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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

The Whole Inkpot


"Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

The book of Lamentations is a collection of 5 poems written during the historical period described in the book of Jeremiah. Lamentations is the painful experience of a particular group of Israelites, predominantly descended from Judah, Israel’s son. ‘Judah’ was the name given to that mini-nation. These people had lost their homeland, having been defeated by the Babylonians and taken into exile. They also appeared to have lost their God and the break-up of that relationship was all their fault and the consequences were devastating.

The relationship between the God of Israel and the Children of Israel was like a marriage - they had a special relationship that was a type of covenant agreement. When we get married we take vows - promises about the way that we are going to be in our future relationship. They are promises of commitment and faithfulness, come what may.

In the first five books of the Bible we have the account of God joining himself to this particular people group. Both parties made vows. The Lord God spoke to them through their leader, called Moses. The Israelites had to agree to relationship terms, which stipulated how they were to behave going forward, and how God would deal with them depending on either their faithfulness or unfaithfulness. This contract is described several times in those early records. One place is Leviticus 26. The NIV splits it into two sections with really helpful titles. They are ‘Reward for obedience’ and ‘Punishment for disobedience’. One of the rewards for obedience was perpetual deliverance from their enemies. No enemy army would defeat them or enslave them. However, one of the promised punishments for disobedience was that they would be defeated and they would be exiled to a foreign country.

But the Israelites had already experienced God’s goodness to them, when he delivered them from slavery in Egypt and, so, the Israelites readily accepted the terms of this proposed agreement. Exodus 24 says this, ‘Then he (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.’ They wanted to obey – they believed that they would obey. However, the Lord God had already experienced their fickle behaviour during their engagement period, if you like, which is described at length in the book of Exodus. He knew that, despite good intentions, their hearts were wayward.

When Moses was dying, the Lord predicted Israel’s future rebellion in Deuteronomy 31:16-17. He said, ‘they will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?’’ Lamentations is ‘that day’!

What is a Lamentation? It’s a lament, which is ‘a passionate expression of grief or sorrow’ according to the Oxford Dictionary. Pop music is full of laments – there are so many songs whose theme is relational loss - love gone wrong - Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’, or the ageless, haunting lament of Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’? Laments capture raw emotive grief, and almost every verse in Lamentations expresses hurt, but the verses that I read as our text (v.22-23) are so different. ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’. These are words of hope. In fact, that word, ‘hope’ is found in the preceding verse. After verse upon verse of agonising lament, the poet says, ‘Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope’. These are words of hope and of beauty. They are an absolute jewel of God-given truth. But look at the setting - where this jewel is placed.

Imagine that I was a young man wanting an engagement ring for my fiancé. I owned a beautiful jewel and decided that this should be the centre-piece of the ring. I went to the goldsmith’s and said, ‘You know more than me about how to enhance the beauty of this stone. I’ll leave it totally up to you to decide’. A week later I go back. The Jeweller has simply scooped up a lump of cow’s manure and placed the jewel on top. Would I be happy? If I gave it to my prospective life partner, would I get married? I doubt it. Even those of us who know little about jewellery have accepted society’s rules about how beautiful things should be displayed. When jewels are placed in a ring setting, the setting style is designed to complement and enhance the beauty of the stone. That’s the way we do it. But God’s ways are higher than ours. This jewel of his faithfulness is not found in such a setting. It is surrounded by life’s dirt. It is set in the middle of heartache and devastation. Is its beauty ruined? No – it’s enhanced. Surrounded by failure and ruin, God’s faithfulness and commitment is like a a beacon of hope. After all, when does a light shine most brightly?

I have a big light on my bicycle. At midday it pushes out the same amount of light as always – but I cannot see it at all due to the intensity of the surrounding daylight. But at night, when I’m riding on an unlit bridleway, it’s so awesome that I could burst out laughing! Lights show their strength in dark places. God’s light shows its true intensity when it shines in a dark place. Lamentations appears a dark and hopeless place, but this hope in the Lord changes everything.

Here we have the realisation of God’s compassion. The poet is acknowledging that what the people of Judah were experiencing could have been worse. They could have been destroyed but they weren’t. Ecclesiastes 9:4 says, ‘anyone who is among the living has hope’. Judah, now humbled under God’s mighty hand, had more reason to hope than most. What God had promised them would happen, had now happened. He had proved trustworthy even in this present ordeal. And, if they trusted in his promise from before, how magnified could that hope be?

