hand grasping golden apple

The Mind of Christ

In my last post, I talked about the claim from some preachers that if you are born again, you are a “little god.” I argued that is not true, first by pointing out that when the Bible says we were made in the image and likeness of God, that is not the same as being a god.

I’m sure some of them will say, “Well, what about Philippians 2:5-6?”

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

(KJV)

See? It says we should have the mind of Christ Jesus and think it is not robbery to be equal with God.

Problem is that reading is out of context. Context is so important to understanding the Bible, so let me explain what that means. Reading in context is about trying to figure out what the author meant when he wrote it, and what it meant to the audience it was originally written for. When I say something is being read out of context, I’m saying that is not what the author meant when he wrote it, and/or that is not what it would have meant to the original audience. When the author of Genesis 1:26-27 said the first man and woman were made in God’s image and likeness, he did not mean they were equal to God. The original audience would have thought of an image or likeness in the same way they would have thought of a statue, drawing, or painting of a person. It can look just like the person, but it is not the person. Therefore, reading image and likeness as equality is out of context.

With that in mind, does Philippians 2:5-6 say we should think of ourselves as equal to God? What does it say in context? That’s what I am about to examine.

Context: What does the verse really say?

To answer that, we have to dive into the Greek a little bit. If you didn’t know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew—except for a few chapters of Daniel that were in Aramaic—and the New Testament was written in Greek. Or maybe they thought Paul wrote in King James English. If so, you need to know he wrote in Greek, because that was the language of the people of his congregations. And because King James English was over a thousand years and hundreds of miles removed from even one person speaking it, but I digress. For us trying to understand today what any of the Biblical authors wrote, it is inevitable that some things will get lost in translation.

In Greek the word translated robbery in the KJV is harpagmos, which could mean “robbery” but also could mean something taken, plunder, a prize, or a thing to be taken or held onto forcibly. Most other translations say “a thing to be grasped.” So should we consider it not robbery to be equal with God, or should we consider equality with God not a thing to be grasped? More context is needed.

Context: What does it mean within this particular section?

In this case the section we are looking at is Phil 2:5-11. Here is the World English Bible’s translation, which I am using because it is not copyrighted.

5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(WEB)

The Mind of Christ

So Paul starts with “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). I prefer the NRSV, which says , “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phi 2:5 NRSV). What does it mean to have the same mind as was in Christ Jesus? That is what Paul explains in the rest of the passage. We believe verses 6-11 were a hymn. If so, it could be the oldest Christian hymn we have record of. They didn’t know how to write music then, so we can only guess how it was sung. But the Christians in Philippi would have known and probably sung along in their minds as it was read to them.

Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death.

The hymn starts by describing Jesus as “existing in the form of God,” but then goes on to say in verse 7, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” So the hymn begins by contrasting his existence before he became a man with the human form he took as a man called Jesus of Nazareth. And when he was “in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, [even] the death of the cross.”

In between his being in the form of God and in human form, verse 6b says he “didn’t consider equality with God” harpagmos. In that context, which is more likely, that he did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, or did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped? Considering how verses 7-8 stress how in his human form, he humbled himself, taking the form of servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, that does not sound like someone going around saying, “I don’t consider it robbery to call myself equal with God.” That sounds like someone who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. Unlike us, he already existed in the form of God. He had the right to claim equality with God. But instead, he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Paul is saying that is the mind of Christ that you should have.

Context: What else does the Bible say about this?

I’ve already talked about Genesis 1:26-27, where it says human beings were created not equal to God but in God’s image and likeness. This passage from Philippians makes the point more powerfully by saying even Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. That particular phrase also connects this passage with the Creation story in Genesis.

First, God placed them in a Paradise and gave only one restriction.

15 Yahweh God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. 16 Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”

(WEB).

