“You will say this word to them, ‘Let my eyes flow down with tears night and day, and let them not cease; for the virgin daughter of my people has been crushed with a mighty blow, with a sorely infected wound.’” Jeremiah 14:17 NASB
Not cease – Does God cry? Does He cry over His people? Does He cry over the hideous behavior of men? Does He cry over you?
In most theological constructions, the idea that God actually feels emotions, that He could actually cry, is considered impossible. Language like this is anthropomorphic. It doesn’t actually describe God as He really is. It only describes the way that God communicates in human terms so that we might have some apprehension of the circumstances. Theologically, God cannot cry. Why? Because God is not the kind of being who is subject to the sways of passions. He is perfect and perfection means He does not need to or ever can change. Since emotions are changes par excellence, they are not appropriately ascribed to God. This doctrine is called impassibility (you can look it up in most theology books). It is a direct result of immutability (God does not change).
Why would theologians ever dream up something like this? It seems so contrary to anything believers would wish of the God they worship. What motivation can there be for bringing our trials and hurts and sorrows to God if He cannot feel? The theology that creates this paradox comes from the desire to attribute to God only the most superlative characteristics (like holiness, goodness, mercy). In other words, in order to protect the majesty of God, theologians removed anything that might appear to be entirely too human. This is not a Greek worldview problem (but, of course, it has plenty of representatives in Western theology). Even among Jewish sages, immutability was a way to protect the glory of God.
In contrast, Heschel remarks that Akiva viewed God’s love for Israel as a heart connection. The marriage metaphor of Scripture demonstrated that God was intimately connected to Israel, suffering with Israel, redeeming Israel, empathizing with Israel in His cosmic purposes. According to Akiva, God does cry. How else would a husband express the sorrow of being rejected by His one true love? Other sages did not view God’s relationship with Israel in this manner. They thought of God’s covenant as a matter of the will, not the heart. God, by His own declaration, was obligated to Israel regardless of any emotional expressions. Their view is that God’s commitment is a moral imperative, not the outcome of an overwhelming and compelling love. God promised. That is the end of the matter.
So we see that men have struggled to understand God’s pathos for millennia. This verse in Jeremiah allowed Rabbi Tanhuma to claim that it must be about God, that God cries because no man can cry without ceasing. The Hebrew phrase, al-tidmena (do not let cease – from the verb damah), is used again in Lamentations 3:49. If Akiva and Tanhuma are right, God is very much a God of divine pathos, a God who feels! But what a paradox this creates. We don’t want a God who is like Zeus or Marduk, subject to personal whims and human bribes, but we can hardly worship a God who is far removed from all that makes our lives into roller-coasters. Theology typically opts for transcendent divinity – at the cost of denying empathy. Scripture seems to point in both directions at the same time. Perhaps this is why the great theologians like Augustine and Boethius advised preachers not to actually say anything about this doctrine.
Aside from the theological puzzles, there is something else to learn here. What kind of God do you serve? Does your theology require a straightjacket around life as you know it, or does it give you confidence that God knows your passions and sorrows? Are you willing to allow Scripture to contain paradoxes or does the logic of your position force you to remain silent about some implications?
Oh, yes. One final thought. If you can live with a God who is holy, glorious and eternal and at the same time experiences intimate empathy, then why do you have trouble with other supposed paradoxes (like predestination and free will)? Does your theology tell you what you must believe or do you believe what you have experienced in His presence?
Topical Index: immutability, cry, cease, damah, Akiva, Tanhuma, Jeremiah 14:17