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Isaiah 58:1-63:14

07.27.2010

The ESV* commentary says that Isaiah breaks down into three main chunks.**  The first chunk covers the sinfulness of his contemporaries in Judah and Israel, admonishing them to obey the Lord.  The middle chunk speaks prophetically to the future Jews in exile, consoling them during the punishments for their sins.  The last chunk, from which today’s passage comes, prophesies about the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God.

One recurring theme in the passage is about how God requires righteousness more than ritual.  He admonishes the Israelites that their ceremonies are not meant to cover for lives of wanton sinfulness but rather to be physical manifestations of their obedience to God in all things.  The common reaction to this is to think about how easy it is to go through motions without conviction, the dangers of legalism. 

One thing that interests me, though, is how the sacrifices and rituals can be conduits and contributors to a healthy relationship with God.  I find truth in the adage that devotion follows discipline, and that, as long as we have an open heart, we should still do the things we’re called to do (reading the Bible, tithing, aiding orphans and widows, etc.) even if the motivation is absent.  Through repetition and habit-building, we can internalize actions in a way that changes our hearts.  This is one of the interesting things about modern neuroscience.  Where we used to think of consciousness and our bodies as being separate, divisible things, modern science is discovering how interrelated they really are.  Our posture, movements, and other physical stimuli really do influence our minds and our thoughts.  This concept underlies much of eastern medicine and martial arts, from yoga to tai chi.  It’s still present in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches, where aroma and rosaries and kneeling are all employed to bring both body and mind to a place of worship.  The post-Enlightenment Protestant church, however, has largely dismissed this notion in favor of cultivating the intellect with persuasive sermons and Bible study.  I think a complete relationship with God encompasses all of these aspects.

Isaiah is not calling the Israelites to give up sacrificing and put away their rituals, but rather to reinvest them with meaning and allow them to be an expression of their devotion and gratitude and worship.

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*I use the English Standard Version because it’s the one that’s loaded onto my Kindle.  Truly profound, I know.  The Bible I first read was the NIV, but the one I’ve used the longest has been the NASB.  I tend to prefer versions that go for accuracy of language over readability.  I don’t know why; it’s probably born of some foolish conceit that I, having a scholarly mind, don’t need to be spoonfed the modernized version of God’s word.  Not me, boy!  I freebase Aramaic and mainline Hebrew.  Whatever.  Most all of that translations I’ve seen have merit.  It’s always a tradeoff.  I’ve always been leery of really modernized versions like the New Living Bible or the Message, but that’s just pretentiousness.  I also really like the KJV just for the poetry of language and because that’s the version that most biblical cultural references use.

I’ve got the ESV because I wanted an e-copy of a Bible to have on my Kindle.  ESV got good reviews.  Had I known that it was the “trendy” Bible among my generation of Christian hipsters, I almost certainly would be using it for that reason.  I’m absolutely shameless when it comes to acquiring and brandishing “cool credentials.”  It’s never really worked for me, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from trying too hard.

**Which has led many to speculate that there are three separate authors.  I’m unconvinced.  It does however raise another of my current interests: textual criticism and canonization.  How do we know who wrote what and when?  How were the decisions made about what goes into the Bible?  Why is the Gospel of Luke, say, considered God’s word but not the Gospel of Thomas?  How do we know that this is the complete word of God?  What if Isaiah’s dog ate chapters 67-94?  The short answer is that we trust the Holy Spirit to have guided the decisions about inclusion and exclusion, but it’s a longer term issue that I want to explore someday.

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