What makes biblical hope so special as it has for 4,000 years nurtured the dreams and the faith of millions of people?
It is not an accident that Israel has chosen the Tiqwah (hope) as a theme for her nationalIsrael was born on hope.
The miracle of going out of Egypt marks the first step of this people on the scene of history. According to the great Rashi, it is this account of hope which makes the Bible start on the bold story of Creation. Shifting from darkness to light, from nothingness to life, the Hebrew Bible defines itself from the beginning as a message of hope. Then the history of Israel shapes itself step by step on this beat and ultimately emerges in the inspiration of the Day of the Lord (Malachi 4) or in the intense expectation of the Lord among His people (2 Chronicles 36:23). The same spirit inspires the so-called Scriptures of the New Testament. Here also we start with the memory of Creation (Matthew 1; cf. John 1), and we end with the proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Revelation 21-22). Between these two miracles, history or personal existence stretches itself and vibrates with nostalgia and expectation.
It is significant that the technical word in Hebrew for hope tiqwah means a stretched cord. For hope is stretched like a cord between memory and expectation. It is the past experience of the infinite presence of the great God which nurtures the expectation for something else in the very heart of the unbearable torment of His absence. Biblical hope is not a mere psychic or mystical experience. It is essentially historical. To hope in Hebrew does not mean to dream or to flee from reality. On the contrary, hope implies this reality, as hopeless as it may be. Hope makes fun of hopelessness. Through hope we expect a change beyond what is seen right now in the present. Hope implies future. For biblical hope is not an empty feeling, an abstract view of the mind, it is founded on a real experience with someone who has already made His proofs, someone who is and who always will be here. Hope implies God.
Hope Implies Hopelessness
The gesture of the prophet Jeremiah shouts aloud this paradox of hope: “Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope” (Lamentations 3:29, NIV). Strangely, it is there in the dust, this material of death and of nothingness, that the prophet searches for hope. The last humorous word of Tristan Bernard sounds with the same demand. To his friends who were crying as he was taken by the Nazis, he said: “Why do you cry? Until now I lived in anguish; from now on I will live in hope.” In order to be able to understand the very nature of hope, one must have passed through this experience—when one hits the bottom of misery and loses everything. Happy and satisfied people do not know hope; only poor people can hope (Job 5:16).
Biblical hope implies necessarily the recognition of evil and of suffering. Biblical hope is not this beatific optimism too quickly satisfied which is cultivated in easy religion. This hope is not “the opium of the people” that numbs the pain and denies the wound. Here evil is fully denounced as such. The Bible does not exalt the value of suffering and does not promote submission to evil and to oppression. The shouts of revolt from Job and the Psalmist as well as the promises of the prophets bear witness to a vision which does not ignore the present tragic condition, yet sees beyond it. Paradoxically it is this hopeless situation that generates hope.
The Bible clearly testifies to this mechanism of the hatching of hope on the soil of crisis and hopelessness. The most powerful tests of hope are always found in the same ground of misery and trouble. The first words of hope are uttered against the anguish of the first humans. In the context of curses, as only decomposition and punishment are expected, comes a promise loaded with all the hopes (Genesis 3:15). The serpent will bite the dust, evil will be vanquished. Significantly Jewish tradition attributes the Pentateuch and the Book of Job to the same one who survived the hell of slavery. Likewise the books of Daniel and of Revelation in the New Testament are both composed in a time of crisis and of profound hopelessness. The book of Daniel has been written by an exile who suffered under the Babylonian oppression of exile on Patmos. The book of Revelation has been written by someone who endured the same oppression. To dare to hope in those conditions is to show both lucidity and imagination; it is to hope in spite of reality.
Hope Implies Future
To hope is to expect something else beyond the present which bruises; to hope means to be able to think of the future. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word tiqwah which translates the idea of hope often occurs in parallelism with the Hebrew word aharith which translates the idea of future (Proverbs 24:24; Jeremiah 23:18;
24:14). Hope is related to the future. The prophet Jeremiah states explicitly this connection: “There is hope for your future” (Jeremiah 31:17).* To the people in slavery deprived of their future, YHWH, the God of Israel, reveals Himself through a verb in the future time: “I will be” (Exodus 3:12). Through this Name which is called upon in the Hebrew prayer, the Jew will henceforth learn to conjugate his verbs in the future; he will learn to hope. In fact, this accent on future is one of the most specific characteristics of Hebrew thought. Contrary to the pagan who is essentially interested in the immediate, the Hebrew runs the risk of the future. Rather than ensuring his success or his position on intrigues and politics, the Hebrew will prefer to forge his present out of the future. To King Nebuchadnezzar who threatens with death all those who would not submit themselves to his order of idolatry, the Hebrews respond by referring to the future (Daniel 3:15-18).
