Hope on a Rope
By Anthony Casperson
My internal monologue scoffed. “‘Don’t give up hope. Things will get better.’ Ha! There you go, making promises when you’re not sure. Things could get worse, or never change in this life. Then your words are just empty promises that could lead people to lose faith in the sure promises of God.” I sat there listening to a sermon, a good sermon, filled with the truth of God. People going “amen” and nodding. Growing excited at words, words very similar to ones that I have preached in my own sermons, because that’s what we want.
We want our present circumstances to change. Whether it’s overcoming a habitual sin, growing in our own spiritual discipline, or overcoming trauma and abuse, we seek change. We look for and expect change from our present, grim, dark, nasty circumstances and call that hope.
Listening to that sermon, my mind reached for more. “What about people who have (or believe they have) no chance of changing their present circumstances? What about the child who just got diagnosed with an untreatable life-threatening disease who’ll never see their next birthday? What about the soldier who just returned from war after having his legs blown off who’ll never walk again? What about the woman who was so abused that permanent physical damage was done who’ll never be able to give birth to her own children? What about the person so racked with the darkness of fallen humanity who has failed every time they’ve tried to get out of the depths who’ll never want to try again? What does hope look like for them?”
Sure, for those of us who are followers of Jesus, there is the hope of the fullness of the kingdom of God, when all things will be set right and be perfect. No disease, no bodily impairment, no abuse, no darkness. But how does that knowledge, that type of hope, help in the present? Is there not a present sense of hope? Is it all future-focused? Would that not lead to a nihilistic view of the present that might just lead some to contemplate suicide, just so that the present suffering can give way to the future hope of the full revelation of the Kingdom of God? I want to say “No” because theologically I know that such thoughts are not of God, but that seems to be where the path leads if hope is merely an expectation of future change.
And here comes the kicker, if hope truly is only future-focused, and the greatest hope that we, as followers of Jesus, have is for the coming of the fullness of the Kingdom of God, then does that mean once the Kingdom has come in it’s fullness, we no longer have hope? Do we become hopeless because there’s nothing left to hope for?
Could the Kingdom really be a place with no hope because there is nothing that could make our then-present circumstances change for the better? If the fullness of the Kingdom of God is the most we could ever want, what else is there to make better? If there’s no expectation of future change, and that is our working definition of hope, then hope would cease once the greatest hope of all humanity is realized.
But scripture shows us otherwise. One passage we usually go to in order to speak of love, also shows that hope is something that will remain forever. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of how much greater love is than even the use of our spiritual giftedness. He says that these things will pass away, but love will not subside. And not only love, verse 13 says that faith, hope, and love will remain. Though love is the greatest of the three, none of these will pass away. Never will faith, hope, and love cease to be. The universe would disappear before these three things would cease to exist.
Thus, hope is just as eternal as the love of God. So this means that hope must continue even after the fullness of the Kingdom of God has come. It must continue in some form after our circumstances no longer need to be changed, and expectation for future change has ceased. This means there has to be some sense in the Kingdom of God where hope is in the present sense. And if it’s true at the time of the fullness of the Kingdom of God, it must be true now as we live in the “now, but not yet” of the Kingdom of God.
My thoughts led me on a quest to discover the present sense of hope as described in the bible. But before we journey through scripture to see the present sense of hope, I want to make sure that it’s clear that in no way is the future-focused, expectation-of-future-change understanding of hope to be denigrated or denied. It still stands true and is present for those whom God wills to have their present circumstances changed. But it’s not the full descriptor of the word “hope” and is not to be used as a discouragement to those whom God has led to a place where change is not going to, or be likely to, happen.
In my quest I have found three images that could help us more fully understand the present sense of hope: rope, refuge, and water. (Yes, I could’ve been alliterative and said “rope, refuge, and river,” but that seemed trite.)
As I began researching the present sense hope, I ironically had little hope of discovering my quarry until after extended weeks of researching. Little did I know that God had set a tripwire that caught me completely off guard in my very first moments of searching.
Looking at one of the words translated as “hope” in the Old Testament (tiqveh) led me first to Josh. 2:18, 21.
In this passage, we see Joshua had sent spies into the city of Jericho to discover it’s secrets before the Israelites took over the city. The spies met Rahab, a prostitute who helped them escape from searching guards. As reward for her helping the Israelites, she and her family would be spared. The method of recognition of this righteous woman and her family would be a scarlet thread/rope.
For those of you who immediately turned to the references, read the verses, and didn’t find the English word “hope” there, yes those are the right verses. I, too, read those verses and tried to figure out where the hope was. When I realized that the word for “hope” was translated as “rope/thread” here, I had to figure out what was going on with this word.
