New heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65; Pentecost 23C)

The Hebrew Scripture passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday comes from the third main section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66). This section of the book differs from the two main sections that precede it—the pre-exilic section (chapters 1–39) and the section as the exile itself is drawing to an end (chapters 40–55).

The prophet begins this third section with a familiar prophetic announcement which sets forth the classic prophetic programme, with the classic divine assurance: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). The section offered by the lectionary (Isa 65:17–25) sets out how that justice will come to be, through the vision of “new heavens and a new earth”.

Written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE), this section of Isaiah sets out what this justice will look like through a series of powerful oracles. The prophet sounds a vivid counter-cultural note in the midst of the events of his time. He begins with the promise to foreigners and eunuchs that “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:5).

This is a striking contrast to the narrative provided in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which tell of the return to the city, the rebuilding of the walls, the renewal of the covenant and the public reading of the Law, the rededication of the Temple—and actions designed to remove foreigners (especially women) from within Israel (see Ezra 10; Neh 13).

Ezra and Nehemiah exhibited a zealous fervour to restore the Law to its central place in the life of Israel. Ezra, learning that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2), worked with “the elders and judges of every town” to determine who had married foreign women; the men identified “pledged themselves to send away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt” (Ezra 10:19). (So much for the importance of families!)

Nehemiah considered that this project to “cleanse [the people] from everything foreign” (Neh 13:30) was in adherence to the command that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them” (Neh 13:1–2; see Num 22—24). The restoration of Israel as a holy nation meant that foreigners would be barred from the nation.

The oracle at the start of the third section of Isaiah stands in direct opposition to this point of view; “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:6–7). This is what God’s justice looks like!

Jesus, of course, quoted this last phrase (“a house of prayer for all people”) in the action he undertook in the outer court of the Temple (Mark 11:17). Later, the welcome offered to the Ethiopian court official by Philip, who talked with him about scripture and baptised him, a eunuch (Acts 8:26–38), is consistent with the prophetic words, “to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:4–5).

From the earliest days, the church practised an inclusive welcoming of diversity that was consistent with this prophetic declaration. What went wrong, we may ponder, for the church to dig itself into the corner of exclusivism and judgementalism that unfortunately has characterised too many manifestation of church?

The particular passage that is provided for this coming Sunday is almost at the end of the book. It offers a wonderfully climactic vision to this section of the book—and indeed to the whole of Isaiah. The prophet has continued to explain what it means to adhere to the way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires.

The promise is that Israel will have a new name: “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isa 62:4). We can see the symbolic significance of names in considering the prophet Hosea and in Isaiah 8, for example.

By contrast, vengeance will be the experience of Edom; using the image of trampling down the grapes in the wine press, the prophet reports the intention of God: “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (63:1–6). So vigorously does God undertake this task, that he is attired in “garments stained crimson” because “their juice spattered on my garments and stained all my robes” (63:1–3).

Once again, the prophet speaks in graphic terms. Edom is a symbolic portrayal of the Babylonian Empire, which had been dominant in the middle eastern world of the day for some time—yet it had recently been subsumed by the Persian Empire (under whom the people of Judah were able to return home). The punishment was on the horizon, either the horizon immediately in view, or the horizon that had just passed. Edom (Babylon) had been conquered—a happening interpreted by the anonymous prophet as divine retribution.

Confronted with this display of wrath and vengeance, the prophet adopts an attitude of penitence, yearning for God to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). His plea for the Lord to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1–2) must surely have been in the mind of the evangelists as the reported the baptism of Jesus, when he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The book ends with a sequence in which the prophet reports the words of the Lord which indicate that Israel will be restored (65:1–16), followed by the statement that the Lord is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17–25; 66:22–23)—the passage provided by the lectionary this week. It is a wonderfully climactic, all-encompassing vision. Not only will Jerusalem enjoy prosperity, but “the wealth of the nations [shall be] like an overflowing stream” (66:12).

The vision of this penultimate chapter is global; it is for “all people” (picking up the hope of Isa 40:5), for “all the nations of the earth”, as both Jeremiah (Jer 33:9) and Haggai foresee (Hag 2:6–9), for “all flesh” as Joel predicts (Joel 2:28–29), for “every living creature”, as the final vision of Ezekiel portrays (Ezek 47:7–12). The “new heavens and new earth” (Isa 65:17) are for everyone of Israel (Isa 65:18–19), indeed, even for all creatures, “wolf and lamb, lion and ox” (Isa 65:25).

This vision is, of course, taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). That provides a globally wondrous vision to end the writings of the renewed covenant. The closing vision of Trito-Isaiah, the foundation for the vision of the seer at Patmos, has incorporated a number of references to earlier prophetic words: building houses and planting vineyards (65:21) recalls the words of Jeremiah (Jer 29:5–7); the image of wolves lying with lambs and lions “eating straw like the ox” recalls the vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:6–7).

The promise that “they shall not hurt or destroy all on my holy mountain” (65:25) recalls that same vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:9), whilst the next promise about not labouring in vain nor bearing children for calamity (65:23) reverses the curse of Gen 3:16–19. The story of creation from the beginning of Genesis is evoked when the Lord asserts that “heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool … all these things my hand has made” (66:1–2); these are the words which Stephen will quote back to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 7:48–50) and will lead to his death at their hands. All the allusions together make this a fine conclusion to the visionary prophetic stream of the first covenant.

And yet, even to the very end of this book, the judgement of the Lord is evident; the prophet declares that “the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire; for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (66:15–16).

Nevertheless, the glory of the Lord shall be declared “among the nations” (66:19) and “they shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord” (66:20). The universalising inclusivism that was sounded in the oracle at the start of this prophet’s work (in chapter 56) is maintained through into this closing oracle. In “the new heavens and the new earth which I will make … all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (66:22–23). The vision lives strong! It’s a good way to end the series of readings from the prophets we have followed during the past few months.

The righteous live by their faith (Habakkuk 2; Pentecost 21C)

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to hear two sections of the prophet Habakkuk (Hab 1:1–4, 2:1–4). Habakkuk is a shadowy figure, known, really, for only one statement—just half of one verse. That short statement, “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b), stands as the text upon which Paul developed his important theological statement in Romans: “in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). As well, Paul quotes this verse in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 3:11) and the verse is cited in the “word of exhortation” sent to the Hebrews (Heb 10:38). So it appears in significant writings if the early Christian movement.

