Overwhelmed and Discouraged, But Yet Hopeful  


Text: Lamentation 3, 4, 5

Thomas Chisholm, born in 1866 in a simple log cabin in rural Kentucky, grew up to be an unsuccessful teacher, then a short-term pastor until poor health forced him to resign, later, upon recovery, an insurance agent, a middling career he never prospered in. Perpetual poverty and a poor esteem amongst himself, his family and others marked his life. Yet, he loved his Lord and was a devout believer. At age 57, he wrote a book of poetry on spiritual matters, which he sent to the renowned hymnwriter William Runyon, hoping that Runyon would find at least one of his poems worthy to put to music, creating a hymn but for years Chisholm’s book sat on the hymnwriter Runyon’s shelf, unopened.

The prophet Jeremiah was much like Thomas Chisholm, an individual who lived a life of trials and troubles, and, yet was devoted to the Lord. For 40 years, Jeremiah had prophesied to the people of the tribe of Judah and the residents of its capital city of Jerusalem, warning them God was telling them that, unless they repented of their sins of worshipping and serving other gods, and turned back to serving and worshipping Him, God would allow the Babylonian army to come in and take over Judah, destroy Jerusalem, and exile the people to Babylon. And then, lo and behold all that took place. That prophet whom the people had beaten, mocked, imprisoned, and attempted to kill was right, after all! The fact remained that the fall of Jerusalem did need to have happened. God would have relented of allowing it if only the people had repented and turned back to Him. But they refused, and so, in order to teach them a very powerful lesson about the dangers of following other gods such as Molech and Baal, who demanded that they sacrifice their children to him in fiery pits, God, after a two-year period in which the Babylonian army had built a siege wall around Jerusalem, thus stopping the flow of goods or people in or out of Jerusalem which led to starvation and even cannibalism, finally allowed the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its people to happen. Jeremiah was heart-broken, and thus he wrote Lamentations. Today, we finish our study of that book and of the life of Jeremiah.

One of the big influences in my early Christian walk was the late Francis Schaeffer who once wrote, “One can opt out into their own little ghetto, saying nice things to themselves and closing their eyes to the real situation that surrounds them in this world. We must not think that Jeremiah’s trials were merely physical. They were psychological as well, for Jeremiah never saw any change in his own lifetime. He knew that seventy years later the people would return (from exile in Babylon), but he didn’t live to see it. Jeremiah, like every human, lived existentially on the knife edge of time, moment by moment; and like all of us, he lived day by day within the confines of his own lifetime. Jeremiah was not just a piece of cardboard; he had a psychological life just as you and I have. How then was he affected? There were times when Jeremiah stood in discouragement, overwhelmed.”

There is no happy ending to Lamentations, only the acknowledgment that life is tough from beginning to end, but that help can be there for you if you keep God in the middle of your life. The book starts in chapters 1 and 2 with Jeremiah in the valley of despair as he watched the suffering of his people, as well as reflected on his own troubles. Near the end of chapter 2, Jeremiah, though, begins to climb out of that valley of wallowing by praying to God (instead of simply wallowing in self-pity). When he prays, he begins to look up and, what he sees at the peak of the mountain he is spiritually climbing is God! In the middle of chapter 3, in the middle of the entire book, Jeremiah reaches the spiritual mountain peak and there, his mind clears, his vision sharpens, and he realizes that through all his troubles, and the trials of the people of Jerusalem, God had been there with him and with the people all along. It was a moment of stunning clarity for him.

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (Lamentations 3:21-26)

Such a fantastic set of statements! The situation had not changed at all! Jerusalem was still fallen, and the people still exiled (they would be for a period of 70 years, Jeremiah accurately prophesied), but everything was different for Jeremiah because he realized that God was with him and them, no matter what the circumstances. Life is not filled with sunshine, rainbows, unicorns, and never-ending dancing in the flowers and trees. Jeremiah came to remember that, as well as the fact that God was with him and his people. Now, Jeremiah would have known Psalm 77, a psalm that every believer should know. In fact, every believer should know Psalm 23, 51, 91, 77, and 139. We will read Psalm 77 together out loud in just a moment but in this psalm the writer of it, Asaph, begins with a cry of distress. The psalmist has been experiencing profound difficulties, and his cries to God appear to have been ignored. It is only when he remembers that the Israelites, during the time in which Moses and his brother Aaron were leading them, experienced much fear and doubting as well when they were preparing to enter into the Red Sea to walk through it, only to discover that, though they could not see God, He was walking beside them through their troubled journey to the other side and to safety. Let’s read this psalm together for it gives us strength to carry on…

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

“Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Ps. 77)

God had been with the Israelites all along. It was only after the fact that many of them realized it, though. So, Jeremiah had a similar moment on the mountaintop in the middle of the book, in the center of chapter 3. Chapters 4 and 5 of Lamentations are written after Jeremiah had come to this similar hopeful realization, that God was actually with them, walking beside them in their troubles, but as he looks at the suffering of the people in his city, he is temporarily brought low, by remarking that instead of looking like gold, that now they looked like pots of clay, the work of human hands, not of God:

How the gold has lost its luster, the fine gold become dull!
The sacred gems are scattered at every street corner. How the precious children of Zion, once worth their weight in gold,
are now considered as pots of clay, the work of a potter’s hands! (Lamentations 4:1,2)

The Jewish people had no other human who they could turn to for help. They were all in the same situation, no matter how much they longed for someone to help.

