Praise and Thanksgiving: A Layman’s Look at Isaiah 43:21

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March 14, 2013
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Scripture has an infuriating habit of meaning what it doesn’t say and saying what it doesn’t mean. This is why, of course, we have things like homilies, religious education, theological forums, and degrees devoted to Biblical interpretation. Still, it’s hard to say concretely that a specific interpretation is the correct one.

Part of the problem, of course, lies with not knowing  the root text; few lay Christians know Koine Greek, Latin, Coptic, Hebrew, or any other ancient Biblical language, and it is in these languages that Scripture was original composed. Still, what matters today is that we hear the English translations of what was original, and through the English we come to certain understandings of what it means to be in relationship with the divine.

Given this sensitivity, I recently recoiled at a Lenten reading of Isaiah, chapter 43. The bulk of the reading (verses 16-21) was filled with promise and optimism: “Forget the former things,” Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying; “do not dwell on the past. I am making a way in the wilderness … to give drink to my people, my chosen.”

It is on this bent of mind and theology that my faith is founded; I relish the inconceivable promise of God through Christ Jesus, that what is to come is healing, wholeness, and resurrection—regardless of fault or sin. It is a profoundly Lutheran Isaiah that comes to the fore here, and one I relish very much. But the reading concludes with something rather jarring to human ears: “I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”

My initial reaction to this seeming arrogance was very negative. So God created us just to cheer the Lord on, eh? What’s the point in automatons forever coming to the point of praise? Does it do creation any good, telling God what God already knows? It hardly seemed the work of a thoughtful, selfless, humble deity.

But I let the idea sit, sure that I had gotten Isaiah’s point all wrong. And while the pastor that Sunday morning didn’t address these lines, I addressed them myself… in time.

The more I considered Isaiah 43:21, the more it occurred to me that I had instantly and completely anthropomorphized God. Now, I have long understood the necessity of drawing familiar characteristics in the divine so as to connect with what creates and what saves; this is no small part of the Old Testament histories. But the reality is far beyond my thinking can grasp. That is to say, the entity of God—albeit in three persons, as we profess—is no more man or woman than the stars in the sky. Bogged down by our human likenesses, however, I saw the image of a man in God shaping creation just to tell him how great he is. A bit silly, no?

Now, we can stop there and say that Christianity is bunk. Or we can dig deeper and really ask ourselves who or what God is. Foolish? To some extent, yes. Perhaps, in fact, it is more fruitful to tell ourselves what we know God is not in God’s very essence: human. Yes, Jesus Christ came down and died for mankind’s sins in the Christian creed, but this does not mean that Jesus is human apart from God. That is to say, Jesus lived in the essence of God, and from his human voice, always deferred to the Lord—even in his final words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The acts of Jesus Christ here on earth, with all of his teachings and tenderness, can be said to manifest God—an entity that is no more, nor less that the absolute purity of love, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and forbearance. Granted these aren’t easy to paint on the face of one’s deity—they’re not clothing we can imagine, facial features we can picture, or locks of hair we can muse blow a certain way in the wind. But that is not the point. The point is that God is love—period.

What does this do to Isaiah? It takes it back from human arrogance and places it back in the realm of incorruptible love—the swirling confluence of agape, phileo, storge, and eros. When Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying that the Lord formed people for the Lord’s self, to give God praise, what do we make of it? We say that love begets love, however manifest—and that the terminology and anthropomorphizing rampant among the faithful distorts this image and sullies the joyful message imparted in Scripture. I fell prey to it myself—and continue to do so again and again. But what I read now, after some conscious reflection, is that God—love divine and inscrutable—joins love to itself by rejoicing in what it is and what it has made. There is no human conjuring necessary, nor any that would benefit such a truth.

I often stumble across such passages as Scriptures intervenes in life, promising a message worthy of listening. And if we all can thwart the instinct to judge and turn away, we may yet find that the Lord speaks in unsuspected ways through our very own words, forged in the past, in the present, and yet to come.

What is it they say? The Lord works in mysterious ways. And were it not so, the truth might never find us.


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