By Timothy Paul Jones
Scripture: Jeremiah 39:1-14; Lamentations 5:19-22; Psalm 137
A few months after a bomb destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building, a book about the bombing appeared in our local bookstore entitled Where Was God at 9:02 A.M. ? That's a good question. One morning in July, 587 B.C., a lot of Israelites asked the same thing. On that day, Jerusalem fell. It was a day that none would escape and few would survive ... a day not unlike the days that the Jews endured in Hitler's Germany ... a day shockingly similar to the days that defiled Bosnia and Croatia a couple of years ago.
In some ways, I'd like to avoid the accounts of Jerusalem's destruction. They're haunting ... offensive. But these stories of suffering remain in the Scriptures for a reason. Through them, we can gain a glimmer of insight into dealing with our own sufferings. So, let's look at the men and women who suffered in Jerusalem. Let's learn about their sorrows -- and about our own.
Everyone in Jerusalem knew that the Babylonian army was coming. Jeremiah, God's prophet, urged King Zedekiah to surrender. But Zedekiah believed that God would again rescue Jerusalem (Jer. 21:2; 38:17). For over a year, Jerusalem held out. Food ran out. But, this time, God didn't bail the people out. One poet lamented, "Those who feasted on delicacies perish in the streets. The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children" (Lam. 4:5a, 10a).
After nineteen months, the Babylonians breached the walls. Within minutes, the temple and the palace had been plundered. But it wasn't only buildings that suffered: Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah. Princes are hung up by their hands; no respect is shown to the elders. (5:11-12).
For a month, terror rushed unchecked throughout the city. Finally, a Babylonian official arrived, and the exile began. As they left, the Babylonians burned everything -- the temple, the palaces, the homes. It was over. And God hadn't intervened once. The proud citizens of Judah became a pain-wracked procession of exiles. They were prodded northeast, toward Babylon.
The Babylonians did allow Jeremiah and his friends to choose their dwelling-place. They chose to stay in Jerusalem. With them, the Babylonians left a governor and a few poor farmers (2 Kings 25:12).
Still, Judah's stubborn streak remained intact. A hot-tempered rebel murdered the governor. Realizing how Nebuchadnezzar would respond, the rebel's followers prepared to flee to Egypt. But the refugees wanted God's blessing. So, they asked Jeremiah to seek God's will for them. They even promised, Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord. (Jer. 42:6a). God waited ten days before telling them to stay in Jerusalem. The people refused to listen anyway. Worst of all, they forced Jeremiah -- now nearly 70 years old -- to go to Egypt too. In a haunting reversal of the Exodus, Israel returned to Egypt.
In Egypt, the people again turned to another god -- "the queen of heaven." Why? They didn't want a deity who allowed them to suffer. So, they turned to a deity that offered wealth and ease instead (see 44:18).
No one knows what happened to Jeremiah in Egypt. According to one Jewish tradition, his own people stoned him to death. To the very end, no one listened to him. He died hated ... alone ... far from his beloved land.
So, what do these stories tell us about suffering? We see (1) that some who suffered were sinners. King Zedekiah despised God's messenger. The folks who fled to Egypt defied God. When serving God became difficult, they turned to other deifies, were rebellious sinners who deserved God's discipline. If only folks like these suffered, life would be a lot simpler. (Notice that I didn't say life would be easier -- only simpler!)
But ungodly rebels aren't the only ones who suffer: (2) Some who suffer are saints. Jeremiah served his Savior faithfully, yet his own people mistreated him. More than a few of the young women who were taunted and abused by Babylonian soldiers had never bowed to a foreign god. Not every citizen slaughtered in Judah despised the God of Israel. Were these folks perfect? No! But they had continued to trust God despite the idolatry around them. Yet they -- like millions of others throughout the centuries -- suffered alongside insolent sinners.
Jesus put it like this: Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No! (Luke 13:4-5a). The bumper sticker (in my revised version) says it this way: "Bad Stuff Happens." And some of the ones to whom it happens are saints.
Through their tragedies, (a) some saints learn to hate. In Babylon, one exile penned these bitter words, preserved in Psalm 137: "O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock, (vv. 8, 9). Obviously, this writer wasn't listening too closely to the ancient sage's advice: "Do not say, 'I will do to others as they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done'." (Prov. 24:29)
Psalm 137 reminds us that the psalms weren't simply songs: They were prayers. And, alongside our sweet hours of praise-filled prayers, there are often hours of pain-filled pleas for relief. Psalm 137 also teaches us that, when we say that the Scriptures never err, we don't mean that everything recorded in the Bible is good. We mean, instead, that the Bible rightly records what happened even when what happened wasn't right. Were the psalmist's words good? No. But they did accurately express what one anonymous exile -- haunted by a past that was too close for comfort -- prayed.
