The World Council of Churches (WCC) of which Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) is an integral Part embarked on what was termed as the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace as from the 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea. All the departments have to align their work with this concept which is consistent with EDANs mission of advocacy for inclusion, participation and active involvement in spiritual, social, development and structural life of the Church and society. To us, pilgrim has the components of moving together, being united, respecting each other, encouraging one another when the journey gets hard, recognizing that each has a part to contribute and accepting that we are not complete without one another.
Pilgrimage comes with fear of the unknown, loss of comfort zones, doubts of what is ahead, bearing of burdens of others, physical tiredness and not to mention, discomfort of the journey itself. There could be the “seemingly” weaker members of the pilgrimage who may not be desirable since they will be expected to pull others behind. Worse still, there could be doubts on God’s purpose and fear of the powers that may stand on the way of the pilgrim. All these are discouraging factors which have to be put into consideration as anyone embarks on the pilgrimage. In reflecting on this, I am led to a reading from the Preachers commentary on Isaiah’s prophecy on the return of the remnants of Israel from the exile in Babylon as recorded in Isaiah chapter 40.
This chapter of Isaiah is the beginning of a new section in the prophecy where the children of Israel have been in exile over the prophesied period and God was preparing to have them return to their land. The generation of people who remembered the homeland of Judah and the city of Jerusalem had died. Without the vision of Zion, a second generation of deportees only had the prophet’s word of God’s promise upon which to depend. Countering this unfulfilled promise, each day they awakened to see the grandeur and the power of Babylon. Moreover, many of the exiles had exercised an entrepreneurial genius in the commercial world to become wealthy and secure merchants. To think of leaving Babylon on a seven-hundred-mile march through treacherous terrain and taking only the possessions that could be carried on their back or pulled in a cart—all on the basis of an unfulfilled promise from God—was a risk that provoked second thoughts.
Underneath the temptation to remain in Babylon lurked fears that had to be overcome before faith in the promise of God could take hold. The exiles needed comfort for their fears as much as for their doubts. Therefore, after promising to be the shepherd with a strong arm and a tender touch who knows just what his flock needs, God speaks first to their fears. He gave them four reasons for freedom from fear based upon His transcendence as the Creator, Controller, and Caretaker of all the earth.
His Transcendence over Nations
Fear must have gripped the hearts of the exiles as they thought about the power of Babylon to control their destiny. To declare their intention to return home might be interpreted as rebellion against their captors. Or, after they had made their declaration and prepared to leave, public opinion might shift from passive permission to active persecution. Knowing the reputation of the Babylonians for being people of vicious nature and arbitrary action gave the children of Israel good reason to fear the power of the empire.
God addresses their fear of Babylon by a question rather than a declaration.
God asks: (a) Who has measured the waters of the seas in the hollow of the hand? (b) Who has measured the heavens by the span of the hand stretched from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger? (c) Who has calculated the dust of the earth in a measuring cup? (d) Who has weighed the mountains on a balancing scale? The answer is obvious “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and God head” (Rom. 1:20). We have one of two choices: either shut our mouths or confess our sins. He and He alone has the eternal power of creation.
Another set of rhetorical questions is asked of the children of Israel in exile who fear Babylon. Kings are only as wise as their counsel. Good kings, in particular, seek direction for decision-making, counsel for doing justice, instruction for knowledge, and guidance for understanding. The courts of kings are always filled with wise men, scribes, priests, and even sorcerers. Against the best of human wisdom, then, God asks the questions: (a) Who directs the Spirit of the Lord? (b) Who is His counselor? (c) Who instructs Him? (d) Who has taught Him justice, knowledge, and understanding? By reference to the Spirit of God, the earlier promise of the Messiah echoes again through these words, “The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge, and of the fear of the LORD” (11:2). In this case, however, the transcendence rather than the immanence of God is being declared. He is omniscient in knowledge and understanding as well as omnipotent in power and might. No one directs, counsels, or teaches God. He, and He alone, is all-just, all-knowing, and all-understanding. In sum, He is all-wise.
With the givens of His omnipotence and omniscience, God draws the comparison between Himself and the nations of the world, specifically the Babylonian Empire that His children fear. Isaiah’s choice word for lifting the veil on revelation to reveal eternal truth is “Behold.” Who can mistake the simple, common language of the Lord when He declares, “Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the balance; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing” (v. 15)? He further declares that all of the wood and animals in the forests of Lebanon are not sufficient for a burning sacrifice in His holy presence to atone for the sins of humanity (v. 16). Weighing the power of all nations on the scale against His omnipotence, they become less than a drop in the bucket or a speck on the balance. They are “as nothing … less than nothing and worthless” (v. 17).
