A Biblically based commentary on current issues that impact you
The Hebrew Lament and the Problem of Evil
by Bob DeWaay
“Therefore, I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Have I sinned? What have I done to Thee, O watcher of men? Why hast Thou set me as Thy target, So that I am a burden to myself?” (Job 7:11,20)
“How long, O Lord, will I call for help, And Thou wilt not hear? I cry out to Thee, ‘Violence!’ Yet Thou dost not save. Why dost Thou make me see iniquity, And cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; Strife exists and contention arises.
Therefore, the law is ignored And justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore, justice comes out perverted.” (Habakkuk 1:2-4)
The Hebrew people were not bashful about voicing their complaints to the Lord about the problem of evil and suffering. Their laments about evil make up make up a large body of literature in the Bible which includes Job (parts of it), Habakkuk, many lament Psalms, Lamentations, and much of Jeremiah. The Holy Spirit inspired the Biblical authors to write this material so that all subsequent generations of people could learn from people of faith who suffered in past ages. What we shall explore in this essay is, “What did they learn?” Since there is so much inspired Scripture that asks hard questions about why God allows evil and suffering, should we not start with this material when seeking answers about the problem of evil?
A few months ago I was reading an editorial in our local paper by a Christian educator who was writing a book on the problem of evil. In the editorial he mentioned three theistic defenses that address this issue: the openness of God, the free will defense, and the soul-building defense. The openness idea is that God does not know the future choices of free moral agents, so He cannot be blamed for failing to anticipate the evil they do. The free will defense says that God knows the consequences of giving humans free will, but has decided it is worth giving it because without free will we would be unable to truly love God. The soul-building defense says that God allows evil for a greater good in the lives of His people. The author of the editorial was writing a book to promote the free will defense.
Reading the editorial, I had this thought: why do we consult philosophical speculation first when we address this issue?1 In so doing, we act as if the Bible were silent on it. Since we have a very large body of material in the Bible, in which real people voice their complaints to God about evil in the world, should not we start there in our search for answers? In some cases, God Himself speaks to the issue. One cannot find a higher authority or hope for better answers than the ones God gives. So I decided to restudy various laments in the Bible and categorize their answers to the problem of evil. Let us see where this approach leads us.
Job complained bitterly to God about his horrible suffering. His “comforters” told him it was his own fault, but Job did not accept their conclusions. Job, however, had no other viable explanation and longed for a chance to present his case before God Himself. He got his opportunity as described in Job chapters 38 - 42. Though this section is very long, the answers can be summarized by category. Most of the responses are a series of rhetorical questions God asks Job which Job could not answer (Job 38:5 - 39:30 and 40:9 - 41:34). The first question shows the basic issue in all the questions: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). Seen from the perspective of God’s position as Almighty Creator, Job’s complaints are impertinent and insolent. God as Creator has knowledge, power, sovereignty, and wisdom beyond all human reasoning. Job could not hope to answer a single one of the dozens of questions. God’s power and wisdom are evident in creation and man’s finiteness is such that he lacks understanding and knowledge. Thus, man is dependent on God for what He knows. For man to question God is the height of folly.
There is an interlude in the rhetorical questions in Job 40:1-8 that is very important in understanding the message of the Book of Job. God asks, “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it” (Job 40:2). The point is that no one can possibly reprove God, so no man can give an adequate answer. Job gets the point and responds: “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to Thee? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; Even twice, and I will add no more” (Job 40:4,5). God however, is not done with His questions. He says, “Now gird up your loins like a man; I will ask you, and you instruct Me. Will you really annul My judgment? Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?” (Job 40:7,8). This last question is crucial. Will a man condemn God to justify himself? This is the watershed issue as far as the Bible is concerned. Are we willing to accept God’s self-revelation through the Scriptures and love and trust Him on His terms, or shall we demand a “god” who conforms to our own ideas?
An example of this tendency is, Harold Kushner, a famous author who wrote the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In a televised debate with Norman Geisler, Rabbi Kushner argued that God wants to solve the problem of evil but lacks the power to do so.2 When we contemplate the existence of evil in a theistic universe, we are tempted to allow speculation to take precedence over revelation. Dare we deny certain aspects of God’s character that are clearly taught in Scripture so that we have a more pleasing answer to the problem of evil?
Will man condemn God to justify himself? He will surely try. God further asks Job, “Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine.” (Job 41:11). The whole creation belongs to God and He can rule His own universe as He sees fit. He owes man nothing! He reserves the right to dispose of all that is His according to His good pleasure.
