I remember where and when I first heard the news that the vaccine for COVID-19 had been approved. I was driving and the radio broadcaster announced it in a somewhat nonchalant manner. Over the past year, I had grown skeptical of any return to the past, but in that moment, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of hope as I had rarely felt before. When we have grown used to our suffering, a kind of hopelessness tends to saturate life. Perhaps hope is most obviously experienced when good news breaks into pervasive despair. The light shines brightest in the darkest of places.
Hope is a major theme of the prophets, especially in contexts that seem utterly hopeless. For example, in Ezekiel 37, the people of God are envisioned as dry skeletons in an open valley, an image that reflects the lifelessness of Babylonian exile. The people say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost” (Ezek 37:11). But in the vision of the prophet, God’s word and breath resurrects dead bones and they become a living army. There is hope for their future as God says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel” (Ezek 37:12). The Gospel of Matthew may reflect this very verse when dead bodies were raised at the very moment of the death of Jesus (Matt 27:52-53).
The prophetic message of Isaiah 40-55 also proclaims a kind of unimaginable hope for life after the exile. It seems as though the people of Israel had grown accustomed to life in Babylon and may have resisted moving back to their homeland, so the prophet announces the glories set out for them back in Zion. In Isaiah 44:2-5, the LORD speaks of an abundant future:
I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, “I belong to the LORD,”
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, “Belonging to the LORD,”
and adopt the name of Israel.
In a time of sustained despair, the prophet imagines the people’s future as an act of new creation. They are a seedling that will grow into a strong tree by the power of God’s spirit, and they will all proclaim their commitment to the LORD.
Jeremiah is known for his suffering and oracles of judgment, but his prophetic career was also marked by a kind of irrational hope. For example, in the very year when the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem and the city’s destruction was imminent, Jeremiah buys a piece of land. According to Jer 32:15, he does so because the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel says, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Jeremiah’s hope for the future is more than just an eventual return to the land, but also a renewal of the people’s covenant with God. God says that he will put his law within them, so that “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). In chapter 29, Jeremiah prophesies that the people of Judah will dwell in Babylon for seventy years, but after that time of exile, the LORD will visit his people. This is the context for the oft quoted verse of hope, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans of peace (shalom) and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11). Right on the heels of hearing about a long period of despair, God assures them that a hopeful future remains. It is a future of peace, a future of abundance, and a future of being at home with God. The people will one day commune with God in the fullest sense.
As I write this, the world is seeing signs of recovery from its health crisis. Some of our old patterns of life are being experienced anew, but we are still waiting for and expecting a better future. This past year has taught us to live with uncertainty. And in many ways, uncertainty will surely remain. Even when the world heals from the pandemic, we will no doubt experience loneliness, sickness, injustice, poverty, and brokenness of all kinds. However, in the midst of our exile, we hope in the divine promise that God would reign on earth as he does in heaven. This is a hope predicated upon the faithfulness of God, demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We have good reason to believe that God will make all things right.
At Harding School of Theology, we are dwelling in hope this year. HST is in a period of transition with beloved faculty retiring and new faculty taking up the mission. We are genuinely excited to see where God leads us next. The pandemic has exasperated the uncertainty that many are experiencing within local churches, but we have hope for renewal, that the people of God would renew their commitment to the LORD and live in tune with the Spirit. Our intention is not to be Pollyannaish (to simply “sing and be happy”), but to recognize that even in the midst of trouble, by the grace of God we participate in and hope for the abundant reign of God. May the LORD fulfill his plan of peace and lead his people into a future and a hope.
Dr. Lance Hawley
Assistant Professor of Old Testament