“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”
Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Isaiah 52:13-53:13, Lamentations 1:12; 2:13, Matthew 8:14-17, Hebrews 5:7-10
The Black Church has given a unique contribution to Christian song through the spiritual for at least two reasons. First, spirituals have the power to make an immediate connection when sung anywhere in the world. Second, and shockingly, this powerful music has come out of a people who bore the burdens of living in America for over 250 years as slaves under white supremacy in the harshest and most brutal conditions. Conditions that simply went beyond the ability of words to express; conditions which reduced slaves to wordless groaning.
Many spirituals took their rise from a wordless moan that became a melody in the throat of the crushed slave, a melody that searched for words from the story of Jesus to wrap around the song of groaning. Those who have studied how spirituals work point to how many of them surge up from a passionate sympathy and understanding between the groaning of the singer and the story of Jesus’ life of suffering.
As an example, consider the spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?…” The intent of the spiritual is to trace, step by step, the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the pivotal moment of Christology, drawing features from the four distinct gospel accounts. The repeated question that haunts the spiritual, “Were You There?” invoks the bond of suffering shared between slaves and Jesus which stretches from the time of the Middle Passage to the microaggressions of the present. It is a powerful realization to say, “Yes, we were/are there with him, and Yes, he was/is there with us.” The final question, “Were you there when he rose up from the grave?” calls upon all-important apocalyptic thrust of the resurrection to mark the intrusion of an entirely new liberating reign of God. Yes, I am there! When the singer comes to “Oh, sometimes is causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble….” despair has been transformed into stamina and renewed resolve to be free. Even today, singers of this spiritual know that it speaks authentically of their sorrow across all races and stations in life.
The spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” may have been wrung out of a soul who surveys a landscape filled to the horizon with absolute bleak and stark reality. So much trouble that there aren’t enough words to tell it. However, these simple words may be more than a simple expression of exaggeration or hyperbole. “Nobody knows” may express a truth which is deeply and intuitively known by anyone in deep loss. No one can know the depth of another’s loss. While the phrase “Nobody knows” can be a common place thought, it deserves additional examination.
It may be well-meaning to say to someone in deep pain, “Oh, I know just what you are going through”, however, this is not a helpful comment. To try to make any kind of comparison regarding another’s loss runs the great risk of causing the sufferer to feel that he or she is not being taking seriously. It is his or her suffering, not someone else’s. Comparisons tend either to exaggerate or belittle the load of loss. Would-be comforters making comparisons can actually redirect the conversation away from the sufferer to the situation of the comforter, thus further isolating the presenting sufferer. No other body can know the trouble you have seen. You can only know the trouble you have seen. Your suffering is incomparable.
My plan is to use this spiritual as a point of departure to look at what Scripture has to say about incomparable suffering, the place of God in such suffering, and how this experience is contextualized and transformed in the story of Jesus. A return to the spiritual will form our conclusion.
We begin with the book of Lamentations. The five chapters in this book display the struggle to come to grips with a national disaster so great as to destroy the structure of meaning of an entire population, personified in the book as Zion or Jerusalem. The only avenue adequate to venting the full load of what this destruction means is to speak in the language and modes of groaning and lament. In Lamentations the lamenter can come up with no better explanation for this disaster than that it has been caused by God who has become angered by the sin that gripped the entire nation.
Very soon into the book we are confronted with the starkly grim condition of the sufferer: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see, if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” (1:12) Pay attention! the sufferer pleads. Take a look! See; be a witness! And just a few verses later, someone pays attention, sees and answers the sufferer: “What can I say for you; to what compare you, O daughter Jerusalem? To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter Zion? For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?” (2:13) The witness announces that Zion’s suffering has nothing with which to compare it. It is incomparable. Perhaps underlying this speech is the assumption that Zion might be healed if someone could rationally assess her suffering, but that is impossible.
When you finish reading Lamentations, you are left with the conclusion that the only comfort to be had is in the possibility that someone would see and be a witness to the depth of suffering. It is many times the case that those who bear burdens of loss do receive some small comfort in knowing that they have a witness, someone to walk beside them, someone to bring them out of isolation, someone who will not try to hijack their pain. Perhaps, someday this companionship of gloom, this servanthood of listening, will help to bleed off some of the edge of the loss, thus releasing energy to begin to move forward. But nothing is sure.
