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Our Confidence in Sorrow

Category Articles
Date January 18, 2005

‘For the Lord will not cast off for ever: But though he cause grief, yet he will
have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.
For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.’

Lamentations 3:31-33.

Once every year something unusual occurs in our national calendar: it is the day known as ‘Remembrance Sunday’. What makes it unusual is that here, for one day, we are permitted to speak about a subject which at all other times is unwelcome. It is not true that our modern liberated society is permitted to speak about anything. There is a notable exception: one subject is not considered suitable for conversation. The meaning of death, the nearness of death, the certainty of death, is a topic not commonly supposed to be heard. But today, for a few hours at least, the unusual is allowed: we are to look back on generations that have gone before us, and in doing so to remember those whose lives ended in the devastation and destruction caused by war. We remember that we are the descendants of many who died in dark days. In the First World War Britain and the Empire suffered nearly a million dead and more than two million wounded. At the battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, 20,000 were killed on one day, and in the three months at Ypres in 1917, the dead numbered 240, 000. Then little more than twenty years later Europe was again devastated and scourged by war. For our liberty a great cost was paid.

What then should we be thinking about on Remembrance Sunday? For most it seems to stop at thinking of the past with a degree of sadness and sympathy. But that is not enough. Death is not simply something in the past. It is in the present and in the future, in our future. The world wants to shut the door on death, we do not want to speak of it and refuse to look at it. But the lesson of history is that, whether we will or not, death will break in on us, and very often surprisingly, unexpectedly. That is exactly what happened in Jeremiah’s day. God sent this prophet to warn the Jews that destruction lay ahead unless there was repentance. They refused to believe it and instead turned on Jeremiah and put him into prison. Then at last, in the month of July 586 BC, Jerusalem’s walls were broken through by the armies of Babylon and in scenes of horror this once beautiful city was destroyed and burned to the ground. Every age group and all ranks of society suffered. Young men – ‘the precious sons of Zion’ – were cut off and so were young women and children. ‘The young and the old lie on the ground in the streets: my virgins and my young men are fallen by the sword’ (Lam.2:21). Zedekiah, the king, was taken before Nebuchadnezzar, his sons were slain before his eyes, and he was blinded and sent in chains to Babylon along with many of the people. Famine and disease followed the war and the victims were so many that their bodies had to lie unburied for lack of help.That was the point at which this book of ‘Lamentations’ was written. Instead of being satisfied that his words were proved true, we find the prophet filled with sorrow and anguish. But the book does not stop there. It calls our attention to a problem and it is the same problem that we must face today. It has to do with the question, how are such events consistent with the character of God? That is what Remembrance Sunday ought to make us think about. Two answers to the question are possible, the first leads us away from God, the second to him.

The first answer says something like this, ‘Human pain and misery is so great that it is impossible to believe that a good God is in control. If there is any God at all then he is remote from us, unmoved and untouched by our calamities.’ There are many who have fallen into such thinking. Here is a mother who has lost her son in war. The effect of her bereavement was that she never prayed or went to church again. Here are a husband and wife who went to church, appeared to be Christians, but their once happy marriage broke up, and in the sadness that followed church and Bible are put aside. People thus respond to the disappointments of life because they conclude there is no help is to be found in God.

But there is another answer. It was revealed to Jeremiah by God. It kept him from despair and kept him trusting when everything around him was in ruins. The Lamentations of Jeremiah gives the same answer to the sad and needy world in which we live today. It tells us – as the whole Bible tells us , that no matter how dark days may be, there is never reason to doubt the character and the love of God. We are to look, then, at the Bible’s answer to the question how such things as we remember today are consistent with faith in a God who cares.

(1). The world is not now in the condition in which God made it.

The truth for the Bible’s starting-point is the exact opposite from what is commonly believed. Man has not ascended from a primitive condition, on the contrary he has fallen from a position of immense happiness and privilege: ‘God created man in his own image … And God saw every thing that he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Gen. 1: 27, 31). But we are now living in a world into which sin has entered. Our first parents sinned against God and they and all their posterity have become the contradiction of what we were created to be; our very nature was corrupted and has become capable of all manner of evil: ‘God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions’ (Eccles. 7:29). Instead of finding our happiness in God we have all turned from him, from obedience to rebellion, from light to darkness: ‘Be astonished, O ye heavens at this … For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water’ (Jer.2:12-13).

