Q&R with Brad: Isaiah 54:7-8 – Does God abandon us or hide his face?
Hi Brad, I was just reading about your response to a question about Isaiah 59 about “separation”. When I read it seems clear that it means our sins, our actions have caused us to separate from the Father, not the Father separating from us. When I read Isaiah 54:7-8 certainly seems like God is directly saying I have abandoned you for a time but goes on to say, I have compassion on you. I am just curious about the interpretation you hold when reading this. I would love to hear your input. Thank you.
- 7 “For a brief moment I abandoned you
- but with great compassion I will gather you.
- 8 In overflowing wrath for a moment
- I hid my face from you,
- but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
- says the Lord, your Redeemer.”
Thanks for the insightful and actually quite complex question. In my opinion, the only safe route to such passages is to back into them through the gospel itself, which is to say, we cannot interpret such passages correctly without direct reference to God’s decisive self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
Prior to opening Isaiah’s scrolls, we must ask, “What has Christ revealed about his Father?” I believe it’s safe to say that Jesus showed us that his Abba is not given to abandonment. The Father revealed in Christ is a relentless pursuer who runs to his prodigal son while still a long way off and leaves the 99 to seek and save the sheep so lost that coming home unaided is impossible.
This vision of God also draws from the OT where we likewise repeatedly discover the One who never leaves nor forsakes us, whose mercy endures forever, whose lovingkindness is everlasting and whose mercy endures forever.
And yet here we have the reality of Isaiah 54 — he makes seemingly straightforward statements of ‘abandonment’ and ‘hiding my face.’ So now we must deal with apparent contradictions between promises that God NEVER abandons and DOES abandon, that God does NOT hide his face and that God HAS hidden his face. There are a couple of ways to deal with the juxtaposition:
1. That the promises of God’s steadfast love and unwavering commitment are actually contingent after all.
This view is supported by Jeremiah 18:
- 5 Then the word of the Lord came to me. 6 He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
The idea here is that whatever promises God makes for judgment or blessing are ALWAYS contingent on our response, even if in the immediate context he has not written the caveat into the fine print. In other words, God’s promises are always conditional and if we change our ways (for good or ill), God effectively changes his mind and cancels his promise. But I think this approach makes his promises less than promises. There is probably a better way to see it.
2. That our experience of God’s steadfast love and unwavering commitment vary according to our orientation to God’s loving care and so our descriptions of that experience are ‘phenomenological.’
That expensive word refers to our description of something from a human point of view. For example, we say ‘the sun rises on the horizon,’ which is ‘true’ to our perspective but not literally true according to scientific facts. The scientific fact is that relative to the earth, the sun is not moving–we are.
So too with God and his promises. He never withdraws his loving gaze nor does he ever leave his children, but when we are in rebellion, God indeed appears to ‘hide his face’ and ‘abandon’ us for a time. From our perspective and in our experience, it’s as if God has withdrawn and rejected us (as it might have seemed to the prodigal son or the Psalmist in Ps. 22:1). But in reality, when we reorient ourselves to God’s loving care, we can see how he never truly left and had not in fact hidden his face (Ps. 22:22-24).
Further, these phrases are metaphors that do not literally describe God’s relationship to us but rather, our experience (or not) of his covenant blessings.
So for God to ‘hide his face’ simply means that we were no longer experience a particular blessing that we had come to expect. In the case of the tribe of Judah, the blessings of God were nowhere to be seen when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, the Davidic dynasty was dissolved and the people were taken into exile. For all practical purposes and from their immediate and desperate perspective, God had ‘hidden his face’ (i.e. his protective presence and previous promises were nowhere to be seen). Their experience isn’t so much ‘wrong’ (because they lived it) as it is just a common way to talk about it (just as it is with sunsets).
But had God literally abandoned them? Was his presence actually withdrawn? Had he not gone with them into the exile of their own making? Was his presence not manifest in the prophets and their promises of a new and enduring covenant? Isaiah himself is a sign of that presence and his words echo the truth that is they who had abandoned God and hid their faces from him–yet he had not given them up to oblivion. He would co-suffer with them until the time of restoration.
All that to say, ‘ontologically’ (in God’s being) he had never quit on them, even while ‘existentially’ (in their experience), he clearly had. So we have both types of language in the Bible, and it’s a matter of remembering that both types of language are valuable so long as we don’t confuse our fluctuating experience with God’s unfailing character.
Another reader, Rhonda Allen, reminded me of this beautiful promise from Isaiah 54:4, which I’ll leave as a last word:
- “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
I hope this is of some help.