We’ve spent a few weeks now with our friend Jeremiah and we’ll finishing our time with him this week. He’s taken us on a long downward spiral with the people of Judah as they’ve walked the slow march toward exile. Yet amid the suffering and lament he’s shown us glimpses of coming grace from Yahweh for his people. His discipline is sure, but even more certain is his steadfast love which endures forever. As believers on this side of the cross, we can read Jeremiah with hope knowing that the true Shepherd and Righteous Branch is indeed shepherding with justice and reigning in righteousness. He is our God and we are his people. We can stake our whole lives on the steadfast love of the Lord in Jesus Christ.
Habakkuk is prophesying around the time of Jeremiah, before Jerusalem falls to Babylon. It’s a unique book because it preserves an honest conversation between God and his prophet with questions such as: “How can Yahweh tolerate the wickedness of his people?” and “How can Yahweh use wicked nations to bring about his purposes?”. If you read to the end, we see a wonderful picture of trust and faithfulness in the midst of disaster. Habakkuk’s prayer in 3:17-19 is one we can all pray in these days and times.
Today’s reading begins with a coup and in a breach of leadership, the people look to the Lord. It seems like a promising step with good intentions, but we quickly see it’s just pragmatism. Yet, the Lord meets their pragmatic selfishness with kindness. But the stiff-necked people prefer the queen of heaven to the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Lord is just and measures his justice rightly when he sends them to Egypt never to return to the Land again. They received their reward for their idolatry. Though they tried to escape by their own effort, they cannot run from the sovereign justice of God, who wields empires to execute his plan.
You’ve heard it said “judgment begins at the house of the Lord” – but judgment doesn’t end there. In today’s reading, we see judgment extends even to the wicked nations whom God can use to punish his people. The Lord will judge Egypt and those in her to their complete destruction – but there is hope for Israel’s salvation. The Lord will judge the Philistines and the Moabites – because they did not fear the Lord God or trust in him, but rather magnified themselves before the Lord.
Judgment continues to expand to the nations – this time to Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, and Babylon. Judgment is coming on the Ammonites because they took the land inheritance of Gad. As they have done to Gad, the Lord will do to them. Edom will be judged because of their pridefulness of heart and fear-mongering threats toward their neighbors. Damascus is judged for its cowardice. Kedar and Hazor are nomadic tribes, living “without gates or bars” and judged by removing their livelihood of tents and flocks. Elam is destroyed because of their trust in their bows and military might. Babylon is judged… well… because of many things including idolatry, her captivity of Israel, her blatant opposition to the Lord, her pride.
If it couldn’t get worse for Babylon, today it does. The Lord brings utter destruction on Babylon, while holding out hope for the remnant of Israel within her. Judgment begins at the house of the Lord – by Babylon, no less – but their destruction and captivity of God’s people brings destruction on their own heads. Meanwhile, the Lord is calling his people out of Babylon, out of idolatry, out of coming destruction. These times of trial are meant to soften Israel’s heart that they may clearly hear Yahweh’s voice and return to him.
Jerusalem has been deserted, the people have been carried off to exile. Here is Jeremiah’s lament for his people and his place. There is no doubt here about why Judah went into exile. Yet, the crucible of exile reveals the precious gifts the Lord bestowed on Israel in her youth. There is no questioning the Lord – he is in the right and he has become like an enemy to Israel (like an enemy…not actually an enemy). The Lord has done what he purposed. But it is still grievous to Jeremiah.
Lamentations is a beautifully, poetically arranged book. Each chapter has 22 verses, except the middle (chapter 3), which has 66. If Lamentations 3 is the center of the book and verse 33 is the dead center of the book, then it’s the hinge upon which everything turns. What does it say? “The Lord…does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” The truest and deepest character of the Lord is to have compassion. Rest in these words, which Dane Ortlund said of this verse in his book Gentle and Lowly, “When we see Christ unveil his deepest heart as gentle and lowly, he is continuing on the natural trajectory of what God has already been revealing about himself throughout the Old Testament. Jesus provides new sharpness to who God is, but not fundamentally new content…[In Lamentations] God is indeed punishing Israel for their waywardness as the Babylonians sweep through the city. He is sending what they deserve. But his deepest heart is their merciful restoration [see chapter 5:21].”