Does God Delight in Crushing us?

Saturday, January 09, 2016

I often am asked how to interpret a certain troubling part of Isaiah 53 "Yet the Lord delighted to crush him and cause him to suffer" (verse 10). A typical way to understand this is in the context of penal substitutionary atonement, so that it means that God delighted to see his beloved servant, Jesus, suffer. It was the will of the father to "crush" his son.

That's a reading that makes God seem unjust, and even sadistic. That seems wrong of course. God the Father is not a monster, right? But what are we to do with that troubling phrase "Yet the Lord.."?

First of all we need to begin by recognizing the genre we are reading. This is poetry, which is a form of writing that uses dramatic descriptions to paint a powerful picture. In particular, this poem paints the picture of a tragic irony where the one who was thought to be guilty turns out to be innocent, the one who was believed to be bad turns out to be the one who brings healing to us all. It is a poem of reversal. We thought he was accused and condemned, but it is in fact we who are guilty.

To see this unfolding drama of reversal we need to take in all of the poem, which actually begins in chapter 52:13-15. It can be difficult with a more literal word for word translation because the flow of the poem, the unfolding story, can get lost in translation. So instead let's listen to a translation that keeps the poetic/dramatic flow,

Indeed, who would ever believe it?
Who would possibly accept what we’ve been told?
Who has witnessed the awesome power and plan of the Eternal in action?

Out of emptiness he came, like a tender shoot from rock-hard ground.
He didn’t look like anything or anyone of consequence—
he had no physical beauty to attract our attention.

So he was despised and forsaken by men,
this man of suffering, grief’s patient friend.
As if he was a person to avoid, we looked the other way;
he was despised, forsaken, and we took no notice of him.

Yet it was our suffering he carried,
our pain and distress, our sick-to-the-soul-ness.
We just figured that God had rejected him,
that God was the reason he hurt so badly.

But he was hurt because of us; he suffered so.
Our wrongdoing wounded and crushed him.
He endured the breaking that made us whole.
The injuries he suffered became our healing.
(Isa 53:1-5, the Voice)
Can you hear the unfolding story here? It begins with an expression of shock and disbelief, "Can you believe it?!" the poet asks, "Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?" It goes on to tell the story of suffering and affliction, and how the people--referred to here as "we" had assumed that this poor suffering soul was being punished by God.

If you are sick, it must be because you are guilty. If you are suffering hardship, or starvation, or misfortune, it must be because you deserve it. That's the assumption of the law, echoed by many of the Hebrew prophets. It's a huge theme we find all through the Old Testament. Yet in parts of the Old Testament, this assumption is questioned. It's questioned in many of the Psalms, certainly in Job, and it is questioned here in Isaiah. Here the idea comes forward that perhaps sometimes people can suffer for righteousness, people can suffer who are innocent.

The trouble with that idea is that if the innocent suffer, this begs the question, how can a good God allow this? Is God not good and loving? Or perhaps even more frightening to contemplate, is God not really in control?

That's where we have the turn in this poem, with the small but powerful word "yet" which in Hebrew is just a single letter. Up til now in the story, we should have our hands clasped over our mouths, shocked and ashamed at this picture of injustice, and the role we have played in it. The picture painted here is not at all one of justice fulfilled, but deliberately the polar opposite. It is a picture of a miscarriage of justice, of a grave injustice. "By oppression and judgment he was taken away" (v8, ESV), and we are not portrayed as passive observers in this story, but revealed as guilty.  We caused his suffering, we hurt him.

But even still, we are told, God has a plan in this... a plan, Isaiah tells us, that God "delights" in. Again, this is Hebrew poetry which frequently uses hyper-dramatic descriptions to stress a point. So while the text literally says that "the Lord delighted in crushing him" it seems highly unlikely that it was Isaiah's intent to make us think "Wow, Yahweh is really unjust and evil!" Rather, Isaiah wants to pull us into a riddle, he wants us to struggle with him in trying to figure out how it can be that God can have a part in this crazy story of injustice, and how somehow out of that injustice good can result. How can this be? How does this work?

