Thursday, February 14, 2008

This I call to mind

Back to Lamentations this morning with Tuck. Chapter 3. This is the centrepiece of the book, chapter 3 of 5 with 66 verses compared to the others with 22. All eyes are on this chapter which includes the most known verses in the book "great is your failfulness..."

This is a lament by a man who has suffered affliction, a man who has felt the weight of the rod of wrath. In the opening verses speak of appalling suffering. The suffering is relentless. The man wastes away (v4). He's pierced to the heart (v13). His life is bitter (v15). And the door is shut on his prayers. No wonder he says he's forgotten what happiness is (v17). His endurance is gone. His hope from the LORD has gone (v18). Barry Webb calls this section the eclipse of hope. Appropriate. It's a terrible scene. A distressing insight into the experience of enduring wrath. At this stage the affliction isn't attributed to the LORD, though the previous two laments have stated that explicitly. What if we had to face that? How could we face that?

In v19-20 we find this wrath forever on his mind. He's like a man sleepless at night. He cannot clear his mind of the horrors of his situation. Amid this involuntary remembrance is a more deliberate remembering. He calls something else to mind, v21. This thing brings a rebirth of hope. A rising from the ashes of death. What is recalled? v22-24. Famous words, most Christians will hear melody as they read them. Rarely do we hear their original context. The deliberate recall of a man experiencing great affliction.

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."


How in suffering wrath can anyone say that? How can he be under the rod of wrath and still recall the name of God. Jesus faced it. Jesus was beaten with the rod of wrath. This chapter is not about the experience of Jesus at the cross but it gives some insight into the horror of the cross. As this man will reflect, v39, this is the experience of the punishment of his own sins. Jesus doesn't get punished for his own sins but for ours. Not just the sins of one, but of many. He knows the loss of hope and it's rebirth. In Christ I don't know the horror of wrath but I can call to mind the wrath he faced and the name of God whose love is steadfast and mercies ever new.

What follows appears to be the turning over of the character of the LORD in the man's head. He's suffering wrath. He's remembering who God is. He meditates on it. He feels it. He questions. He stretches it out and feels the tensions and struggles of it. The LORD does not willingly afflict or grieve (v33) but here is a man afflicted. What can he conclude - face the punishment of your sin, take it on the cheek without complaint. He engages with the reality of what he deserves and his knowledge that the LORD has new mercies. The LORD is gracious and compassionate and abounding in love - and slow to anger. In his situation these tensions seem almost unresolvable. There is wrath to face. There is hope to find.

In this way, v39 seems to act (as Webb notes) as an arrival. Wrath destroys him but should be faced without complaint. But also as a departure from which the rest of the lament flows. From this departure point he calls out "Let us..." inviting and beckoning the people to examine their hearts and call on the LORD. He has opposed them and blocked out their prayers - yet they turn to him. Buried. Lost. At the point of deepest despair they call. We expect that the LORD will not hear. Yet, v56 - he hears!! And, v57, he comes near!! Now the same people who were previously enduring the punishment of their sins are repentant and they seek God's wider justice on their enemies.

This lament offers an anatomy of wrath endured. It's despair and hopelessness. And also the potential of the recovery of hope. How can the reality of wrath against sin be squared with the reality of divine love? Only in the place where wrath and mercy meet. For the first two thirds of the Bible we must hold what God reveals about himself and the reality of human hearts in tension. Only the cross of Christ brings any resolution. Only at the cross can hope be found.

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