The Lord has broken the staff of the wicked, the scepter of rulers,
that struck the peoples in wrath with unceasing blows,
that ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting persecution.
I have the habit of reading scripture somewhat regularly in the morning, using an old lectionary, and currently also the help of a diary ‘Stille omgang’ by Willem Barnard. Today we read Isaiah 14, and I started wondering about the meaning of it all, and what I am supposed to do with such texts. Does God still speak to us today through these texts? How?
Perhaps the first question should be: does God speak at all? Does he even exist, is He a person who expresses himself to make contact? How can we know if our perceptions of someone speaking aren’t just the result of our over-imaginative mind? But I find these questions too difficult. I have them, for sure, but I don’t think I can ever answer them. So, letting these questions pass for now, I just want to take a step back and reflect on some questions that arose during my reading this morning.
My first question deals with the larger scale: what does Scripture say about world events? What am I to do with a prophecy about the return of Israel? What’s the point of the fallen morning star in Isaiah 14:12?
I grew up in a congregation that professed to have access to special God-given revelations on the meaning of all these prophecies, giving more details on how they would be fulfilled. Whenever I now read the Bible, these teachings come and disturb my mind, mostly because they haven’t come true, but also because they now strike me as rather scary and judgemental. I don’t want to keep coming back to what I have left behind, but it’s hard to ignore these associations and read the Bible with an open mind. Thankfully the aforementioned Willem Barnard shows me a different way. He encourages me to read it more as I would read poetry. As it happens, I like reading poetry. Wrote a few poems myself1. And I know how both in reading and writing there can be the magic of sudden contact at a level just below (or above?) consciousness. Reading in this manner helps me stay calm, let the words sink in, and feel that there is a Person behind these words. A person who cares. A person who knows about the oppression and tyranny, and inspires forces that will bring out truth and light, again and again.
My second question is on the personal scale: is there a message in it for me today? Are these words about Israel in some way also about me?
I’ll be the first to admit that this can be taken to rather silly levels. Like having a box with comforting Bible texts, and drawing one each day for a special blessing. Not wrong to be nice to yourself, but I suppose you could equally well use inspiring texts from Harry Potter or other heroes. Better, probably, because the Bible contains a whole lot of texts that aren’t comforting at all.
Even if I see these drawbacks, it has often been my impression that God did speak to me through Scripture (and Harry Potter, and poetry, movies, songs…) I’m not saying this is proof of God’s existence and personal care for me (for all I know it could be my over-imaginative mind) but it feels like personal influence coming from outside of me. One day, nearly five years ago, such a message shattered my worldview quite terribly. That day, I was reading Isaiah 65:4-5 where God threatens the people who “sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places (…) who say: I am too holy for you“. Somehow it was clear to me that God spoke about the way our congregation would gather to speak about the special revelations given to us by our ‘apostles’ (now long dead), which we kept secret from other Christians, and the teaching that we were the ‘first-fruits’2. This wasn’t a rational conclusion about the meaning of this particular text, but at a deep level I suddenly felt that God showed me what he really thought about those things that I always held dear. I was terrified. I felt so threatened by God’s anger, not knowing what to do, how to avert it. I’m not even sure I’ve fully recovered now, five years later.
So, back to my initial question. Does God speak through Scripture? In the manner I’ve just described? Did He speak to me through that verse Isaiah 65:4, hitting me that hard? I’m inclined to say tentatively ‘yes’, though not so directly as a fierce charge against me personally or other members of the congregation. When I now read Isa 65:4 more calmly, thinking of what Barnard said and treat it as poetry, I see it as a generic statement against cult-like behavior. I find it helpful and comforting to know that God indeed also despises that. That his anger was foremost targeted against the system of thought that held me captive. But I wonder if God didn’t also talk specifically to me, in the only way I would understand. Though frightening, it did help me get out, even if rather wounded by all the fear, that still needs to be addressed and heal.
The chapter I read this morning, Isaiah 14, did just that: address the fear and bring healing comfort. I needed to write this whole text to see it, but now I truly appreciate those verses about breaking the tyranny. And I am especially moved by verse 3 which I will take as my comfort for today: “The Lord shall give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear“.