From an ancient Israelite figure about whom very little is known, this one short phrase has played such a foundational role in articulating a central tenet of Christian faith. It runs from Paul’s assertion that “the righteous live by their faith”, through Augustine’s affirmation that we are justified by grace through faith, to Luther’s central claim of “sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia”, into the contemporary evangelical doctrine of “justification by faith alone”.

Habakkuk was one of a number of Israelite prophets who were active in the few decades leading up to the conquering of the southern kingdom by Babylon in 587 BCE, and the removal into exile of the people as a result of that event. In this context, Habakkuk declares, “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself at the rampart” (Hab 2:1). From his watch post, he declaims the words of judgement given to him by God: the wealthy will be called to account by their creditors, violent terrors will arise, and “the cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory” (Hab 2:15).

Amidst these thundering pronouncements, Habakkuk does offer hope, declaring that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14), and imploring the people, “the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20). He affirms that God’s “glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise” (3:3)—but that glory will swiftly lead to “the days of calamity” (3:16). The threat of Exile looms large for this prophet.

In the context of Habakkuk’s prophetic activity, the affirmation that “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b) is the word that God gives to the prophet, responding to his complaints about what sufferings are taking place. God is “rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own” (1:6), and through their dreadful and fearsome activities, God is “destroying nations without mercy” (1:17).

That God is using foreigners to deal with Israel is a striking theological development—one that is at odds with the traditions that emphasise Israel as a chosen nation, holy and set apart, dedicated to the Lord; the nation alone through whom the Lord God works. That this God will use foreigners is a theme found also in the later writings of Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40–55), where Cyrus, the Persian ruler, is acclaimed as the one chosen by God, the Messiah, to allow the people of Judah to return to their land (Isa 44:24–45:13).

Habakkuk laments and complains; God instructs him to “look at the proud—their spirit is not right in them”, and to be assured that “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4). The theme of righteousness that is signalled here by the prophet is a central motif in Hebrew Scriptures. It appears in the ancestral stories concerning the key figures of Abraham (Gen 15:6), Saul (1 Sam 26:23), David (2 Sam 22:21–26; 1 Ki 3:6), and Solomon (1 Ki 10:9).

Further, Job exults in his righteousness (Job 27:6; 29:14) and the psalmists petition God on the basis of their righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:8; 112:1–10). Righteousness is praised in assorted proverbs (Prov 1:3; 8:20; 11:4–6; 12:28; 15:9; 16:8; 21:3, 21) and figures in numerous prophetic oracles (Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3). The message given to Habakkuk holds strong throughout Israelite history, and then continues to sound out, as we have seen, throughout the 20 centuries of Christian history.

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh (Joel 2; Pentecost 20C)

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to hear a section of the prophet Joel. It is a passage which contains words well known to Christians, as the words about dreams and visions and prophesies (Joel 2:28–32) are quoted by Peter when speaking on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–21).

The words that Joel speaks to the people of his day begins with lament; he calls for repentance amongst the people of Judah as the day oft he Lord approaches. Nothing in this book provides any clues as to the time when Joel was active. The identification of the prophet as “son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1) gives no clue, as Pethuel appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures—indeed, the name Joel, itself appears nowhere else. The name appears to combine the divine names of Jah and El, suggesting that it may be a symbolic creation. Was Joel an historical person?

Lament, as we have noted, is the opening note sounded by Joel, as he calls on the “ministers of God” to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13). This call reminds us of the response of the pagans in Nineveh (Jonah 3), whilst his remonstrations that “the day of the Lord is near” (1:15) echoes the motif of “the day” already sounded by other prophets (Amos 5:18–20; Isa 2:12, 17; 13:6–8; 34:8; Zeph 1:7, 14–15; Jer 35:32–33; 46:10).

This day forms the centrepiece of Joel’s undated prophecies, as he describes that day as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:2), when “the earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (2:10). He describes the response of the people “in anguish, all faces grow pale” (2:6).

However, Joel adheres to the constant thread running through Hebrew Scriptures, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). Because of this, he yearns for the people to “turn with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12), sensing that there might be hope of restitution for the people.

Joel calls for the people to gather (2:15–16); the oracle that follows paints a picture of abundance and blessing (2:18–27), affirming that “my people shall never again be put to shame” (2:27).

The prophet then speaks the words which are offered to us in this Sunday’s first reading; words which have been given a central place in the later story of the Christian church. Here, the prophet foreshadows that the blessings of God will be manifest through the outpouring of the spirit: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions; even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28–29).

This promise is specifically for “all flesh”; this universal vision informs the whole outward impulse of the movement of followers of Jesus, after the day of Pentecost, which Peter interprets as being a fulfilment of this prophecy (Acts 2:14–21). Events following on from that day, as recorded in Acts, show how those words come to be fulfilled in the movement initiated by Jesus and his followers. And in the early days of this movement, in a letter written by Paul, the promise that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” is reiterated (Rom 10:13, quoting Joel 2:32; and note a different version quoted at 2 Tim 2:19).

The day of the Lord that is envisaged by Joel (2:31) will signal a significant reversal for Israel. The Lord laughs at other nations (3:1–8), a reversal that pivots on a turn from despair to hope, from the threats of judgement to a glorious future (3:9–21). Joel repeats the irenic vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares (3:10; see Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3); he sees a ripe harvest (3:13), the land will drip with sweet wine, and there will be milk and water in abundance (3:18). The voice of the Lord “roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake” (3:16; cf the similar pronouncement of Amos at Am 1:2; 3:8).

The last word of this book, “the Lord dwells on Zion” (3:21), provides assurance and certainty for the future. These words of hope promises a peaceful future for the nation. When Joel might have been speaking these words cannot be definitively determined; it could have been under the Assyrian threat, during the Babylonian dominance, in the time of exile, or after the return to the land.

Whenever the prophet spoke these words, the promise of hope holds good in each of these scenarios. And that promise of hope has been taken up in the movement that was initiated by Jesus, in Peter’s Pentecost speech—which provides a programmatic announcement of what then takes place as the good news spreads from Jerusalem and Judea, into Samaria, and out to the ends of the earth. God’s Spirit continues to be active. And so, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.

God, merciful and gracious: themes in The Prophets

That God’s grace is central to who God is and how God relates to human beings, is a fundamental claim in the writings of Paul. This affirmation is key to the extended theological,discussion we find in Romans, Paul’s longest letter, where Paul affirms that those who believe “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).

After citing the example of Abraham, justified by “the righteousness of faith” (4:13), which means that the promise rests on grace (4:16), Paul explains that, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (5:1–2).

