“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…” Isaiah 53:3
I wonder if I looked back in Scripture, how many people who knew God would I find that actually understood times of discouragement in their lives? And I wonder if I could lean on them as a source of encouragement in my own life today? And I also wonder if I could use them as a source of encouragement for others around me? What started me thinking about this was a question I heard posed before me and others yesterday, “How much discouragement can you stand and still serve God?” And I think that is a good question. It’s a question I’ve already been confronted with in my own life. It’s a question that God will ask us. And it’s a question You won’t just ask us by words, Lord, but by hard situations and hard decisions in our life.
So what Bible characters had hard things in their lives where they could have become discouraged and stayed there? I think of Adam and Eve who had everything they could imagine and more and lost it by their own choice even though they didn’t understand the magnitude of their choice. Their son murders their other son. Their lives are turned upside down. But even in Eve’s simple statement when her son Seth arrives, I see a glimmer of hope. “For God has appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew.” And it winds up that Seth had a son named Enos and “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.”
Why would the people of Enos’ day start calling upon the name of the Lord all of a sudden? Could the discouragement of life have been weighing on them? It’s funny how Enos’ name means “weak or feeble”. It implies “mortal” as opposed to “man”. What if his dad and others by this time were starting to realize what mortality really meant? What if people were realizing that mortality, that death, was affecting life even before one died? What if they saw it coming in things like “broken relationships, broken promises, broken hopes- things that used to work that no longer work.” What if they kept seeing the signs all around them? Pain, toil, unhappiness were there and they progressively increased. I mean, they had a long time to live and I suppose in that long time, they were faced with a lot of this going on, even amidst the happy stuff. Death may not have come quickly, but it was creeping up into everything none the less. Maybe, when you come to see that it’s not all going to be happily ever after, when I start realizing what my mortality really means, I start to cry out to a Sovereign God who can remedy things.
That calling that these people did is from the word “qara'”. It implies a specific vocalization or message which most often is to a specific person and most often requires a specific response. It’s not just some general cry to someone you don’t know. It’s usually about approaching someone specific and specifically approaching God. These people recognized their mortality and were attempting to return to relationship with You. From this, I’d say that more than just Adam and Eve were going through discouragement. But that discouragement, even that discouragement caused by their own destructive choices that led to expulsion, revenge, fratricide, egocentricity, disobedience to God and lots of other bad choices, brought them to a realization about their own mortality and therefore, their need for You.
But it doesn’t stop there. What about Moses? I think Moses had to overcome a lot of discouragement starting back in Egypt and throughout his leading the people of Israel. And I come to the time when they were complaining again, and I think that Moses had come to this breaking point. He went to You, Lord, like he should and fell on his face before You. And You spoke and told him to take the rod and gather the people together, with Aaron, and just speak to a rock before them all, and it would bring forth water for the people and their beasts to drink. And Moses took the rod and went out as You had commanded. And Moses saw those people, and felt that pain resurge, and said, “Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” and he lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with the rod and the water came forth. I think discouragement caused that response, but unfortunately, discouragement can lead to greater discouragement.
So why were You so rough on Moses, not letting him enter the promised land because of that slip in the midst of His discouragement? What would You answer, God? “Because Moses didn’t believe Me, he didn’t sanctify Me before the children of Israel.” He absolutely disobeyed. He didn’t trust You enough in this situation to listen and demonstrate You before the people. He took matters in his own hands and demonstrated his anger. He went through the motions, but his heart wasn’t in line because of discouragement. Before the people, he announced from his own mouth, “Must we bring you water out of this rock?” Where was the glory of God in that? Moses didn’t handle the situation Your way, for Your glory and that rubs off on what people see and know of You. And he was the leader supposed to lead them to You. But here he was, too fed up and hurt to be most concerned with Your image.
See, the Hebrew words representing “believed Me not” imply that Moses’ action was deliberate and not just an “oops” moment. This is something that strongly shouldn’t have built up, but did. It’s a strong condemnation by God on Moses’ action. It also implies stability, trustworthiness, and reliability. That’s what Moses was supposed to be setting forth about God. But what he did, usurped all of that. Before all the people, he acted as though God’s word is not “utterly reliable.” See, our actions can demonstrate a lack of trust in front of those around us, and our lack of trust diminishes God’s reliability in their eyes. It’s a big deal, isn’t it? Maybe bigger than we realized. I’ve been there with Moses. I’ve done that. And now I understand. But what do I do about it?
I think about Job. If anyone suffered extreme discouragement, he did, right? He was so bad off his wife encouraged him (that’s humorous!) to curse God and die. But Job’s response was “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him: but I will maintain mine own ways before Him.” Wow! Is that noble or what? Well, yes, it is noble, and I think a lot of Job, but then he tacked on that second thought, “but I will maintain mine own ways before Him.” And isn’t that what got Moses in trouble, that focussing on his own ways, his rights, his goodness maybe before these complaining rebels? And what of Job? Was discouragement causing him to focus on himself instead of fully on You? I mean, what is our righteousness compared to Yours? What ways does any person really have that we we can maintain or hold before You like it’s anything to boast about?
