In my previous post on The God Who Suffers – Part 1, I wrote that the God of the Old Testament is a God who chooses to identify himself with his people in their suffering. The view that God chooses to identify with Israel and enter their history raises an important question: does God suffer with his people? According to the Old Testament perspective, God cannot do otherwise. Yahweh is related to Israel through the covenant established at Sinai. Therefore, he is directly involved with Israel in their misfortunes and their failures.
In his book, What Are They Saying About the Theology of Suffering (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), Lucien Richard summarizes what biblical scholars and theologians have written on the biblical view of suffering. In his summary of Walter Brueggemann’s view on the theology of the pain of God, Lucien wrote: “From within the covenantal relationship with God, Israel senses that its God is not only an enforcer and a legitimator of existing structures, but is also one who embraces Israel’s pain” (p. 16).
By embracing the pain of his people, God’s own self is transformed. God takes on the pain of Israel in his own person because of his compassion for them. E. S. Gerstenberger wrote: “In the Old Testament . . . suffering can be regarded as a means of expiation. A deity has been injured through human misconduct. He becomes angry, strikes back, and brings disaster upon the culprit and his community. But because the deity in principle stands in a friendly, and even familiar, relationship to the sufferer, the suffering will soften the wrath of God. God cannot bear to see his own people in misery; his justifiable indignation is transformed into compassion” (p. 107).
The God of the Old Testament saves and blesses Israel because of this covenantal relationship that is guaranteed by God’s hesed, his faithful love for Israel. Because of this special relationship established with the nation, God is united with his people and participates in their life and their misery. This special relationship is affirmed in the Old Testament in the emotional language of human suffering. As a partner in this relationship, God assumes the function of not only Israel’s God, but also her closest friend, a friend who takes upon himself part of the burden of his suffering friends (cf. John 15:13).
The Old Testament writers describe God’s response to Israel’s sins and rebellions in words that already express within themselves an element of divine suffering. One example is the rebellion of Israel at the occasion of the building of the golden calf in Exodus 32. At Sinai, Israel rebelled against God by being unfaithful to God and by violating the demands of the covenant which required exclusive allegiance to him.
God’s response to Israel’s apostasy was one of indignation. God told Moses: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). Israel had entered into a relationship with Yahweh and now that relationship had been broken. God was affected by Israel’s disloyalty. God’s words to Moses, “Let me alone,” represents God’s desire to suffer grief in isolation.
This language of divine suffering is designed to describe a faith which views God in terms of historical involvement and relatedness with his people. To Israel, God was not an impersonal being nor was he a God that was above and beyond the world. To the contrary, he was a God who was with them (Isaiah 7:14), the Holy One who lived among the people (Hosea 11:9). “For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7). This is the reason Israel ascribed personal characteristics to God, such as love, anger, anguish, patience, jealousy, and joy.
In addition, many other characteristics attributed to God reflect the fact that when God responds to human sin and rebellion, his response also contains the element of divine suffering. When God deals with humanity, God expresses a variety of reactions:
God is jealous: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14 NIV).
When God punishes, punishment is sometimes done out of a sense of injured honor: “Then my anger will cease and my wrath against them will subside, and I will be avenged. And when I have spent my wrath upon them, they will know that I the Lord have spoken in my zeal” (Ezekiel 5:13 NIV).
God becomes angry and enraged: “How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire?” ( Psalm 79:5 NIV).
God is grieved by human sins: “The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:6 NIV).
God changes his mind: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14 NRSV).
God is affected by the suffering of his people: “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them” (Judges 2:18 RSV).
God cries out like a person in pain: “The Lord goes forth like a soldier, like a warrior he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes. For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:13-14 NRSV).
Gerstenberger wrote: “All such affirmations in the Old Testament are deeply rooted in the emotional language of human suffering. ‘Pity’ (e.g., Hos. 2:23) is a new turning toward a beloved person that is rooted in keen anxiety; ‘regret’ (e.g., Gen. 6:6) is the painful concession to have failed in one’s plan. Thus for the Israelite God’s suffering is, strange as it may sound, precisely like human suffering, a bitter experience that injures body and spirit . . . God’s suffering results from the coinciding of human and divine action . . . His pain is the consequence of human misconduct” (p. 100).
NEXT: The God Who Suffers – Part 3
Gerstenberger, E. S. and W. Schrage, Suffering. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1977.
Richard, Lucien. What Are They Saying About the Theology of Suffering. New York: Paulist Press, 1992.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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