I call this to mind

A couple of days ago I posted an introduction to Lamentations and explored some of the ways Israel’s covenant resulted in their exile. As I see it, God was so concerned for his own glory being enjoyed by the nations and his people that he did not tolerate his people’s rejection. In exile he shows his people the dire consequences of sin and in return he reminds them of the joy of salvation.

This may seem cruel and unnecessary but it is not my intention to explore this nature of covenant relationship in this post. If someone requests it, I might have the discussion at a later time.

What I do want to share is the ways I see Lamentations impacting the Christian today.

I’ve spent a few days in this book and have found it very refreshing to my soul.

Alone among the many voices of lamentation, the third chapter immediately struck me for it’s unique voice:

I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.
(Lamentations 3:1-3)

These words born of suffering, from a people trapped in a foreign land, speak of a faith in God transcending the angst for things to be well. By this I mean this believer did not need to imagine this was the devil’s doing. He seems fully aware that his circumstance is in the hand of God.

I am frequently frustrated when Christians baulk at this notion. It’s not uncommon to hear Christians pray for the defeat of Satan in their lives, who is attributed as being responsible for these times of darkness. The mourner in this song has no such doubt. He is certain that his predicament is God’s doing. Today, someone might attribute God to the light side of the force or te good guy in a movie. Someone might pray with grandiose fervor about the great revival God is going to spark, or the liberal distribution of signs and wonders on the earth–healings, miracles, conversions.

However, based on the experience of this mourner in Babylon, we are invited to pray to the God who “brought me into darkness without any light”. For this man, the great hardship of suffering, of starvation and death (Lamentations 3:4-5) were every bit ‘signs’ from God.

Now, it is clear in Scripture that God shows real, tangible kindnesses to his children on the earth. Jesus tells a story, likening God to a good father who, like a good father gives good things to his children (Matthew 7:7-11). Indeed, to those who walk close with Jesus and do his will he gives the extravagant promise that he will give them anything they want (John 15:7).

Nevertheless, the mourner in Babylon knows better than to imagine God as some cosmic genie, granting wishes and running to and fro for the believer.

Personally, I like to think his experience is one I can share.

He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
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 3:16-18)

Perhaps someone might want to attribute these words to an unbeliever. Indeed, might they not be more comfortable coming from the lips of one who was undergoing conversion? “Yes! Of course you feel that way, it is because God is pursuing you.” There may have been a time when I would have read such passages this way.

But then I began to grasp what this singer was expressing.

My journey through the first two years of Bible college was rough at best. Didn’t get off to a good start with my peerage and had a lot of expectations which were unfulfilled. I though I’d find something that wasn’t offered there.

The wounds in my soul didn’t heal as I’d wanted them to. They festered and became crippling to me. Be it my perception of the self as shaped by others, or my relationships with others reacting against what I hated in myself I was miserable. I lost weight. I hardly slept or ate and I wept into my hands each night begging God to leave me alone.

Spurning worship and fellowship I tried to escape to the internet. And everyone knows where that can lead.

I shared the Exile song: “My endurance has perished, so has my hope from the Lord”

Like the Exile I do not think this was outside God’s plan or his doing. I am still frustrated about some of the ways I think I was let down. I am especially angered by and ashamed of myself in remembrance of those times. I was like a brutish beast, arrogant and bitter (Psalm 73:21-22).

In this manner I can share the Exile’s song.

But he has something far more to teach me.

How did he, and indeed how did the whole nation of people who sung this song, find resolution and peace in their angst?

After expressing the depths of his grief, telling what God had done to him and his people, the Exile calls to God:

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
(Lamentations 3:19-20)

Remember what I remember, feel what I feel.

I don’t know if I’ve ever asked God to do that. Perhaps I’ve asked God to make me feel more comfortable, begging him to take away some pain or sin or struggle. I have not, however, invited him to share that pain.

On one level I think my soul would be satisfied knowing that my cry is heard. It is indeed a beautiful and comforting notion. However this is a total betrayal of who God is.

I might as well speak to a wall or a stone statue, it would derive the same small comfort. Needless to say that is sometimes the level of my spirituality but the Exile takes my mind from that shallow pool into real depths.

In his seeking for comfort, he affirms:

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.”
(Lamentations 3:21-24)

Does it not intrigue you, how affirming these truths can restore hope?

