Surrender don’t come natural to me
I’d rather fight you for something
I don’t really want
Than to take what you give that I need
And I’ve beat my head against so many walls
Now I’m falling down, I’m falling on my knees…
– Rich Mullins (Hold Me, Jesus)
Isaiah 48 turns the focus from Babylon back to the house of Jacob; that is the whole people of Israel, and their stubborn resistance to God’s work and leading, from long ago to today. This isn’t unique to them: remember that the book of Isaiah emerged from this context, as God invites the people to reflect on their condition, on God’s actions and to consider what response is called for today. As such, we are invited to see ourselves in this position as well.
At the same time, we also find in this chapter hints of the peculiar dilemma God is in. When choosing to work with fallible instruments (such as the people of Israel, or of us), God risks being misunderstood. In responding to rebellion by withdrawing protection, God risks the charge that God has abandoned his people or broken God’s promises of blessings. By showing grace and mercy, God risks the people attributing their blessings to their own work, the work of idols, or of minimizing the impact of their rejection of God’s intention and purpose for them.
Real grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, is anything but cheap, and God’s way in the world is not to stand off at a distance, but to descend into the messiness of our experience for our sake, and for the sake of God’s purposes to redeem and bless and heal this word in love.
In the immediate context, this chapter points to the people in exile rejecting what God is doing through Cyrus. In 45:4, God calls Cyrus for the sake of the people of Israel. In 48:9-11, we read that God is also defending his name; that is, God acts not because the people have acted in ways that deserve it, nor can they claim God is obligated to act, but for the sake of staying true to God’s character and purposes.
What stands out to me today in this chapter is that the people of Israel can trace their ancestry back to Jacob, grandchild of the promise to Abraham (referenced in 48:19). They swear by the name of the LORD and invoke the God of Israel. They base their identity around the people who live in the place of God’s favor (i.e. Jerusalem), calling on the Lord of hosts…. In other words, they’ve got the religious thing down. They see their identity as connected with God.
But their actions and attitudes don’t reflect it. It’s not just that they do the wrong stuff, breaking rules – the description we find here goes a bit deeper. They do not act in truth (’emet) or right/justice (tsedeq). Worse, when God speaks to correct and teach, they are described as obstinate, deaf, treacherous, rebellious, wicked.
In other words, it’s not just what we do – it’s the orientation of our will, our minds, our hearts. It’s not a question of whether or not we are perfect, it is what we seek after, what we desire, whether we are teachable. When we orient our lives and desires in ways other than what God desires and purposes for us, we are inevitably going to run into trouble; not because God is just waiting to smack us around, but because we set ourselves against God’s loving purposes not just for ourselves but for the world.
In 48:17-19, we hear God lament what the rebellion has cost God’s people. “O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river, and your success like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.” God’s desire is for abundant life for creation, not what makes for destruction.
Remember God’s command in the Shema (What Jesus calls the greatest commandment):
“Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength.” [Deuteronomy 6:4-5] To which Jesus adds “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Leviticus 19:18b]
How does this command relate to the predicament of the people of Israel in Isaiah? How does this understanding of rebellion and desire connect with our personal situation today?
God’s action is to redeem, to bring the exiles home. To offer peace. Yet to those who will continue to resist, the peace God desires to give will elude them.