Every time I read this passage in Psalm 38:17, my mind goes back many years to a still, quiet evening in Germany. I was at Bergen-Belsen, almost by accident, as I was in the area on business with a largely free evening. There, in the peaceful surroundings of rural farmland, I came across those verses, engraved on a white limestone slab from Jerusalem, which had been placed there on the occasion of a visit by Chaim Herzog, at the time the President of Israel.
My sorrow is continually before me
Every time I read this passage in Psalm 38:17, my mind goes back many years to a still, quiet evening in Germany. I was at Bergen-Belsen, almost by accident, as I was in the area on business with a largely free evening. There, in the peaceful surroundings of rural farmland, I came across those verses, engraved on a white limestone slab from Jerusalem, which had been placed there on the occasion of a visit by Chaim Herzog, at the time the President of Israel. At the unveiling ceremony in 1987 he said:
“I only pray we in Israel will prove worthy of the sacrifice… grief is felt not as a perpetual hatred, not as barren, paralyzing hostility, but a call to understand the depths to which a human soul can sink and a call to rise above them. I do not bring forgiveness with me, nor forgetfulness. The only ones who can forgive are dead; the living have no right to forget.”
In fact, it was not the first time Chaim had been at Bergen-Belsen: as a young British lieutenant he had been present a few days after its liberation in 1945. So, 42 years later, he returned, a sign indeed of the growing strength of the relationship between Israel and Germany. And he erected this simple memorial, in front of which I stood, quite alone. My thoughts and respect for the 50,000 Jews who died there almost overwhelmed me. Many are still there, in the mounds of the mass graves, and among these anonymous bones are those of Anne Frank, perhaps one of the most famous casualties of the Holocaust.
My wife and I often usher at the local live theater, and quite frankly we usually have no prior idea of the subject of the play. So I settled down to watch a play, of which I knew the title only after the play was introduced. It was “And Then They Came For Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank.” It is a multimedia play that weaved videotaped interviews of Holocaust survivors, Eva Schloss and Ed Silverberg, with live actors, recreating scenes from World War 2. Eva Schloss features prominently: she is actually the stepsister of Anne Frank, as her mother married the widowed father of Anne Frank. Her father did not survive, nor did the mother of Anne Frank.
However, that was not all. At the close of the play, when the audience normally heads rapidly for the exit, an older lady walked onto the stage, quite unexpectedly, and we were introduced to Eva Schloss. As I listened to her accounts of those days, the reality of the terrors of old came home to me quite forcefully. As the ranks of the survivors of the Holocaust dwindle, we do need to remember the horrors of the time, and the way these horrors were primarily responsible for the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948.
The relevance to us
To return to the phrase “My sorrow is continually before me,” the title of Psalm 38 is “A Psalm of David, to bring to remembrance.” Quite apart from its obvious relevance to both the memorial offering, and the acknowledgment of our personal sins, as we read these words we must be reminded of the place of the Jewish nation in the purpose of God. And of the truth of the words of Chaim —
“This is a call to rise above the depths to which humans can sink. The sorrow of our trials and tribulations sometimes threaten to overwhelm us, and sometimes we do not understand the reason for these adversities. But, as David did, we acknowledge our need for God’s mercy: ‘Forsake me not, O Lord: O my God, be not far from me. Make haste to help me, O Lord my salvation’ ” (Psa 38:21-22).
Few of us have to experience the depth of sorrow of those who lost relatives in the Holocaust. But we see the outworking of God’s purpose every day as the land of Israel continuously dominates the news. We must never forget that this is a clear sign of the sureness of the return of our Lord, and to communicate this to our friends, colleagues, and indeed all those with whom we have the opportunity to discuss our faith. There are many occasions we can use, and topics of conversation, to make clear our belief in the reality of God working in the world today. I had no idea that I was going to hear from a Holocaust survivor when I went to see the play — but her presence and her words were a strong reminder to me of the often mysterious workings of God in our lives, and in the survival of the nation of Israel.
We do not often focus on the miracle of the survival of the nation of the Jews. Their history over the last two millennia is replete with persecution, banishment, and worse. Very few nations ever permitted their Jews to reside in peace: they were banished from England in AD 1290, and not re-admitted until AD 1656. Banished from many other countries, Eastern Europe was for many centuries a place of refuge, until the advent of World War 2, the events of which so largely facilitated the establishment of the modern State of Israel. The pride that many English express in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, significant though it was, must be counter-balanced by the reluctance of the British to permit the re-settlement of Jews during their mandate.
So as the events of the Middle East work out in ways we find hard to understand, the only certainty we have is that the Jewish nation still has a significant part to play in the affairs of the world. Whether President Obama will succeed in establishing a lasting peace in the Middle East is not easy to predict with any certainty. We only have to think back a generation, when it was almost an accepted tenet among Christadelphians that Britain would not (and many said could not) join the European Economic Community (EEC). Based as it was on the identification of Europe as part of the “Beast of the Earth,” many still look for signs that Britain will sever ties with the EEC. All we can be sure about is that our God is truly in charge of the affairs of man — and that indeed His ways are unsearchable.
But the persistence of the Jewish nation, and the widespread presence of Jews in North America, are a remarkable proof of the power of prophecy — for the restoration of the Jewish nation is one of the linchpins of our faith. It was primarily because of his realization of the importance of the Hope of Israel that John Thomas was re-baptized in 1847, which really marked the start of the existence of our community. So as we see and meet the Jews among whom we live, their very existence demonstrates the power of God. (I thought there were a significant number of Jews in the county where I live — and indeed there are, to the tune of 70,000+, or 6.5% of the population. But this is dwarfed by Manhattan, New York, with 300,000+, or 20% of the population.)
In the last analysis, the fate of the Jews is almost too much for the world’s conscience. Even with our Scriptural insight, we may find the judgments visited upon the Jews still hard to comprehend. Paul, it seems, found God’s dealings with Israel beyond description: in a chapter dealing with the fall of Israel — and their grafting in again — he concludes: “How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Rom 11:20–33). The way in which the Jewish nation has persisted is equally mysterious, but is also strong evidence of the outworking of his plan and purpose.
Unlike some other magazines, The Tidings has no section on “Signs of the Times.” But this does not mean we should be unaware of the work of our Heavenly Father in the affairs of men — and keenly follow the events of the world around us, especially as they relate to the Nation of Israel.