I recall a time during my pastorate at Irvine Presbyterian Church when God seemed to have disappeared. Yes, I knew this wasn’t actually true. But, as people’s criticisms of me pierced my heart and as my prayers for help went unanswered, I felt terribly alone, as if God had forgotten about me or turned his back on me. Why wasn’t he there to comfort me and deliver me?
My experience is not unusual. Throughout history, God’s people have worried that they have been forgotten by their Lord. Consider, for example, a passage from Isaiah 49. It begins with marvelous promises. God will set his people free, feeding them, guiding them, demonstrating his love for them (49:8-13). This passage ends with a rousing call to worship:
Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.
Did the people respond with joyful praise? Hardly. In fact, they said: “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me” (49:14). In their suffering, the Israelites couldn’t sense God’s presence or fathom his love. They felt forsaken and forgotten.
Notice the Lord’s response. He did not rebuke them for their unbelief. Rather, he affirmed his loving commitment to them in some of the most moving, tender words in all of Scripture:
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (49:15-16a)
First, God uses the image of a nursing mother to reassure his people. It’s almost impossible to imagine that a mother would forget or lack compassion for the baby at her breast. Although we know from news’ headlines and from the implications of this Scripture, that mother’s “may” indeed forget their children, yet we are assured God’s remembering of and love for his people exceeds that of even the most tenderhearted mother.
Branded By Love
Second, the Lord employs a metaphor from the social system of the ancient Near East. Slaves would often be marked in order to demonstrate their lifelong bond to their master. A permanent mark, perhaps a cut or a tattoo, would be applied to the slave’s hand. God, who has no master, has chosen to mark himself to signify his eternal bond with his beloved people. Thus he says, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”
The reassuring words of the Lord through Isaiah were initially intended for the people of Israel as they, in their suffering, felt forgotten by God. Yet these words speak also to us when we wonder if God is still there for us. The God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ is to us like a nursing mother who will never forget her beloved child. God has chosen to bond himself to us by, in a sense, engraving us in the palms of his hands.
We see God’s never-forgetting, always-remembering love for us even more powerfully in the palms of the hands of Jesus. They were not just engraved for us. They were pierced for us as Jesus was crucified. The scarred palms of Jesus, who died and is now risen, show us beyond a shadow of a doubt that God will never forget us.
No matter your situation, no matter your suffering, no matter how distant God might seem, he never forgets you, ever. Thus, when you remember the Lord, you remember the one who first remembers you.
Lord, you know there are times when I struggle to believe you are still there for me. Like the children of Israel, I can feel forsaken and forgotten. Thank you, dear Lord, for the reassurance of this passage from Isaiah. How wonderful to know that you will always remember me, just as a mother remembers her nursing child. How amazing to think that you have engraved me in the palms of your nail-scarred hands. All praise be to you because you always remember me. Nothing can take me away from your love. Amen.