Does the Bible contradict itself? Isaiah 43:18 says, “Do not remember the past events; pay no attention to things of old” (HCSB). But plenty of other scriptures tell us to remember, including Isaiah 46:8-9, which says, “Remember this and be brave; take it to heart, you transgressors! Remember what happened long ago, for I am God, and there is none other.”
Of course, carefully examining the verses in context show what God wants us to forget and remember—and why.
Familiar rituals surrounding Christmas and Easter help illustrate the problem. They can draw our attention to God’s work. Or they can substitute for thinking about it.
The majority of commentators claim that an unknown person living in Babylon (or two) wrote the book of Isaiah from chapter 40 onward. The Tyndale Commentary on Isaiah by J. Alec Motyer upholds a single author for Isaiah and claims that everything in the last half of the book has the same viewpoint as the first half, just different subject matter. Motyer makes more sense to me than any other commentary I have read.
In Isaiah 39, Hezekiah tells Isaiah that he has shown envoys from Babylon everything he owns. Isaiah responds that, as a result, Babylon will carry his kingdom into captivity. Chapters 40-48 say that God will rescue Israel from Babylon, that he will use someone named Cyrus instead of restoring the kingdom, and that Cyrus will not be the ultimate Savior.
Isaiah 43 and Isaiah 46, therefore, support the same narrative. Why do two verses seem to contradict each other?
The issue in Isaiah 43
Isaiah alternates between stinging indictments for Israel’s sin and promises of grace. Isaiah 43 begins with a promise of redemption and a return to the land. God makes it not because of any inherent value in Israel, but rather a desire that the whole world will understand his acts of love.
Verse 8 says, “Bring out a people who are blind, yet have eyes, and are deaf, yet have ears.” Here, then, indictments in earlier chapters resume and the world is called as witness. But verse 14 returns to the promise of redemption from Babylon. Verses 16-17 describe it with images of the exodus from Egypt so many generations earlier.
It is in this context that God says, “Do not remember the past events; pay no attention to things of old. Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Do you not see it?”
Of course they don’t see it. Having eyes, they have chosen blindness. So God essentially reminds them of the exodus and immediately tells them to forget it! The reason appears in v. 23, where God says, “You have not brought Me your sheep for burnt offerings . . .”
It’s not that the nation as a whole failed to bring sacrifices to the temple or that the priests failed to perform their solemn rituals. It’s that they brought sacrifices to the priests but not to God. They focused their entire attention on ritual. Then, figuring they had bought God off, they went on about their business. Likely as not, they bought off pagan gods the same way.
In other words, they remembered all the stories about the exodus. They remembered it with an annual festival. They remembered all the instructions for all the sacrifices and offerings. They forgot God.
The issue in Isaiah 46
As I have said, this chapter continues the prophecy that God will redeem Israel from Babylon. He will not need any help. One constant theme of the book of Isaiah is that pagan idols can do nothing. Only the living God, the Holy One of Israel can act. So Isaiah 46 begins with Babylonian gods crouching and cowering, yet going into captivity anyway. This passage isn’t so much prophecy as recent history!
It helps to recall that, at the time, Assyria ruled a vast territory. Babylon attempted to rebel. King Sennacherib of Assyria marched on Babylon and King Merodach-Baladan of Babylon had his idols taken to safety by ox cart! How can any man-made object be like God? God ridicules the very thought.
So it is in this context that God tells Israel to remember. And remember not only such recent history but what happened long ago. This chapter has no exodus imagery, but we can easily understand God urging his people to remember his acts at that time. Not the stories behind annual rituals, but God himself and his mighty acts.
By all means, remember what God did in history. Just don’t camp out in history and fail to notice God as the chief actor. Judaism and Christianity both rest on a foundation of history. It’s impossible to understand or practice either one without reference to God’s acts in history. But if it were, it would be far better to forget the history and remember God than to remember the history and forget God.
Remembering and forgetting at Christmas
Every year, churches have Christmas pageants and living manger scenes. Sometimes the baby Jesus is a real baby, with its real mother portraying Mary. More often, I suppose, only children appear on stage, and the girl portraying Mary holds a doll. I remember hearing about one pageant where the part of Jesus was played by a 40-watt light bulb.
At my parents’ church one time, someone had the bright idea to use a live sheep in the pageant. At the proper time, its handler brought it out of the kitchen. The sheep was afraid of all the people and wanted to turn around. It refused to go forward, so the handler had to urge it forward with its foot.
As the smallest children, the ones playing lambs, saw this horned creature coming near them, some of them got afraid and started crying. It was a fiasco.
Usually, the three kings show up at the manger shortly after the shepherds have done their bit. The Bible says they came to the house, and Jesus may have been two years old at the time. But how many churches can manage a complete change of scenery? And what would it add? In fact, we can’t possibly put on a historically accurate Christmas pageant.
Meanwhile, we celebrate the birth of a baby. But is that all there is?
If we don’t remember that the baby came to live a perfect life, suffer opposition from those who should have welcomed him, die on a cross, and return to life, what’s the point? We might as well forget the baby for all the good our memory does for us. We’re supposed to remember God.
Remembering and forgetting at Lent and Easter
Some people gather at church on Ash Wednesday and receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads. Then receive communion on Maundy Thursday. In some churches, it might be part of a recreation of the traditional Jewish seder. On Good Friday, some churches have a three-hour service in the afternoon to hear the Seven Last Words in Scripture, song, and sermon. Others have a service of darkness in the evening. Many incorporate Stations of the Cross in their observance.
Then comes Easter morning, when the church proclaims Jesus’ resurrection. All the gloom of Lenten decorations has given way to lilies and other festive sights. The music may feature a brass group or an orchestra.
But is that all there is?
Holy Week services tend to be small gatherings. Much of the congregation in the Easter service hasn’t seen the inside of a church since Christmas, or maybe last Easter.
Even for people who regularly attend church, including more than one Lenten service, where is the focus?
If we don’t remember that the perfect man who died, rose, and ascended remains a living presence in the world––and that he promised to return––we have forgotten the most important part.
Society has worked hard to take Christ out of Christmas and replace him with Santa Claus. It tolerates Easter–especially the Easter bunny, candy, and new clothes. But only so long as no one insists that anyone has to live the message. And so our society is no different from the one Isaiah addressed. God’s people need a backbone to stand up to it.
We ought to forget all the things we like to remember so we can truly remember what we’re so comfortable forgetting.