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There May Yet Be Hope

June 27, 2021
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

“How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. … Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly.”

These are the words with which the prophet Jeremiah begins his prophetic book of Lamentations. While some perceive it as dreariest of all Holy writ, this book nevertheless gives an inside view into what was going through the minds of, not only the prophet himself, but also the residents of Jerusalem. In the wake of the destruction of the city of peace, as the people sit in ashes, desolation, devastation, and utter ruin … they can only speak the truth.

And the truth is this: they deserved it. Jeremiah records, “Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns her face away. Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future, therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter. ‘O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!’” Their decades, centuries of faithlessness, trusting in created things instead of the Creator, trampling upon the needy and hopeless, abusing and killing the prophets whom YHWH Himself sent to warn them, call them to repentance … has led to a devastating outpouring of His vast and hot anger.

He used the rod of His divine wrath and punishment, Babylon, to punish the people of Judah for their wickedness, and all in Judah (even the few that remained faithful to YHWH their God) suffered for it. Jerusalem cries out, “The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and see my suffering; my young women and my young men have gone into captivity. I called to my lovers, but they deceived me; my priests and elders perished in the city, while they sought food to revive their strength. Look, O Lord, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious.” Oh, yes, Judah was fully deserving of everything that YHWH poured out through His agent of wrath. The murder, pillage, rape, plunder, starvation, cannibalism … all of it was well deserved, and the people knew that. They were reaping as they had sown, feeling the weight of what their blatant arrogance and sin had wrought.

Thus, what Jeremiah writes: “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. 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; he has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.’ Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.”

Lamentations is certainly a book rife with sorrow, filled with heart-breaking images … and yet … in spite of all of this, even in the midst of all this well-deserved pain and suffering, death and misery, when YHWH Himself has turned His hand against them … there is still reason to hope. Jeremiah puts it this way: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. 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.”

Knowing their sin, and in the midst of their just and righteous punishment, the people of Judah yet confess the goodness of YHWH their God. They yet had hope. How? Certainly not in their own strength and grit. Not by whistling past the graveyard. Not in anything in and of themselves, but only through YHWH their God did they find reason to hope. The very One who was punishing … is the One who would ease their burdens and sorrows. They knew His promises to them, they remembered His faithfulness, in spite of the faithlessness. They remembered His chesed, His steadfast, enduring lovingkindness shown to them and promised to them through Abraham. “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.”

According to His timing, YHWH would, indeed, ease the suffering of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. The remnant would return from Babylon, thanks to the salvation God wrought through Cyrus of Persia, His agent of redemption. More than this, in the fullness of time, YHWH would Himself submit to the authority of such wicked men. He would suffer indignities and sufferings and sorrows that would make the pitiful residents of exilic Jerusalem pity Him. The Son made Himself the target for the Father’s arrows of wrath … His prayer was shut out, as He became the incarnation of sin … the wormwood and the gall of the injustice done to Him, as He died on the cross, bowed His soul down as He cried out, “Father, into Your hands, I commit my Spirit.” And yet, even then … there was hope! It was good that He awaited quietly in His tomb the salvation the Lord would bring to all through His resurrection. It was good that He had put His mouth in the dust of death, winning for us the forgiveness of sins … and conquering death! He showed Himself to be the hope of all mankind as He walked out of His tomb on Easter morn! YHWH showed His love for us poor, miserable sinners by bringing grief upon His Son and having compassion upon Him – and us – by resurrecting Him three days later!

Yes, Lamentations is a book filled with grief and sorrow, horrific images of a people enduring the punishments they well deserved. In those pages, we see the punishment we rightly deserve, as well, and it may often feel as though the hand of YHWH is turned against us, that He is a lion or bear lying in wait for us. There may be times when our endurance has perished, and all hope seems lost; and yes, as sinners, it’s nothing we don’t deserve. However, in such times, we fly to the cross of Christ Jesus, our crucified and resurrected Lord! We flee and cleave to the place where our sin was atoned for and forgiven, holding tightly to the promises our heavenly Father has given to us in our Lord Jesus. That’s the place where Jesus says, “I took your punishment, and though you may suffer here and now, there is an eternity of joy awaiting you!” There, and only there, do we remember clearly and happily: there may yet be hope.

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.