Jesus: Lament over Sin

Life_in_Tension_web“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psa 126:5 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What do you mourn for from the bottom of your heart? What does God mourn for?

One of the earliest indications of God’s experience of grief in scripture is over human sinfulness:

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5-6 ESV)

Not only did Adam and Eve sin in the garden, the generations expanded on their depravity—bad seed ran in the family—and God’s heart was broken.  God’s broken heart leads into the story of Noah and the flood (Gen 6:7-8).

Grief over sin also shows up the New Testament.  Jesus’ journey to the cross begins with his grief over sin:

“And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:4-6 ESV)

When Mark writes about the hardness of heart of the Pharisees, he is comparing them to Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

The Mark 3 episode: “is the only passage in the gospels where Jesus is said to be angry.” (Elliott 2006, 214) To understand why Jesus gets angry, we note that earlier in Mark Jesus says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27 ESV) Jesus clearly believes that healing is more important than Sabbath observance. The response of the Pharisees accordingly offends his sense of justice. This chain of reasoning—belief, contrary action, emotional response—an example of the cognitive theory of emotions where emotions flow out of our judgment or thinking rather than arising spontaneously in some unexplained manner (Elliott 2006, 31). Lester (2007,14-16,106) agrees seeing anger as a response to a threat to basic values and beliefs which can help us sort out our true feelings, when we pay attention.

Mourning in the Pentateuch is mostly associated with grief over the death of a person [1] For example, we read about Abraham mourning over the death of his wife, Sarah (Gen 23:2), and Joseph leading an elaborate funeral service at the death of his father, Jacob (Gen 50:3). Other times, we see crying [2]. For example, a significant point in the life of Moses arises when he cries as a baby laying in the basket floating in the Nile and the daughter of Pharaoh hears the crying and is moved with emotion; she disobeys her father’s edict to drown all Hebrew baby boys and she rescues and raises the child (Exod 1:22;2:6). Later, Moses cries to the Lord as an act of a prayer for healing of his sister, Miriam, who has be struck with leprosy and God answers his prayer (Num 12:13 ESV). By contrast, crying in the sense of whining or self-pity evokes God’s anger (Num 11:10).

The focus of mourning in the Prophets shifts from death of a person to anguish over the fate of the nation as a whole.

In the early years after leaving Egypt, the Nation of Israel has strong, charismatic leadership in the persons of Moses and Joshua. Moses led them out of Egypt; Joshua led them into the Promised Land. But then they entered a period, like our own, when: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6 ESV) During a period of almost 400 years, a cycle of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration (Younger 2002, 35). The turning point in this up and down cycle came as the people cried out (prayed) to the Lord. This cycle is repeated over and over. For example, “But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.” (Jdg 3:9 ESV) [3]

Mourning becomes more prominent in the period of the exiles of Judah to Babylon. For example, the “Mourning Prophet” is Jeremiah, the author of the Book of Lamentation. But mourning is also prominent in the Psalms. For example, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” (Psa 137:1 ESV) But this anguish becomes the seedbed for a greater promise of eternal salvation. The Prophet Isaiah expresses this hope most clearly in moving from grief to promise:

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” (Isa 65:17-19 ESV)

Notice the movement from restoration of the earthly Jerusalem to the promise of a heavenly city—a new heaven and earth.  Also, it is interesting that Cyrus, the gentile King of Persia, that plays the role of deliverer of the exiles in Babylon (Ezra 1:1-2).

A key point in understanding mourning in the Psalms is understanding that once the heart is emptied of bitterness, it is open to God. Lament turns to praise (Card 2005, 21). This is how and why Jesus can say: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4 ESV)

 

[1] This result follows a word study on the Second Beatitude in Matthew 5:4.

[2] This result follows a word study on the Second Beatitude in Luke 6:21.

[3] The exact phrase in Greek—ἐκέκραξαν οἱ υἱοὶ Ισραηλ (Jda 3:9 BGT)—is used at least 5 time (Judges 3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:6-7; and 10:10).

REFERENCES

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NAVPress.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Lester, Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Younger, K. Lawson. 2002. The NIV Application Commentary: Judges and Ruth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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