The Only Constant. (Isaiah: 12-17)

October 30, 2010

It’s no wonder some people stereotype the God of the Old Testament (incidentally, the same God as the new testament) as vengeful. Reading passages like Isaiah 12-17 it can seem a bit like the Almighty would benefit from an anger management course. All that smiting…tut tut tut.

But, and this may become a tiresome refrain, when seen through a social justice lens it’s all a bit more palatable. These prophecies are all describing the fall of oppressive states. They are written for and by a people who live in the middle of these powerful vast empires; Egypt, Assyria, Babylon. So no wonder they venerate a test that tells themthat they will one day sing to the King of Babylon “You too have become weak as we are!” (14:10b). Isaiah speaks of a God who won’t stand for all this occupation and pillage malarkey.

I hear echoes of these kinds of prophecy in the Magnificat (the Song of Mary) in Luke: “He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek.” These words give hope to a people under occupation (am I right in thinking that first Isaiah was written at the time of the Babylonian exile? please correct me) .

The problem is that once the meek are exalted they seem to forget their humility pretty darn fast. Exhibit A: the book of Joshua (my fave, as you know). And then God has to sort them out too. Exhibit B: the book of Lamentation (actually a fave…really). In fact, it’s easier for me to stomach these prophecies when I remember how many time the Israelites are brought down in the Hebrew Scriptures; they can get too big for their boots just like the rest of ’em!

So hurrah! God brings down the horrible mean states that oppress.. @But hang on!” I hear you cry “Where’s that God now then? Where’s that God been for the last 500 years of Western empire and pillage?” It’s certainly a question that arose for me as I read this…

On Thursday I had the privilege of hearing the Chief Rabbi of the UK speak. Appropriately, what he said then has helped me grapple with the Jewish scriptures I’m reading today. He talked about what lasts and what doesn’t. Judaism: 5000(ish) years. Christianity 2000 years. Islam 1300 years (is that right? forgive me if it’s not!). Then he listed some dominant world powers; Dutch in the 17th century, French in the 18th century, British (English?) in the 19th century, American in the 20th century. 100 years isn’t long compared with how long the Abrahamic Faiths have lasted, or any major faith for that matter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the hand 0f God brought down the British Empire (though if it did good on Him frankly!), and certainly not that God is about to bring down the USA. It’s too late now though, the FBI will following this blog from now on…ah well…a hit’s a hit.

But I do think that there is brilliant and still relevant contrast between inconstancy of political tyrannies, of fame and power, and the constancy God tin Isaiah. And when we see this perhaps we can access some of the hope and comfort, some of the inspiration of those who first read it.

Isaiah 12 talks of God being our Strength whilst the verse referred to above mentions our weakness. This reminds be of the ultimate fragility of all human achievements. It reminds me that behind their big steel gates and combinatin locks the rich and powerful are still human, still subject to pain and loss. It also reminds me that all the apparatus of injustice I see around me will crumble, but faith, hope and love will remain.

Heart breakingly, new injustice will arise in place of old. But there is a hint in Isaiah of a final justice; a mystery in which I put my faith…

When the oppressor is no more,
   and destruction has ceased,
and marauders have vanished from the land,
5 then a throne shall be established in steadfast love
   in the tent of David,
   and on it shall sit in faithfulness
a ruler who seeks justice
   and is swift to do what is right. (16:4-5)

A throne established in steadfast love? Amen to that!

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