As a long-time student of the Hebrew Bible, I naturally spend a good deal of time thinking about the work of Is.40-55, a corpus of literature known prosaically as II-Isaiah. This bland nomenclature was chosen to differentiate this material from the older 8th century BCE Isaiah that preceded it, comprising Is.1-39 (within which various texts are assigned to later writers), and Is.56-66 considered to be a hodge-podge of writings from post-exilic hands. Universally, Is.40-55 has been seen as exilic literature, composed late in the Babylonian exile of Israel by a prophet intent on lifting the sagging spirits of those exiles who had been in the foreign capital for nearly two generations, few of whom who had ever seen Jerusalem. After 50+ years in Babylon, one can easily imagine that many Judean children and grandchildren had made peace with their exiled lives, and could not think that a return to Judah would be either easy or desirable. This Isaianic prophet comes along to remind them of their glorious past and their still hopeful future.
Given that historical context, it is little wonder that II-Isaiah wrote as he did, painting vast canvases of the power of YHWH, demanding that the exiles pay serious attention both to what YHWH has already done, and what YHWH still has in mind for the chosen people. Before the grandeur of YHWH, the Holy One, all nations are “like a drop in the bucket,” are little more than “dust on the scales” (40:15), are finally “as nothing before God” (Is.40:17). In short, you are “like grasshoppers” before the one “who sits above the circle of the earth” (Is.40:22). As such, you are in no position to question this God concerning the divine will and pleasure, precisely because, “I am YHWH, and there is no other; beside me there is no god. I am YHWH, and there is no other” (45:5-6). Isaiah repeats emphatically his notion that YHWH alone is God, and because that is the truth no human can dare to take issue with what YHWH has done and will decide to do.
Hence, when Isaiah with astonishing temerity names Cyrus of Persia, the king who conquered the city of Babylon and its empire in 539BCE, as nothing less than “messiah,” the anointed one of YHWH (Is.45:1), he does not invite any discussion of the matter. Even though if one were to approach the great Persian and say, “Cyrus, did you know you have done all this conquering for one reason only, for the sake of YHWH’s purposes,” and the puzzled monarch would say “huh?”, his Hebrew being non-existent, and his knowledge of YHWH nil, still Isaiah would insist on the truth of his claim. He is convinced that YHWH is the doer of all things done in the universe both in the past and in the future, and is thus led to say, “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I, YHWH, do all these things” (Is.45:7).
And there lies the great danger for 21st century believers, especially for believers who live in places of power and privilege, believers who have little acquaintance with exile and fear and poverty and pain. For those with nothing, it may be a comfort to believe in a God who can do all things, even defeat enemies who are vastly more powerful than those who are weak. But for those who are the powerful, to believe in a God who does everything can lead to the conviction that one’s power is a gift of this all- powerful God, and thus the world is fixed in its courses of strong and weak by that same God. If God does all, this really is “the best of all possible worlds,” to paraphrase
If a deranged gunman murders 58 concertgoers and wounds over 500 others, God has a plan. If a terrorist blows up 300 hundred shoppers in Sudan, God has a plan. If the 45th president of the US determines that government subsidies for health insurance premiums for poor people are not good tools, and thereby millions of people are unable to purchase health care policies, God has a plan. In everything, God is in control and has a plan, because if God “creates weal (good things) and makes woe (bad things),” then no matter the circumstance God has a reason, however obscure it may be to us.
In our contemporary hands the theology of II-Isaiah is nothing less than dangerous foolishness. It may have buoyed the spirits of Israelite exiles, but it offers us nothing less than mischief to our souls. It is far past time to consign this theology to the dustbin of eccelesiastical history. We can no longer embrace the belief that God is the author of all things, both foul and favored. That way lies disaster! The book of Job was written expressly to combat this absurd notion. The God we revere and worship does not in fact determine and control the everyday actions of nature and humans. There remains mystery and surprise with God, to which we have no ready access. I can believe that God wills the good for us, but I can equally believe that that will can be thwarted in any number of ways natural, unnatural and a combination of the two. Recent gigantic hurricanes are both natural disasters and disasters in part exacerbated by warming oceans and atmosphere, hence are both natural and human-empowered events. Such things may get in the way of God’s will for good; that is part of the bargain we make when we choose to live in this world.
It may be more simple to believe that God does it all, but it is also far more dangerous for our hearts and minds. Like Job, we need to open our hearts to the vast, complex, difficult, gritty universe we inhabit, to worship the God who made it, and hold fast to that God’s gifts of love and grace to us in our living in it.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)