He speaks of the unfailing love of God with unending mercy and constant faithfulness. Is this not totally untrue? The Exile has seen mothers eat their own children, princes and kings led away for slaughter and the great city of Jerusalem ransacked. How in the world is God’s love unceasing? What is God being faithful to, in the midst of this?

Well, God is being faithful to the covenant. In Deuteronomy 28 the people of Israel agreed to certain blessings and curses based on whether they feared God or not. Steadfast love here is God’s pursuit of his people through the terms and conditions of the covenant. This shows God to be totally righteous in all he does, choosing the pursue the relationship with his people according to the parameters they agreed to.

God, through the Exile, brings his people back to himself. In this way he is being loving, faithful and merciful. It might me likened to the way the staff in an emergency room tear off clothes and break ribs in order to get a heart beating again.

The steadfast love of the Lord is unceasing because he has not abandoned the people to their sins. His renewing mercies pave the way for their redemption and his great faithfulness meant he wouldn’t let his sinful people go.

The steadfast love of the Lord is unceasing because he would not let me go when I was ready to reject him. His renewing mercies carried me safely through dark nights when I wanted to cause great harm. His great faithfulness kept forming me through that crucible into a vessel for his Spirit.

And when it is all said and done, my soul rejoices with the Exile who praises:

“The Lord is my portion and I will hope in him”

Hope, for the Exile at least, was derived not from the desire to see a situation or a circumstance change but from the sure knowledge that God was working in all these things for his purposes.

That is the lasting hope I want to learn from these ancient songs.

I’ll write more on these Lamentations soon.

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  1. Well, here we are again; this collision of human values against the postulated values of the divine.

    “This may seem cruel and unnecessary but it is not my intention to explore this nature of covenant relationship in this post. If someone requests it, I might have the discussion at a later time.”

    You may as well have waved bacon under my nose here. How cound I resist?
    I would contend that this doesn’t just ‘seem cruel’, but IS cruel. You might rebut that since it is Yahweh, it must be just and/or necessary by definition, isn’t that so? You scurry behind the skirts of divine command theory when the indefensible is unmistakable (‘mysterious ways’ is what I get given by way of an answer to this line of argument, mysterious ****ing ways…), yet later you seem to say that Yahweh’s justice is in some way understandable to humanity, since he is only acting by the conditions of the covenant:

    “Well, God is being faithful to the covenant. In Deuteronomy 28 the people of Israel agreed to certain blessings and curses based on whether they feared God or not. […] This shows God to be totally righteous in all he does, choosing the pursue the relationship with his people according to the parameters they agreed to.”

    So God is just because he is faithful to a treaty he made at the level of a bunch of barbaric (oh come on, they were too) monolatrist polytheists? That makes His nature seem quixotic at best. Why the legalism? I think this is a sign of the Old Testament’s polytheism, personally. Or at least a sign that the god the Israelites writing this believed in wasn’t omniscient, omnipresent, et cetera. Yet. Because if so then you have to deal with the deterministic ramifications of Yahweh’s deal-making, since it follows that he would always have known the Israelites would fail him. -cough-Problem of Evil-cough-
    Perhaps that’s His nature, too; to have to go through the motions despite knowing how it’s going to turn out. That doesn’t leave much free will for Yahweh, though does it? Nah, I won’t speculate on how omniscient Sauron’s eye makes him either, or angels on needles. 😉
    Suffice it to say that your analogy of a physician breaking ribs to restart a heart looks a lot less necessary when that physician let that person walk off a cliff, so to speak.
    I have an analogy of my own – a protection racketeer whom, after you failed to pay up for said ‘protection’ shows up at your apartment, beats you and your family, only to say “look at what you made me do. Look at what you brought upon yourself”.
    Even if I were a believer, I wouldn’t buy this. ‘Evil be thou my good’, to go all Miltonian on you.

    I have a query which may seem vulger, or obtuse. Certainly, it is an obvious query. Let me lay the foundations:

    The chief end of humanity is to glorify (and enjoy) God, yes? And God’s nature requires worship. This is just because that is also a part of god’s nature – that he always is (divine command theory, etc). So, god is good.

