Brokenhearted Theology, Ramblings

A Terrifying and Hopeful Prayer

I’ve always loved the songs of lament that are scattered throughout the Psalms, but I never paid close attention to the prayer in Isaiah 63:15-64:12. For the last several weeks, this passage has been haunting me…it’s words have continually been on my mind. Here’s an excerpt…

Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion? They are withheld from me

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. After all this, will you restrain yourself, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

When I read this I am in awe of those praying and the God to whom they are praying. There have been countless times in my own life when I have felt similar thoughts – not knowing where God’s compassion and love is, wondering why God’s strength isn’t more obvious in a certain situation, or being baffled as to why God just can’t make life easier sometimes. I always feel a bit of relief that a prayer like this is part of these ancient and inspired texts. I am not alone on this journey…

The prayer ends with the picture of Zion, the beautiful and holy place where God was said to dwell with his people, destroyed – burned to the ground. God is seemingly silent and absent – a silence and distance that is even worse than exile or the destruction of Jerusalem. But the passage is not without some sense of hope. 64:4 boldly declares that no one has has heard or seen any God other than the God of Israel, and that God is faithful and reliable to work for those who wait.

The middle of this lament is what really amazes me – 64:1 says “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” How bad has it gotten? Bad enough that the only conceivable solution is God himself ripping the heavens open and coming to Earth to straighten things out – the God whose presence causes the earth to shake, bushes to burn, mountains to smoke, seas to part, and kings to fall on their knees.

But the prayer is not immediately answered, and instead ends with heart wrenching questions: has God abandoned his people? How long will he inflict punishment through silence? Can God restrain himself from acting after Zion has been demolished and his people scattered? A tragic lament cannot always have an easy and satisfactory answer.

At least not immediately.

Mark’s gospel account says that when Jesus was baptized, the heavens tore open and God’s spirit descended upon Jesus. Then, as Jesus was crucified, the curtain in the Temple (God’s former dwelling place) is torn from top to bottom. The heavens are torn open, and God came from above down to earth.

What a terrifying and hopeful vision…

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