Opening The Old Testament
You Are Mine: Reflections on Isaiah 43:1-7
The verbs here are telling. The first, "created" (bara' in Hebrew) is the first verb found in the Hebrew Bible. Genesis 1:1 proclaims that YHWH is first revealed as "creator" of sky and earth. But the second verb, "shaped" (yatser) is found in the second creation story of Genesis 2, where YHWH is described as an artist, using a moistened lump of clay to form/shape each human being and animal. YHWH creates and YHWH shapes the creation with skill and finesse and beauty. This YHWH is no distant and disconnected creator; this YHWH is with us, intimately shaping us and sustaining us.
Just how do these claims sound in the ears of exiles, hopeless and far from home? How do they sound to anyone in pain and distress? "Do not be afraid, because I have vindicated you! I have called your name; you are mine" (43:1b)! The verb I have translated "vindicate" is a famous and controversial one. It occurs most prominently at Job 19:25, where the sufferer, rejected by his so-called friends and seemingly attacked by the God he thought was his friend, shouts "I know that my vindicator is alive," using this same word, go'el. Of course, the traditional translation is "redeemer," and early Christians applied the word to the one they called their redeemer, Jesus of Nazareth. But surely what Isaiah has in mind for his fellow exiles is the certainty that YHWH has not forgotten God's people in Babylon. God has vindicated them, justified them, supported them, upheld them. Just as Isaiah began his prophecy with the unforgettable word of "comfort" for the exiles (40:1), Isaiah here again says to the sufferers that they are not alone; YHWH is still here with them in their suffering.
"When you pass through the waters, I am with you; the rivers will never overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you will not be burned; no flame will devour you" (43:2). Isaiah here turns to Israel's sacred history to buoy the sagging spirits of the exiles. All will remember the great moments when the ancestors "passed through waters," both at the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 14) and the waters of the Jordan, the boundary of the land of promise (Josh. 3). All will recall the various experiences of fire in the history of the people; Moses' fiery bush (Ex. 3), the blazing Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19), the fire falling on the sacrifice of Elijah (1 Kg. 18). In all these storied moments, YHWH was present for the people; YHWH has never deserted them, no matter the dangers they have faced, and YHWH is present now with them in exile.
"For I am YHWH, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer. I gave Egypt for a ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, honored, and loved by me, I gave people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life" (43:3-4). Again Isaiah offers a history lesson to the despairing exiles. You know that I am YHWH because of what I have done already in your lives. I saved you from Egypt and gave to you the land of promise, subduing peoples and nations before you so that you could live in that land. If I have done it in the past, do you not think that I can do it again?
Again, Isaiah hears God say, "Do not be afraid, for I am with you!" And how does Israel, and how do we, know that God is with us? Because God, as always, is in the business of gathering the peoples together. From the north, south, east, and west YHWH will gather sons and daughters together, "everyone called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made" (43:7). Though it is clear that Isaiah is offering quite specific hope to Babylonian exiles who feel far from this portrait of a great gathering of God's people back into the land of promise, we 21st-century people also hope for a great gathering of God's peoples, a vast sea of people dedicated to justice and righteousness for all, "everyone whom God has formed and made." In short, everyone, period.
Just as my wife heard and felt the comfort of these words in her bed of pain, so the exiles of Babylon heard and felt the hope of the words, too. And why should we not feel a similar hope and comfort in our own time of pain and difficulty and uncertainty? Do we too not need to hear God say to us, "Do not be afraid, for I am with you"? In this time of Epiphany, when the light has come again into our world, may we hear the words of the ancient prophet, "Fear not, all those whom I formed and made," for the future with God remains bathed in light, a light no darkness can ever overcome.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.