by The Rev. Dr. Clark G. Armstrong
Marshall Church of the Nazarene
I love a good riddle. But I wasn’t expecting one to be embedded in the sacred writings of scripture. Right there in Isaiah 41, I discovered it in two verses. There appeared to be no posture that the prophet was picturing as he spoke to us about how God is our helper in which both verses could be true at one and the same time. Verse 10 said that as our helper, he upholds us by his righteous right hand. But verse 13 says that he helps us by holding us by our right hand. How could he uphold us by his right hand and hold us by our right hand at the same time?
Three great theologians and Bible scholars were debating this riddle in one of their homes one afternoon. At first, they all agreed that it was probably just symbolic in its meaning. One of them said, “It was simply used as a word picture of how God helps us greatly.” But one of the others asked why the writer would switch metaphors in the middle of his illustration. This made them wonder what picture the prophet was visualizing in his mind, even if it was simply an image to convey the real meaning.
They mused. If one of them was facing the other and they took each other by the right hands, it would be a handshake. That would merely be a gesture of greeting or friendship. If they were standing side by side or back to back, the left side of one would be in contact with the right side of the other. One of them told how when his son was very young, he would stand on his father’s shoes facing in the same direction as the father. Then, as the father would hold the littler right hand of the boy with his bigger right and likewise the left hands, they would walk around the house. That conveyed a fun time together and maybe some help in walking or learning to walk.
As the boy grew older the father may show the boy how to hit a baseball and he may cover the boy’s right hand with the bat in it as he guided it on its follow through. Later, he may do the same when demonstrating how to shoot an arrow. But these were skills that were being learned. The theologians agreed that those pictures would not accurately depict the full idea of the Hebrew word used by the prophet for “uphold” or “hold.”
The closest pictures they could come up were two. The first would be if the child were being carried on the father’s back and hanging on around the father’s neck. The second was the “fireman’s carry” used for bringing a person out of a fire. The person being carried would typically have their right side toward the fireman’s neck. The “victim” would be flopped over the right shoulder of the fireman, but usually the fireman has their right arm tucked all the way under and what they are holding onto or upholding would be the person’s left arm (or right leg if they were heavier like an adult would be).
Neither of these two pictures were completely adequate either. All three of them agreed. Just then the wife of the one in whose home they were meeting came into the room. It took her as a mother to show them what the prophet meant. Her right arm was bent and it formed a cradle with her baby child’s neck resting perfectly on the crook of the arm as a pillow. In this manner, she was completely and securely upholding that child and her right arm was running right along the small right arm of the child. She was tenderly and lovingly holding its hand and vice versa as they walked across the room.
Now, hear the word of the Lord. “10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand…13 For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”