The Dark Night of the Soul

I was very blessed this week by Lamentations 3, it is a powerful call to God for mercy by the prophet Jeremiah.

"Where does my help come from?" Psalm 121:1

Most of you probably know by heart verses 23-24,

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

But you may have never looked into the context; I had not, to any great depth. Let me invite you to. So read on . . .

Note: topic-related repetitions in text are in blue.

Lamentations 3:1-41

Background: This book consists of 5 different poems, written by Jeremiah, as he laments the great fall of Jerusalem. The “cream of the crop” of Israel was carted off in slavery to Babylon, under king Nebuchadnezzar. He bemoans the people’s attitude of hostility towards God and their rejection of his earlier message (the book of Jeremiah) where he predicts this very occasion. He had told them that Jerusalem would fall to the hands of Babylon and be under captivity for exactly 70 years (Jeremiah 25).

Lamentations 3 seems to have a direct correlation to Jeremiah 38, which recounts Jeremiah being thrown into a cistern (“pit”, verse 53). It is likely that this poem was written in one of Jeremiah’s solemn nights, perhaps at the bottom of this dark, empty well.

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
2 he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
3 surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.

Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet”, and he was a living image of God’s sorrow over man’s sinfulness and rejection of Him. He had seen Babylon come in with its huge armies and sack the city of Jerusalem. He had experienced the people fleeing to Egypt, against God’s command, and was forced to go along (Jeremiah 42-43).

4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
he has broken my bones;
5 he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation;
6 he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead of long ago.

A mental image is here given of being in the well, in the darkness, forced to be silent, and feeling like God is distant. God is the one who has done all this, “He” has brought this great calamity on Jeremiah, and is the reason why Jeremiah is now hungry, cold, angry, and dying.

7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
he has made my chains heavy;
8 though I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;
9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
he has made my paths crooked.

Even in all of this God seems to remain silent, blocking out his prayers, and seemingly has done it on purpose, to harm Jeremiah. Could it be that God brings hard things into our lives on purpose, to willfully hurt us?

10 He is a bear lying in wait for me,
a lion in hiding;
11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;
he has made me desolate;
12 he bent his bow and set me
as a target for his arrow.

13 He drove into my kidneys
the arrows of his quiver;

God is pictured as a massive bear, ambushing a traveler, attacking him and bringing him almost to death. It is as if God had planned for this evil to happen, had schemed it and purposed it from the very beginning. The evil men of his age were above, on the earth, enjoying life and mocking God! Yet here was Jeremiah, God’s chosen prophet, in anguish, pain, and in the silent darkness. How could God be love and allow such a thing?
14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,
the object of their taunts all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitterness;
he has sated me with wormwood.

Not only does God stay silent to him, he is laughed at and mocked. This did not only happen in the well, but dozens of times. Jeremiah would boldly preach what God had predicted, and they mocked him and always did contrary to what he said. False prophets even rose up (Jeremiah 29) and verbally attacked Jeremiah.

Wormwood (or “gall”, NASB) is connected with bitterness here, and the word appears 8 times in the Bible, always connected with the idea of bitterness. When he says “filled me” it is parallel, in Jewish poetic-type writing, with the next “sated me”. Some translate “sated” to be “drunk”, and the word seems to mean to be excessively full of. So Jeremiah is literally saying that he is sickeningly full of bitterness, which is connected to wormwood, a very bitter herb (used as medicine by the Greeks).

Note that God has given him “wormwood” to drink, as it were, he had caused all this bitterness and hopelessness to be in his soul, and to overcome him.

16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace;

I have forgotten what happiness is;

Correlating with the last passage, Jeremiah is showing how God has humiliated him. God is the cause of all of this evil, the creator of it and the enforcer of it, on His own beloved prophet. Why?!

The "Weeping Prophet" as Michelangelo saw him

18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

Jeremiah recognizes his hopeless condition, and despairingly concludes: ‘I am finished, utterly overcome by sorrow, and without answer from God.’

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.

Jeremiah has no where else to turn, so he calls out and prays to God, in his deepest sorrow. This is exactly where God wants us, humble before him, so that he can heal us. He takes away all that we love and cherish, he breaks all of our dreams, and destroys all of our hopes, crushing our plans underfoot. As Hosea declared “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (6:1).

Nothing God does is an accident, nothing God does is evil. For this is what God had told Jeremiah, likely before this incident, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:11-14).

This was a promise by God, directly to Jeremiah, and also to the entire people of Israel whom He had sent into exile in Babylon, under the oppression of a brutal enemy. Yet it is also a promise to us: When we have come to the end of ourselves, we must look up when we are finally humble and call to God for help–and He will hear us and heal our brokenness. That is a promise.

