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Affliction in the Bible: Big draw of God's compassion

Affliction in the Bible: Big draw of God's compassion

The first time we see the word “affliction” in the King James Bible is in the story of Hagar, the servant of Sarah*, Abraham’s wife. Abraham* had been called by the Lord to come out of idolatrous Ur and promised the land of Canaan. He was also promised a son. When no son appeared after they had waited 11 years, Abraham and Sarah decided to help the Lord out (always a bad idea!)

Sarah gave him Hagar, her Egyptian servant (slave), to be a surrogate mother, but when Hagar conceived, Sarah was outraged and treated the pregnant Hagar so harshly that she fled from her. She had no place to go and fled into the wilderness. There, an angel of the LORD saw her and said, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands. Genesis 16:9

This was not something Hagar wanted to hear, but she obeyed because she heard the rest of the angel’s message: Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael, because the LORD hath heard thy affliction. 16:11.

What an encouraging message. Hagar got it: she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: 16:13

God sees the affliction of His people and acts on their behalf. God requires us to obey His Word and gives a long-term blessing that is greater than the affliction suffered. A few months later, Hagar bore a son, Ishmael, whom Abraham loved, and who later still became father of a “great nation.” Genesis 17:20

The next time we see the word “affliction” in the Bible is another case of an unloved woman. Jacob* was tricked into marrying Leah by her father. Jacob wanted her younger sister Rachel whom he loved so much he worked seven years for her “and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.Genesis 29:20

What a beautiful love story! Leah paid the price for this, being overlooked and undesired, living in the shadow of her extravagantly loved younger sister. God saw this and blessed her by giving her a son: Surely the LORD hath looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me. Genesis 29:32 And it was so!

The next two “afflictions” bear this out, Jacob was afflicted by his uncle Laban cheating him of his labor (Genesis 31:42) and Joseph* was hated, kidnapped, slandered, and imprisoned unjustly. God saw all of this, rebuked the cheating Laban, and gave Joseph a son in the “land of my affliction.” Genesis 41:52

How wonderful it is that God sees affliction and acts on behalf of His people:

Jesus knows all about our struggles,

He will guide till the day is done.

There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus,

No, not one! No, not one!

The next five references to affliction in the books of Moses* are all concerning His people in Egypt. This is the foundational story of the Old Covenant. God brought His people to Egypt to save them from famine and to bless them. They lived and prospered for almost a hundred years. What happened?

A new pharaoh came to the throne who “knew not Joseph” and was alarmed by the prosperity and growth of the children of Israel. Seventy members of Jacob’s family arrived at Joseph’s invitation and over time had grown to two million.

Pharaoh tried to control their growth by killing newborn boys and enslaving the adults. Exodus says And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigor. 1:14

God saw this: I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; Exodus 3:7

The LORD saw all this brought them out of their affliction and into the Promised Land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. 3:17

We see here another element of the LORD’s response to affliction. Action against the oppressors: after multiple warnings and ten punishing plagues He brought them out with “a mighty hand,” destroyed the power of the oppressor, and annihilated their army:

Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will shew to you today: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen today, ye shall see them again no more forever. – Exodus 14:13

After this, the Bible moves on to the affliction of another woman, Naomi. Her husband took her and her two sons to the land of Edom to escape a famine. While this looked like a good solution, long-term things turned out painful. The husband and sons died, and Naomi was left with two Edomite daughters-in-law. She took this poorly:

Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. (Naomi means “pleasant,” Mara “bitter.”)

I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?Ruth 1:20-21

She was indeed bitter, as we are prone to be when circumstances are not to our liking. It is easy to blame the LORD for our afflictions and overlook our accountability. The move to Edom was a move away from God and His people. Bad things happen to those who do this.

God saw her situation and turned it into a blessing. She lived in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born a thousand years later, born of Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth whom He saved and blessed with great-grandson David, king of Israel and paternal ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ, called sixteen times “Son of David” in the New Testament.

Here again, as we have seen in every case, God sees the affliction of His people and “knows their sorrows.” In every case out of the affliction comes good, blessing, and benefit for the afflicted and glory to His name and for His kingdom.

In every case too we see that His deliverance arrives in “the fulness of time.” For Abraham and the children of Israel, it was some five hundred years. For Naomi, her fulfillment came in one lifetime, for His fulfillment a thousand years. Why does this take so long? St. Peter explains:

But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. – 2 Peter 3:8

The next Bible reference to “affliction” comes from Hannah. She was, like Rachel, the favorite of two wives. Her husband loved her greatly, but, like Rachel, she could not have children. She was tormented by this and by the fruitful wife, and cried to the LORD for help:

O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.1 Samuel 1:11

What Hannah saw as an affliction was a providential step in bringing a king to His people. Since they inherited the Promised Land the children of Israel lived under judges for four hundred and fifty years (Acts 13:20). Eli was the last of these and had become corrupt. To him, Hannah gave her promise and to Eli she delivered Samuel when he was born.

God not only gave Hannah the man-child she asked for, but three sons and two daughters. Samuel took Eli’s office, anointed the first two kings of Israel, and wrote their stories in the books that bear his name.

In 2 Samuel 16:12, David* is musing on his situation when he is fleeing from the rebellion led by his son Absalom. As he abandoned his home, one of king Saul’s* relatives began to curse him. David’s general Abisha wanted to stop him, i.e., cut off his head! David stopped him with these words: It may be that the LORD will look on mine affliction and that the LORD will requite me good for his cursing this day.

