When we think of a suffering prophet, we tend to think of Jeremiah, and not without good reason. His message was consistently rejected by the people he was trying to help. He was thrown into a cistern. (Jeremiah ch. 38) He was treated as a criminal. At one point, his manuscript was destroyed and he had to start from scratch (Jeremiah ch. 36), which any writer knows is a devastating blow. He lived to see all the dreadful things he predicted come to pass. The city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah were destroyed. Many people were killed, and those who survived were sent into exile. Yes, if there was anything that characterized the life of Jeremiah, it was pain and suffering.
In addition to the long book that bears his name, Jeremiah is also held to be the author of the short work titled Lamentations. This is not a book to which Christians typically gravitate, for it is admittedly a downer. Yet, within those pages, there is much we can learn about suffering in the lives of God’s people, and how God Himself redeems it.
For me, the highlight of the book is chapter 3. In a passage that some have seen as a foreshadowing of the experience of Christ Himself, Jeremiah laments, “I am the man who has seen affliction / Because of the rod of His wrath.” (v. 1) Here, the wrath of the Lord seems to be not against any sin of Jeremiah, but rather the sin of the nation. In the verses that follow, Jeremiah’s own suffering seems to blend with that of his people. He complains that the Almighty has “made me walk in darkness and not in light”. (v. 2) God has turned His hand against him (v. 3), caused his body to break down (v. 4), made him dwell in dark places (v. 6), and refused to hear his prayer. (v. 8) The Lord has made him a laughingstock (v. 14) and filled him with bitterness. (v. 15) He concludes that,
My soul has been rejected from peace;
I have forgotten happiness.
So I say, ‘My strength has perished,
And so has my hope from the Lord.’
Jeremiah’s suffering was certainly extreme, both in terms of what he personally experienced and also in terms of what he had to witness happening to his nation. Death and destruction surrounded him, and he was frustrated in all his efforts. For him to actually state that he has no happiness or hope is proof enough of his depression. He clearly felt in that moment as if God had abandoned him.
Yet, Jeremiah goes on to provide us with one of the most profound statements of faith in God’s purposes that can be found anywhere in scripture. Immediately after going through that lamentation and speaking of how the Lord had struck him with hardship, the prophet goes on the declare,
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great if Your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’
Now, when Jeremiah is placing his faith in God’s love, it is not some nebulous, abstract concept. It is thoroughly linked with God’s promises. He not only uses the covenant name for God – YHWH in the Hebrew – but also refers to His “lovingkindness”, which particularly in the Old Testament could almost be translated as “covenant faithfulness” or “covenant love”, so closely are the two concepts linked. God’s love is best demonstrated in His faithfulness to His people.
Even in that dark hour, when God had seemed to abandon the nation and the Mosaic Covenant had been thoroughly broken, Jeremiah sees a greater purpose at work. He has just witnessed God’s judgment, but he still has faith in God’s blessing. Why? Because of God’s promises! Perhaps he was thinking back to the covenant made with Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, in which God Himself took on the responsibility for keeping those promises. The presence of God, symbolized by a smoking “oven” and a flaming torch, moved through the line of dead animals while Abraham slept. (Genesis ch. 15) This symbolized that He would take upon Himself the covenant curse. The love God bears for His people is, in this sense, unconditional. It is based entirely on grace. Therefore, even if He seemed to abandon for a time, Jeremiah knew that a day of salvation was coming.
Let us move on to what Jeremiah says next, for it is particularly important. He speaks of what our attitude should be when going through suffering, and it is not what comes naturally to us. He begins by saying, “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, / To the person who seeks Him.” Ok, but what does that look like?
It is good that he waits silently
For the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man that he should bear
The yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone and be silent
Since He has laid it on him.
Let him put his mouth in the dust,
Perhaps there is hope.
Let him give his cheek to the smiter,
Let him be filled with reproach.
Wow, that seems horrible, doesn’t it? We must conclude that God’s concept of what is “good” is very different from ours. Rather than cursing and complaining, Jeremiah tells us we should wait silently. In contrast to what we may think – that our youth should be carefree, healthy, and happy – the prophet suggests that, “It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth.” (v. 27) He tells us, in essence, to accept suffering and reproach. Yet, this is not an entirely passive suffering, for He also tells us we should be seeking the Lord and waiting for His salvation. We do not know when that salvation will come or what form it might take. We do not know the Lord’s full purpose, but we trust in His person. We trust in His plan and His promises. If He places us under a yoke, it is for our ultimate benefit, not our harm. Perhaps it is to correct us, or perhaps to strengthen us in some way. But rest assured, there is a purpose.
For the Lord will not reject forever,
For if He causes grief,
Then He will have compassion
According to His abundant lovingkindess.
For He does not afflict willingly
Or grieve the sons of men.
What does it mean that God does not afflict willingly? If He allows it to happen, isn’t He willing? Well, I think we need to view that verse (v. 33) in light of what comes before it. We are talking about the people of God and His covenant faithfulness. There are some who reject God and will indeed suffer His ultimate wrath, but those who belong to God are not bound to this destiny. Our suffering is only for a time, and God does not impose it simply because He is a heavenly sadist.
In fact, the next verses contrast this fatherly attitude of God for His beloved children with how human beings behave. “To deprive a man of justice / In the presence of the Most High, / To defraud a man in his lawsuit – / Of these things the Lord does not approve.” (v. 35-36) That was how the people of Judah behaved. They broke God’s commands. They did not show covenant faithfulness, but rather covenant unfaithfulness. Jeremiah suggests this is why God had to judge, and that regardless of the actions of men, all things are in His hands.
Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,
Unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
That both good and ill go forth?
Why should any living mortal, or any man,
Offer complaint in view of his sins?
Let us examine and probe our ways,
And let us return to the Lord.
Jeremiah is suggesting here that rather than getting mad about God’s righteous judgment, we should focus on who we really are in relation to God. It is only according to His mercy that we are not consumed. It is in the goodness of His love that He moved to save a people for Himself even after they rebelled again and again. He showed the same mercy to those of us outside of that community when He brought us in by the blood of Christ and made us part of His people.
Here we see excellent examples of how God redeems our suffering. In the case of suffering that we bring upon ourselves by our sin, He extends mercy and restores us. For those who are in Christ, our sins no longer cause an ultimate separation between us and God. Even if we suffer for a time, our destiny is salvation, and we are made right with Him.
In the case of suffering that we do not bring upon ourselves, but that is merely the result of living in a sinful world, Lamentations also has much to teach us. Consider that Jeremiah followed the command of the Lord to prophesy, even at great cost to himself. Although Jeremiah committed sins just as every person who has ever lived, he was forgiven before God by grace through faith, even as we are today. Thus, much like Job, he could declare that he was innocent of the charges brought against him. Also like Job, he claims God as his defender who will vindicate him before men.
I called on Your name, O Lord,
Out of the lowest pit.
You have heard my voice,
‘Do not hide Your ear from my prayer for relief,
From my cry for help.’
You drew near when I called on You;
You said, ‘Do not fear!’
O Lord, You have pleaded my soul’s cause;
You have redeemed my life.
O Lord, You have seen my oppression;
Judge my case.
Therefore, even in the midst of suffering, Jeremiah was confident that God would redeem his life and his reputation. He was not sent on a fool’s errand. He was not made to bear the rod for no reason or placed under a yoke as part of some massive joke. The Lord’s purposes were at work in him, even as they are at work in us. God will redeem our suffering, even as he redeemed Jeremiah’s.
All scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.