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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Sorrow, Man of Sorrows

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SORROW, MAN OF SORROWS.—We shall find in the Gospels no theory of sorrow, or abstract discussion of the problem of pain and suffering. The problem is taken for granted, and a solution is given. The solution is experimental, and centres round the life of Christ. If we ask why sorrow comes, the answer is not speculative, but practical; we are simply pointed to His experience (Hebrews 12). Accordingly, the method of this article will be to deal first with Christ as the Man of Sorrows, and afterwards with the meaning of sorrow in human life generally, and particularly in the life of the Christian.

1. The ‘Man of Sorrows’—The phrase comes from Isaiah 53:3 (אּישׁ מַכְאֹבוֹח; LXX Septuagint , ἄνθρωτος ἐν πληγῇ ὤν; Vulgate virum dolorum).

Objection has been taken (e.g. by Cheyne, G. A. Smith, Skinner, Workman) to the rendering ‘sorrows,’ ‘pains’ being preferred in this verse and the next as a nearer parallel to חֳלָי (‘sickness’ rather than ‘grief’). But the Oxford Heb. Lex. gives many instances of both the vb. and noun as referring to mental pain, and classes this passage under that head. While allowing that the picture in Isaiah is primarily of physical suffering, we may without hesitation retain the familiar rendering of Authorized Version and Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 .

The title is never applied to Christ in the NT. It belongs, in fact, to popular rather than to technical phraseology, expressing in picturesque form what the theologian means by speaking of Christ as the ‘Suffering Servant of Jehovah.’ Either phrase implies equally that the prophecy of Is 53 was in a true sense fulfilled in Him. Whatever may have been the primary historical bearing of that passage, it is generally admitted that in the time of Christ there was no expectation of a suffering Messiah. The indications of the Gospels and Acts agree completely with the evidence of pre-Christian Jewish literature. ‘The idea of the Messiah’s sufferings is not found in any Jewish document up to the close of the first century’ (Stanton, Jewish and Christian Messiah, p. 123). ‘Man of Sorrows’ would have been the last title to have caught the popular imagination of that age. ‘Son of David’ expressed the contemporary hopes of what the Messiah was to be. That the one title has been entirely displaced by the other is significant. The one is national, more or less materialistic, pointing to an earthly kingdom. The other expresses the universal attraction of Christ, His spiritual empire over the hearts of men, and the means by which His influence has been won. See, further, art. Messiah.