They can eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They should consider that poison, because “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” They were fine with that until a serpent told them,

4 … “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

(Gen 3:4-5 NRSV)

They probably never thought about being like God before. But now that the serpent put that idea in their head, they thought, “That would be awesome.” So at a tree on a hill, they considered equality with God a thing to be grasped, and they grasped it. Because of that, they were banished from the Garden. God would still be with them, but it would never be the same.

hand grasping golden apple
Photo by Alan Cabello from Pexels;

The Second Adam

In Romans 5:12-21, Paul describes Christ as a second Adam. When he was brought to a tree on a hill, he did NOT consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross—the perfect act of faithful obedience to God and loving self-sacrifice for us. And in so doing, he reversed the curse and restored our broken relationship with God.

Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death. He had a right to claim to claim equality with God, but instead he submitted himself to God’s plan to redeem humanity. How much more then should we stop grasping for equality with God and show God’s love through service and humility?

God Highly Exalted Him

That was the first half of the hymn. The second half describes how God highly exalted Jesus in response to his perfect obedience. He gave Jesus a name that is above every other name, confirming his status as Christ and Lord. Because God glorified him, he can be called equal with God. We cannot expect to be glorified in the same way. But Paul said in the book of Romans we are children of God and heirs with Christ “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17 NRSV). If we share in his suffering to redeem the world, we will also share in his glory.

Furthermore, he said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18 NRSV). We still won’t be equal to God. But whatever we are, it will be awesome.

Jesus is not a model for us to claim equality with God. He is the model of a servant who submits to God’s will, even when it means suffering unjustly at the hands of others. God’s will was for the redemption of humanity, even those who persecuted him. God’s will was to show the extent of God’s love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Only after Jesus’s death and resurrection did the disciples understand what it meant for him to be the Messiah. It meant suffering and death, not for its own sake, but to save others.

A Suffering Messiah

It was foreshadowed in one of Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant. God prophecies of someone called “My servant,” who is beaten so much that he does not even look human anymore. People see his suffering and think it must be the wrath of God on him. The servant does not demand justice, because he understands they do not know what they are doing. They are like lost sheep who have gone astray. Somehow they see God glorify him, and their conscience is pricked. They seek the one whom they once despised and rejected and want him to teach them the ways of justice and righteousness (Isa 52:13-53:12).

And the irony was he could have rescued himself. He could have grasped the equality with God that was already his. Before he came to us in human form, he was in the form of God. But he willingly surrendered that status as Son of God to become the suffering servant. If you want the mind of Christ, meditate on that for a while.

So if you think this verse is about how you can become equal with God, you have missed the point entirely.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll come back next time. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and Peace to you.

The Suffering Servant as the Leper Messiah

My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).

In the last post, I introduced the suffering servant in Second Isaiah. In the first song, the servant counter-intuitively brings justice by patiently and quietly enduring injustice. Second Isaiah addressed the Jews in Exile, letting them know their judgment had passed and they would soon be allowed to return home to Jerusalem.

The Fourth Song: He Was Despised and Rejected

This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.

I won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)

He/him refers to the Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly, many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace, healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.

In the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself. It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song, that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked human (52:14).

We see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him (53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible says,

“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).

(HC 53:4-6 footnote)

And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.

Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.

He Grew Up Like a Young Plant

The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)

They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.

The Servant as Messiah

First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.

So I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

(Isa 52:13 NRS)

When the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only implicit.

The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.

(Rut 2:14)

The Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.

Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].

If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.

A Leper Messiah

Here is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

(Isa 53:4 NRS)

The Talmud comments,

The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.

(Sanhedrin 98b)

Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.

The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”

“… like a leper messiah,” 2:25

David Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,

One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.

Ziggy Stardust,” AZ Lyrics

Rabbi Bowie?

Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.

But God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes with it.

And out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.

The First Principle of Recovery

Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.

Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.

A Deal for You

Book cover Dark Nights of the Soul on rustic table
Winner Nonfiction, Writer’s Digest Self-Published Ebooks, available on Kindle through January for $0.99. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083JNXHZF

My book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. In honor of this, it will be available on Kindle for only $0.99 throughout the month of January! (You can also get it in paperback if you prefer). I am humbled, amazed, and grateful. Thank you to Writer’s Digest and to anyone who reads it.

