‘God is good and angry’ (Lamentations 4)
A Scottish minister met a man who had grown up in a nominally Christian home, but who had converted to Islam. The minister asked the man what had made Islam so attractive to him. The man explained that in the church that he had attended they only ever spoke about the love of God. They never mentioned the holiness of God or the justice of God. This young man wanted a god who could promise him that justice mattered. The irony was that in that church’s attempt to make God more attractive they actually put someone off him.
Sadly, unlike that Muslim, most people do want to ignore talk of the judgement of God. That was certainly what Jeremiah found. He warned the people of Jerusalem that if they did not turn to God in repentance there would be a terrible day of judgement. The people chose not to listen to him. Instead they listened to those false teachers who told them that God could never destroy the city that was home to the temple. The false teachers said everything was okay. There was no need to fear God. There would be no day of judgement.
Then the day of judgement came. The Babylonians surrounded the city for three years and its inhabitants starved to death. After that, the city’s walls were breached, and the place was ruined. Its inhabitants were killed or enslaved. Most of the survivors were taken into exile. In this morning’s readings Jeremiah looks at the ruins and tries to process what has happened.
God is good and angry (1-11)
What does Jeremiah see as he looks around? He saw the ruins of the temple scattered on every street. But it is not only the precious gems from the temple that have been toppled, the children of the city—worth their weight in gold to their parents—lie broken. The people had become heartless. Mothers had no longer fed their children. The children begged for bread, but no one gave them any. People had even cooked and eaten their own children.
This suffering is not just for the ordinary people of the city, the rich princes, who had fair skin because their privileged lies shielded them from the sun, and whose bodies were perfectly healthy and well formed, are now unrecognisable. Their skin in shrivelled on their bones, it has become a dry as a stick (8).
Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of the famine (9a). At least they died instantly.
Why has this happened? This happened because God is good and angry. This is God’s judgement. The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom (6a). Sodom was overthrown in an instant, but Jerusalem’s suffering has been drawn out. 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 (11).
The fact that God is good and angry might not seem like good news to you. The book of Psalms tells us that God is a righteous judge, a God who displays his wrath every day (Psalm 7:11). However, anger is not the essence of his being. His anger is an outworking of his love and holiness. He is angry because wickedness should make a loving and holy God angry. He is not like a grumpy old man who is angry for no reason. His anger is his reasonable, settled opposition to all that is evil. He patiently calls people to turn to him and be forgiven. But if we spurn his grace, we will face a day of his fierce wrath.
Love warns (12-16)
Jeremiah looks at this city, that has experienced the judgement of God, and he blames the religious leaders—the prophets and priests. Jeremiah had called the people to repent, but the people had listened to religious leaders who had told them exactly what they wanted to hear.
I am frustrated with my attempts to speak to my friends about Jesus. They know that I call myself a Christian, but I am not sure they know what I believe. Some of them think that I am just trying to be a good person. I want them to realise that I am simply a forgiven sinner and that without a living relationship with Jesus they will take the punishment for their sin in hell. These are not easy things to talk about, but we have not fully shared the gospel with people until they hear the warnings as well as the promises.
I read an interesting approach that one man takes. Instead of asking them the usual question, ‘why do you think God should let you into heaven?’, he turns it around and asks his friends, ‘why do you think that God should let me into heaven?’ His friends reply by saying that he is a good guy. They point out that he is a pastor. He then explains that the Bible actually teaches that he has been guilty of all sorts of evil and that he deserves to be separated from God for all eternity and punished for his sins. But that Jesus took the punishment for his guilt on the cross and freely accepts anyone who turns to him in repentance. Why not ask one of your friends if they think you are going to heaven?
Look what happened false teachers. The people rejected them. They had persecuted those who had tried to tell the truth, and yet no they find themselves rejected. The day of God’s judgement will be terrible for those false teachers who refuse to believe and teach the gospel.
