Friday, August 29, 2014

A Sabbath Rest

Rest is something the world seems to be in desperate need of, yet many would say it is illusive. It is for good reason that the theme of rest is a consistent thread throughout the biblical scriptures – and we find the idea is indeed introduced in Genesis ‘in the beginning’, and continues until the last book, Revelation.


The Sabbath signifies entering God’s rest, yet ironically and sadly, many contentions and arguments have surrounded the symbol of rest, ultimately causing much strife and unrest among believers. My intention here is to review the scriptural references to the Sabbath, with the hope that the journey will illuminate the role and purpose of the Sabbath as reflected in the biblical witness.


The first mention of instructions concerning the Sabbath command was in the text of Exodus 16: ‘He (Moses) said to them, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’” (Exod 16:23). The instructions were given to the Israelites shortly after their deliverance out of the land of their captivity. They were to learn to cease from their labour on the seventh day, and to dedicate this day to worship. There are two defining aspects of the Sabbath, first there is a ‘ceasing’ from usual labour, and a dedicating the day holy to the Lord. We get a glimpse in Exodus that the Sabbath is ushering the people’s release from captivity and their freedom to worship God as he intended. (cf. Leviticus 25 on the Sabbath year of jubilee when all debts are cancelled and slaves set free.)


The Sabbath is undoubtedly central to the law given through Moses and thus central to worship. The instructions regarding this day become one of the ‘ten commandments’ (or ‘words’ in the Hebrew). The Sabbath, the day of ‘sacred assembly’ is the first of the appointed observances outlined in Leviticus 23. It is It is envisaged as a day of joy (Isa 58:13) (also signified by the prohibition of fasting or outward expressions of mourning). Moreover, every festival seems to culminate or revolve around a day of ‘Sabbath rest’. For instance, the Day of Atonement, the day signifying cleansing from sin was to be a Sabbath rest (Lev 16:29-33). Leviticus 19 is another reiteration of the words given to the community of God. “…and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the Lord your God. (v3) “‘Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary I am the Lord. (v30) And finally, the year of Jubilee comes after seven Sabbath years – this is the wonderful time where all the debts are cancelled, the slaves are set free and the people would return to their land (Lev 25).


Although the concept of the Sabbath is introduced in Exodus, it is firmly grounded in the opening passages of scripture, in Genesis, ‘in the beginning’. Observing the Sabbath is fashioned after the example set by God resting on the seventh day after the creation days. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exod 20:8-11- see also Exod 31:17)


Seventh day observance is essentially an identification with God as lord and creator – as mankind are made in his image, they follow his example, not only in creative activities by ruling over creation, but also in resting. Thus the Sabbath was to be an acknowledgement of God as creator and sustainer of his world.


The Sabbath was to be a sign of the covenant between the Lord and his people…. "a sign between me and you for generations to come" (Exod 31: 12-17), a reminder of their identity as God’s liberated people; thus a continual testimony of keeping the covenant.


“The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exod 31:16, 17a). Many have argued based on this that the Sabbath is for the Israelites alone, serving as a sign of their covenant with the Lord. Whilst the significance of the Sabbath as a sign of the Mosaic covenant is undisputed, there seems to be a deeper underlying spiritual principle in effect. The Sabbath extends to bless and protect (and form a sanctuary) for the foreigner, the slave, the animal and even the land.


“Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.” (Exod 23:12 12; see also Exod 35:1-3, Deut 5:12-15).


Not only are the people to observe a Sabbath rest, but also the land. ‘The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath to the Lord.’ (Lev 25:1-2). The land is to have a year of rest.’ (v5). The land was to enjoy its Sabbath rest as decreed by the Lord; and if the people neglected this command, the Lord would secure it; in 2 Chronicles the people are taken captive for disobedience and the land rests.


There are a number of references of the Sabbath and the Sanctuary as two provisions and side by side patterns for worship (Lev 19:30). “Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.” (Lev 26:2). Ezekiel later links the defilement of the sanctuary and the desecration of the Sabbath (Eze 23:38). Just as the sanctuary ‘miqdas’ was a holy place/space for worship, the Sabbath was a holy time for worship.


