I wrote this post around May last year, but for some reason didn’t post it – so am rectifying this now – I think the references to then current events still resonate (sadly).
“Truly you are a God who hides yourself…” – Isaiah 45:15. I read those words yesterday morning, and at so many levels they seemed to speak.
A God who hides himself, and who seems to be hiding the next steps pretty tightly right now.
A God who hides himself – in a world of mass murder, a world of violence, a world of hateful rhetoric from politicians who use pictures of refugees fleeing war torn scenes we cannot imagine to frighten us into choosing their way. A world where one serious contender for the most powerful position on the planet thinks he can make a country safe by building a wall and stirring up hate.
A God who hides himself rings true in our experience and in the experience of a world that can seem utterly out of control.
But it is important too to get the context of these words right. They come at a key point in Exodus 40-55. The soaring rhetoric of these verses holds out the promise of a new Exodus for Israel, a new deliverance for God’s people.
But in chapter 45 things take a surprising turn. God’s deliverance will not be like the first Exodus. It will not happen through an appointed deliverer confronting a pagan ruler. It will not happen by a miraculous series of signs of judgement on Israel’s oppressor. Instead Isaiah 45 begins:
1Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you
and level the exalted places,[a]
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the LORD,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the LORD, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
7 I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.
This time the LORD’s deliverance of Israel will be achieved through the action of Cyrus. Cyrus is the King of Persia who defeats Babylon. It Cyrus who will issue the decree to Judah to return to the land (see Ezra). When we look at the passage we see that it is God who gives him the strength to do this, God who equips him for the task – with the ultimate aim that, like Pharaoh, or like Israel, Cyrus will know that “I am the LORD”.
The surprise is that Cyrus does not know the LORD. He is equipped, called and strengthened by name, by the LORD, but he does not know the LORD’s name. Verse 4 is striking. For Israel’s sake the LORD calls Cyrus by name – and yet Cyrus does not know the LORD. Cyrus freely chooses, for reasons of imperial policy to let Judah resettle Jerusalem – and yet this free choice is at the same time the deliberate act of the LORD to rescue his people.
God works out his purpose and plans in the mixed up world of human politics and empire. That is the message of Daniel too – especially the visions of chapter 2 and 7, and the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4. God is the true King. He works his purposes out in the rise and fall of empire. Sometimes that is comfortable. Sometimes less so. 45:7 is stark. Sometimes God’s purposes involve calamity.
I don’t like that. I want to say that God always does nice things. The Bible however is consistent. God works with and in the mess of this world to work out his plans of deliverance.
Isaiah 45:15 does not end with God hiding. It says: “Surely you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, who delivers.” The verse marks a transition point in the chapter. Up to 45:15 the focus has been on God’s use of Cyrus to bring about his rescue. To the end of the chapter the focus is increasingly on God’s rescue of Israel and even on a hope beyond Israel.
What struck me as I read that was that God is a God who simultaneously hides himself and delivers. His salvation occurs in the unlikeliest of ways and through the strangest of people. His salvation does not occur in the same way twice. He hides while delivering.
I’ve been reading the Narnia stories to the boys at bedtime over the last few weeks. We began with the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, moved on to Prince Caspian, Voyage of the Dawn Treader and now are moving into the Silver Chair. It has struck me that these stories are marked by the gradual withdrawal of Aslan from seeming active involvement in the story. This is especially marked by the Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace’s encounter with Aslan is told through Eustace’s eyes, and the only direct encounter in the story is with Lucy in the magician’s house. (Aslan does, of course, appear at odd moments as a warning, and as an albatross to provide encouragement, and to rebuke Caspian towards the end, and there is then the final encounter with Aslan.)
The Silver Chair is more striking even than this. The only encounters with Aslan directly are at the start and very end. Jill’s encounter with Aslan has some striking similarities to Isaiah 45 in its starkness and lack of apology for divine behaviour. Jill is then given the signs to remember – and warned of how tempted she will be to forget, and of how easy it will be to go by mere appearances. The remedy is simple: remember the signs. Remember. Aslan does not turn up to rescue in the book. The children mess up at each point. And yet the quest succeeds. One of the key points in the book is Puddleglum’s determination to believe against all odds. Following Jesus often looks like living the Silver Chair. It often involves getting it wrong. It often involves feeling like God is hiding.
Yet it is the hiding that God is saving.
God was saving a people through a Persian King who did not know him.
God was saving when He came as a helpless baby in a manger.
God was saving when the baby grew up to become a man.
When the man was nailed to a cross. Rulers scoffed and mocked.
The sky went black. The man cried out forsaken, and alone.
And yet at that moment God was accomplishing salvation for all who believe.
At that moment of utter hiddenness God was doing his greatest work.
It is the hiding that God is saving.
I don’t know what that means in my life.
I don’t know what the means for our next steps.
I don’t know what that means for your life.
It might mean disaster. It might mean illness. Bereavement.
I don’t know what it means in the life of our nation and our world.
It might mean the collapse of our democratic tolerant comfortable society for something much more nightmarish.
But none of that means that God has stepped off the throne.
It is in the hiding that God is saving.
18 For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.
19 I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
‘Seek me in vain.’[c]
I the Lord speak the truth;
I declare what is right.
20 “Assemble yourselves and come;
draw near together,
you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge
who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
that cannot save.
21 Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the Lord?
And there is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Saviour;
there is none besides me.
22 “Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
He is God. He is not an idol. He is not made by us. Not created by us. Not defined by us. Not pinned down by us. There is no other God besides our God. He is God. He is hidden – and yet he saves. He does not say “seek me” in vain. All who seek will find.
We all have a choice. An idol – a god that cannot save, that we create and form and make. Or God – the true God – the God who makes us uncomfortable, who unsettles and disturbs. The God who saves, restores and heals. There is no other. Aslan says to Jill – who longs for a drink yet is frightened of this great lion – “There is no other stream”. There is no other way to life than by casting ourselves on the God who hides and delivers.