I had a neighbor in middle school whose parents had one of those fancy stone coasters with a catchy phrase etched into it. The phrase was something along the lines of, “Why wait for your ship to come in when you can swim out to meet it?” It is such an American thing to say, why wait when you can make it happen? I always thought this saying was a misrepresentation of the original saying though. I saw the original saying, “Waiting for my ship to come in,” as waiting in hope that the work I’ve already done will bring in the results I want.
The phrase comes from merchants waiting for the ships full of goods to come into port so they could sell those goods at the market. Well, in order to have ships full of goods those merchants had to travel to far off countries and buy those goods, arrange for them to be sent home, and travel home ahead of the goods to be there when they came in. That waiting merchant already did a lot to make it happen, he was just waiting for the fruits of his labor to come in. He was hoping that all his work would end in success and prosperity.
Here’s the thing about that coaster, not only does it shame the hope that is already there it implies over the top effort that feels like changing the outcome when in fact the outcome is the same either way. If a merchant is waiting for a ship to come into harbor where the markets are, what good is there in swimming out to the ship? The markets aren’t in the ocean, they’re on land. If the merchant did swim out to the ship, he would still have to ride with the ship into the harbor in order to get to the real end, which is the markets. It seems like a poor use of energy to me.
Isn’t that how we treat hope though? We do the work, “make it happen,” but we can’t rest in the hope and feel like we need to do more and more until we’re exhausted and wet, splayed out on a ship deck useless to ourselves and the ship’s crew. Why do we shame hope? I think it may be that when hope has died in your heart the hope of others causes pain where that hope used to be. So we shame the hope in others to make it go away so that pain goes away.
In Lamentations chapter 3 the prophet Jeremiah tells God about the hardships in his life, how nothing went the way he hoped and his life had been one of strife and darkness. The end of the heartbreaking list ends with, “You have moved my soul far from peace; I have forgotten prosperity; and I said, ‘My strength and my hope have perished from the LORD.’” He goes on a little more and talks about the ache left in his heart from this loss of hope, “My soul still remembers and sinks within me.” (Lam. 3:17-18, 20 NKJV) When he remembers hope and his lost hope it reminds his soul, and sinks his heart.
Jeremiah lived during the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. It was an agonizing time, and his life was full of anguish. Some would say he had the right to shame other’s hope into perishing along with his own. But Jeremiah does something completely different. He lets go of his old empty hopes and decides to take up eternal hope in the LORD. “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:21-23 NKJV)
Jeremiah goes onto write about the riches he has in God. His life may have been full of dust and darkness but his portion is untouched because he chooses the LORD as his portion. He talks about how the LORD is good to those who wait for Him. Even if you end up alone and silent waiting on the LORD, it is a good life and God will come with His salvation and mercy. (Lam. 3:24-29)
I know very little about biblical Hebrew, but I know that often the Hebrew word for “wait” is the same word for “hope.” So when you’re waiting on the LORD it isn’t passive, you’re waiting with active hope. When you’re hope is in the LORD it isn’t empty, He will come through; you only need wait for it to happen.
Why did Jeremiah choose hope in the face of despair? Why didn’t he just give into the darkness in his life? I think he knew, “[The LORD is] my hiding place and my shield; I hope in Your word. Depart from me you evildoers, for I will keep the commandments of my God! Uphold me according to Your word, that I may live; and do not let me be ashamed of my hope.” (Ps. 119:114-116 NKJV) Jeremiah would have been familiar with the Psalms; and he knew, like David, he could trust the word of God. If he could just hold onto his hope, hold onto God in his heart, God would be his shield and hiding place in the midst of his trouble. If he let go of his hope in the LORD not only would his hope perish, but he would perish as well. So Jeremiah chose to remember who God is and find hope in His character.
I also want to point out that David was aware of how damaging shame can be to our hope. He prays outright, “Do not let me be ashamed of my hope.” (vs. 116) David knew he couldn’t let others tear down his hope in the LORD. Once he was ashamed of his hope he would be ashamed of his salvation, of God Himself; and if he were to lose all that out of shame, he would be lost. David knew the beginning domino of a downward spiral pattern was the loss of hope.
Paul talked about this in Romans, “Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:5 ESV) The RSV translates “put to shame” as “disappoint.” This shows us how David and Jeremiah could look trouble in the face and say, “I will not lose hope, I will not be ashamed.” They knew that a hope in God is a hope that will not be disappointed. Only now we have the advantage of being filled with the Holy Spirit so even as we are hoping in the LORD we are filled with His love and His Spirit.
Paul doesn’t say this lightly, in fact the verses leading up to verse 5 address how we should handle hardship in our lives. Paul sets this up by reminding the Roman church what they have through Jesus: justification by faith, peace with God, access to God through faith, grace you can stand on, a reason to rejoice, hope, and bring glory to God. He goes onto say, “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulations produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character hope.” (Rom. 5:3-4 NKJV) In my commentary it says because of what we have through Jesus our hope cannot be shaken by any hardship, but now that hardship that was meant to bring us down only strengthens our character. The hope that was meant to be extinguished only gets stronger.
Hardship and dark times still hurt. The bible never diminishes that, just read the Psalms. However, the bible doesn’t leave us in our hurt and darkness, it offers hope. The hope we have in Jesus, who was sent by a loving God. In order to raise us up out of the darkness of hardship and the former death it brought to our hopes and souls. But rather than perishing hope we have living hope, a resurrecting hope that won’t die because it is rooted in the living God and the resurrected Christ.
So when we, like Jeremiah, look back at the anguish in our lives and feel the pull of despair. We too can turn our faces toward the LORD and say, “The LORD is my portion, says my soul, therefore I hope in Him!” (Lam. 3:24 NKJV)
The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Francis Brown, D.D., D.Litt. With the cooperation of S. R. Driver, D. D., Litt.D. and Charles A. Briggs, D. D., D.Litt. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Peabody, Mass. Reprinted from the 1906 edition originally published by Houghton, Mifflin and Co., Boston. Twelfth printing – December 2008. Pages 403-404.
The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary On The Bible. Edited by Charles M. Laymon. Abingdon Press. Nashville and New York. 1971. Page 778.