The baby and the wrath of God: at first, these two terms seem to be oxymorons. They don’t jive with each other. A child in a manger, in swaddling clothes, comforted by his mother’s breast…with the judgment and rage of the Almighty?
Scripture does surprise us with such paradoxes, but behind each, we hear the word of the Gospel.
I am referring, in particular, to Isaiah 9, the entire chapter.
At the center of this chapter (vv. 6-7) is that ageless prophetic announcement heard through poetry, drama, and song:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
But somehow, what comes before and what comes after Isaiah 9:6-7 seems totally out of place.
The first five verses in Isaiah 9 may be best described as a wave that moves over Israel. That wave in motion overcomes gloom and distress, bringing rejoicing and celebration. God is described as victorious over Israel’s enemies. God’s mighty acts have shattered the yoke and the rod of Israel’s foes. Boots and garments soiled in battles are brought to the bonfire. How has God brought about such a victory? Through a child he has given to Israel, with all the qualities and attributes described in those central verses: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Knowing how a passage is written is the key to understanding the author’s intent and yet much of Old Testament literature is written in a style little used – and known – in the West today.
That particular style is known as chiasm. In simpler terms, it is known as the “sandwich structure.” The central part of the literary piece contains its message. What comes before and after only aids in amplifying it and understanding it. There are complex chiastic structures, and there are simpler ones.
Isaiah 9 is one of the simpler chiasms. In the complex chiasms, the first and last lines mirror each other, either by contrast or similarity. Each line continues until they meet at the center. Isaiah 9 is not that complex, but it is a chiasm in the sense that the central message of the given child cannot be understood without either side of the sandwich.
Thus, we can understand how the first part of the chiasm is related to the central message of the Son given to us. The Son will bring light to darkness, joy in the midst of gloom, and celebration in the aftermath of loss. He will throw the instruments of war (boots, garments, weapons) in a huge bonfire because the Son is the prince of peace.
But in Isaiah 9, the problematic part of the sandwich is the last section.
This part of the chiasm announces that bad things will continue to happen to Israel. Their adversaries will still harass them. Natural disasters will bring down their prophets and leaders. Eventually, they will turn against each other.
As if that were not enough bad news after each of these warnings, Isaiah repeats each time, “Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised” (vv. 12, 17, 21).
Not quite the manger story with the baby on Mary’s lap while, in the background, sheep and goats bleat and cows moo.
The picture seen here is a wrathful God, with hand upraised, fist clenched, ready to deliver the worst upon his people.
This is where understanding the chiasm fits in. If we conclude that the “given Son” is unable to turn away God’s wrath, it’s because we are reading lineally and conclude that within the next few verses or chapters, the upraised hand will come down with detonating destruction.
But when we read this last part of the chiasm as sending us back to the center, we hopefully will experience an “Aha” moment, followed by a sense of joyful relief and even reverent adoration.
The picture we see when we look back at the center is this:
God, in his wrath, is ready to annihilate Israel. Three times the hand is upraised, even after disastrous events, visit Israel. We can imagine that each time the hand goes a little higher, the arm muscles are more taught, and the fist clenched more tightly, ready to lash out in final judgment against Israel.
But when God, in his wrath, is ready to pulverize Israel, what happens?
Out of that clenched fist and raised hand, he does the unthinkable!
He brings down his arm and opens his hand. And what appears?
The birth of his Son. The Prince of Peace, not wrath. And within the Isaiah story, the Son grows up to be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, for “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
God resolves his wrath through the unexpected giving of his Son, who brings us forgiveness, his body for our sacramental food, his burial as our death, and his resurrection as our eternal life.
Isaiah follows up in 59:1, saying, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear.”
This Christmas season, we have our doom and gloom globally, politically, relationally, and personally. We, too, may think that God’s wrath is about to inflict us with greater loss and pain.
But what does God do? He opens his hand and gives us the Son, in whom there is life more abundantly and forever!