Keeping and breaking the Sabbath:


During pre-Exilic periods, the kingdom enjoyed blessings ushered and associated with Sabbath observance. This was signified by the involvement of the Levites in Sabbath duties such as the burnt offerings. Both David and Solomon firmly established their reign upon honouring the Sabbath (1 Chron 23, 2 Chron 8:12-13).


Later neglect of the Sabbath brought judgement (Neh 13:18) and conversely, at times of restoration, the Sabbath observance becomes the bedrock of renewed relationship with God. Nehemiah acknowledges before the Lord that the Sabbaths would be again observed and he acts to protect its sanctity.


The same message is echoed by the prophet Isaiah. Whichever historical context you place the last chapters of Isaiah in, true Sabbath keeping becomes the image of restoration for God’s people. “Blessed is the one who does this— the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” (Isa 56:2) “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant” (Isa 56:6)


“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words.” (Isa 58:13) The book ends with a vision of the new heavens and the new earth when true worship will be restored “From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord.’ (Isa 66:23).


The message on the Sabbath is the same in Jeremiah’s time. God’s people will prosper and enjoy the blessings of their God if they keep the Sabbath holy as he instructed, but like the preceding generations, they will forsake their security if they neglect the Sabbath. (Jer 17:19-27). 


Ezekiel reiterates this picture that a desecrated Sabbath and the rejection of God’s decrees and laws, ultimately leads to estrangement and suffering (Ezek 20:11-26, 22:26, 23:38). “Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.” (Ezek 22:26) Later, the prophet provides once again a picture of renewed relationship with the honouring of the Sabbath “On the Sabbaths and New Moons the people of the land are to worship in the presence of the Lord at the entrance of that gateway.” (Ezek 46:3)


The prophet Amos points to Israel’s unwillingness to enter the true rest of the Sabbath, instead personal gain was had become a focus for the people (Amos 8:5).


Thus a clear relationship is established between Sabbath keeping and blessings, and conversely between desecrating the Sabbath and judgement. If one was neglecting the Sabbath and not ceasing from striving and work it meant that their eyes were fixed on themselves rather that on their creator and sustainer. At the heart of the Sabbath is a complete reliance on God, the one who always provides; and forsaking all self reliance. It confesses trust in the Lord of the Sabbath; resting in his sanctuary. The Sabbath is entry into relationship and surrendering time and attention to the one who is worthy of it. Loss of Sabbath is essentially a loss of relationship. Loss of Sabbath is a sign of a broken relationship, a broken covenant.


The following article will consider the Sabbath in the messianic age.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

“For unto us a child is born”

Essay Abstract

The words of Isaiah 9:6 are universally associated with the birth and role of Jesus. The text is considered as one of the prominent messianic oracles pointing to the awaited Messiah. Here, an appraisal of the oracle is offered in light of the literary function and historical context of the text and with due consideration of commentary on the subject. The significance of the child as a beacon of hope and redeeming Messiah is explored, with reflection on God’s promises and work of salvation throughout the ages.


The opening verses of Isaiah 9 usher in a proclamation of good news - the announcement of salvation to ‘the people walking in darkness’; the dawn of a new day when deliverance and joy replace oppression and distress. The extent of this new order is overarching across the ages and portrayed as having no end. This vision hinges on the birth of a child. His humble beginning as a child is contrasted with his achievements of a great everlasting government ushering righteousness, justice and peace. The oracle extends from verses 1-7 shedding light on the identity of this child.

Historical Backdrop

The passage falls within the first section of the book (chapters 1-12) which is concerned with the immediate issues of the foreseen and imminent judgement on Israel.1 Kaiser cites the historical context of the time of the oracle. According to his citations, in 734 Tiglath-pileser III separated the coastal districts belonging to the kingdom of Israel and transformed them into an Assyrian province; in 732, the north and the east suffered the same fate at his hands. The plain of Jezreel and Galilee became the province of Magidu, as well as the land across the Jordan.2 Goldingay places the passage in a smaller section of chapter 8:11-9:7; Israel and Syria had been forced to become part of Assyria’s expanding empire and now they desire independence seeking Judah’s help.3 King Ahaz is on the throne of Judah, and he is faced with the choice of making a treaty with Assyria or joining the confederation of Israel and Syria. The prophet Isaiah urges him to trust God instead but Ahaz hides behind false piety effectively refusing to place his faith in YHWH and thus the people will eventually incur the judgement pronounced in Isaiah 7:13-25 (historical accounts of king Ahaz are found in 2 kgs 16, 2 Chr 28).

