As you look around the world at the beginning of 2019 and consider what the future may bring, you may think that there aren’t that many reasons to feel hopeful.
I could mention the names of certain political leaders – and your heart might sink when you heard the names! I could remind you of the many refugees in our world: people who have fled war or oppression and now have to make a new life for themselves in new lands where they are often not made very welcome. I could speak of the persecution of the church in parts of the world, how in places where Christians have lived peacefully alongside those of other faiths for many decades, they are now facing hostility.
More alarming still, perhaps, is the prospect of environmental disaster which looms at the beginning of the 21st century. Without really meaning to, it seems that we humans have brought the world to the brink of irreversible climate change, by our overuse of fossil fuels.
Who knows what the world may look like by the end of this century? The world today may seem a fairly hopeless place.
But our hope as Christians has never been in politicians or human progress or technological developments or anything like that. Our hope is in God and his promises. In this piece I want to review three biblical texts on the subject of hope, texts which tell us that if we put our trust in God and God’s purposes, then we genuinely have an unfailing hope – a hope that will remain secure no matter what this century and later centuries may bring.
1. Lamentations 3:22-29: Hope in a Time of Desolation
The Book of Lamentations was written in the 6th century BC, in the wake of a national catastrophe. In 586 BC Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians. The temple where the Israelites had worshipped God for centuries was burned to the ground. Some of the leading citizens were executed. Many were taken into captivity in Babylon. Israel’s king was humiliated. God had promised King David that his descendants would rule over Israel “for ever”; yet the king also went into exile.
Think how traumatic this must have been for the Israelites: they had believed that Jerusalem would never fall, that God would never let his temple be destroyed or his king defeated – and yet these things had happened. They must have asked themselves: has God abandoned us? Is the covenant God made with our ancestors now at an end?
That is the terrible context of the Book of Lamentations. In the book we hear a series of voices giving different responses to the catastrophe of Jerusalem’s fall.
Some voices simply say:
how terrible! What a tragedy!
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal. (1:1)
Other voices attempt to explain what has happened. This is God’s judgment on us for our disobedience, they say:
How the Lord in his anger
has humiliated daughter Zion!
He has thrown down from heaven to earth
the splendour of Israel;
he has not remembered his footstool
in the day of his anger. (2:1)
In c. 3 we hear another voice, the voice of a man who has been caught up in the catastrophe, and has suffered along with his people:
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;
against me alone he turns his hand,
again and again, all day long. (Lam. 3:1-3)
Chapter 3 continues in this vein for a while. But then the tone changes (vv. 19-39):
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
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.
It is good for one to bear
the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
(there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
and be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone.
When all the prisoners of the land
are crushed under foot,
when human rights are perverted
in the presence of the Most High,
when one’s case is subverted
—does the Lord not see it?
Who can command and have it done,
if the Lord has not ordained it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?
Why should any who draw breath complain
about the punishment of their sins?
Given the context, these are amazing words, a bright light shining amid the general gloom of the Book of Lamentations. How could an Israelite looking at what had happened to his utter the words, “The LORD is my portion, therefore I will hope in him”?
Well, it helps that this man is a realist. His realism helps him make sense of what has happened. Look, he says, we should not be surprised; God has only done what he warned us about. Remember the Law of Moses. Did not God tell us plainly that if we turned from him, if we persisted in our disobedience, he would send judgment instead of blessing? Did he not warn us that these judgments might include enemy invasion, siege, capture and exile?
Well, that’s what has happened: we worshipped other gods, we ignored God’s teaching, and we have suffered the consequences. In fact, God has kept his word; he has done what he said. He warned of judgment, and judgment is what has come upon us. Is this so difficult for us to grasp? “Why should any who draw breath complain about the punishment of their sins?” (v. 39)
It has been said that, no matter what humans suffer, if they can find some meaning in their suffering, that may make the suffering bearable. We see this in Lamentations 3: the speaker finds meaning in the midst of catastrophe. This is the hand of God, he says, not some inexplicable disaster that came on us out of the blue. Not a very comforting meaning, you may say, but in fact there is comfort here.
