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Author:Rev. Andre Holtslag
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Congregation:Reformed Church of Dovedale
 Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
 dovedale.rcnz.org.nz
 
Title:His Compassions Never Fail
Text:Lamentations 4:1-22 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain
 
Preached:2016-08-07
Added:2017-08-08
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

New Testament Reading - Ephesians 2:1-10

Song after Sermon - There's a Wideness in God's Mercy

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Andre Holtslag, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,

    If you are familiar with your typical fairy tale or children’s story book, you will know how they end – “and they all lived happily ever after” J  So we are used to happy endings. 

    And you could say that chapter 3 of Lamentations kind of prepares us for a happy ending.  The first two chapters of Lamentations are extremely bleak and agonising descriptions of a destroyed Jerusalem.  And a good chunk of chapter 3 was equally grim and harrowing.  Despite the fact that most people think that mankind is basically good and that if there is a God He has to be nice to everyone, the truthes revealed in those chapters were that man is really, really bad and that God is really, really angry with sin.  But in the middle of chapter 3 we read this, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  And those words broadcast the truth that God’s grace is really, really powerful.  Despite the reality of sin, all hope is not lost because there is forgiveness for sins in the Lord Jesus.

 

    So, we might be hoping that we have gotten the sin and destruction and punishment and death stuff out of the way so that we can have the nice happy ending we expect.  Well, yes and no J  There is a wonderful hint of hope in this chapter, but as we shall see, there is also a lot more destruction and devastation and God’s wrath in this chapter. 

    And this leads some to ask, Can’t we just shut the book on Lamentations and move to a ‘nicer’ part of the Bible?  Some even find the ‘nasty’ God of Lamentations a bit embarrassing.  But Lamentations is a vital part of understanding who God is, who we are, and what the Lord Jesus came to do.  If we want to help our neighbours come to know Christ, we have to know God is a judging God, that we are wretched sinners, that our sin is repulsive to Him, and that the only answer is His grace to sinners in the Lord Jesus.  As one commentator put it, “If you can’t handle Lamentations then you can’t handle the gospel.  Every thread in this book is divinely stitched to Calvary.”

 

So let’s see how this is so with the fourth of the five poems of Lamentations.  In this chapter, a Retelling of a Retold Tale of Destruction reveals the Real Deliverer.

 

I. Much of what we read in Ch. 4 we are hearing for the fourth time.  We read similar descriptions in ch’s 1-3.  So it is a retelling of a retold tale of destruction.  And that means we can move pretty quickly through these verses.  So let’s begin with vv1-10 where the shocking situation in Jerusalem is again described with a list of reversals.   

  1. Look firstly at vv1-2: “How the gold has lost its luster, the fine gold become dull! The sacred gems are scattered at the head of every street.  How the precious sons of Zion, once worth their weight in gold, are now considered as pots of clay, the work of a potter's hands!

In Exodus 25-30, God tells Moses how to build the Tabernacle and its furniture and the sacrificial implements.  And again and again Moses was told, “make it out of pure gold,” or “overlay it with gold.”  Approximately one ton of gold was used – a small car - $32 million in today’s money!  The golden lampstand, for example, would be worth $1.7 million by itself!  In the middle of the wandering people of Israel and eventually in the centre of their worship life in the Promised Land there was this golden tabernacle. 

But that was nothing compared to the temple that Solomon built.  You can read about that in 2 Kings 6.  Solomon used 5,500 tons of gold – Value Cars Warehouse – 350 cars – 15 of them! - $176 billion! 

 

But it is all gone, smashed, taken away, crushed and scattered.  So a place that was valuable and precious is now worthless. 

At Dovedale, we recently had a visitor from Switzerland.  Geneva – John Calvin – home of the Reformation.  She now has to travel over the border in Austria.  Political upheaval in Europe.  Those countries are rapidly becoming just a shadow of their former glory in both a spiritual and material sense.  NZ also.

And the lesson for us as a congregation or families or individuals is that if we also fail to hold on to the gold of what we have and what we are in Christ, if being a Christian just becomes a cultural thing that does not affect the way we live, then we also will become worthless, in every sense of the word.

 

  1. But look now at vv3-4:Even jackals offer their breasts to nurse their young, but my people have become heartless like ostriches in the desert.  Because of thirst the infant's tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them.”

Mother ostriches, it is commonly believed, lay their eggs and just leave them.  You can actually read a description of this in Job 39.  They are described there as dealing cruelly with their young.  Well, things were so bad in Jerusalem that mothers could not breastfeed or provide bread for their children, or even worse, they could but chose not to because of their own hunger.  So children who should be nurtured had been starved.

 

  1. Then comes vv5-6: “Those who once ate delicacies are destitute in the streets. Those nurtured in purple now lie on ash heaps.  6 The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment without a hand turned to help her.” 

Here we have a picture of the rich forced to search for food from the rubbish bins. 

