To read The God Who Suffers – Part 1 of this post click here.
To read The God Who Suffers – Part 2 of this post click here.
All these references (the ones mentioned at the end of Part 2) which indicate that God enters into the sufferings of his people are affirmed by the statement of a prophet who spoke out of the experience of exile: “In all their distress he too was distressed. . . . In his love and mercy he redeemed them” (Isaiah 63:9 NIV). An implication of the prophetic words is that Yahweh can and does participate in the suffering of the world, not only as one who causes it, but also as one who is affected by it.
The suffering of God in the Old Testament finds its finest expression in Hosea’s description of God’s heartbroken fatherly anguish over his prodigal child, Israel: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused” (Hosea 11:8 NIV).
The suffering of God is also expressed in the compassionate longing of a husband who desires reconciliation with his unfaithful wife.
Yahweh feels abandoned by Israel like a husband who is abandoned by his wife. The text reveals God as the one who was injured and offended by his unfaithful wife: “The Lord said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites’” (Hosea 3:1 NIV).
It is this picture of a suffering God who is intimately bound to his people which is the central focus of the Old Testament. This view of a God who suffers with, for, and because of his people is expressed throughout the Old Testament, especially in the messages of Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah.
The idea of a suffering God is especially true in the life and ministry of Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s personal pain and his compassion for the people find their source in the love of God for Israel. Jeremiah experienced God’s pain because of the rebellion of Israel and he tried to convey that reality to the people through his own grief and pain.
The God of the Old Testament is not absent from the world and is not detached from human affairs. God is intimately involved in the world and he chooses to enter into human history. God wills to be with humanity in bad as well as good times: “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey’” (Exodus 3:7-8 NIV).
As a result of his involvement with his creation, God participates in the misery of humanity. His pain for the world is never the sympathetic view of the uninvolved onlooker, but it is the genuine pain of one who is directly affected by the suffering of those who suffer and who takes upon himself the burden of the people. As Fretheim wrote (p. 39): “God is affected in many ways by what happens on earth.”
The opening speech in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:2-9) deals not with the anger of God, but with the sorrow of God; it deals with the plight of a father who has been abandoned by his children. Isaiah 5:1-7 provides an additional example of the pain of God because of the rebellion of Israel. The “Song of the Vineyard,” reveals the wonderment of God whose care for the vineyard has been of no avail: “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” (Isaiah 5:4). Here, God himself says that he is at a loss trying to explain the rebellion of his people. God’s sorrow rather than the people’s tragedy is the theme of this song. God’s grief and disappointment are revealed in his being hurt at the thought of having to abandon his vineyard in which he had labored and placed so much hope for good things.
Thus, divine suffering is seen throughout the writings of the prophets and in many other passages of the Old Testament. God’s suffering is seen in his disappointment with Israel:
“What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?” (Jeremiah 2:5 RSV).
“What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah?” (Hosea 6:4 RSV).
“My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me” (Micah 6:3 NIV).
“Why do these people keep going along their self-destructive path, refusing to turn back, even though I have warned them?” (Jeremiah 8:5).
In trying to explain God’s questions, Fretheim wrote (p. 56): “These questions seem to imply a genuine loss on God’s part as to what might explain the faithlessness of the people.” God’s disappointment with his people gives occasion to these divine laments and expresses his pain at the rebellion of Israel.
God suffers because of his love for Israel. He experiences pain because of their unfaithfulness. God’s suffering teaches us an important lesson about God. Because God loves his people and desires their well-being, God identifies himself with their suffering. This identification of God with his people makes God vulnerable to being hurt, but it is this divine suffering that will motivate Israel to repent and turn to God.
Posts on the Series The God Who Suffers
Fretheim, Terence. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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