Old Testament and Suffering


The key concept in the Old Testament is the notion of the Covenant. God makes a covenant with his people. He intervenes in history to form a people. He is their God and they are His people. He is the One God and Lord of All. The people sing His praise as the God of Creation and the Lord of History (Ps 8). The Covenant calls for an understanding of the relationship of God with His people, the relationship of the people with each other and with all of creation. This relationship is based on Justice, which is an attribute of God. The covenant involves a choice that the people need to make. They have to choose fidelity and therefore life, or infidelity and therefore death. In spite of their choice, God is a Just God and His forgiveness and mercy always prevail.

The people of Israel experience God not as an arbitrary God. This is a notion alien to the people of Israel. God’s justice involves His compassionate intervention to relieve them of their suffering (Gen 21: 17; Ex 2: 24; Ps 22: 24). But, His justice also involves the curse resulting from the people’s infidelity (Is 45: 7); responsibility for evil (Amos 3: 6); and the punishment for sinners (Jer 18: 11).

However, deeper than the mystery of iniquity and evil is the mystery of ELECTION & COVENANT.

Old Testament explanations of Suffering: –
  1. The Good are rewarded and the Evil are punished: This is the theme of the Deuteronomic history. The covenant theme is emphasised all through. Following the covenant results in blessing for the good, and rejecting the covenant results in punishment for the evil (Cf. Judges; Kings and Chronicles). The pattern is as follows: The people display infidelity, they are punished, God intervenes, the people once again return to their evil ways … it is a circle.

This is also the theme of the Prophets (Cf. Jer 31: 23-24; Ezek 18).

The same theme in the Psalm (Ps 1; 7: 10; 23: 1ff; Prov 22: 4).

The theme is as expressed as follows: Virtue is rewarded, the trespass punished.

Therefore, suffering results from SIN.

  1. The Good are rewarded and the Evil punished in the future: The simple laws of justice with immediate retribution could not hold in the presence of the prosperity of the evil and the exploitation of the poor. Therefore, the fulfilment of justice is predicted to the future. God will intervene to save His people, to vindicate justice (Cf. Ps 10; 13; 16; 26; 37). The question does remain: But when? How long must they wait?

[Evil is a certain lack, limitation or destruction of good. Human being suffer because of a good they do not share; of which they are cut off or deprived off themselves].

  1. The experienced presence of God: An answer to suffering was found in the Temple. The temple expressed the presence of God. Being in the temple was being in God’s presence. This was a cure for suffering a relief from suffering. Faith in the presence of God in the temple was a relief (Cf. Ps 13; 16: 5-11; 27: 1, 4-10; 63; 84). However, even this was not a sufficient answer. The stark reality of pain, suffering and cruelty needed better answers.
  1. Medicinal Suffering: Suffering seen here as a punishment for sin because of a loving God. Suffering is medicinal. Medicine is bitter but it cures. Suffering is good for people as God wished to cure His people from their sin and so gave them suffering so that they could turn back to Him. This is seen especially in the prophets (Cf. Amos 4: 12’ Hosea 1 – 3; 11: 8ff; Jer 31: 20; Is 63: 9ff). The sinner is chastised so that he or she returns back to God. Suffering, therefore, reveals the kindness of God calling His people to fidelity, desiring their good. But, the question emerges, what about the good receiving unmerited suffering?
  1. Suffering as Testing: The theme of Genesis 22: 1, God tested Abraham. God’s intention in testing was to do good to those tested. Challenge moulds the mettle of a person, an outcome for which one can be grateful. Lovers show their love by suffering for the beloved. God tested Israel’s fidelity to Him and His laws (Cf. Ex 16: 4; 20: 20; Deut 8: 2; Judg 2: 22). Israel too is tested in the desert but God’s testing preceded a saving intervention and however fearsome always ended with a blessing (Cf. Deut 8: 16; Ex 16: 4). Blessings were the final cause of the testing (Ps 17: 1-3; 26: 2; 139: 23). God tested so that he would save and bless. Therefore, as gold is tested in fire … Trust in the Lord (Sir 2: 1-6; Prov 17: 3). God delivers and rewards those tested (Wis 11: 9f).
  1. Purification Suffering: The image is that of the gold and silver in the furnace (Jer 6: 27-30; Ezek 22: 17-22; Zech 13: 8). The goodness of Israel is refined to God’s glory (Is 48: 10ff; Mal 3: 2ff). Generally, Purificatory suffering is linked to testing and education. But in Psalm 38, one notes that suffering at God’s hands is due to a past in that has been confessed.
  1. Job and the Mystery of God: God can write straight through crooked lines. This is the story of Joseph and his brothers. Therefore, the Jews trusted in God. The answer to Job: The presence of God on the one hand and the vast abyss between human being’s limited knowledge and strength and the supreme majesty of God. No explanation is possible. Therefore, what is called for is faith in the mystery of God. Like Job, Quoleth too in the presence of suffering of the innocent ends with faith in the mystery of God (Cf. Eccl 1: 8, 12-18; 2: 12-26; 3: 16-22; 5: 13-17; 8: 14 – 9: 4, 11).
  1. Vicarious Suffering: The notion of ‘Corporate Personality’ where an individual is a representative as well as a constitutive member of a group. Corporate Personality means: an extension beyond the present into the past and future (The Patriarch lives on in his progeny, Cf. Amos 3: 1; Deut 29: 13). This is not merely a personification, a metaphor but a reality which furthers relations, juridical or otherwise (E.g., Levirate marriage in Deut 25: 5-10). There is also a fluid transition from the individual to the group and back again (Hos 11: 11ff; Num 20: 14-21).

The issue is thus explained as follows: If all can suffer for the sins of one, therefore, all can profit from the accomplishment of one (Jer 5: 1; Gen 18: 22-23). David over Goliath gave victory to the Jews (1 Sam 17: 8ff). Jeremiah’s suffering is part and parcel of his mission: A prophet who continued to pray and protect his people.

Victorious suffering is seen clearly in Deutro-Isaiah in the suffering servant theme (Is 42: 1-4; 49: 1-6; 50: 4-20; 52: 13 – 53: 12). Here, there is a flexible oscillation between the people and the person in Deutro-Isaiah’s suffering servant.

In Zechariah 12: 10 – 13: 1, we have an example of vicarious suffering. Here, the innocent freely take on the suffering.

In 2 Maccabees 7: 32ff, we note that the martyrs, the just men are called to propitiate the wrath of God. Their reward is in the next life.

  1. Life after Death: The unrequited suffering and death of the just cry out for ‘something more’ (Is 53: 10ff). Justice and a demand for it extended beyond the grave (Wis 1 – 5). There is a bodily resurrection presupposed in Daniel 12: 2ff. In 2 Maccabees, the Jewish belief in after life is for the first time expressed. The offerings for the dead could be efficacious in freeing them from sin (2 Macc 12: 39-45).

The end of the Old Testament expresses the fidelity to God’s justice. There is importance of the individual’s destiny before God which leads to an affirmation of life after death.

In conclusion, the three themes of the Old Testament on the issue of suffering are: The Good are rewarded and the Evil are punished; Suffering can be good, medicinal and healing; and the mysterious presence of God in Suffering. The final theme will take flesh in Emmanuel, ‘God with us,’ in our suffering as Christ in His coming would save the beings of this world and the next by bestowing an eschatological and supernatural profundity upon everyday joys and sufferings.

What do you think? .... Type your comments below.