    By this definition, what does that mean then, when we say something is good? That God approves? Isn’t that just strong-arming? Might makes Right and the Lord is Mighty? You see, if humanity instinctively strove towards the good (the godly good, as it were), then I might consider this a non-issue, from a rhetorical standpoint but it is obvious that we don’t (except coincidentally) do so. You might say this is the Fall’s -ahem- fallout. That our separation from the Edenic state has left us this way.
    I remember a discussion of ours a year or more ago when we were mulling over the fact that what God thinks of as good and what Man thinks are two different things. Can you see the edges of what I’m getting at when I ask ‘what does it mean, in your worldview when you say God is good’? Do you mean ‘God is as God is’? Heh… “I am that I am”, as he might say.
    If we have time, I’d like to explore the idea of how might doesn’t make right, no matter the power and position of the entity proposed, but later.

    Right, let’s wheel out the big guns. The vulger ones I promised:

    If God commanded you to rape and kill, to rip and torture and maim your fellows in His name, would that make it good?

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    • Well this is quite the essay. I shall start with the most direct question first, and then attempt to tackle some of the other issues you raised.

      You asked:

      “If God commanded you to rape and kill, to rip and torture and maim your fellows in His name, would that make it good?”

      It is immediately clear to me that you have in mind the actions of the emperors and kings of Christendom over the ages, who used the Deity to justify the expansion of their kingdoms and defeat of enemies. Indeed you know God DID command the total destruction of tribes and peoples as he gave the Promised Land to Israel. For some this justifies the oppression of Arabs in the modern Israel today.

      I mention this to ground this discussion in the reality of what many people believe about God and his purposes in the earth.

      However I know this is not the thrust of your argument. You want to know if the Christian ethic is, essentially, might makes right?

      That is to say, an action is right because the most powerful being in the universe says so.

      In one sense it would be impossible to deny this. To elevate a morality above God would be to claim a higher deity than God. As the creator of all reality, God enjoys the privilege of being able to entirely define the moral framework of that reality. It would be silly for the clay to tell the potter how it ought to be shaped (Romans 9:21).

      Indeed, speaking of Romans 9, Paul writes about the Pharaoh of Egypt who for all intents and purposes was quite the despot. Exodus tells Israel’s story as a slave nation in Egypt forced to endure extreme hardship. Romans 9 discusses this, and Paul concludes saying:

      “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”
      (Romans 9:17-18 ESV)

      The torture that Pharaoh did was the result of God’s action in hardening his heart. However that did not make it ‘right’. The purpose was that God’s name might be proclaimed in all the earth. The act was evil in the narrowest sense and good in the broadest sense, because through the Exodus Yahweh’s name is known in the earth.

      So, to reiterate and remove any ambiguity: it seems clear from scripture that God permitted and even caused the great evil Pharaoh did to the people of Israel and how he refused to repent. God does not look at this and say it is right. However, he does look on it and call it good. Why? Because it caused the name of the Lord to go out among the nations.

      Now, I hold to the confession that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. This is also God’s chief end. His glory and his joy. A joy that is complete in the overflowing and sharing of that joy in all who would glorify him.

      This is the essence of right and wrong. God is not a moral arbiter in the sense of maintaining a cosmic law. The measure of the righteousness of an act is the measure of glory it brings to God (how accurately it declares his nature and purpose) which ultimately is for the enjoyment of all peoples.

      So in a very different universe where God was a cosmic rapist and torturer and destroyer of worlds, devoted to the misery of all peoples, it would be good for a person to do these things, since he would be imaging the Deity in the world and fulfilling his purposes.

      However God’s commands are intimately bound with his glory, with his image. The principle purpose of a human being is to display and enjoy this image. This is most fully realised in Jesus who is perfectly God and perfectly Human. As a Christian I must confess Christ as Lord and God. As the issuer of commands he shows me what is good, right, beautiful and true. He commands me to do that which brings me most joy and most glorifies God.

      So the Christian is given commands, commands realised principally in Jesus. He is the image of the invisible God, after all.

      I’ll get back to this discussion at another time when I’m less tired.

