Providence and Suffering in the Old and New Testament is a wonderful, one-hundred and sixty-nine page book that brings its readers on a concise journey through the Old and New Testament teachings on the providence of God and suffering. This book was written in 1953 by Edmund F. Sutcliffe, who was a professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Hebrew at Heythrop College, a predominantly Catholic college. It was undoubtedly refreshing to read a book on this subject matter where the author appears to regard the Bible as inspired of God and painstakingly provides scripture references to substantiate his conclusions. The book has eleven unique chapters that include: Some Ancient Views (1-17); The Religion of the Babylonians (18-38); The First Sin and its Consequences (39-51); Corporate Solidarity (52-71); The Doctrine of the Psalms (72-86); Individual Retribution (87-96); The Suffering of the Innocent: Vicarious Suffering (97-109); The Suffering of the Innocent: the Book of Job (110-119); Suffering in the Light of the Future Life (120-126); The Teaching of the New Testament (127-158); Recapitulation (159-168).
The book begins by outlining the teachings on the providence of God and suffering by the “religious systems of the past, especially those of the ancient East” (2). The author considers the teachings of Brahmanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Kabbalist Jews, Mazdaeism, Zoroastriansim, Egyptian, Greek, and Romans on the subjects of providence and suffering. In fact, the first thirty-eight pages are dedicated to other religious systems which will help the reader appreciate the biblical doctrine of providence and suffering. For instance, the law of karma, taught by the Brahman and Hindu religions, means that suffering is “merited retribution” for sins committed in a past life (3). Though the one who is suffering has no recollection of these past wrongs and has no ability to repent, they are regarded as guilty and recipients of the punishment that is due to them. This of course crushes the sufferer’s spirit and removes all feelings of pity and commiseration by onlookers (4). What a contrast to the Christian religion! (Rom. 12:15).
Beginning in chapter three, the author begins his focus on the doctrine of providence and suffering found in the Old Testament by considering the first sin committed in the Garden of Eden and its consequences. As noted by the author, it was God’s plan for man to live an “…innocent, happy life, free from all cares and anxieties” (43) but also desired man to attain the high dignity of “real holiness” (43-44). The only way to attain “real holiness” was to endow man with free will. Sutcliffe explained, “Man was to have the free choice of serving God or of refusing that service, of accepting that service in a higher or in a lower degree” (44). Unfortunately, Adam chose to sin and lost the privileges bestowed to mankind in the garden and brought hardship and misery into the world. Sutcliffe concluded, “None of it was in God’s original plan. Its presence and prevalence are the fruit of sin” (47).
In chapter four and six the author tackles the topics “Corporate Solidarity” and “Individual Retribution,” respectively. Corporate Solidarity is how individuals are grouped together into families and nations and are often rewarded or punished because of their inclusion into a certain group. Specifically, the author demonstrates that the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Israelites often punished the family members of a guilty person (Daniel 6:24). This helps one understand how “…suffering, which is for some a punishment, may be nothing but the natural consequence of membership of such a group” (69). It also explains how the sin of Adam, the first parent of the human race, would have repercussions on all of mankind (70). However, corporate Solidarity is not the only reason given for suffering in the Old Testament but also retribution for one’s own actions. The author highlights the teachings of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, who emphasize individual responsibility, though it is taught much earlier in the Old Testament in such accounts as the salvation of Noah and his family from the flood (96).
In the chapter entitled “The Doctrine of the Psalms” the author demonstrates that the Israelites believed that God was both omnipotent and just (Gen. 18:14; Psalm 7:12). However, God had not revealed His plan for them fully, so the doctrine of the providence of God and suffering is true but incomplete in the Psalms. Since the concept of life after death was still darkened, they often “…looked for rewards and punishments of the good and the wicked during men’s lifetime” (72, see Psalm 112, 128, 91:8-11, etc.). This sometimes led the faithful to question their religion (Psalm 37, 38) and the unfaithful to view God as unconcerned with the conduct of men (deist view, Psalm 73). Sutcliffe concluded, “The prevalent view was that God, as the just and omnipotent guardian of the moral order, visits the sinner with punishment and protects and rewards the good. But the doctrine, true as it is, remained incomplete for the reason God’s providence had not revealed the further truth that divine retribution is largely reserved for the life after death” (86). This is an important concept for Christians to remember, as they search for answers concerning God’s involvement in their lives today.