The texts in the Law of Moses which warned of capture and exile, texts like Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, did not leave matters there. Even if you end up in exile, these texts stated, even if it seems that everything is lost, hope still remains. Even in exile you can turn back to God. When you repent, God will restore you, and you will find that the God who sent you into exile can also bring you back to the land.
The thought of what God has promised seems to be what gives the speaker here his confidence. God always keeps his word, he says: we went into exile according to his word; and if we seek him, he will bring us out of exile and restore us according to his word. “Although he causes grief, he will have compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” (v. 32)
God’s character has not changed: he takes note of injustice; he sees all the wrongs that our captors have inflicted upon us. These things are known to him. Our place, then, is to seek God. We should “wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD”. For my part, he says, I will trust in God’s faithfulness: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.” “The LORD is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will trust in him.” This was a remarkable thing to say at this low point in Israel’s history.
We can take two points away from these verses:
First, if we find ourselves in a bad place, then understanding why we are there can be a source of hope; it can help us to find hope in the midst of darkness.
Second, our hope is in God’s faithfulness. God has not forgotten his promises, or abandoned his salvation plan. He intends to restore his creation, currently so spoiled by human greed and wickedness; he intends to save a people to live in his restored creation. God remains absolutely committed to these purposes. Our place is to seek God so that he can use us as instruments of those purposes.
2. Psalm 147: Hope in a Time of Longing
We move forward in time, to another OT text, Psalm 147:
Praise the LORD!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
The LORD lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground.
Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem!
Praise your God, O Zion!
For he strengthens the bars of your gates;
he blesses your children within you.
He grants peace within your borders;
he fills you with the finest of wheat.
He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down hail like crumbs—
who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.
He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his ordinances.
Praise the LORD!
As you read through the Book of Psalms you go on a journey through Israel’s history. First come psalms reflecting the reigns of David and Solomon (Psalms 1–72, broadly); then there are psalms reflecting a period of decline, leading to exile (Psalms 73–89). Psalms 90–150 are mostly post-exilic. There are psalms which celebrate Israel’s return from exile in Babylon, and other psalms which reflect the difficulties encountered by those who set about the work of rebuilding back in the land.
Psalm 147 clearly comes from post-exilic period: it speaks of God as one who “gathers the outcasts of Israel”, that is, brings the exiles back to the land. God is the one who “builds up Jerusalem”; that is, God aids the exiles in the task of rebuilding.
Psalm 147 is one of five “Hallelujah” Psalms which close the book of Psalms. Each of Psalms 146–150 begins and ends with the word “Hallelujah” – “Praise the LORD!” They each express a sense of longing, longing for God’s purposes to be fulfilled. Psalms 146–150 end the Book of Psalms by pointing forward: forward to a time when God will deliver his people, when God’s kingdom will come, when justice will be done, and when finally all creation will praise God.
Psalm 147 particularly encourages God’s people to have confidence in him: “the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Ps. 147:11).
Why should we do this? Why should we put our hope in God? The Psalmist gives two reasons.
He points to God’s great power. God is the sovereign Creator, who made all the stars in the universe. “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” God cares for the world he has made: he makes the grass grow for the animals; he sends snow and frost, but then warmer winds blow, and the waters start to flow again.
Second, along with these statements about God’s power as Creator, Psalm 147 makes many statements about God’s commitment to his people. You may have noticed how the Psalm keeps moving between the two, speaking now about God’s power, now about his commitment. The point is plain: listen, Israel! This great and mighty God, this God who made and sustains the world, is your God, the one who cares and provides for you. Put your hope in his steadfast love.
God has restored you, brought you back from exile. God continues to bless you, aiding you in the work of rebuilding. God blesses and protects you, gives you peace and provides for you. Look around you, the Psalmist says: can you not see that these things are true?
