The Fairness of God - Lamentations 3:1-66
From the time we are young, we think about fairness. Whenever someone got to stay up later than us or received a toy that we didn’t or got one more cookie than we did, we learned to use a common phrase: “That’s not fair!” And in adulthood, we expect to be treated fairly. An article on Fast Company about fairness in the workplace states, “Being treated unfairly violates basic human needs for autonomy, belonging, and morality. It…makes us feel like we aren’t value.” Fairness is not just an issue of comfort or personal preference; it’s a moral issue - an issue of right and wrong.
But we learn another common phrase at a young age: “Life’s not fair.” How many parents have heard their child say, “that’s not fair” and replied, “yeah well life’s not fair”? It’s funny but, a harsh reality also. For each of you that phrase probably stirs up certain memories of the past or a situation that you’re dealing with right now. Inevitably, things happen to us that just don’t seem fair, and because God is the creator of life, it can seem as if God is being unfair toward us.
And our faith naturally begins to fade when we think God is treating us unfairly. But in the Scriptures, we learn that God does not always operate according to what we perceive as fairness. And because of this, we should exchange our view of fairness for his view.
So what is fair, from God’s perspective?
In Lamentations 3, we learn that it is fair of God to do four things:
- decrease our worldly hope. (v.1-20)
- increase our heavenly hope. (v.21-39)
- lower our opinion of ourselves. (v.40-54)
- and elevate our opinion of Him. (v.55-66)
These are things God does in the lives of his people, and they’re listed on page 6 in the worship guide. So let’s look at them together.
First, It is fair of God to decrease our worldly hope. (v.1-20)
In Chapter 2 the poet described all these things God had done to the people as a whole. Here he talks about what God has done to him individually. He’s dealing with it on a personal level. Notice the personal nature of this: Verse 1, “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath” Verse 2, God has “brought me into darkness without any light” Verse 3, he’s sure the hand of God is against him. He’s miserable. “my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones” “bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead” He feels like a prisoner in his situation. And it feels like God is not listening: notice verse 8, “though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.” He says God is like a predator: Verse 10, a bear, a lion coming after him. He has a target on his back and he’s in God’s line of fire. Much of the language here is reminiscent of things the prophet Jeremiah wrote, which is another reason why many think he is the author. Verse 14, the people laughed at him, taunted him. And he became bitter, verse 15. Notice “he has sated me with wormwood.” Wormwood is a plant with a bitter taste. “Sated” or “saturated” with wormwood means to become bitter through and through.
Isn’t it true that as people lose hope, they grow bitter and angry, especially toward God?
And so verse 17: his peace is gone; his happiness is gone. And verse 18, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.” There’s obviously nothing remaining in his life that can satisfy him now. His worldly hope is gone.
In my early 20s, I heard a missionary speak who was probably in his 50s. I can’t remember. Like many people who are very young, I didn’t have as much of a grasp of age back then. I just felt like people in their 30s and beyond were much much older than me. The missionary said something to this affect, and it stuck with me. He said he had found that as he suffered, he had become less and less enchanted with life, and his hope in heaven had gradually increased. He said this is the experience of the believer who follows Jesus. To this day, I remember him there, saying this, and I was very young with what I assumed to be my whole life ahead of me, with many hopes and dreams. And this guy’s is telling me my hopes are going to continually decrease. But I had suffered some already, and I had a sense that he was right.
Have you found this to be true? Have you come to this place, either now or in the past? You’ve gone through things and you wonder, “God, what did I ever do to you? These things that are happening to me are not fair.” It’s a natural progression: we face disappointment and we become disillusioned with life. Is God unfair to do this to the poet of Lamentations? Is he unfair to do it to us? If God told us to put all our hope in our short time on earth, then perhaps it would be unfair. But God doesn’t instruct us to do that. The book of Hebrews, in the New Testament, describes people who lived during Old Testament times and had faith in God despite extreme difficulty in their lives. Hebrews 11 says that as God led them through many trials, they learned to look beyond this life and to understand that God had prepared an eternal home for them. It says, “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God,
for he has prepared for them a city.” God prepares the hearts and minds of his people to hope in this eternal city. He doesn’t dash all hope. He shifts hope from one place to another. And so…
It is fair of God to increase our heavenly hope. (v.21-39)
The poet takes a turn here in his heart. After going down into the depths of despair, notice verse 21: “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.” Hope is gone, but then, ironically, hope is found. We all desperately hope in things that can’t last: people, possessions, our health. But that doesn’t mean that life is hopeless. The poet remembers
that God does not abandon his people. God is eternally faithful. Faithfulness is intrinsic to God’s character. And this next statement is important. Verse 24, “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” We read earlier that David said this in Psalm 142. “The LORD is my portion.” This was a familiar statement to the people of Israel – this idea of their portion. We use the word “portion” today, but a word that might better communicate the meaning to you could be “inheritance.” The LORD is my inheritance.
I once heard a well-known financial adviser state that the issue of inheritance often tears families apart. Siblings argue over who gets what when their parents pass away. Because people hope to receive something, and they hope to do things with it. And they take it personal. They want what’s fair, and often have different opinions about what is fair.
In the Old Testament book of Joshua, when the people of Israel came into the promised land, each of the tribes of people was given a section of the land. It was called their “portion.” It was their inheritance from God. But one tribe didn’t get any land. It was the tribe of the priests, who served between God and the people. God spoke to the priest Aaron, who was the brother of Moses. Numbers 18, “And the LORD said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.” The other tribes would then give some of what their land produced to the priests.
