Restore Us to Yourself, O Lord!
September 8, 2019 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: Lamentations | Weeping in Darkness; Waiting for Mercy
Topic: Suffering & Sufficient Grace Passage: Lamentations 5:1–22
The World Is Hurting
From the Bahamas. Hurricane Dorian “wiped out many homes, and in some cases, entire neighborhoods were mashed into rubble.”[i] From Somalia. The UN reports that Somalia experienced the worst harvest since 2011, with more than two million expected to go hungry.”[ii] From Mexico. Estimates of 20,000 people currently seek asylum in the US, but new policies mean some must remain in life-threatening conditions while awaiting their court hearings.[iii] From Texas here at UTA. “Two foreign exchange students [from India] drowned at a popular tourist destination” last weekend.[iv] From Afghanistan. “[A] car bomb exploded and killed U.S. and Romanian service members and 10 civilians in a busy diplomatic area…in Kabul on Thursday.”[v]
Here’s the connection: the world is hurting. The nations know pain. Darkness, death, devastation—the nations groan. People ache. They despair. They weep…much like Israel did in exile. Israel’s dark and painful exile retells the world’s story. Just as Israel’s sin banished them from God’s presence and sent them into a world of pain, so the world’s sin has done the same. Lamentations meets people there, in the pain. It teaches people how to process that pain. It explains the pain, why it exists at all, and then leads people to the God who meets us there; the God who listens there; the God who saves us there; the God who reigns over evil there and brings it to an end.
The nations need to hear about that God. We need to hear about that God—how he relates to us in our pain and how we relate to him. Chapter 5 lays further groundwork for that relationship. How ought we to pray in pain? What about the Lord’s character should lead us to trust him in pain? Chapter five answers these questions.
Chapter 5 also differs from the other chapters. Chapters 1-4 maintained an acrostic pattern, as if to explain their sorrows from A to Z.[vi] But with chapter 5, the acrostic pattern disappears. It’s also the shortest of the five poems in Lamentations. It’s as if the pain of the previous chapters so overwhelm, he can’t keep it together. He’s spent. All that’s left is one final burst of a prayer in chapter 5.
But you’ll also notice that the Man isn’t alone anymore. Now we hear “us” and “we” and “our.” The faithful in Zion who once sat alone without any hope—they now join him in a final appeal for God to act. Painful as they were, the previous chapters have renewed the people’s hope. So they pray. Their words become very instructive. To grasp that instruction, let’s first read the passage and then answer three questions. Verse 1…
1 Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace! 2 Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners. 3 We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows. 4 We must pay for the water we drink; the wood we get must be bought. 5 Our pursuers are at our necks; we are weary; we’re given no rest. 6 We’ve given the hand to Egypt, and to Assyria, to get bread enough. 7 Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities. 8 Slaves rule over us; there’s none to deliver us from their hand. 9 We get our bread at the peril of our lives, because of the sword in the wilderness. 10 Our skin is hot as an oven with the burning heat of famine. 11 Women are raped in Zion, young women in the towns of Judah. 12 Princes are hung up by their hands; no respect is shown to the elders. 13 Young men are compelled to grind at the mill, and boys stagger under loads of wood. 14 The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music. 15 The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning. 16 The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned! 17 For this our heart has become sick, for these things our eyes have grown dim, 18 for Mount Zion which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it. 19 But you, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. 20 Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days? 21 Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old— 22 unless you’ve utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
What’s the lingering problem?
I’ll skip some verses here and there at first. But eventually we’ll come back to them. I want to answer three questions about chapter 5. Number one: what’s the lingering problem? The fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC is behind them. Chapter 5 is deeper into exile. They’ve been there a while; and they summarize their state with the word “disgrace” in verse 1—“look and see our disgrace” (or “reproach”). That’s significant because God once made Jerusalem great. The city was like a princess among the provinces—beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the land.[vii] But now, only disgrace.
Verses 2-18 then describe what that disgrace included. For starters, they lost their inheritance. Integral to God’s purpose was giving Israel the land of Canaan as an inheritance. Much like he set Adam in the Garden, God set Israel in the Land. As Graeme Goldsworthy put it, Israel would be God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. At the same time, if Israel rejected God’s rule, they’d forfeit the Land. God would strip it away, banish them. So verse 2 says, “Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers…”
More than that, though, the people as a whole become like those without a father, those without a husband—verse 3. God commanded Israel to show compassion for the orphan and widow; also to treat them justly. By doing this, they reflected what their Father in heaven was like, what their covenant Husband was like. But if they didn’t, then God would make them like orphans and widows.[viii] In other words, God would leave them to fend for themselves without his protection and care.
