There are times in our lives when it seems like God is against us. I mean, we know that God is for us, but there are times when it seems like God is treating us more like an enemy than a friend. I think of the end of Psalm 88. There's a line at the end of that psalm where the writer says, "Darkness is my closest friend."
I wonder this morning if some of you might feel this way. You are walking through a very, very difficult, even devastating, time of life, and maybe you are asking the question, Where is God when my life is such a struggle? I'd like us to look at a book in the Bible to help us answer this question. It may seem like an unlikely place to look, since this might be the darkest part of Scripture. It's actually a series of funeral songs that were written by a writer God directed to record these songs when the ancient city of Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians. The Babylonians just ruined the city. We think it might have been Jeremiah who wrote these funeral songs; we're not sure. This book is called Lamentations, and we're going to look at chapter 3, verses1-33.
This is a very, very dark, almost depressing section of the book. The writer is just pouring out his soul. He's frustrated and feels at wits end. He uses a number of images to describe how devastated he is and how he feels that God is against him. I want you to listen to this very, very dark description. Some of you might say, Yeah, I'm there right now. Some of you might say, Man, I just don't get this, because you're not presently in such desperation. But I want you to hear it.
When everything—even God—feels dark
The writer starts off by saying, "I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath." He's talking here about God. I think the first part of this chapter is really the writer saying, "I don't believe Psalm 23. I think God is acting like a bad shepherd." And if you remember Psalm 23, the shepherd's rod and staff comfort the sheep. Here, it's just the opposite. He's talking about the rod of God's wrath, and God's using this rod, it seems, to beat rather than to guide.
In verse 2, the writer says, "He's driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me. Again and again, all day long. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones." That's strong language—isn't it?—to say "God has broken my bones." Verse 5: "He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship." Note that image. That word picture probably went right over most of our heads, because the world today is so different than it was when this book was written. This book was written in a time when people lived in fortified cities with huge walls surrounding the borders. If the enemy attacked you, you could hold out for weeks, sometimes even months, if you had enough food and water. If an army came to lay siege to your city, they would surround it and just wait, hoping eventually to work out some deal with the people. But it was awful. It was so bad that as these sieges went on, the inhabitants of the city would even resort to cannibalism. Meanwhile, if the surrounding army got impatient, they would come up to the wall and just start battering away. This picture is what the writer says God is doing to his life. He's like an army laying siege to a city.
The writer continues:
He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead. He has walled me in so I cannot escape. He has weighed me down with chains. Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone. He has made my paths crooked … Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me.
As many of you know, we lived in Montana for about twenty years before we moved here, and one of the things I enjoyed doing was bow hunting. I'd get out and bow hunt for elk. But there was always the danger of grizzly bears. I remember one time a friend of mine took me to a place called Taylor's Fork. He didn't tell me where we were going, and it's a good thing, because if he had I wouldn't have gone with him. That drainage has the most grizzly bears per capita of any drainage in the U.S. We hunted that morning, and thankfully we didn't see any grizzlies, though we saw many bear signs. We saw lot of bear sign but no grizzlies. The next year, my friend took another friend there, Steve, who happened to be a surgeon. They got attacked by a grizzly bear, and in five seconds Steve was thrown up in the air. He did survive it, but he had to have about three surgeries. It only took five seconds.
The writer feels as if that's what God is doing to him—mauling him like a bear or lion. Bu it gets even worse. In verse 12, the writer says this:
He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows. He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people. They mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall [that is, with poison]. He has broken my teeth with gravel. He has trampled me in the dust. I have been deprived of peace. I've forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, "My splendor is gone and all that I have hoped from the Lord." I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
He is depressed. He is at the bottom. He has no hope, because it seems that God is his enemy—that God is against him.
I don't know how you respond when you read this section. Maybe you think, Wow, this guy really sounds like a whiner. You have to understand: this guy is facing the worst possible thing that he could face in his life. The city where he's lived, where all of his family lives, where his hopes and dreams are, has just been destroyed by this enemy nation. No doubt he's watching family members get hauled away into captivity into Babylon, which is modern day Iraq. He's devastated by this. If we were to rank this on a scale of one to ten, one being only a little bit disturbed and ten being what the writer's describing in these first twenty verses, I doubt there are very many of us who would claim to be at a level nine or ten. But I don't know. Maybe as you read this you think, No, this nails exactly what I'm feeling right now.