But ultimately, the land was temporary. God was everyone’s portion.
This is why in Psalm 73, the writer says, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” In the end, I have all I need, because I have God. And so look at what the poet remembers in these next verses: Verse 25, “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.” Verse 26, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” And in verse 27, he seems to be saying he can bear up under the burden easier while young than when he gets old – “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” But I’ll suggest this: people who suffer while young have increased compassion and hope in heaven because much of their worldly hope has decreased. And that is good. So the suffering can be faced (verses 28-30: the silence, the striking, the insults) because you realize that God is not out to get you. God is not treating you unfairly. He is exchanging your temporary hope for eternal hope. God isn’t taking delight in crushing your dreams for his own amusement. Verse 31-33, “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” Those are the core verses of Lamentations. God is compassionate to help us shift our hope to eternity.
Last year Eugene Lang passed away. He was a self-made millionaire, who made his money in the electronics technology industry. In 1981, he spoke at the sixth grade graduation at Public School 121 in East Harlem, NY. The principal had told him that out of the 61 students, maybe one would go to college and find their way out of their underprivileged background. So Lang, rather impulsively, told the students that he would personally help each of them pay for college. Amazingly, that group of students beat the odds, and many did go on to college and to other things. Lang had given them more than just money: he gave the children a sense of hope – success seemed possible - and it propelled them.
In a similar way, and of course a more-lasting way, God is fair to decrease our worldly hope and increase our heavenly hope. He understands the importance of hope. Romans 15 says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
Where is your hope? How have you responded to God’s work in your life that would lead you to transfer your hope to what is eternal? God can be trusted. He is just, but he doesn’t take delight in the pain and difficulty of people. This is hard for us to understand. Why doesn’t God just make it all stop? We don’t know the answers to such questions. The Scriptures teach that God is entirely good and just and loving, while also ordaining these things to take place. It’s beyond human understanding. But I’ll say this: if God were not good, just and loving, we would have big problems.
Notice God’s justice in these next verses. Verse 34, “To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth, to deny a man justice in the presence of the Most High, to subvert a man in his lawsuit, the Lord does not approve.” God does not approve of injustice. Which is good to know, because he is all-powerful. Verse 37, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Imagine if God were all-powerful, but not good and just? And it says there, “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?”
You see there how he repeats “a man.” Is there any man or woman who can say they have committed no sin, and deserve no judgment? Which leads into this next section of the passage, where we see that:
It is fair of God to lower our opinion of ourselves. (v.40-54)
The poet’s view of himself changes. Instead of God being on trial for unfairness, he looks at himself. Verse 40, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD! Verse 41 “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven: It’s not “you guys are a mess.” It’s “we are a mess.” Notice verse 42 “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” That is to say, God did not let them off the hook for the things they had done.
You might wonder, what kind of things were they involved in? What did they do that was so bad that God would give them over to their enemies like this? Well, the worship of false gods included things like child sacrifice. One of the last kings of Judah killed his own child in an act of worship of a false god. Also, worship of false gods often involved various kinds of sexual immorality as part of the ritual, so they were committing adultery and using and abusing people through these deviant sexual practices in the name of “worship.” Awful things. God had separated them from all of that, but they were drawn to it. And God had repeatedly warned them that there would be consequences, and those consequences happened: Verse 43 “You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us, killing without pity; you have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through. You have made us scum and garbage among the peoples. The poet goes back into lament over God’s judgment against them. He’s in that difficult place where you’re miserable but you know you brought it on yourself.
But something interesting here is that the poet is one of those who were faithful to God. He didn’t get involved in the idol worship. So why is he saying “We have transgressed?” Is it just rhetoric, or does he see himself as personally guilty? Well, he’s aware now of his own bitterness toward God and his wavering faith. And so, while he might not have been involved in the things that brought the judgment, he knows he’s a sinner. His suffering brought out the sin deep in his own heart.
Think of a time you’ve gone through something, and bitterness sprung up in your heart, anger and judgment sprung up. You realized you aren’t the righteous person that you thought you were. Romans 3 says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Yes some sins are more heinous than other in that the immediate consequences are worse. For instance, murder carries worse consequences than a small lie, but ultimately the murderer and the liar are both guilty before a holy God and unable to justify themselves.
Is God unfair to lead us down a path that will bring us to a lower opinion of ourselves? No, he’s not unfair. He’s merciful. What if God treated you and I fairly for the things we’ve done? Psalm 130 says, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities (or sins), O Lord, who could stand?” God lowers our opinion of ourselves so that we can see our need for his grace. And so that we can respond to Jesus.
And so, It is fair of God to elevate our opinion of Him. (v.55-66)
The poet sees his own sin and cries out to God for help and for justice.
He trusts in God as the only one who can redeem his life, who can help him. God is the only one who can get justice for him. To the unbelieving world, hope seems foolish. Because it’s rooted in faith. Faith that God is holy and powerful, and that he saves us by his grace alone. In 1 Corinthians 1 in the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes about the cross of Jesus and Jesus’ death for our sins. He says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” We can’t see the greatness of Jesus as long as we have an elevated opinion of self. And so God is fair to elevate our opinion of him, because this is how he brings us to himself.
As we come to the table today, we’re reminded that when it comes to God’s offer of forgiveness and mercy to us, God doesn’t not treat us fairly. If he did, there would be no offer. And even there was, none of us could come to him. God saves us by his grace, through faith, based not on what we’ve done. The Lord’s Supper is a God-centered act. It calls to mind what he has done. And in his fairness, he leads us to humility, thankfulness, and hope, so that we may take great delight in the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.