I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:
- the phrase ‘Word of God’
- the theme of ‘Mission’
- the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘
- the ministry of ‘Healing’,
- the question of ‘Welcome’,
- the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’,
- and on what the Bible means by the term ‘church’.
Here I look at what the Bible says about grief and grieving.
It sometimes seems as though our world is full of grief. In the last year we have mourned the premature loss of loved ones, the pain of their parting made more acute by the loss of contact as they approached their end. We are used to keeping grief at arm’s length, but it has now visited us close as it has done to most of humanity for most of history.
Grief in Scripture
The story of Scripture is full of grief, in every part save two (to which we will return)—but it is often expressed in ways that are strikingly different from our own experience.
There is a beautiful cameo of grief in Gen 21. Sarah had told Abraham to have sex with Hagar her slave, since she is barren, and she gives birth to Ishmael. But when Sarah then bears Isaac, she fears Ishmael will be a rival to him, so insists Hagar is driven away with her son to die. When they run out of water in the desert heat, Hagar
…went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. (Gen 21.16)
The despair we recognise, as we do her turning away; so often the pain of grief and death is too much to contemplate, and we turn away from our own pain and that of others, making grief a lonely experience of isolation.
But here we see a difference too; where we often turn inwards and keep silent, she turns out and weeps aloud—and God hears her cry. Throughout Scripture, grief is expressed loudly, in a way we still see on our newsfeeds in the ululating women of other countries.
Concrete and communal grief
So if you want to find the grief in Scripture, you actually have to search for the word ‘weep’, which occurs more than 230 times; the river of tears runs from beginning to end. Two striking examples are found at the deaths of Aaron and Moses, who have not just led the people of Israel from freedom to the Promised Land, but have been their foundation as the first Priest and Prophet for the people.
The grieving for each is expressed in similar terms:
And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended (Deut 34.8, cf Num 20.29).
Where we often grieve inwardly, silently, and alone, here the people grieve outwardly, loudly, and together. And there is a clear, ritual structure to their grief, which on both occasions lasts ’30 days’. Grief is a process, and takes time to pass; remembering anniversaries of loss, particularly the second year, is a vital thing to do together.
The Grief of God
But the most surprising thing about grief in Scripture is that God experiences it. He hears and responds to the cry of his people; ‘precious in his sight is the death of his holy ones’ (Ps 116.15). As a wife grieving at the departure of her husband for war collected her tears in a bottle, so God remembers us in our loss and grief (Ps 56.8).
The convergence of human grief and the grief of God is found most clearly in the person of Jesus. Both his birth (Matt 2.18) and his death (Luke 23.28) were marked by weeping, and there was much weeping in between. He is grieved and angry at the sickness of a leper (Mark 1.41); he is grieved at the hard hearts of his opponents (Mark 3.5); he is deeply moved at the tears of a grieving widow (Luke 7.13); and in the shortest and most poignant verse in the whole of Scripture, Jesus weeps at the death of his dear friend Lazarus (John 11.35).
No wonder the writers of the New Testament saw in Jesus the servant of Isaiah 53, a ‘man of sorrows, acquainted with grief’.
Yet there was no grief in creation in the garden, until there was sin—and there will be none in the garden-city of the New Jerusalem.
God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev 21.3–4)
How so? Because Jesus was not only a man of grief; he ‘bore our grief and carried our sorrows’ to the cross and dealt with them there forever. He did not merely taste death; he swallowed it up in victory. Though we now walk through a vale of tears, one day that victory will be ours too.