Walter Brueggemann: God's Stunning Reversal

For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer. Isaiah 54:7-8

I now return to Isaiah 54:7-8 yet a third time. In the first article of this series, “Abandoned!”, I considered the fact that Israel’s God-abandonment, in these verses, is confirmed from Gods’ own lips. In the second article, “How Long is a Moment”, I reflected on the duration of Israel’s abandonment reckoned in God’s own time. Now in a third reflection I consider the “resolution” of divine abandonment in the affirmation of the second lines of verses 7 and 8. In the first lines of these two verses, as we have seen, the reality of God’s abandonment of Israel is unambiguous. I read that as a way for us to think about our own season of virus as a time of God-abandonment, a reality that is experienced by many people.

Given the certitude of abandonment in the first lines of these two verses, we are not ready for the reversal that is voiced in the pair of second lines. Thus I want to consider the nature of this reversal that twice juxtaposes divine abandonment and divine compassion. The two negatives are “abandoned” and “hid my face.” The two positives are twice “compassion.” In the first case, compassion is intensified by the modifier “great,” that is, immense in force. The consequence of that “great compassion” is “gathering,” that is, homecoming to Jerusalem. “Compassion,” moreover, is articulated in the plural, that is, compassion in abundance. In the second usage “compassion” is an active verb, “I will have compassion,” and is modified by “everlasting fidelity” (hesed). Thus twice “compassion, once a verb, once a noun, both times intensified by a modifier. It is an assurance of homecoming, the end of exile, the reversal of historical fortunes.

Thus the two lines of abandonment/compassion are connected by an adversative conjunction (waw-consecutive) rendered as “but.” Rhetorically the great reversal is accomplished by the conjunction. The rhetoric does not at all mind that the second line contradicts the first line; this usage of the conjunction is quite common in the rhetoric of Israel, especially in the wisdom tradition (see Proverbs 10:3, 4, 5, 6, for example).

My wonderment is how, beyond the obvious rhetorical maneuver, this great reversal is accomplished. (In our own historical context this reversal could be a reversal from the acute threat of virus to a virus-free historical prospect.) The usual scholarly way of understanding the reversal is that rhetoric simply follows historical sequence. Thus the two lines concerning “abandonment” reflect the displacement of Jews in Babylon (on which see Psalm 137, Jeremiah 52:28-30, Nehemiah 1:4-8). Thus the poet, Isaiah, could give voice to the evident reality of displaced Jews that he rendered as divine absence. Conversely the two second lines reflect the momentous turn of history when Cyrus the Persian, defeated the Babylonians and introduced a new policy that permitted displaced peoples to return to their homelands (II Chronicles 36:22-23). This historical outcome was clear enough that Isaiah could identify Cyrus as the Messiah of God, dispatched with God’s intent for Jewish homecoming (see Isaiah 44:28, 45:1). The calculus is a quite ordinary one for our conventional interpretation:
abandonment = Babylonian displacement;
compassion = Persian restoration.

If we extend the calculus, we may reason this way:
abandonment = virus;
compassion = end of threat of virus.

Rhetoric is led by historical experience. This characteristic rhetoric, moreover, permits God to be noticed and acknowledged in and through historical experience. These connections from historical experience through rhetoric to theological affirmation are conventional and unexceptional; they are also not very interesting.

But consider if we imagine for now that the rhetoric and theological claim are not led by historical events. What if we think, just for now, that historical experience is led by theological reality, that is, by the stunning reversal that takes place in God’s own life. If we begin in this way, we may ask what is going on with God (here offered as a character persona) that could lead to such an utterance of reversal that would in turn lead to historical reversal and emancipation. Such reasoning would be like asking (just for now!) what could happen in the life of God that would lead to emancipation from the threat of the virus. This is, to be sure, an odd way of thinking in the modern world. It is nonetheless a way of thinking that belongs properly to the life of the church. What happens in the life of God that eventuates in the life of the world?

When we think in this way, we may ask, what is it that evoked God’s stunning reversal from abandonment to compassion? Maybe the following is a response to such as query. I propose that in the midst of the displacement of exile God heard the laments of Israel; God saw the suffering of Israel; God knew the hard circumstance of Israel… all echoes of the beginning point of the Exodus narrative:

After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of their slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. (Exodus 2:23-25)

“God saw… God heard… God took notice!” And when God has heard and seen and took notice, God is moved by compassion for Israel. Thus God’s compassion either a) had been shelved by God’s displeasure with Israel or b) was not fully known by God until now, so that God reached out to depths of compassion that heretofore were not on God’s screen. This latter would suggest that the dread historical experience of exile led God to new awareness and risk. Mutatis mutandis, we may hope or imagine that the extremity of the virus may lead to a like jolt in God’s compassion.

We have some poetic renderings of the way in which the suffering of God’s beloved evokes new compassion on the part of God. In Hosea 11:1-9 God reverses field as God reflects on obligations and commitments to beloved Israel:

My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger. (vv. 8-9)

In Jeremiah 31:20 God finds that God is finally unable to “speak against my dear son.”

As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.

The term rendered “mercy” in NRSV is the same word that is elsewhere “compassion”; the term here, moreover, is with an infinitive absolute for great intensification of the verb, “have mercy.” And in Isaiah 49:15 God reaches into mother-love that leads to new historical possibility:

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.

The God evidenced in these poetic forays is not the settled God of philosophical ontology. This is God alive in the on-going drama of covenantal fidelity. In that drama God may be moved by worldly engagement to find new dimensions of compassion. That has been the truth of the gospel narrative since God responded to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. It is the truth of the gospel embodied in and enacted by Jesus, upon seeing the hungry crowd, was moved to compassion” (Mark 6:34, 8:2). The phrasing in the narrative suggests an internal disturbance in Jesus’ digestive system when he saw the hungry folk. This is indeed bodily engagement! We may belatedly imagine that our context of virus will, in like manner, evoke a fresh measure of transformative attentiveness on God’s part. It is the special burden of the church (and its preachers) to dig deeper into that covenantal reality that is the truth of our life, to probe into and imagine the stunning new reality of God’s own life. The great reversal that Israel was able to live out is a reversal wrought in God’s own life. The great reversal in God’s own life is known among us since the Exodus wherein the suffering of the beloved opened new waves of historical possibility. This God is not so settled in divine splendor that there can be no fresh measure of God’s best, most generous, most transformative capacity.

Walter Brueggemann

This is the third of three articles in our first series to be published on our new Church Anew 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

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.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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