Sin is the denial of the authority and holiness of God. Sin has made us enemies of the Creator for we have put ourselves in his place and are hostile to him. In so doing we have chosen death and judgment. In rebelling against our Maker we have forfeited the purpose of our existence. We are now ‘the children of wrath’, and sentenced to return to dust: ‘Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return ye children of men … For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled’ (Psa. 90:3, 7). And sin has brought judgment on the physical creation itself. Man can no longer live in a paradise, there must now be thorns and thistles, drought and famine, earthquake and flood. Something far worse than ‘climate change’ has already happened to creation. The whole earth is ‘groaning’, says the Scripture, on account of man’s sin (Rom. 8:22), it has become a ‘vale of tears’.So the first thing the Bible tells us about the sorrow of human life is that it is all to be traced to sin. We ourselves are the source of the pain and anguish. Among the most tragic words in the Bible are those of Hosea 13:9, ‘O Israel, thou has destroyed thyself.’

There is one qualification that needs to be added. The Bible does not teach that we are to trace particular disasters and afflictions to particular sins. It does not teach that those who die young, those who die suddenly in disasters or from disease, are being especially punished by the hand of God. When a tower collapsed in Jerusalem killing eighteen people, Jesus asked his hearers this question: ‘Those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?’ And he answered his own question: ‘I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:4-5). These are very important words. Jesus does not say that those who died were innocent, but he says they were no more worthy of death than those who stayed alive: we are all unworthy; ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’; not one of us has any right to live and repentance is therefore the universal necessity.

(2). God controls all the actions of wicked men and yet he in no way approves their actions.

There is a great mystery involved in this statement and yet unless we accept its truth we will understand nothing. There are those who want to say that God has nothing to do with tragedies and disasters. They claim that God has no part in such events as wars and terrorism. Early in the last century there were many who taught this kind of thing but when the First World War it meant that Christianity had to be seen as mere sentimentality. If God has no control, no power over wicked men, then he is a helpless deity. So Christianity may be a help to children but it has no comfort to give in the midst of terrible realities.

But the teaching of a hundred years ago was not new. It existed in Jeremiah’s day. A great reason why the priests and people would not listen to the prophet’s warnings of coming judgment was that they claimed that God would only do ‘good things’ for them. ‘They have spoken falsely of the Lord and have said, He will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us, nor shall we see sword or famine’ (Jer. 5:12, and 14:13). But this book of Lamentations makes it abundantly clear that when the Babylonian army fell so cruelly upon Jerusalem the hand of God was indeed in it. Our text says, ‘Though he cause grief.’ In chapter one we read of Jerusalem, ‘her enemies prosper; for the Lord hath afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions’ (1:5); again, ‘The Lord hath done that which he had devised … He hath thrown down, and hath not pitied’ (2:17).

There can be no mistaking that Scripture teaches that what happened to Jerusalem in the terrible year 586 was of God. The Bible teaches that he has control over all events. ‘There is a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die … a time of war and a time of peace’ (Eccles.3: 1,2,8). And yet at the same time it is equally certain that the violence, the pillage, the savagery of men was in no way condoned by God. Verses 34 to 36, following our text, assert this fact. They say that when prisoners are crushed under foot, when justice is denied, when right is turned upside down, ‘the Lord approves it not.’ Here then are two things that appear contradictory: the Bible teaches that the conquering armies that devastated Israel and Judah were a rod in God’s hand- God was no helpless spectator. But no less certainly does Scripture attribute the evil of war to man, ‘From whence come was and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?’ (James 4: 1)

