drive through flat West Texas.
The second half of Lamentations is like descending a mountain. At the top of the mountain is a robust revelation of God’s steadfast love. His mercies are never ending. They’re new every morning. But now our descent must begin. As you might expect, that also means revisiting the same darkness we saw climbing up the mountain. Chapters 1 and 2 described the dark horrors of God’s wrath. Chapters 4 and 5 will describe more of that same darkness. The second half of chapter 3 starts moving that direction.
That structure is deliberate. It matches their reality. God’s steadfast love never ceases—Yes and Amen! But that doesn’t mean the darkness lifts immediately. The darkness lingers. We never forget the waterfall of God’s love toward the top. But the question becomes, “How do we hold on to that vision when the darkness still greets us in the morning?” When sitting in darkness, God’s people need help knowing how to wait for mercy’s fullness. Israel needed the help; we need the help.
The rest of chapter 3 is that help. This Man knows the darkness lingers as he descends the mountain of lament. But it’s as if he takes Zion’s hand at this point, and teaches her how to process the darkness in light of God’s unwavering character. He walks with her down the mountain saying, “This is how you wait, beloved. The exile is awful. The curses are dark. But God’s mercies never end, God rules over all, he’s just in all his dealings—and that knowledge of God helps us know how to wait.”
I want to draw out four ways God’s people should respond in the darkness while they wait for his mercies. But I also want to be very clear. These responses don’t leave behind the vision of God’s steadfast love. They grow out of it. So, as we move through these four ways to respond, I want to keep the connections to God’s steadfast love close —especially as those connections play out for us under the new covenant in Jesus. All four points are your application—so don’t look for anything more at the end of the sermon. This is really Part B to last week.
1. Embrace the Lord’s justice in and his sovereignty over your circumstances.
So here we go with the first way God’s people should respond when darkness lingers: embrace the Lord’s justice in and his sovereignty over your circumstances. In verses 34-36 we find his justice: “To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth, to deny a man justice in the presence of the Most High, to subvert a man in his lawsuit, the Lord does not approve.” Or perhaps yours ends with a rhetorical question: “Does not the Lord see?” Answer: “Yes, of course he sees all the injustice.”
Here’s the situation. Babylon has been utterly ruthless. They didn’t walk into Jerusalem and say, “We’re here on God’s behalf. We’ve been sent as his instruments to humble you. Now please make your exit.” No. Babylon acted of their own accord. They carried out God’s will, but they did so unknowingly. They themselves were driven by their own pride and lust for power. They show no mercy. They starve the people for eighteen months. They enslave the survivors. They put yokes on the elderly that were exceedingly heavy. They raped the women. They were utterly unjust.
Now, if you were experiencing this and you knew God stood behind the events; you knew God sent Babylon, wouldn’t you begin to ask God some questions? The Man doesn’t question whether Israel deserved the punishment—he knows they did. What could be easily questioned, though, is why God allows the nations to prosper in their injustice. Sit long enough under Babylon’s cruelty and the questions start shifting from, “How’s Babylon so cruel?” to “How’s God not doing anything here? Where are you, Lord, when our women and children are treated this way? Don’t you see me?”
But the Man’s point is that God does see the injustice. God does not approve the injustice. That’s something to hold on to in the darkness. No matter how bad this darkness gets, God won’t compromise his justice. He sees. He will act.
At the same time, Zion must also embrace God’s sovereignty over the circumstances. Verse 37, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” Your translation might have “evils” or “calamities.” In other words, everything happens under the Lord’s sovereign decree. The language in verse 37 is the same we find at Genesis 1. God commands and creation comes into existence. So also here with the judgments that fell on Jerusalem. Babylon came because God said so.
Now, in case you’re wondering—yes, this means that God’s judgments sometimes operate through the sinful acts of human agents, and those human agents remain morally accountable for their wickedness. Isaiah 10 is another good example: God wields Assyria like an axe in his hand. Then God condemns Assyria for their pride. So also here. Babylon is accountable (God is just) even though God used their wickedness to execute his judgment on Jerusalem (God is sovereign).
This doesn’t mean God stands behind the bad in the same way he stands behind the good. “He’s not a God who delights in wickedness”—Psalm 5:4. “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone”—James 1:13. Or even here in verse 33, God “does not afflict the children of man from his heart.” Nevertheless, the Bible is also clear that God wills to permit the evil acts of men. God guides those evil acts such that they always achieve his purpose—in this case, Babylon’s evil achieve God’s purpose in judgment. And, finally, God will bring those evil acts toward a good end like the vindication of his justice and even the repentance of his people.
