The most famous words in Lamentations are the ones that the beautiful hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” immortalized:
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.
This refrain, which Thomas O. Chisholm wrote in 1923, paraphrases the KJV translation of Lamentations 3:22-23. Ever since my husband Will and I got married, these words have hung in our home, printed on a sign I bought for 25 cents at Goodwill. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” has become the banner our hearts carry each day.
Remembering the context of these words makes them all the more powerful. The rest of Lamentations is heartbreaking in its graphic descriptions of war and exile, which include famine, cannibalism, massacre, and sexual violence. Lamentations is 5 chapters long, and these verses in chapter 3 are the book’s main affirmation of God’s goodness. They’re a breath of fresh air amid despair that can threaten to drown us.
The writer of Lamentations chose not to make “Great is thy faithfulness” the happy ending of Lamentations. It’s not a fairy tale happily-ever-after that washes away the pain of the rest of book. Instead, by placing these verses in the middle of the book, God’s faithfulness surfaces in the midst of the agony that the Judean people experience. For a brief moment, God’s ever-present mercy is apparent, triumphant above the pain.
But even in the moment of mercy’s triumph, Lamentations doesn’t forget about pain. In Lam. 3:24, the word that typically is translated as “hope” can just as easily mean “wait.” Waiting can be agonizing–the wait for a critical phone call, the wait for a diagnosis, the wait for relational restoration. For the writer of Lamentations, God’s faithfulness belongs even to the domain of painful in-between times.
This summer, my husband and I experienced some hope/sadness tension for ourselves. By the end of June, I suspected that something other than mere indigestion was making my stomach turn. One morning I slipped out of bed early to take a pregnancy test while Will was still asleep. A few minutes later, I ran back into the bedroom and woke him up with a huge smile and the news he was a father.
That night, we called Will’s family to let them know the great news. Will’s mom sobbed with happiness through the whole phone call. She just managed to get out the words, “My baby is having a baby!” We prayed together and said good night.
A few days later, around 10 A.M., I heard the most terrible sound I’ve ever heard: the sound of Will getting the news that his mom had unexpectedly died that morning. On this side of heaven, she would not meet the grandchild she already loved so much. She would not be there to mother us as we became parents ourselves. We’d had no idea that the news of our pregnancy would be our goodbye.
Over the next few weeks, grief and joy were no longer strangers, but both our companions. We went to the funeral and we visited the house of Will’s childhood, somehow less home now. And then we returned to Nashville, still heartbroken, and arrived at our first ultrasound appointment. After all the death of the past weeks, I could hardly believe it when we saw the flickering that confirmed new life. Our baby had a heartbeat. Our pregnancy was viable. For that day, at least, a tomb was empty.
Lam. 3:23-25 isn’t the end of lament in Lamentations. There’s still a lot more pain that the authors lead us through. And the news that our pregnancy was viable certainly didn’t wash away our sadness that we lost a mother. Our journeys of grief and joy are ongoing and simultaneous.
One beauty of Lamentations is that it teaches us that we don’t have to deny the reality of either sadness or joy, waiting or hope. God’s faithfulness is sovereign always. And so our banner reminds us:
Great is thy faithfulness when we mourn the mother we lost.
Great is thy faithfulness when we celebrate the new life growing within me.
Great is thy faithfulness, every moment of our lives.