Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lamentations 3, Martyrdom, and the Certainty of Hope

“The favors of the LORD are not exhausted,
his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning,
so great is his faithfulness.
My portion is the LORD, says my soul;
Therefore will I hope in him.”

This passage, taken from Lamentations 3:22-24 and made famous by the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness, comes surprisingly from the book of Lamentations. In this book, the poets cry out to God for liberation from their Babylonian captors who have brought Jewish women even to the point of infanticide and cannibalism. While the poet in Lamentations 3 accepts the Babylonian captivity as God-willed, he has hope that God’s anger will not last forever. The poet, a personification of Israel, pours out his anguish and suffering to the LORD. “He has broken my teeth with gravel,/ pressed my face in the dust” (3:16). The poet lists the many different ways that God has punished him and permitted suffering in his life, and yet he still hopes that God will have mercy on Israel. This hope is not a superficial hope but one grounded in a certainty based on faith. When the poet says, “therefore will I hope in him(v.24), the poet is not expressing a wish but a conviction that God will not abandon him. We use the word “hope” so casually in everyday conversations that the poet’s words are not so easily understood today. From the rest of Lamentations 3, however, it is clear that when the poet says that he has “hope” he means that he has faith in God’s promise. “For the Lord’s rejection/does not last forever;/ Though he punishes, he takes pity,/ in the abundance of his mercies” (vs.31-32). The poet’s praise of the LORD in vs. 22-24 must be read in the context of the captivity. When Israel’s existence as a nation is threatened, when it seems as if God has rejected the Jews, the poet has hope that God will have mercy on His chosen people. In other words, the poet trusts in God’s promise to Israel (has hope in the LORD) even when it seems as if God has abandoned Israel. The poet has hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. This hope, grounded in faith, helps the poet continue living in the midst of such suffering without either losing faith in God or in life. The Jewish poet does not have hope just in a heavenly promise but also has hope that God will free Israel in his lifetime.

The poet of Lamentations 3 is a man of great faith – a man who trusts in God when it seems the most absurd to do so. Is not this man like all Christian martyrs throughout history? I have thought often about these martyrs and their faith. Even when faced with the “cross”, the martyrs still trusted in God; they still had hope. But it would be wrong to argue that all the martyrs gave up hope in this life and only focused on heaven. Certainly, they definitely had hope in the heavenly promise, but they also had a desire to continue living. One must never forget that martyrs were not suicidal people who wanted to escape from the world but people who loved God and the gift of life. Instead of giving up on life, their words were those of Jesus: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42)

The next time you find yourself singing Great is Thy Faithfulness think of the poet in Lamentations 3, think of the Christian martyrs. Hope is not a wish but a certainty. God will keep His promise - even in this life.

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