Why do people experience suffering, and what is God's part in it. Does God directly cause us to suffer, or do we bring suffering upon ourselves? Satan is the prince of this world, so it is no surprise that the world is characterized by sorrow and suffering. Across the face of the globe we see entire cultures bent on the genocide of others. Life has no value to Satan, and little or no value to those who are surrendered to his cause of death and destruction that is a consequence of sin. One only needs to review every evening's "news" where the important issues of the day seem to be murder and other forms of violence. Where is God in this scenario? Why does He allow such suffering and death to occur?
Jeremiah witnessed more death and destruction than any person should. Jeremiah also understood the underlying cause of the chaos: man's rebellion against God and their exodus from His hand of protection. The book of Lamentations is a collection of five poems that were written by the prophet Jeremiah shortly after the fall of Judea to the Babylonian empire in 587 BC. In these poems, Jeremiah places much of the experience of the Jews in context, reviewing the consequences that got them to this point and God's hand in the entire process: a hand of faithfulness, patience, and love.
When one reads Old Testament poetry there are a few things to keep in mind. First, each line uses a meter and rhyme in the original languages. However, the rhyme is not built of similar sounding words, but rather pairs of similarly stated ideas. Likewise the meter is not a counted beat, but a pulsing of repeated thought. Also, because it is poetry, there is a little more use of alliteration, metaphor, and simile that can frustrate attempts at word studies, necessitating more emphasis on context and ancient interpretation than might otherwise be the case. Finally, in this collection of poems, the first four of the five utilize alliteration. Each of the initial lines starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet from the first to the last. Even the shapes and sounds of the Hebrew letters were full of meaning, and could be used to advantage in this literary form. Poetic interpretation also emphasizes the emotion that underlies its presentation. Rather than presenting a simple stated list of facts, the poetic text often conveys deep feeling. Keep these things in mind as we approach this passage.
Lamentations 3:19. Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall.
The grammar used in the King James English that we find in verse 1 may sound irregular or incomplete. Most modern translations start the verse with "I remember", leading us to a clear understanding of the phrase. As Jeremiah remembers the experiences of these last 25 years that culminated in the destruction of Judah, what does he see?
Affliction. When we think of the term, we may form images of the suffering that results from stressors from outside of the body. We think of affliction as an illness that racks the body. For the Judeans, the affliction came from the chaos of war as they were continually in conflict with their neighbors. God had told the Jews through the prophet/judge Samuel that He was to be their King, and if they insisted on having a human king, that individual would lead them into bondage, idolatry, and death. Though the source of the affliction came from outside, they brought it upon themselves by their sinful behavior. The affliction was a consequence of their rejection of God's lead in the daily affairs of their lives.
Misery. Unlike affliction that comes from without, misery comes from within. I am reminded of a time I once took my sister-in-law's husband to the hospital following a minor injury. He was groaning in his misery. I was astonished by the doctor's command to "stop suffering." He told the patient to take a deep breath and relax, and then caused him to focus on something other than his point of pain. In a few short seconds the suffering stopped. When we focus on the source of the affliction, the results can often be misery. We become miserable. Instead of focusing on God and His purpose, we tend to focus on the affliction and any injustice we may have experienced in and through it. Note that misery is a choice that progresses from affliction.
Wormwood. Wormwood was best known as a tree or shrub that is poisonous. If wormwood were placed into a water source, the water would no longer be potable. When we respond to affliction in misery, a downward spiral progresses in its expression. How do we express misery? When free of misery we might find one able to express the fruits of the spirit: joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. Misery has a way of burying these fruits and replacing them with their opposites. Instead of joy, we express sorrow and grief. Instead of peace, we find ourselves embroiled in chaos and turmoil. Instead of patience, we become impatient and reactive. Instead of expressing kindness, we become withdrawn, self-centered, and angry. Allowing misery to manifest itself in our lives has a way of acting like a poison that nullifies the fruits of the spirit, replacing them with the unholy fruit of the unholy one.
Gall. If you would like to experience gall, place a tablespoon of XXX horseradish in your mouth and chew on it for a while. Unless you have an unusual constitution, this is an exercise you will experience only once in your life. The reference to gall is an expression of one's full immersion into bitterness, yet another downward step taken when anger is not controlled.
It may be instructive to note that this description of the downward spiral is very personal. Jeremiah refers to it as "mine." He personally experienced the depressive spiral of misery, anger, and bitterness that comes from a self-centered response to affliction. It may be encouraging to all of us who have experienced this spiral to know that Jeremiah, the prophet, the man of God also was intimately familiar with this process. Instead of turning to God in his affliction, even Jeremiah went down for the count.
Lamentations 3:20. My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.
