Forgetfulness isn’t generally something we consider a virtue. Which is why it was an initial surprise to me that, in Isaiah 43, the prophet issues a call to “forget the former things; do not dwell on the past” (Isaiah 43:18 NIV).
The Olive Tree Bible Overview in the Bible Gateway Study sidebar provides some helpful context, pointing out that Isaiah 43 is part of what is often considered the second distinct section of the book of Isaiah. This section, which “is a message primarily of comfort and hope to the exiled community of Judah,” is comprised of chapters 40-55 and follows the exhortations against idolatry of the early chapters.
God’s people, when faced with new oppressions and dangers, had a tendency to seek comfort by fixating on his past humbling of Egypt. And, while Isaiah does affirm that God was indeed the God of the exodus (43:16-17) and that his nature hasn’t changed, he also needs them to understand that he is doing a new thing. This fixation on exodus as a past glory is blinding them from seeing the new ways he’s working in their lives now.
“See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.” (42:9)
I was reminded that it is possible to idolize memory. This is what we mean when we talk of “living in the past,” and, since an idol is anything that comes between us and our focus on God and his work, then the past—though it provides many keys to understanding God’s nature—can just as easily become a barrier.
The imperative to “forget the former things” does not at all mean that God’s nature changes. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary puts it this way: “The fundamental principles of the divine activity are changeless, but the outward shape of that activity alters with the changing needs of God’s people.”
Laid out like this it seems obvious, but it’s often the most obvious truths that we miss or forget—choosing to fill up the limited storage in our memories with the past instead of putting our trust in the Creator who is making everything new. And our commitment to memory so often dissolves our expectations of this newness. God wants us to expect; anticipate him!
Right now, I’m trying to remember: when was the last time I was filled with the eager expectation of God’s actions? (I’m aware of the irony of this… I might be better off just skipping to the part where I pray for God to give me the ability to be excited for what he’s about to do.)
It takes a certain child-likeness to not overthink things and allow ourselves to be led into a new day. Jesus exhorted his followers to be like the little children, who are innocent of memory’s joint-stiff rigidity; who never think to say “this has never happened before, so how can it happen now?;” who have the imagination to believe that they can’t imagine what new things will happen.
God’s people—then and now—were/are often committed to the error of clinging to the former things. And Isaiah, with the profound simplicity of a child says, “the former things have taken place.”