Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Song Work - The Way to Blessing

The Way to Blessing
Psalm 1

God bless America. A large percentage of Americans who believe in God believe that God has done just that. What do we mean when we talk about blessing? Are blessings connected with material abundance or with personal success or with happiness? Does blessing refer to the brand of freedom so carefully crafted in this nation? Does blessing refer to our being perceived as a nation with the greatest military? What do we mean by blessing? What should we mean by blessing? How might this apply to America and more importantly how does blessing apply to the lives of God’s followers within this nation and world?

Psalm 1 opens with the word “blessed.” The Hebrew word used here is yrwx (esher), a word that appears throughout the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures.[1] This word refers to something much greater than happiness, material abundance, or the supposed superiority of a nation. This word relates to a term, rwx, which means to go straight or proceed in a right manner or have a right understanding.[2] The idea of blessing flows from a sense of well-being and rightness, of going in the right direction or living as deemed right.[3] God will grant the people blessing, direction and a right relationship with him, if they choose to live in the way God provides for us all. This Psalm seeks to point the people of God toward right living so that they might experience the life God desires for people to live. So how should those who wish to receive this blessing live?

The wisdom shared by the poet offers three directives or signposts that can lead us down the right path. In verse 1, the poet instructs that the person seeking God’s blessing should not walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. In stating the same truth in three ways, the poet uses parallelism in order to mark the intensity by which a person must avoid associating with those who live contrary to God’s design.[4] By using the parallel terms of walk, stand, and sit, the poet develops the picture of a person who increasingly associates with people who live contrary to God’s direction.

Likewise, the terms wicked, sinner, and mocker express different aspects of people who live contrary to God’s actions. The wicked (mycWr – rasa’im) person is someone who is judged guilty by the courts, someone who lives contrary to a society defined by God’s shalom. A sinner (myxFH – hata’im) is a person who lives dominated by evil. This person does evil by choice. A mocker (mycl – lesim) is a person who actively works against the righteous and those who seek to live a righteous life. Each of these types of people drag down the righteous, encouraging a lifestyle contrary to the path God desires people to walk upon. Those who walk with the wicked, stand with the sinner and sit with the mocker cannot receive the blessing of right direction provided by God.

The second directive found in verse 2 is that people who wish to know God’s blessings should delight in the law of the Lord. The parallel that reflects the same thought challenges those seeking blessing to meditate on the law day and night. In other words, those seeking God’s blessing need to find meaning and joy in God’s law and think on it all day long. What we spend time on or find joy in reveals what we truly value.[5]  

For the obedient Hebrew person, in whose culture this Psalm was written, the law would refer to the Torah or the five books of Moses – Genesis-Deuteronomy. These five books made up the instruction and wisdom given by God for right living within God’s covenant community. This instruction and wisdom has since expanded, including the entirety of God’s inspired Scriptures. God has provided the words in the Bible so that we might know God and understand how we might live as those seeking the blessed life. Throughout the many years of the Bible’s composition, God utilized the talents, stories, and cultures of people in order to reveal His work of love and grace in the world. It takes time and guidance by God’s Holy Spirit to understand how God spoke into those cultures and now continues to speak into the modern world in order that people might receive the blessings of God. Thus, people seeking blessing must find joy in God’s word and spend time throughout each day learning of God’s wisdom, love, grace, and presence.

The third directive comes in the form of a contrast between those people, the wise, who allow God’s sovereignty in their lives and those people, the wicked, who do not submit to God’s sovereignty. The similes in verses 3 and 4 paint a picture of two different plants, one which thrives in usefulness and another which blows away as waste. The righteous or wise person depicted as a flourishing tree that yields fruit benefits because of its location. It has been planted by streams of water. Such a tree grows strong and provides fruit for others based on its location. This tree is not located next to the beneficial water through chance, but has been planted. The verb for planted is a passive participle, indicating that the tree has been placed next to the water by an outside force.[6] Through finding joy in God’s word and meditating upon it, the wise person allows God to plant them in a beneficial location in which they can bear fruit, never wither, and prosper. The wise person allows God to reign in their life. This allows God to provide nourishment through His wisdom, grace, love, and shalom.

