How Long, O Lord?
A Biblical Theology of Suffering
In Psalm thirteen the phrase repeats like a staccato beat in the whole first stanza: How long? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Leave me to struggle with anxiety, weariness all the time? How long will the enemy triumph over me?
Suffering takes many forms. It may be isolation, the sense that even God has forgotten, or that he is withholding his mercy, hiding his face. It may be continual unease, threats of tragedy. It may be any number of enemies, from hatred and slander to illness and pain including the very threat of death itself.
The most common type of psalm is complaint. Apparently, God does not mind. It seems the complaining of the psalmists is well justified. Most often their life is a long journey of suffering.
Why must we suffer? For all their complaining, the psalmists never ask this question. Suffering is simply the unavoidable reality of experience. But suffering is not necessary. Psalm writers do not try to explain evil away, they call on God to blast it away. “God, you are my king of old, you work deliverance in the land. You crushed Sea in your strength, shattered the heads of the Monster upon the waters, you crushed the head of Leviathan” (Psalm 74:12–14a). God long ago defeated the great evil Monster. He made a world of beauty, a place for his people to work. “You make the grass to grow, crops so people can work, you bring bread from the ground . . . they go out to do their work, labor until evening. How marvelous is your work O Lord . . . the great sea, its vast expanse . . . there you formed Leviathan to make sport with him” (Psalm 104:14, 23, 24, 26). This paean of creation is the only time in Scripture Leviathan is tamed, a mere creature of the sea splashing around, a part of all the rest of the world. Everywhere else Leviathan is the threatening evil monster who appears in various guises. Evil persists in God’s good creation. Suffering is a resident every person will encounter.
There was a stream of wisdom that believed suffering could be controlled. It was possible to live in such a way that a person of true faith would always experience the blessing of God, even if suffering comes in droves. Such suffering happened to Job: Sabeans from the South, lightning from the West, Chaldeans from the North, hot desert winds from the East – disaster from humans, calamity from nature (Job 1:13–19). It was relentless; messenger overtook messenger with bad news. This did not deter Job’s friend Eliphaz. He had impeccable theology: you reap what you sow (Job 4:8). No logic could refute that dictum. Job had been a good man. The person that God corrects is blessed; six or seven calamities can never harm such an individual (Job 5:17, 19). Eliphaz knows Job will be safe, have a good home and family with an honorable death in the end (vv. 24–26). Job’s life will be complete like an abundant harvest of corn. The wise have discerned this and Job had better understand it.
But Job knew differently. He had a vision that was terrifying. It is Eliphaz who reports the vision in Job 4:12–21 as part of his rebuke to Job; in 15:12–17 he castigates Job for thinking the thoughts of this vision. “What has got into your mind?” (15:12). “I will tell you, you listen to me” (v. 17). The vision had this frightful question: Can a person be pure before God? Can one born of woman be declared right? (4:17; 15:14). It was not a question about being sinless; Job knew he had sins (7:28–29). It was a question about whether one could live in such a pure way that blessing must come. Job knew the answer was negative. Not even a night’s sleep could alleviate his dread. Job’s bed did not lift his worries, the night terrified him with these visions (7:13–14). Job and his friends were at an impasse with the question. The friends knew Job’s problem was spiritual; his faith was not right, he was guilty of duplicity with God. Job knew that the one thing he had was integrity; friends would not be able to bully him into their way of thinking. They were simply wrong.
In the end, God, who has been so elusive in all Job’s angry outbursts, confronts him in the whirlwind: “You can bury all evil in the dust? Why even I would praise you; your might would deliver you!” (Job 40:13–14). Job must surrender; there is no knowledge inaccessible to God (42:2). Job must come to a new understanding. Justice is not his to define. He must reject his defiant claims and repent as a child of dust (v. 6). He has a place in this world, but it is not to tell the creator about how the universe should be governed. One thing he can accept; he will not go wrong by trusting the creator that has given him life. For all his anger, Job had said the right things about God (42:7). Job would be a priest to his friends, intervening on their behalf. Job could submit to God because he realizes that God oversees brutal Leviathan. Leave pounding Sea to God.
The psalmists also knew that God defeats dreadful Leviathan, but in the most unusual manner. In the first instance God created the world by crushing the ugly head of Sea. But the ultimate defeat of this monster would come by another power. It is the power of a good those made in God’s image share. This good is the power of suffering. In suffering is the conquest of suffering. Psalm 22 is one of the most haunting laments a human can express: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I call out by day—no answer; by night—nothing, only silence” (vv. 1–2). No suffering is so long as a painful sleepless night, especially when the sufferer is facing death, as this psalmist – “You have set me for the dust of death” (v. 15c). God had determined his destiny—death. Without warning, while still on the horns of the bull, the psalmist bursts into praise: “You have answered me!” (v. 21b). In the poetry of the psalm, the answer is parallel to the plea – “Save me from the mouth of the lion” (v. 21a). What answer is this? Why does the psalmist now burst into praise for the whole congregation? It is the knowledge that whatever the outcome of his suffering, the work of God has broken the power of suffering.
Psalm 22 is familiar to most Christians because Jesus on the cross uttered its opening words as his suffering became its most intense: “eli, eli, lema sabachthani” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus suffered as a human. As humans we participate in the victory of that suffering. Paul says of his mission to the Colossians: “I rejoice in my suffering on your behalf, as I bring to completion in my flesh that which lacks in the affliction of Christ on behalf of his body the church” (Col 1:24). The apostle is not talking about atonement; the suffering of Christians is a part of the conquest of suffering achieved by Christ on the cross.
Suffering of Christians is never meaningless. Their suffering is part of the work of Christ in bringing all tears to an end. They patiently await that day when Sea is no more (Revelation 21:1), no more Leviathan. The monster will be crushed forever. Those faithful in Christ share in the victory of that utter crushing of all evil, pain, and suffering.
August H. Konkel
McMaster Divinity College
Bio – Gus Konkel
August Konkel is professor of Old Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton Ontario. He is president emeritus of Providence University College and Seminary in Otterburne (2001-2012). In 1984 he began as professor of Old Testament at Providence Theological Seminary. His publications include work as a translator for the New Living Translation, a contributor of notes for the Study Bible of the NLT in Chronicles, and notes for the Study Bible of the English Standard translation in Job. He was a contributor to the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Zondervan). He has published commentaries on Job (Tyndale Press), 1 & 2 Kings (Zondervan), and 1 & 2 Chronicles (Herald Press). His published research specializes in textual criticism and Biblical Theology.
Konkel was ordained in Mennonite Church Canada in 1972; he served as pastor of the Bethel Bergthaler Mennonite Church in Winkler from 1971-1982. He lives in Paris, Ontario with his wife Esther. They have four adult children who have made their homes in Ontario, England, and Guatemala and eight grandchildren between the ages of nine and thirteen.