So, I pulled up Bible Gateway this morning, and I see the verse of the day listed as Isaiah 43:16, 18-19 which reads, “This is what the Lord says – he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland’” (New International Version). This sounds like an appropriate and motivational message to focus on for the New Year, right?
Part of the problem we have in western society is that we have developed an incredibly short attention span, and don’t read things in context. We want bite-sized nuggets of wisdom that make us feel good for short periods of time. We don’t bother to memorize anything or seek real wisdom because we can simply “Google it” when we forget. Personally, I cringe every time I see those commercials where a dad is reading a bedtime story to his little girl and she asks him question after question about something in the book, but he doesn’t know, so he has to ask Siri. If I were that kid, all that would teach me is that my dad doesn’t know anything and I should ask a robot instead. But I digress…
If you read Isaiah 43 in its entirety, the Lord is indeed telling them to leave the past behind and look forward, but there are some critical details missing if you only extract the above segment. First of all, God is speaking to Israel, America does not exist at this point in history. Secondly, what was in the past that they need to forget? The previous chapter explains that Israel has been blind and deaf and embroiled in war, but “did not understand…they did not take it to heart” (Is. 42:25). Chapter 43 is not so much about trying to comfort Israel after-the-fact, but it is about reminding them of who God is – “I have redeemed you…I have summoned you by name…I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…I am with you…apart from me there is no savior…from the ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?” As a parent, I’ve have a few conversations where I’ve reminded my children that I am in charge of the schedule, resources, and provisions. And it is often a poignant reminder to me of where I’ve fallen short in my relationship with the Lord! For example: Say that Kid D wants to get together with friends and tells them that she’ll be there on Saturday at 11am, but didn’t ask ahead of time, and I had somewhere else she needed to be that she’d forgotten about. While she’s busy considering plans she wants to make, she’s not stopping to consider the bigger plan. How often do I do the same thing to God? I make plans and organize schedules for the four kids that we home-school, get people to and from soccer, tennis, gymnastics, taekwondo and teach a few classes a week all while working on my 2nd master’s degree. Insane much?! Yep! When carrying a lot of little things, they start to pile up to your eyeballs and then you can’t figure out which one to put down first without dropping the whole pile of stuff. Just like my kids not putting the family schedule and my relationship with them first, I can get so wrapped up in my own business that I don’t stop to ask God about His plan! People are self-consumed creatures that have to be reminded of their relationships and responsibilities to authority figures.
By taking this verse out of context, there is a third element missing: What is it that He is making new? God explains that He has not placed harsh requirements or demands upon Israel, that He has protected and provided for them over and over. Verses 14 through 28 illustrate God’s faithfulness, even though Israel has not been faithful in return to follow simple instructions. Even though they have been dishonoring Him, they still burden Him with their sins and offenses. Again, He demonstrates mercy and gives them another chance. What is “new” is the understanding that Israel, and indeed the whole world, will gain at the coming redemption through Jesus. All of Chapter 42 is a description of how to recognize the Deliverer when He comes! Based upon the many foretellings of Jesus, He should have been easy enough to recognize. “Do you not perceive it?” But we are blind and deaf even today! The wilderness and wasteland may be literal in some cases, but here it is also a metaphor for the human heart. God is not telling us to forget the lessons learned in 2016’s modern-day America, and look forward to health, wealth and prosperity in 2017! He is telling us that whatever you owed for your past sins has been paid in full by Jesus, and that our “new” future is focused on Him as the tangible image of God! You can move forward, and not dwell on the past, if you will focus your eyes upon Him. You are not in charge of the schedule. You are not capable of removing your own soul-blemishes. You do not have the authority to pardon yourself. Jesus does all of that. The focus for 2017 is not about you “making a way in the wilderness,” but about learning the path that Jesus has already laid out. And for some of us it also means putting our bundles down so that we can see that path clearly, hear His voice, and follow without turning back.