well, at least the Old Testament has one thing going for it

well, at least the Old Testament has one thing going for it December 16, 2014

I kid of course. I happen to think the OT has a lot going for it, which is why I force my hapless undergrads to deal with it.

But not too long ago it snuck in the backdoor of my mind that the OT has something of core spiritual value that the NT doesn’t–the repeated observation and lamentation over God’s absence, the sense of God’s abandonment.

The OT, as we all know, has a serious dark side–what Walter Brueggemann calls Israel’s “counter testimony.”

In Israel’s main testimony, the story from Genesis through 2 Kings (from creation to exile), Israel’s plan for what it means to be the people God is laid out (albeit with all sorts of intersting and unexpected bumps and grooves): obedience to God leads to life in the land while disobedience leads to divine punishment and eventually exile.

The blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience are laid out nicely in Deuteronomy 27-30, and the same general idea in poetic form can be seen in Psalm 1.

But a key dimension of Israel’s tradition is the observation that the “rules of the game” that God insists on can’t be counted on.

Psalm 73, for example, notices that–contrary to God’s promise–the wicked prosper all the time and the righteous endure long days of suffering. Psalm 88 is a cry for help to God, but he is a no-show–darkness is the psalmist’s only companion (see the last verse). Right next door is Psalm 89, which in effect calls God a liar for failing to keep his promise that David’s line will continue forever (v. 36). The throne is empty now that Israel is in exile. God is, therefore, a promise-breaker.

And don’t get me started on Ecclesiastes and Job. Qohelet, the main character in Ecclesiastes, is seriously depressed and not a little ticked off at how God has set up the world. We go about our work day after day, it’s all the same, and we never actually have anything to show for it, because at the end of the day “you can’t take it with you.” Death cancels out all our achievements. “This is how God has set up the world, so don’t talk to me about blessing and curses, rewards and punishments.”

And nowhere in the book is there any attempt to “correct” Qohelet. In fact, the end of the book pronounces Qohelet as “wise” precisely because his words are painful, like spiked sticks used for driving sheep and cattle.

And poor Job. “Suffering” is too shallow a word to describe how his life utterly obliterated the neat world of  “actions have consequences” that we see in Israel’s main testimony. Job’s friends try again and again to help Job see the light: “You’re suffering Job. Read your Bible. You suffer because there is some sin in your life. There must be. Actions have consequences.”

Job’s response throughout is, “I don’t care what you say. I didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Even though Job’s friends merely repeated the “actions have consequences” idea that is hammered home elsewhere in the OT, at the end of the book God himself turns to Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, and says, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). Even God isn’t held to the “biblical teaching” of the main testimony.

My point is that this sort of honest and even unnerving grappling with “what in the world God is up to and why should any of us bother with this God who lays out a plan that doesn’t seem to work in the day to day world” is all over the OT.

But you don’t find it in the NT.

In a word, the NT has a more triumphalist tone. In Christ, God has shown up definitively, finally. The NT writers tell us that in the gospel we see God’s final plan worked out before all the world–in an suffering, executed, and raised messiah.

The NT no doubt grapples with the question of suffering–no happy clappy world does the NT present–but we do not see the same anguish over the sense of God’s absence and abandonment that we see in the OT.

The exception is Jesus’s own cry of God’s abandonment in the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” which is a citation of Psalm 22:1, one of those “Where are you when we actually need you, God?” psalms uttered by the ancient Israelites–the crucified Jew’s abandonment by God sums up and embodies Israel’s experience throughout much of its own history.

But as interesting as that observation may be, that’s not my point here. This is my point: the sense of God’s absence, that anyone who has been a Christian for more than 45 minutes can attest to, finds its biblical echo the OT, not in the NT.

The NT, after all, tells the “end” of Israel’s story–in the sense that “this is where the story of Israel winds up.” The purpose of the NT is not to raise the specter of God’s abandonment but the trumpet call of God’s triumph for Israel and all the world.

But in my experience, this is precisely the problem for people who don’t feel triumphant.

If all we read is the NT, we are left with a sense that, however difficult things may be at the moment, stick with it: Jesus has come and he is coming back very soon.

There is no articulation on the part of NT ForTheBibleTellsMeSowriters of the deep sense of God’s absence that we find among the OT writers, who are there over the long haul, day in and day out, waiting for God to show up and stick to his own plan.

If all we read is the NT and we are also living though a period of God’s absence, abandonment, a period of doubt, a dark night of the soul, we may likely conclude that there is something very wrong with us for feeling this way.

