Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Jewish way: trust and submission to God always

The third chapter of the Lamentations of Jeremiah is one of my favorite portions of scripture. Previous to this he spends two long chapters describing the utter devastation which had fallen upon Jerusalem when she was destroyed by the Babylonians. The suffering that the Jewish people had undergone in that attack was horrific, and Jeremiah questions the severity of the punishment to have fallen upon the people:

Look, o LORD, and consider!
To whom have you done this?

Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the LORD? (Lam 2.20)

Such was the grave suffering which had befallen the people because of their sins. They received warning after warning, but refusing to repent at the word of the prophets, eventually the threats were made a reality. God's wrath had come upon them in its fullness, and they were reaping the consequences of their grave injustices. So Jeremiah says about himself:

I am one who has seen affliction
under the rod of God's wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light (3.1-2).

We may very well say that the experience undergone by the Israelites and by Jeremiah here is one of hell. They had broken covenant with God and had incurred the penalty for doing so -- death, expatriation, exile, abandonment. But after two and a half long chapters describing the utter desolation of the city of God, notice what a surprising change of tone appears:

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"therefore I will hope in him."

The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD (3.21-26).

In the middle of hell itself, with Jerusalem of God being destroyed and women eating their children to keep from starving, Jeremiah can dare to say that he trusts God! How can he do that? How can he look square upon the horrors of the reality he has been living, evil and suffering fully in sight, and say that he trusts God, and moreover that it is good to do so?

This is the Jewish way, as I understand it: you complain, you speak your mind, your object to God, you question everything he has been doing, but in the end you still trust him. It makes sense in a way, since even in hell and outside of it, your only hope is in God. If God exists and he rules the universe, then he is only possible source of hope for you. It would make no sense to do anything else. So the true Jew trusts in God even if it makes no sense, even it is difficult, even if everything tells you otherwise.

There is something deeper here, too. In the middle of hell itself, Jeremiah says that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases. Here we find the conviction that though God may be quite terrible and fearful, at the same time there is something less than permanent about the "bad" side of YHWH. Jeremiah doesn't imagine that God could not have had anything to do with the calamity which he and his people are suffering. He doesn't say, "I can't believe that a good God would do this." He doesn't make a priori assumptions about what God can and cannot do. But he is also convinced that God must be good, and that this goodness cannot be set aside by a moment's wrath or anger.

It is this conviction about the basic goodness of God that leaves room for hope. Apart from this, there can be no hoping. If one loses the conviction that God is good and that God nevertheless might restore one's fortunes, then all of life becomes a literal hell. But Jeremiah has that hope, because he understands that God, though wrathful, is never happily or voluntarily so: for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (3.33). Beneath the facade of wrath and anger is an infinite ocean of grace and goodness, to use St. Isaac the Syrian's wonderful language, and this gives Jeremiah hope.