21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

What a beautiful breakthrough of sunlight in the darkness of Jeremiah’s soul! When all was broken, all was wrong, God was his only remaining hope. And that is what God does, when all is broken down and all of our “hopes” (job, family, insurance, friends, physical ability, etc.) are shown to be futile, then God becomes our only remaining hope. And we are exactly where God wants us to be–humble under his mighty and loving hand. Notice that after Jeremiah attacks God for bringing on him all these evils, he recognizes that God’s love is steadfast, immovable.

We must recognize that 1. God is our only hope and 2. that He always does good to those who humble before Him.

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

27 It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.

"For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation." Psalm 62:1

I imagine Jeremiah at the bottom of that pit, with tears flowing from his eyes, crying out “God why?” or perhaps with David: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). This is when he begins to “preach to himself”, as it were, and he chooses to trust in God. God blesses those who wait patiently for His plan to unfold, when we don’t rush Him or push Him to do what we desire. Our desire must be to be exactly what God intended us to be, to do exactly what He wants us to do.

The Puritans spoke of this “dark night of the soul”, when God seems far off and silent, yet then God will shine his light, as the sun:

Lay down then, the weapons of warfare against Him; give up yourselves to His will; let go everything about which He contends with you; follow after that which He calls you to; and you will find light arising to you in the midst of darkness. Has He a cup of affliction in one hand? Lift up your eyes and you will see a cup of consolation in the other. And if all stars withdraw their light whilst you are in the way of God, assure yourselves that the sun is ready to rise (John Owen of the 1600’s in a Homily/Sermon).

28 Let him sit alone in silence
when it is laid on him;
29 let him put his mouth in the dust—
there may yet be hope;
30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
and let him be filled with insults.

When God afflicts us with pain, it is for a reason. It is for our good. It is for us to sit in silence and to ask “What is it you want to teach me Father?” It is for us to humble ourselves, to put our face in the dirt in despair and wait for God to lift us up in due time (Philippians 2:1-11). Because there is hope:

31 For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve the children of men.

Do you think God likes bringing pain upon men? “May it never be!””May it never be!” But he disciplines us like a caring Father (Hebrews 12:3-17), he disciplines us because we are His children. True parental love is one of discipline, that sees the normal course of the child and corrects it for his own good. But does a good parent delight in disciplining his child and causing him pain and anguish and even temporary hate? “May it never be!”

God brings about pain in our lives so that we will turn to Him alone for our strength.

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?

Verse 39 is a sobering verse. Man’s mindset has always been “I deserve to be treated well, to be loved, to be…” Very selfish and inner-focused. Our just reward for our sins and the sins of the whole world is death (Romans 6:23), so we have no excuse, but are absolutely guilty before God.

40 Let us test and examine our ways,
and return to the Lord!

41 Let us lift up our hearts and hands
to God in heaven . . .

There is no better response than this. Ours is the fault, ours is the way that must change. God sees something wrong in us and uses discipline to change us and teach us (not always, see Job). Let us repent of our fear, or our anxiety, of our pride, of our lust, of our greed, of our hate, and return to God. Let us kneel before him and raise up our hands to heaven and cry out for mercy. And he will have mercy.

Worship while you wait for the Lord

I see Jeremiah now, as the sun is rising and suddenly light starts flowing down the sides of the long, cavernous well. His face is eventually lit up with rays and the sun dries his tears. He raises his hands to heaven and cries out:

“Great is your faithfulness!”

Truly my Father, great is your faithfulness, to me the greatest of sinners, you are the greatest forgiver. Thanks be to Jesus Christ, our Savior!

(For lack of time we will have to end here, although there is much more understanding to be had from this chapter’s closing, in the next 20 verses)

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2 thoughts on “The Dark Night of the Soul

Add yours

  1. Sooner or later each child of God will have one of those dark and long nights!
    The level will be different for each one, but we will all feel its intensity as if it was the worst.
    Hard times at the moment, blessed times when looking back for the many lessons learned and above all, for the glory, power, majesty and mercy of God revealed during those nights!

    I just passed one dark night, today I saw sunshine again, but I know it won’t be the last one.

  2. You are absolutely right Andres.
    I have been blessed to look over what God has taught me in such times, and in one sense I can say that I have had “more than my fair share” of them. Yet it is a blessing, because it means God has been at work in my life to transform me into the God he needs to be used for His work(Job 23:10). What a blessing that God uses all such things for our good.

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