Posts Tagged ‘Exile’

ISAIAH 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

“Now consider, we are all your people.” You can hear the desperation, mixed with frustration, in the prophet’s words.

The collection of oracles in which they are found is know as “Third Isaiah,” written shortly after the exiles had been allowed to return home to Judah and its once-glorious capital, Jerusalem. First Isaiah (chpts 1-39) is attributed to the eighth-century prophet Isaiah himself and addresses the tense time leading up to the Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE. The anonymous writer of the so-called Second Isaiah (chpts 40-55) sought to extend and adapt the essential message of Isaiah to the crisis of the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) and the harsh conditions of living in a strange land. Now, upon their return home, another anonymous contributor to the tradition (chpts 56-66) reworks it once again, this time in face of the challenge of clarifying a new destiny for the people.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem was now a shared effort, between the returning exiles and their compatriots who had been left behind in the ruins a half-century earlier. But in addition to the physical repairs, there was some serious psycho-spiritual healing that needed to happen as well. The arrogance and complacency which the prophet Isaiah had predicted would end in national calamity, was now replaced by a rather serious guilt-complex and a crippling shame. There is reaffirmation of the moral balance holding reality together, but the dark interval of suffering in exile has definitely humbled (we might better say humiliated) the community’s sense of entitlement as God’s chosen people.

We don’t deserve security, happiness, or long life (the community admits via the prophet), and we are entirely at the mercy of God’s will. Perhaps we (the returnees) were spared total extinction in exile, but for what exactly we cannot know. We desire a prosperous future, but we are neither capable nor worthy of it. It’s all in your hands, God.

… But don’t forget, we are all your people!

This calling on God to remember his covenant promises would be a refrain throughout Jewish history, becoming especially fervent during and after the Holocaust under Hitler.

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EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

While his contemporary Jeremiah was announcing a New Reality to the Jews left in the devastation of Jerusalem, Ezekiel was rebuilding the hopes of those exiled in Babylon, uprooted from their homeland and heritage. The Babylonian army had swept down in the year 587 BCE, breached the walls of Judah’s capital and leveled its temple, deporting a vast number back to foreign territory. In both locations, amid ruins and in a strange land, the people had similar questions: Why did this happen? What are we to do next? And most importantly, Where is God?

The question of God’s presence is less an inquiry into the whereabouts of a deity than a deep anguished search for grounding in a time of pain, bereavement, and disorientation. By grounding we mean a sense of internal support, a provident uplift of peace, comfort, and healing strength coming up through the very center of our urgent need.

Due to the constraints of language, our effort to speak about and make sense of this grounding mystery inevitably generates the impression that we are talking about something external to us and essentially outside our experience. Soon enough, symbols are mistaken for the mystery they suggest and metaphors are flattened to literal meanings, further elaborating the misunderstanding that God is “out there” and must be called upon to intervene on our experience from outside.

Rather than speaking on God’s behalf and bringing a message from somewhere else, Ezekiel – and this is the peculiar spiritual psychology of the prophets – was himself the very mouthpiece of the grounding mystery and provident uplift of God’s presence, addressing the exiles out of the epicenter of their grief and loss. He lifted the vision of a New Reality and called them to faith in God as a present grace and future hope.

JEREMIAH 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3     the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
    and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
    and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.”

Jeremiah was the son of a priest and very likely had been one himself, when he felt God’s calling out of the religious establishment and into the streets as a prophet. Mounting tension in Judah’s international relations was causing concern for many, especially as the superpowers of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and Persia were becoming increasingly interested in its prime real estate.

The response from the religious establishment was effectively no response at all. Generally the belief was that God would protect his temple, the holy city, and its people from harm since they had been chosen for a long and bright destiny. God wouldn’t let his most important project fail, and since the Jews figured so centrally in that project, he wouldn’t let any harm come to them either.

But as we know, the city walls did come down and its temple was destroyed, an event that was not only a political catastrophe but an existential crisis of the first order. All at once, the fabric of meaning was ripped to shreds and the foundations of security were shattered into pieces. Jeremiah had sounded the warning, but no one listened. Now in the aftermath and amid the wreckage, he could only say, “I told you so.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he helped his generation through a process of serious self-examination. Their self-righteous complacency and sense of entitlement had made the nation vulnerable to collapse. It wasn’t the Babylonian army that overpowered them, and it wasn’t because God had abandoned them. Rather they had lost their vision, forgotten their divine appointment, and allowed their once-vibrant faith to recede from the edge of risk and fall asleep under the hedges of orthodoxy.

