I have been enjoying going through the Old Testament over the past few months on our series on Genesis to Revelation. The Old Testament was the Bible for the early Christians and was regularly quoted by Jesus and Paul.
But as we have been going through it, I sometimes feel like we are getting the same message. Many of the recent passages have dealt in some way with how to respond to suffering. At first I wondered if that was just my personal interest and I was revealing my own bias. But as I stepped back and looked at these Old Testament books, I realize that this just happens to be an important theme. They lived in uncertain times. The details changed but the life circumstances remained the same. In that uncertainty, the people looked to God for some comfort. Like people of all times, their cries were a mix of faith and despair. They hoped that things would get better but there was always a fear that this would be the moment when they would be completely overcome.
Isaiah prophesied in such a context. The people of Israel in the north and the people of Judah in the south were living in fear of foreign powers. The Assyrians and Babylonians were the superpowers to the east that were gazing at their land with hungry eyes. They knew that they didn’t have the military might to defend themselves. Some looked to Egypt as their saviours but that was never going to work. Some hoped that God would just change the circumstances and prevent the foreign aggression. While God did intervene in some ways, the impending invasion was a part of his plan and couldn’t be held off forever.
This left the people with the same question that we often ask. Is there any hope in God? The answer to that question is found Isaiah’s prophecy. The answer to the question is found by asking ourselves three questions. Let’s take a look at each of them.
Who is God?
The first question we need to ask is about who God is. When we ask who a person is, we normally are interested in their name. While the name of God is important, what we really mean is what kind of God is he? There were plenty of gods in the ancient world and there were many stories about them. There were stories about their birth, their battles with other god or humans and their taking of a spouse and so on. Often their stories were not very praiseworthy and didn’t inspire confidence in their worshippers. They would offer sacrifices not to get the gods to draw closer but so the gods wouldn’t make their lives more difficult.
The God of Israel is much different. Isaiah says a number of things about God. One is that God is an everlasting God. Unlike the pagan gods, our God has no beginning and no end. He is not dependent on another god for life. God is the God who is always there and will always be there. Part of this is the fact that he is the creator God. That may seem straightforward but it was unique in the ancient world. People didn’t worship creator gods. Whatever god created the world either was impersonal or died in the process or just wasn’t interesting. The gods that were worshiped were ones that inherited a planet created by a previous god. Not so for the God of the Bible. The one God is the God who created all things. This is very important when your main concern is conflict that is taking place within that creation. The God of Israel has wisdom that no one can fathom. He is a wise God. Other gods were taken by surprise or were tricked because they were no wiser than humans. Our God is not so limited. This is important because it is the confusion and uncertainty that makes difficult times worse. The problem is not just that things are bad, it is that we lack wisdom on how to mover forward. Knowing that God is all wise changes everything.
What Does God Do?
So far we have only talked about who God is, that is his nature. That doesn’t necessarily help us. There are some very rich people in the world but that doesn’t mean that we benefit from their wealth. They exist in their world and we exist in our world. There are also examples from our military that because of the rule of engagement, they were forbidden to intervene even in the face of acts of genocide. Is God like that?
This brings us to our second question. What does God do, if anything? We may want God to intervene directly and change circumstances. There are examples of this. But that is not most often the case. However, that doesn’t mean that God is not active.
The emphasis in this passage is on God giving strength to the weak. I can’t explain exactly how this happens other than to say that it happens and I know from experience. When I look at our almost twenty years of marriage, even I can’t believe all the stuff that we have gone through. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying when I think about the details it is a lot. While there may have been moments, I generally didn’t feel abandoned by God. We saw God active in our family life, not changing all the circumstances. Our children still have autism and other details haven’t changed. But God has been present and has given us strength. We always hated when people called us super-parents. Not because we are overly humble but because we know our own limitations. God strengthens the weak and sometimes that strength is enough.
What Does God Expect Of Us?
The final question we have to ask has to do with us. What does God expect of us? This is not a completely passive experience for us. Even though it looks like God is doing all the heavy lifting, we have a role. Different translations put it differently. Some say those who wait upon the Lord and others those who hope in the Lord. Considering all that God is responsible for, it looks like we have the easy part. But waiting upon the Lord is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. It is easy because it is not actual physical activity. It is not like being sent as a missionary to the other side of the world. But it is hard because it doesn’t come natural.
Go back to Isaiah’s time. The city is being menaced by foreign armies and things are looking hopeless. No other army is going to come to their need. But Isaiah tells them to wait upon the Lord. That is not gong to be easy to accept. I don’t know all of your circumstances. But if you received a bad diagnosis or just had a loved one die, it will not be easy for you to hear me say “wait upon the Lord.” And yet that is exactly what we need to do. This is an ongoing struggle for me as I want to take control back into my hands. But waiting upon the Lord and trusting in who he is is what I need to do.
We find ourselves in a difficult situation. This could be as a congregation, a family or an individual. What do we do? Start by asking these questions. Who is God? What does God expect us to do? What does God expect us to do? Wrestle with these questions. How we answer these questions will help shape how we deal with the circumstances in our life. Be aware that these are not new questions but are questions humans have wrestled with for thousands of years.