After hearing more about God’s power over all of creation, Job replies: “I know that Thou canst do all things, And that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2). This section of Job is key to understanding the answer it gives to the problem of evil. The context indicates that what Job says in verses 2-6 is pleasing to God. For example, right after Job speaks and says, “Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6), God commends Job. Therefore the writer of Job is indicating that his response in Job 42:2-6 is correct. God says to Job’s comforters, “You have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has” (Job 42:7b). This is, I believe, a reference to what Job had just said.
The key things that Job said were that God had all power — “Thou canst do all things” — and that God was fully able to execute His plans — “no purpose of Thine can be thwarted.” This is very telling. Since the “open view” that denies God’s exhaustive foreknowledge assumes that many of God’s purposes are continually thwarted by unforeseen choices of moral agents.
The “free will” approach also holds that there is a something important that God cannot do, and that is to create a universe in which free moral agents freely love Him without also risking the possibility of evil. They hold that God foresees that men will do evil, but that He decided it was worth it in order to have free agents who could love Him. In some sense, they also see God’s purposes being thwarted. Interestingly, in the whole discussion that arises in the Book of Job, the only ones committed to the free will idea were Job’s comforters, who claimed that Job had chosen to sin and was being punished for it. In all the verses where God Himself speaks, He never said that free will caused the problems in Job’s life. In fact, the prologue of Job indicates that God gave Satan permission to ruin Job’s life and that Job was blameless. This whole scenario shows God’s purposes, not some commitment to “free will.”3
Much of what happened to Job cannot be explained by the existence of free will. For example, whose “free will” was involved in boils all over Job’s body? Job did not have these boils until God gave Satan permission to touch his body. This is reminiscent of a passage in John: “And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:2,3). Granted, this explanation does not sit very well with most contemporary thinkers. They imagine that it is cruel for God to allow a man to suffer blindness all those years so that He could heal him later. Perhaps they think it a small thing that subsequently the man came to faith in Christ (John 9:38). We can ask the man when we get to heaven if he thought those previous years of blindness were worth it. God saw fit to allow something in Job’s life that He would later heal him of, for a greater good.
The Book of Job concludes with God’s restoration of Job’s fortunes. He allowed all that happened, not just for Job to learn more about God’s sovereign power and purposes, but for all future readers of the Bible to learn, as well. It amazes me that the answers in the Book of Job are so rarely considered when the problem of evil is discussed by Christians. We should allow the salient Biblical material to inform our understanding of these matters.
Habakkuk is a unique prophet in that his book does not contain preaching to others, but is a record of His own problems with understanding God’s ways. Habakkuk struggled with the problem of evil. His first question has to do with why God allowed evil leadership in Israel:
How long, O Lord, will I call for help, And Thou wilt not hear? I cry out to Thee, “Violence!” Yet Thou dost not save. Why dost Thou make me see iniquity, And cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; Strife exists and contention arises. Therefore, the law is ignored And justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore, justice comes out perverted. (Habakkuk 1:2-4)
This is a good description of the problem of evil, one that in various forms has been repeated throughout human history. Notice the phrase “how long.” This phrase is found many times in the Bible in Hebrew laments.4 Its form carries with it a clue to the Biblical perspective on the problem of evil: there is a time limitation to it. There will be a time when God will deal decisively with all forms of evil. This was not questioned. What was questioned was how long it would be before this happens.
Habakkuk could not bear, he felt, to watch anymore as the powerful in Israel oppressed the righteous. He wondered when God would bring deserved punishment to the wicked in Israel. God’s answer shocked Habakkuk because it clearly was not what he wanted to hear. God was going to use the even more wicked Chaldeans to judge Israel. God would send a ruthless and godless people to solve the problem that Habakkuk was complaining about. Here is what God said to Habakkuk: “Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days — You would not believe if you were told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, That fierce and impetuous people Who march throughout the earth To seize dwelling places which are not theirs” (Habakkuk 1:5,6).
This was not what Habakkuk wanted to hear! Far from an answer, this was even more troubling. He said, “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, And Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor. Why dost Thou look with favor On those who deal treacherously? Why art Thou silent when the wicked swallow up Those more righteous than they?” (Habakkuk 1:13). The Chaldeans were even more evil than the apostate Jews. This seemed to Habakkuk an even greater contradiction. How can a righteous God raise up evil people to bring about His justice? So he continued his complaint and asked God for an answer: “Why hast Thou made men like the fish of the sea, Like creeping things without a ruler over them? The Chaldeans bring all of them up with a hook, Drag them away with their net, And gather them together in their fishing net. Therefore, they rejoice and are glad.” (Habakkuk 1:14,15). He was saying, we are no more than fish to be caught for the food for the wicked Chaldeans and thus make them happy! Far from being a satisfying answer to his first question, this answer raised even more questions.
