Understanding that God doesn’t punish the innocent is helpful, but it doesn’t completely clear things up, does it? In fact, it just merges us into the much larger question: Why do the innocent suffer have to suffer at all? Why doesn’t God simply punish the wicked and spare the righteous? Wouldn’t that send a much clearer message to everyone about the importance of choosing good over evil? In the case of the Amalekites, God could have just had Saul and his men put to death those who were deserving and allow the rest to live. They could have been absorbed by the Israelites or gone off with the Kenites. Why did He want the innocent to perish with the wicked?
Only God can completely answer this question, but there are a few things I think worth saying.
The first has to do with appreciating the uniqueness of this occasion. Jim McGuiggan speaks of God “dealing with sin in a special way at a special time under special circumstances for redemptive purposes.” That principle seems to apply here. What happened to the Amalekites would doubtlessly serve as a warning to the other nations around Canaan as well as provide Israel with an example of what happens when sin becomes the national export (Proverbs 14:34). By the death of these, lives could be saved. Moreover, through the life of Israel, the world could be saved.
We also need to say something about the principle of commuity. Why does God allow the innocent to be swept up along with the guilty? To be consistent, we’d need to ask why He also allows people who are undeserving to be blessed because of the good deeds of other people. Either way, the answer would be the same. It’s the nature of the world God created that we’re all connected. No one lives in a vacuum. Our actions, good or bad, will have some effect on other people. God could have suspended this principle on this occasion, but He chose not to.
Finally, I think we need to understand the connection between sin and suffering. While not all suffering is punishment, we do know that suffering and death entered the world as a consequence of sin (Genesis 3:16-19). Whether we experience suffering personally or see it in others, it is meant be a reminder of the sinfulness of sin —its horrid and heinous nature, its “cosmic destructiveness,” (McGuiggan).
I think we see something of this principle in the Stand up to Cancer campaign, where people have a placard bearing the name of someone who has suffered from the disease and by doing so, they stand up for them. This approach takes away cancer’s status as a wandering generality and gives it names and faces. It helps us to see that it is at war with man and seeks our destruction.
If suffering could stand up and hold a placard it would say, “I stand for Humanity.” Suffering is not some wandering generality (meaningless and pointless). It is bearing witness of the wickedness and rebellion that spawned it. It entered the world because of hate and remains here for the same reason. Whenever we see it we should give it the name and face of sin and recognize that it seeks our destruction.
This is a tough truth and one that many don’t wish to hear. We’d rather lay the suffering of the world off on something/anything other than our sinfulness. It also means that we can’t make suffering the last word because it bears witness not of itself, but of all God opposed behavior. Until we’re ready to confess this connection, we’ll continue to blame it on bad luck, bad genes, or bad choices.
Some will correctly lay it at God’s feet (in the sense that He is sovereign over all), but will miss the reason why. If we really heard the voice of suffering, we’d hear it say it is the harsh grace of God calling man back to Him. If disciples really heard this we wouldn’t pray, pray, pray to always be free of suffering. We would learn that it can have a higher purpose (Philippians 1:29-30; Colossians 1:24), and instead ask our Father for help to nobly embrace it for the sake of the world (1 Peter 2:21ff).
And to what end? Glory. A glory the suffering of this life cannot compare to (Romans 8:18ff). As one who knew his share of suffering and more (2 Corinthians 11:23-29), Paul isn’t being glib—he’s faithfully sharing the truth God has revealed to him. And what a truth it is. In the end, suffering isn’t meaningless, it’s redemptive. It bears witness of sin that we might experience glory. Do we fully understand these things? Does anyone? Of course not. Can we fully trust our Father who freely entered into our suffering through Jesus? Absolutely!
So what have we said about the Amalekites? We said:
1. Rather than make sweeping generalizations about abstractions, we should always anchor Scripture in its context.
2. We must bear in mind that all suffering isn’t punishment. We may not always be able to discern which is and which isn’t, but we’re not to automatically assume that every instance of suffering is about punishment (John 9:1ff).
3. We are all connected—it is the default setting of life and it cannot be changed. We are both blessed and suffer as a result.
4. We must avoid the temptation to try to gauge suffering, the sufferers, as if to give it (and God) our approval or disapproval. Instead, we should think of at it as the aftershocks of sin pointing to a cracked universe that is on its way to healing through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15-20; Romans 8:18-21).