Theological Backdrop

John Goldingay outlines that against this desperation the fear of YHWH stands in opposition to either option of self preservation, and thus man’s wisdom is pitted against God’s – man’s way out, against taking refuge in YHWH. The case is made by Goldingay that Judah does not know where to direct its fear (8:11-15). They look to mediums and spirits for direction, but their attempts will lead them into utter darkness. It is against this backdrop of darkness and despair that the good news is proclaimed. The oracle of 9:1-7 proclaims the birth of a child who will save and rule in righteousness, in contrast to king Ahaz who forsakes God’s way. Some have suggested Hezekiah is that child, the son of Ahaz, who was a righteous king in God’s sight, others have ruled out the possibility. Goldingay points out that Hezekiah was apparently born some years prior to this and thus could not be the awaited figure.4 Who then is the child? In one sense, the prophet speaks of a king who would bring a fulfilment of the promises of salvation of chapters 1-8; the ultimate deliverance for the people of Judah. Yet in a more broad sense, the words reach beyond the days of the prophet and the people of Judah.

Jesus the Messiah

Traditionally Christian commentators have regarded the text as specifically pointing only to Jesus, the awaited Messiah. Barry Webb for instance argues that Isaiah looks ahead proclaiming a time of the light of Jesus dawning in the very region where God’s judgement was to be experienced.5 Along similar lines, Oswalt views this as a prophetic text but does not view Hezekiah as the promised child referring to his mortality and fallibility as a leader, and moreover for the reason that the title ‘Mighty God’ could not be attached to any earthly king as this would constitute blasphemy.6 Thus the only possible figure would be an eschatological redeemer, and the ultimate fulfilment of the Immanuel sign given to Ahaz in Isaiah7.7

This purely Christological interpretation of the Oracle in Isaiah 9 is also affirmed by other commentators; H C Leupold is of the view that the child can only be Jesus the Messiah, furthermore that the child in chapter 7 (Immanuel) is the same as the child in the Isaiah 9 oracle.8 Leupold discounts the possibility of the child appearing in Isaiah’s time. He points to the fulfilment of the oracle in Jesus who was from Galilee (Matt 4:14-16). The use of the language of ‘light’ (9:2) is associated with Jesus in the New Testament and prominent in the Gospel of John. Moreover the title ‘Mighty God’ is taken to only mean that ‘He has nothing less than the full omnipotence at his command’ (p.186), the same title used of God in Isa 10:21.

Similarly Alexander offers a purely Christological reading of the text.9 He begins his interpretation by making links between the language of ‘light’ found in Isaiah 42, the glory of God in Malachi 4, references to God’s glory manifested in Jesus in the Gospel John and finally leaning on Matthew’s reference to the fulfilment of this prophecy in Jesus (Matt 4:12-17). He also sees the inclusion of the gentiles in the oracle in the phrase ‘Thou hast enlarged the nation’ (v3), again pointing to Luke’s recording of the proclamation of good news of ‘great tidings which shall be to all people’ (Luke 2:10). The breaking of the yoke, the rod and the staff of the oppressor is seen in the liberation of the first converts to Christianity under the new covenant which is effected in faith (and not personal works) – the victory likened to the day Gideon triumphed by God’s might. Along similar lines, the universal peace following will be in the hearts of believers and will be seen ‘in every case of true conversion’. The titles given to the child are said to be descriptions of Jesus’ character – even in being the prince who secures peace with God (Rom 5:1).10

Is the Child a Specific Person?

Goldingay suggests that the meaning of the names (Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace) reveal something about God, not the child himself; based on the rationale that previous names (such as Isaiah, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Maher-Shalal-Hesh-Baz, and indeed Immanuel) point as signs of something other than the child, the meanings associated with what God is doing and being to his people. Thus he offers the following analysis of the significance of the titles of the child. Wonderful Counsellor is a reference to God’s effective design and implementation of his purposes (as in 5:19b; 26 and 28:29). Mighty God was also a description of YHWH in 10:21 and of his might in battle in 42:13. Everlasting Father is used in Psalm 9:26, 29 in describing God’s commitment to David’s line and the phrase brings to mind the picture portrayed of YHWH in the opening of the book of Isaiah as having reared children. Finally, Prince of Peace places the ideas of command (as in Gen 21:22) and Shalom (peace and completion) as attributes of YHWH; unlike other kings, his kingdom of peace does not come through war making and conquest by battle.

