The meaning of Affliction in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
a-flik'-shun: Represents no fewer than 11 Hebrew words in the Old Testament, and 3 Greek words in the New Testament, of which the most common are (oni), (thlipsis). It is used (1) actively = that which causes or tends to cause bodily pain or mental distress, as "the bread of affliction" (Deuteronomy 16:3; II Chronicles 18:26); often in plural, as "Many are the afflictions of the righteous" (Psalms 34:19); (2) passively = the state of being in pain or trouble, as "to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (James 1:27). The following are the chief forms of affliction referred to: (1) Individual affliction, especially sickness, poverty, the oppression of the weak by the strong and rich, perverted justice. (2) National. A great place is given in the Old Testament to affliction as a national experience, due to calamities, such as war, invasion, conquest by foreign peoples, exile. These form the background of much of the prophetic writings, and largely determine their tone and character. (3) In the New Testament the chief form of affliction is that due to the fierce antagonism manifested to the religion of Jesus, resulting in persecution.
I. The Source of Affliction.
The Hebrew mind did not dwell on secondary causes, but attributed everything, even afflictions, directly to the great First Cause and Author of all things: "Shall evil befall a city, and Yahweh hath not done it?" (Amos 3:6); "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil (i.e. calamity); I am Yahweh, that doeth all these things" (Isaiah 45:7) Thus, all things, including calamity, were referred to the Divine operation. The Hebrew when afflicted did not doubt the universal sovereignty of God; yet, while assuming this sovereignty, he was sometimes tempted to accuse Him of indifference, neglect or forgetfulness. Compare Job passim; Isaiah 40:27; Isaiah 49:14; Ezekiel 8:12; Ezekiel 9:9.
2. Evil Agents:
Yet there are traces of a dualism which assigns a certain vague limit to God's absolute sovereignty, by referring affliction to an evil agency acting in quasi-independence of God. There could, however, never be more than a tendency in this direction, for a strict dualism was incompatible with the standpoint of Jewish monotheism. Thus Saul's mental affliction is attributed to an "evil spirit," which is yet said to be "from Yahweh" (I Samuel 16:14; I Samuel 18:10; I Samuel 19:9); and the fall of Ahab is said by Micaiah to be due to the "lying spirit" which enticed him to his doom, in obedience to God's command (I Kings 22:20-22). In the prologue of Job, Job's calamities are ascribed to the Satan, but even he receives his word of command from God, and is responsible to Him, like the other "sons of God" who surround the heavenly throne. He is thus "included in the Divine will and in the circle of Divine providence" (Schultz). After the prologue, the Satan is left out of account, and Job's misfortunes are attributed directly to the Divine causality. In later Judaism, the tendency to trace the origin of evil, physical and moral, to wicked spirits became more marked, probably because of the influence of Persian dualism. In New Testament times, physical and mental maladies were thought to be due to the agency of evil spirits called demons, whose prince was Beelzebub or Satan (Mark 1:23 ff.; Mark 3:22 f.; Mark 5:2 ff.; Matthew 9:32 f., etc.). Christ gave His assent to this belief (compare the woman under infirmity, "whom Satan hath bound," Luke 13:16). Paul attributed his bodily affliction to an evil angel sent by Satan (II Corinthians 12:7), though he recognized that the evil agent was subordinate to God's purpose of grace, and was the means of moral discipline (I Corinthians 12:7, I Corinthians 12:9). Thus, while the evil spirits were regarded as malicious authors of physical maladies, they were not, in a strictly dualistic fashion, thought to act in complete independence; rather, they had a certain place assigned to them in the Divine Providence.
II. Meaning and Purpose of Affliction.
Why did God afflict men? How is suffering to be explained consistently with the goodness and justice of God? This was an acute problem which weighed heavily upon the Hebrew mind, especially in the later, more reflective, period. We can only briefly indicate the chief factors which the Scriptures contribute to the solution of the problem. We begin with the Old Testament.
