The Good, the Bad, and God

34 To crush underfoot
    all the prisoners of the earth,
35 to deny a man justice
    in the presence of the Most High,
36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
    the Lord does not approve.

37 Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?
39 Why should a living man complain,
    a man, about the punishment of his sins?

40 Let us test and examine our ways,
    and return to the Lord! – Lamentations 3:34-40 ESV

Jeremiah was painfully aware that the nation of Judah stood fully and justifiably condemned before God. They were guilty as charged and their fate had been ordained by the hand of God. It was the just and righteous punishment they so thoroughly deserved. And while God had graciously delayed His judgment for generations, He had not forgotten His promise to punish His chosen people for their rejection of Him. Their spiritual infidelity had become so pervasive that He could no longer allow them to defame His holy name through their unholy actions.

Jeremiah reminds his fellow citizens that God had not been blind to their behavior. He had seen it all. And He had grown tired of their blatant disregard for His holy law. They had long ago forgotten what it means to live in obedience to God’s law. The admonition delivered by Moses to the Israelites while they were still in the wilderness had been clear and compelling.

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the LORD your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul. And you must always obey the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good. – Deuteronomy 10:12-13 NLT

And yet, over the centuries, God’s people had failed to live in a way that pleased Him. They made it all about themselves. God became little more than a cosmic Genie in a bottle, whom the Israelites turned to when all else failed. They had long ago forgotten what it means to fear God, treating the Almighty as if He was just one more god in a long list of possible options. And over time, their outward behavior stood as evidence of their unbelief. Their actions condemned them.

And Jeremiah had spent years pointing out the glaring wickedness of their ways.

“Among my people are wicked men
who lie in wait for victims like a hunter hiding in a blind.
They continually set traps
to catch people.
Like a cage filled with birds,
their homes are filled with evil plots.
And now they are great and rich.
They are fat and sleek,
and there is no limit to their wicked deeds.
They refuse to provide justice to orphans
and deny the rights of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this?” says the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself against such a nation?” – Jeremiah 5:26-29 NLT

And now, Jeremiah reminds his fellow sufferers that they had received the just recompense for their sins against God.

If people crush underfoot
all the prisoners of the land,
if they deprive others of their rights
in defiance of the Most High,
if they twist justice in the courts—
doesn’t the Lord see all these things? – Lamentations 3:34-36 NLT

They had lived their lives as if God was blind or oblivious to their actions. But now they knew that He had seen it all and He had held them accountable. Everything that had happened to them was the direct result of God’s sovereign will. It had not been a mistake. It had not been the result of poor timing, bad luck, or the fickleness of fate. It had been the providential plan of God Almighty.

Who can command things to happen
without the Lord’s permission?
Does not the Most High
send both calamity and good?
Then why should we, mere humans, complain
when we are punished for our sins? – Lamentations 3:37-39 NLT

The people of Judah couldn’t blame Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians for their problems. They had been little more than instruments in the hands of God. They had been His chosen means for delivering His divine judgment against a stubborn rebellious people. The people of Judah had been punished by God for their sins against Him. And they had no cause to complain.

For years, they had lived in a state of overconfidence, basking in the goodness of God’s blessings, while regularly disobeying His commands. They thought they were immune from judgment. As God’s chosen people, they lived with a false sense of security, wrongly assuming that they were divinely protected from harm. But disobedience always leads to discipline. They were wrong to assume that their unique relationship with God made them untouchable by God. If anything, God was holding them to a higher standard. He had expected them to live lives that were distinctively different from all the other nations around them.

But their behavior had brought shame to the name of God. Their actions reflected poorly on His character. As His children, they bore God’s name, but they had failed to live up to their calling as His sons and daughters. Now, they were suffering the consequences for their blatant disregard for His holiness.

“For I, the LORD, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt, that I might be your God. Therefore, you must be holy because I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:45 NLT

Their holiness was not an option. It had been God’s expectation from the moment He had chosen Abram out of Ur and promised to make of him a great nation. His descendants would be God’s chosen people, unique among all the nations of the earth. And their relationship with God, determined by His law and regulated by His sacrificial system, was to have set them apart as holy and wholly belonging to Him. But their lack of holiness had left a black eye on God’s character. And now they were suffering because of it.

So, Jeremiah calls them to examine their lives and to understand that their current circumstances were ordained by God and were for their own good.

…let us test and examine our ways.
Let us turn back to the Lord. – Lamentations 3:40 NLT

God had blessed them. Now, God was punishing them. But it was all for their good. And Jeremiah wanted them to learn the invaluable lesson that both the good and the bad come from the hand of God. And both are conditioned upon the love of God. He disciplines those whom He loves. But it is often difficult for us to recognize God’s love when it shows up as correction. It feels like anger. It comes across as rejection. But as Jeremiah stated earlier in this same chapter.

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning. – Lamentations 3:22-23 NLT

As God’s children, we must learn to recognize His love in all the circumstances of life. From the good to the bad, the enjoyable to the painful, the indescribable to the inexplicable, God never falls out of love with us. And, like Job, we must learn to see that God’s love never fails, whether we fail to understand it or not.

“Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson