“ALL DAY LONG I HAVE HELD OUT MY HANDS TO A DISOBEDIENT AND OBSTINATE PEOPLE.” —Romans 10:21, citing Isaiah 65:2
How to feel about the recalcitrant? (Here is just another lesson in the long course in imitatio Dei that is the Christian life.)
They just don’t get it. Are they incapable of understanding? Do they lack the IQ? No, that’s not it—clearly they have working brains. They can make money pretty well, and they read the information sources that they want to read, and swallow them and regurgitate them in their own words.
The problem is their hearts: they don’t want to get it. They prefer another narrative, a narrative that is more comfortable for them, a narrative that reassures them that they are good (should we not always recoil when we hear ourselves say “I’m good”?), that their comfortable lot is not culpable and incurs no guilt, and not only no guilt but no responsibility, meaning no obligation; that they are pleasing to the Lord just as they are, that in fact to entertain any twinges of uncertainty about their own righteousness would be to commit a failure of faith in the God who has declared them righteous, that there is nothing that they need to do for the salvation of their souls, that the fact that “Jesus paid it all” means not that “all to him [they] owe” (which would raise the awkward implication that they might owe something to the others for whom he died), but that they don’t owe anyone else anything.
“They.” Or “we”? Even “I”? Well, sure, in theory, it could be “we,” it could be “I.” But is that a serious possibility in this case? “Is it I, Lord?” can be either a moment of agonizing self-doubt or a moment of reflexive virtue-signaling. Who are we kidding here? We know it’s “they.”
This morning as I considered my own impatience, and the impatience of others, with egregious failures of empathy in our social environment, with people who deny the reality of others’ danger and suffering in order to preserve their own comfort, and that in the longer context of a period in our life together as a nation, and as a church within a nation, during which many have denied multitudes of truths, and either enthusiastically or complacently (perhaps even with a show of mild reluctance) followed leaders who have spewed transparent lies transparently aimed at self-promotion, self-praise, self-justification, self-preservation, self-enrichment—this morning, as I thought of these things, this verse from Isaiah by way of Paul’s letter to the Romans popped into my head:
“All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
Here the apostle is quoting the prophet who is quoting God. God experiences Israel as disobedient and obstinate, not only disobeying but denying the actuality or the applicability of the divine command. Here is the passage in Isaiah:
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’
All day long I have held out my hands
to an obstinate people,
who walk in ways not good,
pursuing their own imaginations—
a people who continually provoke me
to my very face,
offering sacrifices in gardens
and burning incense on altars of brick;
who sit among the graves
and spend their nights keeping secret vigil;
who eat the flesh of pigs,
and whose pots hold broth of impure meat;
who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me,
for I am too sacred for you!’
Such people are smoke in my nostrils,
a fire that keeps burning all day.
The offense of disobedience is compounded by the offense of false piety. These are people who regularly participate in worship. They offer sacrifices. They even keep prayer vigils. But to the Lord, the smoke of their sacrificial offerings is an irritation, because they do not obey in the matters in which the Lord most urgently seeks obedience.
Can we focus for a moment on the phrase “All day long I have held out my hands”?
To hold out one’s hands is to reach out to the offending party, to plead with them. It expresses patience. The patience of God. Let us not rush past the patience. Let us dwell on the patience. How long is God patient?
All. Day. Long.
God does not give a command at the crack of dawn, see a failure to comprehend and comply before morning coffee, and crash down in judgment during breakfast. God does not give a command in confirmation class, see late-teenage rebellion, and dispatch directly to hell before college graduation. God does not send prophets in the bronze age, become incarnate and die for the sins of the world at the turn of late antiquity, and then, when that consummate act of pleading fails to impress and convert, destroy the world in fiery exasperation before the onset of the Middle Ages. It is the year 2021, and we are still here. Still disobedient. Still obstinate. And God’s hands are still held out.
If you read the sequel to this Isaiah passage, you will get to: “I will not keep silent but will pay back in full.” This too, and not perpetual patience, is the message of the prophet, the message from God. Hence the urgency of the pleading.
But for you and me, and for our current “they/them,” we are living in the moment of “I held out my hands.” When we see the disobedience and recalcitrance—the willful ignorance, the brazen denial, the prolonged and contented feasting on the flesh of pigs—we may wan to give voice to the divine words of coming judgment. But we are living in the long now during which God’s hands are held out to us in pleading. Maybe it is our job to imitate that posture.