Scripture does not explain how these two things can be. The answer is beyond our present comprehension, but it asserts as a fact that God controls the actions of evil men without in any way participating in their sin. The patriarch Joseph understood this. In their jealousy his brothers threw him into a pit, and then sold him as a slave so that he was taken to Egypt. But he says it was the hand of God that controlled the event. The human action was sinful , ‘Ye thought evil against me’ – but God ruled over the action for a good and holy purpose, ‘God meant it unto good, to bring to pass as it is this day’ (Gen.45: 5; 50:20). No more profound example of the same truth can be found than at the cross of Christ. Demonic hatred planned the sufferings of Christ and yet those same sufferings are revealed to us as part of the eternal purpose of God. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asserts both these things: to those who come to arrest him he says. ‘This is your hour, and the power of darkness’ (Luke 23:53), yet he cries to the Father, ‘Not my will, but thine be done.’ The assault and crucifixion of Christ flowed from the depths to human depravity. Man is held responsible for it, thus on the day of Pentecost Peter charges the Jews with the words, ‘Him you have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.’ Yet in the same sentence the apostle asserts that Jesus was ‘delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). God’s holy will and man’s sinful will were acting together. But the human responsibility is in no way lessened nor does divine holiness in any way participate in the evil.

Believing this has great practical importance in the Christian life. The Bible teaches that what may be called ‘bad things’ happen to the Christian. Paul summarises some of them when he speaks of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. Death itself, ‘the last enemy’, will come to us. In themselves these are not good things. Evil is involved in them, nevertheless at the very same time the apostle is certain that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Rom 8:28). He does not say ‘all things are good’ but he asserts that even behind bad things there is the all prevailing will of the God who loves us in Christ Jesus.

(3). The determination of God to punish sin is not the greatest thing we know about him.

In this dark book of Lamentations there is, as it were, a sudden shaft of light shining from heaven. It breaks out at verse 22 of chapter three and comes to its brightest in verses 32 and 33, ‘But though he cause grief, yet he will have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.’ These words assert what the book has already emphasised: God judges sin. God causes grief, he afflicts the children of men. This world is not, and never can be paradise, for our rebellion against God has brought affliction upon us. The Bible teaches that divine holiness makes some sorrow in this world is a certainty: ‘ Man is born to trouble, as the spark fly upward’ (Job 5:7) – not because we were created for trouble but because of sin. On a Remembrance Sunday Christians publicly acknowledge this fact. But there is another truth and it is the message of the whole Bible, God shows mercy! And these two truths , God judges sin and God shows mercy , are not put before us as of being of equal significance. The compassion outshines the judgment – the whole of God’s being is involved in the exercise of mercy, ‘though he cause grief [that is the first truth], yet he will have compassion according to the multitude – the immensity, the superabundance – of his mercies.’ And then this wonderful explanation is added: ‘For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.’ ‘Not willingly’ is the translation of words that mean, literally, ‘not from the heart’. In other words, there is a great difference between God exercising judgment and his showing mercy. Scripture calls judgment God’s ‘strange’ work; sin constrains it, it comes from God’s hand with reluctance for he has no delight in it. He says, ‘Fury is not in me’ (Isa. 27:4). On the other hand love and compassion lie at the very heart of the divine nature; it is in showing ‘the multitude of his mercies’ that he truly delights. ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy’ (Psa. 103:8).

This truth is so important that we must consider how the Bible proves it to us.

1.Human life here is not a constant experience of affliction but it is a constant experience of divine mercy. Although we deserve the worst it does not happen. The year 586 BC saw a terrible war but there were not such wars every year. Jerusalem was ruined but he people were not wiped out as they might have been. The sufferings were limited: ‘It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning.’ Men do not presently receive what their sins deserve. Jesus says: ‘He makes his sun to rise on the evil’; ‘for he is kind to the unthankful and the evil’ (Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:35). ‘The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works’ (Psa. 145:9). Accordingly, Paul speaks of God showing ‘the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering’ to pagan Gentiles, and that because he desires that they should come to repentance and not perish under his wrath (Rom. 2:4).

Today we remember the hand of God in history and we are right to mourn over what is remembered. But let us never forget that both national history and our personal history demonstrate the constant exercise of divine compassion!