Beware of false saviours (17-22)
As the Babylonians surrounded the city, the people of Jerusalem looked in vain for the Egyptians to come and rescue them. They climbed into their towers and watched for that nation that could not save them. The Egyptians did not come. They had placed their hope in a false saviour.
We are in danger of placing our hope wring place. Why should God let you into his heaven? If you reply, ‘because I am a good person, I go to church, I have never been in trouble with the law, I pray’ or anything else that depends on you, you are too are trusting in false saviours that will be no use on the day of judgement. The correct answer ‘because I have put my hope in Jesus who has taken the full weight of my guilt upon the cross’.
Zedekiah was their king. He was a king in the line of David. He had been captured trying to flee the city. 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 (20). He would soon have his sons executed before him, just before his eyes were gouged out. Then he was taken to Babylon along with the majority of those who had survived the siege. Zedekiah could not save them, but another Son of David would come in power and mercy and save his people.
We might read the terrible judgement of this chapter and think that it is over the top. We don’t deserve what they experienced. Without Jesus we will actually face something far worse. Without Jesus we will face an eternal punishment. But is that really what we deserve? An ancient and godly Archbishop of Canterbury called Anselm explained that the reason we find God’s anger hard to fathom is because we have not yet considered the weight of sin.
Think of it in terms of the eternal value of the one that we have sinned against. I sit here by a window. I can see on that window a little smudge from where I crushed an annoying fly. No one is going to report me to the police for crushing a fly. Lying beside me is my dog, Charlie, he is worth more than a fly. If I was to get up and start beating him, I hope you would report me, and the authorities might come and give him to a better home. Now suppose I leave this room, go into the kitchen and start beating my wife Caroline. I hope that I would not only be reported to the police but that I would receive a prison sentence. Caroline is worth more than both the fly and the dog. Now continue this line of thought and think of the infinite worth of God. We have sinned against the author of life. We have rebelled against his infinite holiness. We have thrown off his loving rule. We do what he has forbidden. When he sent his Son in love to this world, we pinned him to a cross and watched him die. Our hostility to God’s infinite goodness and love certainly deserves an eternal punishment.
The closing verses are addressed to the nation of Edom. They had delighted in seeing Jerusalem destroyed. They had no compassion or pity. Yet while Jerusalem’s punishment had come to an end theirs had not even begun.
Turn back to the book of Deuteronomy, which was given through Moses before they entered the Promised Land and you will read of the curse that would befall Israel if they turned their backs on God in rebellion, including the fact that they would eat their own children (28:52-57). On fact the book of Deuteronomy pronounced a curse on anyone who did not keep all the works of the law. The truth is that we are helpless to make ourselves right with God. But in his great love for sent his Son not for the self-righteous but those who will admit that they are sinful. ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a cruse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”’ (Galatians 3:13). He has taken the punishment that we deserve that we the guilty might enjoy all the blessings of being right with God.
It might go against what the self-esteem movement teach, but some of the most emotionally healthy people I know are also those with the greatest awareness of their personal failings. They don’t feel that they have to justify all their actions. They are happy to admit that they are flawed. They don’t excuse anything they have done. They will tell you that there are things in their hearts that would not like you to see. You see, their confidence is not in themselves but in the cross of Christ. They know that he is willing to accept even the worst of people, and they have no problem counting themselves among that number (1 Timothy 1:15). They know that when Jesus said from the cross that ‘it is finished’ (John 19:30), which meant the full price of all their past, present and future sin was paid. Jesus says, ‘he who has been forgiven much loves much’ (Luke 7:47) and they have some grasp of how much they have been forgiven. They feel secure because Jesus promised that he would never drive away anyone that comes to him (John 6:37) and the letter to the Romans assures us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1).
Look at Lamentations 4 and see something of what our sin deserves. Look at Lamentations 4 and remember that Jesus experienced an even more dreadful punishment on the cross. See Jesus drink the cup of God’s holy anger. Hear him calling us to repentance and life. Delight in the fact that we have been rescued from judgement and can shelter in the shadow of God’s anointed.