"Do not fear." We usually hear this exhortation from angels, but in Isaiah 43:1-7, it's in the mouth of God. "Thus says the Lord," and then, "Do not fear." Twice in seven verses it appears.
Bible study activity: figure out what is going on in this text by looking first at the fear that Yahweh tells the people not to have:
- What is/has been the threat to them?
- What reasons does God give for why the people should not fear?
- Which reasons have to do with God's past actions, and which with promises for the future?
There are all sorts of things to be afraid of, if you're in a post-exile Isaiah's audience. How are people so thoroughly disenfranchised going to get home, even if Babylon's tyranny over them has been foiled by the likes of Cyrus? What literal and metaphorical water, rivers, fire and flames will the people have to pass through as God gathers them from north, south, east and west? What will they do in the ruined Jerusalem after they get back there?
Above all these fears is the fear that God has simply abandoned his people. It's over. The covenant is null and void. You're on your own, kid. A couple of months ago, a Christian said to me something like, "Everyone in this life will leave you." It seemed to me she was taking the death of others a little too personally ("He didn't die just in order to leave you."), but her passion and clarity on this point were stunning. I imagine a similar sentiment among Isaiah's listeners. Everyone in this life —including God—will leave you.
God says no to that conclusion. No, no, no, a thousand times no. I created you. I have redeemed you. You are precious. I will gather you.
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For a little creative writing on what Isaiah 40-55 is about, see Fred Gaiser's "A Preacher's Conversation with Second Isaiah," Word & World 14/1 (1994) 87-94. It's free as a .pdf file on the Word & World web site. Fred begins by saying, "That favorite device of fantasy writers, the 'warp in the space-time continuum,' has brought the author of Isaiah 40-55 into conversation with a late twentieth-century preacher. We listen in."