Posts Tagged ‘Third Isaiah’

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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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.”