Many Christians know these words from a well-known Christian song. The song is often sung in a peppy and happy-sounding manner when Christians are joyfully praising the Lord. There is nothing wrong with that but Christians are often unaware of the context of the Bible verses from which the song is taken. They come from the book of Lamentations (3:22–23). The English title itself suggests that it is a book of lament rather than that of rejoicing.
Lamentations 3:22–23 reads thus (NRSV):
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
These verses are often seen on wall posters, and on calendars with daily verses. Many Christians look at the daily calendric verse(s) in the morning and take that as the promise for the day akin to some people from other religions looking at the horoscope in the newspaper every morning. This kind of use of the Bible is problematic because one may often lose the real or the fuller meaning of the text as the context is overlooked.
The lamenter in Lamentations laments the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonians. The book was probably written not long after the event. The memories of the disaster seem fresh and vivid in the book. There was absolute destruction including that of the temple (see 2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 36:11–21). There had been earlier attacks on Jerusalem/Judah by the Babylonians such as in 597 BC when King Jehoiachin, Prophet Ezekiel, and many others had been taken captive (see 2 Kings 24:8–16; 2 Chronicles 36:9–10). However, in the earlier attack(s), even though the king and many others were taken captive, another Davidic descendant was installed as king of Judah, and even though the temple was plundered, it still stood.
But in 586, King Zedekiah, along with many others, was taken captive and the Davidic monarchy did not continue. Moreover, the temple was destroyed. This event had a major impact on Jerusalemites because many had believed that Jerusalem was invincible. There are two major reasons for this belief. First, they believed that the Lord had promised an everlasting dynasty to David (2 Samuel 7), and hence, the Davidic throne-city of Jerusalem cannot be destroyed. Second, the Lord himself had chosen Jerusalem to be His dwelling place symbolised by the temple, and hence, the temple-city of the Almighty God cannot be destroyed. This belief in the invincibility of Jerusalem was further strengthened by the effects of earlier attacks such as that of 597 because even though Judah lost its territories, wealth, people, and independence, the Davidic throne and the temple remained. In 586, both were gone. Moreover, there was grave devastation. The emotional pain and grief felt by the people were immense; we get a picture of it in the book of Lamentations.
An interesting fact about the book of Lamentations is that it is a lament written in a beautiful language. Not only is the book poetic—a collection of five poems—but four out of the five poems (chapters 1–4) are acrostic (a poem in which each successive line/verse begins with the specific letter in the order of the Hebrew alphabet). In other words, the most painful situation in the life of the nation has been expressed in a very artistic and fascinating language. There is a feeling that God has acted like an enemy against His own people (2:4–5). Nonetheless, the lamenter still believes in God’s love (chesed), mercy, and faithfulness, and hence, there is hope (vv. 22f).
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be feeling like the Judahites did after 586. I want to encourage you to do two things but before that a small yet important caution. The pandemic is not necessarily God’s judgment; it could also be a result of human weakness/foolishness or something else. We are not in a position to say this or that. We should be very careful about quickly concluding any disaster (corporate, familial, or individual) as God’s judgment, like many Christians are prone to do. Our understanding is limited like that of Job, his wife, and his friends, none of whom understood the cause of Job’s suffering. Now the two things.
First, lament. Christians can lament. Christians in many church circles are often over-triumphalist. They are taught that lamenting is a sign of a lack of faith. True Christians are always to be joyful and sing praises irrespective of their situation. This is far from truth. Prophets and exemplary people in the Bible lamented. Job lamented (e.g., Job 3), and so did Jeremiah (20:7–18) and Habakkuk. There are more lament psalms in the book of Psalms (e.g., Psalms 6, 44) than any other kind of psalm. Jesus Himself lamented in the garden of Gethsemane, at the cross, and at Lazarus’ tomb. Life on this fallen earth often involves pain, suffering, and hardship, and lamenting is not only permissible but may even be necessary in times of extreme pain. The COVID-19 pandemic is probably such a time; a time for lament and that at different levels—individual, familial, national and global. Let us lament!
Second, hope. Lament is not the end in itself. Like the lamenter in the book of Lamentations, let us put our trust in God’s love, mercy and faithfulness, and continue to pray for His healing upon our land and the world at large. Let us rest assured that God does love us and care for us. Our hope is ultimately in Him. Interestingly, the lament psalms usually end in words of confidence or praise. Let us hope in the Lord!