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Thought for the Day 28 October 2020 (Malcolm Heath, St Michael’s) Isaiah 45.18-end

"For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in chaos.’
I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right.
Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge—those who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.
Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the LORD? There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Saviour; there is no one besides me.
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.”

God speaks! Or, at least, God’s spokesperson (‘prophet’) speaks on God’s behalf—the God of Israel: the one God besides whom there is no other; the righteous God, whose offer of salvation extends to all the ends of the earth.

When we read the Bible in lectionary segments, we risk losing sight of the context. In the verses preceding this passage, the words the prophet speaks in his own voice are tinged with triumphalist nationalism. His thoughts turn, with understandable satisfaction, to the shame and confusion of the nations that have subjugated and exploited Israel, and to God’s salvation—not of the whole world, but of Israel.

The human instrument of the liberation celebrated by the prophet was the Persian king Cyrus. Two centuries later the Persian monarchy was overthrown by Alexander the Great, and the Middle East fell under the control of rival dynasties of Greco-Macedonian warlords. In the second century BC a Jewish revolt was, after a bitter struggle, catastrophically suppressed. In the first century AD a revolt against the Romans resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple (the building of which had been made possible by Cyrus). After a further revolt against Rome was suppressed in the second century, Judaea effectively ceased to be the home of the Jewish nation.

So did the prophet get it wrong? Well, he didn’t see the whole picture, and his view of the picture that he did see was limited and skewed by his understanding of what he saw in the world around him. Resenting oppressive enemies and taking satisfaction in their downfall is natural enough.

Our own attempts to discern what God wills in the world are no less limited and fallible. We must try to make sense of God’s will: we must also recognise that the sense we make will be partly nonsense. The horizons of God’s wisdom are infinitely wider than ours.

And yet the prophet did not, in the end, miss the most crucial insight. Reaching beyond his personal preoccupations and his fallible interpretations, the prophet faithfully proclaimed the one God who offers salvation to every nation and to all the world.
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