For the vast majority of you, opening this devotion came at the courtesy of your right hand. Some of you clicked a mouse. Many touched a screen. A few swiped a trackpad. But almost all of you used your right.
90% of the world’s population is right handed. And history suggests that this percentage is actually lower than what it once was. In 1860, 98% of humans were righties. (The suspicion: most of the planet’s natural southpaws accommodated – or were forced – to the right side.)
This historical tilt toward right-handedness is reflected in the Bible. Only a couple of references to left-handers exist: Ehud used his strong left arm to engineer the surprise assassination of a Moabite king, and a cadre of Benjamite sling-shooters was noted for their left-handed marksmanship. But these are the exceptions.
On the whole, the Bible understands the right hand to be dominant. Joseph tried to manipulate his father’s right hand to bless his preferred son. Fellowship was demonstrated with the extension of the strong right hand. Right hands were the limbs lifted while making an oath.
Most often, when the Bible talks about the right hand, it is as a symbol of authority. This is especially true of God’s strength. (Bible scholars call these metaphors anthropomorphisms. They depict a spiritual God in human form.)
In particular, the Psalms and Prophets mark Yahweh’s right hand as a sign of his all-surpassing power. Notice:
Habakkuk 2:16: The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory!
Psalm 20:6: Now this I know: The Lord gives victory to his anointed. He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary with the victorious power of his right hand.
Psalm 89:13: Your arm is endowed with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.
These scriptures that extol God’s strong hand are welcome words amid the Coronavirus pandemic.
In these dark and ambiguous times, we need reminders of God’s dominion and power. These verses meet our helplessness and open new vistas on God’s sovereign care.
One of the most precious of these strong-hand scriptures is Isaiah 41. In this chapter, God is revealed as Israel’s great and loving helper. He declares his authority over nations and kings. He taunts worthless idols (!) He promises streams in the desert.
Here’s verse 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.
God’s righteous hand, Isaiah reiterates, is good and powerful. Because of his protection and care, dismayed people can have courage in the crisis.
Verse 10 is very much in line with the Old Testament at large. But the motif shifts poignantly three verses later:
I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.
Look closely: In verse 13, the focus has moved to the listener’s strong hand. To the reader’s right.
In a vivid pledge, God says to those in fear, “Give me your right hand. I’ll hold it. You don’t have to use that.
“Set down your strength. I’ve got this.”
Now, Isaiah doesn’t say this explicitly, but it almost sounds to me like God is taking Israel’s right hand into God’s left hand. Either because he is facing the fearful one, or because he has drawn close to Israel’s right side, God is embracing humanity’s power and overwhelming it with his weaker hand.
Isaiah’s message is clear: Even God’s weakness transcends our strength.
This means that there is no action we can take, there is no influence we can exercise, there is no power we can muster, that can accomplish more than what God will do for his beloved people. God clasps our upraised, defiant hand, and then he lowers it in grace.
Your power won’t resolve this, he says. This is a job for me.
For me, the message of Isaiah 41:13 is theologically reassuring. It’s also practically unnerving.
Why? Because I want to operate out of my strength. I want to rely on my own effort. I want to get out there and change things, trusting in the power of my own right hand.
There’s a word for people like me. We’re called overfunctioners. (We’re the ones who always walk up the escalator).
That’s why the social and ministry changes necessary during this COVID-19 lockdown press so hard against me. I’m out of my element.
I want to fix what’s wrong. I want to strategize ways to bring people together. I want to give 110% to the cause!
But the current moment asks something different of me. Because of Coronavirus, I have to go slower. I have to stay home. I have to keep my distance. It’s hard.
But right now, my right hand must yield. God must take it, as he did Israel’s.
God must incapacitate me, in some sense. I must unlearn self-reliance and activism and rediscover trust.
In the final book of the Bible, John describes the right hand of Jesus in a similar way. After observing that Jesus, (the “Son of Man”) can hold seven stars in his right hand, John writes:
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
There it is again: the right hand of the Almighty. This time, it falls to rest on John’s shoulder.
This is the hand that carries the stars! This is the hand that holds the churches! This is the hand that keeps Death itself under lock and key! There is no hand mightier!
But look again: That same strong hand gently blesses the fearful heart.
Because Jesus’ strong hand is also his saving hand. His sustaining hand.
Right now, that hand reaches out in mercy to all who are afraid and uncertain. It extends to the senior-care resident who cannot hug his grandchildren. It touches the ventilated patient in the hospital. It comforts the soul of the furloughed worker. It lifts the heart of the exasperated nurse.
Don’t be afraid. I am the first and the last.
Friends, as we live through this extraordinary season, we must recognize the enfolding love of God’s strong hand upon us. We cannot rush into that which is God’s to redeem. We must trust and wait.
And then, assured that his power is made perfect in our weakness, we must live and lead differently.
May God bless you and your families with patience, health, and hope.