Those who do not allow God’s sovereignty over their lives cannot receive blessing. In this, they become like chaff blown in the wind. They are blown to and fro by the forces of this world. Chaff is the bi-product of the grain harvest. A grain harvester would take the plant and wave it about in the wind, which would cause the useful heavy grain to fall to the ground and the useless light chaff to blow away in the wind. The wicked are pictured as useless, fruitless, and without worth.[7] In this useless state, they cannot offer blessing or experience blessing. The wicked have no true place in God’s world. They might seem to flourish, but truthfully, their flourishing is at the expense of others rather than within community.

Verse 5 continues speaking of the fruitless plight of the wicked. The opening statement that speaks of standing in judgement does not picture an end times judgement, but rather the hoped for social situation in Ancient Israel. The hope was that the righteous would offer wisdom in governing others, pursuing justice.[8] The wicked person cannot do this because their visions of justice are not justice at all. Instead their justice is inspired by wickedness, sin, and mocking. They also cannot gather in the assembly of the righteous. In other words, they cannot experience true, holy fellowship with the people of God. Their pursuit of the sinful lifestyle denies them the grace, love and shalom of God’s community. Thus, they do not experience the blessing of God’s direction and wholeness in their lives. They can neither offer God’s blessing to others nor receive the fullness of God’s blessing because they refuse to walk according to God’s ways, failing to meditate upon God’s word.

The opposite of the statements in verse 5 are also true. The righteous or blessed person lives in a just relationship with society, seeking God’s justice and redemption in the midst of interpersonal relationships. This person also receives the gift of God’s community. The righteous person lives in the midst of righteous people, benefitting from the community that God creates.[9] Part of the blessing received from our loving God for those who truly pursue His will and study His word is that of a blessed and righteous community built on the love and righteousness of God.

Verse 6 offers a final contrast between the righteous and the wicked. In so doing, it illustrates the life of the blessed individual. The blessed know that the Lord watches over their way. God offers direction, assurance and relationship as the blessed righteous person walks the path of life. God’s regard, His attention, His compassion is focused upon the righteous person.

The alternative to blessing is the way of the wicked, which brings about perishing. The person who surrounds their self with those intent on rebelling against God, disregards the truths of Scripture, and who does not acknowledge and bow to God’s sovereignty in their life faces destruction. God does not desire this path for anyone, but allows people, in their denial of God’s blessing, to follow it.

The blessing received from God is that God involves Himself along the path of life. This blessing comes through choosing not to dwell or live in the ways of evil. This blessing comes through seeking out God’s wisdom, given in the words of Scripture. This blessing comes with an obedient heart that bows down and allows God to transplant him or her beside the streams of water that bring life. Blessing is not about abundance in riches, material gain, or freedom to do as we wish. Blessing is found in discovering the path of righteousness, living according to God’s guidance, living a life inspired by God’s ways, and allowing God to live in relationship with us.

Prayer: O Lord, you are the giver and revealer of wisdom. Thank you for offering us your guidance in this life so that we might become the people you have created us to be, a people who live in reflection of you. Thank you for giving us opportunity to avoid living the life of the wicked. Thank you for inviting us to embrace the life of the righteous. Strengthen us to do so. Enable us to grow and bear fruit. Grant us blessings as we walk along the path of life. In Christ’s holy name we pray, Amen!

[1] Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 10.

[2] F. Brown, et al., The Brown-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997), 80.

[3] Gerald H. Wilson, The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms Volume 1. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 94.

[4] Craig C. Broyles, New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 42.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gerald H. Wilson, The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms Volume 1. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 97.

[7] Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 1-50. (Nashville: Nelson, 2004), 61.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 22. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

People In Exile - Utterly Unbalanced and Uncertain

Utterly Unbalanced and Uncertain
Lamentations 5:1-22

Lamentations 5 continues the pattern present in the earlier poems, jarring people with its honesty about suffering and all the emotions that accompany it. Yet, this poem deviates from the previous poems in important ways. First, while it has the fa├žade of a Hebrew acrostic with its 22 verses or stanzas, it differs from the previous poems because no true acrostic exists.[1] The poem has fallen into chaos. It no longer follows the ordered pattern previously present. Second, this poem is the shortest of the 5 poems that make up the collection of Lamentations. This brevity could indicate that the community runs out of hope as the poet declares these final words.[2] Alternatively, this shortened poetic expression may indicate a weariness in expressing the grief. The poet is exhausted and has little more to say. These two deviations from the primary poetic form that makes up Lamentations emphasize the uncertainty central to this poem.

