Posted by: Dan | March 30, 2005

The Prophetic Cry of Forsakenness

Well I'm betting Abe is the only one who actually reads this all the way through. I love you Abe!

The Prophetic Cry of Forsakenness: Theological Reflections on Isaiah 63.7-64.12

Introduction

Harold Kushner, in his now famous book about suffering, concluded that, although God is sovereign and loving, there are tragedies that God cannot prevent. Some things are beyond even God's power. Instead of viewing tragedies as preventable, instead of holding God responsible, the people of God must “learn to love and forgive [God] despite his limitations.” God does not cause calamities to happen. God does not wish us harm. All God can do is journey with us and give us the strength to overcome.

Although Kushner writes as a Jewish Rabbi many Christians adopt a similar attitude. God, it is said, is a God of love. He will never leave us nor forsake us. Yes, there are times of calamity, but God is not the cause of such tragedies, nor does God abandon us in the midst of those tragedies. In the midst of every disaster Christians claim that they can still be certain that God is with them. Above all else Christians cling to the promise in Hebrews that God will never leave nor forsake his people.

As comfortable as such theologies may be, they present a deceivingly one-sided view of Scripture. The words of Isaiah 63.7-64.12 violently contradict Kushner's words. Over against the type of comfort offered by false prophets who proclaim, “peace, peace,” when there is no peace, the prophet of God cries out in pain, in uncertainty, and in forsakenness. No, the prophet says, God is not with us. God has abandoned us. And shall we be saved? Such comfortable theologies also reflect an unwillingness to truly deal with the present experience of suffering. Kushner's theology is a reflection of a contemporary propensity to live in denial, pretending that nothing is wrong. Kushner theologises people out of their historical existence. As Jacques Ellul says, “We are skilled at camouflaging our bondage by calling it freedom or by describing some counterfeit as freedom.” To this it may be added that we have become skilled at hiding forsakenness by calling it companionship, or offering some counterfeit as intimacy with God.

To be able to speak into suffering the people of God must be willing to take seriously such passages as Isaiah 63.7-64.12. Such laments cannot be excluded from the canon of Scripture that informs and shapes Christian living. This passage reveals an affirmation of, and prophetic participation in, the cry of forsakenness. This affirmation and participation is based upon a radical remembering and a radical hoping that are both rooted in the character of God.

Prophetic Remembering and Forsakenness

Isaiah 63.7-14 begins the lament by speaking to God about God. The passage speaks of God's love, and covenant faithfulness, as it has been revealed over the course of Israel's history and especially in the exodus event. God is continually described as the one who personally delivers his people. God is reminded of the way in which he created Israel as a people, the way in which he brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness to a place of rest.

This act of remembering is devastating in light of the context from which the prophet is writing. For, as the prophet describes throughout the remainder of the passage, currently it seems that God is neither, loving, merciful, or active. Instead of tearing the heavens and coming down, causing the mountains to shake (as happened at Sinai), it seems that God remains aloof and distant from his people. As a result the hearts of the people have been hardened and the sanctuary of God has been destroyed. The people are withering away, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem is desolate, and the Temple has become a ruin burned by fire. This remembering causes the prophet to conclude that God must have forsaken his people. The God who had previously acted so powerfully on behalf of his people has stopped acting on their behalf. Therefore, the first result of prophetic remembering is an affirmation of the present state of forsakenness. The people's separation from the Lord is experienced as a separation from the past. What is being experienced now does not make sense in light of the way in which God has revealed himself before. Over against those who would argue that God is always there the prophet says, no, God has forsaken us. In the language of forsakenness the prophet is able to find a symbol that adequately portrays the horror that has produced numbness and mass denial in the people. By speaking with such passionate grief, by mourning the prophet radically confronts those who have become numb to the situation and those who seek to deny that anything is wrong.

