Why Does God Let Us Suffer? (Micah 4:6-13)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached in November 2021*

Sermon Audio: Why Does God Let Us Suffer? (Micah 4:6-13)

Why does God let us suffer? There are times in life where we see that we are suffering because of our own sin and folly (think of David), there are times where we can see how God used suffering for a good cause (think of Joseph), but there are also times where God leads us into suffering that we are totally baffled by (think of Job).

George MacDonald, the Scottish minister and author, in his 1872 children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin, writes of a young princess living in a castle next to a mountain that is inhabited by goblins. The young princess however has a fairy godmother who lives in the tower of her castle and gives her a magic ring and attached to it is a magical invisible thread. Whenever the princess feels frightened she could take the ring off and place it under her pillow, and then follow the thread to the fairy godmother and then be safe. She is promised that so long as she follows the thread she will be safe and led to her fairy godmother.

One night, while the princess is sleeping she awakes and hears the sound of a goblin snarling in her room. So, she does exactly what she is told: she takes the ring off, places it under her pillow, and then begins to follow the thread out of her room. But, to her surprise, instead of leading her up the stairs to her fairy godmother’s room, it leads her downstairs to the backdoor of the castle. Even more alarming, as she apprehensively follows the thread she finds that it goes outside of the castle grounds; it leads up the mountain; it plunges into a pitch black cave, right where the goblins live. Terrified, alone, and unsure how this could lead to safety, she pauses. 

But she reminds herself that her fairy godmother promised that if she followed the thread she would be safe, she would be okay, so with trembling fingers she continues to follow the thread. But after journeying deep into the black cavern, she finds that the thread eventually runs right into the middle of a giant heap of stones. It’s a complete dead end. The princess then tries to follow the thread backwards to lead her out of the cavern, but as soon as she moves her hand backwards up the thread, it disappears. The only way she can go is forward, through the giant pile of rubble. So she collapses and begins to cry, feeling utterly betrayed and forsaken by her godmother.

Why does the thread of God’s will sometimes lead us into the dark pit of suffering? Why is it that even when we are trusting the Lord and seeking to follow Him we are bent over with sorrow? Loved ones get sick; hopes and aspirations for a career or relationship fizzle out; a family member severs all contact with you. At times we can feel like the heroine in MacDonald’s story: forsaken.

In our text today, we will see God’s people suffer for their sins, but we will also see God’s plan of deliverance through it. 

In that day, declares the LORD,
I will assemble the lame
and gather those who have been driven away
and those whom I have afflicted;
7 and the lame I will make the remnant,
and those who were cast off, a strong nation;
and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion
from this time forth and forevermore.
8 And you, O tower of the flock,
hill of the daughter of Zion,
to you shall it come,
the former dominion shall come,
kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.
9 Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in you?
Has your counselor perished,
that pain seized you like a woman in labor?
10 Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion,
like a woman in labor,
for now you shall go out from the city
and dwell in the open country;
you shall go to Babylon.
There you shall be rescued;
there the LORD will redeem you
from the hand of your enemies.
11 Now many nations
are assembled against you,
saying, “Let her be defiled,
and let our eyes gaze upon Zion.”
12 But they do not know
the thoughts of the LORD;
they do not understand his plan,
that he has gathered them as sheaves to the threshing floor.
13 Arise and thresh,
O daughter of Zion,
for I will make your horn iron,
and I will make your hoofs bronze;
you shall beat in pieces many peoples;
and shall devote their gain to the LORD,
their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth.

–       Micah 4:6-13

Future Glory

We are entering into the middle of a prophetic oracle that Micah is giving concerning the “latter days,” as we saw a few weeks ago (see 4:1). Micah has spent the majority of his time thus far foretelling judgment upon Israel for her sin, for her wretched abuses of injustice—in a short while God will empty out His storehouses of wrath on His people and send them into exile. But at chapter four, Micah’s eye shoots even further into the future and looks to a day when God will restore His people and refresh them, He will exalt the temple so that it draws all nations to itself, and all war and conflicts will cease; all people will stream to God to learn His Law. That is the glorious future that awaits God’s people.

Verses 6-7 show us who God is inviting into this new world He is making: it is the “lame” those who have been “driven away” and “afflicted” who are then transformed into a “strong nation.” God does not go to the valedictorians of society, but the dropouts and says: You, will be the kings and queens of the new world. Why would God do this? To drive home the point that we are saved by grace, not by works—it is not our impressiveness that earns our spot in heaven, it is rather the admission of our need, and it is the lame andafflicted who are quickest to admit that need.

In verse 8 Micah is going to again try to project an image of the glory of what this renewed day will look like:

8 And you, O tower of the flock,
hill of the daughter of Zion,
to you shall it come,
the former dominion shall come,
kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.