Meaning, they’d become vulnerable to other oppressors. That comes next in verses 4-10, enemy oppression. Not only did the enemies steal their property, they make them pay to drink its water—verse 4. They force them to buy its lumber at unjust prices, is the idea. Verse 5 adds, “Our pursuers are at our necks; we’re weary; we’re given no rest.” As Ben explained from 2 Samuel 7 the other day, the Promised Land was supposed to be the place where Israel had rest from their enemies. But now they have no rest.
Verse 6, “We’ve given the hand to Egypt, and to Assyria, to get bread enough.” Now questions abound over what that means—“given the hand.” But the same phrase appears in 1 Chronicles 29:24; it describes leaders pledging their allegiance to King Solomon. So what you have here is this: Israel has made pacts with foreign nations who then turn and take advantage of them. Things are so bad that to break the treaties would mean they can’t eat. Their livelihood depends on keeping the enemies happy.
Verse 8 then adds, “Slaves rule over us; there’s none to deliver us from their hand.” The social order has been flipped on them. Even the lowest class in Babylon rule them; and they do so without mercy. Even when they look for bread in the wilderness, they can’t even do that without being attacked, verse 9 indicates. Then verse 10 says, “Our skin is hot as an oven with the burning heat of famine.” What’s the imagery? The famine compares to an oven used to dry out food; and that oven is being cranked up to the point where the people themselves shrivel up like beef jerky.
But that’s not the end of it. Moving group by group, verses 11-13 describe an ongoing social humiliation. Verse 11, “Women are raped in Zion, young women in the towns of Judah. Princes are hung up by their hands; no respect is shown to the elders. Young men are compelled to grind at the mill; boys stagger under loads of wood.” The enemies haven’t just overrun the people. They keep returning to shove victory in their face. They keep returning to the women and creating unbearable burdens for little boys, because they can. After all, none of the men are going to stop them.
When you’ve lost your inheritance, your family, your economy, your dignity, what’s left? Only sorrow upon sorrow. That comes next. Verse 14, “The old men have left the city gate.” The place where everybody hung out; the place where elders made decisions for the community—all gone. The young men also left their music. Verse 15, “The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning. The crown has fallen from our head…” No delight, no dancing, no dignity.
Verse 17, “For this our heart has become sick, for these things our eyes have grown dim. For Mount Zion which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it.” Jackals often appear in contexts of judgment. They’re scavengers among the dead wastelands. Zion is a wasteland now. People scan the horizon, and their eyes fill with tears so they can’t see clearly any longer. Yet the deepest problem still remains untold.
All these lingering problems point to a much deeper problem, which is their broken relationship with God. In Lamentations we’re dealing with God’s covenant people. God entered a special covenant with Israel. That covenant explained the terms of their relationship with God.[ix] If the people obeyed the Lord, the land would be their inheritance, they’d have rest from their enemies. But if the people rebelled, God would send unspeakable curses and drive them from his presence.
That’s why they cry in verse 20, “Why do you forget us forever; why do you forsake us for so many days?” Or in verse 22 they mention God utterly rejecting them and remaining exceedingly angry with them. This cacophony of pain is but a signal that God himself has banished them. His covenant presence and power is no longer with them; he’s against them. That is actually the worst problem here.
Why’d all this happen?
But question two: why’d all this happen? Why all the disgrace, the reproach? Why the separation from God? Verse 7: “Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities.” The sins of prior generations have lasting consequences. That doesn’t mean they’re blaming everything on prior generations. We know that because of what they also confess in verse 16: “woe to us, for we have sinned.”
Recognize that word, woe? The prophets use it when announcing God’s judgment. Isaiah pronounces one on himself when he sees God’s unveiled majesty. He knows sinners can’t stand before a holy God. He says, “Woe is me.” Those praying here recognize the same for themselves. Yes, their fathers sins helped precipitate the exile. But they rebelled too. In both places, the point is that sin caused their downfall and destruction. Sin separated them from God’s covenant presence and blessing.
