Until It Happens To You

In 54 AD the Roman Emperor Claudius died an excruciating death after suffering for twelve hours from poison slipped into his food by Agrippina, his fourth wife (who was also his niece – the mother of Nero). The ongoing soap opera that was ancient Rome has been rich fodder for literature, including the popular I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Even today, anytime someone is brought down by disaster, that person’s demise becomes the crowd’s entertainment.  Just watch the nightly news and your blood lust can be satisfied by everything from horrific car wrecks to global war.  Let’s hear from that person whose house just burned down!

It’s all entertainment until it happens to you.

The sad irony is that we are all fractured by life sooner or later. Some people flame out epically like a Roman emperor, but most people suffer quietly from the disappointments and loss that are inevitable to each of us.  If there is an upside to this universal frailty, it is in our overwhelming need to love each other.  This truth is so powerful, it was the single thing Jesus called out as the earmark of His followers.

A new command I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

John 13:34-35



D I G  D E E P E R

Literature & Liturgy

Man of Sorrows


“Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work-the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside-the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within-that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Crack-Up

כָּאַב (kāʾab). vb. to be in pain, cause pain. Refers to being in a state of physical or mental pain or anguish.

This verb occurs several times along with its related noun, (כְּאֵב, kĕʾēb), to denote physical pain (e.g., Gen 34:25; Job 14:22) or mental anguish (e.g., Psa 69:29). The pain associated with the term often results from disappointment or disaster.

The notion of mental anguish is captured in Prov 14:13—“Even in laughter the heart may be in pain (יִכְאַב, yikʾab).” The related noun מַכְאוֹב (makʾôb) represents a more intense term for pain and suffering. When Israel suffers in slavery in Egypt, God sees their sufferings (מַכְאֹבָי, makʾōbāy; Exod 3:7). Job is racked with pain (מַכְאוֹב, makʾôb) on his bed (Job 33:19). This is the term used of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh to describe him as a “man of sorrows” who also bears “our sorrows” (Isa 53:3–4).

“He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:3–4, NKJV)

The “man of sorrows” of Isa. 53:5 is Jesus Christ. Christ himself understood his mission in the light of the servant’s atonement through suffering and patient endurance, and the early Church reinforced the connection. The description of the Passion and death of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels is colored by references to the “servant songs” (e.g., Matt. 8:17; Mark 15:28; John 19:9).

In his sermon of 1 July 1627 John Donne refers to Christ as the type of all sorrow: “who fulfil’d in himselfe alone, all Types, and Images, and Prophecies of sorrowes, who was, (as the Prophet calls him) Vir dolorum, a man compos’d, and elemented of sorrowes.” In another sermon (25 Aug. 1622) Donne asks that he himself be allowed to “be vir dolorum, a man of affliction, a vessell baked in that furnace, fitted by God’s proportion, and dosis of his corrections, to make a right use of his corrections.” In “Palm Sunday,” Henry Vaughan writes of “the man of sorrow / Weeping still, like the wet morrow,” who “comes to borrow” the “shades and freshness” of palm branches on his entrance into Jerusalem.

Melville takes quite a different approach when referring to the suffering servant in Moby-Dick: Ishmael suggests “that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. … The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows.” Yeats’s “The Sad Shepherd” contains echoes of, if not direct references to, the man of sorrows in its description of “a man whom Sorrow named his friend” and who, because he was not listened to, could not be rid of the “ancient burden” of his “heavy story.” Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (chap. 3), makes more traditional use of the image, as Stephen considers the contrast between the humiliation of the first advent and the glory of the Second Coming.

Other echoes from the “servant songs” occur in a variety of English texts. Wordsworth, in “Maternal Grief,” speaks of a small boy whose twin sister has died as suddenly “acquainted with distress and grief ” (Isa. 53:3). In his “Stanzas to Augusta [B]” Byron echoes the same passage: “Thy soul with my grief was acquainted. …” Perhaps the most influential use of the man of sorrows motif, however, is Handel’s magnificent setting of the final servant song in his Messiah.

Sources & Resources

Emmet, C. W. “Sorrow, Man of Sorrows.” In A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Ed. J. Hastings (1908), 2.665-68;

McKenzie, J. L., ed. Second Isaiah. AB 20 (1968);

North, C. R. The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (1956);

Smalley, B. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (1952; rpt. 1964).

David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).

Hill, Craig, “Suffering,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexha

Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).