The Trail of Tears

By Wayne Jackson

Human beings are the only biological creatures on earth to shed tears in times of emotional distress. And what is even more interesting is the fact that tears of emotion are chemically different than those caused by physical forces, e.g., wind, fumes, etc.

Those who subscribe to the theory of evolution cannot explain the presence of tears in man. Some suggest they evolved as an adaptive trait in species whose young continued to “cry” for unusually long periods of time. Allegedly, then, tears developed to prevent dehydration, and thus eye damage (Beck, 477).

This theory is nonsense. How bold it is to suggest that “blind” nature could concoct accidentally this complex solution (salts, mucus, antiseptic enzymes, etc.) for such a functional purpose. But then Darwinism never lacks for “miracles” whenever necessity dictates! As they sometimes say, “Time itself performs the miracles.”

The Scriptures have much to say about tears. One scholar observes that “[t]he Bible has no fewer than 510 references to crying and uses at least 11 words in New Testament Greek to describe crying” (Johnson, 301).

The divine record indicates that the Lord takes note of human tears. In a time of great distress, the Psalmist petitioned the Lord: “put my tears into your bottle” (Psa. 56:8). The lament suggests that the tears of God’s children are so precious that, in a manner of speaking, he would wish to preserve and treasure them as a costly liquid.

When the good king Hezekiah was immersed in political turmoil, he sought relief from the Lord. Through the prophet Isaiah came this divine response: “I have heard your prayers, I have seen your tears” (2 Kgs. 20:5).

A study of the various passions that elicit “tears,” is illuminating indeed. Consider the following points as an abbreviated commentary on this theme.

Tears of Grief

When Abraham buried his beloved Sarah, with whom he had sojourned in Canaan for more than three-score years, he wept bitterly as he bade farewell to her mortal remains (Gen. 23:2). The death of a cherished one cannot but call forth tears of deprivation (cf. Gen. 37:35).

Tears of Joy

Frequently tears rush forth from hearts immersed in joy. After years of painful separation, when Joseph revealed himself to his estranged brothers, he could not refrain from loud weeping, which was so dramatic that it aroused the curiosity of his Egyptian household (Gen. 45:1-2,14-15). It is an interesting observation that, apparently, only adults cry tears of joy.

Tears of Gratitude

A woman with a sordid past “crashed” a dinner party in the home of Simon, the Pharisee. Directly approaching the Savior, who was present on the occasion, she drenched his feet with her tears. Jesus’ subsequent instruction revealed that her actions were those of a grateful heart – one that had been relieved of the crushing “debt” of guilt on account of sin (Lk. 7:40ff). See also the case in Acts 9:39, where widows wept out of gratitude for the generous deeds of Dorcus.

Tears of Compassion

Sometimes the grief of others initiates tears from the souls of those who genuinely care for them. The poignant text, “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35), has been the subject of much discussion. Why did the Savior weep (burst forth in tears — so the emphasis of the Greek tense) on this occasion? Surely it was not on account of the mere fact of Lazarus’ death, for the Lord had delayed his coming so that his friend might die. No, a greater, spiritual goal was in view (cf. 11:4,15). The most reasonable suggestion may be that the Master’s tears were a commentary upon his tender compassion, as he witnessed the brutal effect of sin upon humankind, as manifested in suffering, sadness, and death. He is “touched” by our plight (Heb. 4:15). See also Luke 19:41.

Tears of Concern

Paul once noted that he had “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). There is perhaps no better illustration of that than his warning to the elders of Ephesus when he met with them at Miletus. On that occasion he reminded these brothers that for three years he had admonished them, day and night with tears (Acts 20:31). These were tears of concern for the Lord’s people (cf. Phil. 3:18; 2 Cor. 2:4). With conditions being what they are in today’s church, it would appear to be a time for oceans of anxious tears.

Tears of Parting

When the dearest of friends are forced to separate, and sometimes with the suspicion that they might never see one another again in Earth’s environment, burning tears may flow freely. Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders is one of the sweetest scenes of the New Testament (Acts 20:36-38; cf. also 2 Tim. 1:4). Additionally, the Old Testament student cannot but think of the parting of David and Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:41-42).

Tears of Fear

The writer of Hebrews states that “in the days of his flesh” the Lord “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears?.” Further, the record declares that he was “heard for his godly fear” (5:7). This reference almost certainly fits into the narrative of Luke 22:40-44, where the agonizing ordeal of Gethsemane is described. But why the tears in this time of fear?

It is not likely that they were tears that merely anticipated the dread of physical death. Rather, possibly it was a “godly fear” associated with the shame of bearing the penalty for the world’s sin (Heb. 12:2; cf. Gal. 3:13). The Lord’s holy soul recoiled from this prospect; nonetheless, he would drink the cup of woe because of his love of man (Gal. 1:4). Another view suggests that the expression “godly fear” is merely the equivalent of total submission to Heaven’s will (Bruce, 130).

Tears of Futility

In a moment of weakness, when his spiritual interests were subordinated to the passion of the flesh, Esau traded his birthright and blessing for “one mess of meat” (Heb. 12:16; cf. Gen. 25:33ff). Later, Jacob’s impetuous brother was haunted by his mistake and he implored his father, Isaac, to reverse the bargain (Gen. 27:30ff). But, as the writer of Hebrews notes, not even Esau’s tears could erase the consequence of his rash decision. A lesson to be learned is this: While we may obtain forgiveness for foolish choices, nonetheless we may have to suffer the consequences that come in their wake – in spite of our tears of regret.

Tears of Contrition

Contemplate for a moment the breathtaking love of God for sinful man (Rom. 5:8), as reflected in the unspeakable gift of his Son (2 Cor. 9:15). Put this against the backdrop of the horror of human sin (Rom. 6:23). Then meditate upon the fact that the Lord has granted us the opportunity to be rid of the guilt of every transgression we have ever committed (Acts 2:38). Surely this should generate tears of sorrow on account of our rebellion (cf. Psa. 6:6).

Thankfully, however, a contrite weeping can be turned into laughter when one obeys the Savior (Heb. 5:8-9), and refreshing pardon is embraced. This is precisely what the Savior envisioned when he promised: “Blessed are you that weep now: for you shall laugh” (Lk. 6:21b).

Tears of Punishment

The horrors of hell, that everlasting separation of rebellious men from their holy and blessed Creator (Mt. 25:41; 2 Thes. 1:9), will be a tragedy that is beyond present human comprehension. This ultimate and everlasting state of the wicked is depicted as a place where shall be “the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 25:30). Here “weeping” denotes a “loud expression of grief.” But such tears are much too late to avail. “Rivers of tears run down the face, but none of the pain can they erase.”

Doubtless there are numerous other examples that one could employ to illustrate the varying emotions that precipitate human tears. Perhaps, though, there is no more fitting way to conclude this study than to remind ourselves that when the eternal prize of the obedient is grasped, tears will be no more (Rev. 7:17; 21:4).

Sources/Footnotes
  • William Beck. 1971. Human Design. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich: New York, NY.
  • F. F. Bruce. 1990. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
  • R. B. Johnson. 1985. Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling, 2nd edition. David Benner & Peter Hill, Eds. Baker: Grand Rapids, MI.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.