The Suffering Servant and Recovery from Depression

In the last post, I laid out the background that led to Isaiah chapters 40-55, often referred to as Second Isaiah. This is its own section that addresses the Jews living in Exile in Babylon. They have experienced the harshness of God’s judgment and humiliation and suffering at the hands of the Babylonians. But the message of Second Isaiah is one of hope. He says their period of judgment is over, and they will soon be allowed to return to their home and rebuild Jerusalem.

You might ask why I believe this theory of Second Isaiah when it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. The main reason is the difference in tone between First and Second Isaiah. First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is clearly addressed to people pre-judgment, while Second Isaiah only makes sense post-judgment, where sweeping announcements of forgiveness and restoration can be spoken in ways not possible for First Isaiah.

One of the most striking features of Second Isaiah is the figure of the Suffering Servant, a mysterious figure whose suffering brings healing for the nations. Bernhard Duhm is credited with first identifying the songs of the Suffering Servant in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah. He recognized the four songs in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; and 52:13-53:12. In some commentaries, the songs might be longer. But this designation will work for our purposes.

The Suffering Servant in My Principles of Recovery

My first principle for recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” I connected that with Isaiah 53:3-6. My second principle for recovery is “God will not kick you when you are down.” I connected that with Isaiah 42:2-3. So now I’m going to show you how those passages helped me formulate those first two principles for recovery. I’m going to go backwards in terms of the principles and start with the song of Isaiah 42.

The Second Principle: God Will Not Kick You When You Are Down

You might be wondering what does the Jews’ experience of Exile and Return have to do with your experience of depression.

A dark night of the soul happens at the intersection of faith and depression. Usually, something has happened to you that you think shouldn’t have happened, and you wonder why God would treat you this way. Sometimes, it’s not something that happened to you, but rather feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of injustice in the world and wondering why God would allow it to continue for as long as it has. You want to do something about it, but you feel helpless. You pray, but you don’t see it making any difference. Maybe you reach a point where you’re so depressed, you can’t pray at all. Maybe you are so angry you are no longer on speaking terms with God. Or maybe you have become so disoriented you no longer believe in God at all.

The Jews in Exile experienced all these things: disorientation, humiliation, confusion, anger, unbelief, you name it. Even if they still believed in God, they could not trust God anymore. God had let them down when they needed God most. In some of the Psalms, we see they were not shy at all about telling God exactly how they felt (Psa 137).

God could have responded with anger in kind. God could have reminded them how they let God down by failing to be the example of justice and righteousness God had called them to be. Instead, God’s answer to them begins with comfort (Isa 40:1-2). That sets the tone for all of Second Isaiah. Not that there are no reprimands from God, but they are much gentler than First Isaiah and balanced with the promise that they would return home.

Is It about Me?

I believe before we make any personal application of scripture, it’s important to understand the context where it was given initially. I imagined the Jews in Exile when they heard the words of Second Isaiah, learning to hope where hope before seemed impossible, learning to trust God again, basically rebuilding their faith from scratch, and finding the courage to respond when God reached out to them.

As I came out of one of my dark nights of the soul, these words leapt off the page at me.

… a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; 

(Isa 42:3 NRS)

I don’t know if I can adequately describe the circumstances when I felt the full weight of those words. As I said, I had just come out of a dark night of the soul. During the dark night, I was filled with guilt over “disobeying” the Holy Spirit and “not believing” God’s word.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

(Rom 8:14 NRS)

For almost any Christian, that is great news. If you see yourself as a child of God, you want to be led by the Spirit of God. Through some bad teaching, I began to hear a voice I thought was the Spirit of God. The catch is, if you are being led by the Spirit of God, you must obey. And your obedience must be unhesitating and without doubt and fear. Whatever the Spirit commands, you must obey. If you hesitate, that is the same as disobedience. Some hesitation and doubt is okay in the beginning, as long as you obey. But over time, you should come to a place where you obey without hesitation and without doubt or fear.

For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. 

