GREAT IS THY חֶסֶד FAITHFULNESS: If God is Good, Why Do I Suffer? Few answers, a God to trust, and a trajectory for happiness.

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If God is good, why do people suffer? If God is good, why do good people suffer? We aren’t given clear answers to these questions in Scripture, but we are assured that we may trust God and the trajectory he has set for us.

The Bible is filled with good people who suffer. Job is famous for his suffering and his faithfulness. Job cried out, “though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” He also confidently said, “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the LORD.” Jesus willingly accepted suffering so that he could fulfill God’s purposes in this world. Jeremiah saw the destruction of his people and his city and still chose to trust God and his purposes.

The book of Lamentations (a funeral dirge in poetic style), describes the prophet’s sorrow in the midst of suffering and his confidence in God’s mysterious unknown plan. Jeremiah’s ordeal provides an example for us to endure suffering without fully understanding God’s purposes while trusting God to do what is best.

AFFLICTED BUT UNSHAKEN FAITH

The third chapter of Lamentations is an acrostic poem in which God’s prophet pours his heart out to God. Lamentations 3:1-3 recorded the prophet’s general statement of misery: “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought men into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long.” The prophet used a word for man which refers, not to men in general, but to strong young men. The verse, then, ironically began with a word implying strength, but it quickly moved to the inferiority he experienced suffering under God’s chastening rod.

There were several other descriptions of the misery he experienced: “he has made my flesh and skin waste away; he has broken my bones” (v. 4); “He has walled me about so that I cannot escape…though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer” (v. 7-8); “he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces” (v. 11); and “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD’” (v. 17-18). This was a description of a horrible existence. We would like to think that we can’t imagine what it would be like, but perhaps we can.

We are familiar with suffering, but we are puzzled even more about why we suffer. The prophet wasn’t confused at all. He said God was responsible for his suffering. Throughout the poem of chapter three, we read about all that “he” has done. If we don’t back up to chapter two, we might question who that “he” was, but when we go back just a little the antecedent is clearly God. Jeremiah said, “You summoned as if to a festival day my terrors on every side, and on the day of anger of the LORD no one escaped or survived; those whom I held and raised my enemy destroyed” (Lam. 2:22). In Lamentations 2:17, the prophet wrote, “The LORD has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago; he has thrown down without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes.” This just raises a whole new host of troubling questions.

God justly punished those who had sinned against him. Calvin said, “In short, the Prophet says that he was very miserable, and he also expresses the cause, for he had been severely chastised by an angry God.”[1] The “affliction” which the prophet experienced is closely associated with poverty and punishment at the hands of an enemy. It is also used to describe God’s work in disciplining his people. “God uses affliction to prompt repentance; for example, the purpose of the wilderness wandering was to humble Israel (Duet 8:2–3). This is a recurrent theme in Scripture. The Exile is similarly viewed as to nature and end (Ps 102:23 [H 24]; Isa 64:12 [H 11]; Zech 10:2). God is therefore thanked for affliction (Ps 88:7 [H 8]; 90:15; 119:75; Lam 3:33).”[2] Job 21:9 says of the wicked, “Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them.” We should be thankful that we are disciplined by God because it is that discipline (although unpleasant) which is proof of God’s love for us. That love is shown in discipline—Hebrews 12. God calls us back to himself through suffering.

It was, and it is, right for God to punish sin. This punishment is an aspect of his indivisible nature. We should not question why God punishes sin. Rather, we should ask why God is merciful to sinners. His mercy is a greater mystery than his judgment. His grace is a deeper mystery than his wrath. In all this, we must be thankful that God has sent his Son to bear the wrath, which is appropriate so that we might be saved by receiving his wonderful mercy.

 

SACRED CONFIDENT IN GOD

Job, the righteous sufferer, said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15). Jeremiah followed Job’s example of confidence and praised God during his horrible suffering. Out of all this sorrow, we find some of our favorite words of faith: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, therefore I will hope in him” (Lam. 3:22-24).