Goldingay notes the reapplications of the text in Matthew but expresses the view that there is no indication from the text that the son is a distant messianic figure (since the Old Testament does not use the word Messiah for a future redeemer) or that the child is not due for centuries.11 Moreover, it is pointed out that the New Testament does not link verses 6 and 7 to Jesus, although Matthew recalls verses 1 and 2. He reiterates that seeing Jesus in the passage is extrapolated from what we know of Jesus and not on exegetical grounds. Goldingay ultimately views the passage as ‘A vision of what God is committed to achieving through David’s line’ (p. 72).12 Some fulfilment is found in kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah, and ultimately in Jesus, although even then, he argues, the potential of the passage is possibly not yet realised.

Walter Brueggeman writes a commentary of this oracle with Christological inferences for the time before and after Christ.13 He speaks of a ‘great Davidic newness’ following the reign of Ahaz; his son Hezekiah would restore what his father lost; and this would become evident in chapters 36-39.14 The new king is set to perform all his royal duties as demanded in Deuteronomy. He would be an able and a wonderful counsellor as opposed to his predecessor who tragically missed the chance of securing victory through trusting in YHWH. Brueggeman suggests that ‘Mighty God’ should not be understood as a Trinitarian category nor as a claim of divinity rather that the king would possess all the power (particularly military/angelic) required for delivering his people. Finally, although the king is seen as a key player, the zeal of YHWH alone would ultimately accomplish this. A comment is offered of Matthew 4:13-17 in this analysis; stating that Isaiah did not predict, rather ‘the text surges beyond its original setting’ to illuminate and describe new events. Accordingly, the New Testament believer is identifying events within the life of Jesus that echo events in Israel’s history and fill the earlier prophetic oracles with meaning and significance, and thus it is thought legitimate that the gospel of Jesus is found in the words of the prophet.15 Brueggeman expands this application further and says that the text permits even more extended readings where God’s people become the light that shines in the darkness – a transformation effected by the zeal of YHWH.16

Is the Text a Prediction?

Kaiser perceives the oracle as ‘a prophetic hymn of thanksgiving transformed into a prophecy of salvation’. The verses form a confession of faith (rather than a prediction) by the prophet in the future of his people according to God’s plan for deliverance under a second David.17 Kaiser however does not support the view that this Davidic king lived in Isaiah’s lifetime. The oracle is explained in terms of the inauguration of the kingdom of peace and the enthronement of the saviour king. The titles of the child explain further his person: ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ reflects the child’s authority from God, ‘Mighty God’ signifies the fullness of his power (only used in Ps 45:6 elsewhere in the OT), ‘Everlasting Father’ points to his enduring fatherly role (as in 2 Sam 7:16), ‘Prince of Peace’ recalls the divine name from Judges 6:24 ‘YHWH is peace’ promising an everlasting state of shalom. This vision of hope is sealed by the assertion that the zeal of YHWH will see this to fulfilment. Along similar lines, Thompson views the passage as portraying an ‘ideal king’ of Judah and Jerusalem.18

It should be noted that still others dispute that the text was even a prophetic utterance (see footnote).19

The Reader’s Perspective

In his book ‘Surprising Salvation’ Kirk Patston presents a reading of the passage in four different contexts or eras (an approach which he adopts throughout his commentary).20 The perspectives offered here are: reading the passage as if the reader was living during the attack on Judah, during and after the exile, after Jesus, and today. During the attack, people would have seen Hezekiah (the son of Ahaz) as the righteous king spoken of in Isaiah 9:1-7 – the record from Chronicles and Kings confirms the image portrayed of Hezekiah as a ruler who feared God ‘In everything that he undertook in the service of God’s temple and in obedience to the law and the commands, he sought his God and worked wholeheartedly. And so he prospered’ (2 Chronicles 31:21). During and following the exile, the people would have read the oracle and looked forward to a Davidic king who would set up a kingdom that would last forever, and this in turn would have formed the messianic expectation in the lead up to Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel identifies Jesus as the child in the oracle, and thus early Christians would have seen the wonderful fulfilment of Immanuel - ‘God with us’ as well as the Davidic king from Galilee (9:1). Finally, as Christians today, we live under the kingdom of King Jesus looking forward to a time of unprecedented peace, justice and righteousness.