(1Sa 15:23 NRS)

Do not rebel against the Holy Spirit. I would hear the voice saying, “Witness to this person, witness to that person. Lay your hands on that sick person. Give money to this ministry. Give money to person.” And I would hear stories from people who said they heard the same voice, and they weren’t sure at first if they should do it, but they obeyed. They prayed and laid hands on the sick person, and they were instantly (or after a few tries) healed. They gave money to whom the Spirit told them, and they received more money just a few days later. They witnessed to the person, and the person gave their lives to Christ. In their stories, success and reward always followed obedience and faith. You hear those stories, and eventually you start asking yourself, “Why am I not getting the same results?”

When I looked for answers, one of my TV mentors said, “Either you or the Bible is wrong. Which is it?”

Well, if it’s between me and the Bible, it has to be me. I still have too much doubt. Doubt creates fear. Fear creates hesitation. And after you’ve followed for some time, hesitation is the same as disobedience. You’ve been a believer for six years or however long. You should know by now God’s word is the truth no matter what the circumstances say. If the voice you hear agrees with God’s word, hear and obey.

How do I know I’m supposed to witness to everyone the Spirit tells me to?

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

(Mat 28:19-20a NRS)

And again,

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

(Act 1:8 NRS)

How do I know I’m supposed to pray for and lay hands on every sick person the Spirit tells me to?

And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.

(Mar 16:17-18 NRS)

And again,

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

(Mat 10:1 NRS)

How do I know I’m supposed to obey the voice of the Spirit in giving money to this person or that ministry?

… give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

(Luk 6:38 NRS)

and again,

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

(2Co 9:6 NRS)

So there you have it. The voice of the Spirit I’m hearing and the Word of God are in agreement. Now, I understand they were taking all these verses out of context. But at the time I didn’t know that. And every time I failed or hesitated to obey, I would be wracked with guilt afterwards. I would pray for forgiveness and repent and promise never to do it again, but of course I did it again. And each time, the guilt doubled, because I promised to obey but did not. I would beat myself up, and the voice of the Spirit would pile on.

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? (Luk 6:46)

I can’t help it. I’m afraid, and I don’t know how to stop being afraid.

Didn’t I tell you in my Word I have not given you a spirit of fear but of power, of love, and of a sound mind? (2 Tim 1:7)

Yes.

So why are you afraid?

It might not work.

What do you mean it might not work?

I might not have enough faith for it to work.

Why wouldn’t you have enough faith? I have promised you everything in my Word. I have given you my Spirit, the same spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Why do you still not believe me?

I don’t know.

Let’s be honest. You’re afraid of looking foolish, aren’t you?

No! Well, maybe.

So you are disobeying because you love the praise of men more than the praise of God (Joh 12:43).

NO! That’s not it! I love you, Lord!

But you love the praise of men more. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Rev 3:16)

No, Lord! Please! Anything but that! Lord? Lord? Are you there?

{Silence}.


No matter how low I felt, the voice of God could always make me feel lower. And no matter how many times I fell down, the voice of God would kick me. Except … it wasn’t the voice of God.

What Was Really Happening?

There are two explanations I think are most likely: 1) The voice came from internalizing bad teachings; or 2) the voice was the product of a clinically depressed brain. I believe it was a combination of the two. A chemically imbalanced brain will speak to you, and it will sound like the truth. Add to that a belief that it is the voice of God, and you are sure to get kicked when you are down. You are sure to be led astray.

Why did I believe it was the voice of God? Because, as I said, it spoke from the Bible. It has to be true, because the Bible is the Word of God, right? On the factcheck.org scale, I would categorize that statement under “True, but misleading.” This is going to be a controversial statement, but it needs to be said. The Bible is the word of God, if and only if it is rightly interpreted and rightly applied. Let that sink in. The Bible is the word of God, if and only if it is rightly interpreted and rightly applied.

There are many different interpretations, many different rules people have formed for how to apply the Bible. How do we know which is right? I have spent the last forty years trying to answer that question. I can’t give you everything that came of that in one blog post, but I can tell you this. The Bible has to be read in context. That is why, in the last post, I gave you a basic historical background of events leading up to Second Isaiah, and the background of Exile and Return in which Second Isaiah was written. That is called context.

