the divine abyss

Discovered this while reading in prep for an essay on Ezekiel. The words stuck a chord with me, maybe because they relate to “God in the ordinary” – a pet fascination of mine – or maybe because they seem timely given the state of our world today, or maybe because of the poetic turn of phrase. Whichever way, I thought it worth sharing.

“For all their metaphorical and exaggerated imagery, these prophetic texts intended to speak of God as an awesome force that first breaks into the life of the prophet and threatens the earthly and human realities around the prophet. For the prophets, God is not the divinization of some earthly reality–like prosperity and fertility, the temple, or the state. This God is not even a representation of some divine dimension of human prayers and rituals. Rather, this God seems to break in as from a great abyss ready to swallow the false gods that human beings create to comfort themselves, the earthly illusions of security that fill human lives. The day of Yahweh is a day of doom.

The vocabulary of “abyss” is a dominant theme of modern literature and reflection. The term (tehom, abysso) can also be found in the vocabulary of some of the prophets (see Amos 7:4; Hab 3:10; Isa 51:10; Ezek 26:19) as well as in the psalms and other parts of the Old Testament, describing the mysterious and frightful “depths” over which the Earth is perched. In modern literature, the term appears in struggles with “the meaning of life,” “the suffering of humanity,” or “the basic absurdity of things,” often an expression of a pervasive desperation found in serious thinkers today. These issues are probes into the ultimate context in which we live our lives, the context we must face when we stop playing our distracting games. That context is outside our control, one that therefore often appears dark and terrifying to us.

For the prophets, however, the darkness of the abyss was not that of absurdity and despair, but rather that of the obscurity of a reality beyond human reach, the obscurity of what is totally other than our world and at times threatening our world. This abyss is a divine abyss, an enormous chasm of reality that seems empty because it cannot be controlled, always beyond human grasp and human understanding. For the prophets, this great divine abyss shines at times with “holiness” and calls human beings to “justice.” From this dark abyss also come the words, “You are my people….I love you.” At times of human despair, it commands the prophet, “Comfort my people.”

Thus the biblical texts can address the modern anguish of life that at times appears as a gaping, apparently meaningless abyss–once the superficial illusions of wealth and power are removed. The biblical texts address our fundamental questions, “Who is this God?” “Where is this God?” I [Branick] offer the suggestion that these texts locate God precisely in this abyss.”

Citation: Vincent P. Branick, Understanding the prophets and their books., New York : Paulist Press, 2012., 25-26.

1 Comment

  • I tend to think Jesus reveals God not as an abyss, but as light and life and grace and hope. In this respect, his self revelation was a total surprise for the disciples and his contemporaries, whose mother’s milk had been the prophetic ‘abysmal’ view of Yahweh. How Jesus messed with their theology! He descended into our abyss in order to lift us up in his risen life. He enters, and redeems our ordinary.

    Thanks for posting this.