The word ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew is variably rendered as: Mashiah, Moshiah, Mashiach, or Moshiach. It means ‘the anointed one’, ‘the chosen one’, ‘the righteous one.’
Both priests and kings were anointed with ‘holy oil’ in the Jewish Bible, but no priest had the significance attached to the king. You could say the king was the central backbone, while priest and prophet were right and left hands. Thus the Messiah is appointed by God as the anointed, chosen, righteous, king who will redeem Israel and the world. Neither any priest nor any prophet was called ‘anointed, chosen, righteous’ in the Messianic sense. The Messiah is the king anointed in order to redeem, chosen in order to redeem, righteous in order to redeem. A Russian Orthodox choir master once said to me, “we have no pope in the Eastern Church, but if we had a single overall leader it would be the king.” In the ancient world, and among many ancient peoples, the king is a more sacred calling than priest or prophet. The three are not equal.
The Book of Isaiah never praises priest nor prophet, but repeatedly extols the stupendous meaning and spiritual efficacy of the king: “A king reigns by integrity, ..[he is] like a shelter from the wind, a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in dry places, like the shade of a great rock in a thirsty land. The eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, the ears of those who hear will be alert, the heart of the hasty will learn to judge, the tongue of stammerers will speak clearly, the fool will no more be called noble, nor the villain be styled honourable” [Isaiah, 32,1-5].
The king’s heart ‘in’ the world manifests God’s heart ‘for’ the world.
It is unthinkable in the religion of the Jews that the Messiah could be anything other than a king, even if additional roles attach to his kingship, to amplify its main thrust.
Consequently, the Messiah is often referred to in Hebrew as Melekh ha-Mashia, literally meaning ‘the anointed king’, but this phrase is understood to mean, ‘the king who will redeem his people and all humanity.’ Priest and prophet can contribute to redemption, but neither can ‘make it happen’; the king is the absolutely crucial linchpin for bringing about the process of redemption, setting it in motion, driving it forward, energizing its dynamics. Without the Messianic king, there is no redeemer and no redemption.
Given all the prophets who foretell the coming Messiah, there is only one — and he comes after the Babylonian Exile when the wave of fire that inspired earlier prophecy has all but receded — who speaks of the Messiah not as a king, but as a ‘messenger’ who is a terrible and almost divine person [Malachi, 3, 1-4]. The Book of Daniel reaffirms the kingly tradition yet portrays the coming Messiah as an ‘apocalyptic’ figure, rooted in the end times which are prior to the actual ‘Messianic Age.’ Indeed, Daniel, 7, 9-10, 13-14, virtually suggests the Messiah is both divine and human [in some ill-defined sense].
Jewish commentators in the Talmud, and elsewhere, also affirm the kingship of the Messiah. However, Hasidism nuances the Jewish religion in its own very distinctive way. For the Hasids the Messiah is often associated with their religious leaders, given the title of ‘zaddik’, meaning someone tested or proven, literally ‘checked out.’ The zaddik combines several roles in relation to his followers: kingly guide, prophetic sage and spiritual teacher, with the power to do miracles, and leader of the rousing services in the synagogue. He has echoes of the ‘spiritual master’ of many traditions—guru, staretz, geron, shaman—combined with a kingly position of bearing on his shoulders heavy responsibility for the fate of his people. This combined role has some strong parallels with Jesus Christ; the zaddik is, in some important senses, Christ-like.
The Messiah is the main figure of Jewish ‘eschatology.’ He is a future Jewish king in the line of David [which renders the clues about the Messiah in the Psalms very significant]. Indeed, so strong is the link between David and Messiah, they are called in Jewish tradition, ‘the two anointed kings’ [Numbers, 24, 17-18]. This not only affirms some powerful spiritual connection running directly from the Davidic kingship to the Messianic kingship, but also it affirms that, as kings, David and Messiah are unique in all of Jewish history. In fact, David is Messianic in his kingship, like the actual Messianic kingship. The former is the symbol, the latter is the reality, of Messianic kingship. Or put it differently, one is the forerunner, the other is the realisation. Consequently, we should study who David was and what he did to get a sense of who the Messiah will be and what he will do. David’s heroic deeds and actions, his tribal wars and battles, his personal struggles and crises, his prophetic poetry and prayers in the Psalms, his entire story, is very revealing of the true spirit, and deeper meaning, of the Messiah who will follow after him, exceeding him, but a flowering from his root.
Since David dates from 1000 BC [though many of the Psalms date from 450 BC], it can be affirmed that some kind of Messianic consciousness goes that far back in Jewish history. The story of Moses, dating from 1250 BC, would not seem to be pointing to any Messianic future. Nor is there any such vision of the outcome to all the tribulations and travels of the Jews dating from the earlier time when Abraham arrived among the Canaanites in 2000-1850 BC. For the whole period that the Jewish patriarchs were in Egypt, from 1700 BC to 1250 BC, nothing Messianic emerges, nor does it emerge after the time of Moses when Joshua invades Palestine in 1220 BC. Not even in the time of Samuel, dating from 1040 BC, nor Saul, dating from 1030-1010 BC, is the Messiah even hinted at—or if there are hints, they are so faint only those looking backward in retrospect might see them. To an extent, the tradition that regards David as the ground for and beginning of Messianic kingship is certainly retrospective [Isaiah, 11,1-9]. Yet, if you look at David’s life and his Psalms, then you can see quite visibly and tangibly the first sprouting of the Tree of Redemption, as distinct from the Tree of Salvation. The prophet can move between both trees, as the Spirit takes him, and the priest is very much part of the Salvational Tree [I Chronicles, 22, 5-11], but the king is staked to the Redemptive Tree. Indeed, according to the Post Exilic parts of the Book of Isaiah, the king will also be killed on this tree– not just staked to it but nailed on it to die.
Not only is the Messiah in the line of David, with only David and he occupying the profoundest meaning of kingship as Messianic in nature, but the Messiah will rule ‘in God’s name’, called, blessed, empowered, by the Holy Spirit: “..on him the Spirit of Yahweh rests, a Spirit of wisdom and insight, a Spirit of counsel and power, a Spirit of knowledge and of the respect of Yahweh” [Isaiah, 11, 2]. It is this Spirit of God who will enable the Messianic king to fulfil his role as redeemer by completing the task of redemption. In Hebrew, ‘go-el’ is redeemer, and ‘geulah’ is redemption. Tradition says, “his reign shall be from sea to sea” [Zachariah, 9,10]; the Messiah’s reign will be universal because it is in fact God’s reign that is established through him. The Messianic king is the ‘representative’ of the divine king— and there are no other such representatives, even if a whole crowd of pretenders claim to be this one and only true representative.
The Messianic kingship, representing God’s kingship, and implementing God’s Spirit, will have special features that no human ruler, whether ‘good’ [righteous] or ‘bad’ [wicked, tyrannical, unjust], could ever attain. For example, any rulership of the world that does not genuinely unite it in fraternity, not crushing but welcoming its diversity, cannot be from God. In a subtle sense, then, the Messiah is the only valid king, the only Godly king, who will ever occupy the throne of earth. Other occupants of this throne, kings and chiefs down the ages, can approximate to the Messianic king, explicitly or implicitly, but none can do what he does to establish what he establishes. Godly is as Godly does, as far as kingship is concerned. Any leader could be inspired by the Messianic Spirit, and this will be the most creative, and loving, helpful and self-sacrificing, kind of leader; but there is only one leader of leaders, king of kings, and that is the Messiah. Many kings, like the vast majority in European history, and elsewhere across the globe, pale into insignificance when placed next to the Messianic king. They appear false kings, simply not up to the job, when compared with the true king.
The Lakota vision of the ‘chief’ is strikingly Messianic in its comprehension of what a leader does, and does not, do. The chief is the living embodiment of uprightness of heart, and the readiness of the heart to pour out its blood for those it shelters in its care.
The king is the main figure of ‘passion of heart’, when the heart is both deep and great.
Kings who oppress and exploit the people, who have no concern for them, and abandon them to the worst fate whilst securing the best fate for themselves, are far from the Messianic Spirit.
It is hinted at as early as the time of Samuel, the prophet who anointed Saul as king, and near the time of David, that the special mission of the Messianic king is to “the afflicted people” [II Samuel, 22, 28]. Bringing people through affliction to the other side is Messianic; adding to people’s afflictions—spiritually, morally, psychologically, politically, socially, physically—so that it becomes harder to move through them, but in fact makes it more likely the people will remain stuck in them, is anti-Messianic. Christ echoes this when saying, ‘I came to redeem, not judge, the world.’ Judging the world, as well as organising it non-equitably, is the anti-Christ.
What are the special features of the singular, and genuine, Messianic rulership, according to Jewish tradition? They characterise the Messianic Age that the Messianic king inaugurates.
 The world’s peoples “will hammer their swords into plowshares, their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war” [Isaiah, 2, 4; Ezekiel, 39, 9]. The constant warfare that has been a defining mark of human history will be abolished for all peoples in the world.
 Justice balanced by Compassion will be axiomatic realities governing everyday life for all peoples in the world.
 A new time will be ushered in where evil and tyranny will not be able to stand against the Messiah, and the wretched and poor will at last be released from oppression: “He does not judge by appearances.. but judges the wretched with integrity, and with equity gives a verdict for the poor of the land; his word is a rod that strikes the ruthless, his sentences bring death to the wicked. Integrity is the loincloth around his waist, faithfulness the belt around his hips” [Isaiah,11, 4].
Once the Messiah is recognised king and his kingdom established, leaders of other nations will look to him for guidance [Isaiah, 2, 4]. He will rally all the nations to his cause, and will be attractive [Isaiah, 11, 10] for all peoples in the world.
 Justice, Peace, Truth, are pervasive spiritual realities for all peoples in the world.
 God’s sovereignty will be established [Isaiah, 2, 2-4] for all peoples in the world.
 The existential exactions of existence will cease. There will be no more hunger or illness, and death will be swallowed up forever [Isaiah, 25, 8]. All of the dead will rise again [Isaiah, 26, 19]. All desires of soul and inclinations of heart worthy of humanity will be granted [Psalms, 37, 4], bringing the happiness of fulfilment for all the peoples in the world.
 There will be a revolution in the very nature of all things, because of God’s indwelling of everything: “The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together with a little boy to lead them. The cow and the bear make friends, their young lie down together.. The infant plays over the cobra’s hole; into the viper’s lair the young child puts his hand, they do no hurt.. for the land shall be filled with the knowledge of Yahweh” [Isaiah,11, 6-9]. Knowledge of God, as a directly experienced, breathed in and breathed out, reality will fill all the peoples in the world.
 This experiential spiritual knowing of God as ‘all in all’ will be through the heart, it will be written in the heart, communicated to the heart, and therefore — according to Jeremiah — it will end any need for sacred books, written scriptures, Bibles, Korans, Diamond Sutras, for all peoples in the world.
 After putting aside his anger at the continuing unrighteousness of the Jews and other nations in rivalry with them, God will show mercy, and this mercifulness will be all-inclusive, with no exclusions, for all peoples in the world.
This last point is conveyed by the Book of Jonah, read in its entirety on the Day of Atonement. God asks the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh, one of Israel’s oldest and most savage enemies, in order by his fiery words to call all the inhabitants of the city to repentance. Jonah knows what this means: God will not destroy Israel’s enemies, but will include them in his universal mercy towards, and pardon of, all mankind. Humanly, Jonah is furious with Yahweh, and refuses the job he has been asked to do. He wants ‘the foes of God’ punished, whilst only the friends of God should be rewarded. This judgementalism is repudiated by God. Jonah, in fleeing from God, gets thrown off a ship when the weather turns violent and the sea starts to boil. Instead of drowning, as he morally ‘deserves’ for being the cause of the harm attacking the ‘innocent’ ship, Jonah is swallowed by a whale, in whose belly he spends three days—like the three days between Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. Jonah undergoes a huge transformation in this strange depth that has engulfed him, and when he emerges on dry land, he does what he had been asked by God originally. Jonah preaches to the people of Nineveh, they too have a deep change of heart, and God forgives them. Yet even after this marvellous outcome, Jonah is still smoldering. He tells Yahweh, “I knew you were a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, relenting from evil.” [Jonah, 4, 1-4] as explanation for why he ran away. Jonah knew God was going to redeem ‘the bad people’, rather than punish them for their badness, and so he tried to block this ‘good ending for bad people’ by refusing to be an instrument of the redemptive process. Yahweh is almost pleading with the prophet’s fit of moral indignation, in its demand for a final and irrevocable division of sheep from goats, “Am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh?” [Jonah, 4, 11]. Yahweh admits to the condemnatory Jonah that the inhabitants of Nineveh don’t know their left hand from their right hand, they are morally confused, and nothing like righteous, yet there are too many people populating the ‘great city’ just to throw them all away. Jonah has a lesson to learn that accusatory people such as the fundamentalists, and other persons caught up in legal and moral dualism, have still not learned.
God is ‘rich in forgiveness’, because of a more ultimate compassion, mercy, tenderness, that he exercises toward humanity, rather than favouring the upright and rejecting the fallen down.
This is true Messianic Judaism– and Christ on the Cross builds on it and merely takes its truth of love further, as far as it can go.
Even in Judaism, where God’s anger at the unjust, the unrighteous, the wicked, is so hot, tenderness tempers anger, and has the last say on the last day. ‘Tenderness’—such as a loving parent would show to a very ill child—is a word especially powerful in this context. It does not suggest God is simply letting sin off the hook, or pretending sin is fine and dandy. It does suggest a more ‘human, kindly, understanding’, stance toward our failings. We are not just lacking in integrity, we are sick; we need healing from God, and we need patience from God toward the difficulties of integrity we must work through. Sin does not define who and what we are; we are more, and God’s tenderness has greater effectiveness in releasing this ‘more’ than any divine wrath that ‘once and forever’ closes accounts on us.
But the Jews are not only haunted by an ‘acidic moralism’ in their own hearts which they try to project into the heart of God, but also there are times when they lapse into a parochial and narrow national self-importance and arrogance. Whether the four specifically Jewish marks of the Messianic Age are down to that, or have a less obvious symbolic and mystical meaning, it is hard to say.
 The Messiah will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and restore the old temple worship.
 The Messiah will gather together all the scattered Jews, and bring them back to Israel.
 The Messiah will restore the Davidic kingdom to all of Israel.
 The Messiah will restore Israel’s ancient judges and counsellors; Jerusalem will become a centre, or hub, of righteousness, the ‘Faithful City’ [Isaiah, 1, 26], and the peoples of the world will turn to the Jews for spiritual guidance [Zechariah, 8, 23]. Moreover, the nations will acknowledge the wrongs they did to Israel in the past [Isaiah, 52, 13; 53, 5].
These four points are clearly less impressive than the previous nine points, for non Jews. However, a prophet from the time of Jeremiah [627 BC] implies the deeper significance of these rather confined Jewish requirements of the Messianic king, in saying he will ‘mend the entire world to worship Yahweh together’ [Zephaniah, 3, 9]. Zachariah, a hundred years later [520 BC], conveys something similar: “They shall be my people and I will be their God” [Zachariah, 8, 1-17, 20-23]; interestingly to any Christian, this prophet sees the Messianic king modestly seated on a very uncharismatic animal: “[He is] humble and riding on a donkey” [Zachariah, 8, 9].
The Messianic time is a kind of Golden Age at the end of time, echoing in some ways the Paradise at the beginning of time, but also bringing to a victorious climax many of the sorrows, struggles, hurts, potentialities, disasters, of ‘being in the world’ over the whole span of history between Beginning and End.
Thus, the Messianic Age is a Holy City, but in it is flourishing the Sacred Garden, so in a real sense it is both Beginning and End in a paradoxical integration. The turbulent Middle has been resolved, and thus is not in evidence, but is ‘represented’ by the beauty of the Sacred Garden before everything went to pot and the peace of the Holy City after everything is fulfilled. The entire process, from first to last, is redemption, and redemption as a process is effectively set in motion, and secured, by the redeemer.
This is why the Messiah is enthroned at the heart of the Holy City and Sacred Garden, as their king. Only he can connect the sacredness of the beginning and the holiness of the end by his deeds of redemption in the storm tossed Middle, where the beauty of the start place is lost and the peace of the finish place seems far off. The Middle is a Desert, a trackless waste, that has to be crossed. The world process can be destroyed on the way.
The Messiah contends with the world, humanity, history, in a hard and protracted moment when the good latent at the beginning is ‘forgotten in the mists of time’ and the love triumphant at the end is ‘obscured in the haziness of some distant time impossible to imagine.’
