Formations 08.28.2016: Clinging to the Past or Embracing the Future?

Isaiah 43:1-4, 14-21

In 1950, there were 67,000 coal miners working in eastern Kentucky. By 2014, however, that number had declined to only 7,000. The industry is clearly in a state of steep decline, and this has huge repercussions for those who have made their living in the mines. In fact, a new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland has found that many laid-off coal miners are beginning to train for jobs in other industries.

Kentucky_coalminer_350Featured in the report is a program called Hiring Our Miners Everyday, run by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program. Funded by a federal grant, the HOME program has enjoyed success in moving miners into new jobs. Those successes, though modest, have given organizers cause for hope. According to the report,

It appears to be working. As of March 2016, the HOME program has enrolled more than 3,000 laid-off coal miners and their spouses. Of those enrolled, 1,449 have received support while training for new careers. More than 1,100 have obtained new employment, while 90 participated in internships through the HOME program. Feedback from employers who are hiring workers who have been through the HOME program has been positive, too; EKCEP staff have heard “universally rave reviews about coal industry workers.”

Trainers report that ex-coal miners have a reputation for being safety-conscious and dependable. The HOME program has been able to match these hard-working people with new careers as electrical linemen and even coding for the technology company Bit Source.

Even so, the transition isn’t easy. The study also explains that “the job of a coal miner is much more than just a job: It’s an identity.” Some ex-miners struggle to see themselves as anything else and cling to the belief that jobs in the mines will eventually return.

The struggles of ex-coal miners to find a new life in a changing economic landscape mirrors in some ways the struggle of the Jews to imagine a life after the exile. So many familiar reference points had been taken away from them: king, nation, temple. How could they possibly move on without these things to hold on to?

Moving on after a loss is always hard, but the author of Isaiah 43 urges the exiles to take heart in God’s coming redemption. They must not become stuck in the ancient history of their national humiliation—or their previous glory, for that matter. No, God is doing a new thing (v. 19), and they’ve got to be ready for it. God will make a way in the desert to bring the exiles home.

It has been said that things never get “back to normal” after a loss, at least if we define normal in terms of the roles and relationships we knew before. We can, however, achieve a new equilibrium in which we can affirm the future God is bringing into being rather than being stuck in the past.

Peter Coy, “As Coal Industry Sputters, Some Miners Are Moving On,” BloombergBusinessweek, 16 August 2016


• When have circumstances forced you to adapt to a new way of life? What were the hardest things to give up?
• Did the prospect of something better in the future lessen the pain of loss? Explain.
• How might these changes have posed a threat to your identity?
• How can you or your class minister sensitively to those who are “moving on”?

Reference Shelf

The Exile

During the Exile the Jewish faith was strongly challenged. The Babylonian gods who had apparently defeated the God of Israel and built a huge empire seemed more worthy of worship than the God of Israel (Isa 46:1-2, 9). Some of the exiles even felt that the Exile was caused by their neglect of the more powerful gods (Jer 44:15-19). Even the exiles who clung to their faith in God wondered why Judah had been punished severely (Ezek 18:25) and if Yahweh would ever again be their God (Isa 63:19; Ezek 37:11).

Jewish faith responded powerfully to the challenges. God was the only deity who existed (Isa 45:5); God still ruled history. The Exile was a just punishment upon Judah for its idolatry and disobedience (Jer 7:30, 34; Ezek 22:17-22) and as such prefigured the “Day of the Lord,” God’s mercy was also evident. The land of Judah now enjoyed the sabbath years that had never been celebrated (2 Chr 36:20-21) and the possibility lay open for a new covenant between God and the Israelite people (Jer 31:31-34). In the absence of a temple, tradition and Law became the foci of the Jewish faith (Neh 8:1-8) and the collecting and editing of the sacred writings became imperative. Thus from the calamity and difficulty of the Exile came a faith that could survive and prosper in any nation or circumstance.

Robert C. Dunston, “Exile,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 276.


Isaiah 43:1-7 identifies the LORD as the one who made Israel in the first place. The passage twice calls on Israel not to fear (vv. 1, 5). First Israel belongs to the LORD who is the savior. Then God is with Israel and will return its sons and daughters form far places because they have been formed for God’s glory.

Isaiah 43:8-13 proposes a contest. The people who are blind, yet have eyes must refer to Israel. On one side are the nations. They are challenged to bring witness concerning anyone among them who predicted the coming of Cyrus. Then Israel is summoned to witness that the LORD has predicted the coming of Cyrus and has used him to save the people. The LORD alone is worthy to be God.

Isaiah 43:14-15 claims that the LORD has sent Cyrus to Babylon for Israel’s sake. Therefore the LORD deserves to be known as Israel’s king.

Isaiah 43:16-21 refers first to the exodus and God’s victory there, then it calls attention to the new thing (v. 19) that the LORD is about to do. This time God will lead the people through the wilderness instead of the sea. They are God’s own people, created by the LORD in order that they can declare praise to the creator.

John D. W. Watts, “Isaiah,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 600.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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