God’s case is made. Because He is transcendent over all nations in omnipotence, His children need not fear the power of Babylon, which is “less than nothing” in His sight.
Wherever the Israelites looked around the magnificent city of Babylon, they saw the exquisite handiwork of statues to the heroes and gods of the empire. Even though they remembered the second commandment of the Law of Moses, which forbade the making of graven images as representative of God, they still nursed the fear of trusting in the God whom they could not see.
We cannot be too hard on the children of Israel in Babylonian exile. Yahweh had not spoken to them for a full generation. At least the graven images of the Babylonian gods had faces!
In response to this natural fear, God asks a question and cites the facts. Still working within the framework of His transcendent power and wisdom, God asks, “To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?” (v. 18). A comparison is then drawn between the invisible Spirit of God and the graven image of human craftsmen. All of the skills of the most gifted artisan go into the quality of the hard wood, the gold overlay, and the silver chains, with the hope of producing a precious and permanent representation of the Babylonian gods. Even the poorest of the poor who cannot afford gold or silver scout for the best of hardwoods that will not rot. But when the exquisite work is finished, the idol must be chained to the wall to keep it from falling over. God’s sense of humor has turned to sarcasm. What a laughable sight to see the labor of Babylon’s best craftsmen and the investment of Babylon’s wealth in a statue of a god that totters and falls unless silver chains hold it upright! The scene has the making of a classic comedy.
No answer is needed for God’s question. The statues of the Babylonian gods are products of the raw materials created by God and are subject to all of the laws that He instituted, including the law of gravity. Within themselves, they are lifeless, powerless, and dumb. No comparison can be drawn between earthbound graven images and the eternal, living, and transcendent God of all creation. The fear of trusting God, whose face they cannot see, is dispelled in the cartoon of tottering statues.
His Transcendence over Rulers
In concert with their fear of the power of Babylon, the children of Israel must have dreaded the dictatorial style of the Babylonian rulers. Their reputation for ruthless slaughter and whimsical decrees, rising from drunken orgies like the one held by Belshazzar in Daniel 5, lays an air of uncertainty over the prospect of a return to Jerusalem. Perhaps they thought, “What if the king of Babylon uses the exodus to justify a holocaust as the final resolution of the Jewish question?” An Eastern despot enjoyed absolute power without moral compunction.
God addresses this fear with His third set of questions. A bit impatient now, He asks in rapid fire:
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
These are open questions of recall for the children of Judah.
From His exalted position, God controls, as well as sees, human affairs. The princes and rulers whom the children of Judah fear can be brought down to nothing or rendered useless by the power of His will (v. 23). At best, their reign is as temporary as vegetation whose lifespan is limited to the season between planting, sowing, growing, and reaping, after which they wither and become the stubble blown away by a whirlwind (v. 24). The exiles, then, are asked to remember what they have known, heard, and understood. All rulers are under God’s control; He will determine how long they rule and when they die. Because the rulers’ powers are limited and transitory, the children of Judah are assured that if God blows on them, “they will wither, and the whirlwind will take them away” (v. 24).
His Transcendence over Gods
Statues of gods are objects made of raw materials created by the hand of God. If God is accepted as Creator, the fear of those objects fades.
Using the same questions that He asked about the graven images, God again invites comparison, “To whom then will you liken Me, or to whom shall I be equal?” (v. 25). The same argument is used to dispel the children of Israel’s fear of graven images. God asks them to look up at the stars and realize that by His power He created them, named them, and perfected them in a system where none is missing.
God then asks: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, My way is hidden from the LORD, and my just claim is passed over by my God?” (v. 27). Once again, He asks them to remember what they have heard and what they have known. He, the Lord of Jacob and the Holy One of Israel, is also “the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (v. 28b).
His power never weakens or grows weary, and His understanding is perfect. With that declaration of His omnipotence and omniscience, God offers to the exiles the final resolution of their fears about the return to Jerusalem. He will exchange His power for their weakness and His strength for their weariness (v. 29). When He does, their energy will exceed the vigor of youth. If they are willing to trust God for the timing and the strength to fulfill His promise, “they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).
By God’s great exchange, their weakness will be renewed by His omnipotent strength and their fears will be relieved by His omniscient understanding. They were now ready for the seven-hundred-mile walk home.
Like the Children of Israel, we need to accept God’s challenge in our pilgrim to leave our comfort zone, shed off our doubts and fears, receive strength to walk and not to be weary but most of all, to accept the fact that we are not complete without one another irrespective of whether we are weak or strong, have disabilities or are able, sick or healthy. We need to accept to be a church of all and for all as part of our pilgrim.
Dr. Samuel Kabue
EDAN Executive Secretary