Jewish eschatology also is populated with symbolic, and semi mythical, but certainly visionary and peculiar, stories of ‘apocalypse’ where the end is near, and so the ‘last times’ intensify all the woes of world, humanity, history, and throw underlying clashes of Love versus its Adversary out into the light, where the two sides are seen more clearly and become violently accentuated. Calamities in the natural and political spheres punctuate the heroic battles of redemption against ruination of the whole human venture. Moreover, supernatural events, epiphanies, interventions, mark the last days as well. It is important to realise that right up to the Exile to Babylon [596–582 BC] and beyond, when Yahweh wanted to oppose either Israel or her national enemies he used no supernatural eruptions at all, but rather, deployed ‘ordinary’ natural and political upheavals to convey his grasp on what was going on. It is therefore unique to Jewish eschatology that weird and strange things break into the everyday functioning of nature and history; this only happens in those times which feel like the last days before some big end, if not the end. The Christian Bible concludes with a Jewish style eschatological vision in the ‘Apocalypse’ attributed to St John of the Fourth Gospel, when he was an old man living on the Greek island of Patmos.
Given the absence of any party line that enforces a single viewpoint, the religion of the Jews contains many competing, and opposed, interpretations of the Messiah, who he is, what he does, and what the Messianic Age will be like. These varying accounts are spread over not only the prophets, but also the Jewish commentators.
The Talmud details the advent of the Messiah and describes the Messianic Age as a time of freedom and peace, a period of ‘ultimate goodness’, as one Jewish writer puts it, not only for the Jews but also for mankind as a whole. Everything and everyone has reached a happy conclusion, together.
More striking is the claim that the Messiah will come precisely when all hope for him is dwindling. A Jewish commentator describes this: “When thou seest a generation overwhelmed by many troubles as by a river, await him; [for] when the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of Yahweh shall lift up a standard against him; and the Redeemer shall come to Zion.”
To put it differently, you send on your best player when your team is down 1 nil, and full time is approaching, but you sense the opposing team are about to go on a scoring rampage, because your team is in tatters. The wall is about to crumble, the waters will burst through, sweeping away whatever is in their path. But the new player steadies your team’s nerves, and they hold; they are not overwhelmed, and in the dying seconds, the man reserved for the most dangerous moment scores twice, and your team snatches victory, 2 goals to 1. God loves letting things go to the edge, before taking any decisive action.
Interestingly, the same commentator suggests that the Messiah will come only in a generation that is either totally righteous, or totally wicked. If the former, then the Messiah comes to confirm the people’s ‘inheritance’ of the land they will live in; if the latter, then the Messiah comes as ‘intercessor’, in the sense that ‘for the sake of my own will I do it.’ In the former case, the Messiah comes to affirm people are on track, and bless what they are doing. It is already Messianic. In the latter case, the Messiah is the one who never gives up on humanity because we are all ‘his own’, and he will ‘do it’ precisely because we are in such dire straits.
So, to those living the way of redemption, the Messiah takes a light hand, letting them get on with it; whilst, to those sunk in iniquity and the deepest existential malaise, he does more. Both reactions of his, the lighter and the deeper, arise from love for ‘his’ people. ‘For the sake of those who are mine’, he does whatever has to be done to bring redemption to one and all, with no one left beyond the pale forever.
Interceding has the connotation, in this context, of doing for another what they cannot do for themselves. You step into the breach, and do the action for your own that they cannot do. If they can do it, you don’t rob them of that dignity, and hence you step back and respect their doing, but when the going gets really impossible for your own, at their point of annihilation if no one steps in for them, you step up and carry them through. You take their trouble on you, and you do what they cannot do, to face and wrestle with it. They then may, through your encouragement and strength, be able to do it at last.
The Talmud tells many stories of rabbis receiving visits from Elijah and the Messiah. On one such occasion the rabbi asks Elijah when the Messiah will come, and the prophet called ‘the herald of the Messiah’ replies, ‘go ask him yourself.’ The rabbi then sees the Messiah sitting at the entrance of a tomb, bandaging and healing ‘poor lepers.’ The rabbi goes to the Messiah and greets him as Master and Teacher, asking the question about when he will come. ‘Today’ is the answer. The rabbi goes back to Elijah who enquires what the Messiah said. The rabbi conveys the whole cryptic answer. Elijah interprets it by saying the Messiah has assured the rabbi and his ancestors a portion of the world to come; they will be in the future redemption. The rabbi is disturbed, however, and says, ‘He spoke falsely to me, stating that he would come today, but has not.’ Elijah answers that the Messiah said he would come ‘today, if ye listen to his voice.’
Perhaps we are insensible to the coming of the Messiah, and so for us he has not come today, because we have not been listening to his voice. This means a great deal more than just studying any sacred text. Not hearing his voice means we have been closed to the whole Messianic dimension of existence. It is right in front of us, but we miss it; we look at it all the time but do not see it. We listen to it all the time but do not hear it. The Talmudic story exemplifies what the ‘Messianic dimension’ of existence is in the lepers, the most diseased and impoverished of all mankind, and the most forsaken by everybody. Had we, in any degree in our life, perceived with our eyes and understood with our heart who the ‘afflicted people’ were, we might have not been left hanging by the Messiah who should have turned up today.
The afflicted people, and the afflicting mystery of existence, is the Messiah’s real calling. This is what he has to deal with. This is what he has to change, by letting the affliction afflict him as it afflicts those under its hammer blows. The Messiah is no Superman, riding to the Rescue, to supernaturally and magically whisk the affliction out of existence [or the people out of existence and up to heaven]. As Jeremiah said to the Jews of his time sent into Babylonian Exile, and hoping for an unusually powerful intervention by God that would supernaturally and magically, and instantly, lift them out of their worst nightmare, ‘there is no Exit.’ The Messiah is not going to provide any Great Escape from existential and historical contingencies which we must ‘pass through’ in this world. However, the affliction that is destroying us, on many levels, is what the Messiah will suffer for our sake, and by his suffering, help us suffer it in a new way that proves totally transfiguring.
Jews who believe the Messiah has not come never the less have not given up on the Messianic Spirit, nor hope in its eventual transformation of us and our situation. For Orthodox Jews, ‘awaiting the Messiah’ is number 12 of 13 beliefs defining the Jewish religion as set forth by Maimonides. For Hasidic Jews, the Messiah is almost heart stoppingly imminent. For Conservative Jews, ‘the Messiah teaches every human being to live as if he or she, personally, has the responsibility to bring about the Messianic Age’ and ‘though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day’ [Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles]. For Reform Jews, though feeling the Messianic Age is far off, given the horrors of the modern era, still they renew their hope for it when they assert that the Shabbat is its pretaste and prefigurement, and anticipate it in many other practices.
Not all Jewish prophets uttered any prophecy concerning the Messiah. One view, doubtless over simplified, is that before the Exile, the prophets focused on Righteousness, whilst it was the calamitous disaster of the Exile that really catalysed the crystallisation of the Messianic figure, with his irrational, ‘hope against hope’ for Israel, and by extension, the entire world. In the Exile, the main focus turns towards Redemption.
None the less, perhaps there remains some truth in this impression, because the single most wondrous outpouring about the nature, deed, effect, of the Messiah comes in chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah which are from an unknown prophet of the Exile [or Post Exile]. It may be that the Jews did not become all that conscious of the Messiah, even if he was already vaguely present, until the severest affliction they had ever gone through as a people finally overtook them. Early prophets like Amos, dating from 783 to 743 BC, had warned the Jews they were heading up a blind alley, and it could only end in tears. This warning keeps getting reiterated by subsequent prophets over the 200 years leading up to the Exile. There is a prophetic feeling that terrible, and dreadful, defeat and destruction for Israel is coming.
Though nothing like as long lasting as the Egyptian captivity 600 years earlier, in fact lasting only three generations from the fall of the north in 596 BC and the fall of Jerusalem in the south in 582 BC, until Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus, the Persian king, in 538 BC, to most Jews of that horrendous moment, including Jeremiah, going into slavery in far off Babylon spelled both the end of Israel as a nation, politically, and the end of Israel as a people of Yahweh, religiously. It really seemed absolutely The End.
Tradition has it that Jeremiah was stoned to death by Jews in Egypt who had returned to the religion of the Great Mother. His heart was already broken, his death merely a confirmation of abject despair.
“If you must forsake Yahweh, you must. But this means the utter end of the old covenant. You can be no more his people, and he can be no more your God” [Jeremiah, 44, 28].
Existentially, Exile is not unique to the Jews. Many persons have tasted the humiliation that wrecks all further venturing. The train has hit the buffers, and is at a complete stop, never to roll on again. This hurts beyond any remedy. ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept’ has become a litany of sorrow for many human beings. Vine de Loria Jr, a well-known Dakota scholar, argued that Indigenous peoples are currently in a kind of Babylonian Exile, and like the Jews, can only emerge from it if they use its furnace to forge a new spiritual consciousness that will change their religion and way of life.
Can any prophetic lineage in the anticipation of the Messiah confidently be traced, then? The impression of many commentators is that the growing awareness of the Messiah rumbles down centuries, in starts and stops, in hints and clues, in allusions and analogies, sometimes more clear and sometimes more vague. Still, perhaps a sequence of sorts can be unearthed.
 If so, the founder and ancestor of all prophetic foretelling of the coming Messiah is David, especially in certain Psalms. Tracking the Messiah all the way back to 1010-970 BC may be how the Jews saw it looking back, with the hindsight of centuries, but the Messianic hope starts with the king and prophet, poet and lover, warrior and man of tumult and trouble, David.
Is there any pre-Davidic prophecy of the Messiah? Maybe yes, maybe no..
There is such prophecy if you accept Peter’s assertion [Acts, 10, 43] that ‘all the prophets’ witness to the Messiah. Perhaps only Jesus Christ could decode all these prophets, going back to Moses, in such a way as to reveal in them prefigurements of himself as the Messiah [John, 5, 39; 46]. But to less acute eyes, there are only the most vague prophecies that might, at a stretch, be regarded as Messianic before David. One recent writer, a Jewish convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, is surely right to suggest that, in regard to the figure of the Messiah in the Old Testament, there is “a progression from the first books, which contain embryonic prophecies, to later books, which contain more detailed and fuller predictions. As a seed sprouts and grows, so do the prophecies” [Bernstein, 2008, p 64].
According to Bernstein, there are two pre-David passages commented upon in Jewish tradition which might be regarded as referring to a coming Messiah. In English they do not really point to this, but perhaps in Hebrew they resonate differently. The first candidate is the passage [Genesis, 49, 10] where Jacob is on his death-bed, and tells his sons ‘what lies before you’, and one of his sayings is: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah.. until Shiloh comes; and to him will be the obedience of the people.” Some Jewish commentators equate ‘Shiloh’ with the Messiah. If this is the earliest Messianic reference, it suggests he will be a king, winning the loyalty of his people, but little else. Bernstein thinks it means the Messiah must arrive before the kingdom of Judah is destroyed and the Jews dispersed.
The second candidate is the passage [Deuteronomy, 18, 15-19] where Moses tells the Jews that Yahweh has agreed to their request for a prophet who will speak to them gently, because the voice and fire of Yahweh on Mount Horeb terrified them, making them feel they would die in its fierce presence. They are asking for the Daemonic to come, not like the fearful storm that shakes the earth, but more akin to the healing rain that follows it. Why this prophet should be regarded as in any sense a Messiah is not clear from the context.
With the best will in the world, neither of these passages seem even faintly Messianic.
Hence, it can really be concluded that David is the first anticipation of the Messiah in any incontestable way. David is central to all the prophecy concerned with the Messiah. Not only is the Messiah a king in the Davidic sense, spiritually, but physically they are of the same lineage, and even born in the same place, Ephrath, an outskirts of Bethlehem, according to Micah: “But you Bethlehem, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel” [Micah, 5, 2]. Jeremiah also prophesises that the Messiah will be a “virtuous branch [from] David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land.. And this is the name he will be called: Yahweh-our-righteousness” [Jeremiah, 23, 5-6]. Isaiah repeats the theme of David as the ancestor of the Messiah: “There shall come forth a rod from the stem of Jesse [David’s father], and a branch shall grow out of his roots, the Spirit of Yahweh shall rest upon him” [Isaiah, 11, 1].
Despite his many and glaring failings as a human being — or rather precisely because of them — David’s kingship is ‘true’, and it is upon such truth that the Messianic kingship builds, and which it fulfils. Yet David is a man of royal heart not only because of the way the heart’s lies are overcome by truthfulness of heart, but also because he is a man of depth of heart, who cries out of his deeps to God’s deeps. Through David, the depth of humanity and the depth of God become players in the drama of redemption. Hence, the coming redeemer will also have to be deep, not just upright, in heart. Psalm 63 in the Septuagint declares of the Messiah, “a man is coming whose heart is deep.”
The Messianic Spirit complicates the upright with the deep.
 Hosea, from 750 to 721 BC, is the next Messianic prophet. He is not explicitly talking about redemption, yet implicitly he is. Redemption is like a husband who will not give up on a faithless, whoring wife. Righteousness might dictate she should be divorced, or even put to death, but Hosea loves her, despite her infidelities, and will not give up on her.
This image of redemption is articulated in terms of marriage: you don’t throw away the faithless partner in whom you invested so much, you suffer pain for them, as part of recalling them from the destitution and shame they have entered. Love over-rules justice. ‘If God counted all our sins, and held us to strict account, who could survive it?’, David had cried, facing up to his own infidelities and betrayals. Righteousness is important, but not as an end in itself, distinct from love. Thus love introduces a new ingredient, a dynamic factor, that can change even the inevitable.
And this love is operative through pain, the deep pain in the heart, shared by Yahweh and humanity.
Doom is coming to the Jews, as a consequence of their own resistance to Righteousness. Yet, and at this point it is no more than an indication, love can, if it suffers enough and suffers in a certain way, even recall doom. Even in hell, with love it is not over until it is over, and it is still everything to play for.
Doom will come, but so will a second chance, brought by love.
But through pain, at cost, to love.
Hosea’s concluding image of redemption, also related to broken marriage, is shocking. Though the child perish in the womb and come still-born into the world, Yahweh could and will give it life [Hosea, 8, 13].
Yahweh’s secret name is Love. Love will be victorious over justice, and even death.
 Isaiah, who was called in 740 BC, about the same time as his contemporary Micah, is the third Messianic prophet because scattered over chapters 1-39 of the book bearing his name, there are glimpses of the redeemer and his universal, existential and ontological, redemption. The ‘virtuous king’ who is coming to Israel is not named as the Messiah, but his effects are certainly Messianic. There is, however, another reason why Isaiah’s prophecy is Messianic: the traditional demand for righteousness is placed in a larger context that starts to anticipate redemption.
A man of wide interests, Isaiah saw Israel as a player on the world stage of evolving human history, alongside other great powers of the time, such as Assyria and Egypt, though he always was clear that the meaning of the drama in which all the nations were playing their part emanated from Yahweh. Isaiah is aware, like Amos, that Yahweh is concerned with the destiny of the whole human race, not merely with what happens to Israel. Thus the historical dimension of the religion of the Jews strongly comes to the fore in him. All events in history are part of God’s purpose for the world process in its entirety. Even empires that think themselves free to do whatever they like are in reality instruments of Yahweh.
Hence Isaiah comments on the political and military events of his day, and the Book of Kings has him as an advisor to the Jewish king in matters relating to Assyria, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Egyptian intrigues markedly roused his antipathy– he foretells the fall of the Egyptian Pharaohs at length. In all these situations, however, Isaiah is really counselling the Jewish king that Israel’s only defender is Yahweh. The sheer weight of the empires arrayed against Israel should not be daunting, because calculating from worldly power alone ignores the hand of Yahweh upon events. It is clear that the God of Israel is involved in the world, in the dissensions of politics, and is not disinterested in the wheels of history. On the contrary, Yahweh is the real power turning those wheels, whether anyone involved realises this or not. Hence Yahweh should be consulted on all matters pertaining to life in the world, even and especially the most ‘worldly.’
Clearly, this emphasis found in Isaiah is significant for redemption, because redemption deals in the world, not shying away from the political and military realities that constitute history as the nightmare from which we cannot wake up, yet which can also become grist for the slowly grinding mill of Yahweh. This makes ‘faith’ not something ethereal, other worldly, geared to heaven after death, transcendent, but something involved in ‘what happens.’ Faith is existential, and as such, is Kierkegaard’s leap of passion into the unknown as it unfolds in the absurdity of events. Will you risk your life to this? If you have faith you will. Isaiah stresses in particular that even if you are surrounded on all sides by enemies willing you harm, and are outgunned by them, your faith in God is shown by refusing to be intimidated by these threats, refusing to make deals with them that will compromise your integrity just for a bit of security, and instead trusting that God is your only protector in life—not because he will guarantee you win, and your enemies lose, but because if you trust him, then however he disposes of you in the world, it is ultimately good. There is no other refuge than Yahweh.
