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Of Isaiah 40 and Grasshoppers

Of Isaiah 40 and Grasshoppers

Last night in our Tuesday night group we discussed this rather interesting chapter, one that I believe expresses the basics of the gospel message well.

Now I don’t mean by this that it mentions the name of Jesus or even directly predicts anything about his ministry. There is some material here that is used of John the Baptist and Jesus, but that is another subject. What I mean is the basic principles. I will express these as: We can’t, God can, God does.

There are those who find the whole depravity thing in Christian theology somewhat morbid. But there’s a really simple point, and one I think is obvious once you see it. We really can’t!

Once we accept the fundamental idea of God as creator at all, we accept total dependence and our inherent smallness. As Isaiah calls us, grasshoppers. God looks down from the circle of the earth and the inhabitants (that’s us) are as grasshoppers.

If we think about it for a moment, not only can we not do good without God, we can’t do anything at all. We can’t exist. We are, before our creator, nothing at all.

And yet!

And yet, God is coming to God’s people. God cares, in great detail.

Here is the Lord GOD; he is coming in might,
coming to rule with powerful arm.
His reward is with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he will tend his flock
and with his arm keep them together;
he will carry the lambs in his bosom
and lead the ewes to water.

(Isaish 40:10-11, REB)

God’s greatness is not something that should make us miserable. Face it, we have looked at the universe and it is incomprehensibly large. We are small. Yet we are significant. If God is the creator, as we believe, then God is incomprehensibly large, and we don’t really have anything to offer.

And yet!

When I consider your heavens
the work of your fingers
the moon and the stars
which you have put in place,

What is a human being
that you take notice?
A mortal that you seek him out?

Yet you have made him a little lower than God,
with glory and honor you have crowned him.
You have made him rule over what your hands have made.
You have put everything under his authority.

Psalm 8:4-7 (my translation)

Isaiah 40 tells us that while we can’t, God can, and God will.

But Did God Approve of That?

But Did God Approve of That?

Last night in my Tuesday night group we were discussing the story of Hezekiah in Isaiah 36 & 37, in which King Sennacherib of Assyria attacks Judah, and things get pretty dire. Following a sneering message from the Assyrian king, Hezekiah, at the beginning of chapter 37, tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and goes to the house of the Lord.

The first question we had was whether people liked this action. Here’s the king acting afraid, worried, and uncertain about this message. I found it pretty easy to discuss this from a sociological and political point of view. How is it that a king like Hezekiah, in a tiny kingdom such as Judah, manages to hold everything together when pretty much everything is in enemy hands except for three cities?

I’d suggest that part of the reasoning (ignoring God’s involvement for the moment) comes from the fact that unlike his father, King Ahaz (Isaiah 7), Hezekiah goes to the prophets. The prophets were a political force. We have more evidence for this from the northern kingdom than the southern one, but it seems a reasonable assumption to me.

Further, the priesthood of Jerusalem was another force in the nations politics, and Hezekiah was the one who centralized worship in Jerusalem. That would have endeared him to that group.

Thus I suspect Hezekiah had his political ducks in a row as far as powerful groups in the country were concerned. Which, of course, ignores the role of the God of Israel.

Someone in our group asked this: But was God pleased?

The background here is one of doubt. In a sense, both Hezekiah and his father Ahaz show doubt. Ahaz does this by ignoring the prophet, assuming that he has to do the necessary work to protect himself when Isaiah says God’s word is that the alliance against Ahaz will not prosper.

Hezekiah, rather than putting on the perfect performance of piety and trust in God, which might have involved getting up and dramatically announcing that the God of Israel was greater than all the gods of Assyria, tears his clothes.

This is one of the interesting—perhaps the most interesting—questions we can ask in reading a Bible story. The Bible, particular in the Hebrew scriptures, tells stories in a fairly sparse fashion and doesn’t spend a great deal of time explaining the details to us. We have to read the stories carefully and ask ourselves what moral lessons may apply. Sometimes our perspective can change over time.