When I made the decision to go to seminary, people in the church I was in at the time said, “They’ll teach you not to believe the Bible.” Again, true, but misleading. What they did was teach me how to read the Bible in context. As a result, I started to believe the Bible again but not in the way they taught it.

The hallmark of bad teaching is they quote the Bible, but they never teach the context in which it was written. We have to understand what Second Isaiah would have meant to the Jews in Exile, because that was who it was written for originally. Then, maybe we can glean some message for us today. The same goes for all of the Bible.

The Suffering Servant and the Voice in My Head

In addition to the bad teachings and the clinically depressed brain, I had even more dysfunction. I listened to that voice in part because I thought I deserved it. I deserved to be kicked when I was down, because I repeatedly disobeyed the voice of the Holy Spirit.

So going back to that voice that said Christ was going to spit me out of his mouth, at the same time, I heard another voice underneath my guilt and depression, a still, small voice that did not come from the deepest depths of my soul. That voice said, “I love you.” Not “I love you, but you need to start obeying me.” Not “I love you, but you need to change.” No “but”s at all. Just “I love you.” Period.

That voice comforted me at first, but then I rejected it. I chose the voice I thought I deserved over the voice God graciously offered. But then I lost faith in the voice kicking me when I was down. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I rejected that one. What was left of the voice of God? I read again this suffering servant song, and when I came to the line that said, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” then I understood. Even though Second Isaiah wasn’t speaking to me directly, I am the bruised reed he will not break. I am the dimly burning wick he will not quench. God will not kick me when I’m down. That’s how I know that other voice is a false God.

And with that old voice bound, gagged, and kicked out of my head, I listened, and again I heard the voice of the Spirit saying, “I love you.” A voice as gentle and mild as the suffering servant, not crying aloud and making itself heard in the street, so soft you can only hear it if you quiet the false gods in your head and listen for it. “I love you,” with no qualifiers, as if I had already received from the LORD’s hand double for all my sins. That was the voice of the Holy Spirit. That was the voice I finally learned to listen to.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

(Rom 8:1-2 NRS)

What about You?

Have you ever heard a voice you thought was God? What was it like? Did it kick you when you were down? Hopefully, I have convinced you that was not God. If you have clinical depression, you might be more prone to hearing that voice (and thinking you deserve it) than most people. I overcame it, and so can you. So I want to invite you to take this little spiritual exercise.

Go into a quiet room with a notebook and pen. Not a phone or laptop, nothing electronic. Sit quietly and listen. Try to quiet your mind and listen from deep within. Just give it a few minutes, as long as you feel comfortable. Write down whatever you hear.

Do you think it is the voice of God? Why or why not? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments.

Book cover Dark Nights of the Soul on rustic table
Winner Nonfiction, Writer’s Digest Self-Published Ebooks, available on Kindle through January for $0.99. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083JNXHZF

Translation Notes

קָנֶ֤ה רָצוּץ֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁבּ֔וֹר וּפִשְׁתָּ֥ה כֵהָ֖ה לֹ֣א יְכַבֶּ֑נָּה (Isa 42:3 WTT)

a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; (Isa 42:3 NRS)

Halladay’s lexicon would translate qaneh ratzutz as “a crushed reed,” as in 2 Ki 18:23. However, most translations render it “a bruised reed,” probably because of the phrase lo’ yishbor, “he will not break.” It doesn’t make sense to say, “he will not break a crushed reed.” How can you break something that’s already crushed?

Uphishtah kehah, Halladay’s lexicon says phishtah is a wick of flax, but it calls phishtah kehah is a dimly glowing wick. Lo’ yichbennah, “he will not extinguish.”

These are two beautiful metaphors for gentleness toward vulnerability. The reed is already bruised. Just a little pressure will make it break. But the servant of God will not break it. A dimly glowing wick is easily extinguished, but he will not quench it. In modern vernacular, we might say, he will not kick you when you’re down.

References

Duhm, Bernhard. Das Buch Jesaia (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892). Cited in Wikipedia, “Servant Songs.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_songs

Exciting Announcement and New Blog Series

2020 with snow background
Happy New Year 2020!

Welcome to my first blog post of the year. And since this is January 6, Happy Epiphany/Dia de los Reyes (whichever term you prefer).