Isaiah too, like Amos, reveals the fall of Israel to come, due to the nation’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh. This is shown not only in how the nation is run, but also in how the nation tries to secure itself among the nations of the world that endanger it. David stood up to Goliath, and with God’s help brought him down. But Israel has lost that passion, and won’t stand up to intimidation, through faith in Yahweh. The preference is for treaties and machinations that will not secure anything or anyone. At one point the king listens to Isaiah when the Assyrians lay siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah tells him not to accept their demand for surrender, despite overwhelming odds stacked against the city. The Jews hold out, and the Assyrian forces suddenly give up, and depart.
Also Messianic in Isaiah is the realisation that righteousness is rooted in faith; righteousness is not ‘my’ rectitude, achieved by ‘my’ strength in resisting temptation, and ‘my’ effort in keeping the ordinances. Rather, it is my faith in Yahweh, and my faithfulness to that faith over time through ups and downs, that enables me to be upright, keeping to goodness, and eschewing wickedness, however much I have to struggle. Yahweh is my strength, my power, my guide, in what to do. Righteousness is his, not mine; by leaning on his righteousness, it becomes mine in the sense of what I respect, what I honour, what I follow. It is never mine in the sense that I own it, deserve it, generate it. The latter is self-righteousness, and this perversion is worse than laxity. At least in laxity I have no pretensions to virtue. In self-righteousness, I think I am virtuous off my own back, and am very pleased I am not weak like other people. I sneer at the struggles in the heart between virtue and vice, because I am beyond that. I am a tough hombre, I stand tall and do not bend, as lesser mortals always do. Look how great I am. In fact, you had better bow down and worship me, or at the very least, you better kow tow to me, because I really am superior to you, and more worthy to run the show.
Isaiah declares Yahweh’s opposition to the tyranny that arises out of a false estimation of how ‘good’ we are. At one point, there is a taunt directed at the king of Babylon [Isaiah, 14, 1-22]. The Babylonian king is, in fact, Lucifer son of the morning, who has fallen far, and in the world has become the Satanic Accuser. The cool Luciferian shine and the hot Satanic boiling are flip sides of the same coin of spiritual evil.
Isaiah provides many descriptions of the ideal, non tyrannical, king, faithful to Yahweh and faithful to the people, but whether all these should be taken as blatantly Messianic is an open question. At least some are. And it can be argued that the kind of true king, or true leader, portrayed in Isaiah must be inspired by the Messianic Spirit.
Certainly Messianic is Isaiah’s vision that, even when Israel does inevitably fall, a remnant of Jews will rebuild Israel ‘under a future descendent of David.’ This is the redeemer, bringing redemption.
Paradoxically, no prophet is as aware of God’s Holiness, yet this stamps in Isaiah a certain tone of optimism missing from many Pre-Exilic prophets who see Israel headed for the rocks. Holiness is understandably regarded as set apart from the world, given its purity, but there is something else in Isaiah’s experience of ‘the Holy of Israel’ that reveals it differently. Holiness summons Israel back to God, rather than casting Israel out, forever [Isaiah, 17, 7, 8; 10, 20-22].
Passing ‘through’ righteousness, but moving ‘toward’ redemption, is the dynamic that is conveyed through Isaiah. Is this not the secret of the religion of the Jews? His sense of the future of Israel is not as miserable and hopeless as that of his predecessors and contemporaries. To restore Israel is the real manifestation of Yahweh’s Holiness.
This means we are created to become bearers of Holiness, coals of Holy Fire.
 Jeremiah, who was called in 627 BC, is the fourth Messianic prophet. He was a man who liked quietness, nature’s daily round, and family life. He lost all this in surrendering to the prophetic fire that pushed him to warn his people that they were slowly but surely drifting away from Yahweh. He had to watch, from the time of king Josiah’s death, Judah tottering closer and closer to the terrible edge from which it would finally fall. His warnings invariably made everyone angry with him, and were in any event disregarded.
Jeremiah disliked the refusal to face facts, and denounced the people who “healed the broken limbs of the daughter of my people lightly, saying Peace, Peace, when there is no peace” [Jeremiah, 6, 14; 8, 11]. He was realistic, not pessimistic. His faith was that, somehow, and even if it meant the disappearing of Israel, God’s word would ‘stand.’
Because it took thirty years before his prophecies eventuated, many people felt his words of foreboding had not come true, and so he was treated as one of those false prophets whom Yahweh had ‘enticed.’ He was jeered at as one duped and rejected by Yahweh.
Jeremiah stands alone with Yahweh.
This is tacitly Messianic. The Messiah is not necessarily believed nor trusted, lauded nor respected, when he appears in the midst of the people, but as the Post-Exilic Isaiah affirms even more starkly, the people may mock, and even turn against, the Messiah. Later they may realise their mistake, but there can be a time when everyone and everything is not inclined toward the Messiah but actively against him. Certainly Jeremiah’s lonely stand apart from the community he was actually trying to preserve has a flavour of the paradox that the Messiah will likely not come garlanded and in glory, but will come to widespread enmity. After all, if people are humanly distracted and spiritually addicted to falsity, the Messiah will end their outcast state. To the extent they are invested in it and do not want it to end, the one ending it will become the Outcast. He must be Outcast, for the sake of the Outcast.
Also Messianic is Jeremiah’s assertion that the Jews need a ‘New Covenant.’ A written Scripture is exposed to the tampering of the scribes [Jeremiah, 8, 8], and in any case, the Old Covenant had failed because of being an external thing, written down in a book, and imposed on people by kings or priests. The relationship between God and humanity cannot be ‘ordered’ by any book; the only valid authority comes from God, but must be organically planted and organically growing in the soil of the human being that is their inner nature. The covenant between God and humanity likely to reach fulfilment is the one which grips a person’s interior core. If the covenant is living inside people, then it can constantly drive that inwardness forward. Deuteronomy is just a ‘scrap of paper’; the New Covenant will work because it will be written on people’s hearts [Jeremiah, 32, 37-42].
This last is crucial, because the Messiah is the royal heart — in his human heart can be felt and seen the stirrings of the heart of God — and the change that is Messianic is really, in sum, that human beings will have a new heart for existence.
 Ezekiel, who worked from 593 to 571 BC, is the Exilic prophet par excellence, according to the commentators. This priest who became a prophet is brutally realistic, if you want to put it like that, or if you want to put it differently, is excessively harsh: a lamp that needs trimming. He reverts to a scenario of strict reward for righteousness and strict punishment for wickedness, a rigidly dualistic regime challenged by Psalms 37, 49, and 73, and the Book of Job. Where Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah manifest a desperate love for Israel even when exposing the transgressions that will finally bring the nation down, Ezekiel comes over as feelingless. He has no empathy for the sinning people, they just get what is deservedly coming to them. Righteousness degenerates into an almost mechanical law, good for good, ill for ill, that would please any behaviourist or fundamentalist. The human heart as the seat of ambivalence, conflict, wrestling with good and bad that are both inherent to its life, does not get a look in. It is as if Ezekiel is reasserting an earlier stage in the understanding of righteousness, a black and white that admits of no prevarication– though bizarrely maybe this is exactly what the Jews in Exile needed to hear, to make sense of their fate. In a funny way it declares, Yahweh is still with you, the universe is not run by accident, but by Yahweh’s implacable will toward righteousness.
You know what you have to do to win over, or lose, Yahweh. Thus Ezekiel gives the Jews a clear explanation for why they were sent into captivity [Ezekiel, 39, 22-29].
At one point in Ezekiel, Yahweh says he takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner– but the Yahweh of compassion, mercy, and tenderness, does not speak in Ezekiel. The prophet’s severe personality has filtered out any nuancing of the message he receives. All the spontaneity and verve of earlier prophets is gone from him.
Yet Ezekiel is a powerful visionary. As one commentator puts it, there are four violently imaginative visions that stand out. There is also a fifth vision– a remarkable revelation of Lucifer embodied in the king of Babylon. Babylon is a Luciferian kingdom, and all the later uses of ‘Babylon’ in popular culture to symbolise being imprisoned in a fabulous but corrupt state of affairs stems from what Ezekiel was given to see. His depiction of the Luciferian kingdom is very similar to Isaiah’s taunt song from 150 years earlier [Isaiah, 14, 1-22].
Not all of this visionary material addresses redemption, because the main task taken on by Ezekiel is to recall the Jews to a stricter adherence to righteousness, but some of it does. All of it reveals the mysteriousness of Yahweh’s workings among human beings. The very fact that Yahweh does work among human events, as was the case with Isaiah, points towards redemption.
There is the vision of the Chariot of Yahweh [Ezekiel, 1, 4-28] which portrays the kind of divine power standing behind and backing up the Messianic king.
There is the vision of the Scroll [Ezekiel, 2, 1-15] which is not obviously redemptive.
There is the vision of the Dry Bones scattered over a forsaken wasteland of deadness [Ezekiel, 37, 1-14], which is redemptive. Yahweh tells the prophet he will reassemble the bones, return flesh to them, and so make the bones live again. This is referring to the restoration of Israel, explicitly, but implicitly it depicts how God can redeem even the most extreme decay and degeneration. Nothing in human experience is beyond recall. Redemption goes to the place of extreme dereliction, and works with it, to change it, not just suppress or eliminate it. This “work on what has been spoiled”, as the Chinese book the ‘I Ching’ puts it, is strongly redemptive. It poetically anticipates even ‘resurrection’ from death.
There is the vision of the River of Life flowing out of the temple [Ezekiel, 47, 1-12], which is redemptive. Like the dry bones, this is a depiction of universal redemption. The sacred ‘waters of life’ reach out from the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, and flow to the sea. This water is enlivening and heals, it is teeming with living creatures, the trees it feeds come into fruit every month, and the leaves of the trees are medicine. Redemption brings things back to life, heals them, makes them fruitful, gives them the power to cure all their ills. This water of life gushes out from Israel but is extended to all and sundry.
The vision of the king of Tyre who is Luciferian in spirit and function is without doubt redemptive, in that it portrays one of the most powerful spiritual blocks on the redemptive process at work in history [Ezekiel, 28,1-19]. Just as the spirit of Satanic Accusation is incompatible with redemption [as it is said in Gaelic, you can accuse or redeem, but you cannot do both], similarly the spirit of Luciferian Flattery is also an enemy of redemption. When St Paul says the Cross of Christ is a stumbling block to Jews, it is because of their repeated lapses into the self-righteousness that invites Satanic Accusation, but when St Paul says the Cross of Christ is foolishness to Greeks, it is because of their repeated tendency toward the self-elevating that invites Luciferian False Divinisation. As Satan distorts moral life, so Lucifer distorts mystical life. Puritanism is the sign of the former, Gnosticism is the sign of the latter. Satan is a sadist, Lucifer is a narcissus.
The account of the Babylonian king veers between the historical person and the primal evil spirit whose name in Latin means ‘light bringer.’ False dawn: false glory: false attractiveness. This is the spirit of ‘self divinisation.’
“Being swollen with pride, you have said: I am a god, I am sitting on the throne of God, surrounded by the seas. Though you are a man and not a god, you consider yourself the equal of God. You are wiser now than Daniel: there is no sage as wise as you. By your wisdom and intelligence you have amassed great wealth.. Such is your skill in trading, your wealth has continued to increase, and with this your heart has grown more arrogant… You were once an exemplar of perfection, full of wisdom, perfect in beauty: you were in Eden, the garden of God. A thousand gems formed your mantle.. All were prepared on the day of your creation. I had provided you with a guardian cherub; you were on the holy mountain of God; you walked amid red-hot coals. Your action was exemplary from the day of your creation until the day when evil was first found in you. Your busy trading has filled you with violence and sin. I have thrown you down from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub has destroyed you from amid the coals. Your heart has grown swollen with pride on account of your beauty. You have corrupted your wisdom owing to your splendour. ..By the immense number of your sins, by the dishonesty of your trading, you have defiled your sanctuaries. I have brought fire out of you to consume you.”
This picture of Luciferian ‘self-stroking’ shows a human, in the grip of this evil spirit, whose life is dedicated to polishing the diamond of selfhood until it glistens and gleams brighter than anything in all of creation. But this cold diamond is not the heart that will break, and give its blood, for the love of others. The combining of evil spirit and dazzling human king refers to the kind, and quality, of spirituality that is ‘sovereign’ in us.
Lucifer is richly gifted, but such richness has turned his head, making him regard his very self as a god, and superior to mere mortals. Lucifer is created a being of many gifts, charismatic in the extreme, and is given vast wisdom and hyper intelligence, but his pride and arrogance have corrupted these powers of soul and mind. He uses his wiliness and cleverness to amass worldly goods and worldly wealth. But as he is always self-regarding, so in trading he is adept at cheating less calculating people out of their sustenance; he makes more and more money by ‘dishonest trading’, like big business, and increasingly lives a life dedicated to violence [he must get his way] and sin [luxury and meaningless indulgence]. As he gets richer, so his beauty, splendour, ‘celebrity’, corrupt his native wisdom still further. His dishonest trading multiples his sins — it is almost impossible to be a business man and a Christian, a friend once said — and in the end the sanctuary of his soul is defiled. There is no wellspring of life in him. He is a vampire, living off the life of others. Most mysteriously, Lucifer once walked amid the red coals of fire in heaven, but a [four-fold] cherubim spirit like him, his guardian, has kicked him out from this primal grounding in holy fire. He can no longer walk in holy fire without being burned up. A different fire of hellish selfishness, Lucifer’s corruption of holiness, is consuming him all the time. It will, over time, reduce his pretensions to ashes. He will fall, like a shooting star that burns up in the sky and crashes to earth. People will marvel that once upon a time they were seduced by this false vision of exaltedness, now revealed as hollow.
As in Isaiah, the fall of worldly channels and vehicles of spiritual evil, whether Satanic or Luciferian, and particularly in their kingly domination of the world, is a major agenda of Yahweh in redeeming the world.
But the most redemptive verse in Ezekiel is brief, and might easily slip by, escaping notice. Thus, Yahweh declares to Ezekiel his intention to give the Jews, and us, a different ‘heart and spirit.’ “I will give them a single heart and I will put a new spirit in them. I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh” [Ezekiel, 11, 18-20].
This is one of the most extraordinary, and profound, statements in all the prophets. It is more crucial to redemption than almost anything else revealed in the prophetic oracles over centuries.
Redemption is ultimately about changing the human heart radically, and fundamentally, at its point of origin in the depth. With a new heart, we can stand up for the world and insist it is to live by an upstanding heart. The mystery of redemption, its climax, its engine, its rationale, is that human beings will acquire a ‘singular’ heart, and a ‘new’ spirit. The singular heart is no longer conflicted, divided, compromised, by greater and lesser impulses. The new spirit is passion purged of madness, evil, obsessive attachment to sound and fury signifying nothing. This passion burns with God’s love, and has a fervour and ardour that makes it willing to go to the maximum, no matter what happens; as such, it is dangerous to worldliness, because it cannot be intimidated, nor bought off [the gun and the wad of money– how America marches through the world]. The singular heart, because it is unified, can house the holy fire.
Fallen humanity has a ‘heart of stone’; redeemed humanity will have a ‘heart of flesh.’ According to certain parts of Jewish tradition, God created mankind with two hearts, the stony and the fleshy [the two trees in the garden, in effect]. As time has gone on, in some ways the stone has hardened, and the flesh melted away.
Stone is a powerful metaphor for what is amiss in our heart, and ‘set in stone’, fixed, frozen, resisting any and all change. This is sometimes called, carrying a host of implications, ‘hard hearted.’ A heart that is hardened cannot cry, except in self-pity; is hard on others, and even on itself; cannot give anything up or let anything go; is like a closed hand often screwed into a fist; cannot be ‘softened’ by mercy, compassion, tenderness; cannot repent, which would be to enter the mystery of holy sorrow or ‘spiritual tears’; cannot want to make amends for anything it has done, but engages in endless justifications and rationalisations excusing its actions; cannot relent from the stance of me against you, and I won’t be your victim, but I am willing to make you my victim.
This stone heart has to be Daemonically ‘broken’ by God and by existence, or it would be lost. Its judgements are cruel and unfair, its instincts are bullying and given to ‘power over the other.’ Its religion is, as I once heard a lunatic raving in a church to the assembled people, ‘I am right and you gotta be wrong.’ But humour redeemed him, because he thought for a second, and his face lit up. ‘But if you’re right, I gotta be wrong.’ A standoff — mutually assured destruction — is all we can expect from the clashing of different stone hearts.
Flesh is a powerful metaphor for what is fallible yet redeemable in our heart. This is sometimes called, again with many implications, ‘open hearted.’ A heart that is opened is reachable, and can take on board the voices from life, God, other people, suggesting it reconsider, or think again. This heart has weaknesses aplenty, and still struggles, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, but in being reachable, it is also capable of changing. It is honest, and truthful, and so can grow through trials and troubles towards an unexpected strength. However strong it gets, it never forgets its weakness, and so never puts down others for being less mighty than itself. On the contrary, a chivalrous impulse is born, of wanting to help, to protect, to be a good brother or good sister to everyone, and particularly those in most need. Laugh with those who laugh, cry with those who cry, is the ultimate of the flesh heart.
