I said last week that Isaiah 45 is a hard chapter, that it digs into things that are neither easy to understand nor easy for us to accept; it deals with truths that are hard like granite, sharp-edged and unyielding as stone. There is comfort in these truths, but not comfort that comes to us on our own terms; it isn’t the comfort of an overstuffed easy chair in a warm room, but rather of the great stone wall that holds out the storm. It’s a comfort that does not promise to give us what we want, but rather asks us to trust God for what he will give; which is, I believe, a better thing in the end, but the truth of that is not always obvious. Indeed, it’s sometimes far from obvious.
Which fact, I think, sets up the last of the really hard statements in chapter 45. We begin this section of the book with another prophecy of the nations coming to Israel—focused this time on the peoples of northern Africa, where Israel had once been enslaved; now, those nations will come and voluntarily submit themselves to Israel, even to the point of making themselves slaves. Why? Because they recognize that the God of Israel is the only true god, and they’re willing to do anything—whatever it takes—in order to get in on Israel’s worship.
And then comes this statement: “Truly you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” “Truly you are a God who hides yourself.” What are we supposed to make of that? It’s hard to say, because we don’t even know who’s speaking here. It’s just been the nations who were talking; is it still? Is this the response of the people of Israel to the promise God has just made? Is it the prophet? We don’t know. There are scholars who argue for each of those possibilities, but none of their arguments are all that strong; the simplest reading is that this is still the people of the nations talking, but that’s really not a great reason all by itself to come to that conclusion. In the end, I think we just have to accept that we don’t know who’s speaking here; it’s obviously not God, but it could be just about anyone else.
And in the end, perhaps it really doesn’t matter all that much. One of the reasons we don’t know who’s speaking in verse 15 is that nobody else argues with this statement—Isaiah doesn’t, Israel doesn’t, the nations don’t; whoever says it, it stands unchallenged. Which means that we should probably read this as a statement they all agree with, one that makes sense from all their perspectives, and see why that might be—and particularly, why it makes sense in this context. Taken by themselves, these words might seem bitter and cynical, but they clearly aren’t; they’re a response to a very good thing, to the nations discovering and coming to faith in the God of all creation, the Lord of the world. These words might be taken to mean that God plays games with people for some negative purpose, but that’s clearly not true either; God himself disclaims that in verse 19: “I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’”
What then does this statement mean? I suspect there are three truths in view here. First, God could be said to hide himself in that he’s often not to be found where we look for him, in the ways in which we expect to find him. From the perspective of the nations, this is the most basic meaning here: they didn’t find the true God working in any of the great nations of the world, playing the game of conquest. According to the way they understood things, that was how you knew which gods were greater than others; thus, for instance, when the expanding Babylonian empire conquered Assyria, that was understood as a victory not just for the emperor of Babylon over the Assyrian emperor, but also for Marduk, Bel, and Nebo, the gods of the Babylonians, over the gods of the Assyrians; by their conquest, they had proven themselves more powerful gods. The idea that there might be only one God, and that that God might be found not with one of the mighty empires of the world but with one of the small nations they had conquered, was a radically strange idea for the peoples of the world. Indeed, that idea was even a strange one to the people of Israel, to God’s own people, which is why God keeps having to make his case even to them, as he does again in this passage, that only he, not the idols of the nations, is to be worshiped and obeyed.
The problem is, Israel kept buying into the world’s conventional wisdom, that the power of God is with the strong, and worldly success is proof of divine favor; as a consequence, they kept concluding that the logical thing to do, the logical way to improve their situation, was to worship the gods of other nations as well as their own. This is a problem because God is not to be found in our conventional wisdom; he doesn’t do things in the ways that we expect, according to what makes sense to us, because he isn’t limited by our knowledge and understanding. That’s why the gifts he gives aren’t limited by our knowledge and understanding, either; that’s why he kept trying to give Israel something so much bigger than they wanted—he kept trying to give them the gift of being the ones through whom he would redeem the nations, when they just wanted him to help them conquer the nations. That’s why the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins spoke truth when he said, “If you want a religion that makes sense, go somewhere else. But if you want a religion that makes life, choose Christianity.” Because that’s so often the problem, that we’re looking for a god who makes sense to us on our terms; it’s not really that God is hiding from us, but that our expectations and assumptions are blocking our eyes and ears.
What this means is that God is not found by those who are unwilling to find him; he isn’t found by the proud and the haughty, by those who have all the answers, by those who are confident in their own strength to conquer life on their own terms. He isn’t found by those who aren’t really seeking him, who aren’t willing to surrender their lives to him; he isn’t found by the assertive and the self-sufficient. God is found by the humble and the contrite, by those who know they need him. This is why it’s said at times that he hides his face from Israel in judgment—Israel knows he’s there, not because they sought him and found him but because someone else did, but too often, they aren’t really seeking him at all, they’re only seeking his benefits. They want him to give them what they want while they disregard his commands, and so he hides his face from them, he turns away and leaves them in the silence until they will humble themselves and truly seek, not their own best interest, but his face.
There’s another aspect to this as well, that in the ancient world, all the other gods had their statues; only the God of Israel, as far as I know, went without physical images for his people to worship. The nations around Israel expected to be able to walk into a temple and see the god—but in this, too, the Lord was (and is) a God who hides. And while this might seem like a minor thing, it’s really anything but. The gods of the world can be represented, can be seen; the one true God can’t. In theological terms, he is transcendent—he’s so far above and beyond us that, as he tells Moses in Exodus 33, no frail, sinful human being can see him and survive the experience. He is too bright to see; that’s why the hymn we sang last week calls him “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” That’s why the poet Henry Vaughan, in one of his finest moments, wrote, “There is in God—some say—a deep but dazzling darkness”: God’s light is so bright that it overwhelms our ability to perceive it, and becomes to us instead the deepest of darkness. He is too bright, too big, too great, to be seen.
And here, then, is the wonder, and here is the miracle, to which Isaiah has already pointed in chapter 42: this God who was hidden from us in unapproachable light, this God whom no one could see and live, crossed that divide in his own power and revealed himself to us as Jesus Christ. This God who forbade us to make any image of him, who would not allow us to imagine our own version of him, gave us more than just an image of himself—he gave us himself, becoming fully human and living a full human life.
When we talk about Jesus coming, we tend to focus on his death and resurrection—especially in this season of Lent—and there’s certainly good reason for that; and we focus too on all the things he taught, and that’s also completely appropriate. But I think we lose sight, sometimes, of the fact that those aren’t the only reasons he came; and that one of the reasons he came is simply that we might know him in a new way and be able to relate to him more closely. God will always be beyond our ability to fully understand, certainly, as Paul says in Romans 11, quoting from Isaiah 40; and there will always be times when his face seems hidden to us. That’s just the way it is in this broken, sin-haunted, pain-darkened world of ours. But at the same time, even as it remains true that no one in this world has ever seen God in all his glory, yet it’s no longer true that no one has ever seen God: for as John 1:18 says, God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has made him known. The divide we could never cross, he crossed for us, out of love for us; in Jesus, the hidden face of God has been forever revealed.