June 10, 2016

Suffering Well: Hoping in God’s Character

by Mike Riccardi

Over the past few weeks, we have been taking a look at how Jeremiah responded to Judah’s suffering at the time of the Babylonian exile, with the goal of learning lessons on how the believer can respond to suffering righteously. We’ve seen that Jeremiah weeps with those who weep, that he acknowledges the role of sin in suffering, that he trusts in God’s absolute sovereignty, and yet never finds fault with God but recognizes the proper enemy. Today we come to the final, and perhaps the most important, lesson that Jeremiah teaches us on suffering well. In the midst of his intense suffering and deep anguish, Jeremiah does not mourn as one who has no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Rather, he sets his hope entirely on, and rests in, the character of God. He hopes in the restoration of God’s people according to His character and His covenant.

Structured Sorrow

Probably the most intriguing fact about the Book of Lamentations is that the book with the most transparent suffering is the book with the most deliberate, symmetrical structure in the entire Bible.

  • In chapters 1 and 2, even in the original Hebrew, there are 22 verses that are composed of 3 lines in each verse, for a total of 66 lines in each of the first two chapters. On top of that, it’s an acrostic poem: each verse begins with the successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet.
  • In chapter 3, there are 66 verses of one line each, again totaling 66 lines in the chapter. And again, each cluster of three verses begins with successive letters in the alphabet. (So, verses 1–3 start with aleph, 4–6 with beth, and so on.)
  • Chapter 4 has 22 verses composed of two lines each, and chapter 5 has 22 verses with one line each.

So what does that have to do with anything, you ask? Well, this unmistakable amount of structure gives form and shape to Jeremiah’s mourning. There has been broad devastation, and Jeremiah suffers along with his people intensely. But his suffering is not just unbridled grief and despair. The abundant evidence of deliberate structure demonstrates that he has not lost control in his grief. He does not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13).

The Ground of Jeremiah’s Hope

And why not? What is the anchor that grounds his hope? The answer comes at the dead center of the book of Lamentations:

Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Yahweh’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.

“Yahweh is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I have hope in Him.” Yahweh is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of Yahweh. It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and be silent since He has laid it on him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, perhaps there is hope. Let him give his cheek to the smiter, let him be filled with reproach. For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.

I hope you lay hold of the magnitude of those words. “Affliction,” “wandering,” “wormwood” and “bitterness” are juxtaposed with “hope,” “lovingkindess,” “compassion,” and “faithfulness.” Even though Yahweh’s covenant people had been laid bare in a gruesome fashion, the Lord would not utterly destroy Israel. If He has afflicted, He will have compassion.

Jeremiah hopes in Yahweh’s compassion, lovingkindness, and covenant faithfulness. The centerpiece of Jeremiah’s lamentations in the greatest suffering he has experienced—what anchors his hope—is the character of God. Because of Yahweh’s great faithfulness to His own name, His steadfast, loyal, covenant love expressed in the repeated term chesed (Lam 3:22, 32), Jeremiah’s suffering is not just wanton misery and sorrow. Yahweh’s fresh mercies and abundant lovingkindnesses keep him from the abject anguish and heartache of those who grieve with no hope.

Clinging to His Promises

And Jeremiah’s hope isn’t simply a vague naïveté and blind trust in God’s character. He clings to the content of God’s promises to His people. Though Israel has been exceedingly unfaithful to the covenant which God made with them at Sinai, and though God has chastened them greatly because of it, their unfaithfulness will never nullify God’s faithfulness to the word which He spoke to Abraham: to give His people the land He promised (Gen 15:17–18). That is why Paul says in Romans 11 that, from the standpoint of God’s election, Israel is beloved for the sake of the fathers (Rom 11:28). God will not violate His covenant. Neither will their disobedience nullify God’s faithfulness to the word which He spoke to David: to send the Messiah to reign over them forever on the throne of David (2Sam 7:10–16; Ps 89:34–35).

Yahweh’s faithfulness to Israel for the sake of the fathers is ratified again in the New Covenant promise: “‘If this fixed order departs from before Me,’ declares Yahweh, ‘then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever.’ Thus says Yahweh, ‘If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,’ declares Yahweh” (Jer 31:36–37; cf. Ps 89:36–37). It is for this reason—on the basis of these promises—that Jeremiah can come to the end of his lamentations and declare: “Restore us to You, O Yahweh, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old” (Lam 5:21).

The Ground of Our Hope

In the same way, as God’s people—those who are also covenant-bound to Yahweh—in our trials of suffering we also must sink the teeth of our faith into the covenant faithfulness of God. He is still utterly faithful to His promises. And He has made some magnificent promises. In the New Covenant, by virtue of our union with Jesus Christ, God the Holy Spirit Himself guarantees our inheritance—our surety of dwelling with God in His presence forever, our guarantee that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:38–39).

And these promises are not just well-wishes. You can take these to the bank. God has sworn by the greatest thing by which there is to swear: Himself.

“God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 6:17–20).

Our hope, just as Jeremiah’s, even and especially in intense suffering, is in the Lord’s grace. In His ceaseless lovingkindnesses. In His never-failing and always-new compassions. Because our God has united us to Himself in the person of His Son. And He will always be faithful to Himself.

Dear friends, if this be true, what suffering is too great to bear? What tragedy is too difficult to endure? What persecution could possibly steal your joy in this glorious King?

Afflicted? Yes. But not crushed. Perplexed? Sometimes. But not despairing. Persecuted? Absolutely. But never forsaken. Struck down indeed, but for the sake of His name, never destroyed.

May God grant that we suffer well.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Jason

    “Afflicted? Yes. But not crushed. Perplexed? Sometimes. But not
    despairing. Persecuted? Absolutely. But never forsaken. Struck down
    indeed, but for the sake of His name, never destroyed.”

    I’ve heard this verse repeated in song and teachings so many times, and yet this brought tears of joy to my eyes. We may be dragged through it all, but on the other side is glory.

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