Interestingly, there are other deviations in the poetry in this chapter as compared to the other chapters. This poem, unlike its predecessors within the collection, has balanced lines. The most common line contains three accents in each half. There are also a larger proportion of parallel expressions within the poem. Very often, the second half line echoes the expressions that precede it.[3] These features provide order in the midst of the chaos, which further develops feelings of uncertainty. Sorrow mixed with praise. Doubt mixed with hope.

In addition, this poem, of all the poems that make up Lamentations, most closely resembles the structure of a communal lament. Lamentations 5 presents a collective prayer, using the plural “we” to indicate the far reaching effects of the communal grief. Other poems with this structure, such as Psalms 44, 60, and 74, tend to follow a specific pattern. These poems often begin with an address to God, continue with an expression of complaint, and conclude with a praise statement toward God. Lamentations 5 diverges from this pattern in two important ways. First, it extends the complaint portion. Secondly, the praise offered to God at the end of the poem is intermingled with other emotions and ultimately, concludes with further lament.[4] Using this form emphasizes the fact that the entire community experiences the pain expressed throughout this poem. All the people are utterly consumed with this lament. This form also allows the poet to present a prayer, a final beseeching of God, begging for God to notice the brokenness, hurt, and alienation experienced by the entire community. In addition, the communal lament encourages both poet and worshipper to turn and worship God even in the midst of life’s tragedies. The community finds itself utterly consumed by grief and yet utterly encompassed in a call to worship God as it seeks restoration.

The poem begins by addressing God, asking God to remember. In asking God to remember, this prayer does not infer that God has forgotten, but instead this prayer calls God to act on behalf of the people.[5] This prayer begins with hope that God will act on behalf of the covenant people, as He has in the past. God’s action will occur as He sees the people’s disgrace. Disgrace refers to the experience of reproach, abuse, and shame.[6] Experiencing shame was a huge deal in the ancient near east. The people sought honor, desiring acceptance and esteem from various groups. This acceptance came based on the behavior deemed desirable, virtuous and socially productive in a given culture. Shame refers to the experience of being devalued or belittled based on the inability to measure up to the expectations.[7] The people feel shame as they have failed to measure up to God’s expectations. This shame is compounded as they experience devaluation by the culture and peoples who attack them and take advantage of their situation. Based on their hope that God will see this shame and desire honor for His beloved, the people ask for God to remember them.

The majority of the rest of the poem elucidates what God observes as He looks upon the peoples shame, discovering an unbalanced situation. The entire community struggles through broken existence. This broken existence is punctuated immediately by the loss of inheritance. God had blessed Israel with the land, which they have now lost due to their behavior as rebellious children. This behavior also leads to the loss of family and justice. Comparing themselves to the fatherless and the widow in verse 3, announces both of these truths. Yes, they have literally lost parents and husbands through war and deportation. They have also lost relationship with their heavenly father who no longer blesses them with inheritance. This leads to an ironic understanding that they now live with the same injustice they cast upon the fatherless and widows who lived among them during the times of abundance in The Promised Land. The experienced injustice continues as the people must scrounge and barter for resources, which they should receive as part of their inheritance from God. Water, wood, and bread, commodities for life should be readily available. Yet their situation has stolen the availability of these material needs.

At verse 10, the poet displays a parade of groups who experience the brokenness. This display serves to announce that the entire community experiences the loss, pain, and injustice of exile. Beginning with women and continuing with princes, elders, young men, and boys, the poet shows that no one remains untouched by the grief. Then verses 15-17 display specific experiences that consume the entire community. Joy is gone and dancing has turned to mourning. Both joy and dancing are frequent practices of worshippers, as seen in the Psalms. The community no longer enters into worship or celebration. In addition, the crown has fallen from their heads. This could refer to the literal crown as the monarchy has been destroyed through the deposition of Zedekiah.[8] This could also refer to the loss of glory experienced by the people. Israel, once viewed as a royal people, chosen by God, now exists in shattered remains.[9] The loss of the crown could also symbolize the destruction of the city as the Old Testament often portrayed Jerusalem’s walls as a crown.[10] The city has fallen and the people have fallen with it. The final images of the community, faint hearts and dim eyes, emphasize the frailty of the people caused by their experience and their excessive grief.