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      • Chesterton, thanks for replying in such depth and with clear thought. (and you’ve grasped the thrust of my line of questioning perfectly). The only exception is that my vulger question was not solely influenced by, say, the Dark Ages, or the exploits of Israelite warlords. I was, quite honestly, trying to posit every possible extreme divine command theory could lead one to. Re-reading what I wrote, it seems silly of me not to have noticed the obvious comparisons you mention.
        So then. I shan’t be able to address everything tonight (brain is almost sludge as I type), but I’ll endeavour to say something useful.
        Before anything else, I’m glad you mention Egypt, as I’ve thought this too, but plenty of Christians I talk to dither on what level Yahweh ‘hardened Pharoah’s heart’ to the point where I dropped it from regular discourse. Cheers for bringing back an old favourite. 😉

        Now, to business…

        You use the biblical analogy of the absurdity of some clay to tell the potter how it wanted to be shaped.

        “As the creator of all reality, God enjoys the privilege of being able to entirely define the moral framework of that reality. It would be silly for the clay to tell the potter how it ought to be shaped (Romans 9:21). ”

        I have problems with this primarily because (like a lot of the platitude-by-analogies) I think it makes a category error. Allow me to use a metaphor of my own to highlight why I think this is so; a slave owner might think it absurd for his property to say they want control of their destiny. It’s not their place to say so. Do you see?
        Clay isn’t animate, and the potter analogy implies humanity might as well not be, or might as well be slaves (yes, I know there’s choice involved with humans according to your lot, but remember what I said a while back on the differences between a choice and an ultimatum?). Someone once said to me “Tough. God makes the rules”.
        As I replied to them: “A benevolent dictator is still a dictator.”
        They don’t get to pretend they rule because of any other traits but their strength. I know I am using humans here as examples, and it is not unforseeable that this means you think what I am saying is invalid in this context due to this.

        Further, perhaps you might think that I am being hypocritical? Do I not obey and acknowledge the laws of the land? Is this postulated cosmology any different? If you think this, I’d invite you to put yourself in the shoes of someone in a cruel state where the law IS unjust (by your standards). I see little to differenciate between the two.
        Here is why: you mention how Yahweh must in some sense be strong-arming as, if there were a good higher than he, then he couldn’t be god. You’ve said this before, in the post ‘God’s Plan In The Fall Of Man’, during that fascinating exchange with Patrick r.e. The Fall. You express it more succinctly here:

        “To elevate a morality above God would be to claim a higher deity than God.”

        I contend that this invalidates any notion of intrinsic ‘goodness’ on Yahweh’s part. Even if my ethics coalligned with Christianity’s I would think this. Instead of morality, you have legislature, conscriptivism, edicts… Good and evil mean nothing. They are empty words, devoid of the intangibles of implicitly universal worth*. It… it is almost the anti-matter universe doppelganger to ethical nihilism. Blimey… never quite thought of it like that. (Thoughts?)

        That’ll have to be it for now, although I’d like to hear more about how Jesus is somehow perfectly human (hope I’m reading you right and you don’t mean ‘a perfect human’, but just ‘perfectly human’, as you put it). I care so little for Christ as a figure of moral worth that that might be a stretch to see the appeal, but I’m sure it’s bound up in the vicarious redemption bit.

        Cheers.

        *This is ever so slightly disingenuous of me, as I think this anyway, but I make the point to those who think good and evil are real things.

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      • I think Paul’s point in Romans 9 is that human beings really have no choice. I think it was Luther who said that the freedom of the will was to do what one desires. In this way alone I say human beings are free for the most part. But it is God who designs and orders the desires of the human heart.

        So as I see it there is an error in drawing the analogy between a person and the state, when in reality it is more like a carpenter and a log.

        This is why I said the measure of the goodness of an act is whether it glorifies Yahweh or not. I do not see God as the moral law-keeper, though in the context of the covenant with Israel he took on this role. This role was part of a grander scheme to bless the world by the knowledge of God.

        In Lamentations, the Exile says:

        Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
        that good and bad come?
        (Lamentations 3:38)

        So good and evil in the sense you might think of it are not categories Yahweh necessarily sees things in, since we have a proclivity to think of these matters based on what makes us more comfortable, when Yahweh might think of things in terms of what brings people closer to him.

        I happen to believe this is the highest good and greatest joy. This is not unnatural to us, to endure hardship for the sake of greater joy. Well, God IS that greater joy.

        So, as I see it, good to you would be for Yahweh to maintain our highest standard of good. Well, I believe the highest good, greatest joy and most intimate love is found in him and I cannot define that for myself and expect the Deity to meet that standard. It would do-God God.

        Yes, I do mean Jesus is perfectly human in the nature of his relationship with God.

