The Problem of Suffering
What would it feel like to be in your house, or on your way to work, or maybe at the grocery store, just doing the regular things we do every day, and suddenly unimaginable devastation hits with terrifying power?
At 10 a.m. it’s a normal day. At 10:30 a.m. you have no home, no work, no belongings, and maybe no family left.
How would you and I feel? Numb? Abandoned by God? Discarded? Life has been gutted of all meaning?
Why did God not prevent this?
Why did God not stand in the way?
Why did God not avert this disaster?
Why did God not at least protect the people?
If God is that powerful?
If God is that loving?
How would you and I make sense of it?
Does God have something to say in situations like this? Does God have any word at all for God’s people?
If we accept the premise that Isaiah wrote all of this before the Judahite kingdom went into captivity, then these prophetic words were for those people in the future. Yet the people Isaiah would have been speaking to right then were also hearing something from God for themselves. They were headed for a time of darkness, and they could either trust God, or they could decide that God had abandoned them which meant they would have to try to light their own way.
Which would they choose?
Because disaster was on its way.
Just like the people in Japan, and in California, who live every day of their lives preparing for the next big earthquake, or the next big tsunami, the people of Isaiah’s day lived with the certainty that the scourge of the Babylonians was coming.
They did not know exactly when, just that it was inevitable.
Yet God had a message for them. God would be with them through the entire disaster, and God would one day bring them out the other end.
The Suffering People
For both the people of Isaiah’s day, who were first hearing this message, and for those in the future who would be in exile, the feeling was the same.
Feelings of Worthlessness and Rejection
They felt worthless, unloved, like God had divorced them, or sold them off.
Thus says the Lord:Isaiah 50:1 (NRSV)
Where is your mother’s bill of divorce
with which I dismissed her?
Or which of my creditors is it
to whom I have sold you?
No, because of your sins you were sold,
and for your transgressions your mother was dismissed.
They figured that at best, God had lost God’s power to save them.
Why was no one there when I came?Isaiah 50:2 (NRSV)
Why did no one answer when I called?
Is my arm powerless to redeem?
Or have I no strength to deliver?
But human tragedy is not evidence of God’s abandonment of God’s people.
No matter how incomprehensible the scope of adversity, this is no indication of God finally washing God’s hands of us. The ancient people of God experienced exile as a final, severe act of love to help them come to their senses, repent, and return to God. The painful consequences of their sin were designed to draw them into repentance.
Not Knowing the Truth
Not a single person responded to God’s call to return in faith to the Lord. They really did believe God’s arm was powerless to redeem, and that God had no strength to deliver.
- Perhaps they felt the consequence of exile could include no good, that rather than a form of severest mercy, it was instead a form of severest rejection.
- Perhaps they felt exile was God throwing in the towel, so to speak, after one too many calls to repentance.
- Perhaps the people thought exile from the land was also exile from God.
So, God gave examples of how able the Lord really is to save. God reminded the people of the powerful contest God had won with the gods of Egypt.
By my rebuke I dry up the sea;Isaiah 50:2-3 (NRSV)
I make the rivers a desert,
so that their fish stink for lack of water
and die of thirst.
I clothe the heavens with blackness
and make sackcloth their covering.
God had power over the water, the creatures, even the sky itself, because God had brought literal darkness to Egypt for three days.
Evidence of divorce?
Where? God asked. Who was faithless in this story?
By no means! So, the faithlessness lay with the people, not with the Lord.
God will never be unfaithful. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
To reveal just how deep and trustworthy God’s faithfulness is, God spoke in the voice of the Servant.
The Suffering Servant
This is the third Servant Song, and the Servant is Messiah Jesus. Only the Servant would believe that God will keep God’s promises in the covenants God made with God’s people. Only Jesus believed these covenants fully.
Finally, here was one who would answer when God called, who would never turn away.
The Lord God has given meIsaiah 50:4 (NRSV)
a trained tongue,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens,
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
If God’s way of getting through to us is God’s word, then you and I need to learn what it means to listen. The Servant would be a serious student of God’s word. Every morning He would spend quietly listening to God speaking to Him and receive instruction for what to say.
And we see that in the Lord Jesus.
The gospels describe Jesus getting away every day to pray, morning, evening, and even through the night. Jesus was such a devoted pupil to the scriptures that at the tender age of twelve, a year younger than the traditional rite of passage into adulthood, Jesus stunned the most learned college professors Israel had to offer, the scribes and teachers of the law who taught at the temple itself.
We seldom discourse on Jesus’s biblical scholarship. But according to Isaiah’s prophecy, He was.
So the Servant would be a scholar of the scriptures, and He would also suffer for His obedience to God.
Obedient in Suffering
The Lord God has opened my ear,Isaiah 50:5-6 (NRSV)
and I was not rebellious;
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
Detail for detail, Jesus did suffer each of these things. He was completely yielded to the Father’s will, completely cooperative, and His willing submission would include torture and a gruesome death.
Jesus chose the way of suffering on purpose. He was resolute. He walked into opposition with His eyes wide open.
Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shameHebrews 12:2 (NRSV)
There was no place that the Lord Jesus would not go, nothing He would not do, to care for the people God loves with the truth of God’s grace. And that is what you and I are called to do today. Following the Lord means walking on purpose towards potential suffering, counting the cost to both serve God and the people God loves.
The disaster Jesus experienced, that began with a brutal arrest after a quiet Passover meal with His closest friends, family, and followers, was undeserved. It did not come from God’s rejection, just our disasters do not come from God’s rejection.
Jesus remained faithful, and afterwards came resurrection. May you and I hang in there, too, in faith, for resurrection is also our destiny.