Last week we saw that Job’s suffering had given rise to a vision of the Resurrection. That is something magnificent.
Yet, still, we are not done. We are not done until we have seen Job’s plight in light of the full revelation in which it is planted and toward which it points.
The Night in the Old Testament
Job was given a prophetic role to play. But his life can’t be understood apart from the full Judeo-Christian tradition before and after him. I want to look at the mystery of his experience against the mystery of the Passion of Jesus. However, I want to quickly observe how even in the Old Testament there are echoes of the mystery of redemptive suffering.
A quick pass over 4 passages will suffice to make the point: Hosea 2, Psalms 37 and 87 and Isaiah 53.
In Hosea 2, God treats the soul, represented by the unfaithful wife of Hosea, in a manner similar to Job. Listen to the similarities, as God speaks:
“I will make her like the wilderness, make her like an arid land, and let her die of thirst. I will hedge in her way with thorns and erect a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths.” (Hos 2:5-8)
God has darkened the path of this soul, blocked it, made it dwell in a desert in order to lead it to a fullness that is as yet unseen. In this case, God was leading Hosea’s wife (who represents the soul) into a desert experience where He would draw her into a renewed covenant in love.
Psalm 37 and 87, among others, also give expression to the experience of night that falls upon the soul. There we read:
“LORD, do not punish me in your anger . . . Your arrows have sunk deep in me; your hand has come down upon me.” (Ps. 37:2-3)
And, in what sounds much like Job, we read:
“I am numb and utterly crushed; I wail with anguish of heart … My heart shudders, my strength forsakes me; the very light of my eyes has failed. Friends and companions shun my disease; my neighbors stand far off” (Ps. 37:9,11-12).
Intense suffering. The sense that God has turned against the soul. The abandonment of one’s friends. A direct echo of Job’s experience.
Similarly, in Psalm 87, the psalmist cries out:
“My bed is among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave. You remember them no more; they are cut off from your influence. You plunge me into the bottom of the pit, into the darkness of the abyss. Your wrath lies heavy upon me; all your waves crash over me.” (Ps. 87:6-8)
And experiencing the same social isolation Job knew, as one from whom God’s blessing seems to have withdrawn, the psalmist cries out:
“Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day they surge round like a flood; from every side they encircle me. Because of you friend and neighbor shun me; my only friend is darkness.” (Ps. 87:17-19)
My only friend is darkness. Does this not sound like Job?
Both psalms are worth a close reading. I have given here just a few highlights to enable us to see their parallels as an experience of spiritual night.
Finally, there is one other passage from the Old Testament that best illustrates the theme of the mystery of suffering and its relation to the unfolding of divine life. Isaiah Chapter 53: the fourth prophecy of this figure we have come to call the Suffering Servant. As you look at this chapter, think of two themes: (1) Job-like suffering; and (2) a suffering somehow oriented towards redemption.
“He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem.” (Is 53:3)
In the figure of the Suffering Servant of God, we clearly see an echo of Job’s and the psalmist’s experience – namely, the way suffering is intensified when coupled with the withdrawal of one’s closest companions.
But in Isaiah we see something new. We see the notion of a suffering which is redemptive. Like Job’s sudden insight into the possibility of resurrection, here we see a novel understanding that the suffering of God’s Servant, the “lamb,” can be redemptive for the people:
“Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted, but he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way; but the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth.” (Is 53:4-7)
Here, I must repeat the line with which I opened this post: The plight of Job makes no sense without the light of Jesus. Now, we can add the statement: if Job prophetically lived the experience of the Cross, without understanding it, Isaiah makes clear the meaning of the Cross. Its redemptive nature. Specifically, the fact that the suffering of an innocent Servant somehow contains the seeds of redemption for the people of Israel. I am not trying to explain this fact right here (I will try to do so later). I am simply stating Isaiah’s teaching.
