Saturday, November 20, 2021

When Darkness Veils His Lovely Face

When Darkness Veils His Lovely Face

In 587 BC, after an agonizing two-and-half-year siege, the great pagan king Nebuchadnezzar finally breached the walls of Jerusalem. Babylon’s chokehold on Jerusalem for those couple of years had devastated the city, driving its starvation-crazed inhabitants to the unimaginable point of cannibalism.

But now, the foreign military unleashed its full fury, reducing to ruins much of the holy city, “the perfection of beauty” and “the joy of all the earth” (Psalm 50:2; 48:2). And it thrust a spear into its spiritual heart by destroying the great temple Solomon had built nearly four centuries earlier (Jeremiah 52:4–14). The conquest is still felt among observant Jews, who commemorate it annually with fasting and laments on the ninth of Av, the fifth month of the Hebrew calendar (Jeremiah, Lamentations, 441).

The Bible preserves the inspired record of one saint who managed to survive the carnage. We know it in our English Bibles as Lamentations, a collection of five beautifully composed, honest, raw poems, in which the anonymous poet gives an inspired collective voice to the grieving nation of Israel.

He captures in verse the devastating and disorienting psychological, emotional, and spiritual distress suffered by those who lived and died during the darkest, most tragic chapter in Israel’s old-covenant history, when the Lord, in judgment, had “become like an enemy” to his own people (Lamentations 2:5). It is the saddest book in all of Scripture.

Which is why it is remarkable that smack-dab in the middle of this book of tears is, arguably, the Bible’s most well-known, most beloved declaration of God’s love, mercy, and faithfulness:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
     his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
     great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22–23)

Driven into Darkness

To truly appreciate this beautiful, beloved declaration, we need to keep in mind the kinds of shock this author and his people had experienced.

They had seen Jerusalem’s beloved walls, strongholds, and palaces — the structures that for centuries had been symbols of God’s strength and protection for the Jewish people (Psalm 48:12–14) — turned to rubble (Lamentations 2:5, 8–9). They had seen priests massacred in the temple and the sacred building burned to the ground (Lamentations 2:6–7, 20). They had seen infants die of starvation in the arms of their mothers (Lamentations 2:11–12), parents eat the remains of their children (Lamentations 4:10), young women brutally raped, and once-free men enslaved and humiliated (Lamentations 5:11–13). They had seen bodies of young and old, common and noble, lying in the streets where they had been slaughtered, left to become shriveled horrors (Lamentations 2:21, 4:7–8).

And they knew this was God’s doing: “The Lord has done what he has purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago” (Lamentations 2:17). After centuries of prophetic warnings issued to his stiff-necked, disobedient people (Isaiah 1:7–9; Amos 2:4–5), God at last brought upon Israel the dreadful covenant curses Moses described in Deuteronomy 28:47–57.

The sovereignty of God over this human anguish pours out through the poet’s pen as he writes,

[The Lord] has driven and brought me
     into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
     again and again the whole day long.

He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
     he has broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
     with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me dwell in darkness
     like the dead of long ago.

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
     he has made my chains heavy;
though I call and cry for help,
     he shuts out my prayer;
he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
     he has made my paths crooked. (Lamentations 3:2–9)

Therefore,

my soul is bereft of peace;
     I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
     so has my hope from the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:17–18)

We can barely fathom such multilayered darkness and suffering: afflicted by God, decimated by man, alone, with no light, no peace, no happiness, no hope.

And then.

Light in Deep Despair

Suddenly, we come to one of the most unexpected, jarring literary pivots in all of Scripture — one might even call it a resurrection of one who had been “like the dead” (Lamentations 3:6).

Nothing about the horrific circumstances of the city, the nation, or the author gives any reason for hope. By all appearances, all has been lost. God, in his righteous wrath, administered through a foreign superpower, has slain his “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). The tomb has effectively been sealed. All one can do now is weep beside the grave — or hide from those who had done the killing.

Then into this darkness of destruction, death, and despair comes light, and in this light hope revives. For suddenly, unexpectedly, the lamenting author breaks into this beautiful, and now beloved, declaration:

But this I call to mind,
     and therefore I have hope:

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.” . . .

For the Lord will not
     cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
     according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Lamentations 3:21–24, 31–32)

What revives the author’s dead hope? Answer: not what, but who. The very sovereign God who had brought the darkness and anguish.

‘This I Call to Mind’

Specifically, his hope revives by the word of this sovereign God that the author has stored in his heart (Psalm 119:11). And he has stored a lot of it in his heart. Read Lamentations carefully and you’ll notice many allusions to passages found throughout the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms — especially the Psalms. For example, read these excerpts from Psalm 103 and listen for their echoes in that beloved Lamentations text:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
     and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
     who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
     who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. . . .

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
     slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
     nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
     nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
     so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
     so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
     so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. . . .

The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
     and his righteousness to children’s children (Psalm 103:2–4, 8–13, 17)

God’s word revives this grieving author’s hope. He calls Scripture to mind in this dark, desperate moment. He recalls the Lord’s promises that his steadfast love will never cease toward those who fear him, and neither will his mercies. And he remembers that God’s great faithfulness is inextricably connected to his unceasing steadfast love (Psalm 57:10).

For the author (and the saints he speaks for), passages like this become “a lamp to [his] feet and a light to [his] path” (Psalm 119:105). Even here in the darkest pit, even now when all seems lost, as he and his nation suffer the terrible consequences of sin, in God’s light, he sees light (Psalm 36:9). And this light resurrects his hope.

Darkness Will Not Overcome the Light

The anguished poet of Lamentations, recording his hope amidst grief, reminds us of God’s power to unexpectedly resurrect dead hope. And the horrific nature of his circumstances, as an expression of God’s righteous judgment on Israel, remains a potent reminder that we are never in a pit so deep, and we never endure tragedies so severe, that God cannot, with a word, bring light to our path that overcomes our darkness with hope.

I doubt this poet realized that these words — the words of “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) — would so powerfully foreshadow Christ. Jesus knows tragic carnage and destruction, and all the darkness we experience, from the inside. That’s why he is for us the “light that shines in the darkness” (John 1:5).

It’s also why, when we are in our most hopeless pits, when our “soul is bereft of peace,” when we “have forgotten what happiness is,” when it feels like our “endurance has perished” and “so has [our] hope from the Lord” (Lamentations 3:17–18), Jesus, through his Spirit, loves to resurrect our hope by helping us call to mind God’s “living and active” word (Hebrews 4:12). And when his light shines in our darkness, “the darkness [will] not overcome it” (John 1:5).



from Desiring God http://rss.desiringgod.org/link/10732/14883913/when-darkness-veils-his-lovely-face
via DG