MERCY AND WORMWOOD
October 4, 1998 by Tad Mitsui
Instead of "the wormwood and the gall", which I just read, another translation of the Bible, the passage from the book of Lamentations, chapter 3 verse 19 had "the wormwood and poison". The difference surprised me because the one I read reminds me of how, when I was a child, my mother used to give me a tiny bit of black powder for indigestion. It was shavings from what was supposed to be "bear”s gallbladder", a dry black ball about the size of a golf ball. It was bitter. I hated it. "The thought of my affliction and homelessness is the wormwood and the gall." I looked it up in a book on herbal medicine, and sure enough, it says that a gall bladder produces bile which is good for breaking up hard-to-digest fat in the stomach. I am not sure if it was really a bear”s gallbladder that my mother gave me, but it sure was expensive medicine. There were stories of people selling pieces of property in order to buy "bear”s gallbladder" many years ago. So I looked up "wormwood" also in the book on herbal medicine. It says that dried wormwood has been used as a traditional remedy for indigestion. It is also very bitter. Bitterness seems to help digest food: an interesting idea, isn”t it? And one that gives the passage from Lamentations a very different meaning.
The Book of Lamentations is a book of mourning. The author was bitter about the demise of the Jewish nation, which was defeated by the Babylonian army. He spoke about the desolation of Jerusalem. He spoke about the city of Jerusalem as though it was once a proud princess who completely lost her former glory and dignity. She had had many admirers but now none of them could comfort her. Her friends turned out to be sellouts to the enemy. Even her own children deserted her. She was not just a princess of a defeated kingdom but became a slave of the former enemies. It is a book full of bitterness. Yet in the midst of all this grieving, the author remembers God”s mercy. He was reminding himself that there still was hope. He says "the thought of my affliction and my homelessness is the wormwood and the gall. God”s mercies are new every morning." It is bitter, but it is not poison. Instead, it is powerful medicine. And he sees plenty of hopeful signs in the midst of desolation and despair.
There are two periods in the history of the Jewish nation when they made a great leap forward in their spiritual journey. They spent forty excruciatingly difficult years in the desert after the liberation from slavery in Egypt. It was during those years, they were given the basic laws from God, and learned to live under the rule of law. They learned to live like a nation of decent human beings, and not like animals in the desert. That was how they survived as people. The second most important period was the 150 years when the leaders of the nation spent in captivity in Babylon. This period began with the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem, which the book of Lamentations was mourning about. It was a bitter experience. All the political and spiritual leaders, in fact anyone who could read, were expelled from their homeland and forced to live in Babylon. There, they were forbidden to use their language and were prohibited to practice their religion. The intention was to destroy the Jewish nation. When the spiritual tradition of the nation is lost, the nation loses its identity; the Babylonians knew that. But they didn”t succeed. The Jews did not lose their religion. They managed to keep the language through the Bible. In fact, it was during this period, the Jews collected the books on the laws of Moses, the Prophets, and other literature like poems, stories, and proverbs. Eventually they were bound together and became the Hebrew Bible – the present day Old Testament. The intention of the Babylonian captors completely failed. When the children of the captive Jews were allowed to return to Palestine, one of the teachers named Ezra took the collection of the Books and went back to Jerusalem. The Book, the Biblos in Greek, became the foundation of the faith of the Jewish nation. It was also the only Bible available to the early Christians for about four hundred years until the New testament was authorized as a part of the Bible by the Church. The Babylonian captivity was bitter medicine, but it was an effective medicine. It brought health back to the people and made them survive and thrive.
The God of the Bible is not one to praise the virtue of suffering. God does not want us to suffer. However, God does not stop it either. Often, suffering is caused by human failures and sin. God”s greatest gift to humans is freedom. So if humans choose the path of a sinful life, God does not stop them. God does not cause suffering but we do; for ourselves and for others. Suffering comes to everyone, just like rain falls on good people and bad people alike. The difference is: the faithful people never lose sight of the God”s mercy even in the midst of suffering, and find hope beyond. In other words, the faithful find strength to go through the difficulties, and are always able to praise God for his mercies at the end.
This is why the author of the Lamentations could sing the praises of God even in the midst of mourning the loss of a nation and the desolation of his beloved city. "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning." When I look at myself in the mirror in the morning, I see signs of my aging process. But perhaps, instead of mourning the loss of youth, I should say to myself "Tad, you look wiser today. Thank you, God." I should learn to love myself anew everyday, and gain strength to face a new chapter of my life.
It”s easy to feel bitterness over losses in our lives – whether that”s youth, or health, or glory. It is a very human response. But remember, bitterness can also be medicine for renewal. Instead of just mourning the loss and dwelling in bitterness, isn”t it also time to remember how merciful God has been throughout the good days and how sweet those days were? Then we realize that his love and mercy are new every morning, even today. We swallow our medicine, and thank God.