Micah is writing around 700 BC, a time where the monarchy had fallen from the heights of grandeur it once had stood on. Israel had fractured into two separate, warring nations (Israel in the north, Judah in the south), and much of the northern half of Israel had already been overtaken by foreign nations and exiled. But Micah harkens back to the “glory days” of Israel’s past, “the former dominion shall come.” Micah is likely thinking of the kingdom under the rule of David or Solomon when Israel was at its height of influence and prosperity. When Solomon was king, Israel had subdued all of its enemies so there were no great wars, the temple of the Lord was constructed, and the nations of the world streamed into Jerusalem to marvel at God’s people and their king. In 1 Kings 10 we are told of the Queen of Sheba traveling a great distance just because she has heard of Solomon’s kingdom and must see it for her own eyes. When she does, it literally takes her breath away and she blesses the Lord God as the true God (see 1 Kings 10:1-10; see also 10:24). Micah is promising that Israel, diminished in its glory at the time, will recapture that kind of previous glory.

Jesus has worked to fulfill this promise in a surprising way. When describing the spiritual dullness of the generation Jesus was in the midst of, He explains, “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here,” Luke 11:31. Something greater than Solomon? Jesus is a modest carpenter, a travelling homeless rabbi with no official training, whose band of disciples are untrained fishermen. To be greater than Solomon one would need substantial wealth, influence, military might, and conquest.

But Jesus amazingly teaches that service, lowliness, even His own death will be what ushers in the glorious, greater-than-Solomon-like kingdom. The gospels portray the crucifixion of Jesus as His exaltation to His kingly throne (see Mark 10:35-45). But this shouldn’t surprise us, this is the normal upside-down pattern that Jesus’ teaching has exhibited all along: if one wants to be the greatest, he must make himself a servant of all (Mark 10:43-44); the first will be last, and the last first (Matt 20:16); it is the poor in spirit who are given the kingdom, it is those who mourn who are comforted, the meek who inherit the earth (Matt 5:3-5). Jesus’ kingdom does not come in the ways that we would expect—this is key as we consider the next point.

Present Darkness

Micah now transitions from his distant far-off prophecy and speaks of what is right about to happen.

Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in you?
Has your counselor perished,
that pain seized you like a woman in labor?
10 Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion,
like a woman in labor,
for now you shall go out from the city
and dwell in the open country;
you shall go to Babylon.
There you shall be rescued;
there the LORD will redeem you
from the hand of your enemies.

–       Micah 4:9-10

Now, Micah comes crashing back to the reality that Israel is under. Now Israel is wailing aloud in pain like that of childbirth. Micah’s questions are meant to be a kind of dark satire: What’s wrong? Are your kings and wise men not working out for you? Micah’s main target in his book has been Israel’s leaders (prophets, priests, judges, etc.) who have led the nation astray into further and further wickedness (cf. Micah 3), and now the nation is experiencing the consequences of this evil. But Micah has little comfort for them: “Writhe and groan,” he tells them, “like a woman in labor, for now you shall go out from the city and dwell in the open country; you shall go to Babylon.” God had warned Israel back from the time of Deuteronomy with Moses that if they gave themselves over to other gods and abandoned their covenant with God, then He would expel them from the land (see Deut 28:15ff). And that is exactly what happened. 

Later, the apostle Paul will somberly warn the Galatians: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap,” (Gal 6:7). Friends, we shouldn’t be fooled—there is no such thing as a sin that comes without a cost. When we think that we can sow the seeds of sin and hope for the fruits of righteousness, we are mocking God. We are thumbing our nose at Him. When the teacher warns you that this isn’t a test you can just cram for at the last minute so you need to study, and you inwardly think I am definitely going to cram at the last minute, you are basically thinking: Teacher, you don’t understand how smart and clever I am, the rules that apply to other people don’t apply to me. I know better than you do. You might be able to get away with that while in school, but you won’t get away with that with God. Whatever sin you are currently justifying or downplaying: your gossip, your stinginess, your greed, your anger—do not be deceived, God is not mocked; you will reap what you sow.

Redemption of Suffering

Micah’s promise of salvation in Micah is interesting in that it is wedded with Israel’s judgment. Look again at verse 10:

Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion,
like a woman in labor,
for now you shall go out from the city
and dwell in the open country;
you shall go to Babylon.
There you shall be rescued;
there the LORD will redeem you
from the hand of your enemies.

