The big swing in the book of Isaiah, the big hinge upon which it turns, is the movement between judgement and mercy.
More particularly, the book delivers to the reader this big swing—if I may continue to call it that—as a function of YHWH’s very personal striking and then his having mercy upon Israel/Judah. The language becomes proximate, then intimate, then parental.
A glimpse comes in chapter 60’s effusive anticipation of Zion’s beautification at the hands of foreigners and via the luxury of their finest economic and cultural product.
Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you. (Isaiah 60:10 ESV)
The striking in question is the time-delimited exile of Judah to Babylon. In contrast, the mercy-driven restoration is open-ended. Thus, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the one and the other. Wrath and striking are temporary. Favor and mercy are meant to endure.
Isaiah’s almost fugal approach to topics like this one—where a theme is stated and then restated in variations here, there, and then again—develops the theme of asymmetry still further by deploying the language of the brief moment.
For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:7–8 ESV)
We are told that YHWH’s harsh treatment of Judah is quite unlike his return to them in mercy in at least two ways.
- First, the former is short and the latter is long.
- Second, Isaiah seems to present judgement as necessary but rather unlike YHWH. Restorative mercy, in contrast, flows fiercely from his very heart.
At the risk of losing our way, this glance at asymmetry may or may not help us to understand a striking and obscure word regarding judgement in Jerusalem/Zion that occurs earlier in the book:
For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work! (Isaiah 28:21 ESV)
Whether or not this is the case, the book provides further insight into divine pathos in the tenderly maternal soliloquy it allows itself in chapter 49.
But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’
Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. (Isaiah 49:14–16 ESV)
Isaiah is fully convinced that the path to Judah’s redemption must pass through the furnace of judgmental fire. Yet the prophet cannot allow that this affliction lies anywhere near to the center of YHWH’s purposes for his people. At the risk of diminishing the experience of those who never came home from Babylon, the exile figures here as a necessary, regrettable, and brief moment. It is but the anteroom to Jerusalem resplendent.
Judah’s well-earned suffering surfaces here in the text as a brief moment of desertion, a momentary flare of righteous anger before a merciful God has his longed-for opportunity to love again with that love that defines love itself.
The reader might ask how important the prophet and his traditioners must have considered this reality to be, that they should risk utilizing this deeply human imagery to characterize the God who remains unseen.