a dance of despair and joy—a comment on the life of faith

Posted by PeteEnns on November 13, 2016 in biblical theology Christian faith and life 13 Comments

The readings today at St. Matthew’s (and every other) Episcopal church were Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19.

The Titus Arch in Rome depicting the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD by Emperor Titus.
The Titus Arch in Rome depicting the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD by Emperor Titus.

What an interesting pairing.

Isaiah’s words are all about the future bliss of Jerusalem where pretty much everything that can go right does and everything that can go wrong doesn’t.

There will be no more weeping or cries of distress; no more infant mortality but longevity for all; freedom from enemy attacks and hostile takeovers; descendants will be blessed, and before they even have a chance to speak, God will hear them and act.

In fact, Jerusalem’s future will be nothing less than a return to Eden where wolf and lamb, lion and ox, will be at peace, but the “serpent” (who tempted Eve in the original Garden of Eden) will pose no threat: he will be consigned to eating dust from the outset.

Thus spoke “Deutero-Isaiah,” the anonymous exilic/postexilic prophet, who envisioned a glorious future for Jerusalem. In v. 25 he echoes the words of the 8th century prophet Isaiah in 11:6-9, where the promise of the animal harmony was to have been a mark of the Davidic monarchy. Now, many years later, the role of the line of David is not so certain.

Still, the hope for Jerusalem’s glorious future remains intact, although no longer tied to monarchical rhetoric—now it is about a renewal of creation itself (v. 17), a new Eden.

But this future vision is not realized.

Jerusalem will labor under the yoke of foreign kings, first Persian, then Greek, and then finally Roman, at whose hands the Temple is destroyed and Jerusalem’s habitants are either killed or scatter.

We must remember that Old Testament prophecies do not always come about, not because they are failed predictions, but because they are not primarily hard-and-fast predictions at all. They are “conditional promises,”  visions of the ideal, of what God desires, of what can be, not of what will invariably be.

Which brings us to Jesus’s words concerning the destruction of the Temple in Luke 21. (Yes, I believe these “end-of-the-world” speeches in the Gospels pertain to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70—feel free to disagree.)

Jesus’s vision for Jerusalem’s future couldn’t be more different from Deutero-Isaiah’s. Jesus describes the impending destruction of Jerusalem. In classic prophetic exaggerated (yet still realistic) language, Jesus speaks of wars and insurrections, nations and kingdoms rising up against each other, earthquakes, famines, plagues, heavenly portents. And Jesus promises persecution, death, and hatred for his listeners.

Deutero-Isaiah’s future vision of Jerusalem was bliss, paradise, a new Creation. Jesus’s reality was, “. . . the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 6).

I know how this tension is typically handled in Christian theology: Isaiah wasn’t wrong at all. His words were intended, if not consciously by him then by God who inspired the prophet, to refer to a different sort of “fulfillment” that can only come with Jesus. [Whew. Crisis avoided. The Bible really does speak with one voice.]

I have no trouble with saying that Isaiah 65 came to be interpreted as “ultimately” fulfilled in Christ. But try telling that to the postexilic Jews. More important, to make the case that Isaiah 65 is actually about the collapse of Jerusalem and the Temple in order to make way for Jesus simply sidesteps the tenor of Israel’s theology, which was very much centered on glory of Jerusalem and of the Temple.

As with most things we see in the New Testament, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is a “surprise ending” to Israel’s story.

I would rather look at this tension the way I heard it in church today, as a dance between despair and joy in the life of faith.

Sometimes things look one way—glorious, hopeful, surely a certain and true blessing of God. And keep in mind that Deutero-Isaiah and the other postexilic Jews had every right to lay claim to such a hopeful future: Jerusalem was God’s city and the Temple was God’s house, and thus would surely triumph. 

To think otherwise would be to charge God with unfaithfulness to God’s promises; to accuse God of sleeping, lying, forgetting, or just not able to come through.

And yet Jerusalem and the Temple were razed and the people scattered or were massacred.

Even when we think we know what God will do—what God must do—we never actually really know. And in the meantime, we dance between joy and despair in this life of faith, where we are always learning to try to trust God rather than trusting in what we think God is doing or must do.

***In The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014), I deal a lot more with the messiness of the Bible and how that reflects our own spiritual journeys. In The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016) I spend a lot of time talking about how needing to be certain about what God is up to cripples faith rather than supports it.***



  • Really enjoyed your thoughts here. I’m trying to sort out your conclusion that “OT prophesies don’t always come about” with the OT test for whether prophets were of God or not. If what they predicted happened they were from God if not then they should die.

    • Thanks Aaron. Be sure to read the short post I linked to that point. For what it’s worth, the notion you are referring to reflects one theology of the OT. If that can be accepted, the diverse views are not as pressing a problem.

  • There’s also the factor that prophetic vision, especially of the apocalyptic sort, tends to be way over the top. Post Edom/Assyria/whomever is bugging us in this chapter of Isaiah may have fallen far short of a renewed Eden, but in the prophetic imagination giving hope to the original audience for life after their deliverance from their current oppressors, it may have seemed that way.

    The war against Rome didn’t involve 200 million mounted troops, but you know, prophets.

  • I thought that Isaiah 56ff is Trito-Isaiah, as least that is what I believe as I have been taught.
    I have not yet seen “a new heavens and a new earth” so my conclusion is that this is in the future sometime. Yes, the disciples hoped it was for them soon then just as we can hope for it to be soon nowadays.
    On prophecies, I think many of them are seen as fulfilled in an ex post facto way. And a prophecy can see multiple fulfillments, so just because it was fulfilled way back when does not necessarily mean it cannot be fulfilled in some way in the future.
    On Luk 21 many in the Way fled to Pella (the mountains) when the Legions marched in, instead of staying to fight. This contributed to the split between Jewish believers and Jewish non-believers.

    • Good point on verse 17, Donald. I was going to comment the same however, the NRSV translates the verse: *For I am about*, to create a new heavens and new earth; see also v.18. Other versions lack the “for I am about to” language and I am unsure what the best reading is. Pete, can you please comment on this?

  • If you think about the orthodox position, it means that the people who wrote the words and the community that was the audience had no idea about the meaning of the stuff they wrote and used to worship. They wrote it to mean something and it was used for a purpose, but apparently they were being fooled. That makes no sense to me.

    When you say Jesus was talking about Jerusalem in 70, do you mean that Jesus actually predicted the destruction of the temple before he died? Or do you mean that the writers of the NT put those in his mouth?

    Because you have said that prophecy isn’t predicting (and I agree) and that would be an odd thing to predict. What’s more, if you think about how horrible the Roman occupation was, what with people getting crucified by the thousands, starving to death and eating babies, according to Josephus, to think that God caused that as punishment for the Jews for disbelief is kind of the same level as saying God ordered genocide. Horrifying and disproportionate. And that thinking has been used to persecute Jews through history.

    It makes sense to say that Jesus wasn’t talking about our times, and for a time I played with the 70AD idea, but it has huge drawbacks.

    • One wouldn’t necessarily have to be a prophet to predict that if things continued on their current track (in the late AD 20s/early 30s) it wouldn’t end well for Israel. Just as Jesus wouldn’t necessarily have to have been a prophet to predict his own death. That sort of thing often happened to people who made the kind of waves he made. My point is that Jesus could very well have said those things rather than having them added by the NT writers, even if one is reluctant to ascribe it to divine revelation of some sort.

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