So I looked at the verb (qavah) from which this word derived and discovered that I wasn’t the only one who had to wrestle with this use of the word. The general definition is “to wait for” but it seems that there was an earlier meaning “to twist, stretch.” Thus, it seems that the basic thought was something along the lines of multiple strands that were twisted into a rope. But the concept of tension in a rope that endured through the stress of pulling became the predominant idea. And this thought is even further shown in the Aramaic word from the same root that has a definition of “to be strong.”
It’s like Solomon’s metaphor in Ecclesiastes 4:12 saying that a threefold cord is not easily broken in reference to being stronger when we work together. (This word is not of the qavah root, but it is still a similar image.) Hope is not some ethereal, out-there-in-the-clouds, butterflies-and-rainbows type of word. It’s strong. It’s enduring. It’s confident.
This confidence is shown in Job 4:6. Amazingly, it comes from the mouth of one of Job’s unhelpful friends, but truth can be spoken even in the midst of unhelpful advice. Eliphaz asks Job a question, “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?” In Hebrew poetry, parallelism is often the method of artistically giving the point of the poet. Thus, when Eliphaz asks basically the same question twice in a row, he is putting confidence and hope in parallel. He’s equating the two. Hope is a true type of confidence.
Later in Job 19:10, Job finds himself feeling like he has lost confidence in God being on his side. He says that God has pulled his hope up like a tree. Even the deep roots of a tree, the confidence of standing firm in the earth, have been pulled up because of Job’s present circumstances. The confidence he had in God is now growing thin. The rope is beginning to fray in Job’s mind. However later in the book, Job shows that his confidence had not been completely lost, and he still held firm to God and his steadfast love.
I imagine it similar to a rope crossing a swiftly flowing river that aids people trying to cross the river. As long as the person crossing doesn’t let go of the rope, they won’t be swept away while the river rages against them. They might be swept off of their feet, they might nearly drown, but the confidence in the rope keeps them from being completely swept away. That is where Job was. And that’s where we can often be. The difference between we who have confidence in God and those being pulled downstream is that God’s “rope” is his true, steadfast love. It’s holding onto us more than we are holding on to it.
God’s love gives us hope. His unending love holds onto us securely. In Psalm 52, David asks why his enemies boast in their evil. He knows God’s love for his beloved David will take down the enemies seeking to destroy him. As the Psalm nears an end, he says “I trust in the steadfast love of God.” God’s sure love gives him confidence. And he can act as if the deliverance has already happened because God’s love is sure, even though at the moment David doesn’t see any sort of possible way for deliverance to happen. He waits for, hopes in, stands in confidence because of God’s name and his love.
This helps us understand the 1 Cor. 13 passage where faith, hope, and love are combined. God’s love gives us a secure hope. The two are inseparable because the one flows out to the other. And faith is the confidence of hope given flesh. Heb. 11:1 says that faith is the reality of things hoped for. Thus, faith is hope made real. Faith is hope enfleshed.
Romans 5:2-6 continues this train of thought while adding even more to the understanding. It calls us to rejoice in our sufferings because it is in our sufferings that endurance, character, and hope are built. We are able to, in faith, rejoice in God’s love because of the hope, character, and endurance built up in us through God’s enduring love. Faith, hope, and love are eternal because they are all eternally building into each other. This threefold cord is strong enough to never be broken.
Our hope in God strengthens us in a similar fashion. Those who hope in, wait for, and are confident in God “shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31). Hope, in a present sense, is not just about us keeping hold of the rope, but the rope holding onto us and strengthening our grip on it.
David uses waiting for God as bookends circling around a call to be strong and let our hearts take courage in Ps. 27:14. And he repeats the same idea (minus one bookend) in Ps. 31:24. Hope strengthens us to endure with confidence. We’re strengthened so that we can be trained in God’s ways.
Paul writes in 1 Tim. 4:8 that training in godliness is always valuable because “it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (emphasis mine) adding in verse 10 that we strive for godliness because we have set our hope on God. Present, confident hope gives us the strength to endure the many trials on our way to godliness. And this godliness comes regardless of whether or not we believe a change from our present circumstances will ever come.
Jeremiah came to understand this as he saw the destruction of Jerusalem that he had prophesied come to pass. He speaks in Lam. 3 from a place of sorrow as the great city comes to
destruction and he is continually reminded of his present circumstance. He cries out in verse 18 saying that his endurance has died and his hope as well. Yet he also remembers that God’s steadfast love never ceases. It comes continually, every morning. Because of the confidence in God’s character, there is reason to have confident hope (Lam. 3:21). Though here in Lamentations, this sense of the loss of God’s favor comes because of sin that led them to this punishment, it’s applicable in all circumstances. Hope is focused on the confidence that God’s mercy, his steadfast love, remains no matter the circumstance. We have it now. We don’t need to wait for God’s love and mercy.
