An unflinching trust in God’s Divine Providence is the key to Isaiah’s prophecy

Father John A. Kiley

The Jewish nation cited movingly by Isaiah in this coming Sunday’s Old Testament reading is lost in self-pity. Tormented by their stronger neighbors – Assyria, Babylon, Egypt – they sense that God has abandoned them. They feel bereft of all Divine aid. They experience no hope. God himself, almost with some impatience, cautions his people against their groundless mood of rejection. “Where is the bill of divorce with which I dismissed your mother?” God is not a philandering spouse; he has not forgotten his vows to his people; he would never renounce them. “Or to which of my creditors have I sold you?” God is no human trafficker, disposing of his beloved family to secure his own comfort. God would certainly never forsake his people; he would never divorce them; he would never sell them.

Truth be known, Israel brought on her catastrophes by her sins, her infidelity, and her rebelliousness against the clear Will of God. “It was for your sins you were sold, for your rebellions your mother was dismissed.” Certainly, God tried to intervene and to change the course of Israel’s sad history, but the Jews did not heed his mediations: “Why was no one there when I came? Why did no one answer when I called?” God challenged Israel’s lack of confidence in God’s ready assistance: “Is my hand too short to ransom? Have I not the strength to deliver?” After all, God had proven himself many times over in Jewish history. God briefly recalls the Exodus event and the mighty curses he inflicted on the Egyptian nation: “See, with my rebuke I dry up the sea, I turn rivers into wilderness; their fish rot for lack of water, and die of thirst. I clothe the heavens in black, and make sackcloth their covering.”

Isaiah then interjects a nod to his own authority which allows him to speak on behalf of the Lord: “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them. Morning after morning he wakens my ear to hear as disciples do; The Lord GOD opened my ear; I did not refuse, did not turn away.” Isaiah boasts that his fidelity to the Lord and to the Lord’s work was not without hazard: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who tore out my beard; My face I did not hide from insults and spitting.”

Having lamented Israel’s timidity in the face of political oppression and also having affirmed his own mandate to speak on behalf of God, Isaiah reveals the underlying message found at the heart of ancient Judaism, at the core of Christianity, and especially in the drama of the Jerusalem entry experience commemorated each year on Passion Sunday: “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; Therefore, I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Christ, Israel, and all believers must be like flint, like that very hard metal that gives off sparks but does not shatter even when struck with iron. The political turmoil that weakened Israel’s resolve and the daily anguish that besets the life of the modern Christian must be offset by a toughened resolve to find strength in God and in God alone as Christ indeed did as his Passion evolved each day along the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus certainly was acclaimed by the crowds on Palm Sunday, but he did not let such approval go to this head.  Christ knew that God was the source of his strength, not public applause. “See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will declare me guilty?”

An unflinching trust in God’s Divine Providence, so easily forsaken by ancient Israel and so resolutely embraced by Christ even in the face of betrayal, suffering and death, is the key to Isaiah’s prophecy, to the message of Passion Sunday and to the reversals that plague the life of every Christian. “Who among you fears the LORD and heeds his servant’s voice?” Isaiah demands. “Who is the true believer?” he asks.  And then the prophet answers his own question. True believers are those who “…walk in darkness without any light yet trust in the name of the LORD and rely upon their God!”

The Passion Sunday liturgy boasts two Gospel readings. The festive trappings and joyous Hosannas of Palm Sunday’s entry fade into the Passion account’s distress. It is not the cheers and fawning of the Palm Sunday crowd that reveal the true Person of Jesus Christ. It is rather the face of Christ not hidden from “insults and spitting” that exposes the true nature of Jesus, that man resolute on his Father’s Will and totally confident of his Father’s caring Providence – in spite of every challenge along the way.