This flesh heart has to grow, has to travel far and fight many battles, shed much excess weight as it goes, to come to the dignity God wants to confer on it. By working at it, by working with God and other people, and the events of our existence in the world, this heart ‘goes from strength to strength.’ It is a learner, and both humble and modest enough to acknowledge it needs to learn a lot more. Such a heart can be transformed, and transfigured, by God.
There is an even profounder mystery in the cryptic words of Yahweh conveyed by Ezekiel.
The flesh heart is the heart that is affectable, influenceable, malleable, bendable. This is the source of our temptation to go with evil, or it opens us to getting savagely damaged. None the less, this ‘passible’ heart is the ground of passion, and therefore means we cannot get rid of the passional, but must rely on it to ‘pass through’ many things. Certain kinds of morality are like a stiff shell, helping us avoid existence. We use right behaviour to never get involved in anything or anyone. But passion, precisely because of its passible condition, always dives in, gets in over its head, but must ‘come through’ or perish. This means, however, there is no avoiding the variable things that could go either way, because to get through we must search out their deeps. The heart, and its passion, cannot be spared from life, but must go far, and plunge deep, to get to the ground of what is what, and overcome what is not what. This is risky, yet it reveals the hidden meanings of all we contend with as nothing else can. The Biblical injunction, ‘be not afraid’, is telling us not to resist baptism into life, and to trust we must pass through waters and pass through fires. We will be drowned and we will be burnt, but we will also learn how to swim at all levels of the water and how to stand in all intensities of the fire. The flesh heart is, and spiritually must be, wave tossed and fire singed.
For example, we cannot flee to love, in order to avoid hate. We must go through hate, and find in that difficult process the love which truthfully answer’s hate’s question, and authentically grapples with hate’s challenge.
Paradoxically, the stone heart contains the deepest mystery of all, and because of this, it must be reunited with the flesh heart in a new single heart. Stone is a metaphor for something we all experience, without being able to explain its meaning at all literally. Thus, there is a stone deep in the heart like a pain no one can bear, like a burden no one can carry, like a cost no one can pay, like a fate no one can endure. It is a huge rock rolled against the tomb of our heart in its deepest despair. Long ago, right at the beginning, all of humanity put down this weight. No one, since then, has lifted it. The Messiah will reveal himself, and reveal his uniqueness in its difference from all ‘good people’, from all Sages and Healers, from all Miracle Doers, from all Buddhas, from all Shamans, from all Masters and Teachers, by this one thing.
The Messiah will lift the weight no one ever has, because no one can.
The chief reason I cleave to Yeshua as Mashiach is because I see him lifting the weight never shifted in the depth. Yeshua does not meet many of the most specifically Jewish requirements of the Messiah, nor does he meet in full even the universal requirements. But this does not disqualify him.
Lifting the unliftable weight is not the end of the redemptive process, but its beginning– but its crucial, and necessary, beginning. Through Yeshua the Mashiach, we can shoulder this weight too, and hence complete redemption. There is one Messiah, but after him, many redeemers. He gets us through the place where we are stuck, so we can get everyone and everything through the ‘sticking point.’
This is the ultimate singular heart, this is the ultimate new spirit. This is heart deep, and passion great.
The united and deep heart, the en-spirited and great passion, is the ‘chariot’ ridden in by God’s Heart and God’s Spirit.
Without passion of heart there is no holiness.
In conclusion, then, Ezekiel seems to be one thing, but delved more, he becomes more. Maybe this too is redemptive and applies equally to all of us: we have hidden layers of increasing profundity.
 The Exilic, or Post-Exilic, author of chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah is the sixth Messianic prophet, and arguably the most important. This person presents the most remarkable statements about the Messiah, and the Messianic Age, of any prophet. We see the Messianic king and his reversal as ‘Yahweh’s Slave’ laid bare. However, we do not know this prophet’s name.
In fact many of the Post Exile prophets are not known to us. Scholars say large chunks of the Isaiah corpus date from the Exile. Probably Exilic are chapters 13 and 14– oracles against Babylon; chapters 24 through 27– an apocalypse [an early forerunner of the Jewish apocalyptic style that comes into its own in the Book of Daniel]; and chapters 33 through 35– poems.
Either at the end of the Exile, or early on in the Return, comes chapters 40 through 55, which have been named ‘The Book of the Consolation of Israel.’ This consolation is redemptive in the extreme, for redemption deals in what seems beyond recall, yet can be recalled if the measures taken are radical enough. Thus redemption is comfort for those with no comfort; salvation is hope for those capable of hope, redemption is hope for those incapable of hope. Only redemption speaks to those aware of the despair that, deeper down, grips every human being, cutting them off from both God and their own heart. Redemption recalls the heart.
Embedded in this Consolation to Israel, and to all of us, are the 4 Songs of Yahweh’s Slave, or as Christian tradition has it, the Suffering Servant. These songs are shocking, because they seem to overturn the kingship of the Messiah, reducing him to the lowest of the low, a slave or servant, and a despised slave and derided servant at that. None the less, what emerges from placing these 4 Songs next to the Messianic kingship is that they turn out to be heads and tails of the same coin, and more powerfully still, it turns out that the powerless, mocked earthly king is necessary to embody the heavenly king.
There is more to say on this. We need to hear it in the unknown prophet’s words. They are incomparably moving, piercing the heart where we do not live, and know ourselves to be dead. Yet this very blow, so penetrating, is what gives us the first faint assurance that though dead, we will live.
The wife of youth will not be put away. The still-born child will not be thrown on the rubbish dump. The wife will be married again. The child will grow again.
A new heart and new spirit, the final passion, is coming.
The Post-Exilic Book of Consolation prophesises from a new depth– a new depth revealed in God and a new depth revealed in humanity. The former rouses the latter.
Though the Messiah will suffer for the people in some extreme and upside down manner, never previously suffered either by God or by humanity, the outcome is a complete existential and ontological change where all humanity’s tears will be wiped away, and there will begin an ‘eternal joy and gladness’ [Isaiah, 51, 11], and the wasteland that human greed, lust to possess, ambition, vanity, envy, pride, hostility, has made of the fertile field of existence will disappear: the Messiah will take the ‘barren land’ and make it ‘abundant’ and ‘fruitful’ [Isaiah, 51, 3; Ezekiel, 36, 29-30].
Is the pain of suffering and humiliation of the upside down worth it, then? It is, and so worthwhile it is, anyone just lightly touched by the Messianic Spirit would go to any extreme, any lengths, even to redeem a sewer rat. Redemption is, in Shakespeare’s words, ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished.’
Yet, the pain, the cost, the load, is daunting. It moves us, and shocks us, to hear about it. How much more difficult to assume it ourselves, walking in the footsteps pioneered by the Messiah? In fact, impossible without his lead. You and I are not ‘the’ Messiah; we can become Messianic in relying on his Example and his Spirit, his story and his power.
Not surprisingly, and very much in the ethos of chapters 1-39 of the Book of Isaiah, the Post-Exilic prophet whose name is unknown presents Cyrus, the Persian king and liberator of the Jews, as his first candidate for the Messiah! This is not as odd as it might seem. After all, it conforms to very old Jewish practice: in essentials, the king is simply always the Messianic figure, and so any king who lives up to his calling could be the awaited Messiah. If Cyrus is not the one and only Messiah, he is certainly ‘a’ Messiah to Israel.
It is not hard to imagine with what wonder, gratitude, and some human ‘I told you so’ and ‘good riddance’, the Jews greeted the victory of the Persians, and the fall of the empire of Babylon. The 60 years in captivity must have felt unending, as is often the case with us when we are trapped in sorrow or incapacity, and there is no conceivable way out. Suddenly, from left field, the prison walls crumble, the chains come off, and freedom beckons. It is beyond belief. Obviously this has the flavour of some sort of redemption, or the start of it, and so why wouldn’t Cyrus, the Persian king, be a first glimpse of the Messiah? He is identified as such at the end of chapter 44 and the start of chapter 45.
Both the destruction of Babylon and the liberation of the Jews were regarded as acts of Yahweh, through Cyrus [Isaiah, 45, 1-6; Isaiah, 48, 14-16]. The Persian king did not have to let the Jews return to their homeland; once having seized Babylon he could have kept them as his slaves. But he seems to have been well disposed to the Jews, for he said to them all, ‘stay in the East or go to the West, the choice is yours.’ He was happy to have them in his kingdom, or happy if they understandably wanted to go back to their own kingdom. Perhaps Cyrus and the Jews were united by having a common enemy in the lush empire of Babylon. Both parties laughed when the Babylonian king made no fight of it, but abandoned the imperial city, with a few idols of the Babylonian gods knocking together on pack animals. The Jews were a receptive audience to Cyrus’ heroics in bringing down their oldest and worst enemy.
The unknown prophet speaks in terms of redemption when he urges the Jews, at the end of chapter 48, to brave the perilous journey across the deserts to get back to their ancestral home, for ‘Yahweh has ransomed his servant Jacob.’ The fall of Babylon should be taken as an assurance of Yahweh’s universality and supremacy, the unknown prophet is urging. It is an immense encouragement to ‘take heart’, rejoin the fray, keep trucking. No more giving in and giving up.
“But now, thus says Yahweh.. Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. Should you pass through the sea, I will be with you; or through rivers, they will not swallow you up. Should you walk through fire, ..the flames will not burn you” [Isaiah, 43, 1-2].
A new theme is being articulated as the Jews return home. ‘Ransoming’ means freeing a captive, or paying off their debt, and this is redeeming. In saving, the saving one gives generously from their storehouse of gifts; in redeeming, the redeeming one pays dearly from their very life-blood. To save you, I give of myself; to redeem you, I sacrifice myself. In the past, Yahweh has been Israel’s saviour, but henceforth he has become their redeemer. This requires a more radical love from Yahweh, but it creates a more unbreakable bond between Yahweh and Israel: he calls his people by ‘name’, treating them as a friend and confidant, entering a close dialogue with them, rather than regarding them as like a distant servant who is not in the know; moreover, his people are ‘his’ in some more binding sense than ever before. No one has done for them what the redeemer does, and so no one cares for them as he does. They belong to him only because he will go to such lengths for them. He has earned this position: ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people.’ For, whatever profound problem existence throws them into, he will be with them in it, helping them get through. A redeemer does not throw away, or abandon, those he redeems. Even if 99 are fine, he goes back for the 1 that is still lost.
Indeed, Yahweh implies that however hard it has been for the Jews to shoulder Yahweh’s yoke, in reality Yahweh has been more yoked to the Jews [Isaiah, 43, 22-28]. It is Israel who has loaded God, inflicting never ending toil on him, and this has positively enslaved him. He cannot walk away from his commitment, but it is costing him, because he carries the burden in the heart and he accepts to be troubled in the heart. “You have burdened me with your sins, troubled me with your iniquities. It is I.. who must blot out everything and not remember your sins” [Isaiah, 43, 24-25].
This passage is the crucial turning point. It is more than a Jewish mother complaining that her children will be the death of her. It is in fact preparing for the new depth of the Slave of Yahweh, or Suffering Servant. For in this brief and enigmatic declaration Yahweh reveals it is God, not frail and fallible humanity, who will have to bear the greater burden, go through the greater trouble, carry the heaviest load, for redemption to be accomplished. God, not humanity, suffers the most to bring humanity through the narrow straits where we are imprisoned, and failing.
This is the first indication, since Hosea, of the God who will suffer for the humanity he loves. On one level, this suffering of God is because of the iniquities of humanity, but on a profounder level, it is something different. Love suffers for those it loves, full stop. This is of God. This is God. To be like God, this is us. Whatever love requires, give it. When love requires the lover decrease so that the beloved can increase, let it be so. In drama, there comes a point where the good king must lose, must die, must let himself diminish, that others can take the torch forward.
Even suffering because of human iniquities is love. This is not some ‘legally appointed’ judge, demanding perfection in behaviour, and outraged when his exacting, and high, standard is defied. That scenario belongs to, and comes from, Satan the Accuser. God sorrows over the way we hurt ourself and hurt one another through the ‘failure to hit the mark’; our falling down in heart hurts God’s heart, because his heart wills only good for us, only dignity, only profundity, only victory. His heart sorrows at our heart’s fall, its becoming small when it was created to become big.
It is Yahweh who ‘must blot out everything and not remember your sins.’ God will suffer, God will pay, God will carry.
This is redemption. Yahweh has shown his love to the Jews, and to us, already, in a myriad of ways, but the deepest love is redeeming us when we are finished. The deepest level of our defeat is what we humans cannot suffer, cannot pay, cannot carry. This is beyond our ‘sin offering’, beyond any and all types of ‘atoning.’ We cannot make this better, even if we try.
Thus Yahweh says, it falls on me what has gone wrong with you; I will bring you through it, to the other side, no matter the suffering to me, the cost from me, the load on me.
I, Yahweh, will do it.
It is I, Yahweh, whose heart is itself to become the ransom for your heart held captive, in unbearable pain, owing unrepayable debt, under crushing weight.
I, Yahweh, do not abandon the heart I forged before the world began in a furnace that burnt me.
I, Yahweh it is, who says this.
The Messianic Slave of Yahweh, or ‘My Slave’, is described in 4 Songs.
 Isaiah, 42, 1-4,
 Isaiah, 49, 1-6,
 Isaiah, 50, 4-9,
 Isaiah, 52, 13-15; 53, 1-12.
These poems speak of the call, the labours, the sorrowings, of the Messiah who comes in the form of a slave, or servant. The previous picture of the Messiah as a world-straddling emperor now gives way to the extreme converse. The king is upended, and turned on his head. There are two aspects to the Messiah’s heart, in him there is the heart of a bold king and fierce warrior, but in him is the broken heart of all humanity, the upstanding heart brought down, derelict, of no renown.
There has been much debate over Yahweh’s Slave, not least because his resemblance to Yeshua Mashiach is so compelling.
Certainly, in the 4 Songs the Slave cannot be either Cyrus, or Israel. Clearly, the Slave is not the mighty Persian conqueror suddenly finding himself in reduced circumstances. Equally clearly, neither is the Slave a symbolic apotheosis of the Jewish people as a whole, for the main point in these passages is that the Slave is pitted against his own people. ‘He came to his own, and they received him not.’ Indeed, the Messiah in the form of the Slave is rejected by the Jews, derided by them, and killed by them. This cannot simply be Israel rejecting, deriding, killing, itself. Despite the fact the Messiah will be ‘an observing Jew’, still his own whom he has come to redeem turn against him, violently, and do not credit him ‘as Messiah material.’
It may be that the Jews are still resisting the revelation of Yahweh in the despised Slave. Like the Hindus, the God of Hosts cannot be ‘emptied’ of his glory.
What if, however, this ‘self-emptying’, as well as ‘self-pouring out’, is what is required of the love that redeems?
Who is the Messiah then?
In the first Song, it is Yahweh who speaks, describing the man he has chosen to do his work.
In the second and third Songs, it is the Slave who speaks, describing his call and his experience.
In the fourth Song, the Slave is dead, and men speak who saw the Slave, joined in with the general hostility towards him, but now at last realise who he is.
 42, 1-4.
Yahweh describes his Slave in the ‘first song’:
“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have endowed him with my Spirit that he may bring true justice to the nations. He does not cry out or shout aloud, or make his voice heard in the streets. He does not break the crushed reed, nor quench the wavering flame. Faithfully he brings true justice; he will neither waver, nor be crushed, until true justice is established on earth, for the islands are awaiting his rule.”
The Slave is endowed with Yahweh’s Spirit, so that he will have the spiritual inspiration and power to bring ‘true’ justice to all the world. The so-called justice pursued by the nations is ‘false’: inadequate, distorted, a show lacking substance. Without justice, the life that human beings have together becomes unfair, giving advantage to some at the disadvantage of many. Such injustice is a major cause of strife among different persons, different groups, different nations. There can be no peace until justice is established. Peace without justice is not sustainable; it is merely an illusion, masking unresolved and usually unacknowledged crimes against the togetherness of the people. In this situation, the underburdened overload the overburdened; thus the rich and powerful, the advantaged, owe a huge debt to the poor and powerless, the disadvantaged.
“Trouble is coming to the man who grossly exploits others for the sake of his house, to fix his nest on high and so evade the hand of misfortune” [Habakkuk, 2, 9]. Redress for the ‘losers’ against the ‘winners’ will finally be made, and a new fairness towards all put in place.
This is also a way of reaffirming that redemption is not ahistorical, but on the contrary, creates a sacred history that brings humanity’s communal, social, political, imbalances and divisions to an end. This fulfils the demand of Yahweh, going all the way back to prophets such as Amos, that righteousness should govern the community– rather than the legally sanctioned unrighteousness which is written into the very way the community is organised so that the ‘top people’ can oppress and defraud the ‘bottom people.’