We recoil at the prospect of such an unsatisfactory future. Why can they not just “get over it”? In other places in Scripture where people give expression to deep loss, like in Psalms 22 or 73, the speakers can take up their lives again as persons who have been transformed by their being heard. However, in contrast to these instances, Lamentations is dealing with the disturbing feature of the absence of God. Behind the bleak prognosis in Lamentations of the uncertain availability of a witness stands the fact that, except for the briefest of breaks, God is not listening, seeing, witnessing, or acting. The book ends with the same cries with which it opened. “Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?…—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.” (5:20,22)
Lamentations closes with Zion’s incomparable sorrow meeting God’s implacable rejection. The presence of God is signified paradoxically by God’s abandonment. While the sufferer has no other option but to reach out to God in trust, hands are stretched out, voices cry to an absent, silent heaven.
This fact makes it very hard to sustain one’s faith in God. We may honor the deep humanity shown by those who do stop and sit beside such suffering, hoping that just their presence is affirming. Even so, that does not lessen our disappointment in God, our anger at God for God’s unspeakableness. Many have tried to provide an answer that defends or excuses or explains God’s absence, but every attempt at rinsing away the mystery ends up in putting more blame on the sufferer.
However, the fact is that Lamentations is part of a library of books which are rooted in God’s ongoing story with Israel/Zion. It is one voice among many, and therefore we invited to read it in conjunction with other voices. One early attempt at starting this conversation was to place Lamentations in the order of the books in the Old Testament next to Jeremiah to link these prayers by association with the prophet known for using the style of lament to communicate with God. Some interpreters even went so far as to claim that the words in Lamentations were spoken by Jeremiah. The saving response of God recorded in Jeremiah was borrowed, so to speak, to stand in for the absence of God’s speech in Lamentations.
Other interpreters place Lamentations in conversation with the chapters in Isaiah which begin, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (40:1-2) With this proposal, the unspeakable God of Lamentations is answered by the speakable God of Isaiah 40-66. I suggest that these chapters do become important conversation partners with Lamentations because Isaiah shows God grappling with suffering so deep that only the ocean’s depths can compare.
Isaiah makes clear that God has been listening all the time, for God repeats back to God’s lamenting people what God has been hearing them say. “All people are grass…The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.” (40:6-7); we are “like grasshoppers” (40:22); “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God” (40:27); “Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel!” (41:14) While the exact antecedent of these quote-backs may not be found in Lamentations, they breathe the spirit of the abject distress of the book. In Isaiah, God shows God’s self as the comforter-in-chief, honoring the sufferers by showing them that God is immersed in what they are experiencing and pledging to them that they are not alone.
However, in contrast to Lamentations, God is not interested in providing an explanation for suffering but in transforming sufferers. In each of these places where God quotes back, God places the people’s collapse of a structure of meaning into a new context founded upon God’s sovereign promises. This new context gives God’s people a new structure of meaning which transforms God’s people, restoring such confidence that God’s people break out in song.
God shows that God is immersed in suffering in that special part of the book called the Servant Songs. In these songs God speaks to or about God’s servant, and we see God plunging into the depths of the loss in Lamentations. The Servant is the strangest of figures in all of Scripture. He is the epitome of suffering, therefore, he is the witness-in-chief so lacking in Lamentations.
If anyone can answer Lamentation’s plea—“Look and see, if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” (1:12)—this servant can. In the longest of the Servant Songs (Is. 52:13-53:13) this figure provokes astonishment “so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance and his form beyond that of mortals” (52:14). “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” (53:3-4) “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth….By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living.” (53:7-8)
Truly this lonely, loathsome figure was a perfect mirror to the cries and groans of Lamentations. This silent sufferer’s plight was made even more miserable because while he could be a perfect witness to human suffering, he had no witness for himself. He was that “one from whom others hide their faces…and we held him of no account.” His sorrow was compounded by the fact that he had no one to look and see, to be a witness. This servant of God is the sufficient assurance that God does not avert God’s face to unspeakable human loss. He can match all sorrow with his sorrow.
