Yesterday I wrote a lengthy piece about experiencing the harsh hand of the Lord. I drew from the language of the Exiles to show how terrible, hurting experiences are not void of God’s presence and there is no sin in admitting that these things are held in his hand. I tried to follow the Mourner’s path from affirming God’s hand of harsh correction to believing and having real hope in his goodness.
Though I suppose I could have left my explorations of Lamentations 3 at that, I feel compelled to share more. Frankly it is difficult to believe something totally outside present experience without a good reason to do so.
The Exile, after affirming that he finds strength in hope (Lamentations 3:21) begins to qualify this notion.
The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.
The Exile was very concerned for the state of his nation and his family and presumably himself. These songs make it clear that the idea of salvation being discussed here had little to with the great blue yonder and everything to do with the fact that their sins had taken them away from their land and had separated them from God.
Sometimes it can be tempting to ‘spiritualise’ the Scriptures, to make ideas such as this refer to salvation in a very etherial sense, that perhaps the Exile was waiting for the salvation that would come when he died. However it is my conviction that the writer here would not allow us to think such a thing, lest we make salvation entirely imaginary.
Verse 27 holds my attention. “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” Well, what yoke? As we have seen previously in this chapter (which is really a song) the Exile has endured a great deal of hardship, crying out “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath” (Lamentations 3:1). Remarkably, with his hope restored he sees this hard labour of suffering as a good thing. He parallels this with waiting for the salvation of the Lord, giving his present suffering a goal and an end. He does not deny the suffering nor count it as evil, but he calls it good.
Why? As I see it, the answer comes a few verses later:
Let us test and examine our ways,
and return to the LORD!
Let us lift up our hearts and hands
to God in heaven:
“We have transgressed and rebelled,
and you have not forgiven.
This is the end of the Exile’s trouble. This is the goal to which he looks forward. This drives him on, the anticipation of return and restoration. After the Exile comes this testing and examination. Away from the promised land the Exile learned what the land was for, and what he was for. In the hand of God they suffered to the point of embracing him again.
This, again, is no problem for the Exile whose brutal honestly astonishes me:
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?
Why should a living man complain,
a man, about the punishment of his sins?
I am struck by the confident peace of this man, in the hand of God. He confesses his God for good or ill, yielding his moral judgement admitting that he has no place to complain.
It seems the Exile understands the existential nature of redemption far better than many Christians. Sometimes it seems salvation is essentially imaginary. A person prays a prayer and is ‘saved’, though there is no impact to that person’s life.
The Exile mourning in Babylon challenges this. His salvation is a real experience of purging of sin and yielding to God, encountering him in terror and awe and wonderful hope. He knows his predicament is God’s doing and yet still he hopes in God for the good and the better. He knows God hears him and finds a peace beyond comprehension, grasping that the affliction he finds himself under for the moment will lead him back home, back to the presence of the Lord.