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Tears: Towards a Biblical Theology

The Old Testament frequently points to God’s regret and repentance. The concept presents another aspect of God’s tears. Ellington writes that the terms relate to God’s lament and grief over the constraint necessary in His relationship with humans and in the loss of the relationship He desires.[lv] The Bible frequently uses the Hebrew term “hamah” to express God’s grief. The term is frequently translated as murmur, growl, groan, or roar.[lvi] An example of grief in tension with judgment expressed by God occurs in Jeremiah, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:20). God’s grief appears in the tension between transcendence and immanence that maintains some relationship with His creation while preventing the utter destruction of creation through His direct presence. God cries because of the necessary veil between Him and humans.

God addresses the tension by establishing covenants with His people. Within the boundaries of covenant God hopes to establish renewed relationship. Ellington observes, “By entering into a covenant, God chooses a closer relationship with his people, while at the same time surrendering somewhat of his freedom and opening himself to constraint and hurt.”[lvii] Those in covenant with God sadly still choose to violate God’s covenants. God reveals Himself to His people through covenants, but the covenant people choose to reject the relationship sought by God. In the metaphor of a marriage covenant, God accepts the risk of loving a creature with free will and finds the pain of rejection. Ellington points to the tears of God as the power for rebuilding relationship. He states,  “After the betrayal of adultery, Israel’s marriage can only be salvaged and rebuilt by the tears of God.”[lviii] God’s wrath towards humanity is restorative not punitive. Ellington continues, “Wrath that is born of pain carries with it the hope that the relationship can be repaired and continue. The cry of lament on the lips of God is a creative word…”[lix] God’s tears demonstrate His desire to restore relationship. They express the same longing as human tears.

The fact that God experiences emotions presents a mystery for further exploration. The mystery finds its revelation in the person of Christ. Biblically, “God suffers because God would be with us, and suffering is our condition.”[lx] Many traditional theologies emphasize the immutability of God at the expense of His emotions. The traditional assumption that emotions represent possibility conflicts with the idea of an eternal God who does not change. God in many views must transcend human emotion. An emotionless God, however, fails to be a living God dwelling with His creation. Joseph M. Hallman observes,  “To be absolutely at rest is to be dead. God is eternally alive and never at rest in the divine governance. Therefore God is not corrupted by emotions, but God is a living God precisely because of them.”[lxi] The tears of God point to a living God who longs to dwell in relationship with a rebellious people.

Jesus as the Expression of God’s Tears

Christian theology presents Jesus as the exact representation of God on Earth. The tears of Jesus therefore represent the tears of God. Jesus cries in John 11:35 as He stands outside Lazarus’ tomb facing human loss and death. Jesus weeps over the rebellion and coming destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). He cries out to God with “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7). Isaiah describes Him as “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Jesus stands in scripture as the bridge between man and God, and the bridge firmly rests on the shared tears of both God and man in the person of Jesus. Patrick Miller states, “The human lament on the lips of Jesus is one of the primary incarnational clues in all of scripture.”[lxii] Lament itself in Miller’s view is part of the work and person of Christ and the chief clue that “Christ died not simply as one of us but also as one for us, both with us and in our behalf.”[lxiii]

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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2017

About the Author: F. Wesley Shortridge, D.Min. (Evangel University, 2016), M.A. (Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2010), B.A. (Central Bible College, 2009), is the founding pastor of Liberty Community Church in Bealeton, Virginia. Facebook LinkedIn

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