There is no measured reciprocity in YHWH’s mercy as this is sketched out in the book of Isaiah. The logic of quid pro quo has no place here, in this landscape of abundant pardon.
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6–9 ESV)
The call not to let the opportunity of experiencing YHWH’s mercy—forgiving and restorative—is based in part on the perhaps limited window of its availability. One should seek him ‘while he may be found’ and call upon him ‘while he is near’.
But the other motive for such questing after YHWH in this season, when he is unusually close at hand, is that his compassion to those ‘wicked’ and ‘unrighteous’ people who will forsake what they have become and return to YHWH is articulated as ‘abundant pardon’. In fact, it is the disproportionate mercy with which YHWH will embrace those who return that sets the context for a passage which is usually quoted in the abstract, as though it simply marked a generic difference between how YHWH reasons and how people think. In reality, the prophet is getting at something far more concrete and specific than that:
‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9 ESV)
The ways and thoughts that are so patently superhuman (if one may use that term without trivializing its subject) are the ways and thoughts of abundant pardon. That is, there is no restrictive calculation, no reductive logic, no parsimony about the forgiving mercy with which YHWH embraces the evil man who returns to him.
Those familiar human measurings-out of grace with which we are so damningly familiar are as low in altitude as a level swamp is against a soaring bank of cumulus clouds. One can speak as though the two can be compared, but in point of fact they can only be contrasted. The former is very much unlike the latter. The two are not even close to each other in scope and scale.
To hew to verse nine’s precise cadence, neither the way YHWH thinks about pardon nor the way he acts to forgive can be captured in the small bowls and measly cups of human reckoning.
There is no self-help in the prophet’s insight, no tawdry bootstraps to be yanked up, no pathetic morality to be offered as bait to a god who is reluctant to forgive but might just be persuaded if one is sufficiently sad and sincere. YHWH is not like that, does not play that game.
If human forgiveness is our starting line, our point of reference, we can know nothing of divine pardon. The one is not a suitable analogue to the other. At our best, a very good man might forgive an evil man who is sorry. YHWH is not like that.
With him, abundant mercy is like nothing we have ever seen.