God doesn’t tolerate rebellion. He will not allow the guilty to go unpunished. Judgment is the appropriate response to the rebellion of his creatures. Wrath is the appropriate response to evil. That’s why the exile happened. That’s why God banished them from his covenant presence in the Land—sin. The result was curse, tragedy, ruin. No escape; they couldn’t get themselves out of this.
What’s their only hope, moving forward?
What’s their only hope moving forward, then? In the darkness, where do they turn for help? They deserve exile and even worse. Does hope exist at all? Not in what they can do for themselves. But there is hope in what the Lord can do for them. Notice three cries here: Lord, remember; Lord, you reign; Lord, restore.[x]
Lord, Remember! | God's Covenant Grace
Look back at verse 1, Lord remember. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace.” Does that mean God forgets things? Has their exile slipped his mind? Not at all. Hebrews 4:13 says that “no creature is hidden from his sight…” God sees everything and everyone always. He’s also omniscient. But even more, God caused the exile. He knows exactly what’s going on—just read chapters 1-4.
This is covenant language. For God to remember is for God “to act according to his covenant promises, especially in a way evident to his people.”[xi] Recall Noah—he’s in the ark 150 days; and then it says, “But God remembered Noah…and God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.” That doesn’t mean Noah slipped his mind. It means God was about to act based on his covenant promises.
Or later when Israel is stuck in slavery—they cry out to God and it says this in Exodus 2:24: “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” He acted to save them based on his commitment to glorify his grace in Abraham’s offspring. He got them out of slavery. In Lamentations, Abraham’s offspring is stuck in slavery once again because of sin. Their only hope is that God act according to his promise to Abraham. So they cry for him to remember; to look and see their disgrace so as to act on it. They can’t save themselves; but God can.
Lord, You Reign! | God's Sovereign Rule
Next, they cry Lord, you reign. Look at verse 19: “But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.” Note the contrast with verses 17-18: “Our heart has become sick…our eyes have grown dim…Mount Zion lies desolate…But you, O Lord, reign!” Think about that. What was Mount Zion to Israel? Psalm 48, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion…the city of the great King. Within her citadels God has made himself known as a fortress.” Zion was the place God manifested his earthly rule. But now Zion is in shambles.
Is God’s reign over? Is Babylon more powerful? Is God not strong enough to fulfill his promise after all? That’s the kinds of questions you wrestle with in exile, especially when your little boys come home crushed and your daughters raped. But the point here is to say, No way. Yes, God manifested his rule in Jerusalem; but God’s reign was never limited to an earthly city. His throne is in heaven. Babylon isn’t more powerful; God’s used them like pawns. God destroyed the city himself as a judgment. He’s in control of everything. So their prayer becomes: “The fall is awful, the tragedy hurts, the pain feels like forever, but you reign, O Lord. Your throne is forever!”
The storms of exile crash against the sides of their ship, but the sovereignty of God becomes the massive ballast that keeps them centered. God’s sovereignty doesn’t remove their questions of why in verse 20? “Why do you forget us forever; why do you forsake us for so many days?” But it does answer the who question: the Lord reigns, and he is all we need to walk through the darkness.
Lord, Restore! | God's Power to Regenerate Hearts
Lastly, they cry Lord, restore. Verse 21, “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old…” Then we get an ending that sounds doubtful at first glance. The ESV has “…unless you’ve utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.” But there’s another translation I think makes better sense grammatically and contextually. Instead of “unless” substitute “even though.”[xii] “Renew our days as of old, even though you’ve utterly rejected us…”
They know God’s rejection; he has utterly rejected them in exile. But their prayer is that God restore anyway. If anything changes in their relationship, God must initiate it. In Hebrew the verb is causative: “Lord, cause us to return to yourself, and we will return.” That’s their prayer. “Do something in our hearts to restore us to yourself. Do the miracle inside that makes us return to you; and we will return!” The pain of exile is doing what God designed it to do; it’s returning the people to himself. The best thing that can happen in pain is a closer relationship with the Lord.
So the way forward in their exile is a very God-centered one. Lord, remember and act according to your covenant promises. Lord, you reign forever and nothing challenges your throne. And Lord restore us to yourself so that renewal comes. God’s covenant grace, God’s sovereign rule, God’s power to regenerate hearts—that’s their only hope to renew them as God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.