Now jump forward to the time of Jesus, and put yourself in the shoes of the disciples, post crucifixion, post resurrection, trying to make sense of what God has done in Jesus. They have seen Jesus unjustly accused by Rome, condemned and sentenced to torture and death. And yet, they say, as wrong and horrible as all that was, God had a plan to somehow bring about our healing and redemption.

Digging through their Scriptures, they come upon this poem in Isaiah and exclaim "Yes! Here it is! We've seen this story unfold before us!" Perhaps more than in any other part of the Old Testament, the writers of the New Testament identified the Servant Song with Jesus. What I want to propose is that it is also in this Christological reading that we can understand what Isaiah means. We need to read Isaiah 53 through the lens of Jesus.

Listen to how Peter frames this in his sermon at Pentecost, "This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:23-24, NIV). Note that Peter sees all of this as part of God's plan, but what happens is wicked and wrong. This can be summed up in Peter's phrase "You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead." (Acts 3:15).

We see this same pattern in the story of Joseph and his brothers. His brothers plot to kill him, but Joseph declares, "What you meant for harm, God meant for good" (Genesis 20:50). This is what that little word "yet" signifies. It's about how God takes evil and uses it to bring about good. Not because God delights in evil or injustice, but because God delights in taking what is broken and turning it into something good and beautiful. God uses the cross, and uses it to bring about our salvation. God delights in taking what is bad and evil, and making it good. This is the great reversal of the cross. Beauty from ashes. Life from death.

Our task is to learn how to walk in that same way as Jesus. How can we learn to practice self-sacrificing love? How can we learn to take what is truly bad in our lives, and yet somehow work with God to bring about good from it nevertheless? Not by calling evil good, not by denying the reality of our pain, not by ignoring injustice, not by glorying suffering. That's all wrong, and underscores that this is not easy. Yet... yet the cross points us to a way to turn that around, it points us to resurrection.

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At 9:22 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

Yes! ... But ... If Hiroshima taught us the evils of nuclear war and changed us, was it worth the price? ... If the Holocaust taught us the evils of scapegoating and changed us, was it worth the price? I've suffered from a particular illness most of my life. It has changed me in many ways, some of them good. Was it worth the price? ... I struggle with these questions - and the nature of God's sovereignty.

At 3:15 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Phillip. Thanks for sharing a small part of your story. It is a complex subject to figure out. On the one hand we have free will and the the deception of "The Accuser". On the other we have God's love and Jesus introducing us to the "kingdom of heaven" and how it looks to live in it.
I have no clichė answers for you. All I can say is that in your struggling with these questions He is able to reveal Himself to you. For me it's happened a little at a time. I've had to wait in anticipation as a clearer picture slowly unfolds.....

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, I agree. It's one thing to say that God is like a firefighter who rushes into a building to save people, and quite another to say that God lights the building on fire so he can rush in to save people. Even if we soften it to say that God "allows" the fire to be set (because of some higher plan, or freewill, etc), that would still be wrong.

I think that the idea of sovereignty in the sense that God allows everything to happen, including evil, really can't be maintained at the same time as the idea that God is good.

But if God is not in control how can we have hope for the healing of our world, and for wrongs to be righted in the end? I don't know, but I'm still hoping.

I guess I see it more as a battle where evil is the majority, but God, somehow through the weakness of the cross, can overcome that darkness and death by the means of love.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

Excellent post Derek but I can't agree with your comment. I see it as God thro kenosis having given up some of his attributes or restrains them, for a time but still remaining in control to be able to set limits on the evil that we sinners can do but I admit I struggle some days when all I can eat is blueberries and protein powder in a smoothie. Like Philip I have struggled all my life with disease (severe asthma) and a speech impediment and now my lungs are much worse plus cancer, food allergies, gluten intolerance and tendency to come down with bronchitis or pneumonia has been added. It makes one wonder if as Psalm 51 puts it God has withdrawn his Spirit for no seeming reason. Usually I tend to disagree with your theology but I think you nailed it above. Dawit

At 9:40 AM, Blogger kent said...