There is another side to the coin. If the heads is about justice, then the tails is about looking beneath the surface, and seeing human beings in their brokenness. The Slave will not thunder with anger at sinful people; he will see them all as crushed reeds and wavering flames, and instead of crushing the already crushed and blasting the already wavering, he will approach them in a more understanding way. The Slave is gentler with people than a furious prophet exposing the lies we are living, because his mission is to get to underlying causes, not just deal in blatant effects. This is far more difficult. No wonder such a man must be called and trained by Yahweh; from the moment of his birth, and even before it, he has been set apart for the task placed upon his shoulders. That task is so hard it will require him to do more than morally reprove wayward people, or even spiritually illumine ignorant people. He will have to ‘pour himself out, even to the point of death’, to get to the hidden root of the human malaise. This malaise is killing us, and the harm we do to each other is the symptom of that.
The Slave will not trumpet himself, nor put himself forward loudly and aggressively. He will not insist on his own validity, but will let his words and deeds speak for themselves. He will claim no authority from any external source, nor will he impose any hierarchy of power; he does not put himself above people, and force them to bend the knee. He is ordinary with all people, never standing on ceremony. Taking account of what is crushed and wavering in the deeper heart of all people, and taking it on in his heart, never the less he is not crushed and he does not waver because of what he embraces. His deep ground remains firm, and he stands his ground in the midst of a wasteland where all people have stumbled and fallen, and are laying in the decay of ruin. He does not become victim to the human condition, but he accepts its agony and affliction like a wound from which he does not turn away.
Therefore, nothing can prevent the Slave from ‘faithfully accomplishing his mission.’
 49, 1-6.
The Slave describes himself in the ‘second song’:
“Islands, listen to me, pay attention, remotest peoples. Yahweh called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name. He made my mouth a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of his hand. He made me into a sharpened arrow, and concealed me in his quiver. He said to me, ‘you are my servant in whom I shall be glorified’, while I was thinking, ‘I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing’, and all the while my cause was with Yahweh, my reward with my God. I was honoured in the eyes of Yahweh, my God was my strength.”
Then the Slave is told by Yahweh: “it is not enough.. to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back.. Israel, I will make you the light of the nations.” Through the Slave, redemption is going to “reach to the ends of the earth.”
That Yahweh has appointed his Slave before he was born means his time and place of appearing among the Jews was always in the foreknowledge of God. There is nothing accidental in who, where, and when, regarding the Messiah. At birth, Yahweh openly acknowledges the Slave as his Messiah. But for a time Yahweh hides his Slave, training him up, sharpening his words to a sword point. This is the sword of truth pointing at every heart, and exposing the faithfulness of our integrity, or our dishonour. The Slave is also an arrow that is shot straight to the target, always hitting the bullseye, in revealing what is really going on, when you see the heart behind events, deeds, words.
The Slave confesses something every servant of God, before and since, has felt. This song tells us that in the darkest hour of our service of God, when we are likely to think all we gave of ourself for love of God was in vain and for nothing, God will reignite us. God comes to ‘own’ us, in our sweat, tears and blood. He reassures us that he respects our trying, and will be our strength when we are ‘all out of what it takes.’ The things in the world we have given up to serve God need not torture us, for God will be our reward. It means, drawing close to God, acting for God, is reward enough; it is intrinsically fulfilling.
This is similar to what occurs when the prophet Habakkuk ‘complains’ that Yahweh is a God who allows the guilty to tyrannise over the innocent, the wicked to overwhelm the righteous: “Why do you look on while men are treacherous, and stay silent while the evil man swallows a better man than he?” [Habakkuk, 1, 13]. The evil people are like fishermen who catch in their nets the good people who are like defenseless fishes; and are these successful evil people who prey on good people to obtain luxury and a lavish style of life going to get away with it forever? Will they be allowed to go on ‘slaughtering nations without pity’? Yahweh replies, not revealing why this disillusioning state of affairs exists and is allowed to persist, but he tells the aggrieved prophet how it is to be faced: “the upright man will live by his faithfulness” [Habakkuk, 2, 4]. Act from truth, out of faithfulness, and let it fall where it will. Be free of the fear of consequences in the form of seeming success or seeming failure. Play your part—and let that be sufficient. One day your question will be answered; that day is not come yet, so for now, let righteousness be in you, and you won’t flag. You will be able to go on acting for righteousness, and leave the outcome hidden with God.
“I am your consoler. How then can you be afraid of mortal man, whose fate is the fate of grass? ..why still go in daily dread of the oppressor’s fury, when he sets out to destroy you? What has happened to the fury of oppressors?” [Isaiah, 51, 12-14].
 50, 4-9.
The Slave describes his experience in the ‘third song’:
“Yahweh has given me a disciple’s tongue. So that I may know how to reply to the wearied, he provides me with speech. Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple. Yahweh has opened my ear.”
Yahweh has opened the Slave’s ear, so he can listen with his heart to whatever God will say; he speaks not from himself, or on his own account, but what God wants him to say. The Slave is like a disciple to God, following him, learning from him, honouring him in action. This process begins anew each morning; it is Yahweh who rouses the Slave from sleep, to start listening again. And it is Yahweh who knows what the Slave must say to the ‘wearied.’ As with the crushed and the wavering, the problem of being wearied is not moral, but goes deeper. This way of describing the people contains empathy and consideration for their dilemma.
The Slave continues, telling how he reacts to human adversity:
“For my part, I make no resistance, neither did I turn away. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard; I did not cover my face against insult and spittle. Yahweh comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults. So too I set my face like flint, I know I shall not be shamed. My vindicator is here at hand..”
This ‘turning the other cheek’ is almost impossible for any human being. Our ego dictates we give as good as we get. Our moral sense dictates the wrong done to us be set right by punishment of the wrong-doer. Our power lust dictates we come out of any confrontation top dog, not end up bottom dog. Our bodily instinct for survival screams out we fight or flight, or freeze.
Weakness of character is also implicated in not answering back in order to evade worse trouble blowing up in our face. When we have learned to have no backbone through never taking a stand, the easiest thing to do is run away, or pass by, as an almost automatic reflex of seeking the way out of any contention. Fear towards and weakness in the face of ‘furious oppressors’ are often the real drivers behind the desperate attempts of people to keep the peace, personally and politically. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin dressed up his capitulation to Hitler with the ridiculous proclamation, ‘peace in our time.’ This sort of peace, personal and political, protects our self-interest by keeping us out of harm’s way. We don’t want our feeding at the trough disturbed.
But non retaliation need not be ignoble, for it can be a kind of ultimate spiritual courage that humans routinely lack. Non retaliating is a very powerful action because in it we leave ourself undefended in order to deliver the truth of which we are merely the vehicle. We are not an issue in conveying the message: only the message is the issue. This is a sharp sword point, and a sharper arrow head, straight to the heart of the matter. In not defending myself, I do not intrude myself between the message and the other person. I get out of the way, and let the message shoot through, cleanly. This also delivers a double message, that I am not afraid of anything that rebounds on me for telling the truth. I trust the truth so radically, I will accept any ‘come back’ that speaking or doing it brings my way. This means the truth has so possessed my heart, lesser motives about self-survival or self-esteem do not count. I would rather ‘serve’ the truth, in the heart, than anything else which human society can do to me. This is itself testimony of a strangely powerful truth, not like other, lesser truths.
The bigger the blows to which I stand up, not giving ill for ill, but even offering myself to them, so the more powerfully do I testify to the power of the truth for which my heart will live, and will die.
It is the child in us whose vulnerability, when under new assault, grabs at justifications and rationalisations to build a rigidly protective shield round the heart. After all the undeserved assaults, we are not going to allow any new assaults, deserved or undeserved it makes no difference. ‘No mas.’
The Slave exposes other hearts by the way he never defends his heart. This is handling Holy Fire.
He does not enter the game of blaming parent or child, other or self, God or humanity. He accepts what is. He does not demand his goodness be recognised, nor his love be praised. He leaves it to God to ‘vindicate’ him. He does not need to vindicate himself in his eyes, nor be vindicated by others in their eyes. God sees.
In short, do not worry so much about the malice arrayed against you. Stick to the good, and do it, no matter what.
Falsity cannot stand.
When we stand on truth, it upholds us. When we stand for truth, it stands with us.
 52, 13-15; 53, 1–12.
Yahweh, and the men who decried the Slave while he was alive, speak in the ‘fourth song’:
“See, my servant.. shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights. As the crowds were appalled on seeing him—his visage was so marred that he seemed no longer human—so will the crowds be astonished at him, and kings stand speechless before him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they consider..”
The Slave has been cast out, and thrown down, by those he came to redeem, but God will raise him to great heights.
The Slave has been humiliated by those he came to assist, but God will exalt him.
Having seen the Slave ugly beyond the human, like a leper with terrible disfigurements, the crowds are now astonished by him, and even kings stand open mouthed before him. Something never before witnessed, in the protracted history of the Jews, has happened to the discredited Slave, to reveal the credit beyond compare in which God regards him. So stupendous and unusual is what Yahweh does with the Slave, after his death, that the Jews exclaim– who could have believed what we have just seen? They further exclaim– who could have believed that the power of Yahweh would be revealed in this Slave whom we repudiated?
What did they see?
What could they have seen? As something so ‘elevating of the denigrated’ as to amaze all those who were witnesses to it, there is a feeling that only resurrection from death could engender all these reactions. Is it too tempting for a Christian to read back into these elliptical lines the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Ha-Masiah qom; be-emet qom.
If we try to read prospectively, as if we were receiving a prophecy of the future, then what else fits the bill?
Isn’t Yahweh saying to the Jews, he who was laid low, even killed, for your sake, will be raised from death to life by the power of the God who sent him? In that way you will know who he really was, why he really came, what he really did. He was sent for your sake.
He suffered, so you could be released from your suffering.
He died, so that you might live.
But even more indicative of Jesus Christ is the final part of the song, verses 2 to 12, where the Jewish people give their testimony of how they have come to comprehend Yahweh’s Slave after his death and the stupendous happening that followed it, in which Yahweh blessed the one whom they had castigated. Their eyes having been closed to him now are open.
If these final lines are not a portrait of Yeshua Mashiach, then what do they portray?
They certainly portray the ultimate mystery of the Messiah.
Whether the Messianic mystery was lived out by Jesus Christ can be affirmed or denied. That is a different matter. What cannot be disputed is that the closing segment of the description of the Messianic Slave of Yahweh is the most profound, strange, paradoxical, understanding of the redeemer, and what he must do to redeem, in all the Scriptures. This is ‘it.’
Hence it is fitting that the last account of the Messiah is left to the Jewish people to voice. It is appropriate because the whole history of the Jews, with its immense pain sustained only by faith in the unknown, was risked to the coming of a promised Messiah. They have earned the right to pronounce on him, and by design or accident, they raise the deepest matters about him, the most pained and unknown matters. It is a triumph to articulate anything at all about the redeemer and his redemption because this knowledge only comes from a place in all human beings so wrecked, and so difficult to access, that squeezing any words from it is akin to picking up a nondescript stone on the ground and discovering that it turns out to be heavier than any mountain. It is more than flesh can bear to even speak it, much less experience it, and search out its meaning. These astonishing lines—spoken from the experience of a long journey and unremitting battle which the Jews were constantly tempted to bail out on, but stayed with despite it all — signify a giant stride they have made, a huge transition, going from the old insistence on righteousness to a new opening up to redemption.
This does not mean shedding righteousness for redemption, as if righteousness were merely an approximation to redemption. It is not like that at all. Trying to bypass righteousness and go straight to redemption does not work, just as remaining in righteousness and not following its impetus toward redemption equally does not work.
Righteousness is First, redemption is Last. Righteousness is the Base, redemption is the Crown. In fact, as the Jews discovered, there is more to this ‘sea change’ than first seems to be the case. A complex dialectic holds righteousness and redemption in a necessary tension.
The Messianic Spirit starts with the mountain peak of righteousness yet does not finish there; but only this start paves the way for the unfathomable abyss of redemption.
Righteousness is uprightness of heart, but redemption plunges into the depth of heart.
If we skate over righteousness, playing fast and loose with the truth of the heart’s uprightness or falling down, we will avoid the deeper heart that is the real ground from which the heart takes a stand or loses any standing. Righteousness forces us back to the heart which we have tried to abandon, in order to have an easier life. Heartlessness opens up ‘unlimited opportunities.’
In righteousness, God’s anger for truth burns our untruth, and by this God’s heart calls us back to our heart. We cannot go down in to the heart’s depths if we are living in a way that is not in the heart at all, but far removed from it, and this is what we are when we refuse to struggle for righteousness. The struggle for righteousness is exacting, and at times very challenging, as the Jews’ tussle with it demonstrates. If we do not ‘strive’ at all for righteousness, we are probably not gripping the bull by the horns, and are more likely to be engaged in that cool, calm, and collected self-righteousness of the Pharisee who sneered at the Publican in the temple. The former has no awareness of his unrighteousness, he arrogantly thinks he has arrived, while the latter humbly confesses his sinful way of living, realising he is off the mark. Who is closer to the real righteousness?
It requires resolute efforts to stand up against the inertia in our being which, if we succumb to it, will always drag us down, preventing any stepping up for truth. If we are not made to sweat, and if the two hearts of stone and flesh in us are not uncovered, then it is not righteousness we are wrestling with, but some counterfeit alternative. At times when we are determined to follow the heart of stone, God becomes like a stone wall stopping our forward thrust, and even pressing harshly against our heart. The heart can ache in a peculiar way at these times of stalemate, where I am not giving up my secret agenda of untruth, and God is not giving up his open declaration of truth. When we are restored to the flesh heart, however much the stone heart has to remain with us, God re-enters the heart to guide and empower its movement ahead, and this is like a release of a pent up river. It is often accompanied by tears. Such tears mean the heart is carrying on, no longer in a pinch.
Righteousness is the truth of heart by which we stand up to existence’s exactions, make hard choices, and remain firm through circumstances, including the handed down and handed on karmic consequences of many failures of uprightness of heart by many people over long stretches of time, all of which add to the weight the heart must carry to stand rather than fall down. It is hard to stand up, easy to remain fallen down. Strength, and other aspects of the muscle of passion, develop as we take the hard way, and resist the easy way.
None the less, even when righteousness is placed in its larger existential meaning, still it is not redemptive. Indeed, righteousness if faithfully followed clarifies our need for redemption, because it cannot solve the division of heart with which it heroically contends. With some problems, you cannot solve them from within their own terms of reference. You have to go down to the base, the foundation, the root, to unleash a new approach.
This is a paradox, the same ‘coinherence of opposites’ that we find in Christ bringing the Sword and being brought to the Cross. Cross invariably requires Sword, Sword inevitably moves to Cross.
In redemption, God retains his anger for truth as a protective and chivalrous embrace, and a reliable and unwavering anchor, but he exceeds and fulfils such truth through a new and radical love that plunges deeper into the human tragedy, and suffers in order to change things in the human heart at that terrible depth.
The last of the songs devoted to the Slave of Yahweh therefore focuses on the paradoxes within redemption.
The Jewish people are the witness to profound mysteries:
“Like a sapling he grew up in front of us, like a root in arid ground.
He had no majesty or comeliness,
and when we shall see him,
there is no beauty
that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men,
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,
we hid.. our faces from him,
he was despised and we took no account of him.
And yet he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows,
but we thought of him as someone stricken,
smitten of God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our faults,
he was bruised for our iniquities.
On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each taking his own way,
and Yahweh burdened him with the sins of us all.
He was oppressed and he was afflicted,
yet he never opened his mouth,
like a lamb that is led to the slaughterhouse,
like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers
never opening its mouth.
By force and by law he was taken;
would anyone plead his cause?
For he was torn away from the land of the living;
for our faults struck down in death.
And they gave him a grave with the wicked,
..though he had done no wrong..
Yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise him,
Yahweh has put him to grief,
When Yahweh makes his soul an offering for sin,
he shall see his heirs..
And through him what Yahweh wants will be done.
His soul’s anguish over,
he shall see the light and be content.
By his sufferings shall my servant justify many,
For he shall bear their iniquities, taking their faults on himself.
Hence I will grant whole hordes for his tribute,
..for pouring himself out unto death
and letting himself be taken for a sinner,
while he was bearing the faults of many
and praying all the time for sinners.”
These paradoxes of redemption raise pained and difficult questions.
Why must the Messiah be ugly and unattractive, one of the dregs of human existence? Why must the Messiah be despised and rejected, such that the decent people hide their gaze from him?
Why must the Messiah be a man of sorrows and acquainted with suffering? Why has the Messiah borne our griefs and carried our sorrows?