When the Lord spoke to the Israelites previously, in Deuteronomy 4:25-31, about this prospect of exile as a punishment for disobedience, he gave them hope then. He told them, ‘But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him’.

And he promised more in Jeremiah’s own prophecy to Judah. He had been sent by God to warn them about this approaching tragedy. Almost no-one had listened and consequently tragedy had struck. Even then, the Lord was gracious. Jeremiah was given a word from the Lord to send to those exiles. He wrote a letter, recorded in Jeremiah 29:1-14. It told them to settle down in this new place. They weren’t coming back to Judah anytime soon. But they were coming back. Jeremiah told them that there would be a time of deep repentance and true seeking after Israel’s God again after approximately one human lifespan – seventy years – and then the exiled Judah would return to its homeland. Could they trust this promise? Would the Lord really do what he had said he would do?

It all depends on whether the Lord is going to be good to his word or not. The light reflected from this wonderful jewel in the middle of Lamentations 3 assures Judah, and us, that he will be. Why was unfaithful, unbelieving, Judah ‘not consumed’ already? ‘Because of the Lord’s great love’. ‘His compassions never fail’. His ‘faithfulness’ is so contrasted with ours. His is ‘great’. In fact, his faithful commitment is so assured that we are told that these attributes of the Lord ‘are new every morning’. Is this really true?

I think we have two perspectives in the language of these verses. God’s perspective of himself is one of utter constancy. From his view it is correct to use the words, ‘never fail’. He never does, not for any moment of any part of any day. So how can his commitment be ‘new every morning’ if it never dips? I think that these words – ‘new every morning’ - are written from a very human perspective. They are meant to help us. We are so prone to change. We lack constancy. We need assurance of where the Lord is at.

It’s a bit like the sunrise. What will happen with the sun tomorrow morning for us living in the northern hemisphere? We know that it will move above the horizon from the east at dawn, and continue to rise and head westwards across the sky until it reaches its high point around midday, due south from us, then it will continue on its traverse, gradually getting lower until it disappears towards the west at sunset. If we are mathematically minded, we can calculate this journey of the sun with absolute accuracy. From our perspective on earth its vast journey is completely predictable. But is this the reality from further away? What if we were looking down on our solar system from afar? Well, we would see something entirely different. The sun isn’t moving. It’s the earth that is moving. When we view the sun on this earth, it appears to go on a great journey, starting at sunrise each day. But, actually, it never moves.

That is what Lamentations is asking us to do. The Lord knows that our perspective is so much different to his. We cannot really take in the immovable nature that he has, so he gives it to us from an earth-level view. Just imagine that my love is ‘new every morning’, he says, if this helps you to understand how predictable I am, when it comes to my dealings with my people.

When those people of Judah read the promises of the Lord about his faithful, predictable behaviour, the intervening period, between those promises being made and the present, was irrelevant. Believe that I made them this morning, says the Lord. My commitment to them is as though I had.

So what does this mean for us, today? This promise of God’s covenant commitment in Lamentations should have given much hope and comfort in a time of trouble to the people of Judah under that old covenant relationship. But how much more to us? What about us who now have a new covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ our Lord?

Jeremiah prophecied about this in Jeremiah 31. He wrote, ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant…’’ He says that ‘it will not be like the covenant’ of old – the one which he made with ‘the people of Israel and with the people of Judah’. Jeremiah reminded his hearers of how that covenant was ‘made with their ancestors when I (the Lord) took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt’. He reminded them how the Lord had behaved under that old marriage agreement - He ‘was a husband to them’. How then did that marriage breakdown? Though the Lord had remained faithful, the people had not. ‘They broke my covenant’, he says. It was them that did it! Under that old system, of reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience, the people chose disobedience – the people chose punishment and separation. But, such is God’s love that he has designed a way to be in an unbreakable relationship with people.

Under this new covenant there would still be reward for obedience. However, that obedience would be a done deal. Our ongoing relationship with God as believers is not based on the obedience of our own lifetimes. It is based on one single lifetime, lived by one single man. His life was perfect. He was – he is the Son of God – Jesus Christ our Lord. His life was one of such obedience that it guarantees reward.