                                                                                                 

Only after coming to terms with their own responsibility in this tragedy could the survivors really find healing. This has always been true. When your circumstances close in around you, when it feels like God isn’t hearing your prayers and other people don’t care, it is tempting – almost irresistible – to look outside yourself for both the culprit to blame for your troubles and the savior who will rescue you from them. In either case, the locus of creative control is deferred somewhere other than where it really belongs, which is inside yourself.

That’s not to say that you must take the blame, or conversely pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Taking responsibility is importantly different from taking blame. Blame is really a story you tell yourself for the purpose of assigning a cause to your pain and anger. Beyond pinning your troubles on someone or something else, blame has the additional benefit of letting you do nothing but stand there and point. Or if you are blaming yourself, it can leech like a paralyzing anesthetic into your soul. As a consequence, your personal challenges can slowly evolve into chronic problems – not going away but instead getting worse.

To take responsibility you need to stop looking behind, around, or even up ahead for the solution you seek. While it is certainly true that these dimensions of your situation can contain insight, resources, and guidance, your salvation starts as you find your center and place both hands on your pain. However it got here, it is yours. Insisting that someone else did this to you doesn’t take away the responsibility of dealing with it.

The way of healing and freedom begins at the point where you realize that you have control over whether and to what extent you allow this ordeal (loss, hardship, betrayal, or abuse) to define you and determine the rest of your life.

Jeremiah grieved with his people as they stood in the rubble of their beloved homeland. He helped them take responsibility by accepting the reality of their experience. But then he challenged them to hold a different frame around their pain, one that could let them see that this experience was not just an ending but the start of something new.

ISAIAH 50:4-9a

4 The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.

7 The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8     he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
    who will declare me guilty?

Chapters 40-55 are believed by scholars to have been written during the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE), after the southern kingdom of Judah was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army and a significant population of its capital city of Jerusalem were taken in chains to Babylon.

As the siege was about to befall Jerusalem, there had been a few prophets who assured the people that God would protect the holy city and its sacred temple. So when it actually came to pass, and now in the distant land of their captors, not a few were ready to assign blame – not to God for failing his people, but to the exiles themselves for sinning against God. Some even suggested that the catastrophe was God’s retribution on the sinful nation.

But others didn’t buy it. Jeremiah and Ezekiel did their best not to place blame, but instead looked to a future of resurrection (Ezek 37), return and restoration (Jer 31). For his part, the “Second Isaiah” (as this author is known) chose not to look outside the suffering of his generation for its possible meaning or purpose. Rather than interpret it as punishment for sin, however, he reframed the experience as redemptive in its own right.

                                                                                          

Every so often, a system in dynamic balance will begin to experience feedback in the form of “vibration,” “heat,” “wobble” or “noise.” At such times the system needs to be reset in order to recover its center and balance. If the feedback is allowed to persist unchecked, it can amplify to the point where the system cracks up and breaks down.

Second Isaiah didn’t dispute the theory that Jerusalem had fallen because the people had lost their center. The devastation and exile indeed represented a major breakdown of the system, precipitated by the amplifying feedback of false hope, lost focus, and moral indifference. Not this generation, born in exile, but those before it had allowed things to fall off course. 

His creative contribution was to see the generation in exile as bearing the consequence, absorbing the shock of the tragedy, and symbolically taking the nation’s guilt on its shoulders. His generation’s suffering was redemptive in the way it removed this guilt and recalibrated the system. Second Isaiah and his fellow captives were not suffering to pay for sin, but to restore righteousness (balance and wholeness). They were not the shame of their nation, but its hope!

Much later on, some followers of Jesus would use this metaphor of vicarious suffering through the bearing of a burden to understand his death as a turning-point in redemption history.

ISAIAH 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
    pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
    in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain,
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
    and my reward with my God.”

5 And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
6 he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

7 Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
    the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

The theme of vocation refers to the experience of being called to a purpose that transcends the daily round of wish-and-worry. The Bible’s metaphor of choice for exploring this idea of vocation is that of a servant. If it began as a somewhat exclusive reference for the exceptional man or woman who stepped out heroically on faith and risked everything in obedience to God’s will, eventually this metaphor of the servant of God came to be applied to a community, an entire nation, and even by extension to the whole species of humankind.