And what is striking is that the poet describes this punishment as worse than that the Lord rained down on Sodom, which you will remember was destroyed by fire and brimstone that came down from heaven, because at least Sodom’s punishment was instantaneous.  But Jerusalem’s punishment is drawn out and painfully slow.  The siege of Jerusalem went on for two years! 

So as a reader, what conclusions should you be drawing from these words?  If Jerusalem’s punishment is worse than Sodom’s, it must be because Jerusalem’s sin is worse than Sodom’s.  The Jews had the OT and the temple and the priest and prophets, etc.  Sodom had nothing. 

Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is required.”  And do you remember the parables of the talents that Jesus told?  Well, if He has caused you to be born into a believing family and to have Sunday school and cadets and catechism and youth group and hear two sermons a Sunday, ever since you were born, you have been given much…   

 

  1. But look next at vv7-8: “Their princes were brighter than snow and whiter than milk, their bodies more ruddy than rubies, their appearance like sapphires.  But now they are blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets. Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as a stick.”

Good health was once the norm in Jerusalem.  People had healthy complexions.  The princes even had time to put makeup on!  But now even the Fashionistas are as shriveled up and dirty as the poorest of the poor.

 

  1. Things are so bad, as we come to vv9-10, that it is said: Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.   With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed.”

The living would rather be dead and the caring have turned into cannibals. 

 

And so, once again, we have to see and agree that man is really, really bad.  He is truly capable of great wickedness.  He is a sinner who deserves the wrath and judgment of God.  And if we are under any illusions about we being more civilized and advanced today, let me quickly pop that balloon by telling you of a fact we worked out in Catechism class recently.  50 abortions a day take place in NZ.  Add that up back to 1975 and you have 738,000 human beings killed in the womb – almost twice the current population of Christchurch.  One of the reasons the Holocaust of WWII was so evil is because Hitler said the Jews were not really people so killing them was not wrong.  Well that is the same reasoning used now to kill the unborn.  Man is really, really bad.

 

  1. So the second section of this poem begins with the wrath and judgment of God that we read about in v11: “The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations.”

 

  1. And what we read here is that the Lord did not hold anything back in His anger; He ‘bent His back,’ as it were, He let loose with all His might, such was His indignation at Jerusalem’s wickedness. 
    1. It is a horrifying picture.  It is a terrifying image.  It is a vivid portrayal of the truth that God is really, really angry with sin. 
    2. It is in prefect accord though with what we read in Psalm 11:5-6: The LORD tests the righteous, but His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.  Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.” 

I said at the beginning of the sermon that Lamentations is a vital part of understanding who God is, who we are, and what the Lord Jesus came to do.  If we want to help our neighbours come to know Christ, we have to know that God is a judging God, that we are wretched sinners and that that the only answer is His grace to sinners in the Lord Jesus. 

  Go into a some churches here in Christchurch or pretty much anywhere in the West today and you will almost invariably here this gospel being preached: God loves you and He has a perfect plan for your life.  Won’t you accept Jesus as your Saviour?  But that is not the gospel!  The gospel is, from Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  We are, by nature, “children of wrath,” according to Eph 2:3.  “The wages of sin is death,” explains Rom 6:23, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  That is the glorious full-orbed gospel.  Me and you are wicked sinners who deserve to go to hell.  But I am going to heaven because I have repented of my sins and believed that Jesus died on the cross for my sins.  And many here have done that also.  Have you?  Will you do this today?  This is the message of Lamentations, and that is the message we need to share out there. 

 

  1. But as we come to the third section of the poem, vv12-20 now, we read about the failure of Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings:

 

  1. v12 says, “The kings of the earth did not believe, nor did any of the world's people, that enemies and foes could enter the gates of Jerusalem.”

During their journey to the Promised Land and since they had lived there, God had secured one miraculous victory after another for His special, covenant people, Israel.  So the poet explains that the common belief of the kings and nations of that time was that Jerusalem just could not be defeated. 

 

  1. But eventually it was defeated by the Babylonians.  Why?  Well, we are told as the poet continues with vv13-16:

But it happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous.  14 Now they grope through the streets like men who are blind. They are so defiled with blood that no one dares to touch their garments.  15 "Go away! You are unclean!" men cry to them. "Away! Away! Don't touch us!" When they flee and wander about, people among the nations say, "They can stay here no longer."  16 The LORD himself has scattered them; he no longer watches over them. The priests are shown no honor, the elders no favor.

The priest and prophets of Israel had become corrupt and greedy and false.  And if you are familiar with the ceremonial law of the OT, you will know that it was the priests who had to decide the fate of someone who came to them with a skin issue that could be leprosy.  If it was, that person had to live outside the community and cry out ‘unclean!’ if anyone came near.  Well, in another reversal, it is the priests and prophets who are now the social pariahs. 

And we see this same phenomenon today when someone in a trusted position of leadership falls into sin – corrupt policemen, paedophile priests, abusive teachers or doctors, etc.  They usually have to move away and change their identity, because of harassment or even death threats.  We do not like corrupt leaders.

