For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water;
As I began reading Isaiah today I was reminded again what a great deal of literary whiplash the Bible’s book order can induce. I was just reading Solomon’s steamy contribution to Cosmo (or Maxim) in the Song of Solomon and then with the completion of that beautiful work of love and affection the next page begins Isaiah’s words to the wayward Hebrew nation. And to be quite honest that is a difficult transition if you’re at all interested in continuity and flow.
The God of intimacy, who speaks of love as a burning in the heart, an unquenchable fire between lovers, now says things like the above Scripture from Isaiah 3. The prophet, obviously ignoring his cannonical location behind the sultry Song, leaps right into a different kind of flame, the fires of condemnation and punishment. The problem here, if most of us are honest, is the temptation to go in one of two directions. We can engage the text with a kind of fundamentalist glee, arrogantly placing ourselves on the side of God – because we are obviously righteous if we are giddy over the destruction and punishment of an evil land…hmmm current events anyone? – and sing a song of joy over the demise of wicked Israel. Or, we can begin to feel the weight of a God who is indeed dedicated to doling out consequences, whether blessings or curses, to those He sovereignly reigns over. In this second stream we typically realize that we would more than likely be right in the middle of Israel as the hammer starts to fall.
I think, despite these two obvious pathways, there is another way. It occurs to me that the Bible almost requires us to always find a third way. And please understand that the person saying that there is a third way, me, has a very objective, black-and-white, right-and-wrong type personality. I believe in absolute truth, I believe in a clear line between good and evil, and I do not believe in trajectorial morality (or the gradual revelation of new truth that is specific for each generation). But the thing about God, that the Bible is very clear about, is that His very existence is not first defined by a rule of Law or a list of “do’s and don’ts”. God’s existence is defined by relationship. Though some of you might think this is liberal theology nonsense I would argue that it is orthodox, Protestant, even holiness Christianity that was true for John, Paul, Peter, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, Seymour, Colson, and Lucado.
God’s pre-Creation existence is not isolated, it is Trinitarian. He exists throughout eternity past as a community; a loving, serving, submitting, laughing, singing, fellowshiping community. Our Christian theology doesn’t begin with Creation, it begins with Community. So when I say that there has to be a third way, what I’m leaning on is the fact that God’s relational nature means that we have to treat Him, in our thinking, less like a piece of Divine legislation and more like a “friend that sticks closer than any brother”.
As I read and wrestled through some of Isaiah’s harsher messages this morning I was confronted by the thought that I was allowing my image of God to be solely defined by the mental picture of a grumpy employer, or dare I say a plantation owner corralling His servants into the fenced-in area of subjugation. So it came as a breath of righteous relief this morning as the Ghost helped me to hear the voice of God in Isaiah’s writings differently, and I simply wanted to share this technique with you, to utilize this tool as you come to difficult texts, particularly in the Old Testament.
When we get to the New Testament we obviously have Jesus looming large in love, mercy, justice, and grace. He is the voice of the poor, the outcast, the indigent, the marginalized, the sick, and the lame. He comes with great love for both his followers and His enemies. He grants grace to the sinner and imparts clarity to the religious. We never get the sense that Jesus had one ounce of desire for anyone at all to reject the abundant life that He knew could only be found in Him and in the embrace of the advent of the kingdom of heaven on earth. His parable of the Prodigal Son is my landmark for saying this. Jesus portrays God as both the one who receives the wayward sinner and then goes into the field to “entreat the elder brother”. The desire of God is shown clearly: everyone should be in the house where the eating and dancing are taking place because community, not excommunication, is God’s intrinsic nature and the desire upon which all other decisions are predicated. (Let that sink in, it’s a tough pill for some to swallow, but the pre-existent God didn’t even reveal His Law until two thousand years AFTER the fall of man.)
Knowing all of that, the writings of Isaiah become much different when I read them in the voice of Jesus. What if it was Jesus who had spoken the words above? What if it was Jesus that had directly said the Babylonians and Persians were coming to ransack and ravage the promised land? Would we be so quick to cry “foul”? Or would we pause and begin to think, “what is the motivation here?” Would we give the benefit of the doubt a little more often if the same one who was saying that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed said so while hanging on the cross FOR the very lives of those He was talking to?
The prophets, both major and minor, begin to be much more curious when I envision the Messiah saying these words and not a disconnected or distant Ruler. And I’m not even saying that God is distant, He isn’t, but I fear that it becomes too easy and perhaps too safe to assume that the God who oversaw and even orchestrated the fall of Israel is different than the one who came to die for them, and us. I think, I’m certain in fact, that there is more grace and mercy and purpose and plan in these books than I’ve seen and experienced. And maybe, just maybe, if Jesus were reading them to me…if the logos, the Word made flesh, were to break the bread of Isaiah’s words and of Jeremiah’s tears and of Ezekiel’s visions – maybe then the nourishment and care and love God was showing through His acts would be translated into a language I could understand. Namely, the language of the cross, and the language of God whose desire is not to be apart from me, but near.