An Answer to a Hard Question? Reflections on Isaiah 40:21-31

Isaiah's answer is that you simply cannot question God in any way. Why, to do that, he laughs in Isaiah 45, would be like a pot telling the potter that she has foolishly forgotten the pot's handles (45:9), or like asking a woman in the throes of giving birth what she thinks is about to come out of her womb (Is. 45:10)! It is as stupid to ask such ludicrous questions as it is to question YHWH for any of God's actions whether for good or bad (Is. 45:7). You are little more than "grasshoppers" in the face of the powerful YHWH "who stretches out the sky like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who makes earthly princes trivial and makes earth's rulers nothing" (Is. 40:22-23). God brooks no arguments, says Isaiah, so shut up and get about your own business, allowing God to run the whole show!

It could readily be said that Job and Isaiah simply do not agree about the way to understand and approach exile. "No questions of God," screams Isaiah. "Ask God anything, even questions that could appear blasphemous," says Job. "God is plenty big enough to take it." It appears that the killers in Paris have approached their exile by resorting to a kind of Isaianic response. Allah may not be questioned; you must only submit to him! Charlie Hebdo replied with a kind of Joban appeal; God not only wants your sharpest questions, God fairly demands them, if the complexities of things, as opposed to those who would make all things too simple, are to be kept clear and prominent.

I think it is rather clear who won this exilic debate, at least among the majority of religious believers. Isaiah's demand to accept without question the ways of God has been the dominant mode of right belief for Christians and Muslims at least. This is less true among many of the Jews that I know; they have long argued and questioned the ways of their God, as any look at their rich literature will reveal. The fact that Isaiah won among some Muslims led directly to the attack in Paris . And I think those who leaned rather toward Job's answer tended to leave belief altogether, thinking that such open-mindedness could not be acceptable within the bounds of traditional faiths, but could only be available among the secular who reject all religious belief as outmoded and dangerous.

Well, I am still within the bounds of traditional religious belief, Christian in my case, and I find the way of Job compelling. A rich and continual questioning of the ways of God is my way to stay close to God, to hear what God has for me to do and be. At the risk of being very simplistic — and single articles major in those risks — after 2600 years we still have the same choice to make in our various exiles: Job or Isaiah? The events in Paris last month, and in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and Israel and Palestine and many other places of religious torment, demand from us that choice.

2/6/2015 5:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.
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