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      • Right, I’m back – and circling closer to the juicy meat of… the matter.

        “So as I see it there is an error in drawing the analogy between a person and the state, when in reality it is more like a carpenter and a log. ”

        …But I notice you don’t deny my analogy of the slave-master and his property. Interesting. Disturbing, but interesting.
        Deities have always been granted special exemption from mortal standards of morality since humans first grasped how silent they were to entreaties from them, yet at least those pagans and classical civilisations didn’t pretend to like it. Moreover, they realised that there was no shame in admitting that.
        ‘But Ben’, you may say. ‘Who are you to say that the greatest good consistent with your (a)morality is the preferred version of good? Who are YOU?’
        To which I would reply (I hope illustrating the incoherencies of the premise of DCT): ‘Who is God?’

        “This is why I said the measure of the goodness of an act is whether it glorifies Yahweh or not.”

        Are we of accord then on the possibility of conventionally understood good and evil being meaningless (vis a vis the ethical nihilism I postulated earlier)? I think we must be.
        I don’t see how you can have your cake and eat it here (on the divine command theory front) without rendering morality a hollow propagandist’s term?
        All you seem to be able to say is being the prime mover would convey upon Yahweh an automatic privilige over everything else. You seem to imply that things are intrinsically his by some high moral right – even though if this cosmology were true there would be no way to condemn anyone for anything objectively morally worse than rejecting him, which seems to be all that matters. You think this, don’t you?

        If so, Ian, you are a much better person than your theology warrants. 😉

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  2. Hey Brother,

    Remember John 5:39-40. Anything we read in the Old Testament we have to read through the lens of the fulfillment of the Cross! There is a new covenant.

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  3. Who is God? To the person of faith it is to him all tings owe their existence and every good thing. For me it is therefore logical to obey him and glorify him as this is the purpose for which humans were made.

    Morality, as far as I am concerned is bound up with how I understand God. This is very Kierkgaardian – finding a truth that is true for me – but I feel very uncomfortable arguing for a moral framework without the presupposition that a person loves God.

    Yes, I do think the worst moral act is a rejection of God but as I read the Bible the notion of accepting God has far-reaching existential impact. For instance as Moses summarises the Law of God he tells the people that he sets before them ‘life and good, death and evil’ (Deuteronomy 30:15)

    For the Biblical ethicist, faith in God doesn’t mean a person does nothing. Come on, Ben, I thought you got this!

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    • Ian – Where do I say that? Ah, I think you mean my last line? Very droll, Chesterton. Ach, I was trying to give a left-handed compliment. 😉 But you can see what I (sort of) meant, don’t you? It’s why I keep bringing up this newfound similarity to an atheistic ethical nihilism. The whole ‘you can’t get an ought from an is’ problem.

      At Home With The Kiergaardians, eh? This ‘right for me’ idea of truth is one I have very little sympathy for (as you know).
      I’d be interested in seeing you squirm (so to speak) in arguing for a moral framework where a person doesn’t love Yahweh as that, my darling, is the point of my ine of questioning. Consider a dystheist, or maltheist’s perspective. Someone who ‘accepts’ the Christian god’s existence – but has come to my present conclusions. No need to hurry, though (or reply at all – I realise this is a tad impertinent of me to press you).

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      • Squirm?

        I don’t actually have any real moral expectation for those who wouldn’t say they love Jesus. I think there are things basic to being a human being and many of these are common sense, and I do believe I have a responsibility to stand up for the weak, but the only group I would want to speak the to morality of would be Christians.

        I am a Baptist, after all.

        If they accepted his existence then Id have the start of a moral conversation, for sure.

        This ethic probably sounds ‘us and them’ and on one level I must accept this. However I see this as the shaping of my morals based on my faith which at the end of the day, or the end of days, does have a distinction….

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  4. I’d love to hear the distinction which makes this:

    “I feel very uncomfortable arguing for a moral framework without the presupposition that a person loves God.
    or
    “[…] but the only group I would want to speak the to morality of would be Christians.”

    …anything but confirmation bias and, to be blunt, ‘playing it safe’ intellectually. Faith always seems to throw up these exceptions, eh?

    Thanks for the clarifications. I’ll stop bothering you on this issue as it’s probably a dead horse by now. (I just hope I don’t wake up with it next to me. 😉 )

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