In the ideas of vocation and servant we have the issue of the call and submission to the call, the summons from God and the response of commitment. Of course this leaves open the possibility that the call may not be returned, that the voice might fall on deaf ears and the vocation never engaged.

Remembering that Second Isaiah is writing from within the situation of exile where he is trying to help his people see their tragedy in a new light, the prophet’s  first-person description of God’s servant is remarkable for its bold and far-reaching lines. “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”

If Isaiah is hoping to effect a radical shift in the self-concept of his people, he is certainly well on his way in declaring that God had this very moment in mind before this generation was even born. In other words, the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of Jews to the foreign land of Babylonia were events now in the process of being redeemed.

                                                                                                

In addition to re-grounding the concept of vocation in the primordial intention of God (“before I was born”), Second Isaiah throws open the boundaries of space as well. Whereas earlier traditions had remained preoccupied with the welfare and destiny of God’s chosen people, the author reframed this status of privilege into a purpose of universal scope.

“It is too light a thing,” says God concerning the special vocation of the generation of exiles, that the New Being coming to birth in them should be for the sake of Israel alone. The beneficiaries of this redemptive work would now become all nations of the earth.

This achievement in reframing eventually would provide the foundations for the renewal movement of Christianity in the first century CE. The two key insights of Second Isaiah to energize that renewal would be (1) that God’s grace and calling are given prior to, and are therefore essentially independent of, an individual’s moral effort; and (2) that God’s purpose for the individual is to reach out and share with the whole world this gift and its core message of hope, forgiveness, and peace.

It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus took so much of his inspiration and evangelistic vision from the writings of Isaiah.

ISAIAH 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out,
    who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
    and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
    I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
7     to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.

The topic of vocation has become increasingly important in the recent literature, both religious and secular, interested in the question of purpose or mission in life, business, and personal development. Since the word itself is identified in the popular mind with an individual’s profession or occupation, the general preference in this literature has been to recover the root meaning of the term vocation itself, which refers to one’s calling.

The difference between occupation and calling, just as far as literal definitions are concerned, is the difference between the role one occupies in the commercial fields of labor, manufacture, service, intelligence and trade, and the deeper human purpose to which one is being summoned by the evolutionary universe itself.

As our quest for fulfillment forces us to look beyond the relative rewards of professional success and economic value, more and more people today are being drawn to this question of human purpose. What is it that the supreme reality is calling us to become? What is the evolutionary goal of humanity?

In the middle section of the book of Isaiah, called Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), this question of human purpose is the driving focus of the author’s work. His answer to the question will reflect the actual conditions of his historical situation and that of his community, but his central metaphor of servanthood is something that has been proven to transcend time and circumstance altogether.

                                                                                             

While in exile, the author of Second Isaiah received a vision of his displaced community in terms of a corporate personality, with the entire generation caught up and unified in the image of God’s chosen servant. This image enabled him to look through their shared circumstance of captivity in order to discern the deeper hidden current of God’s purpose being worked out through their loss and adversity.

By definition, a servant is one whose principal task is to carry out the will and purpose of another. Different from a slave, a servant occupies a recognized social class, providing services in exchange for room, board, social protection, or a regular wage. When Second Isaiah fastened on this metaphor of servant as a way of conceptualizing the experience of his people, he opened the path toward incorporating their suffering into the purposes of God.

Significantly, however, his image did not simply assume the popular idea of suffering as punitive for sins. Instead of the Suffering Servant of God enduring hardship as punishment for the past, their – remembering that the title refers to the exiled community as a whole – travail is interpreted as birth pangs of a future reality.

Of course, the idea of God working out a purpose through a people had been around for some time. It was central to Abrahamic religion. But now, even suffering was seen as redemptive.

JEREMIAH 31:7-14

7 For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
    and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
    “Save, O Lord, your people,
    the remnant of Israel.”
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
    those with child and those in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
    and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
    and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
    and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
    and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
    and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
    and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
    and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
    and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
    and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the Lord.

There is a critical difference in significance between those things that happen to us, those that are made to happen by us, and those that happen through us. Considered from a spiritual perspective, we might distinguish these distinct modes of experience with the words encounter, achievement, and evolution.