So Paul rejoices that “the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, [has] abounded for the many” (5:15), and he tells the Romans that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14). It is God’s grace which marks the life of those who believe in Jesus as Messiah—the Messiah who, in an act of supreme graciousness, “while we were still weak, at the right time [this Messiah] died for the ungodly” (5:6).

Even when considering his unbelieving brothers and sisters in Israel, Paul insists that “God has not rejected his people” (11:1), for “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29); accordingly, “there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5), demonstrating that God remains persistently faithful to God’s people, for “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6). God’s grace is the key.

This key theological motif is signalled in the standard greeting that we find at the start of every one of Paul’s seven authentic letters—“Grace to you and peace”, or some minor variant (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; and Phlm 3). The greeting appears as well in many of the other letters collected in the New Testament (Col 1:2; Eph 1:2; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim Q:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; 2 John 3; Rev 1:4).

A blessing of grace also closes each of Paul’s authentic letters (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; Phlm 25) as well as a number of other letters (Col 4:18; Eph 6:24; 2 Thess 3:18; 1 Tim 6:21; 2 Tim 4:22; Tit 3:5; Heb 13:25; 2 Pet 3:18) as well as the very last book of the New Testament (Rev 22:21). Each time, it reminds us of this central theological claim about God: God is a god of grace.

In reporting on the activities of Paul, the writer of Acts notes that his preaching told of the grace of God (Acts 13:43; 14:3; 20:24, 32). Indeed, in a rare moment of theological concordance, Peter is said to have concluded his speech to the council in Jerusalem with a characteristically Pauline flourish, affirming that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will” (Acts 15:11).

So God’s grace is central to early Christian understandings of God—and the fourth evangelist places it front and centre in his portrayal of Jesus, “the Word [who] became flesh and lived among us”, known to us as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). (None of the Synoptic Gospels employ the precise term; many commentators, however, influenced by the predominance of grace in Pauline theology, interpret the way that Jesus offers forgiveness of sins—Mark 2:10 and parallels; Luke 23:34; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38—to be an expression of God’s grace.)

The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as being seated on “the throne of grace”, which we are to approach “with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). The letter attributed to James affirms that God “gives all the more grace”, citing the text that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6, quoting Ps 138:6), whilst 1 Peter closes with a claim that was is contained in that letter reveals something of “the true grace of God” (1 Pet 5:12). That God is gracious is a fundamental theological claim in the New Testament.

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This is not a new insight into the nature of God, however. Centuries before, faithful Israelite people had grasped the same insight and expressed it in clear and unambiguous ways. The prophet Joel attests that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

The same note is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

It is the very same affirmation about God which an explicit priestly writer placed on the lips of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6).

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), once the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship of the Lord in the Temple, informing the people that “the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chron 30:8–9).

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah affirmed that God pledges to the exiled people, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people”, and then affirms that “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness”, and continues by restating that “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer 31:1–3).

These are the opening words of the chapter that contains Jeremiah’s most famous oracle, in which God promises, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31–34). That is deep, deep covenant love, expressing God’s thoroughly grace-filled character.

Later still, as the people returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, praising God as “a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a cry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another psalm, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in yet another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this God, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom people of faith turn in regular prayers of supplication and petition.

So we need to let go of the archaic and inaccurate claim that “the God of the Old Testament is a god of wrath, the God of the New Testament is a god of love”. God, in both testaments, with equal intensity and equal integrity, is a God of love, abounding in steadfast love—a God of grace, indeed!

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Alongside this strong prophetic affirmation of the grace of God, there is a similarly-strong thread that insists that God will judge the people of God in accordance with their faithfulness, or infidelity, to the covenant that God has made with them. Thus, alongside the God of grace in texts of the Hebrew prophets, stand many texts about the wrath of God, to be delivered on The Day of the Lord. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/09/12/the-day-the-end-themes-in-the-prophets/

How are we to reconcile these two aspects of God? That is the task that our biblical witness invites us to undertake for ourselves!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

The Day, The End: themes in The Prophets

Eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had declared, “the LORD said to me, ‘the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 8:2). Amos continues, declaring that God has decreed that “on that day … I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9–10).

That image of The Day when the Lord enacts justice and brings punishment upon the earth, because of the evil being committed by people on the earth, enters into the vocabulary of prophet after prophet. Amos himself declares that it is “darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20).

Isaiah, just a few decades after Amos, joined his voice: “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high … the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:12, 17). He warns the people, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa 13:6).

Isaiah uses a potent image to describe this day: “pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labour” (Isa 13:7). He continues, “the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it” (Isa 13:8), and later he portrays that day as “a day of vengeance” (Isa 34:8).

Zephaniah, who was active at the time when Josiah was king (640–609 BCE) declares that “the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7); “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there; that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ” (Zeph 1:14–15).

Habakkuk, active in the years just before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, declares that “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3); it is a vision of “human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them” (Hab 2:17).

Later, during the Exile, Jeremiah foresees that “disaster is spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” (Jer 35:32); he can see only that “those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer 35:33). He also depicts this day as “the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of retribution, to gain vindication from his foes” (Jer 46:10).

And still later (most likely after the Exile), the prophet Joel paints a grisly picture of that day: “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1-3).

Later in the same oracle, he describes the time when the Lord will “show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30–31). Joel also asserts that “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 3:14–15).

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The language of The Day is translated, however, into references to The End, in some later prophetic works. In the sixth century BCE, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, spoke about the end that was coming: “An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:2–3).

And again, Ezekiel declares, “Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near—of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains. Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you; I will spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your ways, and punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:5–8). This day, he insists, will be “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3; the damage to be done to Egypt is described many details that follow in the remainder of this chapter).

Obadiah refers to “the day of the Lord” (Ob 1:15), while Malachi asserts that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal 4:1).

Malachi ends his prophecy with God’s promise that “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). This particular word is the final verse in the Old Testament as it appears in the order of books in the Christian scriptures; it provides a natural hinge for turning, then, to the story of John the baptiser, reminiscent of Elijah, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, evocative of Moses.

Another prophet, Daniel, declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days” (Dan 2:28), namely, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).

Whilst the story of Daniel is set in the time of exile in Babylon—the same time as when Ezekiel was active—there is clear evidence that the story as we have it was shaped and written at a much later period, in the 2nd century BCE; the rhetoric of revenge is directed squarely at the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had invaded and taken control of Israel and begun to persecute the Jews from the year 175BCE onwards.

The angel Gabriel subsequently interprets another vision to Daniel, “what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (Dan 8:19), when “at the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones.” (Dan 8:23–24). This seems to be a clear reference to Antiochus IV.