This orientation towards the future has even affected the Hebrew conception of ritual. In Israel every ritual is loaded with hope. The ritual of Passover is performed so as to remind of a hope story. Regularly one remembers the trusting expectation of the fathers under the drops of blood sprinkled on the door-frame. Likewise the ritual gestures of Kippur say year after year the same great news of the judgement of God, of His forgiveness, and of the cosmic salvation which will recreate the world. Week after week, the Shabbat reminds of this first end of human history, and nurtures in the heart of the Hebrew the nostalgia of the Garden of Eden. This rhythm of seven rebounds even into the sabbatical year and the Jubilee and repeats to the Israelite this loud message of hope, of restoration and freedom.
In the heart of ritual ceremonies, even the sacrifices have been understood in Israel as a reference to a future event. Immediately after the flood, the first sacrifices are directly associated with the divine promise (Genesis 8:21); and during the patriarchal period,
they are integrated in the ceremony of covenant that guarantees the fulfillment of these promises (Genesis 15: cf 22). Later on, prophets will decipher there the prediction of a suffering redeemer who will, like the levitical sacrifice, ensure the salvation of the people (Isaiah 53; cf. Daniel 9:24-26). In other words, the meaning of the Israelite ritual should not be found in the gestures per se which would seek to appease the divinity. Neither is it, as some modern scholars have explained, the expression of a psychological transfer to exorcise the natural human need for violence. In the Bible, the ritual is essentially loaded with a hope which concerns a future event and speaks of hope which carries in itself the seed of a rich posterity (Ruth 4:17). It may be a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8). It may be the healing which saves from death (2 Kings 20:1-5). Hope is the assurance that there is always an afterwards. No wonder then that for the Hebrew prophets hope par excellence identifies itself with the heavenly kingdom. In the series of kingdoms which march through history from Babylon to Rome, Daniel sees looming only one kingdom which carries an afterwards, the last one, the one raised by the God of above and which takes the form of the mountain of above: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed” and which “shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44).
Hope Implies God
If biblical hope implies these two contradictory dimensions, both present hopelessness and the prospect of future, it is essentially because of a third dimension: God. For only God is able to transform darkness into light, death into life. The God of hope is first of all the God of creation. Only God is eternal. Only God has future. God is therefore defined as the Hope of Israel (Jeremiah 14:8). From Him the Hebrew draws all his hope; “My hope is in you all day long” shouts the Psalmist (Psalm 25:5, NIV). The so-called New Testament brings the same thought as it relates hope to faith. Nurtured in the Hebrew Scriptures, the apostle Paul bases hope on his faith: “By faith we eagerly await
. . . the righteousness for which we hope” (Galatians 5:5, NIV). Hope is then essentially a religious virtue. The Hebrew concept of hope clearly differs from the hope that is built upon the human work and strength. The list of these false hopes is given in the Bible. It may be a political power. In the context of the ancient Middle East, Egypt and Ethiopia are denounced as the deceiving hopes of Israel (Isaiah 20:5, 6). It may be riches and gold (Psalm 49:17, 18; Isaiah 2:7; Job 31:24). It may be a fine house (Job 18:14; Judges 18:7). It may be military power. Indeed, the Psalmist warns against the hope founded on horses (Psalms 147:10; 33:16, 17); today he would talk about tanks and planes. It may even be a religious institution. The prophets of Israel suspect even the hope which would focus on the temple (Jeremiah 7:1-7). Today one would talk about the church or the synagogue. Any institution, however good, necessary, or sacred it may be, does not deserve to inspire hope. David, who “lifts up his eyes to the mountains,” and sacred places of his time, ends by recognizing that his salvation comes only from God (Psalm 121:2). Only the unseen God, the One Who is Eternal and Creator, is able to raise and nurture hope. Only God is the Source of hope. Everything else is in itself just a fleeting shadow. Ecclesiastes will say that apart from God “everything is vanity.” And his satire pleads against everything which is expressly considered valuable. Riches, honor, work, wisdom, and even paradoxically religion are questioned when these values are lived without God.
In the heart of the present hopelessness, hope carries, thanks to the eternal God, an unexpected vision for a reassuring future. And this future, enrooted elsewhere, affects existence and gives meaning to it. From there, the disciple of hope will forge a life according to the criterion of this elsewhere he is awaiting. We hear this lesson in the mouth of the Rabbi Yeshua, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The same echo sounds in the parable of Rabbi Loeb, the Maharal of Prague, who compares the believer to a reverse tree, bound to witness to another order. Pressed by the present which obliges them to lie in order to succeed or to kill in order to possess, the believers whose hope orients their steps form the vision of the future. It is hope that orients their walk and obliges them to push in a different way.
*All biblical quotations are from the New King James Version unless specifically indicated.