The people felt battered, and understandably so. The siege on their city had been disastrous. For 18 months, an imposing army had tightened a noose around them. As their food rations dwindled, so did their strength. Once starvation set in, the land forces moved in. The attack bloodied the captives’ bodies and souls.
Some survivors of the siege were allowed to stay in this wasteland. Others, around 10,000 souls, were marched 900 miles to a new land where they were forced to serve and live in an unfamiliar culture that took aim at everything they believed. And not just for months, or even years did the people remain there. Seven decades passed before they were finally freed and allowed to return to their promised land.
So it’s no surprise that this exile left the people of Israel, and their faith in God, a little worse for wear. In the past 70 years, they’d seen King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquer their beloved Jerusalem. And then Persia in turn conquer Babylon.
But the people realized that the fall of their city and subsequent exile was caused by their own acts of defiance against God — they had, after all, oppressed the poor, perverted justice, and looked for military aid from pagan nations — and they were ready to return home humbled and make a fresh start, right? After all, God could be seen fulfilling His promises in their favor. Things were looking up.
King Cyrus of Persia, for example, had unknowingly fulfilled a 150-year-old prophecy by allowing the Israelites to return to their home land. In fact, King Cyrus had gone so far as to actively offer aid in the rebuilding of their once beautiful temple. Hence the Israelites made the long journey back home all the while praising God for his restorative justice and divine plan….well, not exactly.
Instead, the remnant of people complain and level accusations against God. Essentially they call God into a courtroom and put Him on trial. The charges? Neglect, disregard, and injustice.
God’s response from the witness stand? Two-fold. First, in an act that absolutely proves God is over-the-top compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love, He pens a love letter. It’s one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture.
Before raising His voice and filling the courtroom with a thundering defense reminiscent of His response to Job, God the Father speaks softly, expressing how wide and long and high and deep is His love for His people. Over and over He tells them “Do not be afraid.” “I am with you.” And in the only place in the Bible where I have found this specific phrase, Yahweh leans forward and tenderly whispers “I love you.”
Six hundred and fifty years later, in a different letter, Paul asks the Holy Spirit to give the people at the church in Ephesus “power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” Tim Keller says that by using the word “grasp,” Paul is asking the Holy Spirit to help a person meditate on God’s love until it is able to “overpower him, wrestle him to the ground, and knock him out.” Or said in perhaps a gentler way, that a follower of Christ would come to know “in the heart what (s)he had known in the abstract.”
I’m finding that one of the primary ways that the Holy Spirit tries to wrestle God’s love from my head into my heart is through the wrestling of words. Mediation happens for me when I take a verse, my favorite writing pen, and my yellow notebook and grapple with why God would have me write this message on my heart. It’s in the scribbles and rewordings that I open my soul to grasp the beauty and glory of God.
What follows is my meditation on part of God’s wondrous love letter written to the bruised reeds of faith and smoldering wicks of hope both back then and now. May it be of blessing and encouragement to you today.
Meditation on the first part of Isaiah 43
The One who shaped you with shoulders burly,
and me with hair curly;
the One who formed you for the city places,
and me for the backroad oasis;
the One who designed you for dawn’s greet,
and me for midnight’s keep,
the One who created you and me
with hopes, fears, and dreams,
He writes to us a love letter:
Dear Child of Mine,
I know the waters before you look daunting,
but do not fear.
You will not have to pass through them alone.
I know the river between here and over there looks impassable,
but do not be afraid.
The torrents cannot sweep us apart.
I know the fire’s flame threatens to burn up your hope,
but do not let the heat melt your courage.
The waters, the rivers, the fires – they all know my name.
For I am Yahweh,
in whom all things visible and invisible were created.
I am your God,
in whom all things in heaven and on earth move and flow.
I am the Holy One,
in whom all things hold together, work together.
I am your Saving One,
in whom the most precious of things were ransomed.
Nothing was held back in exchange for you:
not comfort, home, wealth, glory, power, even life itself.
All given so that you would believe me when I say
“I love you.”
Come away from the thunder of the waters
and the roar of the fire.
Hear me calling you by name:
As you look over the world,
do not think I over look you.
I see the abuse in the east,
and the weeping in the west.
I see how my sons in the south suffer,
and my daughters in the north tremble.
Do not be afraid.
It may seem that evil, hate, and violence
intend to make a mockery out of justice, peace, and love.
But hold fast to the truth:
I am with you.
You are mine.
Let the evil one hear it clearly
above the howl of the violence,
louder than the applause of the hateful,
silencing the shouts of the wicked:
“They belong to me!
Give back to me those who call my name!”
“Return to me my sons from distant lands,
my daughters from far away shores!”
For my glory alone,
not the glory of the evil one,
I formed you, in my image;
I made you, not by chance.
When you stand beside the water,
and feel the heat before the flames,
guard your heart against that which desires
to make you blind to my love,
and deaf to my promises.
Nations, politicians, leaders, and assemblies of all kinds
are false witnesses to the truth.
They proclaim to know how to keep you
safe, secure, healthy, and wealthy.
But they cannot lead you through the floods
or keep you safe from the flames.
They do not understand the past,
nor can they predict the future.
When have any of them kept all they promise?
Instead, you are my witness to the truth.
I have chosen you to know me, to trust me,
to understand that I am the way, the truth, and the life.
Here is the truth to which you are my witness:
There is no other God but me —
there never has been,
nor will there ever be.
I have formed no other object of worship,
ideology, or higher power
after which you need seek.
You will seek me and find me
when you seek me with all your heart.
There is no other Savior but me.
You needn’t waste your efforts,
for only I can redeem your soul.
Only faith alone
in Christ alone
will reconcile you to me.
What was true at the beginning of time,
will still be true at the end of time.
Modern culture, technology, and thinking
has not fundamentally changed you or me.
You still need rescued.
You still need saved.
I AM the only one who has done so.
No one else will.
No one else can.
No one can snatch you from my hand,
or sweep you from my presence.
It has always been,
and forever will be that way.
Do not be afraid,
child of mine.