Although there are plenty reasons to be thankful when we look at the church, it is also easy to identify difficulties and problems. The church seems to be to sinking increasingly into irrelevance and embarrassment. When we analyse carefully, we have to recognise much sin and failure in the church too. It is not just a question of credibility and acceptance in wider society, it sometimes seems that the Lord is holding back from sending his own believing people the blessings we might normally expect. Yet this is not unique to our generation. The prophet Jeremiah mourned a similar situation in the church in his times. In this updated extract from David Dickson’s commentary on Lamentations, we can borrow Jeremiah’s words of prayer to the Lord for help, and turn others of Jeremiah’s words into material for prayer. Repentance and renewal are things we can ask the Lord to gift the church in our own context.
Pray that the church would live up to its spiritual status as victors in Christ over sin
Jeremiah refers to the Lord’s people’s “crown” (Lamentations 5:16). The crown was their exclusive privileges in church and state, which they had beyond other people on the earth. God’s people are a royal people beyond all nations. All others are drudges to their own lusts, but God’s people are kings and conquerors, triumphing over principalities and powers, the world, and their own lusts and passions.
Use your spiritual privileges then, and be a crowned king over all that opposes you. Otherwise the royal crown will be taken off your head and you will be made an outcast. “The crown is fallen from our head” (verse 16). Of all men the most contemptible are you whom God would lift up and yet you are determined to make yourself base. Therefore, enjoy your kingship over sin, Satan, the world and your own lusts, in order that one day a crown of perfect gold may be set on your head.
Pray for a true sense of sin
The Lord’s people in Jeremiah’s time said, “Woe unto us, for we have sinned” (verse 16). Here they acknowledge that sin was the cause of all their misery and disgrace. Sin is the cause of all the trouble that comes on us. It defaces all our privileges and makes a people the tail and not the head (Deut. 28:44). If it was not for sin, God’s people would not need to lose their blessedness with anything.
The church cries, “Woe to us that we have sinned,” and not, “Woe unto us that we are miserable.” Sin is a greater evil than any misery, if only we were conscious of it, for we may blame ourselves and our sins for all our misery and for the feeling of our misery. Misery should turn all our grief against sin. If you tend to cry, “Woe is me because of my affliction,” learn to say instead, “Woe is me because of my sin.” Be more sorry for sin than for the judgment it has drawn down on you.
Pray for an appropriate dread of the consequences of our personal and collective sin
“For this our heart is faint,” they say (verse 17). The reason for their grief and faintness of heart is both that God’s temple, which was the place of their comfort, is laid low and desolate and waste, and also that they were the ones who had moved God to cast it down. Now it has become a den for foxes and other wild animals. It shows that people’s sins not only draw wrath on themselves but also on the church and commonwealth of which they are members. So, in order not to bring a plague on church and state, put away sin.
Pray for a sympathetic attitude for the troubled church
Their grief is “because of Zion” (verse 18). We should be more grieved for the church drawn on by sin than for any other cause. The church’s grief should go nearer our heart than our own. If we lay God’s glory to heart, we will be more grieved for the evils that have come upon the church than anything that can happen to ourselves.
Pray that in our sympathy we would take God’s side against our own sin
“Zion is desolate, the foxes walk upon it” (verse 18). This is not to be understood of crafty, wily men, but of wild animals who are now haunting it. It is righteous with God to make his abused temple a den for wild animals.
Pray to be able to find hope in who God is
Then the prophet takes heart, and refreshes himself a little in the midst of his grief with the consideration that the Lord remains forever. “Thou, O Lord, remainest forever” (verse 19). Although Zion, the temple and all are gone, and the commonwealth is decayed, yet he says, “the Lord remains forever,” to right all wrongs and to take amends of all oppressors. The Lord can yet set in order all things that are currently in disarray.
