An Awful Tension

I just finished reading Isaiah, for the 10th time at least.  In the past I’ve been struck with how confusing, relentless, even numbing it is.  This time I was struck with how schizophrenic it is.

The literary style, I’m informed by those who know, is “stream of consciousness,” simply because nothing else fits.  But whose stream of consciousness?  The character who’s mostly speaking is God himself.  If the monologue is read and taken as continuous, the only way to make him appealing to us would be to mentally insert interruptions or transitions.  Otherwise, the kindest adjective would be bipolar.  Is this the God we Christians worship?  Snarky atheists wouldn’t even let him out of the house, much less put him on a pedestal.

The quick and easy answer is that unbelievers don’t understand holiness.  Which is true, but we believers don’t understand it all that well either.  We tend to err on one side or the other.  If we want to focus on his inclination to us, we lean on passages like this: “Because you are precious in my eyes,/ and honored, and I love you,/ I give men in return for you,/ peoples in exchange for your life.”  Or, if we want to warn of his absolute sovereignty, there’s plenty to choose from there too.  How about: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity.”

What we often overlook is the great dilemma for him.  The terms he allows to be used are very telling in themselves.  Though we know he has complete control and exists in perfect peace, God is torn.  I hope I’m not being irreverent: he allows the issue to be cast in that light.  He swings between retribution and reconciliation in the same chapter, sometimes the same verse.  He demands justice but yearns after mercy.

When you think about it, it can’t be any other way.  “God with us” is a beautiful and comforting thought at Christmas, but what it meant in Isaiah’s time was an awful (awe-ful) tension.  My pastor said in a recent sermon that God-with-us in the Old Testament inevitably meant death: one slip, and wrath breaks out.  But God’s absence means chaos, conflict, and conquest.  Unholy beings like us can’t live with him, but we can’t live without him either.  And he can’t live with us.  But he does not desire to live without us.

“I will give men in return for you . . .”  Might that mean, “I will give a man in return for you; I will walk among you in man’s flesh, and take man’s punishment, and be raised again for man’s life?  I will be just, but I will also be the justifier; someone must pay, but it will be me.”  The lines of mercy and justice will finally come together, and the place will be a cross.

Blessed schizophrenia . . .

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