Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
In the past one of my fave worship-songs was Graham Kendrick’s Restore, O Lord. It was a call for God to get up and do something, so that people would recognise his power and sovereignty as he shook the earth again, and come to him in reverent fear. This passage his a similar feel to it, although when we look more deeply there are several inconsistencies which draw our attention. So as always, let’s look at the wider context.
Isaiah 63:7 to 64:12 is a psalm of corporate lament. People are beginning to return from Babylon to Jerusalem, but the with exhilaration of freedom comes a sense of a daunting task of rebuilding, and the fact that actually we are never going to be able simply to turn back time. Sadder and wiser, the people are aware that the experience of exile has scarred them and dented their relationship with God. This psalm celebrates the glorious past when God did intervene in their lives, calls upon him to do it again, but also blames him for his absence.
So our passage begins with a cry for God to manifest his power so that his enemies will see and be very afraid. But the enemies quickly become ‘us’ – indeed ‘all of us’ is a repeated refrain which loses the prominence in English which it has in the Hebrew. Whilst there is an acknowledgement that the nation has sinned, there is an apparent excuse for this: God has hidden himself from them and left them to it (v 7). Like an adulterous husband who blames his wife’s lack of attention for his own playing away from home, Israel claims that it is God’s ignoring of them which has left them no option but to sin. No-one bothers to call on God because he has deliberately turned away from them, so what’s the point?
And yet this blaming of God is bracketed between two examples of the people doing exactly what they claim no-one does: calling on him. In v 1-2 there is a desperate cry for his attention, and in v 9 there is a call for him to put aside his anger and ‘look upon’ his people. What are we to make of all this?
It’s worth noting first that lament is not always logical. When we’re upset and pour out our hearts to God, we don’t always do it with faultless logic or sound theology. God, and the Bible, seem big enough to understand and take it. But it is also interesting to ask some questions about who exactly are the players in this little drama. Just who are ‘we’? I wonder whether a prophetic picture from my past might be apposite.
I had recently been appointed by a bishop to turn around a church which he perceived as being in need of the gospel and the Spirit. Fairly early in, and experiencing some stiff resistance, I found myself pondering the famous Laodicea passage in Revelation 3. In my head I heard God asking me ‘How many people does it need to get up from the table and open the door when Jesus knocks?’ The obvious answer is ‘Just the one’. If the doorbell rings during a dinner party, it is not normal for the entire company to get up to go and answer it. In the same way I felt that for Jesus to have greater access to the life of the church, it didn’t really matter that not everyone was keen on the idea. As long as there was someone to welcome him in, that would do. That little conversation became formative for our prayers over the next few years, and we did indeed see significant renewal and a far more central place for Jesus.
I wonder if there is something similar in play here? Maybe the ‘we’ crying out so desperately in verses 1-2 and 9 is a just a subset of the ‘we’ who have sinned so grievously. It is, of course, biblical bad form to pray about ‘them’ from the lofty moral high ground: great intercessors always identify with the sinful community even if they personally haven’t been involved. When I pray for the church which I belong to, love deeply, but hate for its weakness, sin and compromise; when I cry to God for his earth-shaking presence to be felt once again, I need to remember that ‘I’ am included in the ‘we’.
 See for example Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9 about how ‘we’ have intermarried. In the next chapter there is a list of the guilty parties, a list from which Ezra’s name is gloriously absent.