Lament over Sin

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Those who sow in tears 

shall reap with shouts of joy! 

(Ps 126:5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Second Beatitude says those who mourn will be comforted, but what does God mourn for? In Genesis, God grieves over human wickedness:

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)

Human sin grieved God so much that he sent the flood, sparing only Noah, his family, and two of each animal (Gen 6:7-8).

Books of the Law

Elsewhere, studies of the word for mourning used in Matthew 5:4 in the Greek, associate it most often with grief over death. For example, Abraham mourns over the death of his wife, Sarah (Gen 23:2), and Joseph mourns over the death of his father, Jacob (Gen 50:3).

By contrast, studies of the word for crying used in Luke’s Beatitude (Luke 6:21) in the Greek, associate it most often with prayer in the midst of suffering. For example, a significant point in the life of Moses arose when as a baby he cried lying in the basket floating in the Nile. On hearing Moses’ cry, the daughter of Pharaoh is moved to rescue and to raise the child as her own, disobeying her father’s edict to drown all Hebrew baby boys—including Moses (Exod 1:22; 2:6). Later, Moses cries to the Lord in prayer to heal his sister, Miriam, who has been afflicted with leprosy, and she is healed (Num 12:13). By contrast, crying in the sense of whining or self-pity evokes God’s anger (Num 11:10).

Books of the Prophets

The focus of mourning shifts in the Books of the Prophets from death of a person to anguish—crying out over the fate of the nation of Israel (e.g. Jer 8:18–19).

Israel cried out to the Lord in anguish primarily because of the ups and downs of leadership in the four hundred years after the nation left Egypt. During these years Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt and Joshua led them into the Promised Land with strong charismatic leadership. But leadership weakened as they entered a period of the judges when, as today, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judg 17:6) During the time of the judges, a cycle of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration became the normal pattern (Younger 2002, 35). The turning point in this pattern arose when the people turned and cried out to the Lord to keep his promises:

And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. (Deut 30:1–3)

In the Book of Judges this pattern of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration is repeated at least five times (Judg 3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:6–7; and 10:10). 

Later during the period of the exile of Judah to Babylon, mourning becomes prominent as the first of two parts in a lament. A lament starts with grief, but ends in praise. Jeremiah, the Mourning Prophet, wrote  the  Book of Lamentations; we also read many lamentations in the Psalms, as in: 

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Ps 130:1–4)

The heart is first emptied of bitterness; then, it opens to God (Card 2005, 19). This lament form also appears in the Second Beatitude, where Jesus says—“Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4).

This mourning over sin, godly grief, appears as Jesus begins his journey to the cross (2 Cor 7:10). In the same way that God mourned over sin when preparing the great flood, Jesus mourns over the hardness of heart of the Pharisees on the Sabbath:

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)

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

The narrative in Mark 3 is also significant because it explicitly links human suffering to sin and God’s grief. Mark 3 “is the only passage in the gospels where Jesus is said to be angry. (Elliott 2006, 214). Jesus gets angry, because “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and he cares about the well-being of people more than he cares about Sabbath observance (Lester 2007, 14–16, 106).  Because Jesus cares about suffering people, we should too.


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.

Lament over Sin

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: Publisher site:


You may also like

Leave a Reply