Jeremiah's response to the recognition of his own experience is not forgotten. However, neither is his faith in God. When he looks at the experience of suffering from the perspective of his faith, he is humbled. Rather than lashing out at God for the affliction, or seeking retribution of those who caused his pain, Jeremiah is simply humbled by his own failure to put his trust in a faithful God. The cycle of suffering has closed, and Jeremiah is able to look at the experience in its entirety, loosed from the emotion and stress that he knew in the midst of the affliction. From this perspective he can see that the affliction was not the result of the wrath of an angry God, but the consequence of the sin of a rebellious people. If God is to be God, and is to be faithful to His promises, there is no other response to the people's arrogance than to suffer the consequences for it. In the same way, a loving parent is not going to ignore behavior in a child that is destructive. Jeremiah finds humility both in his own shortcoming, and in God's faithfulness to express His love in such a dramatic way.
Lamentations 3:21. This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.
When we capitulate to affliction, one of the first fruits of the spirit we lose is hope. Just as faith is putting form to belief, hope is putting form to faith. How do we find hope in affliction? How can we see the bright hope of the future when we are immersed in the darkness and despair of the present? The answer to this lies in Jeremiah's humility. It was after the experience that Jeremiah was able to look back and see how he allowed himself to fall into the slough of despair as he took his attention off of God's love and faithfulness and instead focused on his misery. How we respond to affliction is our own choice. We can choose to turn inward and turn our backs on a loving and faithful God. Many of us have experienced times when it seems that prayers are unheard and pointless; God is not there. Still, as much as we surrender our hearts to the circumstances, somewhere in our mind we still know that God is always there. That hope is always there for those who love the Lord, yet sometimes that hope is buried under our preference for misery.
Lamentations 3:22. It is of the LORDíS mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
When we are in the midst of affliction, we may often feel that we will be overcome. However, scripture continually reminds us that we will not be consumed by affliction, but rather, God will be faithful to bring us through, and when we rely on Him, we will become closer to Him in the process.
Isaiah 43:2-3a. When thou pass through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walk through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee, For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.
God's mercy and compassion for us never fails. That may be hard to remember when we are walking through the fire.
Lamentations 3:23. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.
Jeremiah has a unique perspective on the nature of God's mercy and compassion: it is renewed every day. The afflictions of today may not be resolved by the rising of the sun tomorrow. However, we will rise up in the morning immersed in God's mercy and compassion even when the affliction is still upon us. When Jeremiah considers this truth he can only sing out in praise: "Great is Thy Faithfulness!"
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, They compassions they fail not;
As Thou has been, Thou forever wilt be.
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy Faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided;
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
Lamentations 3:24. The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.
The Hebrew concept of "soul" is a little different than what most modern Christians believe. To the modern Christian, the word may mean that eternal spiritual soul that transcends creation. To the Hebrew, a person is a soul. When Jeremiah refers to soul, or "my soul" he is emphatically stating "all that I am, all that is within me." Jeremiah is stating a profound testimony, one that every Christian can strive to share: "All that is within me believes that God provides for all of my needs, therefore I shall place my hope in Him, and in Him alone." We fall into the pit of misery when we put our hope in people who disappoint us, or in circumstances that conflict with our own desires. Jeremiah recognizes that God's unchanging love, mercy, and grace fully hold us up when everything else seems to be falling down around us. When we find ourselves in the midst of affliction, we can place our hope fully in our faithful God who's purposes are not undone by our own circumstances. Like the patient who was focused on his pain, his suffering was abated when he relaxed and his attention was focused elsewhere, the bite of affliction is not quite as deep when we embrace the hope that comes from faith in a loving and caring God.
Lamentations 3:25. The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him.
When the Hebrew scripture refers to "waiting" on the Lord, it is not referring to a period of idleness. We can see this in this passage by the nature of Hebrew poetry. One who waits upon the Lord is seeking the Lord. We find that waiting upon the Lord is a time where one steps away from the battle for a time of rest and reflection upon God's purpose and plan. When one waits upon the Lord in this way, one can listen to the Holy Spirit and become responsive to the battle in a godly way rather than be reactive to the battle in one's own strength.
When we consider waiting upon the Lord, where does this fit when we are immersed in misery? Again, misery, anger and bitterness are self-centered responses to affliction. These are the product of a reaction to affliction that fails to wait upon the Lord. The doctor told the patient to take a deep breath and relax. This is a proven method for pain reduction. Likewise, waiting upon the Lord is taking a spiritual breather that, if only for a moment, takes us away from the battle. This time of reflection and dependence upon the Holy Spirit can take the stress and agony of the affliction and place it into the hands of a compassionate and merciful God who can easily handle it. This is why ...
Isaiah 40:31. They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Lamentations 3:26-27. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD. 27It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.
Each of these lines of the poem starts with the word, "good." Though applying English word studies to scripture are often pointless since the scriptures were written in ancient languages, it may be interesting to know that the word "good" and "goodly" is simply a temporal variant of the word, "godly." Because of this, we can sometimes substitute the word "godly" for "good" and come away with a meaning that is both contextual and illuminating. These lines of this passage may be such a circumstance.
One godly, or good, response to affliction is to hold on to hope. Though our hearts may be rending, in our mind we know the faithfulness of God and that His mercy and compassion never end. Because of this we know that God will bring us through the affliction, and in knowing this, we can find hope. We may walk through the fire, but God is with us; His hand of protection is upon us, and we will not be consumed by its flames. In the waiting we recognize this truth, and in the waiting we are strengthened against the affliction.