1. Punitive or Retributive:
The traditional view in early Hebrew theology was that afflictions were the result of the Divine law of retribution, by which sin was invariably followed by adequate punishment. Every misfortune was a proof of sin on the part of the sufferer. Thus Job's "friends" sought to convince him that his great sufferings were due to his sinfulness. This is generally the standpoint of the historians of Israel, who regarded national calamities as a mark of the Divine displeasure on account of the people's sins. But this naive belief, though it contains an important element of truth, could not pass uncontested. The logic of facts would suffice to prove that it was inadequate to cover all cases; e.g. Jeremiah's sufferings were due, not to sin, but to his faithfulness to his prophetic vocation. So the "suffering servant" in Isa. Job, too, in spite of his many woes, was firm in the conviction of his own integrity. To prove the inadequacy of the penal view is a main purpose of the Book of Job. A common modification of the traditional view was, that the sorrows of the pious and the prosperity of the wicked were only of brief duration; in the course of time, things would adjust themselves aright (e.g. Job 20:5 ff., Psa. 73:3-20). But even granting time for the law of retribution to work itself out, experience contradicts the view that a man's fortune or misfortune is an infallible proof of his moral quality.
The thought is often expressed that afflictions are meant to test the character or faith of the sufferer. This idea is especially prominent in Job. God allowed the Satan to test the reality of Job's piety by over-whelming him with disease and misfortunes (2). Throughout the poem Job maintains that he has stood the test (e.g. Job 23:10-12). Compare Deuteronomy 8:2, Deuteronomy 8:16; Psalms 66:10 f.; Psalms 17:3; Isaiah 48:10; Jeremiah 9:7; Proverbs 17:3.
3. Disciplinary and Purificatory:
For those who are able to stand the test, suffering has a purificatory or disciplinary value. (1) The thought of affliction as a discipline or form of Divine teaching is found in Job, especially in the speeches of Elihu, who insists that tribulation is intended as a method of instruction to save man from the pride and presumption that issue in destruction (Job 33:14-30; Job 36:8-10, Job 36:15 the Revised Version (British and American)). The same conception is found in Psalms 94:12; Psalms 119:67, Psalms 119:71. (2) The purificatory function of trials is taught in such passages as Isaiah 1:25; Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:2-3, where the process of refining metals in fire and smelting out the dross is the metaphor used.
4. Vicarious and Redemptive:
The above are not fully adequate to explain the mystery of the afflictions of the godly. The profoundest contribution in the Old Testament to a solution of the problem is the idea of the vicarious and redemptive significance of pain and sorrow. The author of Job did not touch this rich vein of thought in dealing with the afflictions of his hero. This was done by the author of the Second Isaiah. The classical passage is Isa. 52:13-53, which deals with the woes of the oppressed and afflicted Servant of God with profound spiritual insight. It makes no difference to the meaning of the afflictions whether we understand by the Servant the whole Hebrew nation, or the pious section of it, or an individual member of it, and whether the speakers in Isa. 53 are the Jewish nation or the heathen. The significant point here is the value and meaning ascribed to the Servant's sufferings. The speakers had once believed (in accordance with the traditional view) that the Servant suffered because God was angry with him and had stricken him. Now they confess that his sorrows were due, not to his own sin but to theirs (Isaiah 53:4-6, Isaiah 53:8). His sufferings were not only vicarious (the punishment of their sin falling upon him), but redemptive in their effect (peace and health coming to them as a result of his chastisement). Moreover, it was not only redemptive, but expiatory ("his soul guilt-offering," Isaiah 53:10)—a remarkable adumbration of the Christian doctrine of atonement.
