Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Isaiah 59:16-17: A Vulnerable God?

Isaiah 59:15-17 states (in the NRSV): “Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him.  He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.”

This passage raised questions in my mind.  Why does God need to be upheld by God’s own righteousness?  And why does God need to wear armor that, incidentally, is the same sort of armor that believers are to put on in Ephesians 6:14 and 17?

Here are some thoughts:

1.  On why God needed to be upheld by God’s own righteousness, one explanation that I came across in browsing through E-Sword commentaries is that God’s own recognition that God’s cause is righteous is what supports God as God carries out God’s act of justice.  Perhaps God is discouraged: God sees injustice on earth and is dismayed that no one is doing anything about it or seeking God, and so God has to act, otherwise there will be no righteousness on earth.  What motivates God amidst this discouragement that God feels?  The righteousness of God’s cause.

2.  Commentators note that the armor that God wears is defensive.  Why would God need to wear defensive armor?  Who can attack God?  One commentary I read said that God is so powerful that God does not need to go on the offensive; that does not explain why God is wearing defensive armor, though.  Another commentator noted that pagan gods wore armor in battle; perhaps Isaiah 59:17 is simply a case of people attributing to a god what is true of themselves: they wear armor in battle, and so they figure that their god must, as well.  Edward J. Young says that “there are several foes who would attack the Lord and seek His destruction.”  But who could succeed against a powerful God?  I suppose that, if God were to bring himself down and refrain from using his full might, God could make himself more vulnerable to being harmed by humans.  But maybe God is guarding, not his actual person, since that is not vulnerable, but rather God’s reputation.  God in the Hebrew Bible is often concerned about God’s glory.  God wants it to be known that his act is righteous, for that would encourage repentance.  God acts, yet God is dealing with the free will of human beings, and that makes God vulnerable: vulnerable to failure in encouraging repentance, and vulnerable to being misunderstood.

3.  I did a search on the Babylonian Talmud.  Baba Bathra 9b states (in whatever translation that is on my Judaic Classics Library): “What is the meaning of the verse, And he put on righteousness as a coat of mail?  It tells us that just as in a coat of mail every small scale joins With the others to form one piece of armour, so every little sum given to charity combines with the rest to form a large sum.”  Here, it seems that God’s armor of righteousness is applied to the duty of the Jewish people to perform charity: God’s armor is not just about God but about God’s people as well, namely, their moral responsibilities.  Similarly, Paul in Ephesians 6 tells believers to put on the armor of God, and the details of that armor resemble the armor that God puts on in Isaiah 59.  Paul may very well regard the armor that God wears as instructive for how God’s people are to act.

In Sanhedrin 98a, a rabbi applies Isaiah 59:16 to the son of David: God may send the son of David (the Messiah) when times are so wicked that God sees no intercessor.  Interestingly, whereas the point of Isaiah 59:16 is that God acts himself because there is no human being to help him, that rabbi in Sanhedrin 98a depicts the Messiah as one who is helping God in God’s act of righteousness, as if the Messiah is the hand of God (though those exact terms are not used).

In the E-Sword commentaries, there were Christian commentators who related Isaiah 59:16 to the Messiah, whom they consider to be Jesus Christ.  Jesus was God, according to their belief, and yet as a man Jesus was vulnerable in the world of human beings.  Jesus needed to encourage himself that what he was doing was right, amidst opposition.  Perhaps Jesus even needed to put on spiritual armor to stay strong as he was doing God’s work.

These are just speculations.  I have not dealt much with the fact that Isaiah 59:16-17 is describing God’s vengeance, but perhaps my thoughts can still be consistent with that.

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