Exodus to exile

Isaiah 40 : Preparing for the suffering servant

For a people who have been torn from their homeland, their center of worship and perhaps from their God, comfort was needed. So, the prophet begins Isaiah 40 with assurance that their punishment is over, that Yahweh is coming to them with mercy. The Hebrews need to be reminded what their God is doing. The Hebrews that the prophet was writing to, were captives. While one need not think of the Hebrews being in a refugee camp (remember Jeremiah’s instructions to “seek the peace of the city …”) their situation was not pleasant. So the prophet begins his messages with words of comfort.

The New Exodus theme appears a number of places in chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. But Chapter 40 does not make a return to Judea explicit. Israel is told that they will not need to do the fighting to defeat. Just like at the Red Sea, God clears the way. Instead of water pushed aside, roads will be straightened, hills leveled, and valleys filled in to make the journey easier. According to The Message, rocks and ruts will be removed. But, wait— God is coming to His people! That is the way his glory will be revealed.

Then in verse ten the prophet declares what God will do when he arrives. “He is going to pay back his enemies.” There is little detail about the when/how/what of that payback. In contrast with that image of God, the next of God’s word through the prophet returns to the spirit of the first verses of the chapter with the gentle shepherd image.

Acknowledging the God of Judah and Babylon

The prophet’s listeners may have experienced the harrowing journey to Babylon (900 miles-on foot?) or maybe their children heard the stories that were passed down to them. God’s promise to clear the way and take care of the enemy contrasted with what happened about seventy years earlier. The contrast appears also with the Psalm 137 tells us they refused to sing songs of Zion and Ezekiel found a valley of dry bones. So in verses 12-17 the prophet forcefully reminds the Hebrews of their foundational belief in a Creator God of the entire universe. This was not just a God of Judah. Their God is present and in control in Babylon as well.  Then the prophet contrasts God with human creations called gods. Verses 21-24 describe how God maintains the universe. In various ways the power of God over the whole world is emphasized.

Waiting for strength

The first and last sections of Isaiah 40 are the most familiar ones of the chapter due to familiar songs based on them. The “wait” songs should remind us of the connection between 40:28 and 40:31. Both contain the words “weary” and “faint”. Humans may be weary or faint, but God is always strong. In other passages the word, “wait” nearly always comes as a command from God in the context of violence by evil humans.  The “wait” verses in Psalms and the prophets, the oppressors of the poor, weak, or oppressed may have been fellow Hebrews. Here, those waiting to be rescued from the oppressor are all people of God. Here they are given assurance God will be the one to defeat the oppressor. God’s people will be given youthful, eagle-like strength to return to covenant living as God deals with the enemy. But the explicit return to Judah is not made.

Given the beginning of the Isaiah 40, one might assume that the author is encouraging the travelers headed from Babylon to Jerusalem. But could the author’s audience be the Hebrews who stayed in Babylon (were they a majority of the Hebrews)? Next we need to ask, for what are God’s people to wait? The first verses of the chapter suggest a road or path is being prepared. But even though the prophet mentions Jerusalem, I don’t find the text making the return to Judah the focus. Due to the use of Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye”, “He shall lead his flock” and “And the glory”, we think of Isa. 40 as a Christmas passage. But Isaiah 40 may be leading us toward Easter. Isaiah 41-53 tells us about the suffering servant. But if we are to think of the suffering servant “waiting,” that seems at odds to “rising up with wings like eagles”. Perhaps Isaiah 40 points toward the suffering servant looking forward to the vindication of his/their suffering.

Waiting On God An exploration of the basis for the new testament peace witness in the first (old) testament

The Psalmist counsels us “wait on the Lord”! What do you think of or imagine yourself doing in response to this counsel? In what situations have you recalled passages from the Bible that include this phrase? In the passages below, what is the context of the word “wait” or “waiting”? In the past I have thought of “waiting” as suggesting prayer and meditation. Is this made explicit in the text?

For the subjects of the Psalm, what would be the alternative to “waiting”? What more than prayer in suggested by “waiting”? How often does the “waiting” command come in the context of violence? What is the significance of this?

Psalm 33:  16-22

16 The king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
and by its great might it cannot rescue.

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 that he may deliver their soul from death
and keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.

Psalm 37:(5-9) 14-15, 32-34

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

32 The wicked watches for the righteous
and seeks to put him to death.
33 The Lord will not abandon him to his power
or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord and keep his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on when the wicked are cut off.

(See below for a list of similar passages*)

In Psalm 33 use of the word “wait” is preceded by description of violence against the people of God. (“Whether the king is to use his great army or not is not clarified.) Action by God’s people is not needed. Waiting leads to affirmation of God’s presence and control of the situation. Note the words “help”, “trust”, “hope” as helper words for “wait”.

In Psalm 37 the situation is bleak. Not just the people of God are the target of the forces of evil, but specifically “the poor and needy”. Violence is what evil people do. In the end “the wicked [will be] cut off”. The people of God “wait” and “keep his way”. Keeping God’s way (v. 34) refers to covenant/Torah behavior. In Isaiah 40, the setting is a bit different. While in these Psalms there is the implication that God will overpower the enemy or the evil Hebrews, that is not as clear in Isa.40:28-31. Is the vindication of the “suffering servant” what one is to wait for?  (See my blog on Isa. 40, “Exodus to Exile”)

Waiting and then what?