Which is where he heads next—their repentance. But before going there, lets chew on these truths a bit more. If there was ever a time we see the justice of God and the sovereignty of God displayed most clearly, it’s in the cross of Christ. God planned the cross of Christ down to the way Judas would dip his bread into the cup. His word in the Old Testament laid out every detail. Herod, Pontius Pilot, the Gentiles, the Jews—they did exactly what God’s hand and God’s plan predestined to take place—Acts 4:28.
Once again, God used the sinful acts of the nations to execute his judgment against Israel; only with Jesus the judgment fell on an innocent Israelite. How do we know Jesus was innocent? Because God raised him from the dead. Why did Jesus suffer God’s judgment, then? Because that’s what our sins deserved; and that’s where the cross teaches us about God’s justice as well. In order to uphold his righteous character and save us, God had to punish our sins; and he did so in Jesus. At the cross, God’s steadfast love provided what God’s justice required.
Whether it’s here in Lamentations or at the cross, God reveals to us that he is sovereign over the darkness and he is just in the darkness. Dark circumstances will sometimes tempt you to believe otherwise. They will force you to wrestle with questions like, “God, are you really in control here? God, are you really good here? God, do you see what he’s doing to me?” When those questions come, we must return to the cross and to the word of God that says, “Child, yes, I see what’s happening to you. I do not approve the injustice. I will act. I’m in control. This evil won’t be forever. My steadfast love is forever; but this evil I will bring to an end. I’m sovereign.”
Both aspects to God’s character become comforters in the darkness. They show us that our calamities have boundaries to them. They’re not raging out of control. God stands over them. He guides them. He’ll bring them to a good end. Even if we can’t see the bigger picture, we can trust the Lord is sovereign and he’s just.
2. Examine your ways with humility and return to the Lord.
A second response while God’s people wait—repentance. Examine your ways with humility and return to the Lord. He starts moving there in verse 39: “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?” God commanded punishment for their sins. But what amazes him is that he’s still alive. He’s a living man. He deserved much worse, but God spared him. God had mercy on him, and on others in Israel as well. There’s still time to repent, in other words: “I have breath!”
That mercy moves him toward repentance in verse 40: “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD! Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven.” Test. Examine. That involves a diligent search to see if there be any hidden evil.[i] Not as an end in itself—some people are so introspective they forget the Lord. It turns into a kind of self-salvation at that point. We’re talking here of a healthy introspection done in relation to the Lord. Right? He’s the goal.
Test and examine our ways and return to the Lord.[ii] Repentance isn’t just feeling guilty. It’s not just saying “Sorry.” It’s not even just saying No to evil desires. Most important to repentance is a return to the Lord himself. He mentions lifting the heart and hands to the Lord. True repentance will have outward expression, but not without the inward transformation. That’s what this Man wants for the people.
At this point, they haven’t repented. As a result, all they’ve received is God’s wrath. He can’t help but reflect on it again in verse 42: “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” This isn’t a confession yet; he’s simply rehearsing the historical facts of God’s wrath in response to their sin. Verse 43…
43 You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us, killing without pity; 44 you have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through. 45 You have made us scum and garbage among the peoples. 46 All our enemies open their mouths against us; 47 panic and pitfall have come upon us, devastation and destruction; 48 my eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.
Once the Lord wrapped them about like an eagle spreading wings over her young. But in exile the Lord wrapped himself with wrath. He also shut out their prayers. Which really amounts to the Lord treating the people the same way they treated him. Zechariah 7:13 says, “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear.” He gave them what they wanted. Israel was also supposed to be a city set on a hill, a light. Without the Lord, though, they’re a pile of human waste.
Not only that, panic and pitfall was upon them. Pitfall conveys an animal fleeing for its life only to fall into a trap. Panic appears in the curses of Deuteronomy 28; and I want to read you verses 66-67 so you get a better idea. It says, “Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see.”
That historical experience of God’s wrath moves this Man to cry for God’s help with utter urgency. Verse 49, “My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the LORD from heaven looks down and sees; my eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the daughters of my city.” The man wrestles with God in prayer. He will not let go until God acts. The Man is desperate for the Lord’s help. He sees the awful consequences of sin. He sees their need for forgiveness. So he weeps and he weeps and he weeps.
Here’s a picture of true repentance. It acknowledges that our sins are first and foremost an offense to God. It recognizes that God is right to judge them with the severest punishment. It acknowledges that true restoration will come only when God acts to save and only when the heart truly returns to the Lord.
