I’ve felt a heavy sense of sadness lately. Sadness about all that has been lost because of COVID and cancer and a host of other sicknesses people face. Sadness because everything in our world feels heavy right now. Sadness because anxiety, depression, addiction, abandonment, violence, and unrest are such realities. Sadness because so many people, including people I know and love, are blinded to the truth and walking in darkness—like sheep without a shepherd. It’s so clear to me that the effects of human sin are more catastrophic than we could have ever imagined; the suffering is often deeper than we can bear.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’m in the book of Lamentations in my Bible reading plan, and I’m thankful for the reminder that God welcomes lament: “Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord!” (Lam 2:19). The prophets knew what it felt like to grieve the deep losses brought about by sinful idolatry as they watched evil foreign nations ravage God’s people and their land: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears…” (Lam 1:16a). The prophets knew the crushing discouragement of being misunderstood in a world where evil seems to have the upper hand: “My children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16b). Lamentations is heavy reading.
But! Tucked in the center of five chapters of deep sorrow is a thrill of hope.
In the midst of catastrophe and grief, God’s covenant remnant is never ultimately consumed because we are swallowed up by something greater: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22-23).
In the midst of his grief, the prophet’s hope is renewed by calling to mind God’s “hesed” (translated “steadfast love” in this passage). Commentators say the English language doesn’t have one word that fully encompasses the Hebrew word hesed. It’s used some 240 times in the Old Testament and most often describes the undeserved loyal-love, mercy, kindness, and goodness of God toward his people. Hesed is an active word in which “doing” is implied. And knowing something of God’s hesed is crucial to our grasping real hope.
In his own self-description to Moses in Exodus 34:6, God says he abounds in hesed or steadfast love—a love that forgives iniquity, transgression and sin, but will by no means pardon the guilty. The steadfast love of God for his people is more than a mushy sentiment, and it doesn’t turn a blind eye to what he has called sin. So, who is this God of unceasing love and grace who both forgives sinners and punishes the guilty? And how did the prophets find hope in Yahweh’s hesed while experiencing the aftermath of his intense judgment for Israel’s sin? *They waited for what they couldn’t yet see.* The prophets put their hope in God Himself, basing that hope on his past faithfulness and future promises. Even (and especially) when circumstances were far from promising, the faithful remnant believed God’s own declaration of his merciful lovingkindness to be true, and they rested in him.
As the new covenant people of God, we too have the hope of God’s self-revealed, boundless “hesed” to cling to in the midst of our personal lamentation. But we get to see God’s steadfast love more clearly than even the prophets did because we see it in the face of Jesus Christ! In his kindness, God the Son put on human flesh. As he hung on a cross in the place of rebellious idolaters, he showed the world just how the God of Israel pardons the guilty without letting sin go unpunished. Then, Jesus rose and gave his Church the firstfruits of the Spirit so that we might have hope as we groan in the wilderness of this world while waiting for something much better to come—something we can’t yet see.
Sadly, in this life here on earth, there will always be sin and suffering. There will always be grief. But in the midst of my own feelings of heavy sadness, I call to mind the hesed of God toward me in Jesus Christ, and I have HOPE. I declare with the prophet: “The LORD [Christ] is my portion…therefore I will hope in [wait on] him” (Lam 3:24).