2.The unwillingness of God to judge sinners is proved by the way he puts obstacles in men’s way as they seek to walk on the broad road to destruction. This is repeatedly shown in the prophecies of Jeremiah. God sought to prevent the judgment that finally came on Jerusalem. Time and time again, through long years, God had given warning, and had sent lesser afflictions to keep the people from greater ones. In relation to this a graphic illustration is used. If a man has something urgent and important to do he gets up early in the morning to do it and no less than eleven times Jeremiah says that not only he but God himself had acted in this way. In Jeremiah 25:3-4, we read: ‘From the thirteenth of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, even unto this day’ – a period of twenty-three years – the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken to you, rising early and speaking; but you have not hearkened. And the Lord has sent unto you all his servants the prophets, rising early and sending them; but you have not hearkened, nor inclined your ear to hear.’ The last of such reference in the prophecy of Jeremiah, after speaking of how the people’s departure from God had brought the ultimate desolation on Jerusalem, God spoke these tragic words: ‘Howbeit I sent unto you all my servants the prophets, rising early and sending them, saying, Oh, do not this abominable thing that I hate’ (Jer. 44:4). What is this but God, knowing the sure consequences of sin, pleading with men to prevent those consequences? He testifies that he sought to stop them but they would not be stopped.

It is, a terrible fact that many do not profit from warnings and afflictions. The reason is unbelief. They blame God; they think their troubles are proof that God has no concern or interest in them. When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 over a 100,000 thousand men became prisoners of war in the harshest conditions. They all experienced the same affliction but with two very different results. Some prayed for early freedom and when it did not come they gave up prayer and turned their backs on God. Others sought God in repentance and faith and something wonderful happened to them. In the midst of bondage and death they found that God does not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. They died, numbers of them, on the Burma Road thankful for ‘the multitude of his mercies’ and with the light of glory on their faces.

‘He does not afflict willingly’ is the language of faith. The believer can see kindness in affliction as Augustine who once said: ‘I had been undone if I had not been undone. I had been ruined if I had not been ruined. He orders lesser afflictions that we escape greater.’

For another example of this take the life of John Charles Ryle. At the age of twenty five Ryle was on the top of the world. His father, a banker, was one of the wealthiest men in the North of England, with an estate of 1,000 acres. Ryle planned for a position in Parliament and anticipated inheriting the luxury that surrounded him. But, he writes of a day in June 1841, ‘We got up one summer’s morning with all the world before us as usual and went to bed that same evening completely and entirely ruined.’ On account of mismanagement his father’s bank had collapsed. Virtually everything they possessed had to be sold. The memory of the calamity remained before Ryle every day of his life but the effect was not bitterness and unbelief. He wrote: ‘I have not the least doubt it was all for the best. If my father’s affairs had prospered and I had never been ruined, my life course would have been a very different one. I should have probably gone into Parliament very soon and it is impossible to say what the effect of this might have been upon my soul … Perhaps I might have made shipwreck in spiritual things.’

3.There is a far greater proof that God’s delight is in mercy not judgment and it is the fact that he has involved himself in relieving the consequences of human sin. In the midst of the surrounding suffering, Jeremiah said: ‘Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? Behold, and see it there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow’ (Lam. 2:12). And the answer has to be yes! There is a greater revelation of sorrow, God himself has come into this world as ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ He has not stopped with warnings, he has not limited itself to speaking by circumstances, he has come into this world of sin and death to prove that to prove that he has ‘no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live’ (Ezek 33:11). ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself. ‘God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.’ He so delights to pity and to save that he sent his Son to be identified with sinners: ‘Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same’ (Heb 2:14); and to be identified with us in order that the very worst consequence of sin, that is, separation from God and the bearing of his judgment, might be made his own. Death in the fullest meaning of the word is not the point of exit from this world, it is the eternal penalty of sin and for that death deserved Christ has substituted his death: ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’ ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ Of the same God of whom it is said, ‘He does not afflict willingly’ we read, ‘yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief’ (Isa.53: 10). ‘He hath made him to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.’

