Last week I started a series on the theology of suffering. I believe many Christians have had their faith knocked sideways, like a rogue wave on a ship, because they don’t have a sufficient theology to fill the gap between their pain and the person of God.
Today I want to explore an Old Testament word picture that was used to help the Israelites find peace in their midst of their suffering in Babylonian captivity.
In 586 BC Jerusalem was defeated by the Babylonians and a large portion of the population was taken into captivity. Families and livelihoods were transported into a foreign power’s homeland. You can imagine the hardship and suffering the people experienced during this upheaval.
Isaiah writes of what this suffering feels like in Isaiah 59:9-11: “So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead. We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away.”
Doesn’t your suffering make you feel the same way?
Isaiah, the great Old Testament prophet, predicted this event roughly 200 years before it happened. He told King Hezekiah, “Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord Almighty: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Isaiah 39:5-7
Then in chapter 40 Isaiah assumes this event has already taken place and gives a theology of God that the people are to rely on while in captivity. He gives a theology of creation to combat the reality of the people’s suffering in captivity. Isaiah is not unique in this thinking. Note how the Psalmist uses creation as a place of comfort while the people suffer under the hands of a foreign power:
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.
For the word of the Lord is right and true;
he is faithful in all he does.
The Lord loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of his unfailing love.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathers the waters of the sea into jars ;
he puts the deep into storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the people of the world revere him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.
The Lord foils the plans of the nations;
he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,
the purposes of his heart through all generations.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people he chose for his inheritance.
From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind;
from his dwelling place he watches
all who live on earth—
he who forms the hearts of all,
who considers everything they do.
No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
even as we put our hope in you.”
Why the creation motif? Genesis 1:2 describes the earth as formless and void. The Hebrew word used to describe this condition, tohu wabohu, is also taken to describe the pre-formed earth as in chaos. This formless chaos that God created was something he created. God created the earth out of nothing (Psalm 148:5, Proverbs 8:22-27). Everything comes from God. He did not use preexistent matter.
Why did God create chaos before he brought order to the earth? The reason is theological. The world of Genesis 1:2 points to a world without God’s transforming power. The rest of the chapter points to how God transforms the world from chaos to a point where he is able to declare that it is “very good.” The portrayal of chaos shows that God is charge of the chaos that suffering brings into our life. In the next 11 chapters in Genesis then we see a world where sin bringing chaos back into the world and God setting order back into that world, or the reversal of creation. We see God is in the business of bringing order out of chaos, of bringing light into the darkness.
We see Isaiah giving encouragement to God’s people in exile by referring to this truth from the scriptures. In Isaiah 51:9-11 he writes, “Awake, awake, arm of the Lord, clothe yourself with strength! Awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of old. Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over? Those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
In this verse Isaiah demonstrates the God’s power over creation tells us that He has the power to deliver us from the chaos of our suffering and re-establish God’s order in your life.
In verse 10 he talks about the sea drying up and making a path for God’s people. This is a direct reference to when God used Moses to split the Red Sea to provide a path of escape from the Egyptian army. Here we see God demonstrating his power over creation to bring his people to safety. The references to the waters of the great deep and Rahab are direct references to God’s victory over the waters of chaos at creation.
In Isaiah 45:18 he says, “For this is what the Lord says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited— he says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Notice here how the creation motif goes from being empty (Gene. 1:2) into being filled. Doesn’t suffering make one feel empty, like they are being drained of life? Isaiah saus God’ redemptive life has the ability to fill that void. The same idea is expressed in Isaiah 44:26 but here Isaiah talls of God using a command to bring redeem the land from chaos that is reminiscent of God giving the command to form the earth in Genesis 1.
The idea that Isaiah uses to give the Israelites suffering in Babylon is that in redemption God raises his people out of chaos. Isaiah continues this thought throughout his book not only pointing out how God’s creative power can restore Israel, but ultimately the entire cosmos.
What does this mean to you? It means that God intends to bring order to the chaos we encounter to the suffering we experience here on earth. How he chooses to bring order to that suffering is many and varied in scripture. Sometimes he removes the suffering, but my experience is most of the time he doesn’t. He instead brings order into the midst of our chaos.
Creation tells us this, that God can and will bring order into your chaos. Look at creation as an example. A fire runs through the woods destroying everything in its path. Yet, after the flames have gone order is slowly restored. Plants begin to grow, new trees are planted, and the animals return. The same is true after a hurricane or a tornado. We see this in Romans and Revelation where creation is released from the chaos ensued upon it by sin.
So when the chaos of your suffering is knocking you sideways look to creation. Meditate on God’s handiwork. Think about how he created this beautiful world out of chaos and know that God can do the same for you.