30 January 2012

Isaiah 51:9-23

"You have forgotten the Lord, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth." (v. 13)


This passage is a dialogue between God's suffering people (verses 9-11) and God (verses 12-23). God's people are in exile in Babylon, struggling to maintain their identity and their relationship with God. So they challenge God to pay attention to them - wake up and take notice of us!

Into the dialogue are woven memories of God's powerful past actions. Creation itself is God's work, described very physically - stretching the canvas of a tent, laying the foundations of a building, defeating the primeval chaos dragon (verse 9; Psalm 89:10). He brought the people of Israel across the sea dry-shod (verse 10; Exodus 14) and made the sea rage (verse 15; Genesis 7:17).

Some of these memories provide a basis for Israel's passionate challenge to God. God is powerful - so why is there no reaction to Israel's suffering? Is God asleep? Or not care anymore?

God's response is just as passionate, and just as dependent on remembering God's own mighty deeds. God acknowledges that the wrath poured out on the people, and describes their sufferings graphically - staggering like someone ill (verse 17), lost without a guide (verse 18), flat on the ground like a trapped antelope (verse 20).

What do these memories achieve? Are they just memories of times past? For the people, perhaps yes - this is how things used to be, but now it is all different. But for God, memory is an active, dynamic representation of how God is now. Nothing has changed - God is still the God of creation and redemption, even if the people have forgotten that the living power still wielded.

But now God's power is turned against those who have oppressed them and treated them like doormats (verse 23). No-one should treat others in this way, and God reassures the people that their suffering at the hands of their uncaring oppressors will be avenged. And so God challenges them to stand upright once again (verse 17) - the verb in Hebrew is from the same root as their challenge in verse 9. "Awake!" they say to God. "Rouse yourself!" is the reply.

And power underwrites love. God's people can rest secure in God's love, and hand overshadowing them to protect and comfort (verse 16). This too is guaranteed by God's power - so why are they so afraid? Ultimately, God's power is a source of comfort; the people are safe now, even in Babylon, and they will be set free in God's good time.

To Ponder

Who are the 'doormats' of our society? And who are the tormentors?

What are the memories that give you strength and hope for the future?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.