God, weal and woe

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 45.6b-8, 18, 21b-end; Psalm 85.7-end; Luke 7.18b-23.

Isaiah 45.7 is, for me, particularly difficult:

‘I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things’ (NRSV). It is all the more stark in the AV, ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil’. The difficulty, of course, lies in the attribution to God of the creation of evil (and darkness). The Hebrew word is ra’ and it certainly can mean ‘evil’ (Psalm 23.4, ‘lo’ ‘ira’ ra’ — I will fear no evil’) but also ‘calamity’ or ‘disaster’. Such a distinction might help to absolve God of the responsibility for human moral evil but it does not appear particularly helpful in the immediate aftermath of a terrible natural disaster.

At any rate, Isaiah is not alone in his assertion. Similar ideas are found in Amos 3.6 and 4.13, and in Lamentations 3.38. It does help, I think, to remember that, for Isaiah, particular circumstances are in view. He is responding to the rise of Cyrus the Persian king who, though pagan, will engineer the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. Isaiah sees Cyrus as an instrument of God. Opposing the dualism of the religion of Persia, Isaiah asserts that all things remain under the purview of the One God. Isaiah, like the psalmist, looks not to the heavens and the earth, but to the creator of the heavens and the earth.

In the words of Karl Barth, it is not ‘that God positively willed, created and posited darkness in the same positive way as light or evil as peace, as an independent goal and event of His plan. . . [but that] . . . they are not what they are without Him, but only in opposition and therefore relation to Him.’ (Church Dogmatics III, 1:106)

Far better to believe that God is present in the darkness than to think God is confounded by it. As Nebuchadnezzar had been God’s instrument of Judgement, now Cyrus would be God’s instrument of mercy. God had not forsaken God’s people and this was good news indeed!

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