The new Church year is upon us, and this Sunday (I’ll be preaching this Sunday, so I’ve been thinking especially hard about this) brings us a text from Isaiah that reveals just how sophisticated literary oracles can be in their ethical thought. The Old Testament is not stuff for the intellectually lazy (even as it’s not the stuff for those self-satisfied in their intellects), and Isaiah 64, in the form of a prayer, challenges anyone who hears to imagine and re-imagine the relationships between God, the world, the course of history, the responsibility of human beings, and the nature of prayer in profound ways.
The prophet calls out, Psalm-like, at first: God is not showing up when Israel needs God, and what Israel needs is a theophany that makes the nations quake, that perhaps might save Israel from the terror that has come in the shape of the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians. For centuries Israel has not enjoyed the freedom that David delivered and Solomon secured, yet the prophet, pulling on the memories of the Psalms and inspired by God to proclaim boldly that God’s fire is still burning, calls for a sign so powerful that even the mountains would tremble at it. God is always able to make things happen in the world, and God’s people are always right to call for God to remember, to save, to hear.
But then the oracle takes a turn: where Psalms often admit to sins, Isaiah’s oracle, inspired of course by God, holds that it was God’s own refusal to show God’s self that left the people to their own devices. God’s anger, whatever spurred that anger (and for Isaiah at least, it’s always for a good reason) has led Israel further into its own wretchedness. Indeed there are none within Israel who call on YHWH, but YHWH’s own absence has created the conditions within which such abandonment continues.
As this week’s reading takes its final turn, the prophet (still inspired, of course) turns to YHWH and re-establishes a proper stance of humility: the potter, after all, has the authority to say how the clay should take shape, and what the people of God should be calling for is not justification of God’s ways to men but for God’s memory. Remember, O Lord, that we are all your people. Remember, O Lord, as you remembered the Hebrews in Egypt. Remember, O Lord, the promise that you have made, through Israel and in behalf of all of the nations.
And thus a brief run of verses weaves an amazingly complex picture of God, the world, Israel, and prayer: the prophet, speaking for Israel, admits Israel’s apostasy even as he points to YHWH as contributing to the depth of the depravity. The prophet calls on YHWH to strike fear into the mountains and yet kneels humbly and asks simply for memory. The prophet confesses Israel’s iniquity even as he calls on YHWH to remember the goodness of the covenant. All of this must be true together, and Isaiah’s oracle resists any truth about God and Israel that is any less complex.
Remember, O Lord. And may we be a people of memory.