Still later in his book, Daniel sees a further vision, of seventy weeks (9:20–27), culminating in the time of “the end” (9:26). In turn, this vision is itself spelled out in great detail in yet another vision (11:1–39), with particular regard given to the catastrophes taking place at “the time of the end” (11:1–12:13; see especially 11:25, 40; 12:4, 6, 9, 13).

This final vision makes it clear that there will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (12:1), when “evil shall increase” (12:3) and “the wicked shall continue to act wickedly” (12:10). The visions appear to lift beyond the immediate context of the Seleucid oppression, and paint a picture of an “end of times” still to come, after yet worse tribulations have occurred.

Attention to The Day which will bring The End continues in Jewish literature that was written in the Diaspora, amongst Jews that remained in the lands outside Israel, as well as by Jews whose ancestors had returned to Israel from the late 6th century onwards. Jews continued to write apocalypses (3 Enoch; Apocalypse of Abraham; Genesis Apocryphon; and a number of works in the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Interest in “the end times” appears also in Christian literature, both in words attributed to Jesus (Mark 13; Matt 25–25; Luke 17 and 21) as well as statements in various letters written by leaders in the movement initiated by Jesus (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 1 Cor 7:29–31; 15:21–28; and all of 2 Thess) and in the seven letters found early in the book of Revelation. This interest continues on into other documents from the first few centuries that are not canonical (Didache 16; Barnabas 15; Apocalypse of Peter).

To pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to build (Jeremiah 1–25)

Continuing my series of blogs on the prophets: today, Jeremiah, who was called to be a prophet at an early age (Jer 1:4–10). Some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, while others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. When he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6).

Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means “alas” or “woe is me” (see also 4:10; 14:13: 32:17; and also Joel 1:15). Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all. See my sermon on this passage at

Yet Jeremiah faithfully carried out the task committed to him; it is thought that he was active from the mid-620s in Judah, through into the time of exile in Babylon, from 587 BCE onwards—that is, over four decades—although Jeremiah himself was exiled, not into Babylon, but into Egypt (Jer 43:1–7).

The task he was given when called to be a prophet was to declare the coming judgment of God on the people of Israel, for continuing to ignore their covenant commitments. The Lord tells him, “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands” (1:16). As encouragement, he urges the young man to “gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you” (1:17).

Jeremiah proclaims both God’s judgement and God’s hope for repentance by the people. This dual focus appears in God’s instructions to Jeremiah “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow” but also “to build and to plant” (1:10). In his later years, in solidarity with the people who have been “plucked up” into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah urges his people to make the best of their time in exile: “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city” (29:5, 7). Many centuries later, a clear allusion to that same oracle is made by Simeon as he meets the infant Jesus: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).

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The overall progression of the book is chronological, as it be­gins with the call of Jeremiah (ch.1) and ends with an account of the destruction of Jerusalem (ch.52). Nevertheless, the arrangement of the book is more topical overall, rather than chronological, since oracles on the same topic are grouped together even though they may have been delivered at different times. There are various theories as to how the book was put together; most scholars believe that someone after the lifetime of Jeremiah has brought together material from collections that were originally separate.

Indeed, A.R. Pete Diamond concludes that “like it or not, we have no direct access to the historical figure of Jeremiah or his cultural matrix”; we have “interpretative representations rather than raw cultural transcripts”, and thus he argues that the way we read this book should be informed by insights from contemporary literary theory, and especially by reading this book alongside the book of Deuteronomy, as it offers a counterpoint to the Deuteronomic view of “the myth of Israel and its patron deity, Yahweh” (Jeremiah, pp. 544–545 in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003). Whereas Deuteronomy advocates a nationalistic God, Jeremiah conceives of an international involvement of Israel’s God.

The chronological disjunctures can be seen when we trace the references to various kings of Judah: in order, we have Josiah in 627 BCE (Jer 1:2), jumping later to Zedekiah in 587 BCE (21:1), then back earlier to Shallum (i.e. Jehoahaz) in 609 BCE (22:11), Jehoiakim from 609 to 598 BCE (22:18), and Jeconiah in 597 BCE (22:24), before returning to Zedekiah in 597 BCE (24:8) then back even earlier to Jehoiakim in April 604 BCE, “the first year of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (25:1)—and then further haphazard leaps between Zedekiah (chs. 27, 32-34, 37–38, and 51:59) and Jehoiakim (chs. 26, 35, 45) as well as the period in 587 after the fall of Jerusalem when Gedaliah was Governor (chs. 40–44). It is certainly an erratic trajectory if we plot the historical landmarks!

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The topical arrangement is easier to trace: 25 chapters of prophecies in poetic form about Israel, 20 chapters of narrative prose, and six chapters of prophecies against foreign nations. Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.

“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.

Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). As Jeremiah denounces their worship of idols (10:1–16) and breaches of the covenant (11:1–17), his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20).

Others prophesying are condemned by God; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18). The prophet dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).

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The punishment that is coming to Israel is a cause of great grief for Jeremiah, and so he is sometimes known as “the weeping prophet” (see 9:1; 13:17; 22:10). He doesn’t sit easy with the terrors associated with the execution of God’s justice in the nation—perhaps we can resonate with the angst of this ancient figure?

The most common criticism that I hear of Old Testament passages is about the terrible violence of the vengeful God—an element of Israelite religion that seems quite at odds with so much of modern sensibilities. Jeremiah gives a clear and potent expression to this image, when he has Jeremiah report that God says, “I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence” (21:5–6).

A number of passages in the first main section of this book are seen to reflect this angst about a powerful, vengeful God—they are often called “Jeremiah’s confessions”, as he confesses his pain and grief to God, and prays for a release from his condition (see 11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–14; 15:15–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–12; 20:14–18). These “confessions” share stylistic and thematic similarities with the “psalms of lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90 (psalms of communal lament), and Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142 (psalms of individual lament).

“Woe is me”, or “woe to us”, is a common phrase in Jeremiah’s oracles (4:13; 4:31; 6:4; 10:19; 13:27; 15:10; 22:13; 23:1; 45:3; 48:46). It is the same term that we found in Isaiah’s call (Isa 6:5) and oracles (Isa 24:16), Hosea’s declarations (7:13; 9:12), Micah’s prophecies (Mic 7:1), and Ezekiel’s utterances (Ezek 13:18; 16:23; 24:6, 9). All lament the imposition of divine justice in ways that wreak havoc amongst the people.

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Jeremiah conveys the specific timetable of God’s judgement in explicit announcements: first, “the whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (25:11); then, “after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, making the land an everlasting waste” (25:12).

