Now we debate how long the virus will last among us. Unfortunately, that discussion has been sharply and unnecessarily politicized. On the one side, advocates for “opening up now” are largely concerned about economic recovery and hope the danger of the virus will be fleeting. On the other side, those fearful for human safety and well-being imagine we are under threat for the long haul.
The question of “How Long?” is an urgent one among us. A question that has caused me to return to two quite peculiar verses in Isaiah 54:7-8 where we hear from God’s own lips an acknowledgement of a season of divine abandonment. (See my previous article titled “Abandoned!”) In their time of exile, the people of Israel’s question of “how long” was acute. The faithful wondered about the length of their exile just as we wonder about the length of time we now face the threat of the virus. Different segments of the population of ancient Israel experienced and reflected on the exile in different ways. At the same time all parties of the population agreed that the exile was a God-related, devastating disruption of their life and of their faith.
In this Isaiah text, God provides an answer to the question. The answer is given twice:
For a brief moment I abandoned you.
For a moment I hid my face from you.
The duration of divine abandonment is “for a moment.” Not long at all! The term “moment” in the text means a sudden happening, something that occurs in an instant. Thus:
How they [the wicked] are destroyed in amoment,
swept away utterly by terrors (Psalm 73:19)!
The exulting of the wicked is short,
and the joy of the godless is but for a moment. (Job 20:5)
In a moment they die;
at midnight the people are shaken and pass away,
and the mighty are taken away by no human hand. (Job 34:20)
For the chastisement of my people has been greater
than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment,
though no hand was laid on it. (Lamentations 4:6)
Our term used rg’, twice in the Isaiah text, refers to an abrupt turn, as short as a “clap” or a “beat”; or I reckon it to be the length of time in which one can unplug an old digital clock and plug it again so quickly that it does not flash “12, 12, 11.” In these several examples of the term, moreover, it is used for momentous negations that happen unexpectedly and inexplicably. Thus in our text, divine abandonment of Israel in exile is quite unexpected by conventional inhabitants in Jerusalem, even if the prophets had anticipated it. That divine abandonment—surely a negation—will last momentarily. Divine absence will be promptly ended, as it is assured in the second lines of verses 7 and 8. By the end of these second lines abandonment has been overcome by divine compassion. That divine abandonment will be short and will hardly appear as a blip on the screen of Israel’s history or memory.
This is God’s assurance to Israel in exile via Isaiah. We are offered reassuring poetic relief in the two second lines. If we reason by analogue, in our own experience, we might conclude the durable threat of the virus will be short, over in an instant or “by the first of July.” That would indeed be a divine rg’ of the virus, a fleeting negative moment promptly overcome.
The wondrous assurance voiced by the poet offered to exiles and then belatedly to us in our crisis, moreover, is an odd match to lived reality. It is an odd match in ancient Israel because the lived reality of the exiles lasted a long time, over two generations, or reckoned properly and precisely “seventy years” (see Jeremiah 29:10). In fact, the exile did not end abruptly at all and the homecoming from exile was a long-term transition of Jews variously coming home to Jerusalem over a long period.
I draw two conclusions. First, we know on the one hand, our present crisis will be overcome by the good faithful power of God! The evil will end because of God. The threat of the virus will end because of God’s compassion. That much is sure. The God who abandons is the God who faithfully ends trouble, according to prophetic horizon. But second, the “moment” of danger may be rendered poetically (as does Isaiah), but it must be lived bodily and historically. The exiles knew in their bodies that the deportation was not ending soon, and that they must live there in displacement a while longer (see Jeremiah 29:4-9). In the same way, we may poetically anticipate a quick end to the threat of the virus; we know in our bodies (and in the body politik), however, that the threat of the virus is not ending soon, in spite of the wish-world of some; we must live prudently in the meantime for however long.
This mismatch between poetic assurance and lived reality leaves us with the question, “How long is a ‘moment’?” How long is a moment in God’s time? The first answer is God’s moment is not according to our clocks or our preferred schedule. That of course is how it always is with “relational time.” Our time in relationships is not by the clock. Thus we may be with a loved one a long while, but because it is a treasured time it goes by much too quickly. Or we may miss a loved one, and each day of absence seems like “an eternity.” Thus the “how long” of the virus, like the “how long” of the exile, can indeed be reckoned by the clock or even by the coercive requirements of the market. But it can also be calculated according to the long wait for God’s compassion sure to be granted “in a moment.”
We will no doubt continue the controversy and debate amid the virus about when to “to open things up” and when “it will be safe.” It is useful, in any case, to remember that we are in the time frame of God’s compassion that is secure, but not according to our eager readiness. Thus our way of reasoning in faith is congruent with the way we continue to sing, even in our readiness for a return to a more comfortable “normal”:
A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all our years away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day
(“Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Glory to God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) 687.)
Time is in God’s hand, all our times! For that reason, we mark and measure our moments, our days, and our years very differently. The ending of the exile was in God’s safe hands and would not be terminated before God so willed it. The end of the threat of the virus also is in God’s safe hands. While we continue to quarrel and debate a timeline, all the while our life is from God and is back to God.
I once heard a reported interview with Willie Nelson as they walked together over Willie Nelson’s golf course. The reporter, at Hole #4, asked Nelson, “What is par for this hole?” Nelson answered, “Whatever I say it is.” So it is in God’s time: A “moment” is whatever God wills it to be. Our end of that reality over which God presides is to wait, to trust, and to obey. We do so with assurance, but with eager longing:
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24-25)
This is the second of three articles in a series to be published by Church Anew. The third will appear in our upcoming Brueggemann Column. We are honored to give Walter Brueggemann a place to share personal reflections and commentary about life today as God’s children in God’s world.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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