David was right. God did requite (repay) David for his affliction, first by restoring him to his throne, and second by giving him this insight into the purpose of that affliction:

It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes. -Psalm 119:71

A similar thought is expressed by one of Job’s* “comforters:He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity.Job 16:15 These Bible texts show this is true. God delivered every one of those mentioned from their affliction and used it to “open their ears,” i.e., to help them listen to Him and obey His word.

Job himself draws this conclusion: But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. Job 23:10

The book of Job gives an extraordinary view into the immediate cause of much of our affliction: Satan. In a rare insight into the presence of the LORD we see Satan seeking to turn Job against God. The LORD allows this but also puts a limit on what the evil he can do. What a comfort this is to us, knowing God sets limit, tests us to strengthen our faith, and never leaves us or forsakes us, Hallelujah!

The next twelve references to affliction occur in the Psalms and explain God’s use of and response to affliction. He always uses it for our benefit and always comforts and delivers His people. Isaiah* explains, in all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity, he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. Isaiah 63:9

Jeremiah* endured severe affliction during his long ministry (60+ years). Woe is me because of my hurt! My wound is grievous. But I said, “Truly this is an affliction, and I must bear it.” – Jeremiah 10:19 Much of his affliction was because God was judging Judah, and the prophet was eyewitness to the siege, capture and destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. He expresses it here: I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; - Lamentations 3:1

His final prayer: Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood, and the gall!Lamentations 3:19

The LORD did remember and brought His people back after 70 years affirming God’s love, character, and mercy. The New Testament teaches still more on affliction, but here is Jeremiah’s conclusion in song affirming all we see in the Old:

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;

There is no shadow of turning with Thee;

Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;

As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.


Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Thomas O. Chisholm, 1923

Affliction in the New Testament

The word “affliction” is used 57 times in the Old Testament but only 13 times in the New. There is a different focus in each, the Old Covenant is often centered on delivering God’s people from oppression from their enemies, i.e., Egypt, Baal worshipers, the Philistines, Assyrians, or other heathen domination.

The world had changed during the 500 years between Testaments. Rome had conquered the world and the Jews lived under their rule. The idol worship was still world-wide, but the old enemies of the Jews were gone. God had engineered the Roman rule and the use of the Greek language to spread the gospel.

Jesus* set about doing this via His healing ministry. He knew that His people have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended. Mathew 4:17

He came to show His love for us, by dying for our sins. He also has compassion for His people and healed them from all their illnesses. This is the best remedy the world has ever had, and millions are in heaven because of His love and mighty power.

Jesus warns us that even greater affliction is coming: For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be. Mark 13:19

How shall we respond? Jesus’ brother advises, Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. – James 5:10

Isaiah* lived under constant threat of death by wicked Manasseh (the Talmud says he ordered him sawn in half). Jeremiah* was “the weeping prophet,” ministering for sixty years and often in prison. Daniel* was thrown into the lion’s den, and Jonah was swallowed alive!

Jesus Himself suffered severe affliction when He died for the sins of the world. This He did of His own free will and When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. – 1 Peter 2:23

He gave His disciples authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. – Matthew 10:1

This is the work they began when He ascended into heaven, and it continues today. Christians are healers and are called to relieve affliction and to be faithful ministers,

The last word we have on affliction in the New Testament is this one from James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. - James 1:17

While Jesus’ followers heal others and relieve their affliction, they often suffer more than they can cure. Shortly after he wrote the text above, James was killed by Herod.

All but one of the twelve were martyred for Jesus. We know most about St. Paul* and his salvation experience on the road to Damascus. It is important that Jesus called him to show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake.Acts 9:17

Here is Paul’s own account of his afflictions for Jesus:

  • Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews.

  • Three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned.

  • I have been in three shipwrecks, and

  • once I spent twenty-four hours in the water.

  • In my many travels, I have been in danger from floods and from robbers,

  • in danger from my own people and from Gentiles;

  • there have been dangers in the cities,

  • dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas, and

  • dangers from false friends.

  • There has been work and toil;

  • often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty;

  • I have often been without enough food, shelter, or clothing.

  • every day I am under the pressure of my concern for all the churches. - 2 Corinthians 11:24-28

The pattern is still the same for those who are faithful to His call.

In addition to all of this, Paul had a painful “thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me.” He asked the Lord three times to deliver him from this, but the Lord said No. His answer? My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:9

St. Paul submitted to this and was able to look at his affliction in another way:

Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10

This is the divine truth in affliction. It does, as David tells us, help me learn “Thy statutes.” The word of God is always our mainstay during times of distress. My testimony is that the Bible ALWAYS helps, encourages, and strengthens.

I am not yet near the place of St. Paul where “I take Pleasure” in affliction, but I am encouraged and strengthened by this teaching on what affliction does for us:

For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.

While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:8

1 Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;

bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.

Leave to thy God to order and provide;

in every change He faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heav'nly Friend

through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

2 Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake

to guide the future as He has the past.

Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;

all now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know

His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

3 Be still, my soul; when dearest friends depart,

and all is darkened in the veil of tears,

then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,

who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.

Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay

from His own fullness all He takes away.

4 Be still, my soul; the hour is hast'ning on

when we shall be forever with the Lord,

when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,

sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.

Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,

all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Kathrina von Schlegel; Translator: Jane Borthwick (1855)

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