By Chris Wright
“Great is thy faithfulness” — it’s a favorite hymn for many of us, I’m sure. “Great is thy faithfulness; morning by morning new mercies I see.”
Yet, many of us who love the hymn probably have no idea where the familiar lines come from — which is right in the middle of the darkest book in the Bible, the book of Lamentations.
And that book comes out of the darkest moment in the story of Israel in the Old Testament. It was about 600 years before Christ, and the tiny state of Judah had rebelled against the mighty empire of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had besieged Jerusalem, and the city had held out for 18 months — a terrifying lockdown that led to starvation and disease and death.
Finally, the walls were breached, the enemy soldiers poured in, ravaging, raping, slaughtering old and young, women and children, in an orgy of bloodshed and destruction that left the whole city a burning heap of rubble.
And the poet of this book describes that moment of national trauma in gut-wrenching horror. He pours out the city’s lament and grief again and again — until he reaches a climax in our passage, in 3:18: “all my hope from the Lord has perished.”
Our theme at this year’s Virtually Keswick is that great biblical word, hope. And yet here in the Bible itself is a moment of hope perishing. A moment when everything seemed utterly bleak, when there was nothing but bitterness and exhaustion, when life itself had become hopeless. What then?
What happens next in our text is a total surprise. He says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I do have hope.” It’s a deliberate act of the will. He’s forcing himself to remember something. And as he does so, he shifts, painfully but deliberately, from hope perishing to hope remembering. Which is amazing, since just a few verses earlier he told us: “I have forgotten what happiness is.” Well, he may have forgotten past happiness, but now he’s remembering hope. How?
What is this that he calls to mind? What is it that gives him hope when he thought he had no hope?
He gives us his answer in those rightly famous words of 3:22-23:
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 city of Jerusalem may have ceased to exist, but God’s love? that had not ceased. King Solomon’s temple and royal palace had been obliterated, but God’s mercies? They had not come to an end. Israel the people of God had been faithless for centuries and had finally fallen under God’s judgment. But the faithfulness of God to his own promises? That was as great and eternal as ever.
But how do you know all this? We want to ask. What grounds do you have for coming out with statements like that? Aren’t they a bit, well, optimistic to be honest, in the circumstances? Aren’t you just sinking into some pretty wishful thinking? — “Oh I really hope that God will help us. I hope we’ll all get through this awful time together, somehow. I hope I won’t die like all the others.” Is that all there is to this so-called hope?
Well, no, of course not. It’s that word, remember, that is the key. The writer knew the story of his own people. He remembers those great acts of God in the history of Israel: how God had promised Abraham that through him and his people, all nations on earth would be blessed; how God had rescued the Israelites out of oppression and injustice in Egypt; how God had led and fed them through the wilderness and brought them into their land; how God had repeatedly defended and delivered them from past enemies. All that was there in the record, facts that had been witnessed and remembered and passed down through the generations. It’s all there, as the evidence of God’s love, as the proof of God’s faithfulness.
So, you see, if this God, the God they know as the one and only living God — if this God himself has not “ended,” then neither have his love, mercy, and faithfulness.
And so, he says, when I remember these great facts, I have hope, I have complete confidence that God will deliver — even if we have to wait.
And what about us? Well, none of us is going through anything like what Jerusalem suffered at the hands of Babylon. But some of us are coping with bereavement, loss of employment, with massive anxiety and stress, and very little earthly help, very little to give us hope.
Lamentations drew hope from what God had done in their history, and what that proved about God’s love and faithfulness. And our hope must rest on the same foundation — what God has done. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross bearing our sin, and was raised again from the dead as the guarantee of our resurrection to new life in the new creation. Those are facts of history — the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are the solid ground for faith and hope.
And that’s why Peter, in our second reading, says exactly that: “In his great mercy God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade.”
Our hope, then, is not just wishful thinking or blind faith. It is the sure and certain knowledge that the God who has kept his promise in the past is the God we can trust for all the future. God’s love and mercies never end. “Great is thy faithfulness!” And in that eternal truth lies our eternal hope.
The Rev. Dr. Christopher J.H. Wright is international ministries director of Langham Partnership International.