Repentance isn’t something that ceased under the new covenant. Repentance actually became more urgent with the coming of Jesus. Why? Because the kingdom of God is at hand in Jesus. The coming of Christ meant God’s kingdom is breaking into the present order already; and people must respond to his coming.
But even more, the coming of Christ is what makes repentance even possible. That doesn’t mean Old Testament saints couldn’t repent, but that their repentance anticipated the freedom from sin that all God’s people experience with the work of Christ. Christ’s death and resurrection snapped the power of sin for God’s people. His Spirit creates in us a new heart that loves God and hates what is evil. His gospel awakens us to truth so that we turn from idols to serve the living and true God.
We may not always know why dark times linger. But we can hate the sin that causes the darkness and return to the Lord who saves from it. That’s not to say that every pain you experience comes as a result of a specific sin in your life. Again, Lamentations is a book that reflects primarily on deserved suffering. At the same time, darkness, death, curse, judgment, brokenness—the whole creation groans ultimately because of sin.
So when we walk through the darkness, it’s right for us to hate sin afresh. It’s right for us to mourn the tragic consequences of sin. One author put it this way, “Lamentations reminds us that underlying our lives is a foundational brokenness connected to the presence of sin in the world. Without sin there would be no lament…Funerals and laments remind us that sin is serious.”[iii] When we experience dark times, let us examine our ways with humility and return to the Lord. At times, the Lord ordains severe trials to rid his people of sin and drive them back into his arms.
3. Remember the Lord’s past faithfulness to deliver you.
A third response while waiting: remember the Lord’s past faithfulness to deliver you. Right in the middle of his excruciating pain, he remembers how the Lord saved him once before. Verse 52,
52 I’ve been hunted like a bird by those who were my enemies without cause; 53 they flung me alive into the pit and cast stones on me; 54 water closed over my head; I said, “I am lost.” 55 I called on your name, O LORD, from the depths of the pit; 56 you heard my plea, “Do not close your ear to my cry for help!” 57 You came near when I called on you; you said, “Do not fear!”
This Man went through a situation where enemies treated him unjustly. At the human level, they were “without cause.” He says they flung him into a pit and cast stones on him. Jeremiah experienced similar treatment. We read about this in Jeremiah 38. King Zedekiah hands him over and they let Jeremiah down into a cistern. Jeremiah sank in the mud. Their intent? To starve him to death.
Whether this is Jeremiah or not, this Man had an experience that nearly ended his life. The water closed over his head. He says, “I am lost.” Without a miracle, he’s finished. But he calls on the Lord’s name: “Do not close your ear…” By the way, that’s not a prayer any person was likely to here; the water had closed over his head. It’s utter desperation. That’s what the man felt; that’s what Israel feels in exile.
And the Lord draws near and says, “Do not fear!” Don’t you love the contrast? “I’m lost!”—“Do not fear.” He’s still alive; so obviously the Lord spared him. But consider what those words meant in exile: “do not fear.” God’s past deliverance gives him hope. “Do not fear” means he can seek the Lord. The Lord will act again.
Beloved, this is the pattern of the faithful throughout Scripture. In the face of enemies, in the face of suffering, on days when God seems absent and not listening, when they’re at their wits end, when they can’t see a way out—the faithful recall God’s past deliverances. They meditate on them. They preach them to themselves. They rehearse them back to God. They sing them over one another. God’s past faithfulness gives their feet a rock: “If God revealed himself this way before, he has hope.”
How much more is that kind of hope reassured for us under the new covenant in Christ. We were desperately lost. We weren’t just drowning in a pit; we were dead in our transgressions and sins—lifeless on the bottom. Then the new birth awakened us to a Savior like none other. We called on him; and he delivered us. Where? At the cross of Jesus Christ! In the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
He came to seek and save the lost. He came to give his life as a ransom for many. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Jesus] will be saved.” He came to save us from the depths of the pit. His resurrection power will one day raise our dead body from the grave, and you will live forever with him. But we don’t have to wait till then to have hope that God will hear us. In Jesus, God so reconciled us to himself that we have his word of assurance: I will never leave you or forsake you.
We who are in Christ have his ear all the time. We cry Abba! And he calls us sons and daughters. He says, “Cast your anxieties upon the Almighty God, because he cares for you.” And you might be asking, “But how can I be sure? The darkness is pretty thick right now, I hurt all the time, he’s not treating me rightly, life really sucks right now—how do I know he cares?” God’s past faithfulness to deliver you. Look at the cross. That’s how you know. There’s a cross, where God dealt with our biggest problem. There he rescued us from our greatest lost-ness. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” That’s where we look. We’re going to look there again at the Lord’s Supper.
