Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? These dramatic questions open the Old Testament reading for Sunday Feb. 4, 2018, (Isaiah 40:21-31).
With this rhetorical flourish, Isaiah underlines the importance of memory in the faith life of the Israelites. He is speaking to them during the Babylonian exile where they feel that God has abandoned them. By repeating the questions in slightly different form Isaiah emphasizes the importance of knowing God’s ways. He appeals to personal memory, community story-telling and the oral history that stretches back to the events of creation. Of course they know and have heard about all that God has done for them over the ages!
But just in case their memories have dimmed, Isaiah reminds and reassures them that,
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
Rather than referring to specific historical events, Isaiah paints a vast picture of the scope of God’s point of view- the earth’s…inhabitants are like grasshoppers – and his justice for everyone, even princes and rulers. Isaiah tells them that God’s scale embraces the whole earth and relativizes the human perspective. Isaiah invites the Israelites to lift up their gaze from the misery of their present existence and acknowledge the wonders of God.
Speaking on God’s behalf he then asks three specific questions,
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
Without waiting, Isaiah answers,
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
He tells the captives to look to the nighttime sky and marvel at the host of stars. (Little did he know that many of the stars he looked at were, in fact, galaxies!) Then he assures them that God knows, names and watches over each one. This reference to the universe is a set-up for the next passage.
Turning from the cosmic scale to their own God speaks to the Israelites, whom he calls Jacob, , again by way of rhetorical question:
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Isaiah is saying, ‘If our God is so great that he rules the universe, knows every star by name, never forgets, and hands out justice to tyrants, don’t you think that he is watching over you now?’ With a repetition of his first two questions Isaiah then reassures them.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
The promises are not specific. Isaiah does not give a date for their return to Jerusalem. He does not promise them a feast or ease. Nonetheless his promises are clear: those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary…
Throughout this passage Isaiah argues against those who despair about God’s care. In particular, he appeals to the collective memory and history of the people to remind them of God’s involvement in their lives, even now, in captivity.
This passage from Isaiah is highly theatrical. Accompanying the opening set of questions, one can almost imagine director’s notes telling the speaker to look up from a reflective pose to the audience and address his questions to them in a strong voice. The instructions would include a note to think of the opening questions as a kind of chorus for the passage since the questions will repeat. The tone should be simultaneously strong and reassuring rather than angry. As the passage advances, the speaker should walk around giving testimony, as in a court of law, to the historical wonders of God.
In an especially dramatic turn, when he speaks God’s words to the people, the director’s notes would tell the actor to pause before speaking God’s words, and to speak resonantly.
Returning to his own voice, the actor should invoke a comforting cadence to give the people hope.
The words remain true today. They should dance off the page into our imaginations and light us with hope in our often-chaotic world where we, too, fear that God has abandoned us.
The gospel for today, Mark’s account of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law and many others from the community then leaving, first to pray, then to spread the good news, is no less dramatic. (Mark 1: 29-39). Jesus embodies the kind of hope of which Isaiah spoke.
The people of his day lived under oppressive Roman rule, suffered health and spiritual woes and may have felt abandoned by God. Jesus entered their lives and he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons and spread the good news of salvation. Jesus was the proof of God’s love for them.
- Many of us may regard Isaiah’s writings as having a quaint quality. Written roughly 2,600 years ago, they include understandings about the world that science has now corrected. Yet his fundamental message of God’s personal care and omniscience remains true. Look at his words and reflect on their essential truth in your own life. What words of truth stand out?
- These notes cast Isaiah’s words in a theatrical light, imagining director’s notes. Try reading the passage as a court case in which Isaiah is arguing against the conventional wisdom of the community. Do they feel different? How?
- Do you see the link between Isaiah’s vague promises and Mark’s story of Jesus in the gospel for this Sunday? Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. To the humble people of Galilee, the faint and the weary in Isaiah’s terms – and even women! – Jesus represented a dramatic but understated fulfillment of what Isaiah had said.