Truth, Time, and God's Patience
“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” said Francis Bacon. This line is behind the title of what many consider to be the best detective novel of all time, The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey (1951). The plot develops Bacon’s maxim from the location of a hospital bed. Alan Grant, an injured detective, out of duty and forced to pass the time, pulls hospital staff and an eager young researcher from the British Museum into a quest to solve an historical mystery. In an attempt to demonstrate his ability to discern a person’s morality from their appearance alone, he sets out to prove Richard III’s reputation as a harsh scoundrel is factually baseless. Using his skills of unrelenting logic and detective smarts, Grant establishes Richard’s innocence of murder and concludes his sour reputation is the work of bitter Tudor historiography.
We know the sayings that truth is in the telling of it, and history is written by the winners. Behind these pithy notes of cynicism, however, is a profound truth elemental to the biblical thought world: God ordinarily tells the truth by telling a story, not by dropping it out of heaven onto our heads. And this includes, especially, the truth he tells us about our suffering, and the suffering and longings of the world at large.
As some have noted, Isaiah’s majestic prophecy tells the tale with all the plot twists and intrigue of the finest detective novels. Approximately two-thirds into this lengthy book, the Lord reveals his gracious purpose for Israel. But if - according to the sand-and-stars God of Abraham - the story of Israel is not the whole story, if God loves those outside of Israel as well, what about them? At the end of Isaiah 41, this is a problem God’s remarkable kindness poses, and in the first words of Isaiah 42, God responds: “Behold, my Servant.” In these so-called “Servant songs” in Isaiah, the figure of the Servant is the answer to this dilemma, and yet perhaps not in the way readers would expect. Who is this Servant anyway? “Behold, my Servant,” says God, but who is he? A little later in Isaiah 42, we learn who it is not: national Israel is not the Servant, even though she had long enjoyed the honorific (42:18-19). Because she has turned honor to dishonor, Israel has been handed over to the powerful nations as a punishment for rebellion. Even then, Israel did not repent (48:20-22). In fact, Israel is now as much in need of mercy and reconciliation as the outside nations are. Who, then, is the Servant, if not Israel?
If national Israel is not the Servant-resolution to the problem of God’s relationship to the world, who is? The Servant to whom God points us readers is, importantly, unlike Israel, in fact. This seems central to his identity. Unlike disobedient Israel, the Servant will stroll through the crowds as the very embodiment of God’s righteousness and justice. Israelites slide into the role of awed spectators, following the Servant with their eyes while he – not them, and yet for them – bears sins away.
So why not just say so at the end of Isaiah 42, where the dilemma has been posed and we readers were ready for the answer? Why does Isaiah, and God through him, lead us on this journey of close calls and disappointments, of promising characters who turn out to be false identifications for the Servant? Why let these cul-de-sac options distract us from the correct answer? Like the finest detective writers, Isaiah allows misidentifications to stand for hushed moment after hushed moment, casting suspicions here and there, drawing a curved line rather than a straight one from our distress to its resolution. In the telling of the story, the misconceptions, and our entertaining them as possible Servant figures, contribute to our understanding of the whole. Isaiah walks Israel in front us, and then Cyrus, and then the Remnant, all paraded for our consideration, as titillating yet ultimately disappointing invitations to our being enthralled in the discovery of the One. But the One, the true Servant, is who he is in the ways he is not these others. It is part of the fabric of his identity that he is unlike the cul-de-sac options, and our knowing him depends on our seeing who he isn’t, in order to see who he is.
Here is a lesson in God’s patience: it includes his willingness to endure fictions for a while, to wait through a succession of counterfeits, and all the turmoil they bring. Yet his patience partakes of - exceeds, in fact, as an original exceeds a copy - all the definite, aesthetic purpose of the finest detective writers, being no mere tease but a gradual, storied enlargement of the heart that will receive him richly in the end.