And in particular, God has given Israel a special calling, summed up in his law, the “word” he gave to Jacob, the “statutes and ordinances” he gave to Israel. Israel is God’s special possession, his own people among the peoples of the world, a special people with a special calling.
What is that calling? To follow God’s teaching, to bear witness to God by living according to the Law of Moses, showing the nations round about what it looks like when a people walks in the ways of the LORD. God’s kingdom will come. This powerful Creator and Saviour God will fulfil his purposes. Your calling, Israel, is to put your hope in his steadfast love and live according to his word.
That is a calling which still stands for us, believers in Jesus Christ living over 2000 years after Psalm 147 was written: to hope in God and to live as he has taught us to live.
We can take away two points from Psalm 147, two reasons for hope:
First, we can think of God’s power and commitment: his power revealed in creation; his commitment revealed in his dealings with his people in Old Testament times and in the Christian era. This God will not let us down. Who or what will stop this God from carrying out what he has promised he will do?
We can think, second, of the calling he has given us, to belong to his people, to be part of his purposes. Is this not a reason for hope and thanksgiving? Our lives need not be aimless or empty.
We have a clear goal ahead of us, a clear direction for our lives: we are called to offer ourselves continually to God and work towards God’s coming kingdom. Our lives should be full of hope. This leads to the third text I want to consider.
3. Romans 15:7-13: Jesus, the Focus of our Hopes
The Old Testament is part of our Scriptures, a vital part. But whenever we read the Old Testament, as Christians we must go on to ask: what does the New Testament say? Living as we do in the era after Christ’s life, death and resurrection, how are we to understand the teaching of the Old Testament?
So I move on to a New Testament text which takes up ideas from the two Old Testament texts we have considered (Rom. 15:1-13):
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;
and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;
and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The church in Rome was made up partly of Jewish believers in Christ and partly of people from a Gentile background. That is why Paul spends all of Romans 14 addressing the issue of how Jewish and Gentile believers are to relate to one another. He still has this issue in view at the beginning of Romans 15 when he tells the believers in Rome not to please themselves – not to behave just as they see fit – but to act in ways that will please their fellow believers and build them up in the faith. Or, as he puts it more simply at the beginning of v. 7, “Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed you.”
But what is interesting in Romans 15 is how Paul relates the Jew/Gentile issue to the theme of hope. (The word “hope” is used four times in vv. 1-13.)
God has been faithful to his promises given in the Old Testament, Paul tell us. He sent Jesus, and in Jesus all the promises given to Israel, all the hopes that Israel held onto for so long, all the things that texts like Lamentations 3 and Psalm 147 pointed to, have become reality. Jesus, born a Jew, born a descendant of David’s line, has done on Israel’s behalf what Israel could not do by itself.
As Paul puts it in v. 8, Jesus Christ became a “servant of the circumcised [that is, a servant of Israel]… to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs.” Jesus is the true Servant of the LORD spoken of in Isaiah, the one who takes Israel’s calling upon himself and brings it to completion. As a result of what Christ has done, the promises God made to the patriarchs have been fulfilled.
What were these promises? In Genesis 12 God tells Abraham that he will make his descendants a great nation, and that through him and his descendants all the families of the earth will be blessed. The goal of the promises to the patriarchs, the final reason for all the blessings God gave the nation Israel, was that all nations should come to know the God of Israel and share in God’s blessings. That’s the point of the Old Testament quotations in vv. 9–12: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and so on.
This was something that the Old Testament writers looked forward to, and now, Paul says, it’s happened in Jesus: Gentiles as well as Jews have come to experience God’s mercy through the preaching of the gospel of Christ. The promises have been fulfilled. Jesus has upheld the “truth of God”, as v. 8 puts it: he has demonstrated God’s faithfulness to his promises. So Jew and Gentile alike can put their trust in him. May your hope abound as you reflect on these things, Paul tells them.
