Confusion is Good

Confusion, for lack of a better word, is good. At least that’s what we see in several passages in the Bible.  Why would God want to intentionally confuse people?  Great question. When God called the prophet Isaiah, he gave him confusing message .

When God called Isaiah to be his messenger this is what God told him to say:
“Go and say to this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; 
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull
and their ears heavy
and blind their eyes:
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with the ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

What’s Isaiah’s message? Don’t understand, don’t perceive, don’t see, don’t hear, don’t turn, don’t be healed. What? It sounds like God wants the Israelites to remain confused. It’s confusing that God would want people to be confused.  I guess God gets what he wants.

While many of us avoid or ignore weird texts like this one, Jesus didn’t. In each of the four gospels Jesus quotes these verses from Isaiah 6 (Matt. 13:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40). There are very few Old Testament texts quoted from the mouth of Jesus that appear in all four of the gospels. Jesus thought this confusing text was important, that sometimes it’s good to be confused.

Those of us who teach the Bible often like to put the cookie on the lowest shelf, to make it really simple, to help people understand. But there is a problem from always making things simple and easy to understand.  That’s not how God does it in the Bible most of the time.  The Bible is often confusing. Many of Jesus’ parables are confusing. God makes his word confusing intentionally.

We need to not remain in a perpetual state of confusion. But sometimes, confusion is good. If we are never challenging, provoking, and even confusing people, we aren’t teaching like Jesus.

What purpose does confusion serve?  I see three.

First, confusion makes us humble.  We have to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. We are finite. We may not like it, but we are dependent. Do we really expect that we could fully comprehend a gloriously mysterious God? Confusion keeps us humble before an infinite, sovereign, power God.

Second, confusion causes us to ask questions.  In his confusion about this confusing passage Isaiah asks a question, “How long, O Lord” (Isa. 6:11).  Jesus quoted this passage to the disciples when they asked him a question about the parables.  When we’re confused we should ask questions.  People ask questions about things they care about. Care enough about the Bible to ask questions.

Third, confusion leads us to God. What does Isaiah do with his question? He goes directly to God with it.  “How long, O Lord” is one of the psalmist’s favorite questions (Psa. 4:2; 6:3; 13:1, 2; 35:17; 62:3; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 82:2; 90:13; 94:3; 119:84). In the midst of our confusion, our humility and our questions should take us to God who may or may not answer them.  But if our confusion leads us into a deeper relationship with God, it serves a great purpose.

No Mercy for Widows and Orphans?

Why doesn’t God have mercy on widows and orphans?  

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,
or compassion on their orphans and widows;
for everyone was godless and an evildoer,
and every mouth spoke folly.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
his hand is stretched out still.
 (Isaiah 9:17 NRSV)

Widows and Orphans

I received an email recently from a friend who asked, “Why in Isaiah 9:17 does God not have compassion for widows and orphans?” Things were bad, but why pick on the widows and orphans. Here is how I responded: 

Yes, Isa. 9:17 is difficult in several aspects.  One of my favorite Isaiah commentaries basically skips over the issue on 9:17.  I can’t “solve” this problem, it is very troubling, but here are a few thoughts.

1)      First, the NRSV has a slightly more problematic take on that verse by repeating the lack of pity/compassion, based on a Dead Sea Scroll manuscript (Bibles will make a note about “Q” for Qumran) .  Other ET (ESV, NAS, NIV)  follow the Masoretic Hebrew Text and have God not taking pleasure in the 1st half, but still not having compassion in the next line.  The problem of a lack of compassion for widows/orphans doesn’t disappear, but it least it’s not repeated.  While I like the NRSV, and their choice to follow the DSS here makes sense for the sake of parallelism, it does make the text a little more difficult.

2)      As we elsewhere in Scripture, sin has corporate consequences.  Because David committed adultery (or rape?) the child that was conceived in Bathsheba after their sexual encounter was killed by God (2 Sam. 12).  The child who did nothing wrong was punished for his father’s sin.  God, who usually has compassion on widows and orphans doesn’t in this context because the wickedness of the people, particularly the evil leaders.  It doesn’t make sense to us in our Western Individualistic mindset.  Still troubling however…

3)      This is poetry, which needs to be read more loosely/figuratively, than prose narrative.  I’m not sure how that helps.  But we do see more examples of strong language, confusing imagery and hyperbole in poetic texts.  

4)      Elsewhere we see how God has special compassion on widows, orphans.  God even threatens that his anger (a big theme of Isa. 9) will strike out and kill his own people if they don’t have compassion on Widows and orphans (Exo. 22:2-23).  All of this tells us that God was pretty pissed off at his people in Isa. 9.

So, those are my thoughts.  I’m not really an Isaiah scholar, so I’m sure someone who is would have more insights on this tough text.

I did write an article on “Wrath” in the Dictionary of the OT Prophets (IVP 2012, for link click here), which doesn’t directly focus on Isa. 9:17, but goes into depth on patterns of divine wrath in the Prophetic Books.

Good Question.  Blessings to you and your ministry.

What would you have said about God’s lack of compassion?  

Image entitled, “Widows and Orphans” by Kathe Kollwetz, an early 20th-century German anti-war artist, from