Patston does note the significance that ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ includes not just the Hebrews but the Canaanites, Arameans, Hittites and Mesopotamians – an image of the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s plan for salvation under his rule and dominion. Moreover, the titles given to the son, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace are said to be too wonderful for any human child to bear, and thus one can glean that these titles refer to none other than God himself. This understanding would be consistent with the interpretation of the names in the preceding chapters.

The Zeal of YHWH

It is evident that the child in Isaiah 9 is no ordinary child. His person possesses everything needed to bring light, salvation and to effect righteous government over his people. The oracle is ultimately about God saving and ruling over his people. It speaks of God’s consistent purpose that beyond darkness there is light, beyond judgement there is redemption. We see glimpses of this purpose reflected in figures such as Hezekiah and Josiah – glimmers keeping the hope alive; yet beyond earthly righteous kings, the need remained for a deliverer and mighty ruler, who is indeed father and who alone is complete in counsel. The need remained for a state of lasting righteousness and justice necessary for peace. The child ultimately ushers fresh hope in God who over the ages is committed to his people. Jesus is the ultimate reflection of the child acting in accordance with YHWH’s zeal. He is the fulcrum of the oracle. His birth and work bring true peace between God and his people and stands in contrast to the rebellious dominion of man. Under his rule we become reflections of this child, bringing light to the people living in darkness; always looking ahead in hope to YHWH our God.



1 Tremper Longman and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan 2nd ed., 2006).

2 Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12 : A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1972). P. 127, Cf. Kleine Schriften.

3 John Goldingay, Isaiah, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001).

4 Webb also presents the view that the awaited child could not be Hezekiah since Hezekiah was born three years before these events.

5 Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah : On Eagles' Wings, Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, Eng.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996).

6 Oswalt also notes that the Targum significantly identifies the child as a messianic figure. John N. Oswalt, "God's Determination to Redeem His People " Review and Expositor 88, no. 2 (1991).

7 Oswalt writes that ‘Immanuel’ is the same Messianic figure in the 9:1-7 oracle, though making a distinction of the Immanuel born in Isaiah’s time (a child of judgement) and the Immanuel in the Messianic age (Jesus) who is the child of salvation. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 1-39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1986).

8 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Isaiah : Volume I, Chapters 1-39; Volume Ii, Chapters 40-66 (London: Evangelical Press, 1968).

9 Joseph Addison Alexander, Isaiah (Minneapolis, Minn.: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1861).

10 Alexander sees a parallel between his rule on the throne of David and the words of Micah where the king, the son of David is promised and should rule over the earth in peace and righteousness forever. Again the calling of the gentiles is perceived here as well as the re-unification of the kingdom of Israel. Finally Alexander points to the words of Gabriel to Mary ‘he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end’ (Luke 1:33). Ibid.

11 It is also noted that the words used to announce the birth of the child mirror the words used in Jeremiah 20:15 and Ruth 4:17

12 Goldingay.

13 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

14 Brueggeman makes the case for the oracle of 9:1-7 referring to a king in Isaiah’s time, however states: ‘…because the poetry is lyrical and was no doubt liturgical in its setting and has since been resituated in the canonical book of Isaiah, we need not insist too closely on the Hezekiah connection” (p82)

15 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament : A Book-by-Book Survey (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008).

16 This view aligns well with Jesus referring to his disciples as the light; we observe that the language of light is imputed to believers. We are all familiar with the phrase Jesus spoke to his disciples: “You are the light of the world--like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:15). The Apostle Paul was building on this very concept (which as we will see is a pre-messianic teaching), when he preached in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch: “For the Lord gave us this command when he said, 'I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the farthest corners of the earth’” (Acts 13:47)* - the Apostle was quoting here the words given to the prophet Isaiah of the remnant of Israel (Isa 49:6); see also Isaiah 60:3 with reference to God’s people, Israel. The mission the Apostle was given was ‘to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God’ (Acts 26:18).