Habakkuk, assuming he would be reproved by God (Habakkuk 2:1), awaited God’s answer. Interestingly, the answer he received will later be quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17, and much later read by Martin Luther who was inspired by it to spark the Reformation. Habakkuk’s sorrows and laments were not to be without fruit. The answer he received was: “For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hastens toward the goal, and it will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay. Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:3,4). There is not only a time issue as discussed earlier, but an attitude issue as well. The vision is that of God bringing to pass all His saving purposes, truly ruling in righteousness through Messiah. The purpose of Israel was to carry forward the promise given to Abraham that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). This would happen in God’s “appointed” time. God has his purpose for Israel and it will not fail, wicked Chaldeans not withstanding. God will bring about justice in His own time and way.
The attitude issue concerns pride or faith. The proud one will not accept that God has an appointed time but will look to take action in his own way. The righteous person, on the other hand, shall live by faith. Habakkuk is to faithfully wait for God and put his trust in God who keeps His promises. God’s purposes shall prevail and the righteous one will trust God no matter how much present evil must be endured.
The rest of the book of Habakkuk concerns the calamity that will befall the wicked, warnings against idolatry, promises that God will fully reveal His glory throughout the earth, and then a prayer of Habakkuk. There are a couple of key passages that show the prophet’s hope. One is Habakkuk 2:14: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, As the waters cover the sea.” This shows the content of the vision that is appointed (verse 3). This is also that for which the righteous wait in faith (verse 4).
Habakkuk does not take all this in a fatalistic way, but prays fervently for God’s purposes: “Lord, I have heard the report about Thee and I fear. O Lord, revive Thy work in the midst of the years, In the midst of the years make it known; In wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2). Habakkuk’s prayer shows that He accepted God’s answer even though it was not the one he wanted to hear. This is our need in our day. Will we accept God’s answer to our rightfully felt distress over the evil around us, or will we only accept answers that play well in our secular culture?
Habakkuk did not at all like the answer he received, but he accepted it as from the Lord. That he struggled with the answer is seen in this verse: “I heard and my inward parts trembled, At the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, And in my place I tremble. Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, For the people to arise who will invade us” (Habakkuk 3:16). He had to wait for his own people to be destroyed by the Chaldeans because God had raised them up to do so. Habakkuk’s final response however, shows the dignity, beauty, and grace of the Hebrew lament. Though brutally honest in their questions and distresses, the Hebrew prophets were anchored in a firm understanding of God’s greatness and His love. Habakkuk concludes:
Though the fig tree should not blossom, And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail, And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold, And there be no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, And He has made my feet like hinds' feet, And makes me walk on my high places. For the choir director, on my stringed instruments. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)
Habakkuk’s lament turns into a song about God’s goodness to be sung in Israel. What is remarkable is that this was the case even as he waited for the inevitable “day of distress.” He never doubts that God is, indeed, the God of his salvation.
Like Job, Habakkuk gained a deeper faith in God through his deep sorrows and personal experience with horrible evil. As with Job, the answer that God gave had to do with His purposes. He was the one raising up the invaders who would punish the apostate leaders of Israel, and His ultimate answer was to come at His appointed time. In the meanwhile, His people are to live by faith. Let us consider this in relationship to the current answers proposed for the problem of evil. Did God tell Habakkuk, “I have to let the wicked leaders in Israel and the wicked Chaldeans have their free will; otherwise, no one could love Me”? It is hard to force the free will solution into the text. It is also hard so see how “free will” would give the hope that the whole world would be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God (2:14). The answers had to do with time — not now but later — and attitude — faith rather than pride. The “openness” view is even less tenable. In Habakkuk, God predicts what will happen. He knows very well the future course of human history.
The lament Psalms echo similar themes and propose the same answers. The first lament, Psalm 13, asks “how long” concerning the oppression of the wicked. Its ending is similar to Habakkuk: “But I have trusted in Thy lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in Thy salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13: 5,6). The Hebrew writers of Scripture asked the hard questions and complained bitterly to the Lord about the evil that afflicted them. But they ultimately did not doubt God’s character. In fact, it was their confidence in His righteous character that fueled their laments. It was the fact that He was all-powerful and righteous that created the seeming incongruity with their experiences.
For example, if they, like Rabbi Kushner, truly thought that God could not do anything about the situation, they would hardly have been so upset that He did not. Their knowledge that God could easily change everything if He so willed underlies the thinking in all these laments. They do not interact with anything that resembles the modern theories that suppose that God has to do things this way because of some inherent limitation in His abilities or nature. These Biblical writers had an unwavering belief that God could change their situation immediately if it was His purpose to do so. The “how long” underscores this faith. There is no time issue with an impossibility.
