The Credo of Adjectives
A Lenten Reflection on Isaiah
The Lord passed before [Moses], and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
As we prepare for the beginning of Lent I would like to reflect upon a central theme that permeates both the Old and New Testaments: the centrality of God in our lives in all places and at all times — and in very specific ways. You might think of me as a bit unorthodox in framing this reflection upon the work of Walter Brueggemann, a noted Protestant theologian. But one of the things I have learned through the years is that ecumenical dialogue at times enhances understanding of our own Catholic faith. In this vein, Brueggemann once noted that the God of Israel could be described in a “credo of adjectives” (216). In this credo are found five enduring adjectives that lie at the core of Israel’s belief, as well I might add, to the life and redeeming mission of our Savior Jesus Christ. These five adjectives are a God who was and is merciful, compassionate or gracious, tenaciously faithful, forgiving, and forever steadfast in love.
Our own journey in the Catholic faith is in many respects focused on how Jesus Christ became the very divine embodiment of these five adjectives. But for now, I would like to turn our attention back several hundred years before the Incarnation of Christ to the prophet Isaiah as a means of illustrating the power of this enduring credo of the Lord. This credo was first articulated in the time of Moses as we see in Exodus 34:6-7 quoted above, and later exemplified through the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 2:1-4 we are told by the great prophet that human sin cannot destroy God’s purposes for us, and that in the end the mercy of God will triumph over wrath, for God’s people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).
The Lord of mercy will transform death, destruction, and vice to the betterment of humankind through His mercy. What a powerful metaphor it is to take instruments of war such as the sword or the spear, for example, and turn them into instruments of peace which provide nourishment for the people; the plowshare and the pruning hook. Isaiah reminds us all in this powerful passage from Old Testament Scripture that our God is a God of mercy.
Isaiah also reminds us that the Lord is compassionate or gracious . Prophesying in his own time, Isaiah was reminding the people of Jerusalem and greater Judah that God’s grace for His people had not been forsaken because of their present situation in turning away from Him. In His ultimate compassion for the people, God had a plan for the future. Isaiah writes “in days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2). Isaiah was telling the people who had turned away from God that there is a future for them, where God’s presence in their lives, His grace, will be ever-present. Not only that, Isaiah is actually telling them that there will be a time when the people actively turn towards God, like a stream of water drawn to a mighty mountain.
I know when you read Isaiah, especially for the first time, there appears to be a lot of doom and gloom in there – but in the midst of it all Isaiah is telling his people – is now telling us – that there will be a future when we live in the grace and compassion of the Lord; and that we will actually seek it out! There can be no future without compassion, especially when the people have turned their backs to the promises made — you know, that “covenant thing.” The fact that Isaiah is telling his people that there will be a future in the light and presence of the grace of God is a powerful message in a time of great crisis, as well as in our time these many centuries later. In the compassion of God is the very hope for the future of humanity!
In Isaiah 2:5 the prophet reinforces the importance of God’s grace when he writes “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” The light of God is and remains ever-present, if only we would open our eyes to see it, and live in its glory. Isaiah also reminds his people that God is tenaciously faithful. In Isaiah 3:10 the prophet writes, “tell the innocent how fortunate they are, for they shall eat the fruit of their labors.” What is Isaiah communicating here? Nothing short of the message that even though sin and death entered the world after the fall as depicted in Genesis, God remains ever faithful to His people. And this faith transcends the current human condition, such as it is. As God remains faithful to us — and I am taking a bit of liberty here in transposing Isaiah’s message to our time — this does not mean that we will be immune from the troubles all around us; but rather God’s faith in us ultimately goes beyond this earthly life, as noted in Psalm 73:23-24: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will receive me with honor.”
Where there is faith there is also forgiveness. Now, I have been focusing in my reflection with you on Isaiah 2 and 3. The first chapter of Isaiah deals with forgiveness more directly in many respects, for example when Isaiah writes in verse 27 that “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” Later chapters of Isaiah also speak more directly to forgiveness; for example he tells us that “the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us” (Isaiah 33:22). But let us stay in the second and third chapters. As Isaiah 3 comes to a thundering close, he prophesies about the troubles that lie in store for Judah. It appears that the prophet is now serving like a prosecutor, building a court case against the people in which the Lord will then pronounce ultimate judgment. Where is the forgiveness here? Isaiah writes in verses 13 to 15:
The Lord rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples. The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.
This assuredly is judgment and not forgiveness by the Lord. Judgment is coming, the people have turned away from God, they have grinded the face of the poor. But if death and destruction is the end of the story, if judgment ends in death and destruction, how can Isaiah then say in 2:5 “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord?” Why bother if there will be no forgiveness, no rehabilitation of humanity? It is the theme that lurks in the background of Isaiah ’s prophesying even when the darkest events are foretold for his people that in some respects points to the ultimate forgiveness of God more than when Isaiah says it more directly. Yes, there will be a trial by fire — because of the peoples’ own turning from God — but there will also be a time when God and His people reunite in love and faith. This is the beginning, not the end of the story.
And because God is forever steadfast in love, “many peoples shall come and say, ‘come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’” (Isaiah 2:3). My friends, as we continue to prepare for Lent, these early chapters of Isaiah show us that despite trials and tribulations; despite the people of God turning their backs to the promises of the covenant; despite the evil that lies in the hearts and deeds of men and women, God will remain with His people, steadfast in love. And when God’s people seek to depart from His presence, no matter where they go, they lose their true humanity, they lose their dignity. Isaiah sees all of this. And he tells us that the Lord will remain with us, and that there will come a time when we will return to the Lord; because only in God do we remain truly human (Motyer 56).
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Motyer, J. Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.