Jeremiah’s emotional observation of Jerusalem after it had fallen to the Babylonians: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” (Lamentations 1:1). My mind instantly lights up with vivid news images of the empty American streets as we attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The only word I can think of to describe this time that we’re living in is “overwhelming.” The changes have some so quickly, so suddenly, and struck so deeply at every aspect of our lives. We don’t have time to process one change before another one comes along. Like being hit by an enormous wave before we’ve recovered from the effects of the last one. And we don’t know what the future holds once the worst of the pandemic passes. How many of those treacherous waves are roaring toward us in the unseen future?
(The root of the word “overwhelm” is “over the helm.” The helm is the ship’s center of control, so “overwhelm” is a word picture of a massive wave striking in a way that endangers the very control of the ship. Feeling overwhelmed is like that.)
I sit down to pray and I don’t know where to begin. I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of the needs and the pain. Lost jobs. Thousands of deaths. Hospitals filled and overfilled with critically ill patients. Shortages of medical equipment and protective gear. The increased risk of violence for vulnerable women and children who are now isolated at home with their abusers. Recovering addicts and those suffering from mental health issues cut off from their sources of support. Prisoners and many seniors unable to leave their close quarters where the virus can quickly spread. Sales of both alcohol and firearms skyrocketing. It’s overwhelming.
“How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” The barren streets of Jerusalem symbolized the loss of Israel’s most precious community. Not just the location of many of their homes, but of God’s temple. The holiest place in the world. The place where the Lord would meet with His people, accept their sacrifices, forgive their sins. Where they would celebrate with joy in remembrance of all that He had done for them in the past. Where they would find hope for their future.
Just as our desolate streets symbolize our losses. Our loss of income and prosperity. Our loss of social interaction. Our loss of direction. Even emptiness can be overwhelming.
After Jerusalem was destroyed, the people were carried off to Babylon in captivity. Thus the vacant streets. They mourned and wailed as they went, and continued after they arrived. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion [Jerusalem]” (Psalm 137:1). The book of Lamentations is Jeremiah’s expression of his overwhelming grief for himself and his people.
We need to grieve as he did. We need to lament our losses, not just as individuals concerned about self, but as members of our families and of our local and national communities. We need to weep over our deserted streets.
But with all its heavy heartbreak, Lamentations also contains the verses that inspired the comforting hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Who would have thought that one of the most depressing books in the Bible would voice some of the most encouraging words of hope?
“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. 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” (3:19-23). Jeremiah uses the present tense to describe his remembering and his downcast soul. The bitterness and the gall don’t end when he calls to mind his reason for hope.
In the same way, even though our streets are empty, even though we continually remember the afflictions, even though our souls remain downcast, we can call to mind our reason for hope. We can adjust our perspective to see, as Jeremiah did, that it is because of God’s great love for us that we are not completely consumed. That our Lord’s compassions never fail. That they are new every morning. That His faithfulness is great.
It reminds me of Habakkuk 3:7-8: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
I could understand Habakkuk saying, “Though all these things are happening, yet my faith will not be shaken,” or, “yet I will maintain my hope in the future.” But “I will rejoice in the Lord”? “I will be joyful in God my Savior”? That’s so much harder. So much more unrealistic.
And yet there it is. Joy in a time of destitution. Rejoicing even though his entire world has fallen apart.
This is the hope that we have in Jesus. Hope that we can grow into that maturity that has learned how to rejoice in the Lord (not in the circumstances), how to be joyful in God my Savior (not in other people).
Sometimes I have that joy. Even in these days of feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty of it all. Sometimes I can experience the reality that the joy of the Lord is my strength (Nehemiah 8:10, written soon after the exiles had returned to their desolate land).
But at other times I rest in the comfort of knowing that Jesus, “for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Sometimes the best I can do is endure, knowing that the joy is still before me, that it will come at some future point. And that’s okay, too.
As an American, I seem to believe that at any given moment I’m either happy or sad, life is either good or bad. That’s how we tend to view the world. But the reality, demonstrated over and over again in the Bible, is that life isn’t always that simple. Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Nehemiah all got this. They all mourned, they all wept, they all struggled to understand how the Lord could allow the suffering that they witnessed and experienced. And yet they expressed their faith in a loving God and their joy in their Savior, even in the full awareness of the pain of their circumstances and the grief in their souls.