Sunday, September 27, 2015

Remember the Pit (Sort Of)

I remember sermons from my youth that quoted Isaiah 51:1 and charged me to remember "the pit from whence I was dug"—the sinful depths I had inhabited before God's provision of salvation.

But there is only one problem here. Isaiah 51—part of the larger complex of Isaiah 40-55 sometimes called "Second Isaiah"—is not a call to remembrance of one's prior sinful state OR a statement of judgment OR anything negative at all.

Rather Isaiah 51 is an incredibly hopeful passage. It declares that God's salvation is certain and near. The sins of the past are just that—"past"—and all of God's previous promises are still in effect. Isaiah 51 addresses exiled Israel at the very end of the Babylonian "captivity." Yahweh, through the prophet, promises that restoration of the nation is on the immediate horizon.

Five times in this chapter, the voice of Yahweh calls for exiled Israel's attention: "Listen to me!" (v. 1), "Listen to me!" (v. 4), "Hear me!" (v. 7), "Awake, awake!" (v. 9), and again "Awake, awake!" (v. 17). In each instance, Yahweh promises reversal—Israel's oppressors will fall and Israel will regain its rightful place in the land of Palestine and once again enjoy God's providence rather than his judgment. "The cup that made you stagger," Yahweh promises, "You will never drink from again." Rather "I will put it into the hands of your tormentors" and they will fall down drunk in the streets and Israel will walk over their fallen bodies.

The reference to the "pit from whence you were dug" in Isaiah 51:1 does not point to the depth of Israel's moral failure, but rather to the very foundation of Israel's existence—the promises of God to the patriarchs. Look at the larger context of this passage from a modern translation.

"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
    and who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
    and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was only one man,
    and I blessed him and made him many."
The Lord will surely comfort Zion
    and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden,
    her wastelands like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found in her,
    thanksgiving and the sound of singing.
                                             (Isaiah 51:1-3 NIV)

The "rock from which you were cut" is Abraham. The "quarry from which you were hewn" is Sarah. Yahweh is calling exiled Israel to remember its roots in the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants.

"I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you."
                                             (Genesis 12:2-3 NIV)

The exile has NOT negated the covenant promises that God made to the fathers. Rather—after a brief moment of judgment resulting from Israel's covenant unfaithfulness—God will completely fulfill his ancient promises, restoring the lost homeland and once again extending his providence.

Isaiah 51:1 is a promise to those of Israel who endure the exile: they will soon witness God's liberation and their return to the homeland. Yahweh calls the exiles to have the same faith as their ancestors—the childless Abraham and Sarah—who did not give up on God's promises because of their hopeless situation, but believed God in spite of their current circumstances.

Isaiah 51 tells us that difficult—even impossible—circumstances do NOT nullify the promises of God. Rather than despair, we should hold fast to the promises of God to our fathers and show the same faith they did—the faith that will ultimately witness the salvation of God.

1 comment:

  1. There is an old saying which I've used many times: "A text without a context is a pretext." So much of the preaching we heard years ago was very much along these lines, and your recollection of how this passage in Isaiah was handled is a sterling example. Actually, a text handled out of context is not only a hermeneutical problem, it empties the Scripture of its inherent authority as the Word of God, which is a sad thing. Because it is taken from Scripture, it has the look of authority, but because it is mishandled it undermines that authority.