The result of this is conveyed in another oracle, when God declares, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (23:3). The end result, it seems, will be positive; but the process of journeying to that desired end will be difficult, to say the least.

The seventy years noted in these prophecies (25:11–12) has occasioned some debate amongst the scholars: was this a prediction of exact years, an approximation of the length of time of the exile, or a symbolic statement, typical of biblical numbers, which should not be taken literally? (such as, 40 years means “a long time”, 1,000 means “very many”, seven means “complete” or “fulfilled”, and so on).

Many conservative commentators (and especially Seven Day Adventists) who take biblical texts literally, spend much time and ink in wrestling with this issue! One such commentary or, for instance, notes that, if this is an exact period of 70 years, it could be: (a) from the initial attack of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon against Jerusalem in 605 BCE, to the return of the Jews under Cyrus of Persia in 536 BCE; or (b) from the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE to the completion of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BCE.

He continues by noting that some scholars claim that “these years were in actuality shortened by God’s mercy, since when one works backwards from 539 B.C. (the occasion of the capture of Babylon), it is obvious that none of the traditional starting dates—605 B.C., 597 B.C., or 587/86 B.C.—provides a time period of exactly seventy years”. Some other suggestions include that “these years represent a lifetime, since Ps 90:10 presents seventy years as a normal human lifespan”, or that “the expression [is] simply a term that referred to the period of desolation for a nation”, as it is used in that way in an Esarhaddon inscription concerning Babylon. (Ross E. Winkle, in an article in Andrews University Seminary Studies, 1987, vol. 25 no. 2, pp. 201–202)

Jeremiah invites our consideration in a number of ways. He continues the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. He begins a development which sees the role of Israel’s God as stretching beyond the bounds of Israel. He expresses personal emotional angst with regard to the aggressive, power-based actions of God. And, as we shall see next week,

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See also

‘Here I am; send me’: the prophet Isaiah (Pentecost 9C, 10C)

In the lectionary, the next two Sundays include passages from the prophet Isaiah—namely, the opening oracle (1:1, 10–20) this Sunday, and the story of the vineyard and its failure to produce good fruit (5:1–7). So, in the course on The Prophets that Elizabeth and I are teaching, we come to Isaiah.

We are considering the book of Isaiah in three parts, as most scholars believe that these three sections originate from three different periods during the history of Israel. The first section (chs. 1–39) is located in Judah in the eighth century BCE, as the final decades of the northern kingdom of Israel play out. Two decades after conquering the north, the Assyrians attempted to gain control of the southern kingdom, but that effort failed. These events provide the context for the activity of Isaiah and the oracles include in chapters 1–39.

The second section of Isaiah (chs. 40–55) dates from the time of exile for the southern kingdom, after the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; it offers words of hope as the people look to a return to the land. Then, the third section (chs. 56–66) is dated to a time when the exiles had returned to Judah, sometime after 520 BCE. By convention, the three parts are known as Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah.

The opening verse of the book of Isaiah says that Isaiah son of Amoz saw a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1). That places his prophetic activity over a period of some decades in the latter part of the 8th century BCE. Amos and Hosea had been active a little before Isaiah, but in the northern kingdom. Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah in the southern kingdom; both prophets would have known about the attacks on towns in Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16; Isa 7:17; 8:1–4, 5–8).

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Isaiah was based in the southern kingdom, and the account of his call (6:1–13) takes place in the temple in Jerusalem, for Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). This location, as well as a number of subsequent passages, suggest that Isaiah served as a “court prophet” to various southern kings; we see Isaiah providing prophetic advice to Ahaz (7:1–17) and Hezekiah (37:1–38; 39:1–8; 39:3–8).

Isaiah, by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891)

The call narrative is dated quite specifically (“in the year that King Uzziah died”, 6:1), suggesting that Isaiah began his activity right at the end of Uzziah’s reign, around 740 BCE. The prophet, initially reluctant (6:5), eventually accepts the call (“here I am; send me!”, 6:8), and hears the difficult charge given to him: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (6:9–10). It’s a charge that we hear at a number of places in the New Testament: beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:10) and in a house in Rome (Acts 28:26–27).

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In the opening oracle (1:1–31), the prophet berates Judah as a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4). Justice and righteousness have disappeared (1:21–22); the rulers “do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:23). The covenant with the Lord has been seriously damaged.

The main substance of this oracle involves a criticism of the worship practices in the Temple (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me; new moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity; your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates”, 1:10–15). Instead of these rituals, God demands that the people “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16–17).

The prophet indicates that God will countenance repentance and a return to the covenant: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (1:27); but if there is no repentance, the familiar prophetic indication of divine punishment is heard: “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (1:28). Thus, the dual themes of punishment and forgiveness are sounded early; they recur throughout the rest of this section of the book.

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There are many well-known oracles in the ensuing chapters. First comes the vision of when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:1–4; the same oracle appears in Micah 4:1–4). Next, the concept of the faithful remnant is introduced (4:2–6; see also 10:19–23; 11:10–11, 16; 28:5).

Isaiah tells the story of the nation in God’s “love-song concerning his vineyard” (5:1–7); after “my beloved” undertakes all the activity required to establish and nurture the vineyard, only wild grapes were produced; and so, “he expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (tsedakah) but heard a cry (seakah)” (5:7). What follows is a searing denunciation of the ills of society: the excesses of a debaucherous elite, the oppressive state of the lowly (5:8–23). As a result, the Lord threatens invasion of the land (5:24–30); “he will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; here they come, swiftly, speedily!” (5:26). The threat from Assyria looms large in this oracle.

There is mention made of a group of disciples of the prophet (8:16–22), as well as the children of the prophet, who serve as “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (8:18). These children are named as Shear-jashub, meaning “a remnant shall return” (7:3), and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (8:3).

Both names provide testimony to the fate that lies in store for Judah: the planned attack by Assyria will fail (7:4–9), and “the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (8:4). The mother of these two sons, unnamed, is simply “the prophetess”, who “conceived and bore a song for Isaiah (8:3)—although married to the prophet Isaiah, might she have been a prophet in her own right?

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Chapters 7–11 deal with the Assyrian threat; we know about the Assyrian interest in Israel and Judah from 2 Kings 15—20 and 2 Chronicles 28—33. These chapters of Isaiah include oracles that are well known in the church because of their Advent connection, when the lectionary offers them, inferring that they are “predictions of the coming Messiah”. Isaiah speaks of “the young woman [who] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14); in context, this is a promise to king Ahaz, that God will not desert him and his people, even as they experience “such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (7:17). What lies in store for Judah (7:18–25) will need this assurance to help them survive it.

