His Compassions Never Fail – Lamentations 3:21-24

By: Northern Seminary

Several great hymns which reflect strong confidence in God’s goodness were written during times of suffering, perhaps after a personal disaster in the author’s life. That is certainly true of the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” written by Horatio Spafford (1828-1888).

Spafford was a prominent Chicago lawyer, not just blessed with money but a wonderful family of his wife Anna and four daughters. A man of faith, he counted people like D.L. Moody and Ira Sankey among his friends.

In February 1871 Spafford invested heavily in real estate to the north of the thriving and expanding city of Chicago. In October of the same year, the Great Fire of Chicago broke out and destroyed most of Spafford’s property.

But his greatest trial lay just ahead. In 1873 Spafford was concerned for his wife’s health, and decided the whole family should have an extended vacation in Europe. At the last moment, legal issues related to the rebuilding of property in Chicago caused a delay for Spafford, but the rest of the family would go on ahead of him. Anna with eleven-year-old Tanetta, nine-year-old Bessie, five-year-old Margaret Lee, and two-year-old “Annie” sailed for Paris on the steamship Ville du Havre. Part way across the Atlantic the ship was struck by an iron sailing vessel and sank within minutes. In all two hundred and twenty six people perished, including all four of the little Spafford girls. Their mother, Anna, lay unconscious on a wooden spar which somehow stayed afloat, and she was dragged to safety. Nine days later, from Cardiff in Wales, Anna sent her husband Horatio a telegram with the tragic opening words, “Saved alone.”

As soon as he could Spafford set off to be with his wife. As his ship was mid way across the ocean, the captain sent for Spafford and told him they were passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre had sunk and his daughters had died. Spafford’s faith gave him confidence that his children were safe in God’s hands, and he returned to his cabin where he wrote the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

The Spaffords faced a greater sadness than most will ever encounter, and survived by knowing God and trusting in God’s goodness in all circumstances.[1]

They have not been alone in finding hope and strength in God during times of enormous suffering. Some of the most beautiful and faith lifting words in the whole of the Bible were written just after a time of unbearable tragedy for ancient Jerusalem.

Lamentations 3:21-24

21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

The Book of Lamentations is a collection of five poems, one in each chapter of the book. Verses 21 to 24 of chapter 3 sit right in the middle of the book, and are near to being the only uplifting and encouraging section. Lamentations is certainly an appropriate name for this book of the Bible, but why that is true requires some understanding of the situation of the time.

The Book of Lamentations is anonymous though often assumed to be the work of Jeremiah. What is more certainly known is that it was written just a few years after 586 BC. That year of 586 BC was one of the darkest and most savage in the history of God’s people and for the city of Jerusalem.

For about thirty months King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had laid siege to Jerusalem. The encirclement of the city was complete, and no one inside could get out and no provisions from outside could get in. The people trapped in Jerusalem endured appalling conditions, and the majority either died then or when the siege was finally broken as the walls of the city were breached and the Babylonian soldiers broke through and massacred the people.

Second Kings 25 describes that siege, but gives few details of the horrors it brought (2 Kings 25:1-12). The Book of Lamentations spares nothing with its gruesome and graphic descriptions of suffering, death, slavery, and humiliation.

Here is a summary of the hardships as outlined in Lamentations.

For those in the city, with no food, the long siege becomes a slow path towards death:

  • Even leaders like priests and elders die because they can’t find food (1:19).
  • People barter away treasure to get basic foods just to stay alive (1:11).
  • Children die from hunger clinging to their mothers (2:11-12).
  • Cannibalism is a last resort as starving mothers stay alive by eating their own children (2:20; 4:10).

When the siege is over and the Babylonians rampage through Jerusalem, there is only more suffering:

  • Rape, torture and murder are the fate of many (5:11-12).
  • People are slaughtered in the streets and even in the sacred places (2:20-21).
  • Death and destruction spare no one, rich or poor, young or old (2:21-22; 4:4-5, 7-9).
  • The holy places and the humble places are defiled by foreign unbelievers (1:10; 5:1-2).

Even when the killing stops, the agony of defeat is too much to bear:

  • The enemies of Jerusalem mock survivors that a city of such eminence and magnificence has been crushed and brought so low (2:15-16; 3:46-48).
  • Those who have survived are taken away into exile (1:3, 5, 18).

