Prayer from the Depths of Despair

November 2017 Credo

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
The wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it,
And is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
And therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
23 They are new every morning;
“Great is your faithfulness,
24 The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I have hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:19-24 (ESV)

These are the first words of prayer (that is, words actually addressed to God), that the Poet of Lamentations has uttered. The word ‘your’ in verse 23 shows he is at last speaking to God – right here in the middle of this chapter which stands in the middle of the whole terrifying book. Verses 22-23 are the only part of Lamentations that most people know, because they generated Thomas Chisholme’s lovely hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness,’ – even if those who sing that hymn are quite unaware of the shocking context in which those words were originally uttered.

For this is the prayer of ‘the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath’ (3:1) – and what affliction, what a rod! Look at verses 1-18. That repeated, accusing word ‘He’ refers to God. Lamentations was written in the immediate aftermath of the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-6 BC. That had happened, according to the prophets (and accepted by this book), as God’s judgment for the rebellion and wickedness of the Israelites for generations, in spite of all warnings to turn around and avoid it. And the suffering was incomprehensible – except perhaps by those today caught up in the hell of Syria, or South Sudan, or Yemen, who know only too well what such descriptions mean.

In chapters 1-2, the Poet personifies the city of Jerusalem as Lady Zion, gasping out in the dust for somebody, anybody, – even God if only he would –  to look at her, listen to her, comfort her. She is a woman stripped, gang-raped, beaten, exposed, violated, her children traumatized and dying in the streets. If this is judgment, even if it is deserved, is it not too awful, too cruel? Whatever the moral argument, the suffering and pain is given voice, the tears are allowed to fall, while God remains silent. There is no comfort, but neither is there any rebuke, nor any heartless ‘told you so.’ Suffering is given the dignity of a hearing. Lamentations has been called a bottle for the tears of the world (cf. Ps. 56:8). If it can be called prayer at all, it is the prayer of desperate suffering, of lament, and protest.

Then in chapter 3 the Poet speaks: ‘I am the man…’ His words speak both for himself and for his people. He was there. He had endured what the city suffered, and puts it into searing poetry that pauses at verse 18 with complete loss of hope.

Hope Perishes

Read again through the catalogue of metaphors in verses 1-18. ‘The Man’ has been beaten by a bad shepherd (1-6 are a negative Ps. 23); walled up alone (7-9); hunted, mauled and shot at (10-13); trampled face-down in the dust (14-16). He is left utterly without peace, unable even to recall what happiness felt like (17), and worst of all, with all his hopes gone (18).

Without hope, life is unbearable. Friends in Lebanon tell me of the tragic rate of suicides among women and young girls in the Syrian refugee communities there – for which the prime reason given is, ‘We have lost all hope for any possible future.’

Hope Remembers

All the Man is left with is his memories. But there are two kinds of remembering. There are the bad memories that come unwanted and unbidden, the flash-backs and nightmares of trauma, the tormenting, bitter and poisonous memories that the Man struggles with in verses 19-20. But then comes the intentional remembering of verse 21. This is a deliberate act of will, in which he forces himself to remember what he knows to be true. Literally, he says, ‘This I cause to come back into my mind.’  He chooses to think differently. ‘And therefore I have hope’! What a contrast. Verse 18 ends with all hope gone; verse 21 ends with ‘I have hope.’ What is the ‘This’ that he chooses to remember, that makes such a dramatic difference?

The last word of verse 18 is the name of the LORD – Yahweh, the God of Israel’s history, exodus, covenant and centuries of repeated faithfulness. Yahweh is the God who defined himself as ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness’ (Ex. 34:6). If the LORD is still God, then surely this terrible anger and suffering cannot be his last word? You see, once you let the LORD in, even by the back door at the end of verses 1-18, things cannot remain as they are, and that’s what the Man remembers, and turns into prayer.

What he prays is something like this,

‘My life, my hope, my future feel like they have all ended (v. 18),
BUT this is what I remember (v. 21):
Yahweh’s acts of love, they have not finished
For they have not come to an end, his acts of compassion (v. 22 literally).
Indeed, not only have they not ended,
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (v. 23).

The God who had acted in judgment is still the God who will keep his promises to his people and will never abandon his covenant with them, nor his ultimate purposes for the whole world through them. So, with that long-term perspective, the Man decides to wait in hope  (v. 24) … Almost as if he had just remembered Psalm 33:20-22. Maybe he had. It’s another powerful prayer.

Then another shock (for us) in verses 25-27. Each of those verses begins with the Hebrew word for ‘good’. ‘Good…good…good’ he says!  How can somebody who has just described the horrors that God had inflicted in verses 1-18 turn round and say, ‘The LORD is good…’? Yet he does. He affirms it as the bedrock of Israel’s faith, of biblical truth, and of Christian worship. As the Africans say, ‘God is good; all the time. All the time; God is good.’

But, this does not at all deny or lessen the pain of verses 1-18. Nor does it stop him from going back to that pain very soon after – in the second part of chapter 3 and on into chapters 4-5. But if the God who judges or allows suffering is the God who is good, then even God’s wrath cannot be the last word for those who turn to him – as this Poet is urging his people to do. God will have a good purpose ahead. So even if it cannot be imagined at this moment, even in the midst of the unbearable pain, ‘it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD’ (even though ‘quietly’ is hardly the mood of this whole book).

The swings between gut emotion and theological affirmation in Lamentations are vital to its message. Aren’t there times when singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father’ seems hollow, hypocritical and bitter because of the stress and suffering of the moment? And yet other times when it expresses exactly what you do believe and need to affirm?

Hope Explains

We still wonder, though, how the turbulent desperation of verses 1-18 can reach the calm prayers and advice of 22-30. So the Poet obliges with his explanation. Each of verses 31-33 begins, in Hebrew, with the word ‘For.’ He is saying ‘Here’s why…here’s why…here’s why!’ These three verses begin with the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet, right in the middle of the whole book. In the midst of the pain, sin, rebellion, judgment and suffering – here is what we must know.

  • Yes, God may reject his people when they rebel — but not forever (31).
  • Yes, God causes grief when he punishes – but his compassion and love will return (32).
  • Yes, God afflicts (or allows affliction) – but ‘not from his heart’ (literally; 33).

We should not equate God’s anger and God’s love, as if they were equal and opposite eternal characteristics. They are both realities. God’s anger is his reaction against all sin and evil that opposes his love and goodness. But anger does not define God in the way love does. ‘God is love.’ God is not anger – on the contrary, God defined himself as ‘slow to anger,’ and Micah affirms that this is something that makes Yahweh the God of Israel unique – ‘You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy’ (Mic. 7:18-19).

So in his prayer, the Man drops anchor into the bedrock of God’s eternal, unchanging, faithful,  covenant love. That gives him security. But it does not give him release from the suffering. The anchor is down, but the storm still rages and his ship tosses – as chs 4-5 will show. Nevertheless – at the centre of the book and the centre of his faith, God’s eternal love has been affirmed in faith and in prayer. I doubt if the Man could have sung this song just yet, but its truth is close to his experience and testimony:

You are my rock in times of trouble;
You lift me up when I fall down.
All through the storm, your love is the anchor;
My hope is in you alone.


 


Rev Dr Christopher Wright is the International Ministries Director, Langham Partnership.