Notice that the pain that Micah compares to Israel’s suffering is that of birth pains. While I can’t say I have much personal experience with birth pains, I can testify to you on credible testimony that birth pains are pretty bad. But what happens after the birth pains cease? You are given an incredible gift. Paul uses this same analogy in Romans 8 to describe the suffering and pain we experience in this world, as if the whole of creation, ourselves included, are in the pain of labor, awaiting the future glory that is to come in the New Creation (Rom 8:22-23). So Israel is crying out in the pain of childbirth, but something wonderful is going to come out of that pain. What is the pain? They are going to be besieged, embattled, and humiliated. The city of David will be conquered, and its inhabitants will be transformed into slaves, carted off like cattle through the long journey to Babylon where they will be dominated by pagan overlords. It’s hard to imagine, aside from the physical and emotional turmoil itself, just how deep of a psychological bruise this would inflict on a people, how profoundly this would have deflated any sense of superiority or ego they had. But notice, it is there that God is going to redeem them. “There you shall be rescued; there the Lord will redeem you from the hand of your enemies.” It is when Israel is at her lowest, her weakest, her feeblest, that God redeems.

But here is the question I am interested in as I examine the text: why does God do that? Why does He wait till Israel is at her lowest before He redeems her? If God has the ability deliver Israel from Babylon, why not just keep her from going there in the first place? Couldn’t God have figured out a way to humble his people, fix their hearts in a less painful way? A similar question could be asked of verses 11-13 where the nations surround Jerusalem to desecrate the city, only to discover that God has heaped the nations together around Jerusalem to be desecrated themselves. God will transform Israel into a bull with iron horns and bronze hoofs; they will trample the nations like they are sheaves of wheat. While this is an amazing testimony to God’s power to take the weakness of His people to overcome the strong, why not just spare Israel the terror of being surrounded by foreign nations? If God has the strength and power to rescue His people from the most dire of situations, couldn’t that same power and strength be used to keep them from the dire situations in the first place?

If you look back at verses 6 and 7 we get a bit of a clue. Who is that God assembles into the new creation He is making? “In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the alme and gather those who have been driven away and those whom I afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant, and those cast off a strong nation.” It is only when Israel has been brought low, humbled, made aware of her need that she can finally be receptive to the Lord. 

That’s why it is in Babylon, not Jerusalem, that Israel will be redeemed. It makes me think of the case of church discipline on the sexually immoral brother in 1 Corinthians 5 who is removed from the church, and Paul explains, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord,” (1 Cor 5:5). The church moves the man out of the domain of Christ (the Church) and moves him into the domain of the world (Satan), they tell the man: If you don’t want to live like a Christian, then fine, we will stop treating you like a Christian. And it is that act of loving discipline that Paul hopes will actually destroy the man’s sinful flesh and lead him to be saved. It is when the prodigal son fills his belly with pig slop that he finally realizes that he has a father who loves him. And here, God is handing his son Israel over to Babylon to experience His chastising love. But He will not leave His children there. On the other side of their exile, when they have been chastened and humbled, He will come to redeem. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives,” (Heb 12:6). 

Friend, has your sin found you out? Has your gossiping led to others not able to trust you? Has your neglect led you to not have the kind of relationship with your kids you had hoped for? Has the underhanded dealings at work been exposed? If you are there, if your secret sin that you thought you could indulge in with no consequences now has the consequences falling on you, I want you to remember two things:

1.     God loves you and wants you to be free. Just he promised to redeem Israel when they were at their lowest, so too will He redeem you at your lowest. “Redemption” is the language of slaves being set free. Jesus taught, “Everyone who practices sin is slave to sin…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” (John 8:34, 36). Jesus has paid the debt for your sins through His death on the cross and His resurrection has decisively broken the power of sin in our lives, so we are not only forgiven but have been set free from sin. Jesus wants you to be free from sin, so trust that His discipline in your life is not against you, but radically for you. God loves you and wants you to be free from sin.

2.     There is a unique jewel of faith that can only be found in the dark mines of suffering. There is a kind of hope, joy, rest, and humility that can only be forged through difficulty—and were we spared of difficulty, of suffering, we would have less joy, hope, rest, and humility. We would be complacent, bored, anxious, fearful, and arrogant. God is wanting to forge an indestructible faith on the anvil of difficulty so that you may shine all the clearer.

Now, I want to draw a careful distinction about causes of suffering: you could be suffering because of your own sin, or you could be suffering from other people’s sin, or you could have no idea why you are suffering. Israel here is obviously suffering for their own sin; it is not a mystery. But I think the principles of God’s intention in using the suffering of Israel to produce something good applies not only to the suffering that comes from sin, but all suffering in the Christian life.

Let’s return to the princess left crying in the cave. Eventually she decides that maybe she could try to remove some of the rocks from the giant pile that is burying the magic thread. As she removes each stone she becomes more hopeful, and eventually she finds that behind this massive pile of rubble is a jail cell where he friend has been held captive by the goblins. And she realizes that her fairy godmother sent her there to rescue her friend. From then on, her faith in following the thread becomes infinitely stronger, infinitely more resolute—she can trust her godmother. There is something now forged inside of the princess that never would have been there had she not been led into danger and darkness of the cave. And friends, when God is leading you into what looks like darkness, He is not doing so without reason. He is wanting to produce good in you that could not be produced any other way.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5

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