As the community suffers, repentance emerges. In the midst of exploring the experience of the community, the poet declares, “Woe to us, we have sinned.” With these words, the poet encourages the community to take ownership of their rebellion against God. Previously in this poem, at verse 7, it appears the people, through the voice of the poet, fail to take on the blame. They declare that their fathers have sinned. But now, at this moment, the people own their wickedness. Their shame, their loss of glory, their disgrace comes because of their choices to dishonor the covenant and rebel against the sovereign Lord. Taking ownership of the rebellion that leads to shame is important for all people as they seek the honor that God bestows through His infinite mercy.

As with most laments, this poem continues with words of worship, declaring the eternal truth about God. The poet affirms God’s complete and everlasting sovereignty. Verse 19 declares that the people believe God remains utterly in control, even in the midst of the community’s unbalance and uncertainty. When unbalance seems to reign and when uncertainty overwhelms, this stanza reminds the faithful that God continues to reign!  When doubt encroaches, God reigns! When life seems shattered, God reigns! When betrayal abounds, God reigns! When peace is a distant dream, God reigns! When chaos consumes, God reigns!

Yet, in the midst of this confession, the poet expresses utter honesty paired with a prayer for restoration. Almost in the same breath of praise, the poet questions God, wondering why God still forgets and forsakes. If God remains on the throne, why do His people exist in brokenness? As the poet questions God, a plea for restoration emerges. This prayer acknowledges further truth regarding God. Restoration must come from God. Human beings cannot initiate or bring about restoration. In the reality of rebellion against God, we cannot even approach the throne of God. Instead, we must depend on God’s amazing grace.[11] We must lay our case before Him, admitting to our absolute and total guilt. Then, we must await divine mercy. The opportunity to return to God cannot depend on the people, for all people continue to rebel. Thanks be to God for His incredible mercy! Perhaps this is why the poem ends in uncertainty. The people of Israel deserve utter rejection by God. Here the poet acknowledges this, wondering at the possibility of restoration. After all, in God’s sovereignty, He also must meet out justice upon all people. We do not deserve God’s grace and love. Will we yet receive it? This truth leaves the people of exile in uncertainty.

This truth points to the world’s need for Christ as the final answer to God’s wrath and justice and the final manifestation of God’s amazing grace! In Christ, God remembers all people. In Christ, God offers to restore each person to Himself. The entire world community can respond, moving from uncertainty and unbalance to certainty and balance. God has not utterly rejected anyone. Instead, God has utterly received us into His eternal embrace. Even in the midst of rebellion, we can all bow before God’s throne and know the fullness of grace! In the midst of the brokenness and rejection we have brought upon ourselves, we can bow before God’s throne and know the fullness of grace!

Prayer: Sovereign Lord, you do indeed reign forever, from generation to generation. We ask that this truth would bring people comfort. It is in your sovereignty that you remember us, you act on our behalf, blessing us with the fullness of grace in Christ Jesus! Through this you restore us to relationship with you! Please inspire all people to come before your throne to confess to rebellion. Then restore all people to your kingdom. Enable us all to rest in the promise of your mercy and the fact that your love overcomes your wrath. We pray these things in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen!

[1] Tremper Longman III., NIBC: Jeremiah, Lamentations. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 388.

[2] John Goldingay, Lamentations and Ezekiel for Everyone. (Louisville: WJK, 2016), edition, 33.

[3] Delbert R. Hillers, The Anchor Bible: Lamentations. (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1972), 102.

[4] F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Interpretation: Lamentations. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), 142; Hillers, 102.

[5] Longman, 389; Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Lamentations. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) edition, 192.

[6] Dobbs-Allsopp, 143.

[7] D. A. deSilva, “Honor and Shame.” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, Downers Grove: IVP, 2008, 287.

[8] Longman, 392.

[9] Walter C. Kaiser, A Biblical Approach to Suffering. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 117.

[10] Dobbs-Allsopp, 147.

[11] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Lamentations. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) edition, 205.

Monday, July 6, 2020

People in Exile - Wrestling with Reversals

Wrestling with Reversals
Lamentations 4:1-22

The concept of reversal is a common one in Scripture. Typically, the reversal portrayed declares renewal and a restoration to righteousness. Consider the reversal presented in Exodus. In this situation, the children of Israel have been enslaved for generations. God intervenes, delivering them from slavery. Their situation reverses: God makes those who were enslaved into a free people, restoring them as His community. Consider also the situation that occurs in the book of Jonah. Once Jonah declares God’s intent to destroy Nineveh, the people choose to repent. God then repents of His justifiable wrath, delivering Nineveh from sure destruction.