 

  1. So the priest and prophets had become dirty and defiled.  But there is a reversal for the kings as well as we see in vv17-20:

“Moreover, our eyes failed, looking in vain for help; from our towers we watched for a nation that could not save us.   Men stalked us at every step, so we could not walk in our streets. Our end was near, our days were numbered, for our end had come.  Our pursuers were swifter than eagles in the sky; they chased us over the mountains and lay in wait for us in the desert.  The LORD's anointed, our very life breath, was caught in their traps. We thought that under his shadow we would live among the nations.

2 Kings tells us that when the Babylonians first came to Jerusalem, the locals were sure that the army of Egypt would come and help them because of alliances that had been made.  But this did not happen.  That’s what we read about in v17. 

And when the Babylonians had Jerusalem under siege, 2 Kings 25 tells us that King Zedekiah and his sons and the army escaped from the city.  But the Babylonians chased them down and caught them.  And do you know what they did?  They made King Zedekiah watch as they slaughtered his sons and then they put out his eyes so that was the last thing he saw, and then they took him in chains to Babylon and put him in prison.  That is what v19 describes. 

 

If anyone ever asks you what the OT is all about, one way to summarize it is as a record of prophets, priests, and kings

  • Adam is the first one.  He is supposed to tell future generations the things of God – a prophet, he is supposed to offer himself and his work to God – a priest, and he is supposed to rule over and subdue creation – a king.  But he fails. 
  • So we read on and we encounter Abraham and Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Samuel and Saul and David and Eli and Elijah and Ahab and Hezekiah and Josiah Isaiah and Jeremiah, and others, priest, prophet, and king after priest, prophet, and king.  But they all fail. 
  • But the very fact that the OT is full of prophets and priests and kings prepares us to expect A prophet/priest/king who will not fail; who will do what these others priest and prophets and kings did not do. 
  • And so, as Philip Ryken says in his commentary, “At their best, the prophets, priests, and kings of the Old Testament foreshadowed Christ’s coming [what they did well we expect Him to do perfectly].  At their worst, they showed why His coming was so necessary [their failures help us see why we need Jesus!].”  As we read in the Catechism answer earlier in the service, unlike Jerusalem’s false prophets, Jesus tells us the truth about God, about ourselves, about salvation, and about this world and the age to come.  And unlike her unholy priests, He has offered Himself as a once for all and acceptable sacrifice for sin.  And unlike her selfish kings, He selflessly defends His people from all their enemies and governs us by His words and Spirit.  

 

  1. So as we come to the last section of this poem, vv21-22, and with the truth of Jesus as our perfect prophet, priest, and king in view, we come to the glimmer of hope in this poem: Rejoice and be glad, O Daughter of Edom, you who live in the land of Uz. But to you also the cup will be passed; you will be drunk and stripped naked.  O Daughter of Zion, your punishment will end; he will not prolong your exile. But, O Daughter of Edom, he will punish your sin and expose your wickedness.

 

  1. The nation of Edom lay just to the South of Israel.  The people there were the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob.  So they should have been the firm friends of the people of Israel.  But instead they were devious self-serving enemies.  So here the Lord promises vengeance for their treachery.  Edom will get what is coming to them.
  2. So that’s the first piece of good news, if you like; the first hint of hope.  But Zion or Jerusalem or God’s people are also told that their punishment is accomplished.  God has promised to bring His people back to Jerusalem and to rebuild the city.  So the poet is reminding them here that one day this will all be over.  So that’s piece of good news No2!
    1. And let’s think about that for a moment.  Look again at v11.  There we read, “The LORD has given full vent to his wrath.”  We described that verse as God bending His back in punishment and holding nothing back.  But what did we read in Lamentations 3:22?  “Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.” 
    2. And the same Hebrew word is used in 4:11 and 3:22.  In effect we are being told that God has fully used up His wrath and that the Lord’s compassions are not fully used up.  For His chosen people, there is a time when His anger comes to an end but there is never a time when He runs out of compassion! 
      1. We are being pointed to Calvary.  For there the Lord gave full vent to His wrath; there Jesus endured the full wrath of God.  And we know this because of the darkness that descended for three hours and Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then His final cry, “It is finished.”  We know this because then the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom, ending the ceremonial sacrifice system and revealing that we no longer need earthly prophets and priests and kings to stand between us and God because we now have Jesus as our heavenly prophet, priest and king! 
      2. And because God fully used up His wrath on Jesus, He is free to love us!  “Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.”
      3. Earlier in the service I mentioned abortion.  It is a wicked sin.  But there may be someone here who has had an abortion and fears the wrath of God.  If so, you need to know that God’s wrath was fully used up on Jesus.  You are free to know His forgiveness and His compassion and His love.  You just need to repent and believe that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.
      4. And that goes for all of us and for all our sins – gossip, anger, lust, selfishness, irritability, envy, addictions…  God’s wrath was fully used up on Jesus.  You are free to know His forgiveness and His compassion and His love.  You just need to repent and believe that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.

This is the Gospel of Lamentations.  This is what we mean when we say that “every thread in this book is divinely stitched to Calvary”?  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Andre Holtslag, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Rev. Andre Holtslag

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