Are these “wait” passages behind Paul’s instructions in Romans 12:19 and following? “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19 with Deut. 32:35)? How is Paul’s reminder related to the need to wait? The normal response to violence is vengeance.  Note surrounding the “vengeance” command we are encouraged to “love”, “seek peace”, and “feed” [your] enemy”. Here we have some of the things from the life and teachings of Jesus that are to the focus the people of God while waiting for God to act.

The “First” Testament basis for the peace understanding of Anabaptists needs further exploration. While there is much violence found in the first testament, the new testament affirms the contrasting thread lifted out here that calls for us to wait on God. From God comes protection and vengeance/justice.

 

*Similar passages are:  Psalm 25:1-5, Psalm 27: 11-14, Psalm 62:1-7 (See also, Psalm 40:1-3—no suggestion of violence in this passage), Psalm 130:1-6, Proverbs 20:22, Lamentations 3:13-26, Isaiah 30:15-18 (the word “rest” is used in this passage), Micah 7:2-3, 7; Isaiah 40:28-31 (God has just “rescued” Israel from Babylon), Isa. 64:1-4, Zephaniah 3:8

Related concept:

“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).

Composting and Grace

Thinking about the Way of God

Weather and schedule permitting, I begin my monthly composting cycle by picking up five to ten bags of grass clippings or leaves along the street near my home. I spread these yard wastes in thin layers in the collection area near my compost bin. Nearby I store the coffee grounds I have collected at a local convenience stores and shredded paper from work. Soon I have enough materials to fill my one-pallet by two-pallet bin.

From my collection area, I estimate that I am mixing two parts of carbon or brown matter to one part of green or nitrogen. When I do not have enough leaves (browns) to mix with the yard or kitchen trimmings(greens), I use shredded office paper. For greens I usually have some household wastes (vegetable only) and in the summer, garden trimmings to add to the grass clippings. In the winter, I add coffee grounds (brown-colored, but a green with as much nitrogen as manure which the local convenience store furnishes at the rate of five gallons a day. Then comes a sprinkling of mature compost from the previous batch that was too coarse to go through my 1/2” screen. This compost inoculates the new material with the microorganisms that will speed decomposition. To moisten the materials, I sprinkle the pile with water from my rain barrels. I continue to add more grass and other wastes, then water the mix until the pile is three to four feet high.

During the next weeks the temperature nears 140°. I take a half inch, six foot-long rod and poke holes in the pile from top to bottom to provide oxygen. If I have not lined the bin with plastic, I occasionally water the pile to help maintain a moist environment which the micro-organisms need to break down the vegetable matter. I scrounge agricultural plastic from farmer friends to loosely cover the pile, keeping it moist in the summer and warmer in the winter.

If I see that the composting has not reached the outer layer, I fork the material from one bin to another, being careful to move the outer matter to the inside of the new pile. Dry matter gets watered as I mix it. This mixing provides an additional benefit of an hour or so of vigorous exercise and time to think.

As I lean on my fork I imagine that my composting mirrors the grace of God working in our lives. My compost pile contains other peoples’ garbage: Leaves and grass clippings. I have added the zuchini that stayed in the refrigerator too long, cabbage that the worms wasted, corn stalks from which we have harvested yellow, juicy ears, tomatoes that I neglected to harvest promptly. God takes the remains of one growth cycle, the scraps, the worn out parts, and the prunings of excess growth and mixes them together. He takes the garbage that life dumps on us and adds the air and moisture needed to activate the change. The material that God changes provides benefits for the next stage of growth. Maybe God, the composter, models for us a way of dealing with life. If you make garbage of your life, God will help you make compost or If life brings you garbage, make compost.

Children understand this concept when I have talked to their classes. Tough second and third grade boys enjoy taking deep whiffs of the old kitchen wastes in the bucket I set in the dark next to one of compost. They enjoyed the feel of the compost and some offered to run their hands through the garbage as well. I told them: Sometimes you make a mess of a project at home, an assignment at school or a friendship. Sometimes the garbage is dumped on you, sometimes you make it yourself. God can help you change this garbage into something like compost; something to help you grow when the next opportunity comes along.

“Bioremediation” is s variation of the composting process. Contaminated soil is mixed with wood chips and poultry litter and allowed to heat to above one-hundred and forty degrees. After several months of cooling, the contaminants have disappeared. As a pacifist it seems ironic to me that this process was developed on a military base for soil contaminated by aviation fuel.

Forking the compost from one bin to the other has given me time to think about these things—time also for the change in the compost. After a several months the damp, brown compost now shows little evidence of the original ingredients. As I throw the compost against the half-inch hardware-cloth screen most of the material falls into my wheelbarrow below.

The results of my stress-reducing exercise, the blessing for my rescue of valuable organic matter from the local incinerator, and the boon for my plants, flows dark brown and sweet-smelling through the sifter. From smelly green grass clippings, brown leaves, banana peels and coffee grounds-with time and effort—came the miracle of mature compost.   This compost will enrich the soil promoting a new period of growth. The transformation convinces me that anyone who holds mature compost in their hands has a better “feel” for God’s grace.

If life brings you garbage, make compost.

If you have garbaged up your life, make compost.