A Biblical Theology of Sadness

The book I never wrote.

The book I never wrote.

I recently changed my Facebook picture and people (Neil Cameron) then went on to develop the picture into a cover of a book that I had apparently written called “Joy Inexpressible: A Biblical Theology of Sadness”. This got me thinking, “I wonder what a Biblical theology of sadness looks like?”. So I have taken a joke more seriously than it was intended and sketched out a few ideas…

In the Holman translation of the Bible, “sadness” and “sad” only come up 12 times (in fact, sadness only once). NIV and ESV it is less. We will quickly discount Micah 7:1 since it is the translators simply nuancing the idea of “Woe”. Leaving us with 11 passages to deal with. Four of the 11 uses are used as narrative devices (Gen 40:7, Neh 2:1-3). In the two cases one (or in Genesis two) characters are sad, moving another character to ask why and thus the narrative moves on. Each of these occurrences are variations on the Hebrew word ra’.

It’s in the wisdom literature that things become interesting. “Grief is better than laughter, for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3 HCSB) comes during the didactic on the importance of facing grief as a part of wisdom. Again the word is a variation of ra’. This shows an important aspect of sadness in the Bible. It is closely, very closely connected with grief (as per 1 Sam 2:33 where the Hebrew word for grief is translated as sadness). This would make sense of the narrative devices mentioned above. The baker and steward are grieving their impending death, Nehemiah is grieving (note that word) for the state of Jerusalem. Which makes me wonder if all sadness is connected with grief or mourning in some way.

The two proverbs use different Hebrew words to what we have seen so far. “Even in laughter a heart may be sad, and joy may end in grief.” (Proverbs 14:13 HCSB). Here the word is more connected to ‘pain’. The wisdom imparted here is that there may be a deep pain and grief behind the laughter and joy that is seen. The second proverb “A joyful heart makes a face cheerful, but a sad heart produces a broken spirit.” (Proverbs 15:13 HCSB) uses a word more connected with sorrow. The point here is that a prolonged sadness can have long term affects.

This brings us to the end of the Old Testament. The main point we should take away is that ‘sad’ and ‘sadness’ are strongly connected to mourning. Is the the same in the New Testament?

There are few times the words come up here, only 3. The first is in Matthew: “Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:15 HCSB) The Greek word behind this is the word for mourn (cf. Matt 5:4). Which makes sense of the context of Jesus being questioned about the lack of fasting from his disciples, a sign of mourning.

The second and third occurrences are in Luke where Jesus talks with a man who has great wealth but Jesus is asking him to give it up for the Kingdom. “After he heard this, he became extremely sad, because he was very rich. Seeing that he became sad, Jesus said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:23-24 HCSB). The Greek word behind this does not come up very often. The other two significant occurrences is in Matt 26:38 and Mark 14:34. In both of these occurrences we are seeing Jesus, facing the cross, feels his “soul swallowed up in sorrow”. Again it is the shadow of death that we see in this word.

What, then, does this say about the man of great riches? Why does he mourn in the face of losing them? I think this is a question that Luke does not answer for us intentionally. What would it mean for us to lose our wealth for the Kingdom? Would it be a time of great mourning for us or would it be a great celebration as we see in the next scene with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)?