Posts Tagged ‘punishment’

PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.

 

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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.