In this case, I think I can answer quite definitively. I think God was very pleased with Hezekiah. I have a few reasons for that:

  • Hezekiah is honest. In the modern church we have a great deal of pretense, because we expect certain performance from our leaders. If the pastor expresses doubt, the foundations are shaken. This is an unrealistic expectation whether of a pastor or of a national leader. This is your Old Testament edition of 2 Corinthians 12:10 in two acts: Isaiah 7 has Ahaz strong, so God is, in effect, weak. In Isaiah 37 Hezekiah is weak, and God is strong!
  • God gets the glory. Because of Hezekiah’s honest, God gets the resulting glory. I back this up with the story in Isaiah 38 & 39. When Hezekiah is healed by divine action, messengers come to see him. He shows them everything. Now the story doesn’t say it directly, but it appears he shows them how strong he, Hezekiah, is, and neglects God’s glory.
  • Hezekiah seeks God immediately. While he is afraid, he nonetheless goes to God rather than seeking the answer himself.

These two stories in Isaiah 36-39 (I think some might make it three or even four stories, but I think of it as two parts, and effectively the acts completing what happened with Ahaz) open up a great deal of room for meditation and discussion on leadership, weakness, dependence on God, and action.

It’s said, however, that Hezekiah ends up on a very selfish note. In Isaiah 39:8 he tells himself everything is OK, because destruction and exile won’t come in his own lifetime.

Even the best of us, like Hezekiah, can fail!

(Featured image credit: Pixabay.)

From My Reading: Isaiah 10:1-4a

From My Reading: Isaiah 10:1-4a

Woe to the enacters of unjust enactments,
to the writers of harmful laws,
who separate the poor from judgment,
so they can rob my needy people of right,
so widows can become your loot,
and orphans your plunder!

What will you do on the day of accounting,
when calamity comes from afar?
Where will you flee for rescue,
where will you stash your wealth,
lest you cower among the prisoners,
or fall among the corpses of the slain?

— Isaiah 10:1-4a (My own translation with slight poetic paraphrasing.)

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Credit to One of My Teachers

Credit to One of My Teachers

Today in Sunday School class the teacher referred back to challenge I had presented to the calls some time ago. I had suggested reading the prophecies of Isaiah, particularly 2nd Isaiah (40-55) without our “Jesus colored glasses.” I don’t suggest this not because I think Christian readings are inappropriate, but rather because it helps give you a sense of history. Place yourself as best as you can into the place and time from which the prophecies were spoken.

Professor J. Paul Grove
J. Paul Grove

Our Sunday School teacher today, Melinda Henry, brought this challenge back to the class, after she had taken it herself. In her experience an teaching it led to placing ourselves into these prophecies, particularly the servant passages, and seeing there the call to be a servant in just that way.

When she did this I was reminded of when I was first challenged to read this passages in a different way. My undergraduate major in Biblical Languages was offered by the School of Theology at Walla Walla College (now a university). Thus most of my classes were taken with students who were preparing for pastoral ministry.

I took a class in Hebrew prophets from J. Paul Grove, and I confess that I didn’t really like it that much. He was the one to first challenge me to read Isaiah in that fashion. In addition, he had the requirement that we produce three sermon outlines per week derived from the texts we were studying. I hated that requirement and even tried to get out of it by pointing out that I wasn’t going to be a preacher. But the professor insisted.

It was a great experience and has stuck with me ever since. Paul Grove has gone on to his rest (as they would say in his SDA tradition), but I wanted to express my gratitude for pointing me toward some ideas I have used repeatedly in the years since, even though I thought it was wasted effort at the time.

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

is43-2I am very slow to criticize translations in broad terms. Every time I point out what I consider to be a problematic rendering in some Bible translation, someone will ask me if they should discard that version in exchange for a more accurate one. Any translation will contain renderings that can be questioned. In many cases there were people on the translation committee who questioned the chosen rendering. Translation has a great deal of art to it. Keep that in mind as I criticize this rendering in the New Living Translation.

Here’s the NLT of Isaiah 43:2 —

When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you. (via Biblegateway.com)

Now I think the NLT has captured some of the meaning very clearly. The interesting thing is the translation of the metaphors. The words [of difficulty] and [of oppression] are not explicit in the Hebrew. Now the metaphor probably justifies this reading as a good option for understanding the text. My problem with it is that the metaphor is, in my opinion, equally comprehensible in English as it is in Hebrew. That is, in reading this passage, an English-speaking reader would probably feel free to choose from the same set of events or experiences that might be referenced by the metaphor.