And it stays the same regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We’re able to remain confident and strong in the present hope of God. Our hope is as steadfast as God’s love because like a well-built rope, it will remain strong no matter what pulls on it.
The confidence of a rope is not the only image of hope found in the bible. Hope is also able to be seen as a refuge. Again, we see one of Job’s unhelpful friends give truth in the midst of their bad advice. Job 11:18 has Zophar poetically speaking of hope as resting in security. Zophar could see that Job felt like he was getting tossed around in a storm. He was drenched and cold in the midst of a torrential downpour. What Job needed was a safe place, a refuge. He needed out of the storm. The problem was, Job felt like his refuge had been taken away. And Zophar’s attempt at showing Job how to get back to the refuge did not lead him to the security of God, but rather made him feel unheard. Job needed to be brought to the only refuge.
Job could’ve very much echoed the words David wrote many centuries later in Psalm 62. David speaks of himself as beaten like a leaning wall or a tottering fence. He was ready to fall
over, beaten down and broken, but he knew that his place was not out by himself standing alone as the battering ram of his enemies came bearing down on him. He didn’t have to be the wall for his own safety. God was there as the refuge taking the attacks of his enemies as they crashed wave upon wave.
God is the only one capable of standing up to the offense of the enemy. And he takes pleasure in doing this. Psalm 147:10-11 shows us that God doesn’t take pleasure in our ever-wearying strength, but in those who know their only security is in the ever-loving strength of God. He is all-powerful and takes pleasure in using his strength to show his love for those who take refuge in him. Those walls surrounding us are his mighty arms embracing us.
His love keeps us anchored to him in security. In Heb. 6, the author uses Abraham as an example of one who took refuge in God’s security. While the hope led to a future change, it was presently anchored in the very person of God. He swore his oath by himself. None but God could be the one with whom Abraham dwelt securely as he anchored in the midst of a great big sea of nothing but danger. Ultimately, the completion of that promise comes in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. But until then our refuge is anchored in the person of Jesus, the final fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to be a father to many nations. We who run to the refuge of Jesus have a secure hope, right now, anchoring us to the embodiment of God’s love.
Jesus himself, enfleshed in humanity, dwelt securely in the refuge of the Father. Peter speaks of this secure hope in Acts 2 by quoting from Psalm 16. While David wrote the psalm seeking the secure refuge of God from his earthly enemies, Peter uses it of Jesus seeking secure refuge from the final enemy, death itself. No matter the circumstances, seeking our secure refuge in God leads to joy, even on the face of death.
Paul lived out the example of Jesus as he wrote in Philippians 1. Facing the possibility of death, Paul seeks the refuge of God, not to have a change from his expected demise, but that Christ is honored no matter what happens. Though Paul wants to keep living so that he can continue to preach the gospel, his desire is that Jesus will be honored even if his life comes to an end. His hope is secure because he knows that the Kingdom of God will continue to grow even if he is martyred for the cause of Jesus.
Our hope isn’t dependant upon our circumstances, it’s based off of the security of God and the promises of his word. Psalm 119 praises God and his word. God’s word, his law, is the refuge in which David finds his hope (vv. 43,49). Verse 74 says that our hope can make others rejoice. As we stand longing for the salvation of God (v. 81) others can learn what it means to be found in the refuge of God.
The strength of God in our lives, even as our circumstances remain the same, is shown through our weakness, causing those who also seek the security of God to rejoice. They rejoice not because of our withstanding the storm, but because they know there is a refuge that can stand in the midst of their own storms. God can shield them from their own circumstances just as he is doing for us (v. 114).
The refuge might help us withstand the storm and allow our circumstances to change, but there is no promise that it will come before the fullness of the Kingdom of God. And certainly there is no promise it’ll come quickly. God promises the people of Israel that he has a future and a hope for them (Jer. 29:11). He wants to give them peace, rest, and wholeness, but it will take a long time. In this case, it takes 70 years to find the fulfillment of this promise. For many, that means it’s not until the time of their children, as seen in Jer. 31:17. God promised a change for the Israelites’ children. They would return to the Promised Land, but the people given the promise still had a present sense of hope. Their refuge was dwelling with God even in the midst of their suffering.
The thing about dwelling securely in the refuge of God is that we are always with him. There’s no separation if we truly seek his arms. Our hope rests securely in his loving presence.
Though there are several words translated as “hope” found throughout the bible, the words branching out from the qavah verb are by far the most varying and interesting. Not only does the idea of a rope come from it, but also a collection of water. When God creates the world, calling for the waters to gather so that the dry land has a place to exist in Gen. 1:9-10, he uses the verb and a noun built off of it. The gathering together, the collecting, of these many waters formed the seas and oceans.
In a human attempt to perform a similar task, the gathering of water into cisterns, or man-made wells, also show us this type of gathering of water (Ex. 7:19; Lev. 11:36). Through various methods, water is diverted into the cisterns. For what purpose? To make sure that there is the necessary, life-giving water ready for all who thirst.
