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unforgotten: Isaiah

Are those who die unjustly simply to be forgotten?

In a world like ours—battered and bleeding—it is for too many the farthest thing from an arcane question. The rubble of battlefield and broken neighborhood covers far too many lifeless bodies for that.

It has become for us, as it was in the beginning, a question most real.

The very first chapters of the biblical witness both affirm the validity of the question and declare that, at least in this first episode of fratricide, amnesia will not conquer the victimized dead, will not annul their enduring meaning, will not finally silence their cry.

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.’ (Genesis 4:8–10 ESV)

Students of Scripture have often wondered whether Urzeit ist Endzeit (roughly: ‘first time is last time’ or ‘first epoch is final epoch’). That is, will a promised new heavens and new earth in some way be aligned with features of the primordial awakening of creation? Is there a correspondence between what was in the beginning and what shall be in the end?

The biblical canon’s answer seems to consist of a qualified yes.

What is more, when the biblical witness becomes most pressured to assure its readers that our awful in-between time is not simply a sad, violent descent into hell, it seems to focus most specifically on those elements of The Beginning that shall return to us in The End. We call such literature apocalyptic or revelatory, not least because its insistence that God’s future must be radically different than life as we have come to know it requires new information. It depends less on continuities with the present and more on sharp breaks from history’s path and its redirection towards something entirely new. Its truths cannot be derived from the reality we know, so they must be revealed or disclosed if we are to grasp them.

The 26th chapter of Isaiah is part of such an apocalyptic section.

Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by. For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain. (Isaiah 26:20–21 ESV)

Cain’s blood still cries, as it were, in the ears of the prophetic-apocalyptic author.

When the Isaianic voice shouts in strange verse about a cosmic resolution of those ills which threaten little Israel’s very existence in the face of marauding conquerors, it remembers the greater threat. This threat is not so much the danger that this Assyrian power or that Babylonian empire might devastate us yet again, but the higher and deeper threat that this might occur with no one looking on to prevent it nor even to lament the unjust silencing of the doomed when it has occured.

The text moves to assure its reader that YHWH has a punishment in store for those who swing the sword unjustly. But, significantly, there is more to this divine re-activation than merely the retribution that YHWH will visit upon the conqueror. The earth, we read, will disclose the blood shed on it. It will cease conspiring with the covering up of innocent blood, spilled from Abel’s time up to the present.

It is not an accident that hints of something like resurrection also occur as part of this cluster of ideas, nor that resurrection suggests itself even in these Isaianic verses, for only—by some logic—a rebirth and revivification is adequate to the silencing claims of lethal injustice. If life has been taken, life must be given again. No mere forensic accounting, no bare punishment of murders, is sufficient for the restoration of what has been lost.

But for now, in a prophet’s days long before ‘resurrection’ has become a way of thinking about such things, the text makes a quieter promise: these fallen ones, their blood covered over by aeons of dust and soil, shall not be forgotten.

Abel’s blood, their blood, still cries out as YHWH watches and takes notice.

What will he do for these righteous dead?

 

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The book called Isaiah quietly lays layer atop rhetorical layer as it ambles forward in the general direction of glorified Zion.

By the time one arrives at the stirring reversal of fortunes that takes the steering wheel firmly in hand at chapter 40, we have encountered the expression רעהו with a prefixed preposition multiple times. It has described the action of a derelict or judged person to his fellow or to his companion. In the Isaianic way, this otherwise neutral expression has accrued with each new layer a discernibly negative connotation.

And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor (ואיש ברעהו); the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable. (Isaiah 3:5 ESV)

They will be dismayed: pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another (יחילון איש אל־רעהו); their faces will be aflame. (Isaiah 13:8 ESV)

And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, each against another and each against his neighbor (ואיש ברעהו), city against city, kingdom against kingdom; (Isaiah 19:2 ESV)

Again, the term itself is neutral and unremarkable. Yet the accrued sense becomes one of panicked or malevolent reciprocity.

It is likely not an accident that a passage in the 41st chapter of the book reverses the nature of this very reciprocity. The text celebrates YHWH’s purposeful calling of the Persian monarch Cyrus, who would liberate the Jewish captives and make it possible for them to return home to a future in Judah. In the light of this stunning turn, which YHWH has purposed from the beginnings of time itself, the ‘islands’ and the ‘ends of the earth’ take in the events with trembling astonishment. For the moment, it is not critical to establish whether the personifying text is speaking of non-Jewish nations or of Jewish captives in those nations (I favor the former.).

The point rather is the way they interact.