As we encounter the poetry of Lamentations 4, the poet uses the technique of opposite parallels in order to show reversal. Unfortunately, the reversal portrayed reveals God’s wrath against a people He once called His own. The entire poem reveals a reversal of fortune for the people of Israel. It does so through four sections. The first section, verses 1-12, names the sufferings that the people deal with in poetically graphic terms. The second section, verses 12-16, reveals the cause of the sufferings by portraying a reversal in the expected behavior of the priests and prophets. In verses 17-20, the poet considers how the people’s focus has been misdirected. The final section, verses 21-22, gives us a hint of reversal in the opposite direction, offering hope.

The reversals presented in the opening verses reveal a very bleak situation for the people of Jerusalem. The poem opens speaking of gold that has lost its luster and sacred gems that have been scattered through the streets. While this might paint a vivid picture of what the Babylonians did to the temple, verse 2 reveals that these images speak of the people. Once they displayed great value and beauty. Now they are pots of clay, having lost their luster. The people of Jerusalem no longer reflect the beauty of the Lord. They were once precious, but now they are common. Reversal leaves them without value.

The second image of reversal comes in verses 3 and 4 where the poet reveals an excruciating situation. The poet presents us with two animals: the jackal and the ostrich. These animals symbolize the absolute depravity of the people. Jackals, normally considered a wretched animal, are presented as more compassionate than the mothers of Jerusalem. These mothers are compared to ostriches. These comparisons may seem odd until we realize how the people of the Ancient Near East viewed the ostrich. Job 39:14-16 illustrates the callous attitude of the ostrich, “She lays her eggs on the ground and lets them warm in the sand, unmindful that a foot may crush them, that some wild animal may trample them.”[1] Arabs consider the ostrich as the impious bird because of the way they treat their children.[2] Comparing the mothers of Jerusalem to the ostrich emphasizes that mothers have ceased being able to compassionately care for their children. In times of blessing mothers can provide just like the jackal. In times of war, exile, and destruction the ability to provide ceases. Better to be a scavenging jackal than a heartless ostrich.

The reversals continue emphasizing poverty where there should be material blessing. The poet presents images of rich people who used to eat plenty, now destitute in the streets. Their clothes have lost their finery as they now lay in ashes.

The reversal in verse 6 is particularly harsh: better to face the punishment afforded Sodom than the punishment the people now face. Sodom was destroyed in an instant. Jerusalem must linger in its sorrow. The poet presents a situation in which obliteration would be preferred to the current situation. The poet reinforces this desire in the words found in verse 9 where death by sword is preferable to living during famine.

As the poet enters into the second portion of his meditation, reversal continues. This new reversal comes in the form of backwards behavior by the priests and prophets. This backwards behavior has directly caused the situation depicted in the first 11 verses. Priests have been appointed by God within the community of the chosen people to guide the people in their religious practices. In this, they should offer sacrifice and guide the people toward actions of justice and righteousness. They should provide inspiration to the people so they might follow the laws laid down in the Mosaic covenant. Prophets have also been given the role of guiding the people in their relationship with God. In verse 13, both groups receive descriptions of backwards behavior. The prophets sin and the priests practice iniquities. They shed the blood of the righteous. Rather than leading the people in sacrifice, these religious leaders sacrifice the righteous who had sought to point the people toward God.

Because of their actions, the status of these religious leaders has been reversed. This reversal begins as the poet declares that those who should see visions from God now grope around in blindness, unable to offer guidance to anyone, including themselves.[3] The poet then paints a vivid picture of their impurity. Priests and prophets, being consecrated by God, should exhibit purity. Contrary to this, the poet announces that they are defiled with blood. Since they have shed the blood of the righteous, they are now covered with blood guilt, making them impure.[4] The images of impurity receive reinforcement by comparing these religious leaders to lepers. In verse 15, the people cry out, “Go away! You are unclean! Away! Away! Do not touch us!” The people want nothing to do with the impurity ascribed to these religious leaders. These leaders have become untouchable! They find themselves in a reality where their authority and honor has been reversed all because of their choices in leading the people astray.

