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God as Mourner

Its not often thought about as a key mark of God, but in the Old Testament, one of the key images of God is that of a co-mourner with Israel in her distress and suffering. Ezekiel 19, for example is quite striking in God’s command to the prophet to take up a lamentation for Israel. Verse 18:32, which immediately precedes the lamentation reads “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” God’s own longing for people to flourish rather than suffer is what occasions the lament, clearly implying that the lament reflects God’s own feelings on the matter.

The book of Jeremiah is even more rife with examples of God being portrayed as a mourner, and most strikingly, God is often seen to mourn not for Israel but for the foreigner:

We have heard of the pride of Moab— he is very proud— of his loftiness, his pride, and his arrogance, and the haughtiness of his heart. I myself know his insolence, says the Lord; his boasts are false, his deeds are false. Therefore I wail for Moab; I cry out for all Moab; for the people of Kir-heres I mourn. More than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah! Your branches crossed over the sea, reached as far as Jazer; upon your summer fruits and your vintage the destroyer has fallen. Gladness and joy have been taken away from the fruitful land of Moab; I have stopped the wine from the wine presses; no one treads them with shouts of joy; the shouting is not the shout of joy. Heshbon and Elealeh cry out;  as far as Jahaz they utter their voice, from Zoar to Horonaim and Eglath-shelishiyah. For even the waters of Nimrim have become desolate.  And I will bring to an end in Moab, says the Lord, those who offer sacrifice at a high place and make offerings to their gods. Therefore my heart moans for Moab like a flute, and my heart moans like a flute for the people of Kir-heres; for the riches they gained have perished. (Jer 48:29-36)

What is interesting about this, and similar passages is that even when God is portrayed as the agent of judgment, that is coupled with God’s own anguish about the suffering of those involved. What this means is obviously an important theological issue, but my point here is that the language of the prophets portrays God as one who laments and mourns over suffering.

Perhaps the most explicit of these sorts of passages is found in Jeremiah 9:17-19:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skilled women to come;  let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.  For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion: “How we are ruined! We are utterly shamed, because we have left the land, because they have cast down our dwellings.”

What is portrayed so beautifully here is that the expansion to the first person plural, “we” is clearly meant to include God along with the mourners. It is God’s eyes no less than ours that overflow with tears over the calamity at hand.

The point of all this is just to say that folks who get suspicious about people who speak of God mourning with those who suffer or sharing the in the sorrow of those in pain is at variance with the biblical prophetic tradition. According the prophets, God is not detached form the suffering of God’s people, and indeed the suffering of all people. Rather God weeps and mourns over suffering and death. Saying so is not some limp-wristed attempt at sentimentalizing God, but merely following in the footsteps of Jeremiah.

Note: For more on this theme, read Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective.

3 Comments

  1. james wrote:

    I don’t have a problem with your broader point, but that latter quote from Jer 9 seems like an author’s slip-up to me. Rather than some artistic expansion of the first person, maybe Jerry simply forgot whose voice was speaking.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  2. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    May I add something from Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira (who knew a lot about mourning) and the Talmud that speaks to your worthy post: “The Talmud states in Hagiah [5} that we may apply the verse “strength and rejoicing are in His place” (1 Chronicle 16:27) to God’s outer chambers but in his inner chambers, he grieves and weeps for the sufferings of Israel. therefore, there are occasions when, at a time of divine concealment–meaning, when He, blessed be He, conceals Himself in His inner chambers–the Jewish person communes with Him there, each individual in accord with his situation, and Torah and divine service are revealed to him there We have already mentioned how the oral Torah was revealed in exile; the Holy Zohar was revealed to Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai at a time of extraordinary calamity caused by the terror of the Roman government. God, blessed is He, is to be found in His inner chambers weeping, so that one who pushes in and comes close to Him by means of studying torah with Him, weeps together with God and studies torah with Him. Just this makes the difference: the weeping, the pain which a person undergoes by himself, alone, may have the effect of breaking him, of bringing him down, so that he incapably of doing anything. but the weeping which the person does together with God–that strengthens him. He weeps-and is strengthened; he is broken–but finds courage to study and teach. It is hard to raise one’s self up, time and time agian from the tribulations, but when one is determind, then he enters in to the inner chambers where the Blessed Holy One is to be found; he weeps and wails together with Him, and even finds strength to study Torah and serve Him.” thanks and blessings, daniel

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    p.s. Sparky down in Eugene says hi, daniel

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

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