The book of Hebrews compares and contrasts the two covenant relationships. It details aspects of the old system and compares it to similar aspects of the new system, in chapters 7 to 12. It keeps using the same word, over and over again. That word is ‘better’. In those six chapters this word, ‘better’ appears more times than in the entire collection of letters written by the apostle Paul in our Bibles.

Jeremiah 31 promises the ‘coming’ of a new marriage between God and people – one where there will be no separation. How is he going to achieve this? Well, the old covenant was written on stone tablets and copied onto manuscripts, probably using a pot of ink and a quill pen of some sort. The Israelites were commanded to read those things diligently and obey what was written. But the promised new covenant was going to be penned in a different way. The Lord, through Jeremiah, says, ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’. We may well ask, what does this mean? Is the Lord proposing re-inking our minds? I think this isn’t talking about ink from a pen. I think this is talking about God’s love made known in Jesus Christ. This message is going to reach hearts. This message is going to reach minds. Those hearts and minds are going to be changed forever, by that message and the power that lies behind it (as 2 Corinthians 3:3). This change in God’s inking will bring a change in his people’s thinking.

Paul in Romans 5 is speaking about the new attitude that believers can have, even in really difficult circumstances. So great is this new message that has reached believers hearts and minds that Paul says, ‘we boast in the hope of the glory of God’. Why can we ‘boast in (our) hope’? Paul says, ‘because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts’. Our God doesn’t do things by halves. When we come to faith in Jesus that is the reality. God hasn’t just written the truth of Jesus – he has taken the whole inkpot of his love and it has ‘been poured out into our hearts’, so that our thinking and our lives can be transformed by him and for him.

Hebrews tells us that ‘Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant’ (Hebrews 7:22). It tells us that ‘the new covenant is established on better promises’ (Hebrews 8:6). It talks of the change from old to new, and says, ‘a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God’ (Hebrews 7:19).

How awesome are those verses in Lamentations 3 when we consider them from a new covenant perspective? Some might well ask, ‘if the marriage agreement between God and people has changed, do these verses still apply?’ They do. Why? Because those verses don’t focus on the covenant itself. They are dealing with God’s commitment. The covenant has changed but God’s commitment to it, and to his believing people is as unchanged as he is. If you are a believer then what is his commitment to you this new day, this New Year’s Day!? Total. What will his commitment be to you tomorrow? It will be as good as new. And what about the day after, and the day after that? ‘New every morning; great is your faithfulness’.

How awesome is this? Are we beginning this New Year surrounded by problems? What about us here at Riverside? We are beginning this year with the prospect of less people regularly attending than we had a year ago. What about recent circumstances - the experience of this last year? There are those here for which it was a time of intense grief - loss of life, and heartache and pain so keenly felt. What about relationships that once were so close, which should be lively and vibrant, but which are as good as dead? What about difficulties in our daily employment? What about parents struggling to raise children? What about children struggling with parents? What about steadily failing health of either us or those we love? What about the issues in the wider world that are having such an impact that very few households aren’t having to adjust? And there may be many other things in our lives that are deeply troubling. We may be brought really, really low. We may be brought to personally lament our present circumstances. We may have read the doleful language of Lamentations this morning and found it speaking to our own experience. But, if we are believers, then there is something that we won’t have found. We will never find that these things are able to separate us from relationship with our God.

It’s a bold claim – but it isn’t my claim. If it was, you’d be wise to ignore it. I might think differently tomorrow. But God won’t. Our experience varies from day to day. Our emotions can be up and down. We are constantly subject to change. But our hope can be anchored firm if it is anchored in a God who never has changed and never will. Then we will know the reality of what Paul spoke about in Romans 8, about life’s troubles, and the experience of believers living in a fallen and hostile world. He uses the expression, ‘present sufferings’. In fact, he lists some really serious ones, ‘trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, war (sword). And he asks a question, the answer to which should be an immense beacon of hope for every believer. Will any of these things prove to be the thing which will ‘separate us from the love of Christ?’ His answer – God’s answer – is ‘No’. He says, ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Our hope this New Year – our hope every new day – must be Jesus. God’s love is eternally constant in him. Do you find that too vast to comprehend? Then just remember that tomorrow morning it will be the same as it was today. Will it change? Only if Jesus does. But, as the Hebrews 13:8 assures us – he does not. ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever’.


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