I have an exciting announcement. The original version called Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction Category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. I’m still almost in shock. I say “original version” because I did some tweaking to it. The main reason for changes was I needed to add more material to make it viable as a print book. So even if you have a paperback, it’s the same material as the award-winner and more. I would recommend waiting until Tuesday, January 7, to order a copy, because that is when the “award-winning deluxe” version will be available.

There are four passages in Isaiah called the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” I used these in two of my four principles for recovery. I’ve found the Suffering Servant to be a great source of comfort, so that seems like a good place to pick up the blog.

But Isaiah is a long, complicated text, written over a period of more than two hundred years. So first, you should have a good overview of when, how, why, and to whom it was written. This is called context, by the way, which is pretty important anytime you do anything with the Bible.

Three Isaiahs?

Experts generally divide Isaiah into three sections.

  • First Isaiah: Chapters 1-39. Before and after the fall of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) to Assyria, ca. 738-687 BC
  • Second Isaiah: Chapters 40-55. Near the end of Exile of the Jews, ca. 545-539 BC.
  • Third Isaiah: Chapters 56-66. After the return to Jerusalem, ca. 520-515 BC.

You won’t see these divisions in the Bible text itself. However, differences in tone, language, and references indicate each of these sections was written in different historical circumstances. If you are used to just reading the Bible without referring to the historical background, this may sound confusing, or you might think we are making it unnecessarily complicated. “The Bible doesn’t mention First, Second, and Third Isaiah. It’s just called the book of Isaiah.”

I understand why you might object to this. But I’ll say there are very good reasons for this “three Isaiahs” theory that come from the text of Isaiah, along with just basic knowledge of what was happening in Israel and Judah between the eighth and sixth centuries BC. Hopefully, that will become clearer as I walk you through it.

And yes, while this is fun for me, I know I’m in the minority. So believe me when I say I wouldn’t drag you through this preliminary history and textual analysis if I didn’t really believe it was necessary to understand not only the message but the comfort the songs of the Suffering Servant can offer. So, I’ll try to make it as interesting as I can. And I promise, it will not be a waste of time. So if you’re ready, let’s dive in.

The songs of the Suffering Servant all come from Second Isaiah, but I think it’s important to understand First Isaiah to get the full impact of it.

First Isaiah: What You Need to Know

As I said, First Isaiah refers to chapters 1-39 of “the book of Isaiah.” He said he received his call to be a prophet in the year king Uzziah died, about 738 BC (Isa 6). He continued to prophesy and write until about 700 or 687 BC, depending on the date of his last word to the king Hezekiah. This entire time, the nations of Israel and Judah were in crisis because of the Assyrian empire. Isaiah’s message to both nations was, repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or God is going to send Assyria as the hand of judgment.

Assyria was the hyperpower of its day. They built a juggernaut of an army that no one could stand against. They conquered all the land of Mesopotamia, then turned their attention toward the land of Canaan. The nation of Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC. After this, Isaiah’s warnings to the nation of Judah became more urgent. Repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or you will be next on Assyria’s list of conquered cities and nations. The people didn’t listen until Hezekiah took the throne. He was known as a righteous king.

Even under Hezekiah, Assyria wreaked havoc through Judah. Isaiah warned them they would, but with one caveat: Because of God’s covenant with David, they would not take the city of Jerusalem (2 Sam 7:1-17). Isaiah proved right on both counts. Assyrian records said they took forty-six cities from Judah. When they got to Jerusalem, they laid siege like they had to hundreds of cities before. Until then, the result was always the same. The city fell, its treasures were plundered and sent back to the capital city, Nineveh, and the people were either slaughtered, tortured, enslaved, and/or exiled. The people within the walls of Jerusalem thought the same would happen to them, but Isaiah’s word proved true. The Assyrian army left with the city of Jerusalem still fully intact.

After First Isaiah

Now how do you think the people of Jerusalem responded to this remarkable salvation? They were probably grateful at first. But it didn’t take long for them to become arrogant. “This is the Temple of the LORD,” they said of the great structure Solomon had built over 200 years before. “No one can touch us, because this is where God has chosen to dwell on earth. Not even Assyria can stand before our God.”