However, while this remembering affirms forsakenness it also directly challenges it. By remembering how God has acted the prophet challenges God, asking if he has changed or decided to be false to his people. Has God forgotten the glory of his name? The plight of his people makes it seem like he is no ruler at all. In this act of remembering the prophet grabs hold of God and refuses to let go. In the present experience of forsakenness the only thing the prophet has is the memories of God and so the prophets holds fast to them. The one remembering gives the Lord no rest until he fulfils at that has been promised. By remembering the prophet calls God to act as the true God, and not as the idols. Over against the idols that are deaf, dumb, and helpless, the prophet calls God to see, to hear, and to act. Remembering argues that the God who is silent is no God at all, it says to God, “I summon you not to be an idol, not to act like a false god, since I know you are God, I summon you to speak.” By asking God to change his mind, the prophet is essentially asking God to repent of the way that he is acting. And he is not just asking, the verb form used in 63.17 is the imperative. By remembering the prophet is calling God to “Return! Turn! Repent!” This is faith that will not let God go. By recognising that the root of the current tragedy is the experience of godforsakenness the prophet also recognises that there is no human way to escape this tragedy. Nowhere in this passage does the reader find a suggestion that there is anything that the people can do in order to restore fellowship with God. What the people need is for God to return to them. The cry of forsakenness is an affirmation of the people's helplessness and a recognition of their absolute dependence upon God. As such it is an act of worship. To cry out in forsakenness is not to slander God, or profess faithlessness, rather it is a profound act of worship in the midst of a truly terrible situation. It affirms that God, and only God, is the one who is capable of breaking into history and enacting salvation.

This worship is a form of confession. The cry of forsakenness is also a cry that recognises the sins of the people. God has changed because his Spirit has been grieved. The people have wounded the holiness of God and, because of this, things cannot remain as they have been. God, who was once their friend, has now become their enemy. God's silence is rooted in the fact that God has been rejected by his people. As a result of the people's sin and God's silence, God has hardened the hearts of his people. God showed the way that would bring blessing and the people rejected it. Even after judgement was enacted the people continued in their sin. Their sinfulness was found in the fact that God's people did not call on him for help in the time of their need, or seek him in their times of crisis. The people were not interested in the Lord, they neglected him as an object of worship and a source of strength, and so the Lord hid his face from them.

However, by engaging in this confessional worship and crying out to God the prophet is calling out in a time of need, and seeking God in a time of crisis. The prophet's cry of forsakenness is a form of true worship and a desperate acknowledgement of God as the only source of strength for his people. Because God has hardened the hearts of the people only he can once again restore them. If God did not act because he was forgotten the prophetic cry of forsakenness is a genuine act of repentance, a genuine act of turning back to God. Thus the prophet's final question is, after all this — after this confession, acknowledgement, exposition and repentance — will God still withhold love?

However, the final question remains unanswered. The prophetic experience of forsakenness is also accompanied by a genuine experience of uncertainty. Although the prophet remembers what God has done, the genuine nature of present abandonment creates uncertainty about the future. To join in the cry of forsakenness is to also participate in a lack of knowing what exactly the future holds. In forsakenness the prophet can no longer cling to assurances or hasty confidences. This is a grief that cannot to quickly offer or embrace any words of comfort. The uncertainty of the prophet reveals that the forsakenness experienced is genuine. Cries of forsakenness that do not contain this element are mockeries or shams erected by false prophets and hollow sympathisers.

Prophetic Hope and Forsakenness

Despite the uncertainty that accompanies forsakenness, the prophet does not cry out because of hopelessness. Rather, the cry of forsakenness is one that is thoroughly grounded in hope. It is grounded in hope because remembering is a hopeful act. As the Jewish proverb says, we read the Torah because it is our future we are remembering. Remembering is grounded in hope because it recalls the intimate relationship God has with his people. God is their Father, and their Creator. Because there are his children, they can cry to be brought home, and hope to be heard, despite their sinfulness.

It is hope that dares to challenge God. It is hope that engages in the blasphemous activity of rejecting God's decision to be silent. The protest raised is raised not because God has revealed himself to be a false source of hope, but because God is the root of all hope. Hope is not living peacefully in the midst of tragedy, it is not sitting calmly waiting for everything to change and get better. Rather it is and indictment of God in the name of the Word of God. Therefore, the cry of forsakenness is exactly the opposite of resignation. To claim that one is abandoned is not to resign oneself to abandonment; rather it is to name the abandonment for what it is, in hope that this will bring change. Hope refuses to say simply yes or no to abandonment. To simply say yes is to resign oneself to it. To simply say no is to deny the situation altogether. Therefore, hope says yes and no, recognising the current state of affairs, confessing sins, and clinging to the transforming power of God's promises.

It is hope that allows the prophet to recognise that all human attempts to overcome the tragedy are bound to fail. Hope enables the prophet to find true strength in waiting for the Lord. Therefore, hope is essentially an attitude of worship. Hope enables the prophet to confess in light of the past mercies of the Lord. It is what sustains the prophet in the uncertainty of abandonment. Although the prophet has no sure or certain knowledge of the outcome s/he is able to remain in the place of forsakenness because s/he hopes that God will hear and come down from heaven.