Christ is the final exposition of our text. Jeremiah’s words lead us straight to him who spoke of God’s pity for sinners in the words, ‘When he was yet a great way off, the Father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20). Jeremiah was ‘the weeping prophet’ but Jesus not only wept but also died for sinners and he is now at hand calling us to himself. The final answer to the claim that God is far off is the cross of Christ:

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

At that sight the only response must be that of another hymn writer:

Upon that cross of Jesus,
Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart, with tears,
Two wonders I confess –
The wonders of His glorious love
And my own worthlessness.

(4). To understand rightly the character of God we must consider the future as well as the present.As Jeremiah saw the wretched conditions, the sufferings around him and the captivity of his people, he knew that this was not the end of the story. Verse 31 affirms, ‘The Lord will not cast off for ever.’ Another day was coming, the captivity would end, a new covenant was promised, sin would be atoned for and finally death would be swallowed up in victory! God had said, ‘For a small moment have I forsaken you; but with great mercies will I gather you. In a little wrath I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on you’ (Isa. 54:7-8). Old Testament saints were taught to live in the light of the future. Suffering Job said, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God’ (Job 19:25-6). Likewise the psalmist said that his great hope was not here, ‘I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied when I awake, with thy likeness’ (Psa. 17:15).How much more ought this to be the expectation of Christians! It is the future that will make full sense of the present. Now we see through a glass darkly. There is so much that we do not understand. It is promised that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God’ but we seem to see the opposite. We see believers involved in pain and destruction and death. But the promise is not that all things are now good; it is -that even the bad things are ‘working together’ for good.

We read that Philip Doddridge once had a dream that he was already in eternity and being led into a great temple where he found himself in a room. On the walls were strange marks and hieroglyphics that he could not read, and before him a table that contained a cup, and a plate of grapes. Then the grapes were squeezed into the cup and given to him to drink. Now as he looked at the walls again the words formerly indecipherable he could read them as the story of his life, from birth to death, and he saw that the disappointments that had once nearly broken his heart were all sent by God in his infinite love to preserve him from dangers into which he would otherwise have fallen.

Before Christians is the world were trial and discipline will not be needed as they are now. For the present, Scripture says the discipline seems painful rather than joyful ‘but afterward’ we will see it differently. It is the ‘afterward’ that will make all clear to us. Without that there are many promises that may seem to make no sense. Jesus promised persecuted disciples that not a hair of their heads will perish (Luke 21:18); but how could that be true in a world where Herod puts James to death with the sword and Nero executes Paul? It is because there is an ‘afterward’ , another, brighter world for which all is being prepared. Christ is risen from the dead, and believers are in the interval between that event and their own resurrection, when ‘God shall wipe away all tears form their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying’. Then ‘the multitude of his mercies’ will be clear to us. Then we shall know that all was for good. ‘For the Lord will not cast off for ever.’

From all this we must learn that it is in the true knowledge of God that there is refuge. To know him in his character and his attributes is our peace. ‘The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble’ (Nahum 1:7). The Bible promises no freedom from calamities. It gives us no assurance that the twenty-first century will not see greater afflictions than have other ones. ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars’ is Christ’s warning (Matt. 24:6). But it is in just such a world that Jesus offers himself to us a sure refuge. Outside of him we must bear our own death and judgment (John 8:21-24).

How do you respond on this Day of Remembrance? Sorrow is not enough. Just to take note of human suffering and to feel sympathy for others is not enough. Scripture speaks of the sorrow of the world that works death. It is the sorrow of unbelief, the sorrow that has accepted the lie of Satan that God is uncaring and untouched. Godly sorrow is a very different thing. If we have that sorrow, we blame ourselves, we say ‘God be merciful to me the sinner’, and in the light of his amazing love and compassion we want to surrender all that we are to him and to his care.

To know sorrow and to remain hard in heart is to be on the way to hell. To know sorrow and to possess a ‘broken and a contrite heart’ is to be on the way to glory. For God already lives in the broken hearted. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

(Sermon Preached by Iain Murray at Great Victoria Street Baptist Church, Belfast, 14 November 2004)

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