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Suffering and Psalmody

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you.”[1]


One often wonders about the place of suffering in the human experience, especially as wars and bloodshed flood the news. This “problem of suffering,” as it is termed in the study of apologetics, has been examined in detail over the course of centuries by many writers — both ancient and modern. In the Christian perspective, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine of Hippo, and John Chrysostom all approach this “problem” in a similar way: struggle and pain in the world are means of strengthening humanity, purifying the human for the world to come.[2] In contemplating the sufferings encountered in daily life, however, people often wonder how rather than why — that is, while some might seek to philosophically challenge the idea of God’s goodness because of suffering, humanity generally does not face the troubles of the world abstractly, but rather encounters suffering face-to-face.


In this regard, Christianity is more often challenged. The problem of suffering certainly features in abstract contemplation and philosophical debate, but is more commonly encountered firsthand as a topic of contemplation and struggle during times of war, catastrophe, and hardship. As a result, many find the pertinent apologetic stances and logical deductions unsatisfactory. Jonathan Haidt, a contemporary moral psychologist, describes in his book The Righteous Mind how people use logic to justify their emotional experiences rather than to reflect on their feelings. Furthermore, Jonathan Shay discusses in his book Achilles in Vietnam the concept of how ritual readings of ancient stories served as a means of helping many recover from encounters with tragedy and seemingly meaningless suffering. Many Christians, however, might feel stranded in this regard. The Christian predicament vis-à-vis the problem of suffering therefore seemingly remains: arguments and logical reasoning, while prevalent and pertinent, cannot fully console the human in the face of calamity.


Where logic and philosophy fall short, the Church is found to be the bearer of true consolation. Indeed, she does not ignore the heart of man even as she satisfies his mind. In times of hardship, even in the absence of human instructors, the Church has long both strengthened and educated her members, through her hymnology, Lectionary, and liturgical experience, delivering to them the Faith by translating the theological, apologetic, and intellectual language of Christianity into the language of everyday life. 


Most evidently, the Midnight Praises of the Coptic Orthodox Church enable the Coptic Christians to embody and express the worldview that the Church forms in them. Therefore, for more than a millennium, the faithful have risen to praise God in the depths of the night, at the times of the greatest darkness. In this darkness, they are called to “Arise, [you] children of the Light.”[3] In spite of any darkness that may surround them, their attention is drawn to the source of all goodness, the True Light, who reminded His disciples: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”[4] Notably, the Lord does not promise to remove the tribulations of the present life, but instead promises that peace is to be found in Him; He does not eliminate the darkness of the night, but enables us to become children of the Light.


Continuing in their praise, the believers chant the First Canticle (ϩⲱⲥ) — the song of Moses and the Israelites which they sang after crossing the Red Sea.[5] When the Israelites needed to cross the Red Sea, God did not make the water disappear for a time, nor did He create a bridge or a strong wind that would aid them in crossing the water. In fact, when one considers the many ways that God could have enabled the Israelites to cross the Red Sea, His choice that they walk through it may seem odd. Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Jerusalem draw our attention to this crossing of the Red Sea as being symbolic of humanity’s drowning its sinful passions — symbolized by Pharaoh and the Egyptians — and coming out on the other side.[6] Bishop Mettaous of Dayr al-Suryan echoes this view, explaining that Pharaoh can be understood as a symbol for Satan, who is defeated by the Lord’s crucifixion, descent into Hades, and resurrection:

“It is clear that the church is living now in the faith of its salvation of the sea of the world and the Pharaoh of the mind… Pharaoh and his soldiers who had enslaved the children of Israel is exactly like Satan and his soldiers enslaving the human beings. As Moses saved the children of Israel, Jesus Christ saved us from the slavery of the devil.”[7]

If the Israelites did not go through the sea, the enemy would never have been overcome and abolished. Likewise, if humanity does not go through suffering in the world, the works of the devil would never be destroyed, “for whatever is born of God overcomes the world.”[8] In facing such suffering, moreover, they are consoled in finding God in their company — here, the Angel of God is seen as a pillar of fire and cloud.[9] The believers therefore chant the hymn of victory sung by Miriam the Prophetess after the Lord’s triumph over Pharaoh.[10]


After chanting the First and Second Canticles, in the Third Canticle, the believers encounter a similar story in the three saintly youth as that of the Exodus. The children of Israel find themselves once again in a strange land with a ruler who declares war against their God. Refusing to submit to his decrees, they are threatened with the fiery furnace, which, as also the Red Sea, can be taken to represent the world. Because of their refusal to participate in the worship of idols, the three youth stand against the world and, as such, it becomes suffering and pain to them. They find themselves threatened with a fire that burns seven times hotter than the original punishment decreed,[11] yet despite this, they remain resilient and steadfast in their commitment to the Lord their God. Interestingly, even those who were tasked with throwing the youth into the fire are burned and killed. Truly, no one can avoid the sufferings of the world. But, as it becomes evident, those who seek to endure tribulations through the support of God are found victorious.