Jeremiah based his life, not on the pain of his day, but on the praise of God’s steadfast goodness. Steadfast love (חֶסֶד ḥesed) refers to Gods’ covenant mercy. The LXX usually translates (חֶסֶד) with eleos “mercy.” Since Nelson Glueck’s dissertation in 1927, hesed has been understood to refer to covenant loyalty more than mercy. However, the ancient translations focus on words in the “mercy” family and Sakenfeld, in The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible, a New Inquiry, argued that hesed “denotes free acts of rescue or deliverance which in prophetic usage includes faithfulness.”[3] “Stoebe gives an extensive treatment of ḥesed in THAT (pp. 599–622) and remarks (p. 607) that I Kgs 20:31 is an instance where ḥesed is unexpected. Benhaded was defeated. He could claim no obligation. He hoped for mercy, kindness. Stoebe cites the men of Jabesh also (II Sam 2:5). Saul had died in defeat. The care of Saul’s body seems clearly to have been a free act of kindness.”[4] The text itself of Ex 20 and Deut 5 simply says that God’s love (ḥesed) to those who love him (ʾāhab) is the opposite of what he will show to those who hate him.”[5]

Perhaps is helpful to see the “positive meaning (“kindness, grace”) dominates in Hebrew” contrasted with “the negative (“shame”) occurs only in Lev 20:17 and Prov 14:34 (cf. also Sir 41:22, margin; 1QM 3:6; ḥsd pi. “to abuse” Prov 25:10; Sir 14:2; on Psa 52:3.”[6] We see this word used “in a good sense, zeal towards anyone, love, kindness, specially.”[7] God’s חֶסֶד ḥesed refers to his steadfastness and his love. His unchanging and surprising love is what, perhaps, we should see in this one beautiful Hebrew word. Simply, God faithfully amazes us with his love.

Just as God never ceases to amaze us with his love, his mercies are inexhaustible. His mercy is described with the word רַחֲמִים which has to do with his “compassion… brotherhood, brotherly feeling, of those born from same womb.”[8] This word has to do with “the bowels, τὰ σπλάγχνα, as the seat of the emotions of the mind (see the root), Prov. 12:10; hence very tender affection, specially love, natural affection towards relatives.”[9] Isaiah 63:7 reads, “I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, accordion to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” The Psalmist said, “let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low” (Ps. 79:8). In Psalm 119:77, we read, “Let your mercy come to me, that I may live, for your law is my delight.”

Since God faithfully amazes us with his love, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). Someone prayed, “O grant, that we may be sustained by thine invincible power, and that also, when thou wouldest humble us, we may loathe ourselves on account of our sins, and thus perseveringly contend, until, having gained the victory, we shall give thee the glory for thy perpetual aid in Christ Jesus our Lord.—Amen.”[10]

Because of God’s faithfully amazing displays of love, we cannot help but praise him. Thomas O. Chisholm wrote the song “Great is Thy Faithfulness” which in verse 1 says, “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, my Father. There is no shadow of turning with Thee. Thou changest not; Thy compassions, they fail not, As Thou hast been Thou forever shall be.” The 3rd verse and chorus say, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide. Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside. Chorus. Great is Thy faithfulness. Great is Thy faithfulness. Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

We don’t have the answers we would like to have, but we do have a God who we can trust. His plan is greater than we could imagine, but we can never understand it. We can trust the trajectory God has for our lives. That trajectory, if we follow it, leads to glory. If we rebel against God’s plan, we will find greater suffering than we could ever imagine. Follow God’s path. Follow God’s plan. God has challenged us to trust him, if we understood it all, we wouldn’t need to trust him.

 

            [1] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, vol. 5 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 389.

            [2] Leonard J. Coppes, “1652 עָנָה,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 682.

            [3] R. Laird Harris, “698 חסד,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 305.

            [4] R. Laird Harris, “698 חסד,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 305.

            [5] R. Laird Harris, “698 חסד,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 306.

            [6] Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 449.

            [7] Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 293–294.

            [8] Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 933.

            [9] Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 766.

            [10] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, vol. 5 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 408.

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