"For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you," says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:7, 8; ESV)
Whatever I heard about God growing up, I don't remember hearing about the kind of intensity expressed in this week's Haftarah. Desertion, compassion, anger, love - sounds more like a soap opera than religion. I was told we were the chosen people, but doesn't that have to do with centuries of persecution and rejection? Isaiah's words suggest that there is more to it than that.
This passage is one of several that pictures Israel's relationship to God as a marriage - a difficult marriage. Israel is depicted as a troubled and oft time wayward wife, longing after other lovers who never satisfy. God hasn't taken very well to being jilted by his beloved and has responded in all sorts of ways, driven by a holy jealousy.
The ambivalence towards God experienced by many Jewish people today is the result of this difficult-to-understand relationship. For some, this great God of power has been reduced to cold religious rituals, for others he is a myth. Some are so angry at him, they deny his existence. Others are committed to not being sure.
Isaiah tells us, however, that something else is going on. The sense of being abandoned by God is real, for he has hidden his face from us. He has been angry with us. But what has been difficult to comprehend is that the distance we have experienced is motivated by his deep desire for us to be fully reconciled with him.
No other nation on earth possesses a history of God's intense love like this. He so yearns for an intimacy with Israel he will spare nothing to see it fully established forever. Isaiah tells us in another passage that God himself has provided all that is necessary to restore us to right relationship with him. The interesting thing about this passage is that you may have never heard about it.
The verse I read at the beginning is part of this week's Haftarah. The Haftarah is a supplementary portion of Scripture taken from the Hebrew prophets that is read following the weekly Torah (Books of Moses) portion on Shabbat (English: the Sabbath). The Haftarah readings are the same each year and were chosen long ago based on some level of commonality with its respective Torah portion. Last week, as is done every year around this time, the Haftarah was Isaiah 51:12 - 52:12. This week it's Isaiah 54:1-10, in effect skipping over Isaiah 52:13-53:12. I am not suggesting that this passage is skipped over intentionally; it's just regrettable.
Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 reads like a play-by-play of what God has done to restore relationship with us by having the Messiah take on himself the consequences of our waywardness and making us right with God as a result. If you have never read this passage before, I encourage you to do so.
Thankfully, God's love for Israel is not for Israel alone. God's yearning after the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob demonstrates to the rest of the world its own waywardness and God's provision of restoration of all who put their trust in him through the Messiah. But that God's love is for all should in no way distract us from understanding that his first concern is for Israel.