The balance between trust and action
For us, as for Hezekiah, global events shine a spotlight on what or whom we really trust. By Terry Young
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Isaiah by the Day, Alex Motyer’s translation that comes in 71 readings, each with an introduction and notes that run down the page beside the text. His structure goes like this: Introduction (Isaiah 1-5); The Book of the King (Isaiah 6-37); The Book of the Servant (Isaiah 38-55); and The Book of the Conqueror (Isaiah 56-66). Pinning the middle pair of books together is a narrative of war, contagion, personal illness, recovery and a disturbing aftermath (Isaiah 36-39). I found this historical oasis easier to read as a teenager than the stretches of poetry either side of it. It also meant I was nearing the end and Jeremiah would offer me more stories per poem, next. If you have ever felt that way, you might try Motyer.
Read this way, a grand plan emerges in which Isaiah’s early prophecies about God and the nations lead up to a practical demonstration in the standoff between God (represented by Hezekiah besieged in Jerusalem) and Sennacherib (represented by his field commander and surrounding army). The twist is that Hezekiah emerges as a flawed representative who trusts God enough to see off the Assyrians and recover from his illness, but who gravitates to political intrigue in search of long-term national security. The remainder of the prophecy sees through Hezekiah’s failure and beyond its consequences to a permanent solution. Even in translation, we sense the heightening magnificence of the poetry as the prophecy builds and takes us to unexpected places before his global vision finally bursts out.
Reading Isaiah this time around, I was puzzled by the way he berates Hezekiah for his big projects (Isaiah 25:8-11): stocking the arsenal, redirecting the city’s water supply and pulling down nearby houses to reinforce the city wall. These seem sensible precautions and if the tunnel that bears his name – the one you can walk through today – is the project Isaiah is criticising, it was an engineering masterpiece.
Must we choose between trust and engineering? I hope not, since I like clever ideas and I want to trust God more.
Maybe 30 years ago, a friend sent me an article on Thalidomide that described how the marketing men realised that pregnant women had exactly the symptoms that Thalidomide was good for. Perhaps I should say that there’s a good chance that the medication my mother took for seasickness during a storm on the Mediterranean was Thalidomide, which is why my friend thought I’d be interested. The connection between pregnancy and Thalidomide had tragic consequences and I was in a better position than most to understand them, but I was also surprised to discover how much I admired the marketeers.
I worked at the time in a commercial research centre and finding markets for our technology was hard work: guessing, building cost models, writing business plans and being creative. Suddenly here’s group with a new drug that identifies one of the biggest markets on earth. What a smart idea! But then what was I to make of myself when I realised how I felt?
We now know that it wasn’t an either-or choice. As I understand it, in the right context, Thalidomide is still good and so is pregnancy. Nobody knew much about the business of testing new drugs at the time and a blessing that emerged from the tragedy was a regulatory framework that has spread around the world.
For similar reasons, I don’t think we have to choose between engineering – or other measures – and trusting God. As I’ve just described, there is more to it than that. Does that mean anything goes? The answer comes down to one thing: who or what are you really trusting?
The truth is that global conquerors of the time were good at cracking cities open most of the time. You could only move so far in a lifetime and if you wanted to rule the world you had to crack on. Realistically, then, Hezekiah had no real political option, now the old oppressors were too weak to make useful allies. Water supplies and strong walls were the sort of infrastructure any wise king would build, but they were an inadequate defence against the opposition he faced.
If Jerusalem was to survive, it would take something more. And there was! The walls and fresh water protected the population from the plague running rampant in the besieging army.
Clearly, that’s how Hezekiah saw it, too, because once the siege and his later illness were over, he greets the ambassadors of an up-and-coming kingdom and sets about his next piece of political bridge-building with the Babylonians. Isaiah is incensed but realises that the final answer can never be one of cities or regions or empires on earth. After the rubble of Hezekiah’s projects come sketches of the most breath-taking vision yet.
Would it have been better for Hezekiah to make no provision for the future in the face of the marauders? We can’t run the tape again and hear what Isaiah would have said, but I think he was looking for more evidence of faith rather than less preparation. How do we manage? There are Christians who give up on their medication because they believe they have been healed, which is fine if they have been healed, but there are certainly some who gave up and aren’t healed. There are also Christians who are sick with anxiety, despite their elaborate preparations for the future.
The narrow road Jesus talked about (Matthew 7:13-14) threads its way between extremes, in this case between complacent activity and irresponsible lack of it.
For us, as for Hezekiah, global events shine a spotlight on what or whom we really trust. Jesus picks up the ingredients of Hezekiah’s crisis when talking about the future and his return. We’ve tried to turn his teaching into a calendar when we were meant to find comfort in it. What does he tell us to do (Matthew 26:6)? ‘[S]ee to it that you are not alarmed.’
This is the fourth blog of a series exploring Christian responses to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Christians in the crisis: introducing the series
God and the nations: how does a crisis challenge the global gods?
Fear not! Reasons to be confident through a crisis.
Hezekiah’s tunnel: the balance between trust and action.
Blessings in disguise: finding the upside of a crisis and using it gratefully.
Image | Zdenek Machácek | Unsplash
Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.
After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and move to Datchet with a position as a university professor
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