Reading Time: 9 mins

What the Bible’s Wisdom Books Say about Human Suffering

Reading Time: 9 mins

God does not give us an undebatable answer to suffering. Instead, God suffers, too.

The Bible’s Wisdom Books are full of practical advice and offer insight into moral living, justice, love, and leadership. In the Bible, “wisdom” means knowing and doing right. It is both a set of expertise within a given context and a mode of behavior (since a wise man does what is wise and a fool does the opposite or nothing at all). The Wisdom books generally attempt to set a person up for success in life. Sometimes, that means wealth, but most of the time, it means maximizing opportunities and avoiding pitfalls to increase the chances of living well. And this all falls within the context of “fearing the Lord” or seeing reality as an operation in which God is involved and in charge. You can think of it this way: Wisdom is the art of knowing reality well and living by it (for reality contains God, who rules and reigns in it).

Because wisdom deals with situations that arise in life, it also speaks about injustice and human suffering. What may surprise readers of the Bible’s Wisdom books is that each of them offers a unique perspective to the question: why do we suffer? The fact that the Bible offers different voices to speak into this human reality should tell us that there is no simple answer, there are many answers given to the reality of human suffering

Below are summaries of how each of the Bible’s Wisdom books tackle the question. An important note: these are summations of the books. Each Wisdom book carries its own logic and nuanced answer. Try to think of the information below as a broad overflight. It is always better to read the books in their totality and extract their richness subtly in context.

Proverbs: 

Proverbs is a book of wise sayings intended to train young men in royal courtly life. It grounds wisdom as being founded in the “fear of the Lord,” and it generally views suffering through the lens of cause and effect. For example, “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail (Prov. 22:8).” Or, “If you set a trap for others, you will get caught yourself. If you roll a boulder down on others, it will crush your head (Prov. 26:27).” 

Proverbs does not deal too much with the greater question of why a good God allows good people to suffer. It does not worry too much about injustice on the cosmic scale of things. Instead, it takes the broad view that while not all suffering is self-inflicted, much of the suffering we experience comes from either our own poor choices or the poor choices of others. Foolishness, or “folly,” is what makes life particularly bad (and it doesn’t have to be this way). So, one answer to suffering is to get wisdom and train others in it, which is exactly what the book is trying to do. Propagation of wisdom will not solve all our problems, but it will make life better for everyone. So, to the extent that so much suffering is in our ability to avoid, we should practice wisdom. 

Ecclesiastes: 

The writer of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth (which means “teacher” or “preacher”), is skeptical of Proverb’s seemingly karmic viewpoint. This author is deeply troubled by injustice and death, two things that seem to make life particularly unfair to him. Injustice is a problem because God is good, and he should be a God who rewards righteousness and punishes bad. He should be a God who gives long life to the righteous (like Proverbs says) and ensures just trials in court. But that is not what we often see. The young die before their time, the courts are filled with injustice, and death levels out the gains of both the righteous and the wicked. How can God allow this? Qoheleth complains, “There is a vanity that takes place on the earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said this too is vanity” (Eccl. 8:10). 

Does God actually punish the wicked, or does injustice win out? The writer thinks both are true, and he never resolves the tension.

At the same time, the writer knows that God is good and “makes everything beautiful in its time” (Eccl. 3:11). We are told to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13) and, “It will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God” (Eccl. 8:13). So, which is it? Does God actually punish the wicked, or does injustice win out? The writer thinks both are true, and he never resolves the tension. For him, it is absolutely true that God brings justice to the wicked eventually, but the problem is that God does not act fast enough: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11). The reality that God doesn’t always punish evil is an exception to his promise to do so (until God acts) and this really bothers the author.

But the author also does not try to resolve the tension between God’s tardiness to bring justice and the promise that God will eventually do so. Instead, the answer to the question of suffering for Qoheleth is to hold on to the good all around you and seize it when it comes. Life is a mixture of good and bad that always comes in seasons. No one’s life is all bad or all good. Life ebbs and flows out of differing intensities, and the wise person knows how to act well in each season to maximize their well-being. Suffering cannot be avoided, for life is unfair, and people act wickedly, but an embrace of context can lessen it. Life is always bigger than our suffering, and God’s promises will eventually come to pass. Until then, enjoy the gifts that God gives in every season and learn the skill of seeing those gifts wherever they are. 

Song of Songs: 

The Song of Songs is a strange erotic love poem whose meaning is steeped in allegory. While agreement that the book should be read allegorically has almost universal acceptance (ancient and modern), disagreement ensues as to what the allegorical reading should be. Jews read the book as an allegory between God and Israel and Christians as an allegory between Christ and the Church (it can be both!).

The story is a series of snapshots between two lovers. An unnamed woman is the main character who, throughout the poem, overcomes her lovesickness to her male partner and learns to trust him for who he is, finally resting in their relationship without angst or worry. 

The female character suffers greatly in the book. We first meet her when her brothers punish her for some unnamed offense, and throughout the poem, she suffers from anxiety, depression, beatings, false accusations, lovesickness, and jealousy. But by the book’s end, she is able to make some sense of this suffering by learning more about the male character, who she eventually comes to realize is the center of her identity.