Over the course of my life, I've run into some people that could really identify with these words. I think of a friend who was actually a pastor for a number of years here in the Chicago area. He and his wife had a son who really rebelled against everything they had taught him. Not only did he walk away from them, but he wanted nothing to do with his parents. He even talked about changing his name—that's how much he despised them. I remember them saying there were days when they couldn't even think about how they were going to get up in the morning. They didn't even want to face another day. That's the kind of mood and emotion of Lamentations.
I've known people over the course of my life who have suffered from mental illness. I met one dear friend, a lady who's now pushing eighty years old, in a hospital when she had tried to take her life. This is someone who loves Christ and who reads the Bible. But she was struggling with her mental illness, and things were so dark for her that she didn't know how she could go on. This chapter kind of gives voice to the things she was feeling. I know people who have lost children, and what a devastating darkness that is for them.
Even if you're not in one of these places right now, I think we can all appreciate the fact that sometimes in life we get hit with things that make it hard to see God. Where is God when I'm struggling?
A ray of hope in the darkness
What's interesting in this chapter is that after twenty verses of sheer depression, there's a huge turn in verse 21. The writer says, "Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope." In other words, even in this dark hour there's something he remembers. Now remember, this is a guy who just said in verse 18, "All that I hope from the Lord is gone." He says he has no hope. But then he says, "Wait a minute. I remember something. I recall something to my mind, and therefore I have hope."
I want you to see what it is that the writer recalls to his mind. He says in verse 22, "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail." There are two great words for love in that verse. The first one in my Bible is translated a great love. It's the Hebrew word hessed, and it's the term that refers to what I like to think of as loyal love. It's God making a promise, making a commitment, and then saying he's going to be loyal to that promise.
The second word is compassions, and that word expresses the emotional side of love. In fact, it was a word in the time of the Old Testament that even referred to a child developing in his or her mother's womb. So you can see how that word developed—from the idea of the compassion or love that a mother has for her unborn child. This is a word that speaks of God's emotion, his feelings, and his affection for us. I love that in verse 22 you've got both words. You've got the loyalty part—God's commitment that regardless of how he feels, he is going to be true to his commitment to us—and then the other word says that God is not only committed to us, but he has compassion and he feels something for us. That encompassing love is what gives this writer hope.
Verse 23 he says that these compassions are new every morning. Hey, I love that hymn that we just sung, and I think it gets it right but it does take a little bit of poetic license. It says "Morning by morning new mercies I see." And I don't know about you, but some mornings I don't see God's mercies. But do you know what? They're still there. They're new every morning. Even if I can't see them it doesn't change the fact that they're there. And then he says "Great is your faithfulness."
These same words for love are used to describe God in Exodus 34:6 and throughout the Old Testament—that he is love and he is faithful. The writer wants us to understand that that's who God is. Even in those times when we feel like he's an enemy—when he's allowing things to happen to us that seem to crush us—he's loving, he's compassionate, and he's faithful.
The writer uses another picture in verse 24. He says, "I say to myself, 'The Lord is my portion.'" Now we don't usually use language like that or an image like that to describe God, because things work a little bit differently now than they did when this book was written. But five or six hundred years before Jesus, the people of Israel each had a plot or portion of land, and that's what really kept you alive. That's what you would use to provide for your family. A few people might lease that piece of land, and you would take the income and buy food to feed your family. Or, if you were a farmer, you would farm the land, raiding crops and livestock on it. That's what kept them alive. So when the writer here says ,"The Lord is my portion," he's using this word picture to say, "God is my life. He's the one who keeps me alive. He keeps me going." Therefore, the writer says he will wait for him.
Verse 25: "The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord." It's hard to know where to stop reading. The rest of this chapter flows out of this section that says, "Even when God seems to be against you, he's still loving; he's still compassionate; he's still faithful to you. He is still your provider." That's why in verse 31 the writer says, "For men are not cast off by the Lord forever." In other words, no matter what you're going through, God's not going to let you go through that forever. Verse 32 says, "Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love." He uses the same word that was translated great love. That's who God is. Verse 33: "For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men."