2. The nature of the sorrows of Christ.—Though, as noted above, the phrase ‘Man of Sorrows’ may be retained as the translation of Isaiah 53:3, there can be little doubt that the general picture of the passage in its literal sense is of one visited with the extreme of physical suffering, a Job; many see in it the description of a leper, as in Psalms 88. If the view is correct that it was never intended to apply to an individual, but was typical of the nation, or of part of it, it will none the less remain true that the figure the writer has chosen is that of bodily sickness. The sorrows of Christ were not of this nature, nor was His appearance unattractive, still less repulsive, as of one suffering from a loathsome disease. In the Gospels but little stress is laid on the physical sufferings even of the last days. He Himself expressly deprecates so doing (Luke 23:28). He once refers to the privations of His life (Luke 9:58) in order to check one who had not counted the cost of discipleship. A single word from the Cross (John 19:28) has to do with His bodily needs. Where the thought of His own sufferings comes to His mind, the impression we have is of spiritual sorrow (Mark 10:32; Mark 14:34; Mark 15:34, Luke 12:50, John 12:27), and commentators of all schools have connected this sorrow with His contact and conflict with sin. He sighs at the presence of the deaf and dumb man (Mark 7:34). When face to face with death, He is moved with sympathetic compassion (Luke 7:13); He groans in spirit, is troubled, and weeps (John 11:33). The underlying thought in these passages seems to be His sense of what lies behind human suffering. So it is different degrees of sin at which His sorrow is implied or expressed;—dulness, unbelief, or hardness of heart in the disciples (Matthew 16:8, Mark 8:21; Mark 9:19; Mark 10:14; Mark 14:27; Mark 14:37, Luke 22:38, John 14:9);—the wilful blindness and opposition of His countrymen (Mark 3:5; Mark 6:6; Mark 8:12, Luke 13:15). Specially significant are the laments over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37, Luke 19:41). He is grieved at ingratitude (Luke 17:17), at lack of hospitality (Luke 7:44), at the profanation of the Temple (Matthew 21:12), above all, at the treachery of Judas (Matthew 26:20, John 13:21). He feels sorrowful compassion over the multitude without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36, Mark 6:34). On the other hand, His joy is specially mentioned at the conquest or removal of sin (Matthew 18:13, Luke 10:21; Luke 15:5). A study of these passages will show the sense in which He was a Man of Sorrows. On the one hand, He was brought into a relation to sin from which His nature shrank, and which even seemed at its climax to lead to a separation from God (Mark 15:34). On the other hand, in His conflict against sin He was spiritually alone. He knew more clearly than any the nature of sin and its results. He saw what man might be if he chose, and what in fact he was. He realized every hour the tragic irony of the situation, that He had come to His own and they would not receive Him. The horror of His rejection by His countrymen lay not so much in the suffering it implied for Himself, as in their own loss of opportunity. Isaiah 53 was profoundly true. Men did not perceive or desire the beauty of His holiness. They despised and rejected His message; they hid their face from Him because they could not bear to look on the splendour of the goodness and love He came to reveal.* [Note: From this point of view the nearest parallel to Christ is Jeremiah, the ‘man of sorrows’ of the OT. There, too, we have the one standing in moral solitude over against the whole nation, in bitterness of soul because he knows that none will listen to his message. If, as is often thought, his experience had some share in moulding the conception of Isaiah 53, that chapter forms a close link between him and Christ, pointing bark to the one and forward to the other (cf. G. A. Smith, Isaiah, vol. ii. ch. 2, etc.).]

3. The necessity of sorrow in the life of Christ came from the spiritual character of His work. From the point of view of the disciples, and the popular conception of the Messiah, a certain amount of conflict and hardship could readily be allowed for. The Roman could not be expected to yield without a blow; and as it became clear that opposition from within His own nation was to be expected, temporary disappointments and misunderstandings would fall within the disciples scheme of the future. They were ready for the hardships of an earthly struggle, i.e. to drink His cup as they understood it. They were not prepared for the Cross, because they had not a deep enough conception of His work. Not Roman or Sadducee, but sin, was the enemy; His end was the establishment of a spiritual and universal empire. The national mission of the Son of David had passed into the world-wide mission of the Servant of Jehovah,† [Note: See Workman, The Servant of Jehovah, ch. vii.] and the means which might have sufficed for the one would no longer serve the other. His work moved on a higher plane, and the weapons of His warfare must be more mysterious and spiritual than any outward miracle. These weapons were the attractive and atoning power of service, and sorrow. Mark 10:45 shows this clearly. The Cross, the life of service, and all it implied of sorrow and suffering, were necessary because He had come to give His life a ransom for many (cf. John 12:32).

The fuller discussion of the redemptive value of Christ’s sufferings belongs to other articles (see art. Atonement). It must suffice here to insist on what all theories admit, that only as Sufferer could He be Saviour. He had come to serve God as man; therefore suffering was necessary to the perfection of His obedience (Hebrews 2:10; Hebrews 5:8). It is a fact of history that as the Sufferer He has conquered and drawn men unto Him. The title ‘Man of Sorrows’ expresses, more perhaps than any other, His attractive power; it has been the inspiration of Christian art and music. The thought underlying it is not primarily any logical theory of Atonement, but the all-embracing sympathy of the God-man. His ‘Come unto me’ (Matthew 11:28) is a comfortable word, because it is spoken by One ‘who, in that he himself suffered being tempted, is able to succour them that are tempted’ (Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 3:15, cf. Matthew 8:17).