The description of the Servant noted thus far responds to Lamentation’s cry, “Look and see, if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” What about the disturbing qualifier of that suffering: “which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” (1:12)? This troubling and complex ascription of suffering to God’s anger upon the sin of the nation is also boldly engaged in Isaiah’s song. The suffering Servant “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities….All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all….For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgressions of my people…It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.” (Is 53:5a, 6, 8b, 10a) To whatever extent the effect of pain can be ascribed to God’s punishment for sin, this servant of God assumes the complete burden of that judgment.
This comingling of the will of the Lord and pain is harsh and abrasive. It flies in the face of one of the few “sunny” spots in Lam 3:33 “For he [God] does not willingly afflict nor grieve anyone.” Some see this verse as affording a “way out” for explaining God’s relationship to pain. God, it is suggested, is powerless to stop affliction and grief, unable to prevent evil. God is helpless in the face of forces, laws, or principles of creation already at work in the cosmos. While this may be true on a philosophical level, this is not what God’s will is concerned with in burdening God’s Servant with pain, nor is it what torments the ones who cry in Lamentations.
Recall that in Lamentations the wholesale destruction of a long-standing structure of meaning in which the lamenters recognize their participation, their sin, cries out for resolution, but to an empty sky. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is God’s answer. That responsibility for destruction for which those in Lamentations could never atone, God heaps on the servant. The servant becomes the context which draws in Zion’s iniquity. In the death of the servant this context reaches its densest character. God’s answer to Lamentation’s cry of repentance is the death of nation which is taken on by the death of the Servant.
Astonishingly, it is out of this nadir of degradation that God brings forth abundant flourishing for the nation and for the Servant. In Isaiah this is described in coordinating outcomes. Regarding the Servant, “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” is correlated with the nation, “upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (53:5). Regarding the Servant: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain, [to] make his life an offering for sin” is countered by “he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.” (53:10)
The Servant mirrors perfectly the ocean of ruin of Lamentations, assuming the totality of loss with its consequences in his death. This one is completely vindicated as the conclusion of this servant song shows. “Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities…..because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (53:11-12) This death has the effect both of releasing the legacy on Israel of its willful abandonment of God and of giving Israel a new language of praise with which fellowship with God may be restored.
Summing up, Isaiah’s description of the Servant fully matches Lamentation’s cry, “Look and see, if there is any sorrow like my sorrow”, and it engages in a shockingly novel way the disturbing qualifier of that suffering: “which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” (1:12) The suffering, for which the lamenter can find no other explanation than it was inflicted by God for sin, is the burden which God afflicts on the Servant and directs that it run its course into the Servant’s death. The Servant is God’s chief witness to loss and shockingly the bearer of the outworking of that loss.
As if nothing could exceed the shock of this display of divine will, the pit of death becomes the womb of new life. God is the constructor of a new framework for life built out of the wreckage that God caused in the Servant’s life. The point bears underscoring that the death of the Servant has the effect of releasing the legacy of Israel’s willful abandonment of God (iniquity) and of giving Israel a new standing (righteous) and a new language by which fellowship with God may be restored, the language of praise. Thus, God, through the Servant, puts a new foundation under the gospel of comfort announced in Isaiah 40:2: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
This servant song provided for early Christians a way to comprehend the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Each gospel reaches back at significant turning points in the narrative of Jesus’ life to Isaiah 52-53 to underscore the character and intent of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. A short listing shows the significance.
Matthew 8:17 summarizes a series of stories of Jesus healing with this quotation from Is. 53:4 “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” Jesus becomes the chief-witness and the all sufficient context to receive human pain and loss.
Mark 10:45 sets the stage for the final week of Jesus’ life with the solemn pronouncement “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” While this announcement cannot be traced to a citation in the Old Testament, it attracts to it descriptions of the Servant as the one who brings release from systemic encumbrances, servitudes and constraints.
Luke 23:34 recounts that as Jesus was being tortured to death by crucifixion, he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, while not directly quoting from Isaiah, Jesus is shown enacting the Servant’s role as intercessor for transgressors. Furthermore, these words allude strongly to the human fog of unknowing which surrounds the strange working out of God’s will.