And none of this had to happen:

  • It is all suffering which has come on Jerusalem because they failed God (1:8-9, 12, 14-15, 17-18; 2:1-8, 17; 3:37-39; 4:12-13; 5:16).
  • Now the Lord seems deaf to every appeal for help (3:1-20; 5:20).[2]

All this horror lies in the background of the Book of Lamentations. No wonder it is filled with so much regret, sadness, and despair as the scarred minds of survivors reflect on those dreadful months of terror, death and humiliation. It was all because the people and their leaders had turned away from God. So easily, therefore, they could now reach the ultimate conclusion that God had given up on them, that there would be no rescue and therefore no future for them. Instead of being known as the chosen people they would be the abandoned people.

In the midst of that darkness – and right in the middle of the Book of Lamentations – shines a light that offers a future worth living for.

Four words sum up the four verses of light in chapter 3:21-24.

Hope

Despite the appalling atrocities, in verse 21 the writer says:

“Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:”

In the midst of everything bad, he has found something good and it gives him hope.

Hope is something of great value. Thankfully, what the writer of Lamentations found was good hope and not empty hope.

This hope is not the hope of the gambler, who says: “Next try of the slots, next spin of the roulette wheel, next deal of the poker cards, my luck will change.” That gambler hopes but it’s empty hope. It’s trusting in chance. It’s imagining that the odds will change, that a host of random factors will suddenly, somehow all fall into a fortuitous place. They won’t. That kind of hope ends in crushing disappointment and loss.

Nor is this the hope of the naïve optimist, the person who believes against all evidence that a better day is coming. That’s the person who says: “We’ve fallen so far, we can’t fall any further. The worst must be over.” But falling far can be followed by falling more, and no amount of positive thinking takes away the cruel fact that the worst may yet be to come.

These are both empty forms of hope. One is based on chance, the other on wishful thinking.

Thankfully, neither of those are the hope in the heart of the writer of Lamentations. He has called something to mind with far more substance for a better future.

Love

Verse 22 details what has come to mind:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.”

The writer’s hope is based on “the Lord’s great love.” The key Hebrew word here is ḥeseḏ. ‘Great love’ doesn’t do justice to the richness of its meaning. This is a very deep and committed love, a love that stays loyal, one that accepts responsibilities. It’s a covenant love with obligations of caring and commitment for another person.

My friends George and Sophie care for Janice, a lady with serious disabilities who is sadly neglected by her family. George and Sophie came to know her more than fifteen years ago. They found someone who was awkward and demanding, but they also saw how hard her life had been and how great her need was now. They couldn’t just walk away. And for these years they’ve visited and gladly accepted everything that loving Janice means: time, money, practical help, and even bearing the resentment from others for their involvement.

That’s love as ḥeseḏ describes it, a love that isn’t about give and take, but give and give and give.

It’s the love, the writer of Lamentations says, that “the Lord” shows. This ḥeseḏ love has its source in God’s character. He is the God who is love through and through, whose love is not dependent on deserving, but is poured out even on the weakest and worst in society.

And ḥeseḏ love is shown to his people because of God’s commitment. The Lord brought Israel into existence, made them his own, and though they have failed and though that failure has caused dire consequences, he will not give up on them. It’s a love that’s unflinching and unending, a firm love that never gives up on his people.

Lastly, ḥeseḏ love flows because of God’s compassion. As the writer says: “his compassions never fail.”

When I was about twenty one, I steered my motorbike into a bend at a speed far higher than was possible with such a tight bend. The front wheel hit the curb and I flew through the air and landed in a heap. I could have died, but bruised and bleeding I left my broken bike behind and made my way back to my small flat. I needed help, and phoned a young lady called Alison I’d just got to know. She dropped what she was doing, came round with bandages and ointments, and sorted me out. She came back the next day. And the next. And more days after that. I felt very loved, and eventually made one of the most important decisions of my life: I married her. Decades later, Alison has bound up many more mental and spiritual wounds in my life, and actually quite a lot more physical ones because I have crashed every motorbike I’ve ever owned. Every time it’s been the same care. Her compassion has never failed. That’s ḥeseḏ love.