Be silent before me, you islands! Let the nations renew their strength! Let them come forward and speak; let us meet together at the place of judgment. Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow. He pursues them and moves on unscathed, by a path his feet have not traveled before. Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord—with the first of them and with the last—I am he.

The islands have seen it and fear; the ends of the earth tremble.

They approach and come forward; each helps the other (איש את־רעהו יעזרו) and says to his brother, ‘Be strong!’ (Isaiah 41:1–6 NIV)

Suddenly, the reciprocal interaction of the subjects is positive, encouraging, and even redemptive.

A note of anti-idolatry polemic in the verse immediately following means that the tone here could be ironic and not as positive as I’m suggesting. But strong conceptual elements of chapter 41 combined with the conceptually similar mutual encouragement of nations in the programmatic vision of chapter 2 (… and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’, Isaiah 2:3 ESV) persuade me that the point here is a quite positive one.

When my neighbor turns to look at me, there is no longer murder in his eyes, but encouragement.

Redemption in the book of Isaiah comes in reversals infinitely grand and infinitesimally subtle. The reversal I call out here belongs to the latter category.

Yet it is no less potent for its small, layered scope and scale. In its syllables, one hears whispered rumor of ancient enemies becoming friends in the light of YHWH’s manifestation of blessing too long guarded in secret places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because we are fashioned as embodied creatures, we live an embodied life and are shaped, damaged, and nurtured principally by other embodied people. They have names and faces.

Sometimes they lead us close to our Maker. Sometimes they provide such direction and sustenance that we cannot imagine life without them.

Or truth beyond them.

The apostle Paul reckons with the fidelity that grows deep attachments between servants of the gospel and those fellow travelers whom they serve. Yet he will not allow that attachment to become exclusive.

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23 ESV)

The remarkable fact about Paul’s words is that he, of all men, is not reluctant to argue his apostolic prerogatives. He is no shrinking violet when it comes to recognizing and asserting that the God of Israel speaks through him. Paul is not one for false modesty.

It’s all the more striking, then, that he will not have the Corinthian believers ‘boast in men’. All the life and truth that God pours through Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or other bruised luminaries of the early church is theirs. They need not choose a human patron to the exclusion of others, in fact they must not.

Such ‘men’ are critical. There would be no embodied Corinthian church of Jesus Christ without the limping, embodied service of such leaders.

Yet they are—at a deeper level—irrelevant, a paradox that Paul is not reticent to declare.

It is difficult, in these mangled days, to focus. One lives distracted and, therefore, enslaved to the mundane blur that swirls on all sides without pause.

Yet not all have lived this way, and not all must.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13–16 ESV)

I come uneasily to this company of exiles, for I love this soil, this place, this fecund rooting.

Yet, as a follower of Jesus, I must admit to an exile’s fate, must embrace the stranger’s reality, must grit my teeth and acknowledge with a dozen bad hymns that ‘this world is not my home’.

The trudging heroes of the  New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews honed a desire for a better country. If the text calls it ‘a heavenly one’, we must resist pictures of static bliss, of puffy clouds and blonde angels, of escape from physicality to pure spirit. This cannot be the Letter’s intent.

Rather, a city.

An urban scene with lodgings and events and roads and activities and people engaged in tasks both earnest and playful. Yet it is not this world’s city, for its basic principle, its way is governed by another ethos, by a different rule.

Yet I live here, in this well-known world, with its expectations and its compromised joys, its bent callings, its dented product. I have, unlike those ancient heroes, little desire for another city, little hope of being welcomed into that God-city if access is based on the intensity of my longing. I am too much of this one, too little predisposed by glimpses of the other to desire it above all else.

O City-Builder, have mercy on these myopic eyes. Help me see beyond these shadowed streets to brighter ones prepared for those who walk here as strangers, aliens, as limping sojourners passing through.

Bring us home, especially me, a straggler in this mobile company of hopers.

The poet who stands behind our 104th psalm contributes to a compendium that insists upon YHWH’s activity in history a celebration of his work in creation. It is a beautiful oddity.

Curiously, two features of divine participation in creation interweave the psalmist’s celebration.

First, the psalmist observes divine activity not only in initial creation, but in the ongoing sustaining of YHWH’s creatures. When this note is touched, we see also creaturely collaboration. YHWH provides the needed resources, and the creatures respond by gathering if they are animals and by the labors of field and hearth if they are humans.

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.  The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers …

These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.” (Psalm 104:14–15 … 27-28 ESV)

Second, it is not only the psalmist who rejoices in this patterned, sustaining collaboration. YHWH himself is gladdened by it, just as is the poet in its contemplation.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works, who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke! I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. (Psalm 104:31–34 ESV)

Creation here is not objectified in any impersonal or mechanical way. It is a living, breathing community of YHWH’s design, populated by beings who are entirely dependent upon his provision and tasked—in the case of human beings—with turning it into amplified and extended provision for others.