Why was the Messiah wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities? Why did we have to see him as someone punished, struck by God and brought low?
Why are we healed by his wounds and why do his punishments bring us peace?
Why did he humbly take it all, not opening his mouth, but going to his death like a lamb to the slaughter?
Why was he executed, for our faults– really, for our entire existential failure?
Daniel also asserts that the Messiah is a king, and will be ‘cut off, but not for himself’; he will be killed not for anything he has done, but for what the people have done [Daniel, 9, 25-26]. Yet it cannot just be that the people scape-goat the Messianic king, putting all that is amiss with them onto him, so as to generate the illusion they are perfectly all right at their core. The trouble is precisely in their core. There has to be a transformation in them, for the Messiah’s sacrifice to have a purpose. When Christ cries out on the Cross, echoing David in Psalm 22, the Greek text actually reads, “My God, my God, ‘for what purpose’ have you forsaken me?” This is crucial.
The paradoxes of redemption are necessary to its purpose.
To rule the people, you must serve them.
Only the king who becomes last for the people can be first with them.
To redeem the people afflicted in suffering, you must suffer what afflicts them.
Only the king who dies for the people can give them life.
To redeem what people kill in themselves, you must become what they kill and be killed for it. You will become what they deny about themselves. They will not thank you for exposing it.
Only the king who becomes broken for the people can heal them.
The suffering is the world, and each other; love has an unbearable suffering. The weight is the world, and each other; love has an unliftable weight. The cost is the world, and each other; love has an unaffordable cost.
The Messiah comes to be reversed by the human tragedy in the depth so that it can be turned upside down and turned inside out, in order to become the place not of final defeat, but of ultimate victory. Out of death, life. Out of hell, heaven.
From the ending of it all, a new beginning.
Everything about the redeemer, and his redemption, is paradoxical– not rational, not moral, not sensibly and decently ‘going to plan as you would expect.’ It does not make sense by any sane logic.
This is the drama of love, at its extreme, because it deals in humanity at the end of the line, washed up, demolished, beyond saving.
It is precisely at this point where the worst case scenario has come to pass that love brings into operation its deepest heart and most radical passion. Love goes all the way, because in this desperate situation, it has to.
There is no other remedy.
There is a place in us deeper than the battle between ‘righteousness and wickedness’, strength and weakness, effort and laxity, standing upright and falling down. It is a place of disaster, where defeat for the human possibility is frozen and fixed, where ‘remission of the sentence’ is impossible. It has gone beyond recall. There is no way through, there is no way out. It is the finish. It finishes in futility.
The place in us where we are broken is a place of abject desolation, a place where the human venture has come to its doom, like land left to go to pot, unwatered, non-cultivated, not worked with to bring out its potential but utterly forsaken. It is this utter forsakenness that is so painful, so despairing. It is too old, too heavy; it has gone beyond regeneration, like a rusting ship that could never sail again, or a dock that once saw much back and forth exchange as the ships came and went but now stands dilapidated, shabby, neglected, abandoned by the owner. It reeks of the seediness that comes when something created to be a hive of activity is allowed to come to a grinding halt, and then degenerates more and more. The degeneration becomes like entropy; going downhill is the only dynamic, going uphill would have no wind in its sails, and so could not even be imagined, much less tried. Nothing stirs. It just keeps coming apart, getting ever more defunct. After a while, failure stinks of decay. It has an odour all its own, like stale clothes, sheets soaked in dry urine, musty blankets eaten by moth.
It all finishes ‘not with a bang, but a whimper.’ The abandonment gripping this place is so radical, no one can speak its unspeakable horror. No one can look at it; if it could be seen, it would remind us of the worm in the plump apple that never sleeps, devouring it from within. We put our hands over our ears and shut our eyes. It is beyond good and evil. It is the place of our tragedy, our end, our final collapse that leaves in its wake the distinctive stink of despair when it cannot be voiced, seen, exposed, for what it is. We don’t want to know, and thus it suffocates us in our attempt to choke it back. But we do know. Deep down, we know only too well, which is why we stay out of our depths, and build defences to keep us in the shallows. Yet even living this protected existence of the superficial, assiduously avoiding the profound, still we are haunted by what we know but refuse to acknowledge. Hence our ‘lives of quiet despair.’ The comedians who use irony to laugh at their own impotence are the only collective outlet for what everyone knows, but will not know. The laughter by which we try to dismiss what is hurting beyond hurt in ourselves is hollow.
The place totally abandoned by us is also, we believe, totally abandoned by God. It is blocked off by shame and guilt, because its derelict state is also indicative that I have been ‘derelict in my duty.’ I have been neglectful in doing what I was called to do by the heart that created my heart; thus my heart, out of my not using it, has become neglected. I am vagrant in my duty and thus my life has become a vagrancy of days and my very being is a vagrancy of life. It is the heart that is this waste ground.
The heart, the forge that burnt out.
The heart, the furnace that crumbled.
The heart, shamed in its own sight, but the shame in God’s sight is worse.
We don’t know what the heart is, because we did not use it when it was called out into life by God.
The heart finishes in the rank deterioration that follows from its failure to act. The heart funks what it has to do, and thus as a zone of doing, it becomes defunct. Non-performance of its obligation leaves the heart’s powers in irreversible waning. They keep falling in, falling down, falling apart. The putrid smell of rotting is unmistakable.
The heart’s down-falling leaves it unfit for use, extinct, worthless.
Therefore, gazing upon the Messianic Slave of Yahweh is unbearable. Nothing charismatic looks at us, nothing desirable returns our gaze, nothing persuasive grabs our yearning. When we look upon him, we see that in ourselves from which we avert our eyes, and close our heart.
Kill him? He was lucky we did not flay him alive, and kill him over and over, a million times. He was lucky to be killed once.
After all, it is what we are doing to ourself, the deep heart that failed us, even as in it we failed our God.
We failed before there was any enmity between us. The enmity is over what failed. God wants to take us back there. Understandably, we had enough the first time round. We don’t want to go back.
We killed the Messiah because we don’t want to return. Why return to where it all ended for us, where it was all killed off, so long ago?
We killed the Messiah because we are settled down now, comfortable with the deadness.
It would hurt in a different way, it would hurt worse, for the furnace to burn again, for the forge to spit sparks once more. It would be a different pain, like giving birth to what has died, like marrying what has past.
Shaman cannot bring you to this place.
Buddha cannot bring you to this place.
The Messiah takes on what we are, at depth, to bring us back to it, and we don’t thank him.
He is lucky we are not still killing him; except we are. In every innocence become bereft, in every broken down, broken hearted, no account tramp that is me, and that is you.
We kill them all, because to keep it killed is better than being reminded.
The pious say, ‘God is not the creator of hell, we humans are the cause of our own suffering and death.’ This is dissembling, to put it mildly. God took a risk, and placed us in an existential bind between a rock and a hard place, from day one. God is implicated in our ‘fall’ from the passion of heart to which he called us, and which we declined; thus God is implicated in our coming through even the farthest we can fall. This is the mystery of redemption.
The Messiah is still the lamb of God, no matter what is put upon him, and in a related sense this is equally true of us. The defiled adult is still the innocent child, whatever is put upon us, and whatever we bring upon ourselves.
The reason for which God created us, and the love in which God holds us, means our unknown name cannot be excised. It is written in God’s blood. It is pledged in God’s fire.
The defiling of innocence is the story of history, thus coming through the spiritual and psychological tangles of vulnerability is key to redemption. Lucifer sucks you into defilement, then Satan judges it; such is damnation. This is why it is so significant to redemption that, “harshly dealt with, he bore it humbly, like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers, never opening its mouth.” His vulnerability addresses our vulnerability in a most strange and barely whispered communication. You can stand in it, you can stand it. Your vulnerability reveals God.
God is humble, God is modest, God is vulnerable, in all his relational dealings with humanity. God does not resort to the intimidation of force nor deploy the shine of seduction. He stands on, and stands by, love, and this is intrinsic. Let it be what it is, the Messiah’s silence tells our anger, and hurt. It is what it is. Let it be what it is, and we are stilled, we become silent, we become composed.
Even if holding the losing hand of cards, just at this point the wildcard comes into play, and that changes the whole disposition of the game.
The need to apportion blame, to judge who is right and who is wrong, as the gamble proceeds, falsifies what is at stake. We are gambling on love, suffered, carried, paid for, by the heart through passion.
God has not abandoned our vulnerability, as we feel until we are ‘reconciled’ to his vulnerability, as lived out by the Messiah.
Yeshua Mashiach is the Lamb slain before the world began, but this Lamb also was resurrected by God to become the Tyger of the Daemonic in whom ‘sin, death, and the devil’ are overcome in the ground of the heart, so that passion can re-enter the long redemptive journey and long redemptive fight to overcome them in the world.
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
When we cease to succumb to defilement, and when we cease to subject it to harsh judgement, then we will know we are still the Lamb, and becoming the Tyger, of God.
The Messiah becomes the lamb led to the slaughter, to enable us to accept the lamb in ourself and others, so that we are freed to become the tyger.
There are layers to what is amiss in us.
Our fall starts with the falling down of heart and the dying of passion. We have repudiated the call of God’s heart passion in our heart passion. We ‘caved’, and then ‘cave in.’ This is our ‘weakness’ which becomes catastrophically powerful. This level is existentially more fundamental than ‘sin.’ Indeed, the weakness in our shaky and sinking ground becomes a seed-bed of sins, which the ascetic tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity differentiated into three groups [noetic, erotic, incensive], with 8 main varieties [pride, vanity; lust, avarice, melancholy; hate, accidie, bodily indolence]. Thus, sin is not the cause of fallenness, rather it is exactly the converse, fallenness is the precondition of sinful activity and deeds.
Beneath sin, then, is fallenness.
Beneath the rotting dirt of fallenness is the hellishness of sulphurous bitterness and judgemental anger about the vulnerability of the heart, and its wounding by existence. Beneath our weakness toward life is our refusal of life. This is our deep no, the profound rejection. We feel judged, accused, blamed, and we retaliate: we judge, we accuse, we blame. Existence is not fair, and executes us; so we use its unfairness as the excuse to execute existence. Because no one comes to the rescue of the innocence in us, we do not go to the rescue of the innocence in anyone. We are condemned by everything, and we condemn everything. We attack the malleable, affectable, ‘passible’ heart, which cannot be protected or guaranteed. We gnaw and scratch at our vulnerability like a person who keeps picking at a scab; they will not be at peace, because of never allowing it to heal.
These deeper layers are not moral, but existential and spiritual. They express the risk God takes with humanity, and the world: that existence is not ontologically secured, but is ungrounded. Existence is metaphysically precarious, open ended, capable of going in different directions and turning out in different ways. We acknowledge this in the anxiety and anguish in our own heart, which is aware of the abyss over which existence, and itself as ‘bound hand and foot to existence’, is poised.
Consequently, there is a place beneath fallenness and hellishness, which is what happens to the unfathomable abyss underneath the heart in our collapse. It becomes a fearful void, an abysmal emptiness, into which we can go on falling forever. Emptiness is mysterious, and ambiguous. It is the groundless ground where God can dwell, yet in our fallenness, this emptiness is abandoned by God, and becomes the deep place where God is absent. This is the ultimate in forsakenness. The fathomlessness beneath our feet, causing us to fall through the floor boards, endlessly, creates a numinous terror that turns our bowels and stomach to water, but this terror is experienced as being forsaken, deserted, left. We don’t know why. All we know is, nothing stands. It is all meaningless. The venturing of meaning has come to nothingness.
Deadness, hellishness, and the vortex of nothingness– of these three layers, the final is the worst. Here even hot complaint has disappeared, replaced by a fearful negation. It is all pointless, a sound and fury signifying nothing.
In an older, and currently neglected, theological language, it was asserted that ‘what is not assumed is not healed.’
Psalm 22 presents the Messiah’s death hideously, and graphically, in its plummeting down into the empty abyss where there is nothing to uphold us, and hence all brave and generous risk-taking and its adventure is rendered finally null and void. We might as well live out our time in the shallows, taking care not to be exposed to danger, and grabbing at such pleasures as present themselves as we go along. Nothing deeper in human life is sustainable. The nothing at the base of us ‘makes cowards of us all’, and determines we will have to settle for the safer compromise. This is not exactly a choice, more like a reflex reaction of our whole nature as it shudders when it is caught off guard and has to gaze down. It becomes habitual, built in, natural, organic. What else do you expect?
Thus when the Messiah dies this death that haunts us every minute, it is has a finality. Whatever hope he offered, whatever fragile hope life affords, is really over. The abyss, as the place where God is not, cannot be defeated by any heavenly or earthly powers. But we live with such existential despair all the time. We see little hopes rise up, and get cut down, a thousand times a minute. The despair in human beings is ancient and unremitting, and at its absolute worst when mute.
The Messiah is not just dying, but dying this death that contains all our layers below ground level. Embracing the empty abyss is the deepest solidarity with us, and the profoundest reversal, that the Messiah must suffer to redeem our lost possibility. The human heart passion was meant to be the vehicle of God’s heart passion, its sceptre, its chariot, its warm fire, its sharp sword, its tears like soft rain on a summer’s night and its exultant shout in the glad day. But God’s abysmal depth does not live in our abysmal depth, and this we know in the ‘fear and trembling’ and the ‘sickness unto death’ that grips us at our deepest, making the heart ‘dizzy.’ If you stare into the abyss for any time, the abyss starts to stare back at you, Nietzsche claimed. We stare into the abyss, realising it is empty, and experience God’s absence as forsakenness, and we do not comprehend why. Is it us? Are we that unworthy? Is it God who has tired of us, like a precious child who needs a new toy? It is an unrevealed mystery, and it is a searing pain—the ‘black inexplicable pain’; this is the most unknown and the most hurting wound in us. For most people most of the time, this wound is unspeakable, literally, and in every sense, inarticulate and futile. We have lost the God of salvation, and acquired the God of the heartbreak. It is the deepest reality about us; we are inconsolable.
David speaks for us, crying to God ‘deep to deep’, asking him why we are bereft. We accept our vehicle is broken, yet we also plead with God to not leave us like this, the forgotten of God. Though God answers prayers in times of ordeal, in regard to the real cataclysm in the groundlessness of our heart passion, silence is God’s only reply.
The voice in Psalm 22 is sometimes the Messiah’s, though David echoes it, and hence they share the same experience of staring into the abyss, suffering the absence of God, but David prays to be relieved of it and in a sense yearns for an earlier time when God stood in a different place in human experience, and allowed us to avoid this place of awe and awfulness in ourselves. By contrast, the Messiah surrenders to it.
In ‘dying for us’, the Messiah plunges further than even the dead zone, and hell, that is where our heart is in the depth. He goes all the way to the fearful void over whose empty abyss our heart is suspended. He ends the suspense by diving in.
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
We are forsaken.
“Why are you so far from helping me?”
We are beyond help.
“Why do you not hear my groaning, my God? I call all day, but you never answer, all night long I call and cannot rest.”
My crying is to no avail with you.
“Israel praised, trusted, and were delivered by you. They called to you for help and they were saved. They never trusted you in vain.”
None of what you did before, to release Israel from the peril in which its people were gripped, is of any avail to this.
“Yet here I am now, more worm than man, scorn of humanity, jest of the people, all who see me jeer, they toss their heads and sneer, ‘He relied upon Yahweh, let Yahweh save him. If Yahweh is his friend, let him rescue the poor idiot’.”
In my heart nothing undergirds me from underneath, so I crawl close to the ground like a worm, no longer a man. My predicament is merriment for those who have steeled their heart against what lies below, from whose support we take courage, and from whose desertion we are left hollow and afraid, gutted, hardly able to breathe. The people who put no trust in God can mock those who do trust him, for when we are falling headlong into the dreadfulness of the deep, we are stricken, as with a strange disease. Either the old saving hand that Yahweh once held out to drag us up is no longer on offer, or Yahweh is indifferent to our fate. The people who always avoided trusting the depth of existence are pleased when those who did trust it are suddenly sinking, and there is nothing to hold them up.
We are the bereft of God and the ridicule of men.
“Yet you took me out of the womb, you entrusted me to my mother’s breasts, you were my God. Don’t leave me when trouble is near, I have no one to help.”
Be with us even here, in this place, deeper than deadness, deeper than hell. The real trouble has come. We are beset by the enemy on all sides, roaring and ravening.
“I am poured out like water. My bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, it has melted within me. My strength is dried up, and my tongue sticks to my throat.”
We are in the falling, we are in the vortex, we are unravelling.
“A pack of dogs surrounds me, a gang of villains closes me in; they tie me hand and foot, and leave me lying in the dust of death. ..and there they glare at me, gloating.”
For us, there is nothing left. But for you, it is different.
