It all hinges on God's love.
In moments of darkness and doubt, one can either abandon faith or start going through the motions of a barren and cold religion unmoored from the belief in a loving God.
Of course, a third option is to not do either of these and to truly engage one's faith to believe in the Unseen: a God who loves when everything around you is communicating that He doesn't.
I have friends who lost their faith during difficult times. I have friends who grew cold in their faith during difficult times. And I struggle back and forth from moments where I am carried in complete confidence in my loving Savior and moments where I am asking, "Why, why, why?" And the why is not about why something is happening, but a deeper, more existential why, as to why all of it is happening to all of us. When will God intervene? When will He save? When will He make things right?
Israel was in a very similar place, as described in Isaiah 49. I've always seen this chapter included in Messianic lists, and recall that it's a bit of a controversial one between Judaism and Christianity. One religion sees it as being Messianic and the other see it as largely about the nation of Israel.
As a Christian, I see the double and possibly triple prophesy, with verses referring simultaneously to Isaiah, Israel, and Jesus. But my read of the chapter this year focuses on the emotion behind the verses. What is God saying and why?
It is a chapter full of encouragement, and we see starting in verse 4 why the encouragement was needed.
But I have said, "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing."
Isaiah is experiencing great discouragement and a sense of futility.
Interestingly, God's answer is not, "Don't worry, my child, I will make all your problems go away." With just a hint of irony, the answer is basically, "Don't worry. You're working hard to be a prophet to Israel. You're actually bigger and even more important than you think. You're going to be a prophet to the whole world!"
So...more work. God's answer to someone crying out that he didn't know if what he was doing mattered was to encourage him to keep on keeping on and to actually do more and see the bigger picture of what needs to be accomplished.
I may not be the urbane and brilliant prophet that Isaiah was, but I get it. I have definitely had this answer from the Lord before, when I was whiny and weepy and saying that everything was too hard. The answer I received was, "Step up!" But not in a factory foreman kind of command, but one with deep encouragement, as from someone Who knew me better than I knew myself and understood that there were deep reservoirs I could pull from.
Sometimes loving someone is not letting them fall apart but encouraging them to grow and be better than they thought possible.
Regarding Israel, the whole nation was feeling unloved and discouraged. They had been embarrassed and overcome. They felt forsaken.
I love this section, which starts out in praise, but then is immediately followed by a very human response.
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. But Zion said, "The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me."
And then, a famous passage that has encouraged many, many people.
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; your walls are ever before me." (verse 16)
So many things here! God as mother, but one who is more steadfast than any of us. Though we may feel forgotten, that is not the reality.
As Christian mystic Julian of Norwich said, "God loved us before he made us, and his love has never diminished and never shall."
Back to verse 16, I see some commentators likening this to a tattoo. But the Hebrew word is apparently a perfect corollary (for a change!) to our English word, "engrave." This is a carving, not a tattooing. Tattoos need upkeep and maintenance. A carving is permanent. To hit the point home, God refers to the walls of Israel being before Him. Think stone. Think Michelangelo's sculptures, many of which still stand incredibly, beautifully today.
I like these comments from Gary Smith on these verses:
When one has something engraved on his hand, it indicates an important relationship with someone who is very dear (44:5). No one engraves the name of an enemy or a casual friend on his hand. Having something like this on one’s hands provides a constant reminder of the one who is loved because the engraving on the hands would be “continually before me” (Ps 16:8; 50:8). This engraving was written on the powerful hands that created the heavens and the earth (48:13), so it is very comforting for the audience to know that Jerusalem is carved on the almighty hands that can accomplish great things. (Quoted in https://reformedreader.wordpress.com/2020/01/02/inscribed-on-the-palms-of-god-isaiah-4916/)
Some Christian writers connect this passage to the scars on Christ's hands, post-crucifixion. Permanent reminders of His love for us. We are indeed engraved upon His hands.
In moments where we question whether He cares, these are good reminders. And, again, it all comes back to our view of God. Herman Melville once said, "The reason the mass of men fear God, and at bottom dislike Him, is because they rather distrust his heart, and fancy Him all brain like a watch." So true. In moments of doubt, the real core of the doubt is whether what happens to you matters and if Anyone cares. True faith is knowing that, despite what it looks like from the circumstances, that the answer to both is Yes.
Back to Julian of Norwich, who is famous for penning this phrase:
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be exceeding well.
I love this as a mantra, something to put on repeat in one's head, especially knowing that the reason for her security is God. The context of this famous quote is sin, actually. She's reflecting on sin within and sin without and the terrible plight of the world we're in---and this is her conclusion. All shall be well.
And it will be so, because God loves.