If we don’t walk around in more or less a state of perpetual triumph and spiritual “victory” we will think we are some lower form of life, further down the ladder of spiritual maturity.

This is why we need to hear the experiences of the ancient Israelites to relieve us of our spiritual shame.

Their experiences are very much like ours today: life is hard, and life of faith does not automatically make it easier. It may actually make it harder at times.

Spiritual struggles are normal for Christians. They are not to be sought after, but they are normal. They are not to be romanticized, but they are normal. They are not to be shown off and bragged over, but they are normal.

To speak otherwise is to ignore the counter testimony. The Bible tells me so–and I’m glad it does.

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  • Ian Paul

    Thanks Peter. I heard a paper on the silence of God in the OT at an evangelical conference last year, and it was singularly unconvincing precisely because it found it hard to admit the theme was there.

    But what should we do with its diminution (not quite absence) in the New Covenant age?

    • God’s silence, absence and even abandonment are indeed there, shouting loudly at us, right at the very heart of it. Indeed right at the heart of that very part which we evangelicals claim to be its heart: the cross. Read the crucifixion narrative, particularly in Mark’s gospel. Then recall that we, too, are to “take up our [own] cross and follow him.”

      Further, we have just commemorated the Holy Innocents (Matt 2:16-18). The birth of Jesus was accompanied by the brutal mass murder of babies. “Hallelujah, what a Saviour” (said none of the parents of any of them). Was this part of God’s salvation plan? What sort of God is this?

      God’s absence is actually there in the NT: central to the birth narrative (at least in Matthew) and central to the crucifixion. It’s just that we self-styled “Bible-based” evangelicals are, at best, clueless about this theme. Or, worse, we have a frame of mind which we would never dare to admit, even to ourselves, that would want to wish it away “wouldn’t scripture be so much oh-so-nicer if those bits and associations weren’t there”. (How many of us have ever dared say that out loud at church?)

      Meanwhile, here’s a Christmas carol for us:


  • ajl

    Over the years, you have opened my eyes to the OT. Especially as I read it as a story, and not actual history. What the OT does in its storytelling is tell about the human condition and the struggle with God. The NT gives hope in Jesus and doctrine about our faith. But, it does not invite me to be a part of the story insofar as our struggles as humans in a hurting, confusing world. The OT does that.

    And, in the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and other writings, the full frontal assault of human emotion resides, and more often than not concludes with a belief that God is good in the midst of my pain. I don’t think I could continue in my faith without the stories of the OT.

  • Zac Klassen

    Thanks for this, Peter. I am convinced that your blog post ‘hits the nail on the head.’ My own research is actually trying to make a case that the ascension of Christ can actually open up that sense of ‘absence’ again as a counter-point to ‘triumphalist’ modes of reading the NT. Douglas Farrow is a Catholic theologian who has perhaps done the most sustained study of the doctrine of the ascension in recent years and perhaps his most fruitful claim is that the ascension introduces into the community of faith a rupture between our history and Christ’s history (in the flesh) such that when we celebrate the Eucharist, for example, we are left with not triumph but ambiguity: the spirit makes Christ present, but the ‘making present’ is making present an absence. This kind of theological reflection actually then allows for an opening up again toward the Old Testament accounts of absence, echoing the still necessary cry of the psalmist, job, Qohelet, et al.

  • David Lindsay

    An excellent message that we all need to hear.

  • wbarnett55

    Alright, I give. “Uncle!” I cry. Twice today I’ve encountered this topic. This article, and this article: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2014/12/advent-prison-story.html Think maybe, I’m supposed to learn something from this? (He says, tongue firmly in his cheek.)

  • Joel Vaughan

    I like the post! I’m really interested in the basic question, “What is the OT good for and why study it?” I’d like to hear more on the subject or links to other opinions on the matter. Thanks for writing this!

  • James

    You are right, there is an essential incompleteness even pessimism about the OT that the NT senses and turns positive. Reading Isaiah, I wish it would end somewhere around 56:8, a summary promise of universal salvation– “I will gather others (house of prayer for all peoples) to them (the outcasts of Israel) besides those already gathered.” The rest of the Book vacillates to the very end between mercy including the preposterous promise of “the new heaven and the new earth” and judgment– “And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me…worm…fire…abhorrence…” Still, we have to admit, on the horizon of the OT there is always hope. And you can’t improve on Isaiah 61:1-7 from which Jesus read in a Galilean synagogue and said the anointing applied to him.