4. Trust in the Lord’s future faithfulness to right all wrongs.
Before we do, though, let’s finish out chapter 3 with one more way to respond when the darkness lingers: trust in the Lord’s future faithfulness to right all wrongs. Remember how the man recalled the Lord’s justice in verses 34-36—the Lord doesn’t approve injustice? That truth gives this Man a future hope that God will deliver him from his enemies and judge all wrong. In fact, I love the way verse 58 begins with “You have taken up my cause…You have redeemed my life.” God himself becomes the Man’s Lawyer and the Man’s Redeemer. God will argue his case; he will set the Man free.
58 You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life. 59 You’ve seen the wrong done to me, O LORD; judge my cause. 60 You’ve seen all their vengeance, all their plots against me. 61 You’ve heard their taunts, O LORD, all their plots against me. 62 The lips and thoughts of my assailants are against me all the day long. 63 Behold their sitting and their rising; I’m the object of their taunts. 64 You will repay them, O LORD, according to the work of their hands. 65 You will give them dullness of heart; your curse will be on them. 66 You will pursue them in anger and destroy them from under your heavens, O LORD.
Let’s get this straight, because a prayer like this seems pretty harsh—it reminds us of some of the imprecatory prayers in the Psalms. But when he prays for God to judge his enemies, it’s not a prayer from self-righteousness. Look back at 1:21-22. “All my enemies have heard of my trouble; they’re glad that you’ve done it. You’ve brought the day you announced; now let them be as I am. Let all their evildoing come before you, and deal with them as you’ve dealt with me because of all my transgressions.”
He knows Israel deserved God’s judgment, because of their transgressions. He knows that he himself deserved worse than what he got—that was verse 39. He also knows that his only hope is God’s steadfast love and mercy—that was verses 22-24. So the prayer doesn’t come from self-righteousness. It comes from a desire to see God glorify his justice in the saving of his people from their enemies.
And notice how comprehensive it is. In verse 66, “You will pursue them in anger and destroy them from under your heavens, O LORD.” “Every place under heaven where injustice prospers—judge it, Lord! Make it right! Prove yourself glorious in bringing all evildoers to an end!” He trusts God to take up his cause this way.
Do you in the midst of darkness? Do you trust the Judge of all the earth to do what is right? Do you trust that God will take up your cause and redeem your life? If you’re outside of Jesus; if you’re your own savior and pretending like you don’t need the Savior, God will not take up your cause and redeem your life. You will only experience his wrath when he comes to right all wrongs. But if you trust that Jesus bore God’s wrath in your place; and if you now long for Jesus’ kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, O beloved, then God will fight for you. He will Judge for you.
Knowing that God will judge our enemies becomes a comfort to the believer under the new covenant as well. Knowing God will right all wrongs becomes a comfort when the darkness lingers, especially when that darkness settles because of injustice done to us. Again, let’s consider Jesus here. If there was ever an injustice suffered, it was the injustices committed against Jesus who had done no wrong.
But 1 Peter 2:23 says this: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” In the darkness, Jesus entrusted himself to him who judges justly—his Father. In the darkness, we too can entrust ourselves to him who judges justly. Why? Because we’ve been reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus’ cross. God is now for us; and if God is for us, who can be against us ultimately?
That cross we cherish as our salvation is also our assurance that God is a God of justice. In his future faithfulness, he will right all wrongs. You may be reeling because of betrayal. You may be angered by sins committed against you. You may be discouraged because you see evil prospering. You may be brokenhearted by the moral rebellion of our culture and its leaders, who slaughter the innocent and who trample God’s good designs for humanity underfoot. You may be asking questions like, “Lord, do you see?”
Rest assured, beloved, the Lord sees. In his future faithfulness, he will right all wrongs. Until then, we have the freedom to leave peaceably with all. That's how Paul applies the Lord's vengence in Romans 12.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 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.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:6-12, Paul draws on the Lord's final judgment of all evil to encourage the saints who are experiencing unjust persecution. He then leaves them with this prayer to stregnthen them, and I want to leave it with you all as well:
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Let’s proclaim that kingdom hope now as we take the Lord’s Supper.
[i] Think of Proverbs 2:4, where acquiring wisdom requires searching for it as for hidden treasures.
[ii] Returning to the Lord is the most common way the Old Testament talks about repentance. E.g., Isa 6:10; Hos 3:5; Zech 1:1-6; Ps 78:34; Lam 5:21.
[iii] Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 101.