Then comes reference to “the “child [who] has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6), and the “shoot [which] shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (11:1–2). This will lead to the promised time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (11:6)—a wonderful Messianic prophecy.

However, in reading Isaiah, we need to banish thoughts of a Messiah to come centuries later; in each case, Isaiah was not foretelling a far-distant event, but forthtelling to the king and the people of his time. In the midst of injustice and aggression, the prophet assures Judah that, in their own time,j “the root of Jesse … will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:10–16).

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Chapters 14 to 21 contain a string of oracles against other nations (Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, and Egypt). The destruction of Jerusalem is foreseen (22:1–25) before resuming further oracles, against Tyre (ch.23) and against the whole earth (ch.24). God’s wrath is cosmic in scope: “on that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth” (24:21). Anticipatory celebrations are reported (chs.25 to 27) before further oracles of judgement erupt, against corrupt judges, priests, and prophets (28:1–29), who have entered into a “covenant with death … [an] agreement with Sheol” (28:18).

The siege of Jerusalem is graphically described by the prophet (29:1–24) and further oracles reinforce his message: both judgement, “they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord” (30:9); and compassionate mercy, “the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you; for the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (30:18).

Foreign alliances are futile (chs. 30–31), for “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (32:1). Under this king, justice will prevail (chs. 33–34) and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (35:1–10).

In the wonderful vision of chapter 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (35:5–7). One commentator calls this “a majestic poem on God’s final salvation of his people” which goes “beyond restoration to the land … it speaks of a restoration of all creation” (McConville, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 4, The Prophets; SPCK, 2002, p.21).

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The final scenes of the first section of the book involve Isaiah and Hezekiah, who was king from 716 to 687 BCE. Whilst most of the book comprises oracles in poetic form, chapters 36–39 are prose narratives concerning the events of around 701 BCE, when the Assyrians pressed into Judah. Isaiah provides Hezekiah with a prediction of the failure of the Assyrian assault, saying that the Lord had told him, “I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (Isa 37:7). And so it comes to pass; Judah is saved, the future looks positive—for the moment.

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See

Undoing the stereotype of “the vengeful God of the Old Testament” (Hosea 11; Pentecost 8C)

As we follow the various readings from the Prophets during this season after Pentecost in Year C, we encounter a striking passage this coming Sunday. It contains an impassioned love poem, in the words of God, concerning the people of Israel (Hosea 11:1–11).

The poem depicts God as a human being, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent.

This is a striking passage. It confronts us in two ways: first, by depicting God in human form, and second, as it is a passage in the Old Testament which depicts God in a way that is quite different from many other passages that are often cited, where God’s anger with Israel bubbles over into aggressive punishment. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard this aspect of God used to characterise (or, indeed, caricature) the God of the Old Testament as violent and vengeful.

First, let’s consider the depiction of God in ways that indicate the deity is acting like a human being. Even thought there are clear injunctions against having any images (or idols) representing God (Exod 20:4, 23; Lev 19:4; 26:1; Num 33:50–52; Deut 5:8; 27:15; Isa 42:17), God is nevertheless portrayed in the scriptures as being human-like.

In Deuteronomy, Moses had reminded the the Israelites of what had taken place on Mount Horeb (Sinai of Exodus 19): “the Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:12). He continued, “since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth” (Deut 4:15–18). That’s a comprehensive list of what is prohibited!

Nevertheless, at many places in Hebrew Scripture, God has eyes and ears (2 Chron 6:40; 7:15; Ps 34:15; Dan 9:18), a mouth (Deut 8:3; 2 Chron 36:12; Isa 1:20; 34:16; 40:5; 58:14; 62:2; Jer 9:12; 23:16; Mic 4:4) and nostrils (Deut 15:8; 2 Sam 22:9, 16; Ps 18:8, 15; Isa 65:5), as well as hands (Exod 9:3; 16:3; Josh 4:24; Job 12:9; Ps 75:8; Isa 5:25; Ezek 3:22) and feet (Gen 3:8; Ps 2:11–12; 18:9; Isa 63:3; Ezek 43:7; Nah 1:3; Zech 14:3–4).

God speaks (Gen 1:3; Exod 33:11; Num 22:8; Ps 50:1; Ezek 10:5; Jer 10:1; listens (Exod 16:12; Ps 4:3; 34:17; 69:33; Prov 15:29), and smells the aroma of sacrifices as smoke rises to the heavens (Gen 8:21; Lev 1:13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 11, 16; 4:10, 31; 6:15; 8:21; 17:6; cf. Lev 26:31). God even whistles (Isa 7:18) and shaves (Isa 7:20)!

This depiction of God in human form is despite the polemic of Psalm 115, which derides idols as “the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.” (Ps 115:4–7; see also Deut 4:28; Isa 44:18; Hab 2:18).

The God with eyes and ears, then, laughs (Ps 2:4), has regrets (Jer 42:10), feels grief (Ps 78:40) and joy (Isa 62:5; Jer 32:41; Zeph 3:17). God experiences jealousy (Exod 20:5; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; 32:19–21; Josh 24:19; Job 36:33)—jealousy so intense that his wrath “burns like fire” (Ps. 79:5). “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces”, says Nahum (Nah 1:2).

Which brings us to the stereotype I noted above: that the God of the Old Testament was always violent and vengeful. To be sure, we can see intense flashes of God’s anger in incidents told in the historical narratives (Num 25:1–9; Deut 28:15–68; 29:19–28; Judg 2:11-23; 2 Sam 6:1–11) and in the regular refrain, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against XX” (Exod 4:14; Num 11:33; 12:9; 32:13; Deut 6:15; 7:4; 11:17; 29:27; Josh 23:16; Judg 2:14, 20; 3:8; 10:7; 2 Sam 6:7; 24:1; 1 Ki 16:7, 13, 26, 33; 22:53; 2 Ki 13:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:19, 26; 1 Chron 13:10; 2 Chron 21:16; 28:25; 33:6; Ps 106:40).

The prophets proclaim that judgement will fall with a vengeance on the people on the Day of the Lord (Isa 2:12–22, 13:6–16; Jer 46:10; Joel 2:1–11; Amos 5:18–24; Zeph 1:7–18; Mal 4:1–5) whilst the psalmists invoke the wrath of the Lord upon their enemies (Ps 2:5, 12; 21:9; 56:7; 59:13; 110:5–6), note that God’s wrath punishes Israel (Ps 78:49, 59, 62; 88:7, 16; 89:38; 90:7–11), and petition God to turn his wrath away from them (Ps 6:1; 38:1; 79:5; 89:46). Such punishment is the consequence of breaking the covenant (Lev 26:14–33; 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 89:31–32; Jer 5:7–9; Ezek 7:1–4).