Because of thirst the infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them. (Lamentations 4:4)

As Jeremiah looked at the effects of that two-year siege, he wondered if it was even more painful than Sodom’s pain. The residents of Sodom paid only one day for their sins. The Jews paid 2 years for theirs.

The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment without a hand turned to help her. (Lamentations 4:6)

The horrors of a slow starvation will be read next. I won’t comment on it because the thought of cannibalism having happened amongst the Jewish people is one of the most disturbing scenes in the Bible.

Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field. With their own hands compassionate women
have cooked their own children, who became their food
when my people were destroyed. (Lamentations 4:9,10)

The latter half of chapter 4 focuses on the reason for this pain and suffering: the sins of the people. Because I have preached on this many times in the past 2 ½ months, I won’t but touch on it now, other than to say that we need to learn that turning from God has a cost. I suppose there is one more detail emerging from chapter 4: it would not be just the Jews who would pay a price for their faithfulness, it would also be their miserable cousins in Edom who rejoiced at Judah’s suffering. The difference was that, after 70 years in exile, the nation of Judah would re-emerge, whereas Edom never would, as history shows.

Rejoice and be glad, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz. But to you also the cup will be passed; you will be drunk and stripped naked. Your punishment will end, Daughter Zion; he will not prolong your exile. But he will punish your sin, Daughter Edom, and expose your wickedness. (Lamentations 4:21-22)

Did you notice that chapter 4 was not Jeremiah wallowing in self-pity? It was a very sad lament describing the horrors that inflicted his people during the 2-year siege and which would affect Edom, but Jeremiah has been to the mountain-top and so he has moved past his self-pitying and wallowing. In chapter 5, he closes his book with a fifth poem – each chapter is a poem on its own, tied together by Jeremiah, their author, to make one book, Lamentations. Chapter 5 finds Jeremiah praying. It is still a prayer of pain, but it is a prayer influenced by what he saw and realized on the mountain top.

Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace. Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to foreigners. We have become fatherless; our mothers are widows. We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price. Those who pursue us are at our heels;
we are weary and find no rest. We submitted to Egypt and Assyria to get enough bread. Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment. Slaves rule over us, and there is no one to free us from their hands. We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the desert. Our skin is hot as an oven, feverish from hunger. Women have been violated in Zion, and virgins in the towns of Judah. Princes have been hung up by their hands; elders are shown no respect.
Young men toil at the millstones; boys stagger under loads of wood. The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music. Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning. The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we have sinned! Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim for Mount Zion, which lies desolate, with jackals prowling over it. (Lamentations 5:1-18)

And, yet, Jeremiah, because he brought to mind that God was with them and that His mercies were new every morning, could say this:

You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. (Lamentations 5:19)

God reigns and He will never “forget” His people, though Jeremiah has one last moment of wavering, at the same time asking for God’s relief.

Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lamentations 5:1-22)

So, Thomas Chisholm – a man whose life had been filled with heartaches, failures, mocking by his family, lack of respect from others – wrote a book of poetry which he sent to the renowned hymn writer William Runyon. For years, Thomas Chisholm heard nothing from the famous hymn writer, but one day, years later, Runyon got around to actually really reading Chisholm’s book of poems and one poem, in particular, stood out for him and he put it to music. The new hymn became a favourite of his choir at Moody Bible Institute. The story goes that William Runyon invited Thomas Chisholm to listen to the choir sing his poem, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, put to music by William Runyon. The choir sang and then clapped and clapped and gave a standing ovation to Thomas Chisholm. He wept and wept. George Beverly Shea, the soloist at the Billy Graham crusades, heard about this and learned it. In 1954, at the Billy Graham Crusade in London, England, George Beverly Shea sang it as a solo and the crowd was enraptured, as was the worldwide listening audience. From that point on, Thomas Chisholm’s poem, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, coupled with William Runyon’s music has become one of the top five most beloved hymns in all of Christendom. But, consider this: Thomas Chisholm had been born in 1866, and he had struggled throughout his life with rejection and self-doubt, only, age 88, in 1954, to become famous, respected, widely-loved, and financially independent.

The lesson for us is this: keep on being faithful to the Lord, just as the prophet Jeremiah and Thomas Chisholm were. The Lord is with you. Keep on going, my brothers and sisters. Jesus is with you. He will not let you be defeated. God is in your life, faithfully protecting, guiding, loving, and saving you. O Lord, Great is your faithfulness! Amen!

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