Even in a drought, having a well-stocked cistern (or even better a great river flowing beside the city) gives a sure hope of living. And what better surety do we have in the midst of a spiritual drought than God himself?
Jeremiah specifically uses this image as he calls upon God in Jer. 14. Verse 1 tells us it was during a drought, one big enough to be called “the drought.” There had been no rain. Their cisterns had run dry. As a physical representation of their spiritual place, Jeremiah says it was because of their forsaking God. They had run from the source of hope and lost the surety of their lives. He calls God the “hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble” in verse 8. Jeremiah knows that it’s only in God that we can find the life-giving, sure water of hope.
He continues this image of God in Jer. 17:7-13. Like a tree planted beside water, those who trust in God, have a sure hope. No tree near a mighty river fears the drought. Its roots run deep into the water. In Israel there are two different kinds of flowing water. There are the rivers that flow year-round that do not run dry even during the driest of dry seasons, and then there is this type called a “wadi.”
A wadi is a riverbed that only holds water during the wet season, when the snow in the high mountains thaws. That water runs down, but will run dry again long before the dry season reaches its zenith. A person holding onto the sure hope of God is like a tree beside the year-round river. Hope isn’t the wadi that disappears when its needed most. It’s the river that remains even in the driest of dire circumstances.
Jeremiah contrasts those who trust in the hope of God with those who forsake God for the things of this earth. They are like a mother bird who gathers her eggs that will never hatch, hoping for life that will never come. Calling God once again the hope of Israel, Jeremiah speaks of the shame of those who forsake God. They have forsaken the fountain of living water. When we turn from God, when we forsake the sure hope of God we trade life for death. It’s only when we seek the life-giving water of God are we promised the surety of life in the present. It’s only then that we have the hope of the surety of the permanence of God’s promise.
Speaking of how the ministry of righteousness has far greater glory than the ministry of condemnation, Paul writes in 2 Cor. 3:12 that we can be bold in the permanence of the glory of God and his word. He calls to mind the time of Moses when he stood before God on the mountain receiving the law. We don’t have to veil our faces like Moses did to hide the physical manifestation of God’s glory. We stand in sure hope, in the permanence of the glory of God shining forth for all to see the reality of the hope within us. The reality of the year-round river beside which we stand.
There is no equal to the glory of God that we can shine forth. David understood this when he prepared his son Solomon to build the temple to God in 2 Chr. 29. Though he had desired for a great and glorious building that was meant as an act of worship for all who had a piece in its construction, he knew it was nothing in comparison to the glory of God.
David could look at the all of the physical pieces, all of the gold, silver, etc., and know that the reality of God’s glory was so much greater. He says that we are like shadows and there is no hope. We and our deeds are not a true substance in comparison to God and his deeds. David understood that the temple would be nothing more than the shadow of the true throne room of God. He stood humbled in the midst of the reality of God from whom flows the sure hope giving us life through his deeds.
Though using the image of a slightly different life-giving liquid, David also calls all Israel (and us through extension) in Ps. 131 to hope in the Lord like a weaning child at its mother’s breast. The sure peace and calm that comes when a mother rests with her child safely in her arms is what we see here. David knows there’s so much more to the world that could cause harm and chaos, but he seeks the hope of a sure, life-giving embrace of God. The circumstances elsewhere might be dire, there might be death all around, but in the embrace of God there is a surety like a tree bearing fruit beside a river.
Bearing fruit is the purpose of hope. Our hope isn’t just so we can hold on long enough to emerge from the sufferings of this life. It’s so we can grow in our relationship with God, growing in him and his purposes. We are called to grow so that through our hope we might bear fruit.
My quest to discover the present sense of hope showed me a hope that is much more than I ever imagined. Hope is standing confidently in the security of God and the surety of his steadfast love. Though waters may rage, though storms may crash, though droughts might persist, God’s love is the rope, the refuge, and the water that gives us hope to cling to him in faith.
Yes, we can have hope that our present circumstances might change. Yes, we do have the hope of the coming of the fullness of the Kingdom of God. But even if our circumstances don’t change in this life, we definitely have hope that God is with us in the midst of our sufferings. His presence gives us the strength to continue even when we have no strength in ourselves to continue. His presence embraces us to protect us from the assault of the enemy, even when we feel all alone. His presence provides life to us even when death surrounds.
Our hope is God himself. He doesn’t leave us or forsake us. That is a sure promise. One that’s everlasting. When the fullness of the Kingdom of God comes, we won’t be hopeless because God will be there. Jesus, our savior who died for us to show us his love, will be there. Jesus will be the embodiment of hope dwelling among us. And he’s within each and every one of us who are his followers in the “now, but not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Let us live in the hope that will never lose us.