4. The Christian conception of sorrow.—Sorrow is, properly speaking, a psychological term, being a description of a state of mind. It should be distinguished from the suffering, mental or physical, which may be its occasion. We may define it as the sense of discord, the consciousness that things are not as they should be, in ourselves, or in the world. It is an experience peculiar to man, and can be attributed to animals only by an effort of personification.* [Note: See the remarkable passage in Romans 8:22, where Nature is represented as sharing in the imperfection and hopes of man. Cf. Sanday-Headlam, ad loc.] In the fact of its being a privilege peculiar to man we may begin to see something of its purpose.

‘The inherent necessity in man of sorrow … testifies that his essential constitution and nature, as man, is something which all this world’s life and the conditions of it—by the very fact that they are what they are—cannot match and cannot satisfy. The very constitution of his being and the necessary conditions of his life are out of harmony together. They do not and cannot fit; the one is too small to satisfy the other. Set man, being what man is, in this world, as the conditions of this world are, and the necessary result is, sooner or later, sorrow’ (Moberly, Sorrow, Sin, and Beauty, p. 7).

To a creature made in the image of God, sorrow is the necessary condition of the struggle against sin in an imperfect world. Given the fact of sin, suffering ceases to be a problem. Only in a perfect state could it be desirable that sorrow and sighing should flee away.

Hence if sorrow is a privilege of man as a spiritual being, we shall expect to find that it is in a special sense the privilege of the Christian. The second Beatitude (Matthew 5:4) speaks absolutely of its blessedness. The underlying thought seems to be that dissatisfaction with things as they are will lead to the effort to right them. Discord within the soul, i.e. sin, is specially in view. Mourning is the evidence of the break-up of the self-complacency which is the chief obstacle to the Kingdom of God. Sorrow, indeed, is of no value unless it leads to the striving after higher things. There is no blessedness attached to vain regret for the past (Matthew 25:11; Matthew 27:3, Mark 10:22), or to the sorrow which finds its vent in weary sleep instead of in prayer (Luke 22:45). The bearing of pain, voluntary or otherwise, is in itself neutral; it is effective only when it is the means of rooting out from the self a cause of offence (Matthew 5:29, etc.). The sorrow which is fruitful is the travail which issues in the birth of a new life (John 12:24; John 16:21). The one object of the purging is that the branch may bring forth more fruit (John 15:2).

If sorrow is a necessary accompaniment of the attempt to right things in oneself, it will also accompany the attempt to right things in the world. It was Christ’s experience, and it will be the experience of His followers (John 15:20 etc.) as they share His work. The traditional saying of Christ that ‘he who is near me is near the fire’ (Orig. Hom. in Jer. xx. 3) is at least authentic in spirit. The disciples must bear the cross He bears (Mark 8:34), drink His cup, and be baptized with His baptism (Mark 10:38), carry His yoke (Matthew 11:29). The sword must pierce the Virgin’s heart because of her nearness to Him (Luke 2:35); even the Innocents suffer unconsciously on account of their connexion with Him (Matthew 2:16). The via dolorosa is the only road to union with Him.† [Note: It need hardly be added that this thought dominates the rest of the NT (e.g. Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24, 1 Peter 4:13).]