From the fact that after a long time’s lamentation he takes a view of God’s goodness, mercy and unchangeableness, lest he should be swallowed up of too much despair and sorrow, we see that even if the church provokes God to change her state from prosperity to adversity, yet the Lord remains still unchangeable, and as kind and loving to those who seek unto Him as ever He was. Change in the church does not mean any change in God. He remains the same, both when He plagues sinners and when he pities them. “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6).
The fact that the prophet takes comfort from God’s unchangeableness and hopes for deliverance, shows that God’s unchangeableness is a basis of hope for the restoration of the church, and a basis of hope that the church shall be changed from this bad condition to a better one. If you feel a change in yourself between better and worse, let it send you to God who is unchangeable, and you shall find help.
The unchangeableness of God is also a reason to believe that the church shall remain stable. Although He may correct the church, yet He will still raise up a new generation to serve Him. He may fleece His sheep, but He will not flay them. From age to age He shall have a kirk as Himself, enduring forever.
Pray for sensitivity to the presence or absence of the Lord
They ask the Lord, “Wherefore dost thou forget us forever?” (verse 20) How could they say this seeing the captivity was newly begun, or only getting started? Because the Lord’s wrath began twelve years before the city was taken, and before there was a great decay in the kingdom of Israel. Many heavy plagues were looking likely to come on them. Their sun was going down and the Lord was looking likely to flit from them. So in regard of the long continuance of the Lord’s wrath, and the apparent likelihood that he would depart, they ask why God forsakes them. God has taken a long goodnight of them, and this makes them think that He has forsaken them forever.
When a people have long provoked God and He has withdrawn, they are in danger of being left even further. When people do not return to God, either by benefits or by rods, it is righteous that He goes further away. We see also that when He departs a little, we have reason to fear that He will depart further. Therefore let us turn unto God in time.
Another reason why they said that God had forsaken them is because when you are in trouble, even a short time seems long. When God forsakes, a short time feels like a lifetime. Supposing the times of trouble were never so short, yet we cannot help feeling it long if God withdraws. Therefore, when you think the time long, draw near to God, so that under the trouble He may give peace and joy. If your affliction is wearisome to you, strive against this feeling and resolve to bear it patiently.
When the prophet pours out the matter to God, and tells Him that he thinks He has forsaken them, it shows that when we think that God has forsaken us we may tell Him and pray Him to help us. If we lament the ill which has made Him withdraw, He may return again.
Pray to God to return and show His lovingkindness as before
When God’s people are driven away from God, they may pray to be brought back from their exile, and they may pray that God would return and show His former loving kindness. “Turn us unto thee, and we shall be turned” (verse 21).
They pray, “Renew our days as of old,” as if to say, “We were thy people of old, but now we are shut out from thee. In great mercy turn us, O Lord, out of this misery, and let us enjoy and rejoice in the joy, peace, favour and prosperity which we used to have.”
Our turning from God is the cause of God’s turning from us. The first to leave is always the sinner, not God. So do not leave God, lest He leave you next. “While ye are with me,” says the Lord, “I am with you, but when ye forsake me, I will forsake you” (cf. 2 Chron. 15:2).
Although we can turn ourselves away from God, we cannot turn ourselves home again. Both our first conversion and our subsequent conversions are from God – our first coming out of nature to God is from God, and when our affection cools, it is God who brings us back again. Therefore, let God have the praise of all.
If they had been turned in their person and affections to God, it would have been easy to turn their prosperity. So, if anyone wants the tokens of God’s anger to be taken away, and themselves turned to God, and His loving countenance shown, let them turn from their sin. “Renew our days as of old.” Their prayer was not lacking in a basis for being restored to their former estate, for the fact that they had previously been in a good state gave good grounds to look to be restored after repentance. When God gives repentance to an afflicted church or person, He can make things as good as ever they were before. God can repair all the church’s ruins and wash the dirt off her face and rub away her shame. So if we have had good days in the past, let us pray for them to be restored.
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