26 September 2012Isaiah 63:7-9
"For he said, 'Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely'; and he became their saviour in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he restored them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old." (vv. 8-9)
The middle chapters of Isaiah (40-55) anticipate God's people rescued from the Babylonian exile through the Persian ruler Cyrus, and redeemed from sin through the work of God's servant. The final chapters (56-66) envisage life afterwards, and in that the political restoration did not actually achieve all the hopes expressed, for Christian readers these chapters anticipate how things will be only when Christ's work is completed and he comes again.
The words of today's passage come from the lips of one of the watchmen or guardians that God's anointed agent posts on the walls of Jerusalem city to pray constantly for successful conclusion of the work of salvation (62:6). The speech becomes a prayer of confession - one of the finest in the Bible - that continues to the end of chapter 64, but these first three verses are a reminder to God of what God means, or should mean, to the descendants of Israel.
"Gracious deeds" at the start of verse 7 and "steadfast love" at the end, are alternative attempts to translate the Hebrew word that actually means 'kindnesses'. The verse as a whole seeks to capture every possible display of God's never-failing love: things done, the many good things given, and God's emotional compassion.
Verses 8 and 9 then recall the key concrete dimensions of God's love for the people which theological language calls 'election' and 'covenant': God saying, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely", followed by God acting for their salvation. The Exodus was seen as the time when God created such a relationship; see Exodus 4:22 and 6:7 for election and covenant, and then Exodus 14:30 as the only place in that story where God is said to have "saved them", in the specific sense that the Egyptian pursuers had drowned in the Red Sea, but this comes to be seen as evidence that God will indeed save them from every distress.
The emphasis in verse 9 is on God acting personally to save, not through an intermediary; "his presence" is literally 'the angel of his face'. The image of God lifting up and carrying is a very intimate one, and the word translated "love" in this verse is used only here in Isaiah and is a Hebrew word that stresses delight in the companionship of the loved one.
- The speaker seems to be 'talking to God about God'. Is this something you do, or might do, perhaps in the form of written rather than spoken words?
- What would your list of the 'kindnesses of God' contain?
- Verse 9 is eager to underline the superiority of God's actual presence to God's depending on angels to do the work of saving people in distress. Are either or both of these methods relevant today? What has been your experience of meeting God?