We watch you dying our death, dying the death we freeze the heart against; we saw the ice melt and your vital substance flow out. You gave up your life for the sake of all of us, even those who glared at your audacity and gloated when they thought it punished by fate. They who never went on a limb for anyone or anything were relieved and satisfied when you who went far out on the limb for everyone and everything came down. In their hearts they wanted you castigated for exceeding the limits of existence no one can mess with. Who are you, they thought, to skate so lightly over the abyss? They saw you playing with fire, and wanted you to get burned. It is what you deserved, by their reckoning. Yet they did not realise what you were doing. They did not realise you were doing it for them, no less than for those of us who half believed it and half doubted it. Our faith is halting, it is crushed by existence and wavers on the edge of the abyss, it is no more ultimately faithful than the disavowed faith of your tormentors.
The limits of existence dictated by the fearfulness of the abyss would change if it were no longer the place of God’s stultifying absence, but became the place of God’s enlivening presence. If we were no longer forsaken, at depth, but joined in our heart passion by God’s heart passion, then all bets would be off.
Even before your resurrection, we sensed this was where the change would happen, and where the turn-around would come from.
“For he has not despised or disdained the poor man in his poverty, has not hidden his face, but has answered when he called.”
This can only be said from hell. This can only be affirmed from the place of our ultimate poverty, which is the place in the heart where we are without God.
When deep cries to deep, the cry is answered but not as we anticipate. The answer is the Messiah’s death for our sake, the ‘death that overcomes death’, and brings new life, a life of the heart in its passion no longer contained, curtailed, defined, by the tragedy in our deeps.
Through the reversal of the Messiah, God’s strength is revealed in our human weakness. We need not give way anymore.
Through the reversal of the Messiah, God’s power is revealed in our human vulnerability. We need not judge any more.
Through the reversal of the Messiah, God’s commitment is revealed in our human forsakenness. We need not despair any more.
That reversal is God taking on the human tragedy and undergoing it as we do, to change it from within, and reveal to us how to pass through its depth to a resurrection on the other side.
Out of black pain, a pillar of red fire.
Out of the empty abyss, a door opened onto the new land of heart.
Redemption only happens at the very nadir point, but this allows it to change things at the foundation. As the roots of sin in ever deeper hells are dug up, and the wisdom hidden in these hells is dug out, so sin becomes a tree starved of nourishment at its root, and so it withers away. It may take time, but Christ’s injunction to very ordinary people ‘sin no more’ demonstrates that sin can be undercut. It is passing away..
Redemption lays new foundations in the depths that previously undermined, and swallowed up, our love, our integrity, our creativity. Our passion is not merely restored, it is renewed. Our heart is not merely re-grounded, its very ground is changed.
The broken and wavering human heart passion becomes the vehicle of God’s constant heart passion.
Through the worst in us, the best of God is planted. This is the paradox of the Messiah’s ‘toiling in the abysmal’, which works out at each level of our distressed condition. Redemption is not about ‘saving’ a better part of us from a worse part; its task is to take on the worst part and transform it at its own dire level, to change it from the inside by truthfully and bravely addressing the dilemma in which it has come unstuck, and by this, to reveal there is a way through that dilemma.
Thus our real tragedy is ‘better’, more fruitful, than success, or any other scenario designed to blot out the deep debacle that is human life when you really see its heart. Where is the heart? Where is the passion? It is only by fearlessly facing up to the way we are, so heartless with but a hint of heart, so passionless with but a hint of passion, that we realise where we were meant to be. What a fall from human dignity is this.
Yet through the Messiah’s indignities, we are made noble, and called again to the task we first refused, as too suffering, too heavy, too costly. Through his suffering the wound, through his lifting the weight, through his paying the cost, we can do this, at last, in him, but from our own heart, by our own passion. He frees us to do as he does. He frees us for love, the love that redeems, the love that suffers to redeem.
There is no more supreme love than this, in God, and in humanity.
The new redemptive reality is ‘suffering love’, and the Messiah brings that love from God to humanity. It introduces a new way in which God deals with us, and we deal with each other. This newness is not encapsulated by the first and second commandments which go back to Moses: love God with your all, and love the neighbour as if they were your self– your neighbour needs to become as precious to you as your very self. But the new covenant is summed up by the third commandment given by Jesus Christ: ‘love your enemies.’
In Western Christianity, suffering love has been largely missed, or reduced to ‘atoning for sin.’ There is a sense in which sin makes love suffer in a specific, atoning manner, but all three versions of the doctrine of the Atonement advanced by Western Christians, from Roman Catholics, through Protestants, to recent fundamentalists and evangelicals, is false, and indeed Satanic.
This false teaching is rooted in pagan systems for mollifying an impersonal tribal deity whose vengeful anger is feared; for, once you have offended this ‘god’ by doing some wrong, he demands ‘satisfaction’ in the form of your punishment, or he will accept a ‘substitute’ in your place to take the punishment for you. This is in effect a bribe to buy him off. You have wronged the deity in some degree, so you should be wronged by the deity in the same degree, in a balancing of the books; but in so far as you can offer a ‘sacrifice’ in your stead, and to the extent that this substitutory ‘ransom’ is also equivalent to the gravity of the offence, then the deity’s ‘honour’ will be reinstated. You will escape the punishment you deserve.
Assuaging divine anger will never lead to true change of heart; this reaction to Satanic Accusation only paralyses the heart, masking all its problems and wounds.
The false teaching on Atonement cheapens what is so costly, and makes ugly something so beautiful. There is a Jewish meaning of ‘debt’ that is existential, and even karmic, which makes sense of the Messiah ‘dying for our sins’, and thereby ‘atoning’ for us. But this is a very different matter.
But even Jewish atoning does not do full justice to the new meaning of suffering for love. This is because Jewish atoning comes from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As such, it is a priestly ritual of symbolic atoning, comprised of three elements: repentance, making amends for one’s wrong-doing by changing one’s life, and forgiving and being forgiven by one’s fellows. It includes fasting, confession of sins to God and those one has wronged, prayer, and acts of benevolence, acts of mercy, toward those most in need. At the end of ‘the days of awe’, God pardons everyone’s sins, as a community. No one goes away in any anxiety, or doubt, that they are forgiven by God, and starting out once more, as if they were a new born child who had never sinned at all. But this has much more than a moral meaning, it is mystical and ontological. Sin no longer separates God and humanity, who are re-united like a couple re-married after the estrangement of divorce, but paradoxically, sin becomes the grit in the oyster that, if worked on sincerely and humbly in the process of change of heart, becomes the pearl. The Day of Atonement ends in tremendous joy, for God and for humanity.
This Jewish Atonement is carried over into Christianity in the practice of Lent.
But the priestly atoning for sin is not the Messiah’s loving way of dealing with sin, which is much more radical. This difference is clearly acknowledged by Paul [Hebrews, 10, 11-17]. What we sacrifice for God in the Temple is not as powerful or efficacious as what God sacrifices for us on the Cross.
There are, then, two very different ways of ‘atoning’ for the people, which involve two very different meanings of ‘sacrifice.’ The kingly way is far more powerful than the priestly way, thus ‘once and for all.’
The priestly ritual makes a ‘sacrificial offering’ of blood, of innocent blood [animal] in the place of the worshipper’s guilty blood [human], but this symbolises the worshipper’s contrition, willingness to give up the sin to which their soul’s life is attached, and work toward a new way of life by re-attaching their soul to God. This is the sinner’s ‘sin offering’, and ‘sin sacrifice.’ It is necessary, but not sufficient. It is the way of ‘salvation’, but it does not redeem. The Messianic Reversed Kingship is the redeemer, who redeems everything and everyone in depth, and especially those who cannot be saved. What about the sinners who cannot come to the ritual, for authentic reasons as well as evasive reasons? What about the people too damaged by the consequences of evil in this world, who have long ago given up and given in, and just dwell in hell, unable to even stand in the Temple and empower the priest to plead for them? It is not just the wicked who refuse to come to the Temple service, and the journey of developmental spiritual transformation it instigates. What about those so damaged by the evil which has a free run in this world, such as the people who were as children sexually and violently abused by loved parents, that seeking ‘reconciliation’ with the God who allowed this to happen would feel a violation of their integrity, a betrayal of their wound? These people are not going to any Temple service, nor entering into any process of coming out of the ‘darkness of sin’ to re-enter the ‘light of God.’ That would seem obscene to them, a further betrayal of their primal betrayal, and in truth they are right in this.
Deep hurt toward, and deep anger with, God is studiously evaded by the pious, but as a Hasidic master once agreed with a suicidally hurt and suicidally angry young man, ‘we live in a world where love is not enough.’ We must grieve, and be angry, as well as love, the Zaddik added. And all that this prophetic sage asked of the young man was, let us grieve together, let us be angry together– and let us not divorce from our love the hurting and the outrage.
Christ said he came not for the ‘saved’, implying he thought there were people in Israel and in the wider world of his time who were indeed living within the salvational path that the priestly system is built round, and were thus safe and sound, whole, if not healed fully then on the way to healing; rather, he came for ‘sinners’, implying there were other people, probably in his day like ours the vast majority, for whom the way of ‘being saved’ was closed, for reasons of various kinds, whether valid or invalid it makes no difference. These are the people who will never be able to enter any Temple, and will never be able, with tears of affliction, to offer their sins to God, in order to ‘return’ to him. For many people, in the ancient world as in the modern world, there is not going to be any priestly oriented offering and sacrifice of sin, to bring them closer to God. It is not going to happen. It cannot happen. And it is truth that it cannot, and will not, happen. These are all the people in hell, of various kinds and various degrees; really, they are all people, because the trade-off for being saved is to leave the depths that are hellish alone, and rise above them, not recalling the deep passion of the deep heart, but attaining only a benign and benevolent ‘pastel coloured’ kindliness, without hellishness yet also without fire.
The Messiah comes for the people for whom the path of salvation in religion cannot work. He comes for the outsiders, the non-kosher, the desperately and desolately injured, those in touch with their hurt and anger towards God, those who object to God not intellectually and philosophically, but existentially in the ‘black inexplicable pain’ of their hearts. This is the more ultimate captivity, and so the ransom to pay for its release is far costlier [Psalms, 49, 7-9]. “It costs so much to redeem humanity’s life.” Only God pays this cost: it is God paying this cost in and through the Messiah.
The priest stands in for the people, dragged down by sin, and looks up to God, asking him to come back to them. The kingly Messiah stands in for God, looks down into the people, and dives in to join them in their deepest hells. God is lowered, or pointed in a descending direction, by the willingness of his love to suffer for the people who will not, and cannot, go up to him; he must come down to them. He must pay for them, with his own blood. This is why the Messiah is the ransom, himself, and is the sacrifice, himself, pouring out his blood of life into the deep tragedy where humanity really dwells.
The Messiah’s sacrifice is the converse of the priestly sacrifice; his sacrifice is not the blood representing the people’s sin, but the blood of God given to the people’s sin, a divine life embracing the people’s death that they may again live.
The enormity of God suffering, and sacrificing himself, not just for those who are his friends in trouble, but also for those who regard themselves, tacitly if not explicitly, as his enemies, is beyond any measure. Yahweh gets accused, by those frightened by his righteous anger, of being a tyrannical bully; from Jung to Dawkins this rant has been repeated– despite the fact that Yahweh opposes tyrants and overthrows them, forbids capitalism at origin, takes to task the rich and powerful, and insists that how a society treats its powerless and wretched is the real criterion of its justice.
However, has any God humbled himself, and poured out his life blood, to suffer for the redeeming of all, including his enemies, no different to his friends? Yahweh is passionate, and has heart. Redemption, and redeeming, is passion given to dead passion, heart given to empty heart, to rekindle the furnace, to re-spark the forge, in our depths. This will make the redeemed deep, as well as great. They will come through to the ultimate secrets of God’s wisdom, hidden in the hell where existence falls into the abyss.
This is the other side of the Messiah’s reversal. We are reversed, our worst becoming our best, our deepest becoming our greatest.
Is it any wonder that neither in Judaism nor in Christianity has the Messianic Way been much tried?
There are in the Slave Songs of Isaiah two meanings of suffering for love, in fact. These are two senses in which the king dies for his people.
He dies for them out of holding them in his love, and he dies for them out of carrying their faults in his love. Each makes him suffer, but the suffering is different. Yet the second follows from the first. In other words, if you are willing to hold people in your love, won’t you take the extra step and carry their faults in your love? Love is the key, in both kinds of suffering. Without love, neither suffering is redemptive.
 “Through his wounds we are healed”
The first suffering arises because of how far love has to go in this existence, where risk, ungroundedness, unpredictability and the unknown, constitutes the existential situation in which humanity is placed. Freedom, and otherness, requires love to be sacrificial, primally. Many ancient Shamanic peoples knew that life does not work without sacrifice. If a mother sacrifices sleep to feed her baby in the middle of the night, this is just what love asks of her. You give of yourself to those you love, and the more you love them, the more ready you are to give your all. The sacrifice that is specific to redemption is primarily about loving your brother so much, you will take his life into your heart as a burden carried by your passion. ‘Bear your brother’, ancient traditions say. Put yourself out, even to the point of your own death, for the people you love. If you love them, then whatever befalls them befalls you. It is impossible for you to be on the up and up as they go down the drain. St Maximos regards this suffering for those we love as the truest meaning of friendship: “There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend, for he makes his own the misfortunes of his friend and endures them, suffering with him, even to death.” Sadly, many so-called friends bail out on us when we are put to the test, and it becomes too testing for them to stay with us in what we go through. If love shows itself to be a fair weather friend, then it is not really love.
Jesus Christ asserts the same: ‘greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.’ However hard it is for me to carry my own weight in existence, if I love someone else, then I will carry their weight if they hit the wall. Don’t baulk at the extra weight. Love engenders the extra muscle. Jesus Christ also spoke of this too: if the brother needs your coat, give him your shirt, and your trousers, and shoes as well. There is no limit to what love will ‘do’ for those who are loved.
This is just the way love is. Love suffers for those it loves, and makes sacrifice for them. If I myself—in my tears, sweat, and blood—must become the payment of the ‘ransom’ needed to free you from where you are stuck, in terrible trouble, at mortal and spiritual peril, then I will gladly give all I have for your redemption, for you to come through. The question existence poses to my love is, how far will I go? As well as sacrificing myself, pouring out my life and holding back nothing, will I abase myself? Self-giving is one thing, self-emptying is another thing. Furthermore, will I put myself in circumstances where I become the victim of a fate I can no longer affect, but must be affected by? Will I not simply take a stand, but submit to all the consequences that are unlocked by doing that? How far will I go? Personally and humanly, how far is it possible to go?
It is clearly hard for us to love. Our sinfulness keeps us self-absorbed and self-serving, treating the ‘other’ as merely an optional ‘extra’ that can be used or thrown away depending on whether they enhance or deprive the self, and it also keeps us egocentric, seeking ‘power over’ events to boost our agenda and defeat the rival’s threat to it.
But a more ultimate difficulty is the suffering that must be accepted, the weight that must be carried, the cost that must be paid, if we are to love the world enough to commit our entire life to what is at stake in it. This is where we are put at the most fundamental jeopardy, and have to go through reversals and inversions of hope that hurt, damage, bruise, us. How can we bear and endure the existential depths of existence, for the sake of love? How can we bear the unbearable and endure the unendurable, to go to the end of the line with love? Where is such necessary existential heroism to come from, realistically?
We love as much as we can, and some people are dealt a hand of cards that allows them to ostensibly love a bit more, whilst other people are dealt a hand of cards that pushes them to love a bit less, but from where the Messiah stands, gazing into us at depth, the human tragedy is the fate of us all, with no winners and no losers, no superior and no inferior, no enlightened and no ignorant, no saved and no damned. Some are more righteous and some are more wicked, and this remains a reference point not to be casually thrown away, but in the heart where it really matters, in the passion where it really matters, we are all tragically diminished, and in prison. We are all unable to be staked to what is most at stake for the world, and for all who sail in its brave but frail ship over stormy seas. We all have our point where we ‘bail out’: the point where we unravel, and start acting like frenzied rats rushing round the ship looking for a way off, when there is no exit and all the passengers sink or come through together. Peter reached this point when he said to the braying crowd he did not know Jesus Christ. Three times he bailed out, before with profound weeping in the depleted and debilitated heart ground, he recovered himself by remembering he could rely on the Messiah, not on his own paltry strength.
In a peculiar way, those who attain excellence are misleading about the human condition. They strive, and attain something, and this gives us all some sense of what things should be like for everyone. Still, this very excellence is misleading, because at a deeper level, we are all without any exceptions failing. At depth, the furnace has gone out, the fire is dead, in terms of what it really means to have a heart and live by its passion. Thus, by the reversal logic of redemption, it is the broken — the sick, the poor, the orphaned, the dispossessed and impotent, the unrighteous and depraved, the hopeless — who provide the actual picture of the human condition. We are all knocked out of the game, at depth, and so what conventional people call success must inevitably skate over this underlying truth. Those more faithful to such truth often pay heavily, like Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, or Lorca. The real desolation rumbles away beneath human life, unacknowledged, but always intruding, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Our inability to live together justly, and redemptively, is only the most obvious symptom of how little we can give, and how short a distance we can go, for love. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak; the intention to love is still in us, but the heart of flesh needed to ignite its passion is lacking.