That’s the love the Lamentations writer knew God had for his people, and therefore he had hope. He wasn’t gambling on things getting better; he wasn’t simply being optimistic that a better day would come. He knew God’s great love, a love that flowed from the heart of a God who is love, a God who remained firmly committed to his people, a God whose compassions would never be exhausted.

Faithfulness

From such committed love comes the certainty that good times are ahead because there will be no less love tomorrow than today, as the writer says of God’s compassions in verse 23:

“They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.”

These particular words are at the center of a wonderful hymn written by Thomas Chisholm (1866-1960). It says there is no shadow of turning with God, and because he never changes his compassions never fail and every morning brings new mercies.

God never fails, and we can trust him for compassion each day for two important reasons.

One is because of his consistency. He will not love us today but forget us tomorrow. One of the trials young teenagers go through is caused by so-called friends who want their company one day, and the next pull away and show no interest at all. Whether they’re being malicious or unstable, they can’t be relied on. God is never like that. The writer of Hebrews described the Lord Jesus as “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). That is God’s consistent character, his faithfulness.

The other reason we can trust God is his goodness. Because his love for us will be the same tomorrow as today, the blessings we have known in the past will be matched with the blessings he gives us in the future. Some people seem to imagine God has a limited store of good things for their lives, and perhaps his stock has been exhausted and therefore the future for them will be inevitably bad. But their ideas are wrong. God’s store is not limited, and the goodness of God we have known before we will know again.

When I was about eight or ten years of age, my Dad would sometimes tell me, “Get your coat on Alistair. We’re going out together.” I’d ask where we were going, and he’d say, “I’m not telling you.” I’d ask what we’d be doing, and he’d say, “I’m not telling you.” I’d ask when we’d get back, and he’d say, “I’m not telling you.” By that point I’d look crestfallen, as if I didn’t want to go. And Dad would then say, “We’ve gone out together before – many times – and was there ever even once you didn’t have great fun?” I’d laugh, because we’d always had marvelous times. And my Dad didn’t need to say another word. My Dad never had bad plans for me, they were always great. And off we’d go, and it would be ‘great’ again. God has no bad plans for our lives (Jer. 29:11). They were wonderful yesterday and they’ll be wonderful tomorrow.

The writer of Lamentations was equally certain the faithfulness of God would bring great compassions ‘tomorrow.’

Portion

Because of all the key truths he has just mentioned, in verse 24 the writer reaches a firm conclusion:

“I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.’”

He knows there is one true God.

He knows the one true God is good, and his love is still there for him now and will be there every day ahead.

Therefore, he will have this one true God as his portion. This God will be his choice. This God will be his investment. This God will have his loyalty, his love, his service.

It’s a choice made without conditions. “I will wait for him,” he writes. He won’t try to control God by demanding that he acts by ‘this date’ or in ‘this way.’ I’ve known people who gave up on God because he didn’t do what they asked when they asked. God didn’t meet their timetable, the terms they’d decided were reasonable if he was to merit their loyalty.

This writer knows who is Lord, and he sets no terms. He demands nothing of God. He doesn’t need to. He knows this God of great, covenant love can be trusted to do what’s right.

When my children were small they would run straight at me and jump into my arms. Not for a moment did they think I’d keep my arms by my side and let them fall to the ground. They knew I’d open up those arms, wrap them in close to me and hold them safe. It’s what a loving father would do, and they had no doubts about my love for them.

“The Lord is my portion” so “I will wait for him” are two great statements of trust. The writer’s commitment goes to no one else, and he will rely on God’s timing and God’s plan for his life, whatever he will decide should happen.

After heart-rending tragedy, from which some might never have recovered, Horatio Stafford wrote:

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

And after devastating tragedy for himself and his people, the Lamentations poet wrote:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.”

Through the ages many have found that to be true, and it has given them courage and strength to face forward knowing that a better day – a very good day – lies ahead, one designed for them by a loving heavenly Father.

 

[1] Horatio and Anna Spafford later had three more children, but also faced further sadness when their only son, also called Horatio, died at the age of four from scarlet fever. The Library of Congress holds various manuscripts and photographs of the Spafford family, including Anna’s transatlantic ‘Saved alone’ cable message. They can be seen at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/americancolony/amcolony-family.html

[2] The verses cited are only some of those which highlight the terrible shame and horror of those times.

June 3, 2015




Ready to start your seminary Experience?

Apply Now