  • Norm

    I believe that when Paul wrote 2 Timothy 3:16
    “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;” he was talking about the Old Testament.” That’s then only scripture that was written at that point in history. I suspect he would have been shocked to learn that we value his letters more highly than the scriptures that he and Jesus read.

    • You’re right, Norm. The only scriptures in his day were those 39 books that are still accepted as canonical by the Jews today. You bring up an interesting point indeed – would Paul have had any inkling that the words that he was writing would become on an equal par with the scriptures that he had grown up memorizing and learning?

      Perhaps so. The reason that I say maybe “yes’, is that God gave me the gift of prophecy about 30 years ago, not long after I came to know the Lord Jesus personally. When God has spoken through me, I definitely know that it’s His Voice that I hear within me. So, if Paul wrote his epistles in the same manner in which I have occasionally received a “word” from God, he would quite definitely have known that it was God Himself giving him the words.


      • Norm

        Thanks for your response. I have had moments when teaching that I thought, “Whoa, I don’t think I came up with that myself…” Perhaps that is somewhat the same.
        When I look at the size of Romans and the letters to the Corinthians, and how he spends time on fundamental principles, I wonder if he wasn’t saying to himself, “Maybe it’s about time this gets written down and shared among the churches. We’ve got these other influences. Maybe something in writing will help the churches sort out the truth from the fiction.” In that case, his intention would be to make something lasting.

        • Norm, I think that all born again folks have had the experience of what Jesus described as “rivers of living water” flowing from within them. In fact, He promised us that it would be so. imo, this how the Bible itself was written. Just as you described, “I don’t think that I came up with that myself”!

          Over and over again we are told in the scriptures that the power of God came over men and they spoke His word. Such as;

          “God spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets” Hebrews 1:1

          Sometimes I think that we read these words and think that they apply to others only. But you and I, and every other true believer, has the HS within them. Consequently, we sometimes know that God has spoken through us. Sounds incredible that the Bible itself was written in just such a manner – but I’m sure that it was. It was written by people just like you and me!


  • Randolph Bragg

    Ecclesiastes (with Song of Solomon’s love ditties) is the best reading the Bible has to offer. Why do you think the author of Ecclesiastes is “depressed?” Because Jesus opposes the gist of the book?

    Ecclesiastes’ Epicurean Ceterum censeo that nought is good for man but eating, and drinking, and pleasure (8:15, 2:24, 5:18, cf. 3:12) is condemned by Jesus (Luke 12:20) in a section which contains several allusions to the Book of Ecclesiastes (cf. Luke 12:18, and Eccl. 2:4; Luke 12:20b and Eccl 2:18b, and above all, Luke 12:27 = Matt. 6:29 (Solomon in all his glory.)[…]

    Paul Haupt (1905) The Book of Ecclesiastes: A New Metrical Translation (with an introduction and explanatory notes). Baltimore: John Hopkins Press. p.6.

  • Derek

    I always tended to see that God’s absence is not an issue in NT because of the Holy Spirit – we actually have God residing in us, and He is referred to as the comforter.

    • peteenns

      That’s a good point, though in a way that makes it even worse for people who do experience absence…they don’t have the Spirit, which is tantamount to saying “you’re not a Christian.”

      • Those people of faith in the OT times didn’t have the HS, except in brief spells as with the prophets. That’s one of the reasons the OT covenant was inferior to the New. Jesus clearly states in the NT that He had to die before the “Comforter”, ie. the HS, could come and live in us.

        The OT men and women of faith (those who had faith that God would send a better sacrifice that would pay for their sins) went to a heaven-like place called Abraham’s Bosom where they waited for the blood from Jesus’ sacrifice to be literally poured onto the heavenly Tabernacle. This heavenly tabernacle was the item that was copied physically on earth by Moses Tabernacle.

        The Bible tells us that Jesus “preached” to those in waiting during the three days following His death. This allowed them to be released from Abraham’s Bosom and allowed them to enter into God’s presence. No-one can come into His presence without being absolutely holy and pure. The OT people of faith couldn’t do this until after the perfect sacrifice was poured onto the heavenly Tabernacle.

        Hope that this helps!


    • But even in the OT they had the Spirit of God. Consider Psalm 51.11, where David said, “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.” So, even when the Spirit/Comforter is here, we can have these times of seeming and actual abandonment. This is the beauty of singing the psalms, rather than Fanny Crosby’s ‘hymns’. We see a fuller and more authentic Christian experience in the life of that OT prophet and shepherd-king than we do in her life “In the Garden”.