On the other hand, the modern reader might tend not to see the same range of literal understandings. “Through deep waters” doubtless would evoke the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and possibly the flood. “Through rivers” would likely evoke the story of crossing the Jordan, while “fire of oppression” might well draw on the story of the three Hebrews (Daniel 3), though of course based on dating, that story might even be said to draw on this. In this way the NLT rendering takes away some literal connections to the narrative of Israel’s history/traditions which might easily be missed.

The three metaphors are each translated with a different impact. The first, “deep waters” is left literal. This is perhaps due to the flood, Red Sea (Sea of Reeds), and the Jordan. In the second case we break out the metaphor, though it is closely parallel to the first, but we break it out in a generic sense, “of difficulty,” which says to the reader, “Don’t take this literally, but it has broad application.” Finally, in discussing fire, we get very specific, and say, “fire of oppression.”

But does not that third option reduce the potential for the English reader to less than the Hebrew intends? Yes, sometimes translators have to make this sort of choice, but in this case, I think we take a passage that can be clearly understood when rendered in a largely formal fashion, and actually diminish its impact with explanatory prepositional phrases.

This isn’t a terrible rendering, but at the same time, it struck me as not being one of the better ones in the NLT.

 

What Have They Seen in Your House?

What Have They Seen in Your House?

pile-of-treasure-300px
Credit: OpenClipart.org

Yesterday the Scripture for my Sunday School class was Isaiah 40:21-31. The daily readings in the student guide included the first 20 verses of the chapter as well. Those acquainted with critical scholarship on the book of Isaiah recognize this as the opening of 2nd Isaiah, chapters 40-55.

At first I was going to avoid the topic of authorship and date, but two things intervened: 1) The teacher’s guide brought the subject up, thus reminding me that people in the UMC will be hearing about and discussing this, and 2) I believe chapters 36-39 intentionally transition from the collection of oracles in the first 35 chapters. I don’t mean by this that I argue unified authorship for Isaiah. In fact, I favor the idea of an Isaianic school that was active from the time of the prophet through the exile, producing the three major horizons of the text.

But treating the book as two tends to make us treat it as though the first and second parts are not related. Just because one believes in collection and editing doesn’t mean that the original writers, the collectors, and the editors were stupid or uncreative.

The critical question of Isaiah 39, I believe, comes in verse 4: What have they seen in your house?

Chapter 38 tells us of Hezekiah’s miraculous healing. In fact, chapters 36-39 are about God’s power active in and for Israel. Then comes the time to show people what’s important, and what does Hezekiah show? His treasury and his equipment.

The power and sovereignty of God were there, but Hezekiah was more interested in the wealth and the military equipment. Despite God’s healing and rescue from the Assyrians, his value was in the stuff.

And so we get Isaiah’s prediction of exile and the loss of all that treasury.

Now comes chapter 40, and the horizon has changed. The people are in exile. What is it that they should be talking about? What should they rely on?

It’s the one who sits above the circle of the earth (40:22). It’s the One who saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians and who healed Hezekiah. But Hezekiah didn’t give credit where it was due for what had happened.

I think this might be the question God has for us in our churches today. When someone visits and we show them around, what have they seen in our house? When someone hears me talk, what have they seen? Is it the building or the parking lot? Is it the multitude of our programs? Is it the erudite pastor? When someone hears me teach about the Bible do they see Greek and Hebrew tools in action so as to praise my education?

If so, then I have failed if following God’s call. In Isaiah 36-39 we see Hezekiah receiving God’s blessings. Salvation came not from the treasury or the weapons in the armory but from God’s action. He is healed by God’s intervention. Yet when he has visitors, his witness is to the treasury and the armory. Similarly, when I speak about God, I can either bear witness to God, or I can bear witness to myself and my stuff, whether that “stuff” is knowledge, a library, a church setting, or a catalog of church programs.

Stuff is quite useful, yes, but only when it reflects its creator.

So what have they seen in your house?

Words from the Mouth of God?

Words from the Mouth of God?

In comments to an earlier post one reader notes that there are those who call the Bible “words from the mouth of God.” I respond that I do not think the Bible is words from the mouth of God, but rather the testimony of people’s experience of God. There are those who think I diminish the authority and power of the Bible in this way. I disagree. I think that the testimony that results from the experience of God is much more valuable, and I believe it also more accurately reflects the nature of the biblical text itself.