Some can do somewhat more, some cannot do anything. Bear your brother: where your brother stumbles, pick him up, and help him walk on. We can do enough to reveal to us the gap between this little we do and the heroism we need when in a pinch but cannot summon. We end up guarding against too much suffering, recoiling from too weighty a duty, refusing too big a cost. This becomes the measure of our generosity or meanness, courage or cowardice, boldness or timidity, patience or ‘pre-maturity’, fortitude or likeliness to bolt and run. A love that does not weigh up how much we give or don’t give, that doesn’t calculate what we lose or don’t lose, seems remote from human experience.
The question remains urgent, yet seems to be eternally poised up in the air– how far can love go?
The Messiah gives an example of, and offers us the help for, love to go all the way. By dying our death and granting us his life, we are re-rooted in love’s spiritual foundation which frees its radicalism.
Henceforth, rather than continuing in love’s death, we prefer to be alive in love, even if this gets us killed.
 “On him lies a punishment that brings us peace”
The second suffering arises because of how we inevitably burden each other, harm each other, make it impossible for each other. Since ‘no man is an island’, but all paths must cross, it is inescapable in human existence that everyone affects and is affected by everyone, and so we ‘flow into’ each other for good and for ill, for creativity and for destruction, for compassion and for cruelty. No one is immune. No one gets off scot free. There is no ‘individual path’ through existence, for every person’s road is made lighter or made heavier, is facilitated or hindered, by all the other roads that cross it. Everyone helps and is helped, everyone hinders and is hindered. We vastly impact upon one another, and so no one starts with a blank slate from which they choose to do right or wrong, but each and every one of us starts with an existence loaded up with the beneficial and hurtful influences that are inherited from the complexity of factors in motion all around us, and even more so, inherited from the complexity of factors in motion in the past and moving into the present. A person is not just the result of their own decisions. Such are the tangled webs, the networks of complications, that we dwell in, and cannot evade.
To what extent, then, is my decision to cop out in a certain fraught situation down to my deciding alone, or what parents, society, culture, history, has put upon me and which I must shoulder? A veritable host of consequences from pre-existing personal and existential realities influence my existence; my freedom allows me to negotiate with these impingements, but denied or acknowledged, they exert their contribution to my existence. If my mother used me as a child, I might still choose to love when I am adult, but I will have to deal internally with the disabling absence of mother love, if I am not to pass on using other people. Or, if I am too damaged by having been used as a child, then the ‘using relationship’ might end up all I know, in which case as an adult I will pass it on. Someone I use is actually innocently ‘paying’ for what was done to me by a different person entirely. But, actually, the situation is even more complex, because was my mother used by her mother, or her father? What disappointments, betrayals, deprivations, shaped the way in which she entered life as a young adult? She did not simply decide to make her child the compensatory stop-gap for the injuries imposed upon her existence.
Given such mutual influence, we both benefit from other people’s loving actions, and lose out from other people’s unloving actions. And it is the same for them, from us. Everyone owes everyone much thanks; but everyone owes everyone much debt. ‘Forgive us our debts [to others], as we forgive those in debt [to us]’ is the existentially accurate translation.
It is true that some stand up more, some fall down more, and the Bible calls the former ‘righteous’, ‘just’, ‘upright’, and the latter ‘wicked’, ‘unjust’, ‘bent’, but the Bible at the same time forcibly insists, ‘no one is without sin’, and so we all burden others and are burdened by others in ways that make it harder for the community to be what it is meant to be, a situation where people help each other, rely on each other, and share the gain as well as share the loss.
Some sin, as in the priestly praxis, can be made better, because people atone to each other, and by that, restore their relationships. But not all people are willing, or capable, to make restitution to get back into ‘I—Thou’ with their brothers and sisters. Thus, not everyone pays a fair price for solidarity, some pay little, some pay too much. By this the community starts to fragment, to break apart. The people who realise they owe the community for their life diminish relative to the people who think they owe nothing but are owed everything; the former ‘give something back’, the latter ‘take whatever they can grab.’
A few who try to live righteousness, however many times they fail, keep the ship sailing for everyone in it, just and unjust alike, while many who do not aim for righteousness and have turned away from it, consciously or unconsciously, in order to ‘go their own way’ — “we each had gone astray, taking our own way” [Isaiah, 53, 6] — are pushing it under the waves. Yet, this stand by the righteous against those who have abandoned the communal inter-relatedness, to seek their own advantage no matter how expensive it is to the shared jeopardy, is like a last ditch stalling action of a small army besieged by a much bigger invading force. The righteous cannot win, but they can delay, slow down, sometimes stop, the steady advance of the inhuman power. For when the ship has finally sunk, the disaster will drown just and unjust alike.
This stand by the righteous, often lonely and horrendously costly to them personally, for the community that gathers all, means that the minority of noble persons are actually not simply fighting ‘against’ the majority of ignoble persons, but more basically, the noble are fighting ‘for’ the ignoble.
The few righteous people are the defenders and anchor [‘mashkon’= guarantee] of the truth of human togetherness as a solidarity forged from jointly participating in the benevolent and the harsh sides of fate, for all the people, including those who are unrighteous. Forgiveness in this context has a much more stupendous meaning than it does in the ritual of atonement where you restore friendly relationship among friends; in this situation of righteous persons having real enemies out for their blood, they forgive enemies as a way of declaring they are still brothers at a deeper level, because at that depth there is only one heart ground and one passion sharing its common fate. You forgive your enemy because you do not want that mysterious bond of oneness to be broken. You realise, mystically, if 1 sheep is lost, all 99 are lost, because in the depth, there is only one heart and one passion that we all join in and are upheld by, and that is God’s heart and passion. This divine ground and fire cannot be parceled out to rivalrous individuals or competing groups.
This is why, from the earliest times, the suffering and death of the righteous was seen in the Jewish religion as atoning for all the people, both those who were trying and those who were not trying. Their sacrifice for the sake of the people was more powerful than other atonement: “particularly the death of the righteous atones for the people” [I Samuel, 21, 14]. This suffering and death of the noble benefits everyone, friend and foe. It opens a door into the love of God otherwise closed, for in the ritual of atonement in the Temple, it is only the friends of God, in some sense, who attend. The enemies of God laugh at the priestly sin-offering, and sacrificial blood, symbolising their giving of themselves to God which starts healing the sicknesses of sin. These foes of God see no reason to change their ways, and for them in any case, the Temple is irrelevant, as the drama of good and evil, or as they see it, winning and losing, is enacted in the existential arena of the world. This is acceptable to God, since the world is the ultimate focus of redemption.
Thus, the righteous, because of their love for the people in their entirety, good and bad, have an atoning power not granted to prophet or priest. The prophet’s atoning is through prayer to God, and emphasises that God can change the heart of the person, from the inside, psychologically and spiritually; the person can be remade as a vehicle of the Spirit, or Spirit-Bearing, through such practices as prayer to God, fasting, and a ‘broken spirit and contrite heart.’ This very personal, and very interior, focus — ‘truth in the inward parts’ — is evident through-out the Psalms of David. So powerful is prophetic prayer that there is at least one occasion when God asks a prophet not to pray for the people, as some disaster coming to them is necessary, and if the prophet prays for them, it will be averted. The priest’s atoning for the people seeks both personal and communal restoration to God, which unifies the divided soul of humanity, person to God, and person to person. However, neither of these kinds of atonement wins such powerful support, and such powerful interventional potency, as the atoning of the righteous, the noble, the king. This is the Messiah’s atoning for the people: not prophetic, not priestly, but kingly.
Indeed, it is even more radical than that. Doubtless it is true, as many Jewish commentators assert, that the prophets put hope in the redeeming power of God’s Spirit which will cleanse impurities and renew the people from their innerds, bringing their innards to a new condition never before attained, or even imagined as possible; and this will happen invisibly, without any ritual or symbolic accompaniment. The Spirit does not always need, nor work exclusively through, the Temple, the Spirit works directly on people’s insides. However, this is not the real point. The promise God makes to Ezekiel needs a conjoint action– not just of the Spirit alone, but of the Spirit working in and through the king’s action. For the Messianic King is a Spirit-Bearer, exactly like the prophet.
This leads to a stupendous, yet entirely mysterious, conclusion. This brings us to a fundamentally different meaning of atonement: an atonement neither prophetic nor priestly, but exclusively kingly.
It is the king’s self-giving, and self-emptying, for the people that atones for them most powerfully, because this deed of the nobility of love is what brings the Spirit into the hellish depths common to all people, and begins the process of ‘dying to the older heart and passion’ and being ‘raised from that death into the new life of a radically new heart and passion.’
The kingly deed for the sake of the people manifests God towards them. This loving deed is needed, to unleash, to unlock, the radical sea-change in the depths of all humanity. By spilling his blood, the Messiah plants the seed of change in the ground, and this seed goes into the depth where it becomes a spark of flame, igniting the old heart and spirit like combustible wood, and in the flame of death, bringing to rebirth a flame-forged and flame-kindled heart and spirit. The ‘singular heart’ and ‘new spirit’ is born out of the deepest debacle of the divided heart and impeded spirit.
There is a drama being enacted in this axis that binds king and Spirit: he must show the new heart and new passion, not just in words but in action, and pay for it with his life; prophetic revelation about it, or priestly sacramental theatre portraying it, would not be enough. He has to ‘do’ it, and the doing must require from him all he has got, with nothing left. He must be the love that is so extreme, in including friend and enemy of God, that it suffers equally both for friend and for enemy.
To the one it gives; to the other it abases itself, telling the lost brother, ‘I am as lost as you’, to make being lost no reason for resisting the all-inclusive love.
To the friend, it gives everything; to the enemy it gives still more, accepting without resistance or defense his hurt and anger, his grief and outrage, which needs to punish love for its ‘flaw’ of freedom, and its refusal to protect vulnerability. For the sake of the enemy, love is punished by what he found so deeply punishing in existence that he could not bear and endure it, but had to pass it on. For the sake of the enemy, love embraces both the deep point of failure, understanding it and identifying with it in a failure akin to it, and accepts the consequences of this failure, taking into itself all the agonies and afflictions that it has put on all people, yet not passing them on, but swallowing them, dissolving them in a different alchemy where the toxic becomes a strange but necessary part of the healed.
The kingly Messiah does nothing for himself, but all he does is for love of the people. This is why he must be a servant, even a slave.
‘No looks to attract our eyes,
despised and rejected by men,
we took no account of him.’
Nothing he does glorifies himself, but everything he does diminishes him so the people may increase. Oddly, the first example of a king’s love for the people that requires him to totally abnegate himself is Moses. After falling into a self-righteous wrath, and destroying the first set of the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, for which he is seriously rebuked by God by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land, Moses suddenly manifests out of left field the nobility of the Messianic kingship. For after the Golden Calf, God seems set to leave the people to their own devices, allowing them to die in the wilderness, but Moses pleads with God not to give up on the people even when they give up on him. The pleading seems to be falling on deaf ears until Moses cries to God, ‘blot my name out of your book of life, if this will mean the people’s name remains in the book.’ God then forgives the people [Exodus, 34, 1-9; Numbers, 14, 17-20]. The incident is paradoxical, because it is when the human leader finds his deepest heart for the people that this evokes the divine leader’s deepest heart for the people.
This is the secret logic of the Messianic kingly atonement. Because of how far a single man will go, God will go farther. If a single man will give away his life, for the people’s life to be returned to them, then God will do the same. We have great power with God, when we insist God love more than we can. If we can go beyond our puny measure, then God can go beyond his vast measure. We can hold God to account, and insist God love more than we do. If we do this out of love for others, for all our brothers and sisters, then it moves God’s heart as nothing else, and sends God’s heart into redemptive action.
The deeper rationale of the Messianic kingly atonement, then, is prefigured by Moses. Henceforth, though no one at the time grasped its redemptive implications, God will never give up on the people even when they give up on him. The rationale of this is noble.
The greater pays for the lesser.
The rich pay for the poor.
The healthy pay for the sick.
The righteous pay for the unrighteous.
This is the redemptive power.
It contains a paradox, which restores dignity to the unrighteous, equal to the dignity of the righteous. For, those who turn from God become the spur to him to go farther than he must go in the case of those who turn toward God. Thus the part of us farthest from God becomes, in the end, closer to the secret of God than the part of us always wanting to be close.
This is why only out of the darkest hell emerges the most radiant heaven.
This is why out of death and final defeat emerges the most vibrant life and true victory.
The nadir is the matrix of the real apex.
The apex untried in the nadir has no power to change it. The apex that dies from the nadir has the power to transform its deadliness into a different, and fresh, aliveness.
Where the last chance has gone is where the new beginning can be found.
The Spirit working in the depths, as in the Descent into Hell of Jesus Christ between his Cross and Resurrection, humbly accepts our objections to God, and by taking on our deepest rejections of God, uncovers the deeper truth of God hidden in those rejections. Our ultimate spurning of God contains the ultimate embracing of God.
But this contention between God and us at depth cannot be falsely reconciled.
By the way God suffers what has undone us in existence, he can show us a different way to suffer the undoing of existence, and can bring us through, to the other side. He who dies by the Cross will live by the Resurrection.
Three points sum up the Messianic drama.
It is only where the real existential possibility of humanity is lost to tragedy that it can be redeemed.
What makes the difference is a sacrificial suffering, a different way of embracing the tragedy, that the Messiah offers.
We must be in the tragedy to know we need this offer; he must go into the tragedy to make the offer count.
God is Light and Fire.
The Light saves, by raising us.
The Fire redeems us, by entering the darkness of suffering, and plumbing the depth that suffering reveals.
God’s Heart Passion does not waver like ours. But it is closer to ours, at depth, than most people comprehend. Ours was created by God to be the Vehicle of his. Our fall is not turning away from the Light, but losing this Vehicle of God’s Fire. This is the tragedy that redemption plumbs and changes, by its deeds of suffering love, in the dark, in the depth.
To deepen: to intensify, to make more grave, to go to the remotest and most extreme part, to uncover the deep-seated, the firmly rooted, to shake it up and test it, to see what comes through and what does not stand up.
Coming from a depth: a deep breath, a deep sigh, difficult to understand, lying below the surface, serious, absorbing, profound to the heart.
God’s suffering for love does not bestow upon us ‘passionlessness’, but generates the passion like God’s.
Fire is deeper and greater than Light.
The long journey of the Jews has passed from the God of righteousness to the God whose righteousness suffers for love.
Through redemption, Yahweh changes even as he changes humanity. The love of Yahweh for us comes through the very next chapter of Isaiah after the fourth Slave Song. Yahweh declares [Isaiah, 54, 4-10]=
“Do not be afraid, you will not be put to shame, do not be dismayed, you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth and no longer remember the curse of your widowhood. For now your creator will be your husband, his name, Yahweh, God of Hosts; your redeemer will be the Holy One of Israel, he is called the God of the whole earth. Yes, like a forsaken wife, distressed in spirit, Yahweh calls you back. Does a man cast off the wife of his youth? says your God. I did forsake you for a brief moment, but with great love will I take you back. In excess of anger, for a moment I hid my face from you. But with everlasting love I have taken pity on you, says Yahweh, your redeemer.”
The real situation is, if any human being ends in hell, such is God’s love, God ends in hell too.
The odd thing is, this drama of the reversal of the Godly, of Godliness itself and therefore of God himself, speaks to our heart directly, even if the speech is wordless, and untranslatable.
At one level, our heart rejects it, exactly as it was rejected when it was enacted, at another level, our heart accepts it, comprehending in some lived way what it does in our depth to change the depth from being the end of the road to the real beginning.
The Messianic story can be lived, but it cannot be told if we are not living it.
The Messianic deed and the Spirit’s process is not presented in chapters 42, 49, 50, 52 and 53 of the Book of Isaiah as a doctrine, a dogma, any kind of teaching. It is not presented as theory, abstract design, ideal template, nor even as spiritual vision. It is presented as a dramatic narrative. It invites us to live its paradox, mystery, pathos. We can’t ‘know’ it any other way.
Meaning is only finally secured where meaning is most lost. This too is Messianic in Spirit.
The story will have to rip you to pieces: it will open you to the pervasive hurt for which there is no consolation; this story is consolation for the un-consoled and inconsolable. It is profounder tears than you have already cried.
Let us reject turning such a strange story into an explanation that elbows its drama aside, and so lets us off the hook of living its gaps, koans, uncertainties, as an ‘absence’ more present than anything.
Let us realise this story points to the elephant already in the room.