Even the righteous king Hezekiah became so arrogant he foolishly showed all the treasures of the city, the palace, and the Temple to the king of Babylon. Chances are, said Babylonian king recorded them in the archives, so about 150 years later, king Nebuchadnezzar knew exactly where to find all the riches when he took the city.

In the meantime, people all over the Assyrian empire got sick of living under their iron boot. Assyria constantly had to put down rebellions throughout their territory in Whack-a-Mole fashion. No matter how brutal they were in crushing rebellions, they could not stop people from rising up to throw off their yoke.

Finally, in 612 BC, an alliance of Medes and Babylonians overthrew the capital Nineveh, and with it, the territory of the Assyrian empire became ripe pickings for the neo-Babylonian empire. No Jew shed any tears over Nineveh, that’s for sure. That is, except for the prophets who knew what would follow.

The Unthinkable Happens

Jerusalem, the chosen city, the one with the Temple of the LORD, the city God had chosen for his name to dwell on earth, the city even the king of Assyria could not conquer because of God’s presence there, fell to king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The immortal, impregnable, indomitable city of David, was conquered, torn down, and plundered. Even the Temple, with its great and huge stones, was torn down so not one stone was left standing on another. Its gold, silver, and bronze furnishings were all brought back to Babylon in about 587/86 BC. And the people were sent into exile, mostly to the city of Babylon.

If Isaiah had been alive at this time, the people probably would have said, “WTF, Isaiah? You said this couldn’t happen!” But Isaiah’s word concerning Jerusalem was for Isaiah’s time. The prophets of their time, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, warned them in stark terms, “Do NOT think God will save you this time. You have not repented of your unjust and unrighteous ways. Do not think the Temple of the LORD will save you. God has removed his glory from that place.” Even with his high view of Zionist theology, Isaiah probably would have said the same thing.

Second Isaiah

Like many other prophets, Isaiah had a school where he taught others to receive messages from God as a prophet. The school likely continued after his death. Over the years, they preserved his writings and teachings. They may have continued to write in his name. This was actually common in the ancient world. Students of a particular school, if they had mastered the founder’s teachings, might write new documents in his name.

Around 545 BC, there was a new major player on the world scene. Cyrus, king of Persia, looked like someone who could challenge the might of Babylon. As he racked up victories on the battlefield, a new hope arose for the Jews in exile, because unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians before, he acted with justice and righteousness.

In about 539/8 BC, he conquered the city of Babylon, and all of Babylon’s territory became part of the Persian empire. Two things are remarkable about Cyrus’s victory. One, the people of Babylon opened the gates for him, so he took the city without bloodshed. Two, one of the students of Isaiah’s school predicted his rise to power.

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him– and the gates shall not be closed:  

I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.

(Isa 45:1-6 NRS)

This is Second Isaiah, responsible for chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. He appears to have written between 545-539 BC, before Cyrus’s ultimate victory over Babylon. Second Isaiah predicted Cyrus would succeed in taking over the Babylonian empire, because the LORD had chosen him to rule and to free Israel, God’s chosen. He also predicted Cyrus would allow the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem. And so his chapters are filled with hope and anticipation. “It won’t be long now. We will go home, thanks to our God and his chosen one, Cyrus.”

When the LORD Restored the Fortunes of Zion …

I have taken you on this brief journey back in time in the hopes that you could have some sense of how dreamlike it was to the Jews in Exile when the student of Isaiah told them they would return to their ancestral home of Jerusalem. The sense they had of being God’s chosen people and nation had burned down with their beloved city. For decades, the Babylonians had mocked them, saying, “Where is your God?” and they had no answer.

Now, God is promising deliverance through a foreigner named Cyrus, and they are seeing it come true. City after city either falls or surrenders to him. God calls him his “anointed,” like David. God calls him by name, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is all so strange. They are not used to hearing God talk like this about a Gentile king. And yet, if this was how God chose to deliver them from Exile, I don’t think any of them would have complained.