Finding God's love in our darkness
So do you get the picture as you read this chapter? Here's the writer saying, "I'm in a time in life when it seems like God is against me. He doesn't hear my prayer. He's breaking my bones. He's mangling me like a bear. He's using me for target practice. He's broken my teeth. I don't have any hope." Then he comes along and says, "But I do have hope when I remember that God is loving. He's compassionate. He's faithful. He's my provider." The writer's response, even in a difficult time, is to have that hope. Notice how many times he talks about having hope and waiting: Verse 21: "Therefore I have hope;" verse 24: "Therefore I will wait for him" (the word for wait here is the same as the Hebrew word for hope); verse 25: "The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him" (the Hebrew word for hope implies a confident expectation); verse 26: "It is good to wait quietly;" verse 29: "Let him bury his face in the dust—that there may yet be hope." What I believe he's saying in verse 29 is to go ahead and grieve—work through your situation and endure what you're going through—because there is hope, and the hope is based on God's compassion and on his great love.
By the way, if you continue reading in this chapter, you're going to find a big section from about verse 37-48 tells you there's something else you can do. If you have been rebelling against God, and if what you're facing is because of your rebellion against God, then you need to turn that around. In verse 40 it says, "And let us return to the Lord." But I also want to remind you that when bad things happen to God's people, it doesn't mean that we've been bad. Sometimes that's the reason, isn't it? And, in fact, this book is written to encourage people who were facing the consequences of their own sin. They had been rebelling against God for so long that he said threw in the towel. He sent the enemy nation to them to wreck the land and take Israel into captivity. But sometimes when we face hard times, it's not because we've done something wrong. If you leave here today and get hit by a drunk driver and there's serious damage to your health or perhaps you even die, it doesn't mean that God is paying you back for something. It's just that one of God's ways of judgment is to give people over to what they want to do. So let's understand that when bad things happen to us, it's not always because we've done something wrong. It could be because somebody else has done something wrong. That's just the world we live in.
But what is the basis for our hope when we're facing difficult times? Again, it's God's love. It's his compassion. What the writer is telling us is that even when we feel like God is against us, he is still loving and compassionate; our bad circumstances don't change that fact.
I want to read you a couple of sentences from a book written by Kathryn Greene-McCreight. Kathryn Greene-McCreight is a college professor from Connecticut with a PhD from Yale. She's a leader in her church, and many people come to her for counsel. But she also struggles with mental illness. In her early thirties, she was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. She wrote a book called Darkness Is My Companion, using the last line of Psalm 88, and she argues that even though we can't just read from the Bible and expect someone to feel better immediately, it is ultimately the love of God that brings healing. This is what she says: "If it is the love of God that we see in the face of Christ Jesus that has promised to pull us through, a love that bears out to the edge of doom even for the ugly and unlovable such as we, then the statement that love heals depression is, in fact, the only light that exists in the dark tunnel." I want to remind you of that this morning.
What I find interesting about this passage in Lamentations is that the writer who's in this dark period of his life remembers something that he learned before. He remembers God's love. If things are going right in your life right now, let me encourage you to focus on God's love and to learn that God does love you, that his compassions never fail, that this faithfulness is great, because the day is going to come when you're going to need to remember that. When we get that phone call with news that we dread, or we go into work one day and find out that's our last day, or we get some devastating news from a physician or from one of our kids, we're going to need that knowledge of God's love.
Let me encourage you, too, as you talk to people who are down and struggling and feeling like the writer of Lamentations, that you can't go up to them and say, "Oh, just remember that God still loves you, and his compassions never come to an end." You may need to come alongside them and just cry with them for a time. Eventually, maybe God can use you to help them recall what his Word says about his love. In fact, Kathryn Greene McCreight says it was the faithfulness of several friends who came alongside of her and who listened and who loved her and, eventually, who reminded her of what the Bible says about God's love that got her through.
Lamentations was written over 500 years before Jesus ever came, but the promises that Lamentations makes about God's love are just as true today as they were then, and it's all because of what Jesus Christ has done. You know the story: Jesus Christ came to die for our sins—to pay the penalty that we deserve. He took our place, and in dying he paid that price; he defeated sin. He was raised to life on the third day. In light of that, I want to read for you the end of Romans 8, beginning at verse 34:
Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."
The writer is saying that life is hard. But the answer is the same answer we got in Lamentations 3. Paul says:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And you know what? In the darkest of times this knowledge is what's going to get us through. When darkness is your only companion, it's recalling God's love that's going to get you through, that's going to give you the hope to help you make it through another day.
For Your Reflection
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Exegesis and exposition:
Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
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Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
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Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.