Jeremiah also states that as we experience this yoke of affliction, it would be good that we learn this lesson of hope when we are still young, and by so doing save many years of misery. By the time Jeremiah has written this poetry, he is no longer a young man. We see his sensitive spirit and the extreme emotional distress he experienced throughout his life as he witnessed the apostasy of Judah. This is a man who speaks, not only in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but also speaks from experience. He has been characterized as the "weeping prophet" because of the many times he openly testifies to his despair at the state of the nation. Jeremiah did not learn this lesson in his youth, and it may be that he only realized this as he as he looked back over Judah's demise and his experiences in it.
Consequently, it is instructive to us to lean this lesson early.
Lamentations 3:28-30. He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him. 29He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope. 30He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach.
James 1:4. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.
When we find ourselves in the midst of affliction, our natural response is to be extricated from it. Our prayer may be "God take this burden from me," rather than "God help me through this burden." There is a significant difference in the attitude of the sufferer in these two statements. As difficult as it may be for us to understand, God always has a purpose in the afflictions experienced by the faithful, and that purpose is accomplished when we bear the affliction to its God-ordained termination. In this passage from James, "perfect" can be properly translated, "complete." This is a temporal variation: the meaning of the word has changed over time. When the affliction accomplishes its complete work, we may also be completed.
Jeremiah states this in a variety of ways. The first example is the one who exhibits self-control amidst the affliction. Rather than shouting expletives to the crowd around him, or ranting against the source of the affliction, this one remains silent as he bears the affliction. We might recall that as he "sitteth alone" he is also waiting upon the Lord, so he is not entirely alone.
In the second example, the one who is experiencing the affliction expresses humility. The idiom "mouth in the dust" refers to the common practice of prostration that we see practiced today in Islam, but taken to a more extreme level of humility. The attitude of prostration exposes the back of one's neck to the superior power, placing oneself under the other's complete mercy. Expressed this way after a battle, the victor is free to chop off the head of the one so humbled. Consequently, this became a common way of expressing humility toward God. However, rather than laying out a clean rug and touching one's forehead, this example is of one who simply drops to the dust in complete and spontaneous submission. It is not until one fully submits to God can they realize the full measure of hope that God offers. Rather than stand and fit the battle on our own power, subjecting ourselves to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (sorry) where we have only the hope that comes from our own ability to defeat the affliction, when one fully submits oneself to God, can they appropriate for themselves the true source of hope.
Finally in the third example, in a response not inconsistent with the others, he exposes his cheek to the one who would smite him. He does not run from the battle, or avoid the affliction by turning away. Also in this third example, he exposes himself to disgrace, allowing the full measure of insult from the attacker.
We see here a progression of insult, where the first response is to keep silent, to the last that endures reproach. Our natural response in this situation is to bail out at any point in this progression, but Jeremiah agrees with James as he reveals God's word. God has a purpose for us in affliction, a purpose that can be realized when we place our faith and trust in Him who is faithful to bring us through.
Lamentations 3:31. For the Lord will not cast off for ever:
How long must affliction last? Without exception, every affliction known to man came to an end. It is not God's plan that we experience immortality on the surface of this mortal earth, so all of us will some day experience the one affliction that will take us home. Yet even this affliction is short-lived when considered in the context of eternity. Much of the affliction we experience is in some way the consequence of our sin, or the consequence of the sin of others. God has provided forgiveness for all of those who have placed their faith and trust in Him. Forgiveness is assured, and ultimately sin's consequence will have no power.
When Jeremiah looks back over the circumstances that brought about the demise of Judah he sees an entire culture that turned their backs on God. During his own years he witnessed Judah's full and complete apostasy as its kings embraced the pagan and secular culture, turned their backs to God, and sought to destroy any remnant of faith. Jeremiah saw the consequence of their sin, and suffered in his own life because of it as he experienced violence, imprisonment, and reproach. His heart was also broken for the plight of the people who refused to turn to God. Jeremiah, like us, sometimes went down for the count as he became immersed in misery and the depression that comes from expressed anger and bitterness.
Yet, coming through this experience Jeremiah finds that God has a plan that is based upon His uncompromised love and mercy. He can see in the demise of the nation God's keeping of His promise to Abraham that the land will be given to Israel if they are obedient to Him. Their disobedience could only result in the loss of the land. God is faithful to His promise.
Jeremiah also finds that expressed sin results in affliction, and one's response to affliction can be one of despair or one of hope. As we look back on times of affliction we can, like Jeremiah, come to understand God's purpose in it as we find ourselves and others changed by the experience. We can be encouraged when we are experiencing suffering that God is always faithful and his mercy and compassion never end. When in the midst of the battle we can step back and wait upon the Lord, seeking His guidance as he carries us through. When we do, our strength is renewed, and our faith becomes stronger. The time of affliction will come to an end, and we will emerge immersed in God's grace and better prepared to serve Him as our Savior and Lord.