Comparing First and Second Isaiah

When you read First Isaiah, there is a strong sense of looming judgment. And it was no mystery how it would come. Assyria would steamroll them like they had everyone else. Though there is hope in Isaiah, it’s mostly directed toward a future king, a Messiah, who would execute justice and righteousness for the people (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-9). At times, it seems Isaiah believed the Jews’ present king, Hezekiah, could have been that Messiah. But for the present, he is mostly gloom and doom. Repent! Judgment is coming! Repent! Judgment is coming!

Right from the beginning, he says,

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!

(Isa 1:2-4 NRS)

What is the result?

Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.

(Isa 1:7 NRS)

Why has judgment come?

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her– but now murderers! … Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

 (Isa 1:21, 23 NRS)

That’s a small sampling, but it tells you mostly what you need to know about why God is angry, and why judgment has come for Israel and is coming for Judah.

… he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry [of distress]!

(Isa 5:7 NRS)

But later, when you turn the page to chapter 40, suddenly the tone is entirely different.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

 (Isa 40:1-2 NRS)

That is the tone through most of Second Isaiah. The thrust of First Isaiah is judgment is coming. The thrust of Second Isaiah is judgment is over. First Isaiah makes sense when there is an enemy like Assyria, looking at them like a wolf licking its chops. Second Isaiah makes sense only after they have received their punishment. Now, God says Jerusalem has received double for all her sins. Their debt is paid in full. There is nothing to prevent them from returning home to Zion. He goes on to say,

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

 (Isa 40:4-5 NRS)

God will clear the way home for them. They had just been through the longest, darkest night in their history since the period of slavery in Egypt, and they were about to come out of it.

The Dark Night of the Soul Is Over

I don’t know where you are in your journey. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you finally see yourself coming out of your own dark night of the soul, like the Jews when Cyrus conquered Babylon. Maybe you are still so deep in darkness you can’t see the deliverance yet. I was there just a few years ago myself, but I can see it now. There were many years when the Jews thought they were stuck in Babylon with no way home. So don’t give up. Sometimes it’s just about living long enough for your work to start bearing fruit.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

 (Psa 126:1-2 NRS)

Now that you have the background, next week I’ll talk about the songs of the Suffering Servant and what they mean in the context of Second Isaiah and recovery.

Translation Notes

וַיְקַ֤ו לְמִשְׁפָּט֙ וְהִנֵּ֣ה מִשְׂפָּ֔ח לִצְדָקָ֖ה וְהִנֵּ֥ה צְעָקָֽה׃ ס

 (Isa 5:7 WTT)

… [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isa 5:7 NRS)

There is a pun in the Hebrew text not apparent in any English translation. The word for justice here (as in most cases throughout the Hebrew Bible) is mishpat. It carries with it the same meanings as in English. Justice, as in the justice system and its execution through legal process. Justice in a more conceptual sense of fairness and equality. It can also refer to following established customs and procedures. In this context, it is a synonym for “righteousness.”

The word for “bloodshed” is mishpach. Halladay’s lexicon defines it as “a breach of law,” so it is the opposite of mishpat. BDB defines it as an “outpouring (of blood), bloodshed,” the inevitable result when a society abandons mishpat. So to show the pun, I’ll say it like this.

He expected mishpat, but saw mishpach

The word for “righteousness,” here as in most places in the Hebrew Bible, is tzedakah. It can mean right behavior in general, honesty, integrity, or doing the right thing. It is often paired with mishpat (as in this verse), making it a synonym for justice. In the plural, it often refers to acts of generosity. The box in the Temple for collecting donations for the poor (Mark 12:41-44) was called a tzedakah box, and they are still found in synagogues today.

The word for “a cry” is tze`akah. Halladay’s lexicon defines it as a “cry of wailing, call for help.” It is the same word God used when God told Moses the cry of the Israelites living under slavery in Egypt had reached God’s ears (Exo 3:7). So Isaiah is charging the nations of Israel and Judah with being just as oppressive to the poor, the slave, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and alien as Egypt was to them. So again to show the pun,

… [God expected] tzedakah, but heard tze`akah.