Tomorrow morning I will be teaching a bible study class to about 80 mostly retired adults from the church. They are a great group to teach because they are so full of life experience, wisdom, and biblical knowledge. We are going through the book of Isaiah chapter by chapter, and I’m very excited about it because Isaiah is my favorite Old Testament prophetic book. Tomorrow’s chapter, Isaiah 3, is one of the many oracles of judgment against Jerusalem’s wickedness.
Isaiah is one of those books that takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster. The prophetic oracles swing between harsh condemnations of Jerusalem’s sins and promises of God’s future restoration. It goes like this throughout the entire book: judgment and threats of punishment then promises of comfort and restoration. Of course, in the middle of all of this, YHWH also promises the people to send a servant who will bear the people’s sins and restore them. In the midst of judgment, Isaiah is a book of hope, and the early disciples of Jesus recognized in him the fulfillment of the prophetic vision.
Yet, when we read the harsh judgments against Judah and the promises of punishment and exile, this can make us very uncomfortable. So many chapters have absolutely nothing comforting to say. We read them and wonder, “where’s the grace in all of this?” This can make us unsure of what to do with these texts because the vision of God is not as nice as the one we are used to talking about on Sundays. This God has teeth and he uses them.
One of the ways I think about reading these prophetic oracles of judgment is that we, as readers, are stepping into the middle of family fight between God and his people. Think of that awkward, uncomfortable feeling that we get when we are at someone else’s house and the host family starts bickering and bringing up the problems in their relationship. We don’t know quite what to make of it, but we know that the problem needs to get resolved. This is sort of what happens when we read prophetic literature.
I suggest that in the prophetic writings, we see very clearly the relational aspect of God’s character. So often, we think of God as if he is remote from our everyday affairs, only intervening occasionally. But the prophetic writings show us a God who is in the middle of human life with all its ambiguity, sin, and complexity. He is present, involved, and calls his people to take responsibility to be who he has called them to be. When we read these dark, harsh, and uncomfortable words, we see a bit of our own family history. We see how God has related to our ancestors in the faith, and how he was intimately involved with them enough to actually care when they had lost their way.
But, we must also look at these words within the whole sweep of scripture. There is plenty of judgment in Isaiah, but there is also a whole lot of hope, as well. There isn’t a chance that God will actually abandon his people permanently, but he will remain committed to their relationship and will use whatever means necessary to start over and make things right again. That’s where grace is. But to get there, we have to see some of Judah’s dirty laundry get aired.