The woman makes an incredible statement in what is perhaps (rightly) the book’s most famous passage: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm for love is as strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song of Songs 8:6-7).  Here, the woman asks the male character to embrace her as part of his identity. What it means to be him, if he accepts the invitation, will be to be him-with-her. The two will become one. Although the woman literally says that “love is as strong as death, jealously as fierce as the grave,” what she means in context is that love is stronger than death because “many waters cannot quench love, neither floods drown it out.” Water and floods are symbols of divine wrath (remember Noah and the Flood), and “jealousy” recalls God as a jealous God. He will not share his love of Israel with anyone else. So, too, love will not share its beloved with death. Death is jealous and takes all (no one is untouched by it), but love will not accept this state of affairs. Love is jealous, too—more jealous and fiercer than death. It never surrenders. When a loved one dies, love doesn’t give in or give up; it continues to call, to beckon, to wait and hope, to grieve. Love never fails. St. Paul teaches that of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love, and in this, the Song would agree.

The answer to suffering is thus this: Love is stronger than suffering (many waters) and overcomes death. Suffering is a fact of life, but it doesn’t render life meaningless. Suffering gives context to embrace the One who loves us and offers us rest. It teaches us we cannot be alone and need God. Suffering is not a good, but the contrast it creates against the good brings the good into relief. A white circle on a field of black brings the white into focus. If we find our identity in suffering, death wins. If we find our identity in the One who makes us a part of himself and who loves us (John 17:21), we find rest. 

Job:

No book in the Bible more directly confronts the question of suffering than the book of Job. The book has fascinated (and frustrated) readers for centuries. Some find the book’s answer to suffering profound, whereas others find it deeply disappointing, essentially giving no good advice at all.

God’s speech teaches us that the experience of human suffering is so great that no answer to its cause can satisfy. We are left only with the choice to continue to trust in God.

The interesting thing about the book is the way that Job is portrayed. We the readers, God, the Devil and Job himself, all know that Job has not offended God or done anything to deserve his suffering. Job’s suffering is, by any account we can reason, unfair. The fact that the book does not shy away from this reality is quite amazing. It gives us a clear case of apparent injustice and then tries to reason its way out of it. The friends who show up to Job (and Job’s wife) all attempt to convince Job to repent for some sin he has committed. He refuses and utterly maintains his innocence. When that doesn’t work, Job is accused of being arrogant and foolhardy for not coming to his senses. His refusal to repent is proof of his sin. But we readers know, like Job, that Job is right. The book, therefore, condemns any response to the question of suffering as being based on works. Sometimes, yes, it is true that good people suffer for no apparent reason. It’s not their fault. One needs only to think of the tragic headlines of sexual abuse or cancer today to know this to be true. Sometimes, suffering just seems to happen.

At the book’s end, God shows up and condemns Job’s friends. He interrogates Job with a series of questions to which Job does not know the answers. Some take the meaning of God’s speech to essentially be this: “God is sovereign; you will never understand him, submit and shut up.” If that is indeed the message of the book, I would probably not find the book as profound as I do. Yes, it is true that God is sovereign and can do what he wants (Romans 9). But that is already a well-established idea in Judaism, and Job knows it too (“the Lord gives, the Lord takes, blessed be the name of the Lord!” Job 1:21). If the message is to stress God’s sovereignty, the book makes God almost tyrannical in his ministry to Job’s suffering (even if God has the right to do what he wants).

There is a better way to understand God’s speech. God’s speech teaches us that the experience of human suffering is so great that no answer to its cause can satisfy. We are left only with the choice to continue to trust in God. The book essentially teaches that there are no good answers to the question of suffering, not because there are no true or erudite ones. Rather, no answer, however true, good, clever, or proper, will solve the problem. The experience of human suffering is too great to be reasoned away. Nothing will suffice. Even if God were to explain to us in generous detail why we or a loved one had to endure their sufferings, and God’s explanation was perfect and undebatable, even if God’s logic won over our own, and his reasoning took into account every possible objection—and silenced them all; and even if God unveiled the mysteries of the inner courts of his wisdom and unmasked the secret knowledge underpinning creation—we still would not be satisfied. Job teaches that the question of human suffering in light of a good, loving God must be asked but also, that no answer can ever truly account for it. Instead, we are invited to love and trust God in and through our sufferings because we ultimately know who he is.

A New Perspective:

The New Testament seems to build off the theology of Job with a different kind of answer. Yes, no answer to suffering will suffice because no answer can account for the experience of human suffering—so, the answer to human suffering will be for God to suffer, too. 

God’s answer to suffering is to suffer for us, in our place, so that he can ultimately put suffering away.

In his incarnation and death, Jesus Christ suffers as we do. He cries our cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?” and thus asks the question we ask back to God. But in his act of suffering, he also affirms that no rational answer can suffice to solve the problem. All that God can do is speak into the experience of human suffering and give himself to it too. He refuses cheap answers or lofty displays of logic. He prefers the “foolishness of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18).

God’s answer to suffering is to suffer for us, in our place, so that he can ultimately put suffering away. This act of sacrifice and atonement does not provide us with an academic answer to the question, nor does it render the question unimportant. It renders the question important but does not respond to it in a way that fails to understand (profoundly) the pain we feel in the midst of deep suffering. Instead, it meets us where we are, embraces us in our pain as equals (“I no longer call you servants”), and, like the Song, invites us to find our identity and rest in Christ, who in his incarnation has already (and forever) identified as one of us. To see Christ risen is to see the marks of the nails. He is forever one of us, and he bears on his body the only good answer to suffering that ministers to the broken. God’s answer to suffering is to suffer too. Christ suffers our pain, our injustice, our poverty, our brokenheartedness, and our loneliness. He knows the experience of victimization by political powers, the frustration of betrayal, the injustice of the courtroom, and the condemnation and wrath of God.

God does not give us an undebatable answer to suffering. Instead, God suffers, too. Tears will dry up, questions will dissolve into trust, and all that will remain of the world of suffering are the open wounds of Christ. He is the answer to suffering. He is always the answer. And by his precious wounds, we are healed.