17 Kaiser.

18 Michael E W. Thompson, "Isaiah's Ideal King.," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24, (1982).

19 An interpretation offered by Watts, is based on an unconventional translation of the Hebrew. He views the passage as an appeal to hope, that the future has got to be different to the current bad times. Watts does not affirm that the passage is from the prophet Isaiah; rather that the voices portray divergent elements in the crowd replying to Isaiah’s prophecy of gloom. These objections may represent a pro-Israelite group (v1/2), the cynical bystander (v2/3), the holy war enthusiasts (v 4/5), and the monarchists voicing their hope in the restoration of the house of David (v 5-7). Another unconventional construction is Watt’s translation of the ‘ki’ phrases usually taken as the causal ‘ki (for) (‘for a child is born) but here taken to mean ‘if’ – which implies a very hypothetical flavour.  Ultimately this construction means that this is not part of the word of the prophet to Israel, moreover that the New Testament lifts the verses out of context and reinterprets the themes of dominion and kinship to fit the person of the crucified suffering servant, and that perhaps the original meaning of these themes find a place in Christ’s second coming as triumphant king. It should be noted that this construction is uncommon, and relies on the premise that the speaker of the oracle is not the prophet, moreover assuming the alternate voices – overall there is little evidence supporting this theory. John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1985).

20 Kirk R. Patston, Isaiah : Surprising Salvation, Reading the Bible Today (Sydney South: Aquila Press, 2010).









Friday, August 23, 2013

The Love of Many Will Grow Cold

This is a hard time for Egypt. Jesus knew that in hard times it is hard to love. He said: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”

Many of my family are in Egypt. I hear that more than 50 churches were burned in the last two days by radical Islamists – and I think, they have no love in their hearts. I hear that Christians are attacked, and killed in their homes and on the streets (just because they are Christians). Most media outlets seem to think it’s not worth reporting.

The reaction of the Christian leader of the Church in Egypt was to call on Christians to pray for their enemies, for the very people who persecute them, that God may forgive them, they pray and fast for their sake. They pray for the families who lost loved ones, no matter what religion they follow. I admit, may be my love grows cold.

Jesus told his disciples: “And the time will come when people will kill you and think they are doing God a favour.” Yet this is what he taught on love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.

Jesus didn’t just teach this – he knew persecution well in his life, and even as he hung on the cross this was his last prayer: “forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."

The followers of Jesus write: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” They say: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

This is a wisdom I struggle to understand but I know it is true and right. The love of God is more than enough – may their love, our love - never grow cold as we wait for better times.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Depression, Anxiety and Medication in Hindsight

Awareness of Depression and Anxiety has increased significantly in recent times in recognition of the extent and impact felt by sufferers and the community as a whole. Surprisingly though, largely amongst the Christian community, the discussion seems to arrive at a premature conclusion; the prevailing attitude seems to be that if you’re a believer, ‘why would you need medication for depression or anxiety? Why would you even be depressed or anxious’ in the first place? This is not an open and shut case however. I say largely this is the prevailing attitude, because there are some who do not regard this topic through the judgemental lenses “well, the believer would not need antidepressants”– refreshingly some Christian figures such as Charles Swindoll, John Eldridge, and Mathew Stanford offer a balanced perspective, extending grace to those who have suffered with depression, even to those who arrived at the point of being prescribed anti-depressants.

Whilst many acknowledge the problems and respond with grace, in contrast, still many insist that depression and anxiety are purely ‘spiritual issues’ – thus the person should deal with their spiritual problems if they want to get better – and sadly, this is a commonly held belief in our churches. I remember the time when a woman who had been a regular and highly functioning member of a congregation I attended; during what seemed to be an acute depressive episode, disrupted the Sunday service – at which point the members treated her as if she was possessed with an evil spirit and proceeded with lengthy ‘deliverance’ ministry! I remember discussing this with the pastor and her family - sadly she was misunderstood and therefore unwittingly mistreated despite the best of intentions.

