Why, O Lord?
Earlier (see https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/future-promises), I mused on God's promises in light of present realities. Are the promises for now or in the future? The answer in Isaiah 62 appears to be some promises are for now but the full impact won't be seen until the future. And yet, sometimes wrongs are righted in the present time, and God intervenes directly to do so.
Isaiah 63 opens with God describing his direct action against Edom. It's an awesome passage filled with triumphant ancient Middle Eastern imagery (with interweaving descriptions of wine and blood). Why does the kingdom of Edom make it into Isaiah's last few spectacular chapters, which will culminate in a description of God's complete restoration of all things?
As we've seen before in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Bible, Edom represents the ultimate betrayer of Israel, because it's the betrayal of a brother. The ancient brothers Jacob and Esau more or less reconcile, but there is no deep connection following Jacob's return from self-exile. Their descendants have no love lost between them and Edom famously (as described in Numbers 20) denies the Israelites passage during the Exodus. They answer harshly ("But Edom answered, “You may not travel through our land, or we will come out and confront you with the sword.”) and do in fact come out armed to make sure the Israelites don't pass through. From this time on, they set themselves up as Israel's enemy.
While this is not firmly established in the scholarly literature, some modern scholars across the past 30 years have made the argument that it was Edom, rather than Babylon, who destroyed the first Jewish temple (for example, see https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/who-really-destroyed-solomon-s-temple-in-jerusalem-1.9900539). The Babylonians definitely attacked and sacked Jerusalem, ransacked the temple, and carried off the exiles. One can destroy a temple, however, without completely razing it to the ground, which is what happened to most of Solomon's temple. Did the Babylonians do this or another group? In the Apocryphal book I Esdras, verse 4:45 says that the Edomites burned the temple after the Babylonians had ravaged the nation.
Regardless of whether or not the Edomites did this final betrayal, numerous Biblical accounts speak pointedly of the "betrayal of Edom," such as here in Isaiah, as well as in Obadiah, Psalms, and Ezekiel. And yet, God intervened. Edom ends up becoming conquered. Some refugees end up migrating to Judea and are known as Idumeans. A famous Idumean is King Herod. How interesting in light of this possible history that King Herod poured himself into restoring the second temple during this reign.
My point in raising all of this, is that Edom had been a point of frustration for Israel for centuries. Our timing is not God's timing and vice versa. And yet, he intervened and did so in a decisive way. He clearly announced in Isaiah 63 that, oh yes, make no mistake--it was God Himself who acted decisively.
In addition to showing a direct intervention of the Lord, Isaiah 63 shows that it is OK to ask God questions. To pour out one's heart and express frustration, confusion, and fear.
Isaiah, like the Psalmists, takes us on an up-and-down emotional journey. His praises and prayers in this chapter are intermixed with joy, gratitude, sadness, and anger.
He starts with praise, in verse 7:
I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the Lord has done for us--yes, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses.
Isaiah explains that the Lord showed love, but the people showed faithlessness. And now, Isaiah, along with the rest of his countrymen and women are asking, "Where is he?" (verse 11). This prompts Isaiah to ask,
Look down from heaven and see from your lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us (verse 15).
Most compelling of all, to me, is his question starting in verse 17:
Why, O Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance. For a little while your people possessed your holy place, but now our enemies have trampled down your sanctuary. We are yours from of old; but you have not ruled over them, they have not been called by your name.
Lots of questions are wrapped up into the first one. Why was the temple destroyed in the first place, so that God had to punish the wicked? Why give a great promise of a temple when it would be taken away so swiftly? How can we be your people when we seem to not be connected in any way anymore?
Here's the good news: Neither Isaiah nor God give an answer here! Why is this good news? Well, I'd say that it's a refreshing antidote to our prosperity-gospel laced modern theology which teaches us that no one is allowed to sit in pain or distress very long without someone telling them some religious-sounding platitude about turning that frown upside down. There's an upside to everything, don't you know, and many are very eager to try to explain what God has in mind for someone's present circumstances. Christians are very far indeed from the Jewish grief practice of shiva, the seven-day period of formalized mourning when a closed loved one passes away. As described here (https://www.shiva.com/learning-center/visiting-shiva/comforting-jewish-mourners/), practices involve sitting, eating, praying. Letting the mourner set the tone for what is talked about and when.
Here in Isaiah, we'll have a multi-chapter shiva of sorts. Just allowing Isaiah to sit with his questions of why things are the way they are. Why the past seemed far more glorious and triumphant and why the present is so dark. Those familiar with the book of Isaiah know that it ends well, that the final chapter is one of the most triumphant passages in all of scripture. How is it that the chapters leading up to it and full of questions and concerns?
I think it's a wonderful model that speaks directly to the times that we are currently living in. It's OK to ask the questions. It's OK to not rush toward trite answers or try to directly explain what God is or isn't doing. It's OK to wrestle a little bit, especially if the wrestling is with the Lord and not a dark and devolving debate in one's own head.
In my prayers this morning, I caught a snippet of some negative thoughts swirling around. I've wrestled with these a-plenty. Now, I'm just sending them on to the Lord. I almost pictured God holding a giant black balloon that can just suck up my negative thoughts and feelings. Unlike in some of my favorite sci-fi movies, in God's hands, these dark thoughts won't rise up into some superpower Big Baddy. The Lord can handle them, and take away the brunt of the pain so that we can grapple with the more important questions, such as where Isaiah ends in chapter 63: "they have not been called by your name."
What happens when one is living in a nation that formerly closely identified with the Lord but now seems as if the people are not called by God's name at all?
Isaiah has raised the question. Let's sit and wrestle with it a bit, giving our concerns to the Lord, pouring them out to God our Maker. It's OK that we don't have all the answers.