This section of the poem serves as a warning to all those called to serve God’s kingdoms as priests and prophets. As I Peter 2:9 reminds us, speaking to all who believe in Christ Jesus as Lord, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. . .” In these words, Peter declares the status of those who claim Christ as Lord. Through God’s grace in Christ Jesus, we are all made into a royal priesthood. We all have a calling to serve and worship God. A significant part of this calling is guiding other people in faith, leading others to Christ much as the Old Testament priests should have served the people, leading them to God’s mercy seat. Those who follow Christ have a great responsibility. Sometimes, we fail at this responsibility, leading people astray. In addition, I Corinthians 12 reminds us that some receive the gift of prophecy. Those that receive this gift, as with all gifts, need to use prophecy to edify, producing love amongst God’s people. While we, as God’s community, should call people toward lives of justice and righteousness, our very actions and rhetoric too often drive people away from God and His gift of grace for all people. This causes similar pain and loss of luster as discussed in the opening words of this poem.

Following the exposition concerning the religious leadership, the poet continues discussing the plight of the people. Verses 17-20 explore the fact that Israel looked for help in all the wrong places. Rather than looking towards God, Israel looked toward other nations. These nations failed to bring deliverance. Instead, foreign nations turned upon the people bringing them to ruin. Another reversal occurs: instead of receiving help from the nations, upon which they focus, Israel experiences betrayal. When people take their eyes off of God and depend on someone or something else for deliverance, deliverance will not come. We all need to keep our eyes focused on God, then our eyes will not fail!

The final reversal, found in verses 21-22, seeks to offer hope to the people. The poet singles out Edom as one of those nations that betrayed Israel, in order to emphasize justice and hope. Edom is a territory located south and east of the Dead Sea. The people of Edom descend from Esau, the first son of Isaac and brother to Jacob. Thus, this people claims close kinship with Israel and Israel expected support from them. According to Biblical evidence, this support rarely came. From the perspective of the Old Testament prophets, Edom betrayed Israel, whether through not honoring a treaty or wholehearted assistance to Babylon when the latter attacked Jerusalem.[5] In Lamentations 4, the poet refers to Edom in order to inform them that a reversal is coming. They will come to know the cup of God’s wrath. They will experience intoxication and pass out of consciousness.[6]

Conversely, the punishment dealt out to Israel will end. The exile will come to a conclusion. As this poem closes, the poet declares that God will bring restoration. Judgement has fallen, but upon confession by the people God will do a new thing, bringing about an end to losses, trials, and heartache spoken of at the beginning of chapter 4.[7] The sins of Israel and her leadership have been uncovered and forgiven. God will bring restoration and renewal for the covenant people.[8]

The character of God remains true! God must deal with the sin in our lives. God must redirect the murderous attitudes that often rule our hearts. God must direct us to being a people of righteousness and justice. So sometimes God’s wrath must overwhelm us, reversing our fortunes. Then as our selfish and destructive tendencies get revealed and we come before God, confessing our evil, imploring Him to remember us, God will bring restoration. God remains love and in this He consistently offers forgiveness, providing a new reversal in our lives so we may know Him, worship Him, and serve Him more consistently.

Prayer: Righteous Lord, you deeply desire to draw us into your righteousness. Unfortunately, we often live without justice, encouraging others to live similarly. Help us to focus on you, knowing that you alone can deliver us from our unrighteousness. Please forgive us and restore us as your people so that all people might be drawn into your righteousness. In Christ’s holy name, Amen!

[1] Tremper Longman III, NIBC: Jeremiah, Lamentations. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 380.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 99.

[3] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Lamentations. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) edition, 180.

[4] Ibid., 181.

[5] J. R.  Bartlett, “Edom.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2, New York: Doubleday, 1992, 287-295.

[6] Longman, 386.

[7] J. Andrew Dearman, The NIV Application Commentary: Jeremeiah/Lamentations. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 468.