Two chapters are dedicated to “Vicarious Suffering” which will likely be of interest to the Christian reader, because it is common to suffer because of one’s Christianity or, at least, in spite of one’s Christianity. The author demonstrates that it was common for God’s people to feel neglected by God, punished because of their dedication to Him (Hab. 1:2-4; Jer. 12:1-4; 15:15; Eccles. 7:16; 8:10-14, etc.). Isaiah introduces a different kind of vicarious suffering in the “Suffering Servant,” fulfilled by Jesus Christ, who suffers to atone for the sins of all. The second chapter on “Vicarious Suffering” outlines the lessons learned from the Book of Job. The author places a later date on the book’s composition and concludes that it transcends older Old Testament conception of suffering, because it teaches that God’s providence may allow a good man to suffer to test the reality of his virtue, and “virtue is not necessarily co-extensive with prosperity; calamity is no sure sign of misdeeds” (119). On the other hand, he writes it remains within the older Old Testament conception of suffering because the account “…could not but end in the renewed prosperity of the sufferer” (119) in this physical life. While the late date he attaches to the book is curious, it is a difficult book to date and his points remain valid regardless.
If one chapter disappointed, it was “Suffering in the Light of the Future Life.” In this chapter the Maccabean books and the Book of Wisdom are heavily quoted as inspired Scripture. While this would be consistant with the author’s Catholic background, I do not believe there is any evidence that these books were accepted as Canonical by the early Christian church, and they lack the marks of inspiration. However, these books were written during the “intertestamental period” and still hold important historical value and reveal some of the beliefs concerning suffering during this time period. The author rightly places this chapter in-between the chapters covering the Old and New Testament doctrine of suffering to maintain chronology. He tries to demonstrate that during this period the concept of a future resurrection and eternal life was prevalent. This allowed God’s people to rationalize their current state of suffering, knowing they would one day be vindicated and their oppressors punished (121).
Finally, a succinct look into the doctrine of providence and suffering in the New Testament is considered in roughly thirty pages. In the New Testament poverty is no longer viewed necessarily as punishment from God but as a sign that one has less impeding them to the attainment of spiritual life (Matt. 5:3; 8:20-24; 21:19; 2 Cor. 8:9). In fact, the Son of God accepted suffering as His lot (John 3:14; 10:15-18; 12:32; Matt. 16:21) and as a result members of His spiritual body, the church, should accept suffering as their lot (Rom. 12:4; 1 Cor. 12:26; John 15:18-21). Jesus offers consolation to His people by promising they will one day attain eternal life (Matt. 10:17, 22, 28, 38-39; 5:10-12). It is also taught that there is a benefit of suffering in that it strengthens and increases one’s faith in God, a lesson learned even by the Son of God (Rom. 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; Heb. 5:8; 4:15; 21:1-11; Phil. 2:8). Finally, it is admitted that suffering is sometimes the result of sin (147, Luke 1:6, 20; Acts 12:22), but God’s people are warned not to conclude that all suffering is a result of sin (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:5; Matt. 6:22). Sutcliffe wrote these well-tempered words concerning the account of the man born blind: “And we may well believe that it was better for the blind man himself to have been so born considering the spiritual enlightenment and grace of which his cure was the occasion. And although the affliction was directed by divine Providence to a higher religious purpose, there is no reason to suppose that in itself it was due to any but purely natural causes which, given the required conjunction of circumstances, would have produced the same disability in any other man” (148-149). I found this conclusion to be of benefit, because those suffering physical disability often view God as One who has orchestrated the ailment. Perhaps the better conclusion is to view God as the One who has provided the instructions in His Word to make the most of the ailment to His glory (2 Cor. 12:9).
The final chapter is entitled “recapitulation” and is a brief summary of the entire book. All-in-all, I found this book to be well worth the money and well worth the time spent reading it. The author appears to have respect for God’s Word and attempts to draw conclusions based on Scripture, which results in a nice overview of the doctrines of providence and suffering in the Old and New Testament. Though you will not find it new, I rate this book as a “Buy,” because it is worth having in your library of resources for a long time.