In John 16 the sorrow of the disciples is contrasted with the transient joy of the world. The world rejoices (John 16:20) ‘as having been freed from one who was a dangerous innovator as well as a condemner of its ways’ (Westcott, ad loc.); i.e. it is satisfied to have no Christ, even to have removed Him, and is content with things as they are. The sorrow of the disciples is connected with the departure of Christ. The primary reference is to the immediate crisis, but in all ages His disciples will have sorrow in all that hinders their full vision of Him, the complete establishment of His Kingdom, and His return in glory. Though He has overcome the world, they must have tribulation in it, till the victory won ideally is realized in fact (John 16:33). Sorrow cannot be completely turned into joy till what is, is identical with what should be, till He returns again and we see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). As we said before, we find no abstract discussion of the nature and meaning of sorrow. The solution of the problem is found in the experience of Christ, which is the experience of the Christian.* [Note: ‘The real Christian looks at sorrow not from without, but from within, and does not approach its speculative difficulty till he is aware by experience of its practical power’ (Lux Mundi15, p. 89).] Sorrow is bound up with every attempt to combat sin in the self and in the world. It is the reaction against sin, and those who feel this most keenly must drink most deeply of the cup. The consolation lies in the fact that the disciple is sharing the lot of His master here, and will share His joy hereafter (Matthew 19:28, Romans 8:17, 2 Timothy 2:11).

5. Sorrow and happiness.—It would be an inadequate treatment of the teaching of Christ to conceive of sorrow merely as the condition of future happiness. Christianity is a religion of present happiness. An exultant joy is the note of the songs which hailed Christ’s birth. Joy is a present fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22); the Kingdom of God is now joy and peace (Romans 14:17). The promises of the New Heaven and the New Earth are not purely eschatological; they belong, ideally at least, to our life now. One of the characteristic paradoxes of Christianity is that its sorrow and happiness coexist. Again we turn first to the experience of Christ. He is the Man of Sorrows, yet we cannot think of Him for a moment as an unhappy man. He rather gives us the picture of serene and unclouded happiness. Beneath not merely the outward suffering, but the profound sorrow of heart, there is deeper still a continual joy, derived from the realized presence of His Father, and the consciousness that He is doing His work. Unless this is remembered, the idea of the Man of Sorrows is sentimentalized and exaggerated. And again the disciple shares the experience of His master. Neither Christ nor the true Christian can for a moment wish, like a Job or a Jeremiah, that he had never been born. The Beatitudes express His own humanly discovered secret of happiness; He has Himself known the blessedness or mourning, though never, of course, over His own sin, and He imparts the secret to His follower. And though the promises of John 16 can be completely realized only when the Christian departs to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23), yet even now His joy is in him and is fulfilled (John 15:11); even now, in prayer and in communion with Him, he knows the joy which no man can take from him (John 16:20; John 16:22; John 16:24). ‘Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Corinthians 6:10), is the paradox of the gospel, and each side of the paradox is needed to counteract an unbalanced view of life. On the one hand, sorrow is no figment of the imagination, to be thought away. It is a fact of life, and a necessary fact, necessary to the perfection of the sinless One, much more to our own; the condition of all progress and of all true work for God. This is the truth ignored by the ‘sky-blue’ optimism, which strives to live ever in the sunshine and blinds itself to sin.† [Note: See James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 80 ff.] On the other hand, sorrow is not the last word of life. The world is a κόσμος, a creation of order and beauty. We find in Christ’s teaching nothing of the sentimental attitude, which looks on suffering with complacency, as though it were good in itself. To Him evil is evil, and suffering is suffering; He came as the Saviour to destroy them.* [Note: So Harnack most admirably, in What is Christianity? ch. vi.] Here Christianity is in strong contrast to Buddhism, and to all forms of morbid asceticism. Bacon’s aphorism that ‘prosperity is the blessing of the OT, adversity the blessing of the NT,’ is true only when it is understood that beneath the adversity, and the sorrow of heart which it brings, there is even here and now the peace which passeth understanding, the joy which comes of union with Christ, of sympathy with man, and of work for God.

Literature.—Davidson, OT Prophecy (ch. 22); Stanton, Jewish and Christian Messiah; G. A. Smith, Isaiah, vol. ii.; Moberly, Sorrow, Sin, and Beauty; Du Bose, Gospel in the Gospels; Lux Mundi, ‘The Problem of Pain’; Workman, The Servant of Jehovah.

C. W. Emmet.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sorrow, Man of Sorrows'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/sorrow-man-of-sorrows.html. 1906-1918.

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