Between the Straits: Dealing with Days of Distress

We all know times of distress and difficulty, when we’re caught in dire straits. The three weeks between the dates of 17th Tammuz and 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar are known as the time “בין המצרים” which means “between the straits” or in “dire straits”, and is taken from Lamentations 1:3;

Judah has gone into captivity,
Under affliction and hard servitude;
She dwells among the nations,
She finds no rest;
All her persecutors overtake her in dire straits. 

The phrase “between the straits” means to be forced to thread your way between grave dangers on both sides—like a ship trying to squeeze through a perilously narrow path and trying to avoid the almost inevitable shipwreck. Have you ever felt caught in this sort of situation? Israel certainly has once or twice! What hope does God’s word offer in perilous times?

As the people of Israel have often found ourselves in a fix. Without God’s miracles, Israel would have been wiped out many times over. The beginnings of the nation came from miracles of barren women conceiving, and the disaster of life-threatening famine was sidestepped by Joseph’s supernatural dreams when they were only a family of seventy. Moses survived the blanket killing of baby boys to go on to lead Israel in their remarkable escape through a sea, and then every attempt to destroy the nation has been thwarted, one way or another… Balaam, Balak, and the Amalekites, Haman, Herod, the Romans, pogroms, inquisitions and not even the Holocaust succeeded in putting an end to the Jewish people. The modern state of Israel has survived and even been victorious in the attacks waged against it from its very inception, due to many more miracles. But it’s astonishing how distress has often come upon the people of Israel exactly during these dates in the Jewish calendar.

Although we know from the Bible that more hard times are coming for Israel, we also know that God has promised a glorious future to look forward to. However, the period between the giving of the promise and its fulfillment can be extremely testing.

Iron in the soul

Psalm 105 gives us a potted history of Israel with all the twists, turns, dangers and rescues, but this verse in particular is reflecting on the predicament of Joseph, languishing in prison, waiting for his dreams to come true. It says,

“When he [God] summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him.” (v 16-19)

In some ways, the nation of Israel was “sent ahead” of the nations, a bit like Joseph, as part of God’s plan to procure salvation for all and teach the world his ways. But here’s the thing: This in-between waiting period, stuck between the straits, is hard. It hurts. Psalm 105 tells us that Joseph’s feet were hurt with fetters, and although different translations render this verse in a variety ways, the Hebrew actually seems to say that iron “went into his soul”. Painful. Strengthening, yes, but painful. There he was, in prison and in great pain, and stuck – until God’s promises came to pass.

What can be done in such a situation? Is there any comfort while we wait for promised deliverance? Of course there is.

We should not be surprised by trouble, since Yeshua warned we would certainly experience it. In fact, Yeshua promised that each day would have trouble all of its own! (Matthew 6:33). So we need the mercies of God that are new every morning in order to cope with the new day’s troubles. God’s people across the world in many different countries and situations find themselves ‘between the straits’; in times of suffering before the breakthrough comes. Thousands suffer terribly for their faith. One such person was Richard Wurmbrand – a Messianic Jew who was imprisoned by the Communists in Romania for his faith for fifteen years. He told of a “tea” to take in times of trouble and pain. Here is his recipe—six ingredients to help deal with days of distress:

The first herb is called contentedness: be satisfied with what you have. I may shiver in my rags as I gnaw on a crust, but how much worse off I should be if they had thrown me naked into a dungeon with nothing at all to eat!

The second herb is common sense. Whether I rejoice or worry, I shall still be in prison, so why repine?

The third is remembrance of past sins: count them, and on the supposition that every sin deserves a day in prison, reckon how many lives you would spend behind bars—you have been let off lightly!

The fourth is the thought of the cross – the sorrows which Messiah bore gladly for us. If the only man who ever could choose his fate on earth chose pain, what great value He must have seen in it! So we observe that, borne with serenity and joy, suffering redeems.

The fifth herb is the knowledge that suffering has been given to us by God as from a father, not to harm us, but to cleanse and sanctify us. The suffering through which we pass has the purpose of purifying us, and preparing us for heaven.

The sixth is the knowledge that no suffering can harm a believer’s life. If the pleasures of the flesh are all, then pain and prison bring an end to a man’s aim in living; but if the core of life is truth, that is something which no prison cell can change. In prison or out of it two and two make four. Prison cannot stop me from loving; iron bars cannot exclude faith. If these ideals make up my life, I can be serene anywhere. Even in God’s underground.

The last herb in the recipe is hope. The wheel of life may put the emperor’s physician in prison, but it goes on turning. It may put me back into the palace, and even put me on the throne.

“I have drunk barrels of this tea,” Wurmbrand assures us, “and I can recommend it to you all. It has proved good.”

This last ingredient of hope is so important. Although it’s pretty much impossible to escape suffering, we do experience times and seasons that turn and change. Fifteen years is a long time to be stuck and tortured in prison, but Richard Wurmbrand was eventually released, and went on to lead a very fruitful ministry. A passage that I find encouraging is this respect is Isaiah 28:23-29, where we are rhetorically asked, will God thresh forever? The answer being “No!”

“Give ear, and hear my voice; give attention, and hear my speech. Does he who ploughs for sowing plough continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him. Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin, but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cumin with a rod. Does one crush grain for bread? No, he does not thresh it for ever; when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it. This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”

It is true that we will suffer trials and we should not be surprised about that, but we can know that nothing is wasted, and that God uses hard events to purify our lives. We can also have hope that it will not last forever. Ultimately, we will be with him and he will wipe every tear from our eyes. We see also in the book of Lamentations, the saddest book in the Bible, that the message of hope is still there, despite the harshest of suffering:

This I recall to my heart— therefore I have hope:
Because of the mercies of Adonai we will not be consumed, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning! Great is Your faithfulness.
Adonai is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in Him.”
 Adonai is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him.
It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of Adonai.

We are to have faith, hope and love even in the darkest hour, not allow ourselves to plunge into fear, despair and contempt as our heart gets embittered. There is always hope with God. Sometimes its hard to wait for the fulfillment of God’s word, and we can feel a bit like Joseph – sitting stuck in darkness, just waiting for promises given long ago to come to pass. But take heart, God will fulfill all promises to Israel, and to you, just as surely as morning comes after the nighttime.

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