Each of these, in turn, calls forth from us a response that is peculiar to its own dynamic: sustained attention in the case of what is happening to us, moral commitment with respect to our goals and objectives, and radical trust in the guiding wisdom of our personal growth and transformation. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, if only we could raise the degree of sustained attention, moral commitment, and radical trust in our lives, the world would be a totally different place.

Staying with these themes a while longer, we begin to notice that they correlate to the major trimesters in a human lifespan – youth, maturity, and late adulthood.

In the first trimester of youth our experience is predominantly focused on what is happening to us, which must mean that the skill of cultivating sustained attention is one of the major tasks of this period of development.

As we mature and find our place in the culture-play of our profession and family life, we become producers, managers, custodians, and laborers – responsibilities that call upon our moral commitment to achieve outcomes of real value and lasting impact.

And in our later years we begin to relax into being, and come to rediscover ourselves as vehicles of a timeless (but always timely) wisdom and inner peace.

                                                                                          

After a detailed explanation of the great themes and their respective trimesters of emergence in a human lifespan, we must press on to acknowledge the obvious fact that, in any given moment, life is happening to us, by us, and through us.

Furthermore, depending on where we are in our life at that moment, our urgent need and higher calling may be for greater attention, stronger commitment, or deeper trust. (The theory of trimesters in human development is still helpful nevertheless, as it highlights the shifting accent of concern and opportunity throughout the course of life.)

Jeremiah envisioned the day when God’s people, both young and old, women and men together, would join as one chorus in praising their redeemer. It is important to remember that at the time these words were being proclaimed, God’s people were languishing in exile.

To this oppressed and dispirited community Jeremiah announced that something extraordinary was going to happen, that they needed to prepare for its coming, but that its accomplishment would require their full surrender to God’s unfolding purpose through them.

In a sense, the circular path of Israel’s biography represents the journey each of us is on: beginning in God, advancing into ego-consciousness, and coming home again.

ISAIAH 63:7-9

7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
    the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
    and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
8 For he said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
9     in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
    but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) was likely composed sometime after the return of the exiles from Babylonia, when the people of Judah were rebuilding upon the ruins of once-glorious Jerusalem. While the author of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), writing during the period of exile, had developed the metaphors of his displaced generation as the scapegoat of world redemption and the suffering servant of God’s saving purpose in history, this last section of the book reflects the concerns of a more settled community.

References to God carry a consistent acknowledgment of divine transcendence, and the community is quite obviously shifting in its self-awareness as an agency of evangelistic fulfillment (Second Isaiah’s theme) to becoming increasingly involved in the sacramental practice of remembrance and worship.

The spiritual life very clearly moves through seasonal cycles, with each “season” presenting the organizing motifs of our journey into God peculiar to its location in the larger rhythm of time. Typically a period of establishment and expansion (thesis) will give way to a season of crisis and redefinition (antithesis), which in turn opens out to yet another time of reorientation and new (or renewed) commitment (synthesis).

Eventually this synthesis itself becomes the status quo that must break open or break down for the deeper impetus of growth to advance. Staying in one place or remaining permanently the same is never a viable option – unless our goal is extinction!

                                                                                                    

It is typically in retrospect that we can see God’s present hand at work through the ordeals, adversities, and bereavements of life. When we are blessed in these difficult moments with an “angel” of mercy, guidance, or strength (depending on our need), the timely ministry of our angel is often seen only afterwards as the incarnated grace of very God (in the language of the old creeds).

This may be because our notions of the Divine have become so trapped in transcendence as to disqualify in our minds even the possibility of the Real Presence of God in the midst of it all.

That is, in fact, the essential crisis of the middle period, experienced and universally symbolized in the imagery of autumn (fall) and winter, when the life seems to be draining from the world we once thought was so secure. According to the theory of faith development, this is the “dark night” when our (idea of) God is no longer sufficient to our actual need.

The danger is that we might insist even more frantically (and fanatically) that our (idea of) God remain unchanged, and thereby deny (reject, suppress, rationalize) our actual experience – and with it the authenticity of our spiritual life.

In the third phase of synthesis (the coming-together of a new perspective), that earlier time of denial and absence becomes the birthplace of Emmanuel – “God with us.”