That we may be entitled to the comforts administered to the afflicted in the Lam. 3:21-36, and may taste the sweetness of them, we have here the duties of an afflicted state prescribed to us, in the performance of which we may expect those comforts.
I. We must see and acknowledge the hand of God in all the calamities that befal us at any time, whether personal or public, Lam. 3:37, 38. This is here laid down as a great truth, which will help to quiet our spirits under our afflictions and to sanctify them to us. 1. That, whatever men’s actions are, it is God that overrules them: Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass (that designs a thing and bring his designs to effect), if the Lord commandeth it not? Men can do nothing but according to the counsel of God, nor have any power or success but what is given them from above. A man’s heart devises his way; he projects and purposes; he says that he will do so and so (Jas. 4:13); but the Lord directs his steps far otherwise than he designed them, and what he contrived and expected does not come to pass, unless it be what God’s hand and his counsel had determined before to be done, Prov. 16:9; Jer. 10:23. The Chaldeans said that they would destroy Jerusalem, and it came to pass, not because they said it, but because God commanded it and commissioned them to do it. Note, Men are but tools which the great God makes use of, and manages as he pleases, in the government of this lower world; and they cannot accomplish any of their designs without him. 2. That, whatever men’s lot is, it is God that orders it: Out of the mouth of the Most High do not evil and good proceed? Yes, certainly they do; and it is more emphatically expressed in the original: Do not this evil, and this good, proceed out of the mouth of the Most High? Isa. it not what he has ordained and appointed for us? Yes, certainly it is; and for the reconciling of us to our own afflictions, whatever they be, this general truth must thus be particularly applied. This comfort I receive from the hand of God, and shall I not receive that evil also? so Job argues, Job 2:10. Are we healthful or sickly, rich or poor? Do we succeed in our designs, or are we crossed in them? It is all what God orders; every man’s judgment proceeds from him. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; he forms the light and creates the darkness, as he did at first. Note, All the events of divine Providence are the products of a divine counsel; whatever is done God has the directing of it, and the works of his hands agree with the words of his mouth; he speaks, and it is done, so easily, so effectually are all his purposes fulfilled.
II. We must not quarrel with God for any affliction that he lays upon us at any time (Lam. 3:39): Wherefore does a living man complain? The prophet here seems to check himself for the complaint he had made in the former part of the chapter, wherein he seemed to reflect upon God as unkind and severe. “Do I well to be angry? Why do I fret thus?” Those who in their haste have chidden with God must, in the reflection, chide themselves for it. From the doctrine of God’s sovereign and universal providence, which he had asserted in the Lam. 3:21-36, he draws this inference, Wherefore does a living man complain? What God does we must not open our mouths against, Ps. 39:9. Those that blame their lot reproach him that allotted it to them. The sufferers in the captivity must submit to the will of God in all their sufferings. Note, Though we may pour out our complaints before God, we must never exhibit any complaints against God. What! Shall a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? The reasons here urged are very cogent. 1. We are men; let us herein show ourselves men. Shall a man complain? And again, a man! We are men, and not brutes, reasonable creatures, who should act with reason, who should look upward and look forward, and both ways may fetch considerations enough to silence our complaints. We are men, and not children that cry for every thing that hurts them. We are men, and not gods, subjects, not lords; we are not our own masters, not our own carvers; we are bound and must obey, must submit. We are men, and not angels, and therefore cannot expect to be free from troubles as they are; we are not inhabitants of that world where there is no sorrow, but this where there is nothing but sorrow. We are men, and not devils, are not in that deplorable, helpless, hopeless, state that they are in, but have something to comfort ourselves with which they have not. 2. We are living men. Through the good hand of our God upon us we are alive yet, though dying daily; and shall a living man complain? No; he has more reason to be thankful for life than to complain of any of the burdens and calamities of life. Our lives are frail and forfeited, and yet we are alive; now the living, the living, they should praise, and not complain (Isa. 38:19); while there is life there is hope, and therefore, instead of complaining that things are bad, we should encourage ourselves with the hope that they will be better. 3. We are sinful men, and that which we complain of is the just punishment of our sins; nay, it is far less than our iniquities have deserved. WE have little reason to complain of our trouble, for it is our own doing; we may thank ourselves. Our own wickedness corrects us, Prov. 19:3. We have no reason to quarrel with God, for he is righteous in it; he is the governor of the world, and it is necessary that he should maintain the honour of his government by chastising the disobedient. Are we suffering for our sins? Then let us not complain; for we have other work to do; instead of repining, we must be repenting; and, as an evidence that God is reconciled to us, we must be endeavouring to reconcile ourselves to his holy will. Are we punished for our sins? It is our wisdom then to submit, and to kiss the rod; for, if we still walk contrary to God, he will punish us yet seven times more; for when he judges he will overcome. But, if we accommodate ourselves to him, though we be chastened of the Lord we shall not be condemned with the world.
III. We must set ourselves to answer God’s intention in afflicting us, which is to bring sin to our remembrance, and to bring us home to himself, Lam. 3:40. These are the two things which our afflictions should put us upon. 1. A serious consideration of ourselves and a reflection upon our past lives. Let us search and try our ways, search what they have been, and then try whether they have been right and good or no; search as for a malefactor in disguise, that flees and hides himself, and then try whether guilty or not guilty. Let conscience be employed both to search and to try, and let it have leave to deal faithfully, to accomplish a diligent search and to make an impartial trial. Let us try our ways, that by them we may try ourselves, for we are to judge of our state not by our faint wishes, but by our steps, not by one particular step, but by our ways, the ends we aim at, the rules we go by, and the agreeableness of the temper of our minds and the tenour of our lives to those ends and those rules. When we are in affliction it is seasonable to consider our ways (Hag. 1:5), that what is amiss may be repented of and amended for the future, and so we may answer the intention of the affliction. We are apt, in times of public calamity, to reflect upon other people’s ways, and lay blame upon them; whereas our business is to search and try our own ways. We have work enough to do at home; we must each of us say, “What have I done? What have I contributed to the public flames?” that we may each of us mend one, and then we should all be mended. 2. A sincere conversion to God: “Let us turn again to the Lord, to him who is turned against us and whom we have turned from; to him let us turn by repentance and reformation, as to our owner and ruler. We have been with him, and it has never been well with us since we forsook him; let us therefore now turn again to him.” This must accompany the former and be the fruit of it; therefore we must search and try our ways, that we may turn from the evil of them to God. This was the method David took. Ps. 119:59; I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.
IV. We must offer up ourselves to God, and our best affections and services, in the flames of devotion, Lam. 3:41. When we are in affliction, 1. We must look up to God as a God in the heavens, infinitely above us, and who has an incontestable dominion over us; for the heavens do rule, and are therefore not to be quarrelled with, but submitted to. 2. We must pray to him, with a believing expectation to receive mercy from him; for that is implied in our lifting up our hands to him (a gesture commonly used in prayer and sometimes put for it, as Ps. 141:2; Let the lifting up of my hands be as the evening sacrifice); it signifies our requesting mercy from him and our readiness to receive that mercy. (3.) Our hearts must go along with our prayers. We must lift up our hearts with our hands, as we must pour out our souls with our words. It is the heart that God looks at in that and every other service; for what will a sacrifice without a heart avail? If inward impressions be not in some measure answerable to outward expressions, we do but mock God and deceive ourselves. Praying is lifting up the soul to God (Ps. 25:1) as to our Father in heaven; and the soul that hopes to be with God in heaven for ever will thus, by frequent acts of devotion, be still learning the way thither and pressing forward in that way.