As I’ve said, what is interesting in Romans 15 is how Paul links the Jew/Gentile issue with the theme of hope. In v. 13 he calls God “the God of hope” and he speaks of “abounding in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”; and he also prays that God will fill the believers in Rome with “all joy and peace in believing”. Joy, peace and hope are linked in Paul’s thought. The fact that you can worship God together, he tells the Roman Christians, that Jew and Gentile now relate to each other on terms of peace and together experience the joy of sins forgiven, should encourage you to continue to hope in God.
In Paul’s day the Jews were known as a race set apart, a people who distanced themselves from the immorality and idolatry of the other nations. Jew and Gentile generally regarded each other with contempt and suspicion. So, says Paul, think about that: God has brought you together, believers from Jewish backgrounds and believers from Gentile backgrounds, all reconciled to God through Jesus, all worshipping him together. Is that not something that should cause your hope to burn strong? The God who has brought you together in Christ is a God who can do anything!
But more than that, God’s people should be a sign of hope to the outside world. The church is meant to be a body that cuts across divisions, whether these be divisions of race, of age, of wealth and status, or any other division which separates humans from one another. This is part of our witness to Christ, to demonstrate by our life together that God extends a welcome to anyone, no matter who they are or what their background.
Christian congregations should ideally be diverse in their make-up, but united by faith in Christ: groups of people from different backgrounds and at different stages in life who share a common commitment to God and express that by worshipping and serving together. This is why disunity among Christians is such a serious matter. This is why public disagreements among Christians are so damaging. They undermine our witness; they cause nonbelievers to turn away from God.
Who knows? Perhaps some nonbelievers are genuinely disappointed when they see Christians failing to live in love and unity. Perhaps they came to church really hoping to see Christians marching to a different drum, and what they see instead is discord and an unforgiving spirit.
You may have heard of Eric Lomax and read his autobiography, The Railway Man (which was later made into a film starring Colin Firth). In his book Lomax describes how he, a gentle and somewhat innocent young Scotsman, was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Malaysia in 1942 and subjected to appalling treatment by his captors. He survived and returned home to Scotland, but for many years suffered the physical and psychological after-effects of his treatment. For years there was a hard core of hatred in his heart.
The turning-point for him came when he had the opportunity to meet one of his captors, extend forgiveness to him, and lay the ghosts in his own past and in the past of his former captor. The last sentence of his book reads, simply, “Sometimes the hating has to stop.” It is an uplifting and challenging ending
But though Lomax came to forgive his former captor, he was not, as far as I know, a Christian. In fact, one of earlier chapters contains what I found a very depressing section, in which Lomax describes how, in the years before the Second World War, he attended a church in Edinburgh. It was (and still is) quite a well-known church, but Lomax was not impressed by it. At least, as he described it many years later, some of the members seem to have behaved towards each other in rather mean-spirited and unloving ways. The issue of status seems to have been important in that church: members took careful note of who had what were considered the best seats, for example; family rivalries seem to have flourished; there was a great concern with outward respectability, but not much genuine love.
Of course, that is only Lomax’s view, and maybe he was being somewhat unfair; though again, I’m tempted to say, “No smoke without fire.”
Well, can we do better than that? Can we show the world that “joy and peace in believing” is not just a beautiful phrase but a lived-out reality? And can we in this way be a sign of hope to the watching world?
There are two points about hope that we can take away from Romans 15, then.
First, when we see how Old and New Testaments fit together, how God has brought about in Christ what he promised in the Old Testament, in spite of Israel’s many failings, that should be a source of hope to us.
Second, we ourselves are meant to be a source of hope for others. Nonbelievers should be able to look at Christian congregations, see what we do and how we relate to each other, and be encouraged to hope in God. Look at these Christians! Maybe there is something in Christianity after all.
Where do we place our hope? We should place our hope in God and in God’s promises. God is our unfailing hope, no matter what the coming century may throw at us.
And, do we point others to the Saviour? Can nonbelievers look at us and find in us something that gives them reason to hope?
I hope these reflections are helpful to you at the beginning of this new year.