The cycle of life and death is recognized, a nod given to seasons of withering scarcity. None of this blurs or bounds the psalmist’s rejoicing nor, presumably, that of the Creator.

Human exertions upon the sea’s vastness and in the challenge of soil contribute to the doxological vision.

There is synergy, collaboration, even a certain imitation of God in all of this.

Only, in the end, do ‘sinners’ and the ‘wicked’ blemish its glories. These are entrusted to YHWH’s just power.

The world as we encounter it is not, we might pause to consider, inevitable. It is not ordinary. It is the work of divine hands. It is bent towards rejoicing. It is an invitation even now to appreciative laughter, to a heart made glad in the consideration of it.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

 

the ongoing: Psalm 103

Psalm 103 insists that we live in a world in which clear vision leads to gratitude.

Blessedness is reality. The failure to see this means that someone has gone blind, perhaps even succumbed to a lie.

Yet gratitude requires a choice—and even that ongoing choice which becomes a discipline—because for some unnamed reason we are liable to forget. Blessing is a fact on the ground, yet gratitude seldom occurs in nature. It requires practice, discipline, even culture, lest blessing go unanswered by thanksgiving.

This is why the psalmist employs the odd figure of exhorting his own ‘soul’ to bless the Lord. It is not that YHWH’s blessings are difficult to see, just that they are easy to miss. They are easier still to forget.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and do not forget all His bounties. He forgives all your sins, heals all your diseases. He redeems your life from the Pit, surrounds you with steadfast love and mercy. He satisfies you with good things in the prime of life, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord executes righteous acts and judgments for all who are wronged. He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel. (Psalms 103:2–7 JPS)

It is more often than not the last recourse of scoundrel interpreters to insist that ‘the original language speaks truths that do not come across in translation’. Yet in this case it is partly true.

The italicized words are Hebrew participles. In classical Hebrew the sense of this is usually ongoing activity. Though that cannot be the case with the last of this chain of participles—YHWH made known his ways to Moses only in the past—the preponderance of evidence suggests that we are to bless the Lord here precisely as the One who habitually acts in this way. It is his nature, his divine habit, the easy work of his right hand.

It would tax the language, but it would make perfect sense to translate these with the English definite article plus a gerund: the One who is forgiving … the One who is healing … the One who is redeeming … the One who is surrounding … the One who is satisfying …

Simply put, this is what YHWH is like. You can contrast him with other lords, if you like, and give thanks that you have fallen under the care of this one.

When we see clearly, in a world governed as this psalm insists that ours is ruled, we bless its Ruler. We give thanks. We become grateful.

We are not asked here to overcome reality with psychological exertions. We are asked to see things as they are.

It would be the strangest thing to do otherwise, like the stumblings of a blind man, the baseless pleasures of the conspiracy junkie, the woman who has entirely strayed from reality.

Listen up, soul!

 

 

 

 

It is impossible to imagine the ethical lifestyle towards which the apostle Paul encourages the churches without reckoning with the prominence of gratitude.

Simply put, thanksgiving is a powerful  motor. Apart from whatever else it represents, thankfulness fuels and in some ways summarizes the way of the believer in Jesus Christ.

As Paul draws an extensive piece of ethical instruction to its conclusion, gratitude comes to the fore:

And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:14–17 ESV)

We live either as though the world has cheated us of what we are owed. Or as though life has given us more than we deserve. There are only two ways.

We call the latter—with its constant element of bemused surprise—thanksgiving, or gratitude. It is different from feeling lucky, for strictly speaking the feeling of having been befallen by good luck has no object. Thanksgiving or gratitude, on the other hand, is directed to someone, who has been one’s benefactor, the giver of the gift one has received. Gratitude is personal. Someone has been generous and I am grateful to that person.

Near the end of the passage just quoted, Paul appears to focus on one skein of the yarn that is gratitude.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17 ESV)

There is a certain robust, comprehensive fulness in the words and actions of a grateful life.

All that one speaks and all that one does are speech-acts and purposive movements that express the character of Jesus and express thanks to God the Father. Gone is the squeamish fear that I may have lost may way, may have crossed some invisible line. The overcautious sophistries of ethics that are not grateful ethics is absent.

No good thing, no Jesus-aligned thought or word need fall outside this circle of life-as-thanksgiving.

The countless dots that form the line that is the trajectory of our life become thank you’s. Life can be no more relational and no less grumpy than this.