5. The New Testament:
So far we have dealt only with Old Testament teaching on the meaning and purpose of affliction. The New Testament makes no new contribution to the solution of the problem, but repeats and greatly deepens the points of view already found in the Old Testament. (1) There is a recognition throughout the New Testament of the law of retribution (Galatians 6:7). Yet Jesus repudiates the popular view of the invariable connection between misfortune and moral evil (John 9:2 f.). It is clear that He had risen above the conception of God's relation to man as merely retributive (Matthew 5:45, sunshine and ram for evil men as well as for the good). His followers would suffer tribulation even more than unbelievers, owing to the hostile reaction of the evil world, similar to that which afflicted Christ Himself (Matthew 5:10 f.; Matthew 10:16-25; John 15:18-20; John 16:33). Similarly the Acts and the epistles frequently refer to the sufferings of Christians (e.g. Acts 14:22; II Corinthians 4:8-11; Colossians 1:24; Hebrews 10:32; I Peter 4:13; Revelation 7:14). Hence afflictions must have some other than a purely punitive purpose. (2) They are probational, affording a test by which the spurious may be separated from the genuine members of the Christian church (James 1:3, James 1:12; I Peter 1:7; I Peter 4:17), and (3) a means of discipline, calculated to purify and train the character (Romans 5:3; II Corinthians 12:7, II Corinthians 12:9; James 1:3). (4) The idea of vicarious and redemptive suffering gets a far deeper significance in the New Testament than in the Old Testament, and finds concrete realization in a historical person, Jesus Christ. That which is foreshadowed in Second-Isa. becomes in the New Testament a central, pervasive and creative thought. A unique place in the Divine purpose is given to the passion of Christ. Yet in a sense, His followers partake of His vicarious sufferings, and "fill up.... that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ" (Colossians 1:24; compare Philippians 3:10; I Peter 4:13). Here, surely is a profound thought which may throw a flood of light on the deep mystery of human affliction. The cross of Christ furnishes the key to the meaning of sorrow as the greatest redemptive force in the universe.
III. Endurance of Affliction.
The Scriptures abound in words of consolation and exhortation adapted to encourage the afflicted. Two main considerations may be mentioned. (1) The thought of the beneficent sovereignty of God "Yahweh reigneth; let the earth rejoice," even though "clouds and darkness are round about him" (Psalms 97:1-2); "All things work together for good to them that love God' (Romans 8:28 the King James Version). Since love is on the throne of the universe, we may rest assured that all things are meant for our good. (2) The thought that tribulation is of brief duration, in comparison with the Joy that shall follow (Psalms 30:5; Isaiah 54:7 f.; John 16:22); a thought which culminates in the hope of immortality. This hope is in the Old Testament only beginning to dawn, and gives but a faint and flickering light, except in moments of rare exaltation and insight, when the thought of a perfect future blessedness seemed to offer a solution of the enigmas of life (Job 19:25-27; Psalms 37; 49; 73). But in the New Testament it is a postulate of faith, and by it the Christian is able to fortify himself in affliction, remembering that his affliction is light and momentary compared with the "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" which is to issue out of it (II Corinthians 4:17 the King James Version; compare Matthew 5:12; Romans 8:18). Akin to this is the comfort derived from the thought of the near approach of Christ's second coming (James 5:7-8). In view of such truths as these, the Bible encourages the pious in trouble to show the spirit of patience (Psalms 37:7; Luke 21:19; Romans 12:12; James 1:3-4; James 5:7-11; I Peter 2:20), and even the spirit of positive joy in tribulation (Matthew 5:11 f.; Romans 5:3; II Corinthians 12:10; James 1:2, James 1:12; I Peter 4:13). In the New Testament emphasis is laid on the example of Jesus in patient endurance in suffering (John 16:33; James 5:7-11; I Peter 2:19-23; I Peter 3:17 f.). Above all, the Scriptures recommend the afflicted to take refuge in the supreme blessedness of fellowship with God, and of trust in His love, by which they may enter into a deep peace that is undisturbed by the trials and problems of life (Psa. 73, especially 23 through 28; Isaiah 26:3-4; John 14:1, John 14:27; Philippians 4:7; et passim).
D. Miall Edwards
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