[8] Kaiser, 108.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

People in Exile - Grasping God

Grasping God
Lamentations 3:1-66

“Course He isn’t safe. But He’s good.” Mr. Beaver uses these words to describe the Lion, Aslan, the King of the wood in C. S. Lewis’s book, “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Throughout the story, readers discover that Aslan represents Christ, offering many of the same qualities and paralleling many of the same actions of the Savior. Mr. Beaver offers these words to four children visiting Narnia as part of a prophetic fulfillment. In this prophecy, four human children will come and, with Aslan’s guidance, free Narnia from the clutches of The White Witch. These children, after discovering that Aslan is a lion, inquire regarding the safety of being in Aslan’s presence.[1] It is in the midst of this inquiry that Mr. Beaver offers two descriptions regarding the King of the wood: not safe and good.

While Aslan represents Christ, being not safe and good can serve as descriptors for all three people of the godhead. These two adjectives also help in understanding the experience of the poet in Lamentations 3, in regards to God. As the poet explores God’s actions in the life of Israel, the poet discovers a fear of God because God is not safe. The poet also discovers that God is good!

The themes explored in the beginning of Lamentations seem familiar. The poet reflects on God’s unrelenting punishment due to Israel’s breaking of the covenant. The distinct difference between this poem and the previous poems is the first person voice. The poet claims, “I am the man.” By doing this, he makes the suffering personal, declaring he understands the crushing nature of God’s wrath.

The poet explores God’s wrath and the fact that God is not safe through a series of metaphors in verses 1-18. He begins by turning a comforting metaphor upside down. Verse 1 announces that the affliction comes through the rod of God’s wrath. Shepherds used the rod for various purposes: a tool for correction and guidance and as a weapon to fight off wild animals that threaten the flock. Psalm 23 speaks of the shepherd’s rod as a tool which comforts the sheep. Here though, the rod threatens the sheep. This tool is used to bring wrath down upon God’s people. God uses it to drive the sheep away, out of light and into darkness. God uses it to break the sheep’s bones.[2] The shepherd has to adopt behaviors of correction and punishment in response to the sheep’s overt rebellion.

A second metaphor, beginning at verse 7, pictures God as a jailor.[3] The poet finds himself walled in and bound up with chains. God will not even hear the poet’s cries for help and desperate prayers!

Then in verse 9, the poet realizes that God does not direct along straight paths. In the wisdom tradition highlighted in Proverbs, the wise person who trusts in God finds himself or herself walking along straight paths. Here, the poet finds himself wandering on crooked paths. The poet can no longer grasp God’s wisdom due to God’s necessary response to rebellion.

Following this, the poet offers a series of metaphors emphasizing God’s violent pursuit of the poet. Verse 10 imagines God as wild animals, lying in wait for prey. Both the bear and lion were known as threats to sheep in Israel. David is said to have defeated both while shepherding. Here, God, in the guise of these animals, becomes predator. A second violent metaphor that emphasizes God’s destructive intentions toward the poet is that of an archer on the hunt. God pierces the heart with His arrows. The word translated heart actually means kidneys. In Ancient Near Eastern thought, the kidney was thought to be the seat of joy and grief.[4] God pierces the center of the poet’s emotions, aiming to destroy that which the poet dedicates his passion to.

This leads to further descriptions of pain. Since the poet has betrayed God, he finds himself in despair. God has destroyed and given the poet bitterness to consume. God, who made Israel the envy of nations, has now stripped Israel of all value, leaving it destitute. The poet now knows that God is not safe. God roars and terrorizes. God’s wrath must come crashing down upon the rebellious heart of the people.

As the poet acknowledges this reality, he also remembers that God is not only unsafe, but also good. The poet recalls four truths about God that allow for hope even in the midst of God’s wrath. The first of these, in verse 22, is the Lord’s great love. This translates the word hesed (dsH) which means love, kindness, and loyalty. Hesed does not spring from requirements of the law, but comes out of the character and desire of the one who acts.[5] God’s character is defined by this freely given love, kindness, and loyalty. Even in the midst of the destruction and exile, God continues to love and care for the people. He does not consume or overcome the people.

The poet also witnesses to God’s compassion, declaring that it never fails. The word translated as compassion, rahamaw (vymHr), conveys warm, emotional, and tender care like that of a mother.[6] The root of the Hebrew word means womb.[7] The poet uses this as a parallel term to hesed, further emphasizing the fullness of God’s deep and abiding love for people. As the people face the just consequences for their rebellion and injustice, that can know God’s ever present compassion.