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However, this is not the sum total of God’s character in Hebrew Scriptures; there is much more to be said about God. The prophets, for instance, not only proclaim the coming “day of the Lord”, but also look with hope to a time when peace will reign and justice will be done (Isa 2:1–4, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 28:16–17, 42:1–9, 52:9–10, 66:12; Ezek 34:25; Mic 4:1–7; Hag 2:9; Zech 8:12).

The psalmists praise God for the steadfast love (heșed) that he expresses to Israel (Ps 5:7; 6:4; 13:5; 17:7; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6–10; 26:3; 31:7, 16, 21; 33:5, 18, 22; 36:5–10; 40:11; 42:8; 44:26; 48:9; 51:1; 52:8; 57:3, 10; and so on) and prophets recognise this same quality in God (Isa 54:10; 55:3; 63:7; Jer 9:24; 16:5; 32:18; 33:11; Dan 9:4). As Jeremiah sings, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22).

Micah asks, “who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession?” (Mic 7:18). The answer to that question is sounded again and again in the refrain, “the Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2).

This steadfast love (heșed)—also translated as loving kindness, or as covenant love—is a consistent characteristic of the God found in the pages of the Old Testament, along with the God who executes judgement and inflicts punishment. Like human beings, the God of Hebrew Scripture is complex, with multiple characteristics, exhibiting a wide range of behaviours.

Hosea 11 not the only passage where the deity is depicted as acting a human being. God is occasionally imaged as a woman, such as in the palmist’s comparison, “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until [God] has mercy upon us” (Ps 132:2–3).

God is described as being “like a woman in labour; I will gasp and pant” (Isa 49:15); she gives birth (Deut 32:18) and comforts her child “as a mother comforts her child” (Isa 66:13). The psalmist compares themself to “a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Ps 131:2). Such female descriptors for God emerge in the New Testament as Jesus evokes the image of “a hen [who] gathers her brood under her wings” (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34), as well as in the parable of the woman searching for her lost coin (Luke 15:8–10).

In the love song of Hosea 11, God exudes heșed, loving kindness, or covenant love. In return, God expects that Israel will demonstrate that same covenant love (Hos 4:1), for “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). The prophet calls to the people, “return to your God, hold fast to covenant love (heșed) and justice (mishpat), and wait continually for your God” (Hos 12:6).

The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people; it stands in stark juxtaposition to the many passages that describe the anger of the deity. It reminds us that the mercy of God, expressed in deep covenant love, must always be held alongside the justice of God, expressed in angry punishments meted out when that covenant is broken. Indeed, Hosea describes the covenant relationship between Israel in this manner: “I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (Hos 2:19).

Mercy and justice are two sides of same coin, two key aspects of the character of God. Accordingly, God requires of us both mercy and justice, as Jesus notes: “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23).

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See also

The voice of the Lord in the words of the prophets (the season of Pentecost in Year C)

Each year in the long season that stretches “after Pentecost”, the lectionary offers us selections from the prophetic literature of Hebrew Scripture, as companions to the Gospel readings from the orderly account of Luke. It is Luke’s narrative which most directly depicts Jesus speaking as God’s prophet (Luke 7:16; 24:19; Acts 2:30; 3:22).

Many of the prophets of Israel remind us that they speak forth “the voice of the Lord” (Isa 66:6; Jer 42:5–6; Dan 9:9–10; Mic 6:9; Hag 1:12; Zech 6:15). Jesus stands in this tradition, offering words of guidance, challenge, and judgement. He is the way by which, “in these last days, God … has spoken to us” (Heb 1:1–2).

This year, Sunday by Sunday, we are listening to “the voice of the Lord” mediated through a number of prophetic words. In the coming Sundays, the lectionary offers us stories of prophetic voices speaking to the people of the northern kingdom during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE.

We begin with sections relating to Elijah and Elisha, two great prophets who figure prominently in the history-like narratives of 1—2 Kings (Pentecost 2–4). Elijah encounters God, not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence” in a cave, where he gains clarity about his task (1 Kings 19:9– 15). Elisha picks the mantle of Elijah after he is taken up (2 Kings 2:13) and demonstrates this as he heals Naaman (2 Kings 5:8–14).

Next, we turn to Amos (Pentecost 5 and 6). Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa, humbly defers “I am no prophet” (Amos 7:14); nevertheless, he castigates those in Israel who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). His most famous prophetic word is the call for “justice and righteousness” (Amos 5:22).

Hosea (Pentecost 7 and 8) was also active in the northern kingdom. The fractured relationship between Israel and the Lord God is mirrored in the naming of his children: “God sows”, “not pitied”, “not my people” (1:2–9). Yet Hosea sings of the love of the Lord for Israel, who “led them with cords of human kindness”, and assures them that God will not abandon them (Hosea 11:1–11). Nevertheless, soon after his long period as prophet, that kingdom would fall.

Then follows is a brief foray (Pentecost 9 and 10) to hear the words of a major and significant prophet of the southern kingdom, Isaiah, who was active from 742 BCE onwards. Isaiah criticises the sinfulness of the people (Isa 1:10-20) and exhorts the people to “learn to do good, seek justice” (Isa 1:17). The vivid “love-song concerning a vineyard” culminates in a potent condemnation that the Lord “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry” (Isa 5:1–7). This cry is a consistent prophetic message.

Then follows a series of passages from the great prophet Jeremiah (Pentecost 11–18). Jeremiah had the misfortune of being called to prophesy just at the time when Israel was crumbling and would be overrun by the Babylonians and sent into exile (721 BCE). He was called to declare words from the Lord, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10).

Jeremiah is famous for his series of laments about the fate of Jerusalem (“how lonely sits the city … how like a widow she has become”, Lam 1:1); we hear two excerpts from Lamentations at Pentecost 17. In these words, we are invited into the experience of deep lament through the poetic wails of this prophet, as he first envisages, and then experiences, the devastation of exile.

Yet Jeremiah comes to terms with life in a foreign land, amongst people of different customs, speaking a different language, eating different foods, worshipping different gods. He leaves behind the laments of not being in the land that God gave the people; instead, he encourages his fellow-exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters” (Jer 29:5–7), for the Lord “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer 29:11).