That’s our only hope as well. Like Israel, our sin banishes us from God’s presence and blessing. Israel’s story outside the Land retells our story in Adam outside the Garden. Sin banishes us from God’s presence into a world of pain and sorrow. Our only hope is God’s covenant grace, God’s sovereign rule, God’s power to renew our hearts. In that way, these cries become ours. Only, we’re not left with a big question mark at the end of our lament. Lamentations finishes with no answer. What happened? Did God hear their cries? Did God ever remember?
Yes, he did hear. Yes, he did remember. In the person and work of Jesus Christ, God remembered his covenant promises; he acted to save his people. Israel was characterized by disgrace, reproach. But God sent his Son into the world to bear that reproach, take it away, and replace it with honor.
Part of restoring us to himself was God giving his Son as a sacrifice to appease his wrath, forgive our sins, and cleanse our guilty conscience. Not only did he identify with the world in its sorrow, Jesus endured the sorrow of a cursed world to the point of death, in order to destroy the source of all sorrow. What’s that source? It’s sin. It’s our pride-filled, covenant-breaking rebellion against our Maker. The one of matchless beauty, the one who deserves endless praise, was crushed in our place and laid in the grave.
Satan schemed. The nations raged. His disciples wept. Creation threw darkness over the land and the earth shook at Jesus’ death. But on the third day God proved that his throne is indeed forever. He raised Jesus from the dead and seated Jesus at his right hand in heaven. He vindicated Jesus and proved Jesus to be the one Israelite whose covenant fidelity secured our rest in God’s presence. And From God’s right hand, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to—can you guess?—to restore people to God.
Doesn’t that happen at Pentecost? Israel hears the gospel of Jesus and it says, “When they heard this they were cut to the heart…” The risen Jesus restores people to God! He effects the inner transformation. He has come to renew us as God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. That’s why Hebrews 12:22 says of you, church, that through Jesus “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” You are an outcropping of the new city, the new Zion.
One day, we’ll have complete and total rest from enemies and from all sorrows. He’s making a new creation. But until then we can be sure that God hears the cries of his people. He may not answer when we’d like. But he hears; God remembers his covenant, God reigns over all, and God is restoring his people to himself.
Make God’s sovereignty your ballast in suffering.
If that’s true, I want to leave you with a few exhortations as we wrap up Lamentations. One, make the sovereignty of God your ballast in suffering. A ballast is the really heavy part of a boat; you put it low in a boat’s structure to improve its stability. Otherwise the wind and waves flip it over. You need the weight of God’s sovereignty in the bottom of your boat to endure life’s storms. Throughout Lamentations, the people return to God’s sovereignty. Then here: “But you, O Lord, reign forever.”
That comes up a lot when faithful saints lament in Scripture. In Psalm 10 David laments. People get away with their wickedness; injustice keeps happening. But by the end of his lament this truth re-centers his hope: “The Lord is king forever and ever.” Or Psalm 102 is a lament of somebody who’s afflicted. He’s in a very desperate place near to death; and then comes verse 12: “But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever.”
When Rachel experienced a second miscarriage about 12 years ago—we had listened to a sermon earlier that evening on God’s wisdom. The pastor made a point that God was wise in cosmic things as well as microscopic things. That became the source of our comfort on the way to the hospital. Our Father rules right now in this situation; he’s working out his wise, sovereign plans. Even if we don’t understand all the whys, we can trust that he’s in control and this is serving his good purpose to glorify Jesus.
Draw near to the Lord in your sorrow and pain.
Next, draw near to the Lord in your sorrow and pain. That may sound obvious. But we need the reminder. It’s not uncommon for some kind of suffering to enter our lives; and for the first few weeks we handle it well. God is our Rock. But as the pain continues, it becomes all-consuming. It occupies our thoughts all day. We search the internet for hours looking for solutions, but neglect time in his word. Others keep asking about our pain as well, and so we find a kind of identity in it. It defines us.
Lamentations reminds us not to let suffering and pain consume us like this. Our relationship with God determines who we truly are. We are his people; and we are to bring our pain before the Lord. God is actually concerned for us; he means for us to process the pain with him not apart from him. God inspired laments like this one to teach his people how to relate to him in sorrow and pain. Notice again the people’s prayer: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord.” Yes, a change in circumstances would be nice. But to have the land and health and rest once again and still be without God, would be damning. Their first concern isn’t a change in circumstances, but to have the Lord himself.
