Dreams Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

     Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
     Or fester like a sore—
     And then run?
     Does it stink like rotten meat?
     Or crust and sugar over—
     like a syrupy sweet?

     Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load?

    Or does it explode?

— Langston Hughes, “Harlem”

This powerful old poem came to mind this week as I was preparing for an education session at my church about how Christians have interpreted and taken up the book Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of God. The Hebrew people could no doubt relate to Langston Hughes’s insightful reflections here. Really, looking at the thousand years between the time of David and the time of Jesus, their history was one of “dreams deferred,” a millennium of struggle between hope and disappointment. To name just a few examples:

  • The hope of Israel as a united kingdom was disappointed by the split between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah after the reign of Solomon;
  • The hope of the Northern Kingdom’s rise as a regional power was disappointed by the Assyrian conquest and the deportation of the ten tribes to foreign lands;
  • The hope of Jerusalem’s escape from the Assyrian crisis was disappointed by the Babylonian conquest that sent Judah’s religious and political establishment into exile a century later;
  • The hope of the Persian decree to return home was disappointed by the harsh realities of re-making a people and country;
  • The hope of the rebuilding of the Temple was disappointed by the reality that the new Temple didn’t live up to their cultural memory of the old Temple or to the prophecies about what it would be like; and
  • The hope of their autonomy was disappointed by a never ending tide of foreign imperial powers — Persia, Macedonia, the Seleucid and Ptolomaic empires, and eventually Rome.

The book of Isaiah covers roughly a quarter of this period, from the Assyrian crisis of the late 700s through until shortly after the return of the exiles in 537 BCE. And it was instrumental in this interplay of hope and disappointment, providing hope in the midst of the various crises but also setting up some of the disappointment in the process.

For example, in the midst of the Assyrian crisis, Isaiah offers a prophecy of a royal baby, whose adolescence would mark the end of the threat against Jerusalem. But in words that will no doubt be familiar to many of you, of this child, Isaiah says:

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder
Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

Sure enough, a royal baby was born in the midst of the Assyrian crisis, and Jerusalem was spared from the fate of the northern Kingdom’s capital of Samaria. And King Hezekiah was remembered as a good king. But, if you were expecting there to be no end to “the increase of his government and peace” or that he would continue a never-ending line of kings, you’d be left sorely disappointed.

Similarly, when prophesying of the coming return from exile, the Book of Isaiah says:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth.

Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm,
And carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.

And sure enough, the exiles were allowed to return home. But, it was not the triumphal image Isaiah presents. The realities of rebuilding the nation after the Exile hit very quickly. Far from needing a divine superhighway like the prophecy suggests, the record shows it was a slow and tentative return. There were serious disagreements about whether the renewed Judah would be cosmopolitan and outward looking as life in Babylon had taught them to be, or pure and insular. The rebuilt Temple was never as beautiful and never really held the same weight and authority as the old one. Judah was still at best a petty, semi-autonomous client kingdom under the thumb of a foreign power — and would be for centuries to come. Jerusalem would never return to the prominence it had in the period between the Assyrian and Babylonian threats.

What I find interesting about all this is how stubborn the people were in their hope in all this. Certainly, there were a variety of reactions to this Jewish “dream deferred.” Even just looking at the various groups active in Jesus’s day, there was everything from the listless collaborationism of the Sadducee party to the withdrawal of the Essenes and rebellion of the Zealots.

But far more interesting than these, to me at least, is the beating heart of hope that remained in the community as a whole, the stubborn refusal to believe that the prophecies had been truly fulfilled, that God was somehow finished with them. They could have seen the prophecies and their disappointing real-time fulfillments as closed doors, as hyperbolic proclamations of what were genuine — if underwhelming — victories for their people. Instead, the visions of the royal baby who would be for them “Wonderful, Counsellor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father,” of the superhighway of blessing cutting through the wilderness, exalting every valley, and flattening every hill, and of the divine kingdom wherein the lion and lamb would lie down side-by-side and swords would be beaten into plowshares continued to inflame and inspire their hope.

I find this response truly inspiring. Hope is so important. It’s one of the biggest keys to resilience in the face of life’s struggles and disappointments. And it’s paradoxically something that only truly reveals itself when it looks to be the least warranted. As someone who often has to work hard to find hope for the future, I’m grateful for the example of the people of God here, that they held firm in their belief — in their insistence — that God was still even after all this time, “doing a new thing.” Of course, as a Christian, this has special resonance, since the first Christians saw in Jesus the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision. (And yet, even here, there is the ‘now but not yet’ of still waiting for those swords to be beaten into plowshares…) But for today, I’m just grateful for this example of persistent and resilient hope. For we know that God isn’t finished with us yet either. And I think it’s a timely message as we approach the season of Advent.

Behold! I am doing a new thing:
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
…I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert,
To give drink to my chosen people,
The people whom I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise.

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