Nevertheless, Jeremiah also speaks a damning word over the people; God, he says, “is a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you” (Jer 18:11). How are we to hear and receive this striking word of the Lord? Yet the prophet “redeems” himself, perhaps, with the famous declaration about “the new covenant … I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:31–34)—a passage that a number of New Testament writers refer to in their portrayal of Jesus instigating a “new covenant”.

After Jeremiah, we visit famous words about “the time to come”, spoken by a number of prophets. Joel (Pentecost 20) describes the terrors of the coming time, yet promises that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Habakkuk (Pentecost 21) laments “destruction and violence”, yet declares “a vision for the appointed time—the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 1:3–4; 2:3–4).

Haggai (Pentecost 22), living in a time of drought, “spoke to the people with the Lord’s message: I am with you” (Hag 1:10–11, 13). And a much later voice, active well after the return from exile (collected at the end of the book of Isaiah), affirms that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; Pentecost 23).

These voices sounded forth long ago; their message resonates still with us today. The call for justice and righteousness undergirds the entire narrative of the people of Israel, from the call attributed to Moses in Deut 16:20, “justice, and only justice, shall you follow”; through the words of Amos and Isaiah, into the declarations of Jeremiah and a number of the “minor prophets”.

In the later scriptures in the New Testament, we hear resonances from many of these selected passages in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, stands in this tradition and speaks “the voice of the Lord”, so the call for justice and righteousness sits at the heart of who we are, as people of faith, heirs of this tradition, in the 21st century. As we read and hear these prophetic passages week after week, we are invited to reflect more deeply on how these ancient words, particular to their original time and place, can yet be for us the word of God to us, in our time, in our place.

See further at https:// johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

A new thing, springing forth (Isaiah 43; Lent 5C)

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:18–19).

These words are attributed to the prophet Isaiah, who lived in the southern kingdom of Judea eight centuries before Jesus, serving as a “court prophet” during times of abundance. Isaiah was active a time when the southern kingdom of Judah was flourishing. He became active in the last years of the reign of Uzziah, who, it was said, ruled as king for fifty-two years (788–736). He lived through the reigns of Jotham and Ahaz (16 years each), and died towards the end of the reign of Hezekiah, who himself enjoyed 29 years on the throne.

The year of Isaiah’s death is uncertain; he may well have been alive, still, when the Assyrian army of Sennacherib laid waste to the northern kingdom (722–721) and deported the northerners to clear the land. In such a context of stability, however, the promise that God would do “a new thing” sits somewhat uneasily in the situation we can reconstruct.

This is one reason why many scholars maintain that the section of the book of Isaiah where we find this passage (Isaiah 40–55) is set some centuries later, after the southern kingdom itself had been conquered by the Babylonians (587–586), and the people taken into exile in Babylon. This became the pivotal event in the history of Israel, the people as a whole—at least in terms of the stories that we have gathered in the scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah focus on Jerusalem and Judah (2:1; 3:1; 5:3; 11:12-16; 22:5-8, 20-25; 26:1) and Assyria (7:10–25; 8:1–10; 10:5–12; 14:24–27); 19:23–25; 20:1–6; 30:29–33). The final section of the book (chs. 36—39) is clearly the describing events of the 720s which led to the Assyrian invasion and conquest of the northern kingdom, Israel.

By contrast, second section of the book of Isaiah has a primary concern for the power which had taken the people of Judah into exile—Babylon (43:14–21; 47:1–15; 48:14, 20–21). The prophet promises a return to Jerusalem (40:1–2), but it is identified as Zion (40:9; 41:27; 46:13; 49:14; 51:3, 11, 16; 52:1-2, 7-8).

There are many stories in Isa 1—39 relating to the personal life of the prophet, but no such personal connections in Isa 40—55. By contrast, a very direct historical reference, in a section referring to Cyrus, King of Persia (44:24–45:19), indicates a later setting. Cyrus ruled the Achaemenid Empire from 559 to 530 BCE and, after defeating the Babylonians in 539, issued a decree permitting the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland.

We have already reflected on one passage from this section of Isaiah (55:1–12, Lent 3), noting how it differs from the worldview and understanding of God from earlier periods in the life of Israel.

This passage thus comes from a time when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. It was not a happy time for many of the people of Israel. (Psalm 137 is the classic expression of this; note especially the anger expressed in verses 8–9.) The people of Israel yearned to return home (Jer 29:10–14; 30:1–31:26). They looked back on the past with longing eyes. They remembered their years in the land which God had given to them. Now, they were living among Babylonians—foreigners, conquerors.

Soon, they would leave behind these memories, and grasp hold of the future that God has for them. God would “send to Babylon and break down all the bars” (43:14). God, the prophet declares, is doing a new thing! (43:19).

And yet, that “new thing” is informed by the past. The people once travelled out of slavery in Egypt, into freedom in Canaan, leaving behind the Egyptian “chariot and horse, army and warrior”, stuck in the waters of the sea that suddenly swamped them—“extinguished, quenched like a wick” (43:17; cf. Exod 14:26–31, 15:4–12, 19, 21). In the time of the prophet, “the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation” as the people depart (43:14).

In like manner, now, the people will take the journey back home, pass through the desert, and return to their land. The one who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (43:16) during the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15), will now “make a way in the wilderness” (43:19) for the people to follow, leading them right back to the land from which they had been forcibly removed decades earlier (2 Kings 25:1–21; 2 Chron 35:15–21).

As they were sustained in that desert journey long ago, so God now will give “rivers in the desert” (43:19) which will provide “water in the wilderness … to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) as they travel on that way. That caled for shouts of praise to God! (43:21).

The Exodus imagery was potent for Israel; not only was the story developed over centuries to provide a story of origins for Israel, but it was also co-opted into the prophecies predicting the return to the land, providing those oracles with greater strength and rigour. (And, of course, the story continued on into the feast of Passover, the annual celebrations which continue amongst Jews right through until the present day.)

The Exodus imagery also undergirds the Christian story. Jesus, declared by John the Baptist to be the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), affirmed by Paul as the new Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7), envisaged by the ageing prophet on Patmos to be the slaughtered lamb (Rev 5:6–14), is believed to enact a new Passover for his followers, according to the developing Christian tradition.

Just as the shedding of the blood smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites was their salvation (Exod 12:7, 13, 22–23), so the shedding of Christ’s blood is understood to effect salvation (Rom 5:8–10; 1 Pet 1:18–21). So the age-old imagery and symbolism is reworked by the early Christian writers, continuing the process seen in the words of the prophet speaking during the return from Exile (Isa 43:16–21).

See also