Righteous Suffering


Then the LORD said, 

I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt 

and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. 

I know their sufferings (Exod 3:7).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Jewish experience of God frequently arises in the context of suffering. Moses suffered living as a refugee in the desert and shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep far from his home and family in Egypt. Exiled from Egypt, shamed by his own inept leadership, and fearful of legal prosecution for murder, Moses found himself before a burning bush in the presence of God (Exod 3:1), who called him for a new assignment: Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt. (Exod 3:10) Egypt is in his heart and on his mind, but Moses does not jump at the idea of returning to Egypt because, having murdered an Egyptian, returning entailed obvious personal risk. Mitigating the risks are three important assurances that God gives to Moses which take the forms of His presence, His name, and His covenant (the Law).


The assurance of God’s presence is a blessing in the form of comfort, provision, and protection—things Moses lacked when he attempted to lead his people without God’s help. In revealing his presence to Moses, the uncertainty of the mission in Egypt is immediately reduced (Rom 8:31) and its success is assured: “But I will be with you” (Exod 3:12). God’s presence is further secured when God reveals his name, and, later, offers a covenant to Moses.

The Name

The assurance of knowing God’s name was no small deal in the ancient world. The ancients believed that knowing the name of a god gave one power over that god. When God gave Moses his name, he was, at a minimum, offering him a direct line of communication—personal prayer—with God.

 In Hebrew YHWH means “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14–15). The implication here is that God is: A REAL GOD (one that really exists) with REAL POWER (sovereign everywhere, not just the local neighborhood). Local gods were the norm in the ancient world, in part, because leaders wanted to lay claim to their territories and to seek their intervention (typically through sacrifices) in the spiritual world (e.g. Judg 11:30–40; 1 Kgs 12:26–29). God’s interventions on behalf of Moses were not unusual from an ancient perspective, but what was unusual was that God traveled with Moses out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

Covenant Law 

The covenant helped secure Moses’ experience of God presence because in the covenant God revealed his will to the people of Israel, something uncommon in the ancient world. Prayer is really difficult when one neither knows a god’s name nor what that god desires. God revealed to Moses that He was both a covenant maker and covenant keeper.

The covenant of Moses begins with a preamble: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod 20:2). The preamble makes clear that God cares about the people of Israel enough to intervene on their behalf and the Law instructs them on how to live in peace and righteousness, making God’s presence concrete in daily life.

In the Books of the Prophets, no one suffers more than Job even though he is a righteous man: There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. (Job 1:1) Job is so righteous that even God brags about him to Satan: Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? (Job 1:8) To which Satan asks God’s permission to test him and God grants permission for Satan to take everything Job has away and to afflict him with horrible suffering (Job 1-2). In righteous suffering, Job feels a need to seek out and to rely on God, rather than his own resources, and, in his misery, to seek a savior: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25) Some believe that Moses used the story of Job’s righteous suffering to convince the people of Israel to leave slavery in Egypt, which would make the Book of Job the oldest book in the Bible (Geisler 2007, 189–195).

This redemption theme, of relying solely on God, is repeated in the story of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When Daniel’s friends refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol instead of the one true God, they are thrown into the fiery furnace, as we read:

And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? They answered and said to the king, True, O king. He answered and said, But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods. (Dan 3:23-25)

Righteous suffering not only leads us to rely on God, it gives testimony to God’s glory. Jesus later ties righteous suffering to eternal life: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39)


Geisler, Norman L. 2007. A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Righteous Suffering

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Norm2020


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