I must admit I was one who presumptuously made the same blanket judgement on the matter in my earlier days of being a psychologist – yes, to my untrained eyes and unexperienced soul, I thought that antidepressants must be for the unbelieving – those who did not have ‘the joy of the Lord’ with them. I remember making a comment to that effect to a couple of colleagues in a conference for Christian psychologists - an older and wiser Christian woman smiled and gently said ‘I’ve had my days on antidepressants’.

I know better now, and it is me saying ‘I’ve had my time on antidepressants’. Not long ago, severe depression and anxiety dominated my existence, and so for the better part of the last couple of years I have struggled to regain ‘normality’. They knew no boundaries – neither night nor day. It was not as if I did not experience sadness or anxiety earlier in life – I think my personality and natural predisposition lend themselves to melancholy and worry at times. Like most of us I have experienced hard times which left me troubled for a season. I had been through a bout of depression following the birth of my youngest child, it lasted a few months then it lifted to make way for happier days.

This time though, my best efforts to function failed. I had been going through severe grief at the time, but the weeks turned into months and the darkness seemed to settle. Sleep left - and my nights just prolonged the nightmare of an anxiety that would not loosen its grip. I could not eat - not only did I not have a desire to eat but I could not taste food. I lost weight rapidly, had no energy, even my physical health (down to my hair and skin) changed. I broke down frequently, in tears and at times in uncontrollable fits of desperation with life. I remember at some points I fell unconscious for a short while following such breakdowns – I believe it was God catching me in his arms of mercy. I tried to shield my children as best as I knew how – but I was unable to live ‘in the land of the living’. I tried to change and just walk through it, but I knew I needed help when my strongest wish and prayers longed for life to end.

I sought help from a Psychiatrist, and he prescribed medication for anxiety and depression as a first line of treatment. In hind sight, the medication was nothing short of a life line. It enabled me to sleep, and my appetite began to return. The frequency and intensity of breakdowns lessened and I was able to hang on to life. It would take many months before I felt that I was going to be well. In fact it was hard to see the progress in some aspects, two steps forward, one step back - but looking back I am grateful to be sure that I am out of the pit.  

They may be overprescribed in some instances, but medication is nothing short of life saving for many who suffer with depression and anxiety – believers are no exception here. I state this as a mental health professional, yet more confidently as a survivor of their darkness. The following are facts to keep in mind, as well as a summary of what I found helpful in survival and recovery.

Biochemical aspects to Depression and Anxiety:

The neurotransmitter Serotonin is the most implicated in depression as one of the vital chemicals that the brain manufactures for normal functioning (Norepinephrine also has a role to play). A lack of Serotonin (at times, the brain’s over processing of the chemical) leaves its supplies chronically depleted inturn leading to depression. The medical world knows this, yet in most instances, so far a test of Serotonin levels is not utilised in diagnosing and prescribing.

What does a lack of ‘healthy brain chemistry’ look like experientially? It can vary between mild low mood (we sometimes mistakenly attribute that to a person’s melancholic personality); to general fatigue and lack of interest in daily activities, decreased sleep, low appetite and a lack of enjoyment of life; to the extreme end of the spectrum where life is an inconceivable burden and ending it seems like the only way out. This is all influenced by a myriad of factors, including life’s circumstances, available family and social support, genetic factors, as well as gender - women are more prone to experience depression and this is attributed to hormonal factors. Moreover, recent research strongly supports the involvement of diet factors, which we will look at later on.

How antidepressants work

Most antidepressants act on one or more of the neurotransmitter pathways such as the one mentioned above. We will look at just one example, a class of antidepressants named Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) – well, you guessed it; they inhibit the re-absorption of serotonin, leaving more of it to act in the synapse where it’s needed. They work! While they don’t have a ‘magical effect’ on all there is to depression; depending on what symptoms they are effective with some aspects of functioning. Antidepressants will not make life ‘happy’ again. The individual still lives in, and has to cope with their reality and struggles in life whatever they may be. What they do is lift the level of functioning in basic areas such as sleep, appetite and they lower the intensity of the aversive mood. The person starts to taste food again, he can get a decent shut eye at night, and consequently the days are more bearable – in a real sense, antidepressants are a lifeline, without them, life would be unbearable – no rest at night and so much to face during the day.

