24 January, 2010

A Perfect Circle

When I was a kid, I tried really hard to draw circles. I imagined a circle was a line that bent around smoothly until it met back up with itself. I could draw a perfect circle if I could just bend the line around at exactly the same rate until the end met back up with the beginning. I got pretty good at it even.

And then I took geometry. Did you know a circle is the collection of all points the same distance from a center? That's a completely different way of looking at this shape. A circle is no longer a bendy line over which I have to sweat to make sure it bends just right. Give me a compass setting and as long as I know where the center is, I can fill in little bits of the circle anywhere I want to. They'll always meet up. Understanding "center" makes circles very easy.

It can be hard to tell the difference between freehand and compass-drawn circles, though. They're both just round lines.

Seeing the bible as a novel rather than a theology feels the same. My new conclusions look the same as the old ones. I'm relieved to feel a little surer my theology is round, but I doubt I'm really going to believe much differently. The joy comes when I feel a passage's impact before I categorize it, when I can tell where it fits in the narrative before I think about which theological team might claim it as a proof-text.

Take this earth-shattering promise from Isaiah:
Isa 54:8-10
With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you," Says the LORD, your Redeemer. For this [is] like the waters of Noah to Me; For as I have sworn That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, So have I sworn That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart And the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed," Says the LORD, who has mercy on you.

This is staggering.

Matthew Henry responds to it like this:
He will not be so angry with them as to cast them off and break his covenant with them (Ps. 89:34), nor rebuke them as he has rebuked the heathen, to destroy them, and put out their name for ever and ever, Ps. 9:5.

Jamison, Fausset, and Brown have this to say:
I am about to do the same in this instance as in Noah's flood. As I swore then that it should not return ( Gen 8:21 9:11 ), and I kept that promise, so I swear now to My people, and will perform My promise, that there shall be no return of the deluge of My wrath upon them. LOWTH, on insufficient authority, reads (the same will I do now as), "in the days of Noah."

Those statements don't sound staggering to me, and that's a problem. They sound correct, but this is a staggering moment in scripture. If you look at this as just another promise about God restraining His wrath or as a prophecy of the end times or as a commentary on God's free will trumping man's free will, it ends up sounding like the 4th line of a 12 line geometry proof. It might be critical, but it sure ain't compelling.

If I were to provide Cliff Notes for this passage, to comment on it as a part of the ongoing story of God's self-unveiling, it'd sound more like this:

What just happened!?

We've known this God for a couple thousand years now, and suddenly He changes all the rules? Yahweh made Eden perfect, then cast out the man who ruined it. He destroyed every living thing when the men He'd cast out of Eden corrupted the rest of His Earth. He flooded it all out. Gone. He only narrowly decided to gamble on His creation one more time and spared Noah. He did vow He'd see this second chance through to the end, but not before He'd shown us His driving obsession with perfection.

We saw it again when He brought His people out of Egypt, then killed all but Joshua, Caleb and their families in the desert. And again when He established a nation, then brought the Assyrians to sweep most of them away. And according to Isaiah, the Babylonians were coming to sweep the rest away soon. Yahweh is not afraid to be angry. He's not afraid to sweep everything away and start over fresh. He's unafraid to fail, but utterly incapable of settling for second best.

And with this one promise He closed the door on Himself.

In this promise He did nothing less than monkey-trap Himself. He promised to hold on to Israel, without ever letting go and without any conditions. All His previous promises had conditions. We spent hundreds of pages learning this about Him. He's a cagey God Who promises the moon to those who meet His conditions, but Who curses the man who tramples on His promises just as enthusiastically.

What's He got up His sleeve?

Who is this Yahweh that He can dare us to disbelieve Him this way?

I want to ask the perfect question of this verse, but I can't, and I hope you won't expect it of me. But there's something at the edge of my mind. What is He planning? Is He excited? Does He feel anything like that rush of adrenaline I feel when I double-down on a bet and put my house up as collateral? Is He showing something like the smug glee of a magician flamboyantly reaching down into his hat when he knows the rabbit's up his sleeve the whole time? Or do we see the confidence of a skilled craftsman turning a lump of gold into a pomegranate?

But who cares if I don't know the perfect question. I'm in awe. God reveals Himself in a new light here.

There are so many layers of mystery in this passage. So far I've only looked at the surface! Remember that it was Jesus Who led Israel out of Egypt, and Yahweh Who walked on Earth. God never changes, only our understanding of Him. There's only one God yesterday, today and forever. The great and mysterious revelation of Isaiah 54 is consistent with Yahweh's wrath at Israel all those generations before and consistent with the mercy of God in Christ. Paul's God of propitiation, sanctification, and manifestation is unchanged from Job's God of fearful trials and burning correction.

