Posted by: duncandrews | August 20, 2012

My eyes a fountain of tears: a theology of weeping (iii)

Humanity’s tears vindicated and directed

In the context of the overarching story of the bible, Jesus comes as the true human. In Colossians 1:15 we read that not only is he like Adam made in the image of God, but that he is the image of the invisible God. He comes as what humanity was created to be; as theologian Herman Bavink writes, ‘in Adam’s creation Christ was already in view’.

Jesus then comes as the goal, the telos of humanity, and his tears come as a vindication of humanity’s tears. Again Donne: ‘He wept as man doth weepe, and he wept as a man may weepe’.

But in the biblical story, not all of humanity’s tears are vindicated. The Israelites in the wilderness weep in complaint against God (Num. 14:1), their weeping condemned as a sign of their despising Yahweh, forgetting his provision in the Exodus (Num. 14:11). Or in Malachi, the priests cover ‘the Lord’s alter with tears’ (2:13); but it is a false weeping, religious showmanship without true repentance (2:14-15).

So what can we say about the right ‘shape’ of weeping? How can our tears be rightly directed?

Throughout the OT, we see a number of ‘types’ of tears that make sense within the boundaries of its narrative. First of all, we see tears for a broken world.

Tears for a broken world

Tears are present from the Bible’s first book, although are concentrated towards the end, particularly in the figure of Joseph. Each time Joseph sees his brothers in Egypt he weeps (42:24, 43:30). Once he reveals his identity he weeps so loudly the whole house can hear, as the emotional pain of separation is resolved (45:2). At his father Isaac’s death he again weeps for the loss (50:1).

The story of creation’s fall begins in its most cosmic scope (Gen. 3), but narrows through the narrative, culminating in Joseph’s story of tragedy and reconciliation (Gen. 37:2-50:26). In the context of Genesis, then, Joseph’s tears come as a concentration of the brokenness of creation, and reveal the first ‘type’ of tears the make sense in the light of the realities presented. Joseph cries as a function of the world’s brokenness.

Tears of sorrow for sin

Another ‘type’ of OT tears are of sorrow for sin. Josiah in 2 Kings and the people of Israel in Nehemiah, for example, both weep when faced with the Torah being read out to them (2 Kings 22:8-20; Neh. 8:9). Calvin characterised the law as a mirror in which we contemplate our weakness and sin, and the consequent curse upon us (Inst. 2.7.7). After seeing the reality of the desperate condition, not just of the world, but of their own rebellious and broken hearts in the light of God’s law, both Josiah and the exiles wept before Yahweh.

Tears of petition to God

The Psalms of David highlight a third type of right tears, of petition to God. In Psalm 6 David drenches his bed with his tears every night (v. 6), pleading with God to come and help him in his distress (vv. 8-10). David yearned for God to rescue him; and his belief that God was able to do that manifested itself in an
intense, personal weeping, directed towards God himself.

Tears for the future judgment of God

The last major ‘type’ of OT tears are for the judgment of God. These come particularly in the prophets, as they face the unthinkable tragedy of exile. Isaiah cries out ‘Let me weep bitterly! Do not try to comfort me about the destruction of my dear people’ (22:4). Jeremiah’s eyes overflow with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive (13:17). Joel calls for the people to weep because of their coming destruction (1:5). The prophets see the judgment of God on his people in the exile, and the right response was to weep.

The contours of right tears through the OT include, then, tears for the brokenness of the world, tears of sorrow for sin, tears of petition, and tears for the judgment of God. With these in mind, we return to Jesus’ tears.

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