Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
Being quite keen on the proper Bible I’ve chosen the Lamentations option, the one key purple passage in the book which I have discussed further here. It’s a great passage, standing proud like a lighthouse on the dark stormy seas of the rest of the book, and there is much encouragement to be had from it, but I found myself more interested on this occasion in the later verses, from v 25 onwards, and the advice it gives to suffering Christians.
This mini-section begins with the idea that God’s people (‘those whose hope is in him’) have a God who is basically good to them, although of course it doesn’t always feel like that. Therefore, in holding these two paradoxical truths together, we have to ‘bear the yoke’ and to ‘wait quietly’. It gets worse: we have to sit in silence, remembering that this is in fact God doing all this to them, and to ‘bury our faces in the dust’ in case there is any hope.
This language is uncannily reminiscent of Job’s comforters, and, whilst it reflects Israel’s Wisdom tradition, is in the end rejected by Job in favour of an inscrutable God who has the right to do whatever he likes. Indeed, reiterates the author here, it is God who causes suffering, though he doesn’t do it for fun, and he always mixes it with compassion, because that’s who he is. So are we any the wiser?
As always it will probably help us to set this passage in its historical context, so that we don’t try to make it say something to us which it never intended to say. Stuff it tells us about God is probably reliable, but not necessarily that which it says about our reaction. So let’s go back to the final days before the exile, when the Holy City has been devastated, God’s punishment on an apostate nation has been wreaked, and people are left in despair. So what do we do now?
Well, the author says, the time for penitence in the hope that God will let you off the hook is over. You had every opportunity to turn back to him, but you didn’t, and now there is no way of undoing the punishment which he warned you would come upon you. Your only hope now is to suck it up, keep your heads down and wait. You can be sure that the God who has brought this punishment on you will temper it with compassion, but you will have to sit through it. God would have loved to have seen you repent and therefore avoid this catastrophe, but you weren’t interested, so now you have to take what was coming to you.
This does, I think, put the words in one particular historical setting, and it also sets us free from believing that they apply directly to us today. They underline the importance of reading carefully, of not making blanket transfers down the years and across the miles, and of asking deeper questions about what from here we can take as truth for us today.
We have a God of compassion, but also a God of punishment (I have often said, in the face of our society’s valuing of ‘tolerance’ above all virtues, that God is not tolerant: he’s forgiving, which is a very different thing). He doesn’t enjoy putting people through hard times, but he understands when it is necessary. And, we know from our perspective the other side of the cross, that there is after all the chance to escape punishment, because his Son took it for us. This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.