“Then [the three youth] were bound in their coats, their trousers, their turbans, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Therefore, because the king’s command was urgent, and the furnace exceedingly hot, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?’ They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ ‘Look!’ he answered, ‘I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.’ Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.’ Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire. And the satraps, administrators, governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together, and they saw these men on whose bodies the fire had no power; the hair of their head was not singed nor were their garments affected, and the smell of fire was not on them.”[12]


Once again, the solution which God finds acceptable seems strange to man’s reason. Rather than subduing the fire so that the youth would not be faced with such daunting circumstances, God instead allows them to be thrown into it, and by His presence with them in it, the fire becomes to them as a cool mist — a place of refreshment. As He walked with His people through the Red Sea, God — discerned by Nebuchadnezzar as being “like the Son of God”[13] — does not resolve the problem at hand by putting out the fire, but by accompanying the youth in their struggle. In the case of any tribulation, or when suffering is encountered, those who walk with God are strengthened and granted victory while those who reject Him and propagate suffering are consumed in their violence. The suffering itself becomes an opportunity for God to be glorified through the endurance of His people. Thus, in the Third Canticle, the believers beautifully chant: “Bless the Lord, you fire and heat. Praise Him and exalt Him above all forever.”[14]


These experiences particularly elucidate the proper context of suffering and become for the Israelites the means by which they can accept the Lord Jesus Christ and understand the mystery of His Incarnation. The true healing of the human condition, which had become entirely inundated by sin, does not occur through the elimination of suffering, but rather through experiencing it with the support of God. The Angel of the Lord walked with the Israelites through the midst of the Red Sea and one “like the Son of God” walked with the youth through the fire. God Himself became Man “and dwelt among us,”[15] taking on flesh and experiencing pain, betrayal, temptation, loss, humiliation, torture, and death. In doing so, He leads His people out of their deepest afflictions by sharing with them in their sufferings.


While the First and Third Canticles are hymns expressive of particular experiences amongst the Israelites, the Second and Fourth Canticles are hymns from the book of Psalms. Particularly, the Second Canticle is Psalm 136 (135 LXX) and the Fourth Canticle is Psalms 148, 149, and 150. These four Psalms call all of creation to praise the Lord — a theme that can be understood in relation to the motif of Exodus 15 and Daniel 3 which we have already addressed. If the Red Sea and fiery furnace can be understood as symbols of the world and its suffering, then the Psalms of the Second and Fourth Canticles do not exclude such elements in their exhortation to the praise of God. The world in which suffering exists is the same world in which God is glorified — even the means by which tribulation or calamity afflict the world, such as fire and heat or snow and ice, work for the glory of God. Moreover, the Psalms here are continuations of the stories that precede them in the Midnight Praises. Our earthly life is the time we spend “sojourning through” the world, just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea and the three saintly youth passed through the furnace. At the end of the journeys of the First and Third Canticles, we therefore chant these particular Psalms, calling all of Creation to praise God. These Psalms must then represent what the believers who traverse the earthly life in spiritual soundness and safety will continue to do in the Kingdom of God, especially as they will then, in the eternal life, see His creation restored, just as these Psalms see all of creation praising God. 


The predicament of inevitable suffering certainly remains in the world. Every human knows suffering, which is encountered by all in varying forms and to varying extents. However, there are two perceptible approaches to the problem of suffering. The anti-theist uses suffering as an opportunity to deny the existence of God, disingenuously gathering his evidence from tragic events, news reports of horrors and extreme suffering, or harsh living conditions globally. On the other hand, those who experience the same tragedies and submit their lives to God, who supports and accompanies them in their suffering, proclaim their belief in and reliance on the beneficent God even amidst those difficulties, defending their belief in Him and proclaiming their love for Him even to their dying breaths. These must be accorded more careful consideration than the armchair philosopher who considers their behavior nothing more than an irrational coping mechanism. Through suffering, the Christian follows Christ: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”[16] Thus it is not suffering, but instead comfort in and friendship with the world, that estranges us from God: “Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”[17]


The Christian does not hope for convenient solutions to the troubles in her life. Rather, she seeks God’s will in all things, that He might walk with His children through the difficulties they encounter in their daily lives — wars, natural disasters, tyranny, illness, grief, or any other circumstance. In all tribulations, the believers are called to seek the Truth and to find their comfort in Him alone. If they are led to stormy waters or raging fires, they are reminded, through the daily prayer life which the Church presents to them in the Midnight Praises, that God walks with them. Truly, then, the greatest antidote to suffering is praise.


“Let us sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously.”[18]


[1] Isaiah 43:2

[2] See Basil of Caesarea, On the Human Condition, 65-80 (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir's Press, 2005); Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, Book I, 1-3 (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993); see also John Chrysostom, On the Providence of God (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2015).

[3] The Midnight Praises' introductory hymn, Ⲧⲱⲟⲩⲛⲟⲩ

[4] John 16:33

[5] Exodus 15

[6] See Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 82-85 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978); Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume VII: Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus, 373-375 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library); This event is also prominently viewed as being a type of Baptism, for through immersion in the waters of the baptismal font, a person is cleansed from their sins and "puts on" the new life of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.

[7] See H.G. Anba Mettaous, The Spirituality of the Praises, 70-71

[8] 1 John 5:4

[9] See Exodus 14:24

[10] See Exodus 15:20-21

[11] See Daniel 3:19

[12] Daniel 3:21-27

[13] Daniel 3:25

[14] See Daniel 3:66 (LXX)

[15] John 1:14

[16] Mark 8:34

[17] James 4:4

[18] Exodus 15:1, 21; see also First Canticle of the Midnight Praises of the Coptic Orthodox Church


Daniel Ibraheem serves as a Reader at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. He is currently a medical student at the Yale School of Medicine, pursuing a career in Psychiatry.

Cover Art: Coptic Psalmody – Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana: Vat. Copto 38


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