This article was written by Ryan King (Pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Wood Green). It was taught as part of the ‘Attributes of God’ Bible study series at Grace Church Southall on Friday 12 June 2015.
A favourite hymn tells us “Great is thy faithfulness, Oh God my Father!/There is no shadow of turning with thee./Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not;/As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.” The words are based on the Authorised Version’s translation of the ancient biblical text of Lamentations 3:22-23, which reads: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” The same verses translated in the English Standard Version read, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning: great is your faithfulness.” In these words we find the definition of God’s faithfulness. It is being merciful when he could consume us. It is being compassionate when all other things fail and everyone turns against us. It is sure, certain, and unceasing love when there might be reason to hate, love that withstands the ravages of time, the ruin of terror, and the results of transgression. It is unending mercy toward the undeserving, mercy that doesn’t grow old and die overnight, but which manifests itself anew and afresh day by day. This is the faithfulness of God, and it is, as we sing, “Great.”
I am afraid though that we cannot fully appreciate God’s faithfulness by merely knowing how it is defined. While it might be interesting intellectually, a mere definition holds little meaning practically, without some human experience to which we can connect it. Fortunately, the author of Lamentations not only provides us with a definition: he also gives us a demonstration. He tells us that God’s faithfulness is great, and he also shows us just how great that faithfulness really is.
God’s faithfulness is greater than our feelings.
Identified in the first verse as “the man who has seen affliction”, the human author of this book has endured the siege and overthrow of Jerusalem. He’s seen everything from heaps of dead bodies on the street corners to compassionate women boiling their children for food. He has personally been afflicted in every way. Physically his body is broken and wasting away (Lamentations 3:4). Mentally, he is enveloped in bitterness, tribulation, cloaked in the darkness of deep depression, and burdened by the chains of his sorry life (3:5-7). Emotionally, he feels like a wild animal has torn him to pieces and left nothing inside, and the pain is like that of a man who has been used for target practice and had arrows driven into his kidneys while people stand by and mock (3:10-14). Spiritually, he has no peace in his soul, has forgotten what it is like to be happy, is overcome with fatigue and no longer has hope in the Lord (3:15-18)…Or does he? A ray of hope cuts through the gloom and the afflicted man lifts his eyes from the ashes of devastation, looks past the intense psychosomatic pain of his pathetic existence, spits out the gravel on which his teeth have been grinding and says “This I call to mind and therefore I do have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” God’s faithfulness does not negate the reality of the prophet’s feelings, but is the one thing on earth that is greater.
God’s faithfulness is greater than our faithlessness.
The prophet’s momentary lapse into feeling that not even God had any hope to offer betrays the idolatrous mind-set of a people who have forgotten who God is and what he is like. Not all suffering is the direct consequence of specific sins committed by a particular person or people – the story of Job confirms this. Nevertheless, all suffering is experienced by sinful people in a world tainted by sin and one way or another is the consequence more generally of sinful people doing sinful things. And this man knows – his people have left the God they loved and it has taken something drastic to get their attention. He calls the people to prayers of confession and repentance: “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…’” (3:40-42). Why? “The Lord will not cast off forever but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (3:31-32). Because, as the New Testament says, when we are faithless, God remains faithful (2 Timothy 2:13). His people may have rejected him, but God will restore them.
God’s faithfulness is greater than our fears.
It is possible to remember God’s faithfulness, and to rejoice that it is greater than both your feelings and your faithlessness but to still be afraid. What lies ahead, what waits around the bend, what pits might you fall into on the road ahead, what problems will you encounter, and what pain will you have to endure? There may be good things, yes. But there might also be bad things. God is faithful come what may, but we’d rather good things come than bad: health, wealth, comfort, rest. We would rather enjoy God’s faithfulness in times of plenty than in the trials of poverty.
The afflicted man is afraid: his enemies are spewing slander, panic is overcoming his people (who are being treated like rubbish), and all that he knows is being destroyed. He is afraid that God is ignoring his prayers (3:44) and he’s afraid that his enemies have won. He sinks once more into a dark watery pit of despair and cries his eyes out. His broken body and bleeding heart have failed, but he whispers in the silence “I am lost.” And the Lord draws near (3:52-57). The stones that sealed the pit are cast away. The lost man is pulled out of his grave into the light and the breath of life breathed into him. “Do not fear!” God says. And then he turns to hunt down the people who did this to his son. He has seen what they have done and heard what they have said. And he isn’t happy. It’s payback time (3:58-66).
God’s faithfulness can be seen in so many ways – these points hardly skim the surface. Ultimately, this portion of Scripture points to a greater, more global salvation. A world enslaved to sin and covered in shame, dead and buried in relation to God. But in Christ Jesus God came into the world and went down into the grave. By plunging into the tear-filled watery pit of death, Jesus purchased the salvation of all who believe on him, and propels them into the light of his resurrection life. All of our foolishness, all of our filthiness, all of our faithlessness, all of our futility is slain by the great faithfulness of our God, who is mind-blowingly merciful when he could consume and life-givingly loving when he could hate.