Therefore, just as the cry of forsakenness moves the people to mourn what they have lost, also allows them to hope for a new beginning. Certainly such hope is fragile, painful, and desperate, yet it cannot be denied.

The Prophetic Movement into Forsakenness

As Isaiah shows in 63.9 God is a God who suffers the pains of his people. When the people are afflicted, God is also afflicted. When Israel goes into exile, the Shekinah also departs from the Temple and goes into exile. Israel suffers forsakenness, but God suffers this forsakenness as well. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the person of Jesus. It is Jesus who provides the fullest example of one who has been forsaken by God. On the cross he cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus, as the Word made flesh, chose to align himself with a people who had rebelled against God and take their forsakenness onto himself in order to bring the people out of forsakenness.

Therefore, the experience of abandonment becomes one of the birthmarks of the church. The Church, as the people of God, becomes the fellowship of the abandoned around the Abandoned One. As such, the people of God should not attempt to avoid abandonment but should rather follow in the footsteps of Jesus and the prophets and move into the forsakenness of others. The people of God should be those who journey alongside of the least of these, the crucified ones of today, in order to direct their cry of abandonment to the covenant God of creation. Instead seeking to create a painless world, or a world free from evil Christians are called to follow the footsteps of Jesus and draw the pain of the world onto themselves.

There is a noted “we-they” dichotomy in Isaiah 63.7-64.12. The “we” seem to be the faithful few, represented by the prophet, over against the faithless “they.” Yet the prophet chooses to accept the consequences of the larger group. The prophet identifies with, and refuses to be divorced from, the bigger picture. Personal faithfulness is insufficient in light of the faithlessness of the group as a whole. The personal experiences of a few do not change the fact that the many have been abandoned. Therefore, Christians need to recognise that they are essentially members of societies (and perhaps of churches!) that currently suffer godforsakenness. They must choose to embrace this godforsakenness and journey in it with others. They cannot embrace comfortable theologies that prevent Scripture from only one perspective. Such views only reflect their own hardness of heart and further the experience of forsakenness. In the end it is only those who suffer with and even for others in abandonment, that are God's witnesses, and his light to the nations.

This is not simply endorsing suffering but it is choosing to “suffer against suffering.” However, as a genuine move into forsakenness this is also a move into uncertainty. Such a move cannot be co-opted by the churches contemporary slant towards overly pragmatic strategies. Instead it must be understood not as “sacrifice on behalf of a cause that one wants to bring to success,” but rather as, “love for nothing, faith for nothing, service for nothing.”
However, this is a hopeful activity — especially in light of the Christ-event. In light of Jesus' crucifixion Christians are able to hope that their forsakenness will be the means by which God's salvation breaks into the world. They bear forsakenness with the hope of bearing it away. With this hope they simply refuse to cease suffering until God returns. By affirming the experience of forsakenness, by entering into the forsakenness of others while remembering who God has been and hoping for who God will be, Christians are able to strengthen those we would otherwise be overcome. It is through suffering with others that the feeble hands are strengthened. It is through crying out with others that knees are steadied. It is through being abandoned with others that the fearful hearts receive the comfort that the need to be able to hold on until God does return bringing salvation.

Bibliography

Bell Jr., Daniel M. Liberation Theology After the End of History: the refusal to cease suffering. Radical Orthodoxy Series. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

Conrad, Edgar W. Reading Isaiah. Overtures to Biblical Theology Series. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.

Ellul, Jacques. The Subversion of Christianity. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Ellul, Jacques. Hope in Time of Abandonment. Trans. C. Edward Hopkins. New York: Seabury, 1977.

Klein, Ralph W. Israel in Exile: A Theological Interpretation. Overtures of Biblical Theology Series. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979.

Knight, George A. F. The New Israel: A Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 56-66. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Avon, 1981.

Moyter, J. Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993.

Thompson, Michael. Isaiah 40-66. Peterborough: Epworth, 2001.

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Explorations in Theology IV: Spirit and Institution. Trans. Edward T. Oakes. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995.

Westerman, Claus. Isaiah 40-66. Philadelphia, Westminster, 1969.

Wright. N.T. Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

Young, Edward J. The Book of Isaiah: Volume III. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

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