John 1:29 contains the first announcement by another human being, John the Baptist, of who Jesus is, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” The reference to the lamb may be drawn from Is 53:7 whose non-resistance exemplifies the obedience of the Servant and whose slaughter is a metaphor for the Servant’s pouring himself out to death as he “bore the sin of many.” (Is 53:12-13)
In addition, as has been pointed out often, other motifs of the servant song show up as shaping the narrative of the Passion. The burial of Jesus’ corpse undertaken by Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:57) is correlated with Is 53.9 “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich”. The resurrection brings to the forefront Is 53:10-11 “When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days….Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge….Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.”
Early Christians, confronted with the shocking events of Jesus death, found helpful orientation in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Jesus becomes the chief-witness and the all sufficient context to receive human pain and loss. The one who died on the cross suffered by the will of God to lift from humans the legacy of rebellion and self-importance. His resurrection lays bare God’s unalterable plan to construct for God’s people a structure where life has and retains meaning, both within the wreckage of loss as well as over and beyond loss.
God turns our lamenting into songs of praise by drawing into God’s own self our loss, absorbing its full shock, and demonstrating to us that Jesus is the source of new life within the wreckage, giving us creativity, stamina, grit and verve. As we return to the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” we can appreciate how it finely encapsulates this basic stance of faith. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows but Jesus….Glory Halleluiah!”
The narrative of Jesus’ life does not shirk from recalling him being enveloped in such dread. The picture of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion contains the tell-tale signs of deep groaning. Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated.” He said to trusted disciples “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” They, of course, did not. (Mk 14:32-42) Some manuscripts of Luke include that “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” (Lk 22:44) Dread is unmistakably what drives Jesus to the extremity of remaining intact.
This memory of Jesus being assaulted by dread is reflected in Heb 5:7. The New Revised Standard Translation has: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” This reflection upon Jesus’ ordeal in Gethsemane is part of the epistle’s encouragement of its readers to engage God in bold prayer as noted in Heb 3:6, (to hold firm to boldness of speech and boasting of hope), and 4:16 (to approach the throne of grace with bold frankness). In this context, Heb 5:7 portrays Jesus whose loud cries and weeping indicate that his prayers and supplications were sounds wrung from deep emotional places. His groaning was the badge of his reverence which made his prayers comprehensible to God.
However, another rendering has it: “who, in the days of his flesh, offered prayers and supplications to the One who was able to save him from death, with a loud cry and tears, and from his anxiety, was heeded.” The import of this rendering would be to memorialize that God took heed to the abyss of anxiety as the root cause of Jesus’ groaning. The unmistakable impression is that while Jesus had to fight through groaning beyond words, God understood what his groans conveyed.
These remembrances of Jesus serve to illuminate the devastating plunge into the darkness of abandonment which enveloped Jesus in his final moments of torture by crucifixion. As the Gospel of Mark renders the ghastly scene, after Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he gives up a loud cry and breathed his last. (Mk 15:33-37) By means of the wrenching cry of the crucified Jesus, the Son of God joins in solidarity with all who find themselves transfixed in screaming rage. In his cry from the cross Jesus gathers up and speaks all human lament. The crush of the forsaken Zion in Lamentations, concentrated in the Suffering Servant, is now reenacted in the Son who is abandoned by the Father. On the cross, God collapses the distance between the abandoning God and the one who is groaning. His sorrow is incomparable.
The astonishing and provocative message at the heart of Christian faith is that God’s utter identification with the extremes of human suffering is so that God’s victory over all that reduces humans to groaning, shown in resurrecting Jesus, catches up with new life all persons who have been pummeled. God makes the very circumstances designed to grind humans down into submission become the context for experiencing the very thing they were designed to subvert. God goes to such radical lengths to take on the human and spiritual costs of being devalued in order to redeem humanity from that legacy. Thus God proves that God is ultimately reliable, and that humans can take hope, even in darkest despair and screaming rage, that God’s intentions for humanity will prevail.
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows but Jesus.” Jesus becomes the lamenter-in-chief, the one who is the co-speaker of the voices in Lamentations. He prays the book of Lamentations alongside Zion and all whose structure of meaning has collapsed. He is reached out to because we trust that he knows the ocean depth of loss, but he is grasped in trust for more than just what he knows. He welcomes us into a new body for living, even within the wreckage of what is no longer viable, and for that hope, we hang on for dear life.