The psalmists appeal to the Lord in the midst of their suffering and confidently ask for blessing. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we see that this was a pattern of suffering-before-blessing, which foreshadows what the great suffering king Jesus would experience. So Jesus experiences the suffering of the psalms (for example John 13:18 and 19:24) and their hope of blessing is fulfilled in him too (for example Luke 23:46 and Acts 2:21-32).
What does that mean for us as Christians? Firstly, we are blessed because of Jesus’ death for us.Jesus’ suffering had greater meaning than that of the psalmists, because he suffered on behalf of his people, as a substitutionary sacrifice.1 Because our king has suffered for us and has now been blessed in his resurrection and ascension, we enjoy the great blessings that flow from this. In particular, the blessing of peace with God, the guarantee of eternal blessings and the ability to enjoy these blessings are all ours by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (see Romans 5:1-11). We have the best blessings of all in Christ!
Secondly, just as the pattern for Christ was suffering before glory, so also for Christians, we expect to suffer in this life, with the sure hope of eternal blessing in the age to come. This is our Father’s good purpose, so we can rejoice in the strange blessing it is to suffer for the sake of Christ and grow in our faith through suffering, as we explored in chapter 4. As Peter writes:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet 2:21-23)
Because true blessing is a ‘full package’, Christians look for the blessing that comes from a right relationship with God. And since he has revealed to us that these are the last days, we want to enjoy blessings in line with being a part of his purposes: even though this brings with it struggling and hardship. The promises of physical blessing, like those given to Israel in the Sinai covenant, are not offered to Christians in this life, as if the normal Christian life will be one of physical health, economic prosperity and political triumph. Rather the pattern of the Christian life, like that of Christ’s, is spiritual blessing together with physical suffering in this life, followed by physical blessing at the final resurrection.
Thirdly, this doesn’t mean we won’t ever enjoy good things in this life, or that we shouldn’t. In a few places, Psalms is quoted to talk about the physical blessing that Christians can enjoy in this life. In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul quotes Psalm 112 and applies it to Christians:
And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
their righteousness endures for ever.”
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. (2 Cor 9:8-11)
Christians can normally expect to receive good gifts from God—both physical and spiritual—that we can use in generous service of his kingdom and love of others. In the same way, the apostle Peter quotes the promise of blessing found in Psalm 34, reassuring his readers “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (1 Pet 3:9-13). The blessing of the psalm still applies to Christians, according to Peter, and this remains true even though, as Peter and his readers know too well, Christians often suffer all kinds of trials. Straight after suggesting that no harm will come to them, Peter goes on to say, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (3:14).
It is true that the new covenant doesn’t have the same promise of abundant physical blessing in this life that the Sinai covenant had. But even in the ‘last days’ we find ourselves in, the blessing we have in God is so good and the hope we have in him is so sure, that when we experience any blessing and joy from the Lord, we are experiencing things the way they should be—and one day will be. It is good and fitting to suffer now, but this is not because suffering itself is good, but because this is the right thing in the last days. It is good and fitting for us to use the things of this world lightly, not because the things of this world are bad, but because this world in its present form is passing away. When we suffer and do without, we are recognizing that this world is fallen, cursed and passing away. But when we enjoy good things, we are recognizing that this fallen, temporary world is still God’s creation and will one day be made new and enjoyed more wonderfully than Adam and Eve could ever have done.2
1. It’s curious on first reading how many psalms about the personal suffering of the king end not just with hope for personal blessing for the king, but expectation of blessings for God’s people and God’s land and even the whole world (e.g. Pss 22:25-31, 51:18-19, 69:34-36). This is because when God’s king is rescued and blessed he can bring blessing to those he rules over. Unlike Jesus, however, their suffering itself is not a mechanism that brings blessing to others.
2. “The great difference between Stoic and Christian renunciation is this: for the Stoic, what is renounced is, if rightly renounced… not part of the good. For the Christian, what is renounced is thereby affirmed as good—both in the sense that the renunciation would lose its meaning if the thing were indifferent and in the sense that the renunciation is in furtherance of God’s will, which precisely affirms the goodness of the kinds of things renounced: health, freedom, life. Paradoxically, Christian renunciation is an affirmation of the goodness of what is renounced. …In the Christian perspective… the loss is a breach in the integrity of the good. That is why Christianity requires an [end time] perspective of the restoral of that integrity” (Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, p. 219).