Never Be Shaken
The love, mercy, faithfulness and goodness of the Lord are the bedrock of our faith,
more so in these trying times
“How lonely sits the city that was full of people!”
“[She] has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place.”
“ ‘Away! Unclean!’ people cried at them. ‘Away! Away! Do not touch!’ ”
“None come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan.”
“He has walled me about so that I cannot escape.”
All the photographs that I have just shown are photos taken during this COVID-19 pandemic—most of them from India. But the captions for the photos are all taken from a book of the Bible that seems to be more relevant for our times than any other book: The Book of Lamentations.1
This book—a long poem—was written in the immediate aftermath of the sacking and destruction of the nation of Judah by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The nation was destroyed. The temple was torn down. Thousands were killed. Most of the survivors were taken into exile. The people of God had never seen any year like it. A year of utter destruction and devastation. The poem is thus a long lament in the face of evil and suffering. The book’s authorship is traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, although it is actually an anonymous book. Most scholars simply call the author “the Poet.”
Although it is a book of lament, at the heart and centre of the book is found a seed and kernel of hope. In the midst of the utter darkness shines a ray of light. In the cacophony of despair and distress is heard a whisper of faith.
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.”
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.
1 Lamentations 1:1; 1:3; 4:15; 1:4; 3:7 (ESV)
These words, like any other words of the Bible, were not written about us or to us directly. But “they were,” as Paul says, “written down for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). And I want to suggest, that in the midst of all the destruction, distress, despair, and devastation around us, through this passage, God is instructing us about foundations that can never be shaken.
The first unshakable foundation is this: God is loving. Verse 22 says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” The compound term “steadfast love” is the Hebrew word hesed. This is one of the most important terms and concepts in the Bible. It is found 248 times in the Old Testament.
Behind the term hesed is the idea of covenant. It is the truth that God has entered into a binding covenant with his people and has committed his love to his people. In the Old Testament, it was the people of Israel. But now God has entered into covenant with his people, comprising both Jews and Gentiles, who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. That includes us—you and me! God has entered into a covenant with you and me. And we are now the object of God’s steadfast love, God’s covenant love.
We may be distressed when they do—not if they do; but we should not be surprised.
Indeed, we should expect them to fail: for they are not God. Only God will not fail. Only God is God.
God loves us with a steadfast love. It does not depend on whether we are lovable or not—we are often not. It does not depend on our situation, no matter how broken. It does not even depend on feeling, what God feels about us, or what we feel about God. God loves us with an everlasting, steadfast, covenant love.
This is what the author Philip Yancey says about God’s eternal love: “[T]here is nothing we can do to make God love us more. . . And . . . there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. . . God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.” 2 God loves us, and he loves us with steadfast love.
This truth that God loves us may seem like a cliché, but it is important to let it soak in. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. The apostle Paul himself asks in Romans 8: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” And he then answers his own question, saying, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is loving—eternally loving.
If the first unshakable foundation is that God is loving, the second unshakable foundation is this: God is merciful. In Hebrew poetry, there is a unique and common characteristic that scholars call “parallelism.” This basically means that when a poet writes a line or introduces an idea, a following, parallel line or idea “extends” and “echoes” the preceding line or idea.
So also, the poet here extends and echoes the idea of God’s steadfast love with the idea of God’s everlasting mercy. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” is followed by “his mercies never come to an end” (v. 22).
2 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 70.
But this is not simply a poetic or artistic embellishment. It is a deep theological and logical truth: God’s steadfast love toward his people never ceases precisely because his mercies never come to an end. And God’s mercies toward his people never come to an end precisely because his steadfast love toward them never ceases. God’s love and God’s mercy are the two sides of the same coin. He is loving because he is merciful, and he is merciful because he is loving.
We often subconsciously think that we need God’s mercy only at the point of our conversion, for the sins and trespasses committed before coming to Christ. But if we are truly aware and honest about ourselves, we need God’s mercy continually, even after we become his people. And the good news is, God’s mercies never come to an end. “They are new every morning” (v. 23).