Following this, the poet declares, “great is your faithfulness.” This phrase announces a mighty truth: God is steadfast in His commitment. The word for faithfulness, emunah (hnvmx), also means fidelity or firmness. This word points to the truth that God is persistent in offering a relationship to people.[8] God always seeks after people no matter where we run or try to hide. God persistently offers love and compassion no matter what actions of hate, injustice, and rebellion have flowed from the lives of people. The judgement that leads to Israel’s exile ironically shows a method of God’s seeking. Through this judgement the people return to God, longing for the relationship and grace God always offers.

In verse 24, the poet announces that the Lord is his portion. The Hebrew word helqi (yqlh) means inheritance and also refers to the spoils of war. In Leviticus 18:20, the Lord states that He is Levi’s portion when the tribe does not receive inheritance in the land of Canaan. As their inheritance, God should be the chief delight and possession of the tribe of Levi.[9] The suffering poet lays claim to the priestly inheritance, acknowledging the relationship that exists between the God of the covenant with the people. God is the poet’s chief delight and possession.

The acknowledgement of these four truths: God as great lover, compassionate parent, faithful friend, and inheritance leads the poet to experience hope. As these qualities of God inspire hope in the life of the poet, he claims certain actions, encouraging the people to rediscover God and their dependence on God in the midst of the suffering.

The poet vows to wait for the Lord, declaring the need for patience and silence. The poet buries his face in the dust, adopting actions of mourning and confession. As the poet takes these actions, he realizes further truth about God. God does not willingly bring grief or affliction on anyone. It breaks God’s heart when people suffer. God weeps when He must bring punishment upon on us. God is just like a parent who compassionately corrects the wayward child, yet feels remorse in doing so. In acknowledging this, the poet must also acknowledge that God has justification in punishing Israel.

Then in verse 40, the poet encourages all the people to examine their ways and test them. The concept of “the ways” comes from wisdom literature, representing life’s journey. A person can take one of two ways: the way of the godly, wise person or the way of the ungodly, foolish person.[10] All people should carefully evaluate the way they walk. Then, if we discover we have walked along the way of the ungodly, foolish person, we must return to the Lord. Returning to the Lord is done with prayer and confession.

These acts of prayer and confession inspire the poet to continue the cry to God, a cry in which the poet continues to acknowledge the horror of Israel’s situation and the seeming lack of response from God. Verse 55 begins the earnest cry to God. The poet finds himself stuck in a pit with the waters pouring over his head and declares to God, “I call your name!” Translating verses 55-58 in the imperative rather than in the past tense makes better sense. The imperative tense indicates a desire for immediate, present action. Translating in this way builds on the hope exclaimed as this poem develops. In verses 43-53, the poet reflects on the fact that God has not responded. Now the poet prays in greater urgency, depending on the truth of God’s character, begging God to act.[11] Understanding God as the good, faithful lover inspires the poet to pray with certainty. God will redeem! The poet also knows that God brings justice. Therefore, the poem concludes with a plea for God to bring judgement upon the enemies, those who have acted against Israel, taking the people into exile.

God is not safe! In His holiness and justice, He must respond to humanity’s rebellion and acts of injustice with wrath. Yet, God is good! He does not truly desire to bring turmoil and judgement into people’s lives. God loves all people fully, with a commitment we cannot come close to understanding. He faithfully invests Himself in relationship with people, inviting us to receive Him as our most treasured inheritance. In the midst of the suffering and sorrow of life, cling to the truth of God’s love, compassion, and faithfulness. Even when that suffering and sorrow come because of our choices, we can know that God is good!

Prayer: Ever-loving God, we thank you for your commitment to a relationship with each person. The fullness of your love and faithfulness are unimaginable! Yet, we also know we rebel against you, committing acts of injustice. Please hear us as we call out to you, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. In your great compassion, hear us and heal us! Please surround us with your love as we learn to cherish you. We ask these things in the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen!

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (New York: Collier Books, 1972), 74-76.

[2] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Lamentations. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) edition, 137.

[3] Ibid., 139.

[4] Tremper Longman III, New International Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 366.

[5] J. Andrew Dearman, The NIV Application Commentary: Jeremiah/Lamentations. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 459.

[6] J. Daniel Hays, Jeremiah and Lamentations. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), edition, 571.

[7] Dearman, 459.

[8] Ibid, 368.

[9] Walter C. Kaiser, A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 88.

[10] Longman, 372.

[11] Ibid., 376.