Job wasn’t being punished, so it wasn’t about that, was it? Job was being tested. There’s a difference. Even if it feels the same and looks the same, there’s a giant difference. And God knew that eventually, when Job came to his senses, He would pass the test. That’s why He let Satan rake him over the coals, because God knew the man that He had created Him to be. You knew Job’s heart better than he knew his own heart. You know our heart better than we know our own. I guess it takes these really hard situations to bring us to the end of ourselves so we can really get to the beginning of You, Lord. Like Job who finally realized, “therefore have I uttered what I didn’t understand; things too wonderful for me which I didn’t know…I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye sees You. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” And You blessed Job’s “latter end” more than his beginning. Shouldn’t that be the case for all of us? Aren’t we supposed to run the race in such a way that we end with victory? Then I better get ready for the hard stuff that gets me there.
And then Isaiah brings me to think about You, Jesus. You were discouraged multiple times, discouraged in people, by people, even intimate friends. You were discouraged by the circumstances in Your life. Isaiah tells us You were “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces [You] were despised, and we esteemed [You] not.” It continues, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” I suppose Isaiah was writing about Israel’s response to You, but the truth of the matter is that we all wind up responding like this. It’s not just Adam and Eve, Moses, or Job. It’s me too. It’s not just Israel. I’m right there too. Sometimes, I forget the real value of who You are because I get so caught up in me. But the truth is that You came to remedy me. “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.” I mean, it’s true Adam and Eve, Moses, Job, and me, no matter how great or good people may think we are or we think we are ourselves, well it really all boils down to us being dumb sheep on our own. That includes all of us really. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
And when God laid our iniquity on Him, which certainly wasn’t fair, He didn’t respond like us bearing His anger on those rebels, or tooting His righteous virtues, or complaining and mumbling, or having a pity party, or blowing up and loosing His cool, did He? No, You didn’t. You were oppressed like we sometimes are, even worse though, and You didn’t open Your mouth. You were afflicted like we sometimes are, even worse though, and You didn’t open Your mouth. You were brought as a lamb to the slaughter, as a worthy lamb, unblemished. Not so me. And just like that sheep You came before the shearers dumb, You didn’t open Your mouth. But here’s the thing, even that sheep points to more.
Did you know that rams resist shearing? I didn’t know. But ewes don’t. It’s about voluntarily submitting. Which leads me back to another example of someone who suffered discouragement and her name was Rachel. So what does she have to do with sheep? A lot. Because the Hebrew of this verse actually says, “ooch-rachel lifnei – like a rachel before her shearers.” What does that mean? The Hebrew pictograph of her name means “the person who controls what separates.” “In Hebrew, rachel is a word that describes a female sheep (ewe), idiomatically, ‘one with purity.’ In contemporary Jewish understanding, Rachel is a name that means ‘innocence of a lamb.’ Perhaps it isn’t quite an accident that Jacob met Rachel fulfilling her task as a shepherdess. Let’s go back to the pictograph for a moment. What kind of woman is a woman who is in control of the fence around her? Since the letter Chet also means ‘private or inner room,’ we might also ask what kind of woman is a woman who takes control of her own privacy, her own inner room? Hebrew answers: ‘A woman of purity.'” (Skip Moen) But it doesn’t stop there. Rachel is also used in the Song of Songs describing the beauty of white teeth. Here it’s “associated with overpowering love; love so intense that a man will work years of his life to enjoy it.” (Skip Moen)
Which brings us to that last verse in Isaiah where one comes “like a rachel before her shearers.” It’s not just about innocence but the fact that You could resist, but You chose deliberately not to and You voluntarily submitted. This ewe “controls her own inner room so what happens on the outside does not destroy who she is.” That’s what You did. That’s what this woman in Genesis had to do, watching the man who was supposed to be her husband lie with her sister and then having to wait another seven years.
It’s funny, who would have thought to notice a woman so intimately intwined in the midst of Your discouragement, and so used to help point us to the right response. And it’s not that she was perfect, but it is that You take the imperfect and perfect it. You took “rachel” to a new dimension that even Rachel had never gone. And isn’t that what You do for each of us, for Adam and Eve, for Moses and Job, and for me? I’m Sharon but I’m called to “rachel,” to submit to You voluntarily and the things You bring in my life. I’m called to submit so I can learn to focus on You and not on the circumstances or people bringing them into my life. If I focus on and fight the situation, I will wind up doing something truly dumb or saying something truly dumb, and I’m not talking “rachel” here. I will act deliberately from my own accord, my own emotions, my own righteousness. I know I will. I already have. But, if I focus on You and submit voluntarily, I can guard the fences You’ve set up for me and control the sheep within Your bounds. I can control my inner room when I’ve surrendered it fully to You because You are the one who keeps it best. It’s like You teach the sheep, even the ewe, how to become a shepherdess. And You lead the way. Therefore, I don’t have to lose, I don’t have to fall, I don’t have to fail, if I keep my eyes and mind on the Lamb. Discouragement, yeah, it will come. But it’s just a tool to sharpen my love and faithfulness in You. It’s just a fence builder so that Your love and boundaries around me can be dug in stronger. Discouragement will come, but I don’t have to be overcome.