I believe that it’s valuable to be able to distinguish the nature and function of various portions of scripture. While all scripture is inspired, not all scripture is produce in the same way and it does not necessarily function in the same way. There are some obvious examples, such as the speeches of Job’s friends in the book of Job. That is surely quite a substantial amount of writing that is not words from the mouth of God. One may say that it is inspired and that it is profitable, yes, but in words that the book of Job actually attributes to God, we are told that it is not God’s message in those passages. They contribute to a message provided by the book, but the words are not God’s words.

Now most people who talk about verbal inspiration are not surprised by this sort of statement. There are also those who point out to me that it’s God’s Word, but not necessarily God’s words in all cases. It seems to me, however, that we might as well just come out and say it. Often our affirmations about scripture get in the way of what scripture actually is and how it functions.

I prefer to say that scripture is the testimony of those who have experienced God, brought forth in various ways using various forms. It is providentially preserved by God as the message that we need. It begins with an act of God (which may be an act of communication, but it might even be a permissive act, or lack of action, such as permitting the Assyrians to come against Israel (2 Kings 17). It might be reported as the words of God, as much material in the prophets is reported. It might be reported in the form of a story, or history researched and reported, as in Samuel-Kings. It might be a letter written to a church as in many of the epistles of the New Testament. In the end, it must be recognized by the community and then interpreted, in all cases providentially guarded by God. (Of course, we realize that in the interpretation, at least, God’s providence does not prevent our error or even our stupidity!)

Much of our discussion of inspiration centers around how the original text came into being. This is, indeed an interesting topic, but the majority of our differences come not from potential differences in the source texts but rather from our ways of interpreting them (see my post yesterday, Book: I’m Right and You’re Wrong). Further, I think our affirmations about inspiration often fly in the face of what we actually observe in scripture. This can result in us trying to make scripture fit our conception of what it ought to be.

If nothing else, the incarnation, in which God acts very much contrary to what everyone expects, should suggest to us the dangers of trying to force God’s actions into our molds. But it seems to me that we do this with scripture.

Consider Isaiah 7:1-17. This contains the famous “virgin” passage, but that’s not what I want to discuss. Read the passage carefully and look who’s talking at various points. I identify a narrator who gives the historical situation and then reports that Isaiah got a word from the Lord with instructions for action and a message to give to Ahaz. We also have a report on Isaiah’s action, and then some words that Isaiah said, some of which appear to be the words of the Lord, but some appear to be Isaiah simply expounding on what God is going to do. This entire passage is part of an overall Bible book which includes more than one type of literature, and even includes an historical interlude, but only a fraction of the whole claims to actually be God’s words.

There are those who think I make these comments because I don’t believe the Bible is very historical. I would note that I am not very disturbed by those who are skeptical of the historicity of many Bible passages. But I really find relatively little in the parts of scripture that actually claim to be history that I cannot accept as at least generally historical. What I mean here by “generally” is that I treat an account that says it’s taken from the “chronicles of the kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:29 and many other references) as precisely that: it’s taken from the chronicles and it has precisely the historical veracity of those chronicles, always adjusted for second hand reporting. I don’t see it as necessary or valuable for God to “fact check” the sources. The message (word) of God is conveyed by the testimony (words) of a human writer depending on the words of other human writers.

Considering that those words will in turn be interpreted by very limited human beings such as me, I’m pretty happy with that situation.

Bible Study for Monday, July 28

Bible Study for Monday, July 28

Well, we didn’t do so well this past Monday, but a new week is coming! On Monday, July 28, we will meet again via Google Hangouts, with the announcement via e-mail (if you’ve requested one), or on my Google+ page.

Jody has already posted the question for this coming Monday and the scriptures:

The Scriptures for this week are:
Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Opening question is: What legacy will you leave your family and friends? Or What legacy did your parents leave you?

I’d simply focus in on the word “legacy.” Start with Romans 9:1-5 and work outward. I suggest reading all of Psalm 145 and Isaiah 55. If you haven’t read all of Romans 9-11 recently, try that as well. It puts the question of Romans 9:1-5 into some context. I’ve found that those on the Arminian side of the divide people tend not to like Romans 9-11 very much. When I took Exegesis of Romans as an undergraduate, we didn’t make it out of chapter 8. The semester ended and there we were!

I recall one discussion group I was leading as we studied the book of Hebrews and its connections with other scriptures. Suddenly in the middle of one session one of the members stopped us all by exclaiming, “Wow! You’d almost think there was a plan!”

Yeah, you just might at that. Look for the plan. Look for the legacy.