No matter what I see in God at any point in scripture, it's there in Him at every point of scripture. That He would leave so many generations to live and die with so little insight into His sacrificial mercy is yet another powerful insight into His nature. He is comfortable with Who He IS, even when we misunderstand Him. He feels no need to explain Himself to anyone. If Jonah mistakes Him for some local god, only powerful in the region of Canaan, and seeks to flee to Tarshish, Yahweh does not lecture him on the true scope of His power. He simply tells Jonah what he needs to know and do, and places him back on the path to Nineveh.

Does the magnificence of God's self-confidence not strike you? Does it not impact you that He promised Israel never to rebuke them again? And does it not floor you that He never made that promise before?!

Do you want to dilute that feeling, or dry it up like a tangerine baked in the desert? Try to solve the mysteries of the millenial kingdom with this verse. Or look for some root principle of sovereign grace that's been eluding you. Talk about all the things God does and will do, instead of Who He IS. The beauty of even the best well-formed proof cannot compare to majesty of God Himself pulling back the curtain and letting us get to know Him.

As I've read through the Old Testament, my ears have been slowing down. The rhythm of my reading is changing. I was raised on critical half-verse proof-texts, but I'm finding the value of whole chapters and books. God gave us a Bible rich with verses that prove nothing, and I've always wondered why. Why bog us down with so much trivia?

I'm starting to believe He's given us all those long passages for the same reason parents talk in front of their babies so much. A lot of it's over our heads, but we hang on His every word. We get to know our Father in heaven by listening to Levitius and Chronicles and Zechariah. We absorb His words and see generations of His acts, and are made ready to talk to Him. I've done my time indexing the exciting verses and ignoring the "unimportant" ones, and maybe now I'm done with it. We'll see.

And when I'm done drawing Isaiah 54 my way, what I have before me is a circle. It looks round to me, but I just don't really know. Does it look round to anyone else? I don't know. I don't think God cares how round it is any more than I cared if my babies said, "Dada," all wrong, but I'd like to be drawing my circle from a true center.

Right now, I am revelling in looking at the Bible in this new way. I feel like a kid rereading books 1-6 of the Harry Potter series for the 4th time and waiting anxiously for that 7th book. There's so much we know know about Yahweh that Abraham only felt. There was so much revealed in Christ that David only suspect due to his own calling and character. It's amazing to think about David succeeding at things because God knew one day He'd succeed at those things Himself. God gave David's victories to foreshadow His own, to unveil Himself.

And it's amazing to know there's yet more to be revealed. As much as was revealed in Jesus' first coming, there's a tome about to be written. The plot of God's novel only seems simple if you ignore the complications of His long-awaited return, Israel's restoration, the holiness of His Name before His enemies, the full realization of His kingdom, judgement and so many other themes.

I'm still unsure how many ways there are to profit by the Bible, but I'm loving this new way.


Kansas Bob said...

"God never changes, only our understanding of Him."

Amen! Thank God that His influence in our lives help us to change and see Him more clearly.

salguod said...

This is only tangentially related to this specific post, but more so to the series in general.

Have you read Frank Viola's From Eternity to Here? I've just started it and can't yet decide if it's madness or genius. He seems to be exploring the idea of a the Bible as narrative of God's preparing a bride for His Son. It seems that it may line up with what you're exploring in some ways, we'll see.

Kevin Knox said...

Thanks KB.

Salguod, your question is interesting at several levels. I knew Frank during my Gene Edwards days, but I've not read his book.

Gene wrote, "The Divine Romance," which was an exposition of seemingly the same theme. Gene has been teaching about this for a long, long time and he always starts by telling his audience that the lesson must begin "in eternity past." Before you can talk about God's eternal purpose, you must know the eternal God's eternal essence.

It's an interesting assertion, and I certainly believed it with all my heart for a long time.

I'll be curious to see what you think after a little more thought. When I was highly focused on soteriology, I used to wonder why God didn't spell it out more clearly if that was the most important thing. Then when I was focused on Gene's divine romanticism I wondered why God didn't see fit ever to tell what He was like before creation.

God obviously does love and court a bride. I have no quarrel with that truth. I just wonder whether such teachings might not be a little like refining the cocoa plant. You can chew on the leaves for a nice stimulant effect, but if you refine it into a fine white powder you've got something terribly destructive - and deeply addictive.

salguod said...

Interesting, I was reading this morning and thinking "This stuff is right up Kevin's alley." LOL

It certainly started out a little out there. The first couple of chapters were about God and Jesus' existence before creation, their relationship and that Jesus had no outlet for His love. That's why I said madness. I mean, OK, sure it's plausible but there's no basis for it in scripture. It's pure speculation, that's it.

But, the stuff since has been great, thought provoking stuff about what it means to be the bride of Christ. We've been made into his perfect bride by his death on the cross. He sees us as such, perfect, and we need not feel guilt nor do we need to win his affection. We already have it.

So, after starting off teetering on the edge of lunacy, he's taken a turn toward greatness. We'll see how it goes from here.