Was the writer a mother who saw soldiers smash her infant's skull against a stone wall? Or a teenage boy who helplessly watched jeering Babylonians rape his sister? We don't know. But, if our only answer to the problem of unjust suffering is the stark command, "Love your enemies," I can't blame the psalmist for writing these words. When suffering swallows us alive, "love your enemies" rings hollow in our hearts.
What are the alternatives to hatred? (b) Some saints learn to wonder. In their darkest moments, David, Jeremiah, and a throng of exiles wondered if God had forgotten them completely (Ps. 13:1; Lam. 5:20). Yet, in the end, each embraced God's enduring presence among them. Why? (c) Some saints learned to wait. Yes, they prayed, "Why have you forgotten us?" Yes, they screamed, "How long, O Lord?" But then" were not cries of doubt: These were cries of faith in God's ultimate justice.. They believed that their suffering was not the last word. So, they waited.
God didn't answer the exiles' prayers immediately. In fact, God didn't even answer their questions in their lifetime. But, eventually, God did answer. And God's answer was Jesus.
In Jesus Christ, God lived among us. God experienced from our perspective. And, on the cross, God was violated, humiliated, abandoned, abused (Isa. 53:3-7). In the words of the Apostles' Creed, "He descended into hell." And, with God's people in every age, Christ cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34).
Christ's cry from the cross isn't an easy answer to the problems of pain and disproportionate suffering. But it does remind us that God's people never suffer alone: (3) One who suffered was the Savior. In Him, God enacted the new covenant that Jeremiah predicted (Jer. 31:31). In Him, God became the victim. In Him, God shared our sorrows (Heb. 2:17-18; 13:11-12). And, His empty tomb reminds us that suffering is never the final word. For, in the resurrection, even suffering and death have been conquered.
In the movie Forrest Gump, Jenny and Forrest -- now adults -- are wandering through the paths that they traveled together as children. Suddenly, Jenny is confronted by a battered building. It is the house where she grew up ... the house where her father abused and violated her ... the house where she lost the ability to love. Enraged, Jenny hurls her shoes at the house. She grovels in the dirt, grabbing rocks and heaving them at the windows. Finally, one window shatters, and Jenny collapses. Forrest slowly remarks, "Sometimes, I guess there aren't enough rocks."
Even with his I.Q. of 75, Forrest Gump was right: Sometimes the rocks of hatred and revenge run out, and we still hurt like hell. But, when there aren't enough rocks, there is a Savior.
Where was God at 9:02 a.m. in April, 19 1995? The same place God was in 587 B.C. God was ruling the universe in wisdom and love. But, even then, God didn't take suffering lightly. For, even then, God saw the cross where a Savior would share our sorrows. If we feel like crying out, "Why have you forsaken me?" we can remember that the One who cried from the cross knows how we feel. But there is one difference: He is with us now to strengthen us. No one was there to strengthen Him.
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Ev'rything to God in prayer!
Can we find a friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness,
Take it to the Lord in prayer."
If God is Good, Why Do I Hurt? by Dr. Ray Pritchard
Of all the questions that trouble the people of God, none is greater than the question posed in our title. Sometimes it is asked in other ways: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Or why do bad things happen to good people? Or why do the wicked prosper while the righteous take such a beating? ...
Where is God At Times Like These? A Meditation in The Wake of a Violent Atrocity by Msgr. Charles Pope
One of the great mysteries to believer and non-believer alike is the mystery of evil and suffering. If there is a God who is omnipotent and omniscient how can he tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where was God yesterday when the shootings in Connecticut occurred? Where is God when a young girl is raped, when genocide is committed, when evil men hatch their plots? ...
The Property of Tears by Jill Carattini
It is impossible to hear stories like this, of heinous murders, of calculated school shootings, without retreating to the deepest whys and hows of life. The abrupt ending to these lives is another wretched symptom of a sick and desperate world. The problem of evil is a problem that confronts us, sometimes jarringly. The problem of pain is only intensified by the personal nature of our experience with it. ...
The Sacrifice of Suffering by John Piper
Biblical thinking proceeds on the assumption that we are all called to follow Jesus outside the camp where there is reproach and danger. It may be the risk of ostracism and scorn at your work. It may be the pain of misunderstanding from an unbelieving relative. ...
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