Psalm 94 is a lament Psalm that cries out for God to judge the earth and vindicate the faith of the afflicted who are trusting in God. The psalmist writes, “How long shall the wicked, O Lord, How long shall the wicked exult?” (Psalm 94:3). Again, we see the “how long” motif. The tension is between God’s righteous character, His position as Judge of the Earth, and the apparent impunity with which the wicked sin. They are quoted: “Lord does not see, Nor does the God of Jacob pay heed” (verse 7). The psalmist also mentions God’s knowledge of human thoughts: “The Lord knows the thoughts of man, That they are a mere breath” (verse 11). This is not the first time human finiteness has come up in lament literature! Job emphasized the limitations of human knowledge and power compared to God’s infinitely wise and powerful nature.
The next two verses contain key Biblical themes in the context of evil and suffering: “Blessed is the man whom Thou dost chasten, O Lord, And dost teach out of Thy law; That Thou mayest grant him relief from the days of adversity, Until a pit is dug for the wicked” (Psalm 94:12,13). The righteous are disciplined and taught from God’s word. As they pine under the sorrows of moral and calamitous evil, they, like Job, learn about God’s ways and are changed for the better by the process. There is also the issue of the future. Now, we are chastened and taught; later the wicked are judged. Other lament Psalms, such as Psalm 73, complain of the fact that now the wicked are prosperous and happy (Psalm 73:3-9), yet joy and hope came to the psalmist when the future was contemplated (Psalm 73:17,18). Likewise, Psalm 94 looks to a future condition when God makes things right (verses 14,15,23).
There is one more concept in Psalm 94 that is in keeping with other Biblical laments. That is a firm confidence in the righteous character of God. The psalmist wrote, “If I should say, ‘My foot has slipped,’ Thy lovingkindness, O Lord, will hold me up” (Psalm 94:18). This is the same idea as Psalm 13:5. Knowing God’s grace, love, and kind intentions toward us preserves our faith in the day of distress. God will not allow the evil in this world to ultimately destroy the faith of His godly ones who have been redeemed.
We have found consistent themes in this brief survey of Hebrew laments: belief in God’s total sovereignty, faithful trust, and human finiteness. God’s total sovereignty over all things provided the reason for lamenting in the first place. They knew that God had all power and had no doubt that He could change the situation. That He had not done so caused them to cry out, “How long?” However, this same belief in God’s sovereign rulership of His own creation provided future hope. God would one day judge the wicked, vindicate His faithful ones, and cause the whole earth to be filled with the knowledge of His glory. Those theories that seek to lesson the tension between theistic belief and the reality of evil by attempting to diminish God’s power, knowledge, or sovereign rulership unwittingly undermine future hope that so characterize the Hebrew lament.
Another key theme is faithful trust. Job, Habakkuk, and the Psalmists made expressions of hope and trust in the midst of their sorrow over evil and suffering. These expressions are commended to us as exemplary. They provide a rich heritage for all people of faith who suffer throughout the ages. Job vowed to serve God though He slay him, and Habakkuk chose to exult in the Lord though the land be devastated. The lament Psalms characteristically ended with praises to God. The book of Lamentations itself, filled with bitter laments, says: “This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Thy faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him” (Lamentations 3:21-24). All believers who suffer until the very end of the age can find encouragement by this example. It is not naive to trust in God’s lovingkindness and compassion when suffering horribly; it is placing one’s hope in the only One who can truly give us reason for hope. If we doubted God’s character, our faith would be undermined.
A final theme that characterizes the lament is that of human finiteness. We do not know enough to instruct God about how He ought to rule His universe. Job was taught that lesson very strongly. In the face of our limitations, lack of power, and lack of knowledge, we have to acknowledge that only God could possibly turn all this evil into something that eventually will bring glory to Himself and the greater good for His people. The Scriptures tell us that He will.
Therefore, the “soul building” defense best fits the Biblical lament. The Biblical authors, even when pierced through with life’s sorrows, proclaimed, “I have trusted in thy lovingkindness.” Somehow, “I have trusted in myself or my free will” does not give the same hope.
Issue 64 - May/June 2001
- I am not disparaging philosophy per se. Jonathan Krohnfeldt, who has a B.A. in philosophy, has contributed an article to this issue of CIC that shows how logical and philosophical distinctions help us understand Biblical issues. I am suggesting that philosophy that does not interact with or take into consideration the preponderance of the pertinent Biblical material is often very misleading. I commend Jonathan’s article to you and hope that you take the time to read it carefully. It will help you understand a very important concept that is essential to this discussion.
- Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? (Dr. Norman Geisler, Rabbi Harold Kushner), The John Ankerberg Show, 1985, video tape. Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, P.O. Box 8977, Chattanooga, TN 37414.
- Interestingly, God said that He was responsible for what happened to Job: “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to ruin him without cause.’” (Job 2:3)
- The phrase is addressed to God in lament for example in Psalm 6:3; 13:1,2; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5; 89:46; and 94:3.
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