A look at Recovery

A firm grasp of God’s love

As believers, we can not afford to detach from the love of our God. The worst of times should be a catalyst for running to God, indeed the biblical testimony is filled with the witness of the believer’s journey ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’, and their God was with them. I can testify that as dark as the darkness got, I knew God’s love as never before. During the worst of times, my Lord was never far from me, whenever I called out to him, he answered and poured out his strength on me. I knew the meaning of the psalmist’s words - ‘My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.’ I learned that I can have joy even in the darkness, that this can take the form of a verse in due season, a prayer, or the unmistakable understanding that I am not forsaken. Joy was not in ‘happiness’ or in the acceptance and affirmation from others, but in quietness and rest in Him.

God’s word became my constant companion and source of comfort – my bread and breath. I had been a relatively new born again believer. During this difficult time I was drawn to read the word from cover to cover, for the first time. I started to go to Bible College – predominantly because I wanted to spend more time meditating on his word, for me this was probably the most constructive choice of that time.

Remembering food

Some of us are naturally hard pressed for an appetite, but this is never felt so much as during depression. Eating becomes a chore that one can easily forsake. Food loses its taste along with any associated feeling of enjoyment or pleasure. This makes it hard to maintain consistent meals, and thus medication can help in improving appetite which is essential in supporting everyday functioning and in lifting mood.

Diet and supplements

Good food – particularly rich in the essential nutrients for brain health goes a long way on the road to recovery. Certain types of fish are rich in Omega 3, which is needed for repairing the coating on the nerve cells, thus facilitating nerve signal transmission, among other benefits. In addition, poultry products (particularly chicken meat) contain tryptophan, which is converted to Serotonin – the neurotransmitter discussed earlier. There is also a place for dietary supplements; I would highly recommend sufficient doses of a marine oil (such as fish oil) and also a strong natural anti-oxidant such as Astaxanthin which will aid in maintaining general physical and mental well being.


It’s during sleep that our bodies and minds regenerate, in particular, healthy brain biochemistry relies on the sleep cycle. Getting sufficient sleep is not optional – particularly during acute episodes of depression or anxiety. Often when this line of defence fails, a relapse may be looming. The longer the sleep disturbance continues, the harder life gets and recovery is hindered. If all else fails to restore adequate sleep, medication may be needed in order to aid with falling asleep and staying asleep for a good duration. 

Time for company

My struggle was a private battle for the most part – I did not want people to know, I did not think they would understand, or be able to help. Still I felt some would judge me, and so I kept up an ‘I’m well’ facade in front of most for the sake of my privacy. I withdrew from most company - except for attending non-assessable college classes. I know that the people who were close enough and able to get a glimpse of my struggle prayed and lovingly just offered their presence. Yet some of the closest people did not understand or know how to respond. Their well-meaning efforts translated into advice on how to get better quickly and fix my problems and get on with life - like Job’s friends, at times they were quick to blame and assign remedy. Relationships just became harder, I needed rest and the strain of expectations was too much to bear – sadly, those pressures meant that I was loosing out on fellowship; to withdraw from meaningful relationships was my way of maintaining peace.

It is tempting and often natural to withdraw from company during depression. Very few people have insight or even awareness of the experience of someone suffering from depression or anxiety – therefore being amongst others may feel like one is among complete strangers, and thus withdrawal from family and friends feels like the easiest thing to do. It’s important to prevent avoidance of social contact from setting in, which in the long run affects relationships and results in isolation. Left untreated, this may be hard to change. I know it was easier for me to be amongst people I hardly knew and who hardly knew me because they could not discern my difficulties, and therefore in the absence of ‘expectations’ it was easier to ‘just be’ me. 

Time for solitude and rest

Solitude for the believer never really means being alone. It means that the time is spent wholly with God. There is healing and renewal of strength in time spent in his presence. Jesus spent some time in a solitary place with the Father – particularly in times when he needed comfort and rest. This is never disappointing or fearful; it’s reassuring and full of peace. So finding the balance between good company and times of solitude with God is a way forward in God’s grace.

There are many aspects to depression and anxiety that need to be exposed, talked about, shared, questioned and understood. The way forward is not to deny, dismiss or even judge the experience of the depressed and anxious. A good start would be to weep with those who mourn, pray for the afflicted and seek God in desperate times.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:4)