Dr. Kent Brantly, American Ebola virus survivor, stated in an interview that God had saved him from death. He said that the fact that God decided to save him didn't mean that he had special favor in God's is just not in our ability to understand why he decides what he does. Kent said that the coordinated effort and superior medical treatment was all made available by God's sovereignty. So, what does this tell us about Kent's god?
I think this view of sovereignty is unfortunate because it makes God arbitrary in his decisions, and it makes him less loving (or at least appear less loving) to those other 99% of people who died because he decided not to act on their behalf.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

That makes a lot of sense.
Could it be that evil is necessary?
Could it bet that as we see our God suffer as us this unites us in Him like nothing else could?
Forgive me anyone who is suffering in the absence of the redeeming experience that I am suggesting.

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

...or do you think that evil was just one of more possible outcomes when God created us and we unfortunately just have a tendency to behave this way for whatever reason (perhaps through misunderstanding God) and now that this has happened God has shown us the way back; the way if self-sacrifice and enemy love.
Ps I really appreciate how you dealt with God's seeming desire to punish Jesus- great stuff!

At 12:34 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:37 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Richard Rohr's daily meditation today seemed to be quite relevant, if you don't object to me posting this link...

At 7:29 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Crushing is a very interesting theme I find in the Bible. In proverbs we are told that some fools are so bent on holding on to their foolishness, that even if they are crushed to powder you won't be able to separate foolishness from the fool. Hmm. So it's not like there is much pleasure crushing a fool for a man or for God, I suppose.

Another illustration perhaps. The tabernacle has recipe for making the shewbred. It involves crushing for purpose of being useable. So is it possible that there is delight in God crushing us in some sense? I dunno.

One more thought. The bible tells of Jesus, a bruised reed he would not break, a smoldering candle he would not snuff out. To be like Jesus is to not look to crush the weak, not delight in crushing others, but to have a merciful and compassionate response to the weak.

At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I think our goal here should not so much be to say things about God (seeking to explain suffering), but more to figure out how we can respond to our own hurt and the hurt of others in a restorative way. In other words, it's about us and what we do with pain. That's the question we need to answer.

The challenge is to find a way to keep our trust and hope, but not to inadvertently blame or minimize the pain of others in the process. I hear in many of the comments here that folks are sensitive to this, and I'm grateful for that.

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Philip said...

For me, the answer to how we do that Derek is in the life of Jesus. It's stepping into the pain, rather than answering the why it's there. God working through the trauma rather than causing it. Creating spaces and opportunities to be broken and express that brokenness without it be an indictment of faith.

There's no acceptable reason for cancer, loss, etc. No way to make those experiences ok. I think reasons and answers far to often are attempts to make sense of the senseless. I'm comforted far more by a picture of God grieved by my trauma, found in the people who come and grieve with me than a God with answers and people who work to speak on his behalf.

At 9:43 PM, Blogger An Coats said...

"God takes evil and uses it to bring about good."

Not always. I'm yet to see this happen in my own life after a lifetime of abuse, rejection, loss, slander, abandonment, even by God!

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Sharktacos said...

Hi An,

Yes, I totally agree. There is not one right answer, and more importantly each of us need to find that meaning for ourselves. Others, even with the best of intentions, cannot tell you what that meaning is. What we can do is be there with you.

With that in mind, let me share a perspective that I have found helpful in facing these things is the idea of God in Christ on the cross also experienced abuse, rejection, loss, slander, abandonment, even by God. Jesus, God incarnate, cried out "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!"

You are not forsaken. You are loved. I pray that you find that love, despite the pain and darkness.


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