There is a verse in Isaiah I was tempted to misquote this past week that starts like this: “Forget the former things.” Let me explain in just one messy word what I am referring to: packing. Who really enjoys the pure chaos that occurs when you move across country? Truly, packing all your stuff in many, many, boxes is never fun! Yet putting the old behind and looking forward to the new can never occur without … packing. Therefore, in efforts to move 1,165 miles from Florida to Texas, my husband and I spent a week packing six tons of “stuff” (I truly wish this number was made up). So perhaps you can begin to understand the allure to misquote Isaiah – can’t we just ditch this stuff and start over like the verse says? Regardless of your inventory of accumulated “things,” Isaiah wasn’t speaking to the 21st century cross-country mover. Therefore, I want to elaborate on this verse to provide clarity about these wise words and how we can apply this Biblical principle to our lives.
How do we forget the past and strive towards the future? This is the pivotal question that inspires my desire to dive into this important text found in chapter 43:
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isiah 43:18-19)
This Scripture, like many I like to discuss, is a common passage that perhaps you have heard recited before. However, just like my desire to reference it towards avoiding packing, maybe you too have misunderstood the beautiful message of these verses. Throughout the chapter, Isaiah is reminding Israel of God’s faithfulness and how He is the only real Savior. Truly, even before the cross, Isiah spoke of God’s redemption and longing to rescue them. In fact, one grand example of God’s liberation occurred when He delivered them from Egypt (their past) into His promise. I love that the first seven verses of chapter 43 reads like a love letter from God to His beloved children. Here is a section of the text:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” (Isiah 43:1b-2)
God is such a gentle Father, assuring His children He is not only with them but He also calls them His own. Today, we carry this promise too. If that wasn’t enough to show His unconditional love, He goes on to remind them of the miraculous things that transpired in the past (like the parting of the Sea). Yet through all these good things, Israel is told to forget. What exactly are they forgetting when they are told to forget the “former things?”
To be honest, I spent a lot of time pondering what God was referring to here as the Israelites past was filled with both pain and marvel. I thought about their time in Egypt as captive slaves. I thought about their time watching the plagues overtake a nation. I thought about them witnessing all God had done to ensure their freedom. I even recalled the many years they spent complaining as God rose up leaders like Moses, Aaron and Joshua. Lastly, I remembered how when times were really tough, they wished for their past – slavery in Egypt. Yes, the very thing that would have destroyed their race, they wished to go back to: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic (Numbers 11:15).” Truly, all these things were meant to be left … in the past. While I can understand letting go in order to move on, I was perplexed by the word “forget.” There are many events in our past we should never forget; for instance, the horrific day in New York City when terrorists took down the World Trade Center buildings. The conclusion: “Never Forget.” Indeed, we are told to remember so history won’t repeat these tragedies. Yet, our world is broken and tragedies continue all around us. You see, God’s desire is for us to move forward, not backwards, regardless of how much we long to remember both our painful and joyous moments.
I want to share some more examples to shed light on this principle, as it is mentioned throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testament. In Genesis, as God is calling Lot to new lands, his wife looks back and what happens? She becomes a pillar of salt. This seems a cruel fate, but God wanted obedience and looking back was not an option. As we fast forward past this verse in Isiah 43 and move towards the New Testament, we see so many examples of God’s desire for us to move forward, forgetting the former things. In Matthew, we read about the disciples dropping their nets immediately, never looking back to their past – their occupations and their familiar homes – in order to follow Christ (Matthew 4:20). Later in Matthew, we read, “Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord let me first go and bury my father. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:21-22) While this seems heartless, God was speaking with urgency to look ahead and not behind. Likewise, in Luke Jesus proclaims, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” I could spend a whole separate article on this one-liner alone! And if this wasn’t plenty of proof that looking back is not what God desired from the Israelites, or what He wants for us, Paul recognizes in Philippians that his own goal is to press forward to receive the prize. (Philippians 3:14) Therefore, it is fairly safe to say that we must forget ‘our’ former things to take hold of what God has for us today and tomorrow.
Thankfully, the Scripture doesn’t just tell us to metaphorically ditch our baggage (like I wanted to do physically during our move). The Scripture gives us hope. It promises that as we forget, letting go of the past, a new thing can occur. We don’t always like the idea of ‘new’ because in our minds that translates as ‘mystery.’ Undeniably, anything God is doing that is ‘new’ in our lives is yet to be discovered, which can bring us an awakened sense of danger. Yet God’s new things are always to benefit us and therefore, we can walk into them without fear. As I was reading this line, “I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland,” something profound hit me. Humans change like the tides of the ocean but God is the same … yesterday, today and tomorrow. So He can always do the good things He has done for us in the past just like He says He can make water in the wasteland. I believe this example was not chosen randomly. God provided in the desert for the Israelites once and He can always do it again. However, we have to forget the former things, just like the Israelites were instructed to do, so God can show us the new things He is doing. How amazing is that?
I will end with this simple quote I saw on Pinterest: “Yesterday’s the past. Tomorrow’s the future. But today is a gift…that’s why it is called the present.” My prayer is that you choose not to look back or live in your past. Instead, embrace today knowing who holds your tomorrow. You can trust that He is always bringing you newness as you let go of the old.