  • Andrew Dowling

    A great example of how the times affect biblical writings and perspectives. As Peter points out, much of the NT was written with the belief that the Second Coming is just around the corner. All would be made right and the unrighteous would receive their comeuppance.

    However, you do have parts of the NT with significant bitterness displayed, although instead of God’s absence the focus is on whatever Christian groups were in competition with those of the writer (heretics!). You see this especially in some of the 2nd century NT letters like the Pastorals, I I Peter, Jude etc.

  • lou77

    thx 4 this! you helped me clarify many things that are barriers to full pleasure in the reality of faith I’m experiencing.
    these things you wrote especially;
    ‘we are also living though a period of God’s
    absence, abandonment, a period of doubt, a dark night of the soul, we may
    likely conclude that there is something very wrong with us for feeling this
    way…we need to hear the experiences of the ancient Israelites to
    relieve us of our spiritual shame.’

    and this;

    ‘Their experiences [o.t. hebrews] are
    very much like [our experiences] today: life is hard, and life of faith does not
    automatically make it easier.’

    to be honest I would like to stop reading here;

    ‘It [life of faith] may actually make it harder….’
    normal, normal, normal? I think not! to para-paraphrase Nietzsche that which doesn’t kill me makes me weirder!

  • Tim

    There is a new book coming out soon by author Tony Kriz called “Aloof: Figuring out life with a God who hides”. He explores a number of the ways in which we still often experience God as “absent” today.

    • peteenns

      Sounds very interesting.

      • Tim

        It is. Tony is a storyteller, so that’s kind of the format his books take. His other book, Neighbors and Wisemen is a great one for turning our assumptions about who we can hear from God through on their head. Tony is the individual identified as “Tony the beat poet” in Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.

  • Pete, this is a powerful piece of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Thanks.

    • peteenns

      I’m glad you saw the humor in the title, too!

  • He rewards those that diligently seek Him. But once He has reached down and touched you, you will never forget or be far from Him again. “My Son, Jesus, has done it all for you already” – those are the words that He spoke to me that ended my personal search for Him. All I needed to do was accept Him personally.

    He’s done the same for you – if you seek Him, He will answer you.

  • I am glad the author chose Psalm 73, because in it David struggles with the perceived inequality of the wicked. They seem to flourish, while the faithful suffer. However, in the end He knows that those who follow Yahweh have their reward in Heaven. The story of Job is a perfect example of a man whose faith is not shaken, even though he looses everything….

  • Benjamin Spurlock

    I definitely appreciate this article, and I love how you point out that even those writing Scripture have a problem with the disconnect between the promises of God and the existential reality that contradicts it. Since that’s not nearly as common in the NT, it’s good to hear those problems echoed.

    But for me… I’m kind of stuck there, and this post kind of hints at the problem before moving on to another point. That is… God did make promises, and He didn’t really fulfill them. He promised a certain way things would go, and then He didn’t bother holding His end of the bargain- Job is a great example of this- and there’s not even always a reason for it. If people sin and get punished, fine, sure, but what are we supposed to do when there’s the blithe admittance that the wicked prosper, the good suffer, and God does nothing? Or worse, He says that He’ll defend the orphan and widow, he’ll avenge all sins… and pours it out on EVERYONE in Israel, righteous or not, and as Jeremiah records, even those who were left in the land suffered even more.

    And Jesus just isn’t… cutting it anymore, y’know? Was struck by this in some of the Messianic psalms- ‘we will praise our God in safety,’ ‘all peoples will come to Jerusalem,’ so forth and so on. But Jesus didn’t do that. He died, and soon thereafter, both the Church and Israel were scattered. Even the best spin on it- blood of the martyrs, etc. etc.- still leads us to Constantine and the eventual problems that arose thereafter.

    I don’t know… I’m just to the point now where I kind of feel like John the Baptist. Is Jesus the Christ, or should we look for another? Or to put it more contemporarily… “Was that it?” Is this really the best we have to look forward to? And if we put our hope in Revelations, how can we really trust in that, when the other promises of God were fulfilled so… unsatisfactorarily?

    I know this isn’t something you can answer in one comment or anything like that, but… as a post-evangelical flailing-about Christian, is there anything you can throw as a lifeline, here? It almost is to the point where I can’t decide whether God being absent is a bad thing, and that’s just… not a place I want to be, you know?