How does God redeem tragedy? Is there a higher plan? Can terrible events and situations ever contain the seeds of a greater good? How can we respond so as to move forward with God’s work in the earth? How can we guard against disillusionment? How can we encourage others who are walking through nightmares of sickness and devastation?
The annual observance of the Ninth of Av holds some answers to these questions. The ninth day of the month of Av generally falls in July or August. In 2021, it’s July 18. This day, ironically, has been the date of many of Jewish history’s most tragic events. Tisha B’Av has become a watchword that represents death, tragedy, expulsion, destruction. On this day there are solemn prayers, mourning and contemplation. Here are a few of the immense disasters that befell our people, all on the same calendar day:
The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, on the 9th of Av in 586 BCE. It was accompanied by the slaughter of an estimated 250,000 Jews. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans on the 9th of Av in 70 CE; and subsequently the Jews experienced world-wide dispersion. The expulsion of the Jews from England took place on the 9th of Av in 1290, and they did not return for nearly 400 years. Ferdinand and Isabella may have knowingly chosen the 9th of Av, 1492, as the deadline for all of the Jews in Spain to leave or be executed. And while not strictly Jewish, the carnage of World War I (which began on the 9th of Av, 1914) paved the way for the upheavals that brought about the Holocaust.
Jeremiah’s Lamentations and God’s Compassions
One key to unlock the redeeming message inside Tisha B’Av is the eventual outcome of these catastrophes. After the First Temple was dismantled by the Babylonians, the nation received the enduring prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which are coming true in our lifetime, more than 2500 years later! “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please” (Isaiah 55:11).
Another key is found in the Book of Lamentations. Traditionally read on the Ninth of Av, the book is named for the anguished mourning and soul-searching provoked by the Babylonian conquest. Though his name is not mentioned, scholars agree that the prophet Jeremiah authored these five tear-soaked chapters. Eicha, the first word, sets the mood. It’s a term of intense, poignant emphasis. How much! How unbearable! “How lonely sits the city that was full of people” (1:1). “How the Lord has covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger” (2:1). “How the gold has become dim … the stones of the sanctuary are scattered” (4:1).
Jeremiah is said to have been an eyewitness to Jerusalem’s destruction. Lamentations carries an overwhelming sense of loss – grieving both the end of Jerusalem’s glorious Temple and the onset of forced exile. Yet in the midst of Lamentations God inserts assurance of His goodness, love and faithfulness. As if written for everyone who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, these words are the Lord’s response to the struggling, disillusioned victim of tragedy. His answer cuts off the lies that God is fickle, unavailable or uncaring.
Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him. (Lamentations 3:22-25)
He Gives Beauty for Ashes
In God’s vocabulary resurrection is a theme that must follow destruction and death. The Amidah, the backbone prayer of Jewish liturgy, declares repeatedly that God is He who “gives life to the dead.” Ezekiel’s immortal vision of the Valley of Dry Bones comes immediately to mind. And when we consider the emergence of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the prophecy’s imagery is positively arresting.
The story of Israel is clearly one of death and resurrection. The message of Tisha B’Av is not that all ends in death, destruction and despair. It is rather that, instead of giving us the judgment our rebellion deserves, the God of Abraham is merciful and will not abandon us to ourselves. His compassions are new every morning!
Even while warning Jerusalem of impending doom Jeremiah preached about the return from exile and the rebirth of the land. How could he possibly agonize over imminent war, rape and famine – and believe for joyful restoration at the same time? We could use some of Jeremiah’s prophetic insight and trust in God’s goodness! Here’s a sample, recorded from a prison cell: “Call to me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know … Behold, I will bring … health and healing … the abundance of peace and truth. And I will cause the captives of Judah and the captives of Israel to return and will rebuild those places as at the first” (Jeremiah 33:3,6,7).
Our Destiny is to Carry Out Jeremiah’s Prophecies
I believe the Spirit of God so inhabited and energized Jeremiah that he manifested both aspects of God’s character … justice and mercy. What’s more, we are the direct inheritors and beneficiaries of his prophecies. As such, we have a profound destiny to carry out the rest of Jeremiah’s prophecies.
The question is not “Can we find the anti-Semitism reflected in Tisha B’Av?” The world has plenty, and yes, it’s growing. The question is: what can we do to bring beauty for ashes? I want my life to count for Israel’s redemption. The heaviness of our past is all around us. The threats of the present are reported by the hour. It takes no faith, courage or love of God to sink into depression over our oppressors – past or present. But laying hold of the grace of God to witness resurrection – that’s what will make a difference in the history that’s about to be written.
I once tried to raise a man from the dead. Though I didn’t succeed, I’m not at all sorry I attempted it. I wish with all my heart he had got up. But at least I battled while weeping. Challenging the weight of unbelief, the wall that separates our people from the life of God in Messiah, is like raising a dead person. It’s no stroll in the park. There’s a tidal wave of intimidation facing us. It’s gut-wrenching, bloody, sweaty, grimy personal and corporate spiritual warfare.
Our response to Tisha B’Av has to be “No way! I’m not going to stand by passively while the devil beats up on my people, denying them entrance to the Kingdom of God, when the whole thing started here in Israel in the first place.” At the same time that sense of righteous, bold indignation has to be matched by an entirely radical submission to God. “You are not your own, you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19,20). “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). We are bought; we are sent. We bow before our Maker/Master, yielding our all to Him because He is worthy.
There is a resurrection taking place. We have been chosen to be active participants. For that reason we can say, even on Tisha B’Av, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. To the end that my glory may sing praise unto you and not be silent” (Psalm 30:11,12).