To restate: Job lives the experience of innocent suffering in all its harrowing depths (and we will later see, in Chapter 42, he also lives the redemption). He lives what the Suffering Servant lives and Jesus will later live. And Isaiah explains the meaning of this suffering, the light toward which it tends. It is a suffering toward redemption. A suffering toward life, difficult though that may be for us to understand.
In this respect, both Job and Isaiah are prophets of the Cross. They are the prophets of what Jesus will live. Jesus fulfills what they, in the Old Testament, dimly forecast.
The Night and the Cross
Now we move to the New Testatement. How does Jesus live out this mystery of innocent suffering, its redemptive nature and its relation to the resurrection?
Well, first, Jesus is insistent that his disciples understand that suffering and death will be his lot. He repeats that he will suffer three times, before the event happens. He knows the message of the Cross will be difficult so he is at pains to help his disciples grasp it. Three times he announces his Passion to his disciples, nowhere more clearly than this third time:
“Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them what was going to happen to him. ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death. But after three days he will rise.’” (Mk 10: 32-34)
Mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, and three days later he will rise . . . can one not hear, in these words, an echo of of the story of Job and Isaiah 53?
Next Jesus prays before undergoing his night. He prays in such a way that his disciples see him. In the garden of Gethsemane, he lets them see him confront the oncoming night. He asks them to support him with his prayers, but they fail do so.
The weight of his oncoming night was so intense that Jesus asked the Father to be delivered from this cup. He was in such agony in his prayer “that his sweat became like drops of falling blood on the ground.” (Lk 23:44)
Jesus lets his closest disciples witness his agony so that, later, they will know that he was preparing for this event, struggling to confront it, before it happened. Alas, they were a little like Job’s friends that night; they didn’t understand.They didn’t console him. To the contrary they made him feel more alone.
Then there is Jesus’ passion itself. Consider this: an innocent man who taught the ways of God, who healed in the power of the Spirit, who preached kindness and forgiveness, who taught people to pray, who blessed little children: this man was arrested, struck by guards, put in prison, spit upon, whipped, cruelly scourged like a Roman criminal, condemned to death, made to carry a 100 pound cross beam upon his shoulders after they were already torn by the lash of the whip. This man was abandoned by most of his disciples, nailed to a cross, jeered by the crowds and by soldiers, left to hang there and die.
Why? Why such a fate? What sense is there in it? Was he abandoned by God as he was abandoned by most of his disciples?
The Lamb of God
In the light cast by Job and the Psalmist, we can see that Jesus was living the mystery of innocent suffering, first prophesied in the Old Testament. With Isaiah, we can see that Jesus was the Suffering Servant, that he was bearing upon his shoulders the weight of our sins, like an innocent lamb led to slaughter. John the Baptist echoed this view, the moment he saw Jesus by the River Jordan.
“[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’” (Jn 1:29)
The importance of this statement is easily overlooked. But here is a good place to explore its clear undertones. The lamb of a God is a reference to Exodus 12, where God gives Moses the instruction that every household was to sacrifice an unblemished lamb, eat it and sprinkle its blood upon the doorposts. The lamb, consumed, and marking the doors of the families of Israel, saved them from the angel of death and marked them as a people called to enter into God’s covenant.
As is common in the New Testament, John is extracting from this Old Testament story its deeper meaning. He is saying that when the true Lamb of God comes, the lamb Isaiah had prophesied – “like a lamb led to slaughter” (Is. 53:7) – he is saying that the sacrifice of this lamb will open up for the people a new covenant. A covenant that will free the people from their sins.
Here is where we must ask: Why?
Not “Why?” in a spirit of incredulity. But “Why?” in a spirit of wanting to better understand the heart of God. Why this suffering? Why is this kind of sacrifice needed as part of our redemption?
If we return again to our opening statement – the plight of Job makes no sense without the light of Jesus – we can now say: Job prophesies and foreshadows the innocent suffering of Jesus. But why is innocent suffering a value in the kingdom in the first place? Why did Jesus need to suffer for us?
Tune in next week, as we explore these questions.