Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dew Point

But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.

                        Isaiah 26.19 

Block That Metaphor!

New Yorker readers keep an eye out for tiny squibs tossed in to fill out column copy. Set in tiny type, they grab a sentence or two from another publication and with only a bold header, excoriate the lousy writing beneath it. My favorite is block that metaphor!, which fires darts at writers who hang so many bells and whistles on their prose it jangles like a cheap charm bracelet. (Case in point.) It takes no more than a quick glance at Isaiah 26 to envision chunks of it squeezed into the magazine’s tiny corners. Isaiah departs from his exquisite prophecy to try psalm writing and pours his all into the effort. Cities rise, gates open, cities topple, roads smooth, villains burn, history forgets, borders expand, false pregnancies occur, exiles return, casualties revive, dew falls, and wrath is unleashed. Block that metaphor indeed.

Fortunately, the message beneath the florid poetry pulses with faith in divine justice. The wannabe psalmist fails, but the prophet triumphs. As each fresh image piles on the clutter, a promise takes shape. By the time the “expanded border” metaphor hits, we see what the shouting is all about. People forced outside and kicked to the curb are coming home. God creates chaos to make room for them. He raises open cities, crushes closed ones, and ousts unjust oppressors. Verse 14 proclaims, “You punished them and brought them to ruin; you wiped out all memory of them.” The returning exiles’ number is so vast Israel’s borders are too narrow to contain them. According to verse 15, God redraws the map to include them for His glory. The loosely strung metaphors start hanging together. Then a new image breaks the chain.

Hysterical Pregnancy

Describing Israel’s disregard for those it lost, Isaiah writes in verses 16 and 17: “As a woman with child and about to give birth writhes and cries out in her pain, so were we in your presence, O LORD. We were with child, we writhed in pain, but we gave birth to wind. We have not brought salvation to the earth; we have not given birth to people of the world.” If a more powerful picture of religious rejection exists in Scripture, I’ve not found it. Essentially, Isaiah diagnoses Israel’s sin as hysterical pregnancy—a psychological illness that outwardly exhibits every symptom of childbearing while its sufferers are hollow inside. Before technology enabled physicians to detect it, hysterical pregnancy often went unconfirmed until false labor failed to end in live birth. Thus, while Israel’s lost children multiply in exile, the nation’s sterile hysteria decreases the populace inside its borders. From its contortions and screams, it looks and sounds like it’s bearing young. Actually, it only gives birth to wind, bringing neither salvation nor people to life. Does this have a familiar ring?

Our Dead, the Dust, and the Dew

Before we who struggle with religious alienation get cocky about Isaiah’s harsh portrait of insiders, his next verse hits us with a slap of reality: “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.” The promise of resurrection can’t blind us to our dead—fellow exiles destroyed by ideas and influences that suffocated their faith with anger, cynicism, and self-indulgence. Nor can we continue deluding ourselves that life on the outside is the best we can find. We’ve settled for less than we deserve, far less than we were meant to have. We dwell in the dust when we should be living on the land God made for our sustenance and growth. Many of us have given up dreams of home and gone to sleep. “You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy,” verse 19 says. God is doing something amazing around us and in us. He’s using the chill of disillusionment and exclusion to revive our spirits and restore our joy.

We’re at the dew point, when His warm acceptance collides with cold rejection and condenses into life-giving love. “Your dew is like the dew of the morning,” Isaiah says. “The earth will give birth to her dead.” Dew is falling. Dust is turning to mud (God’s creative medium). Our dead are standing to their feet. From every direction, we’re heading home, shouting for joy, confident in God and filled with His creativity and power. The land we reenter won’t be the one we left. God has widened its borders to accommodate us for His glory. Still, Isaiah warns against being discouraged to find some of the hysteria that drove us away remains: “Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by.” (v20) Per God’s intention, we arrive before He’s finished fixing the mess we left. The dew announces a new day. It falls early to bring us home in time to express God’s forgiving love to estranged brothers and sisters once He’s through dealing with them. Postponing our return until they clean up their act puts us there too late to teach them what we learned from the dew.

The dew that revives us announces a new day and gets us home in time to express God’s love and forgiveness to those who once forced us outside.

(Tomorrow: No Hope in Sight)

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