This is what the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer says:
Every new morning is a new beginning of our life. Every day is a completed whole. The present-day should be the bound of our care and striving. . . . It is long enough for us to find God or lose God, to keep the faith or fall into sin and shame. God created day and night so that we might not wander boundlessly, but already in the morning may see the goal of the evening before us. As the old sunrises new every day, so the eternal mercies of God are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). To grasp the old faithfulness of God anew every morning, to be able—in the middle of life—to begin a new life with God daily, that is the gift that God gives with every new morning. 3
We need the mercy of God continually—and God shows his mercy toward us continually. God is merciful. This is the second unshakable foundation.
The Poet then echoes and extends the two parallel truths of God’s love and God’s mercy, by adding another truth. This is the third unshakable foundation: God is faithful. “Great is your faithfulness!” the Poet exclaims in verse 23.
The well-known hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness actually comes from this verse. But what is perhaps less well-known is who wrote this song and how he came to write this great hymn. This hymn was not written in response to a dramatic spiritual experience. It was not written in the context of great victory and triumph. It was not the product of a single experience of God’s faithfulness, but a lifetime of God’s faithfulness in the midst of life’s many vicissitudes and troubles. Not long before his death, Thomas Chisholm, the hymn writer, wrote in a letter:
My income has never been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. But I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care which have filled me with astonishing gratefulness.
We often draw a straight line connecting the conditions and circumstances of our lives and the faithfulness of God. That is why, faced with suffering and misfortune, we ask: If God is loving, why am I suffering? If God is great, why is my situation so bad? If God is faithful, why am I failing?
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions, trans. O. C. Dean Jr. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005 ), 5.
But: No! We need to learn to delink our existential realities and circumstantial instabilities from God’s eternal reality and essential stability. Why of course, sooner or later our health will fail; why yes, one time or another our wealth will flounder. We may be distressed when they do—not if they do; but we should not be surprised. Indeed, we should expect them to fail: for they are not God. Only God will not fail. Only God is God.
We also need to realize that God’s faithfulness toward us is independent of our faithfulness toward him. We unconsciously think and act as if God’s faithfulness toward us depends on our faithfulness toward him. But this is not so. I know this is difficult to accept and grasp. But it’s the truth. And we must be thankful for it, because, the truth is, we are often unfaithful to God. But, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful.” This is the third unshakable foundation: God is faithful.
The fourth unshakable foundation in this passage is this: God is good. Verse 25 simply says, “The Lord is good.” This is again hard to accept and understand in a world of evil and suffering, especially in a year like 2020. The Poet would, I’m sure, agree. But, remember, he himself wrote this line in a situation much worse than our current situation. And he affirms and declares the goodness of God in the midst, from the midst, and through the midst of the evil and suffering, he found himself in.
We also need to be clear what the Poet is not saying. He is not saying that everything around him is good. He is saying God is good. He is not saying his situation is good. He is saying God is good.
But the question remains: If God is good, why does it sometimes, if not often, not seem to be so? It could be for several reasons: We don’t know what true goodness is, and so do not recognize it even when we see it. Our badness obscures God’s goodness. Sometimes it is our ungratefulness that blinds us to God’s goodness. We see and receive his goodness all around us, but are simply ungrateful. Other times, it is our hardheartedness that blocks God’s goodness. We are simply too hard-hearted—and tight-fisted—to receive his goodness and his good gifts. Still at other times, it is our shortsightedness that sees only the mad, the bad, and the sad around us, and not the transcendent goodness of God above and beyond us, and how he “works everything together for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose,” as Paul says in Romans 8:28.
One of the early Church Fathers who was martyred for his faith in Christ was Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna. After being hounded and arrested for his faith, he was finally given an ultimatum by the Governor: Deny Christ or be burned at the stake. And this is what the 86-year-old saint said in response: “Fourscore and six years have I served him, and he has never done me injury; how then can I now blaspheme my King and saviour?”
“He has never done me injury.” If we think back on our personal journeys and histories with God, we can also truly say, “He has never done me injury.” God is good. God has been good to us—just as he has been faithful, merciful, and loving toward us.