Follow the pattern of lament: “prayer in pain that leads to trust.”
Also, follow the pattern of lament. When you look at the whole book, I think Mark Vroegop is right: lament is “prayer in pain that leads to trust.”[xiii] We’ve watched the people pray in the pain of exile. They’ve been honest. They’ve asked the tough questions and raised their objections and made their appeals. But they don’t stop with the pain. They push forward to trust in the Lord. They don’t really know what the future holds. They don’t know how long exile will last. But they do know Who to look to.
When you lament, reflect on the Lord’s character. Remind yourself of his past deeds. Recall his covenant commitments and pray for their consummation. Reflect on his sovereign rule and ask him for renewal. Rehearse the good news of all that he has accomplished and will accomplish in Christ. He is worthy of your trust.
Pray for the Lord to restore you to himself.
Perhaps a few of you have chased after sin for a long while now; you’re miserable. Perhaps it has ruined your family. Perhaps it has eroded trust in your marriage. Perhaps the Lord feels very distant right now; and it’s left you despairing on whether you’ll ever know his nearness again. Look here at Israel; many of them strayed from the Lord. They were enduring the consequences for many years in exile. But God’s covenant grace, God’s sovereignty, and God’s power to transform fills them with prayers.
Make these prayers your own. Cry out to the Lord, “Restore me to yourself, O Lord, that I may be restored.” Don’t just pray for God to change your circumstances. Don’t just pray for God to take away your anger, or your lust, or your lack of self-control. Don’t just pray for a better marriage and more submissive children. Those are good prayers, Yes. But what good is it, after all those things change, you still don’t have God? Ask the Lord to restore you to himself. He’s the end. He’s the treasure.
Tell others about the God who meets us in the darkness.
Lastly, you know people who are hurting. At work, at school, in your community, in your immediate family, in this church—you know people who’re in very dark places right now. Think of a person you can talk to this week. Write their name down right now; and begin praying for the next time you talk with them. Listen to their sorrows and tell them about the God who meets there.
“Surely [Jesus] has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:4-5). Whether it’s suffering due to their own sinfulness or suffering due to living in a fallen world, Lamentations creates inroads to the gospel. Begin with the people right in front of you. Every day the Lord places people in your life, and their pain manifests itself in various ways. Lamentations teaches us about a God who rules over their dark situations; who is rich in steadfast love and mercy; and who restores and renews. Dale?
[i] Holly Yan and Patrick Oppmann, “Death toll in Bahamas from Hurricane Dorian rises to 20 after storm leaves ‘generational devastation,’” CNN (September 4, 2019), accessed at https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/04/us/hurricane-dorian-bahamas-death-toll-wxc/index.html.
[ii] “Somalia: worst harvest since 2011, with more than 2 million expected to go hungry,” UN News (September 3, 2019), accessed at https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/09/1045462.
[iii] Sophia Lee, “No safe haven,” World Magazine (August 29, 2019), accessed at https://world.wng.org/2019/08/no_safe_haven.
[iv] Tameem Akhgar and Cara Anna, “Taliban blast kills US soldier, several civilians in Kabul,” Associated Press (September 5, 2019), accessed at https://www.apnews.com/874989f36e364304b757186340dc9e6d.
[v] “UTA Foreign Exchange Students Drown At Oklahoma Tourist Spot,” CBS Local (September 4, 2019), accessed at https://dfw.cbslocal.com/2019/09/04/uta-foreign-exchange-students-drown-oklahoma-turner-falls/.
[vi] Barry G. Webb, Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, NSBT 10 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 61.
[vii] Lam 1:1; Ps 48:2.
[viii] Exod 22:21-24; Jer 15:7-8.
[ix] Moses explained it from Sinai and then repeated that covenant in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
[x] After studying the passage and creating my sermon outline around remember, reign, and restore, I was happy to find a similar breakdown in Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 142-50.
[xi] I first learned this description of God’s “remembering” from an edition of Tabletalk years ago. I was pleased to find it accessible online at at https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/god-remembered-noah/.
[xii] See the discussion in Duane Garrett and Paul R. House, Song of Songs, Lamentations, WBC 23B (Dallas: Word, 2004), 470-72; Robin A. Parry, Lamentations, THOTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 154-57.
[xiii] Vroegop, Dark Clouds, 28.