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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Jesus’ Mission Statement Gives Us Hope

Life_in_Tension_web“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17 ESV)

Recorded in Matthew 5:17, Jesus’ mission statement links the law, the prophets, and the fulfillment of both. In Jewish thinking, the term, law, brings to mind the first five books in the Old Testament—the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. The term, prophets, loosely refers to the remainder of the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus takes as his task to fulfill all of the Old Testament scripture.

Law.  The word, law, is often short for Law of Moses.  Because “poor in spirit” can mean humble,  Numbers 12:3 comes to mind.  It reads: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3 ESV). The verses that follow set Moses spiritually apart from both Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, because he had a unique relationship with God—one that exceeds the relationship of a normal prophet [1]. The Hebrew word here (ana), translated as meek, can also be translated as poor, afflicted, humble, or meek [2].

Two important points follow from this word association. First, poor in spirit meaning humble draws us uniquely closer to God—Moses close. God spoke to Moses directly, face to face, not in riddles or dreams (Num 12:6-8). This is like a return to the Garden of Eden in terms of intimacy with God—God our father in heaven close. Second, in case you missed it in the first Beatitude, Jesus uses the word, meek, a second time in the third Beatitude. If he were speaking Hebrew, then he could have used the same word twice—an emphatic statement. The blessing of poor in spirit was: the kingdom of heaven. The blessing for meek was: inheriting the earth. What does the Bible start? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1 ESV). In other words, being poor in spirit or meek in God’s eye gets you heaven and earth.

Of course, the opposite of humble is proud. While there are a lot of proud rulers in the Old Testament, Pharaoh is the archetype of a proud ruler, especially when you are thinking of Moses. What does God say through Moses to Pharaoh? Moses said:  “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.” (Exod 10:3 ESV) Pharaoh refused and things ended badly for him [3].

Prophet. While Matthew 5:17 is a quite general statement of Jesus’ intent to fulfill all of scripture, Luke 4:18-19, which records Jesus’ call sermon, quotes almost verbatim from Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion…” (Isa 61:1-3 ESV)

When Isaiah writes about bringing “good news the poor”, he uses the same Hebrew word for poor (ana) as used in Numbers 12:3 [4]. This passage is significant for at least two reasons. First, the use of the word, anointed, flags this passage as a messianic prophesy. Second, one might also ask whether the term, “broken-hearted”, is actually the better analogy to “poor in spirit” than “poor”. This suggests that a Isaiah 61 is indeed an important source not only for his call sermon but also for the Beatitudes.

Fulfillment. The word for fulfillment in the Greek text here (πληρόω) is generally translated as meaning: to bring to a designed end, fulfill a prophecy, an obligation, a promise, a law, a request, a purpose, a desire, a hope, a duty, a fate, a destiny (BDAG 5981, 4b). It was common for rabbis in Jesus’ day to preach from the law using the prophets to interpret what was meant. One might then perhaps say that the law had been “fulfilled” in following it correctly. However, the Gospel of Matthew uses fulfill more frequently than the other Gospels [5] and most often in reference to the fulfillment of prophecy (12/17), not mere compliance with law. In other words, for Matthew the focus in fulfillment is an action—to live out the prophecy in the sense of taking the next steps [6].

The law and the prophets are fulfilled in the faithful life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus honors the poor in spirit who follow his lead in life, death, and  eternal life.

 

[1] “And he said, Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num 12:6-8 ESV)

[2] (עָנָי; BDB, 7237).

[3]  “The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.” (Exod 14:28 ESV)

[4] The Greek Septuagint also uses the same word for poor as in Matthew 5:3 (πτωχοῖς (Isa 61:1 BGT)).

[5] Matthew [17 times] 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 9:16; 12:17; 13:35, 48; 21:4; 23:32; 26:54, 56; and 27:9. Mark [5 times]1:15; 2:21; 6:43; 8:20; and 14:49. Luke [7 times] 1:20; 3:5; 4:21; 7:1; 21:24; 22:16; and 24:44. John [15 times] 1:16; 3:29; 7:8; 12:3, 38; 13:18; 15:11, 25; 16:6, 24; 17:12-13; 18:9, 32; and 19:24, 36.

[6] Guelich (1982, 163) sees Jesus, for example, fulfilling Jeremiah 31:31-34 where God promises to write the law on our hearts.

REFERENCES

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

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