Suffering Predates Salvation

Life_in_Tension_web“He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 25:8 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In both the Old Testament Books of the Law and Books of the Prophets, suffering and salvation are linked prominently. Reproach and persecution are amplied by the emotional distress suffered because it is frequently very personal.

In the Law, the story of Joseph stands out. Joseph was the first-born son of Rachel whose older sister, Leah, had had six sons and a daughter while Rachel was barren. The Bible records these words when Joseph was born:

“Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, God has taken away my reproach.” (Gen 30:22-23 ESV)

Rachel was reviled by her sister, Leah, out of jealousy with a focus on her barrenness [1]. Because Rachel was also Jacob’s favorite wife, Joseph soon became Jacob’s favorite son. We read:

Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors.” (Gen. 37:3 ESV)

Jealousy between Joseph and his brothers led them to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt and to report to Jacob that he had been killed by wild animals (Gen 37). After suffering from the hands his brothers, being sold into slavery, and sent to prison, Joseph proved himself to be a hard worker, honest man, and able leader. He is later promoted by Pharoah to be prime minister and through God’s intervention saved Egypt and his own family from starvation during a terrible famine (Gen 38-45). In effect, the son who was reviled and persecuted became the savior of the family and nation.  Does this story sound familiar?

In both the case of Rachel and her son, Joseph, the primarily cause of the raproach was not righteousness; it was jealousy—jealousy over childbearing and jealousy over favortism.

In the Law, the story of Job stands out. Job is a righteous man persecuted by Satan (Job 1-2) but reproached by his friends who doubt his righteousness. For example, Eliphaz the Temanite asks: ”who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7 ESV) Likewise, Bildad the Shuhite calls Job a windbag and asks: “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 8:3 ESV) This raproach by Job’s friends goes on and on. It gets so bad that God himself gets angry at these friends and corrects their misconceptions of Job’ righteousness (Job 42:7).

In spite of the raproach of his friends and the loss of his family and fortune, God comes to Job’s rescue and rewards Job’s faithfulness. We read: “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10 ESV)

The raproach and suffering that we observe in the Old Testament arises, in part, because of differences in the ethical systems articulated. Three stand out.

First, one is righteous in keeping the law and unrighteous in breaking it. God rewards the righteous and punishes law breakers. This is, for example, the expectation of Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 4:7).  It is also the ethic displayed in Psalm 1.

Second, one is righteous in being wise and observing how the world really works. For example, we read: “One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.” (Prov 14:16 ESV) In effect, evil is not just bad, it is also stupid.  This is the dominant ethic promoted in Proverbs.

Third, righteous suffering is blessed. This lesson comes directly from Job’s experience, but we also witness this relationship in daily life. We sometimes call it differred gratification. Education and investment activities both work this way. The rub is that plans do not always work out—there is a risk of failure. However, the parable of talents teaches us that God rewards those who trust in him and punish those who refuse to (Matt 25:14-30).

As the saying goes, the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.

[1] The theme of woman teasing each other viciously over barrenness figures prominently in conflict between Sarah and Hagar (Gen 16:4). It also is important in the story of the birth of the Prophet Samuel. There we read: “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.” (1 Sam. 1:6 ESV)

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