One of the delights of the Bible is the abundance of its irony. I’ve talked about this before, when considering the principle of proportion, where God positions various contrasting elements within the redemptive story next to one another, highlighting His own attributes and through them, the subversive power of the Gospel. And among the Bible’s most profound, most beautiful uses of this technique is in its references to weakness.
Our story of weakness might best begin in Genesis 29:17, where we learn this curious detail about the wife that Jacob didn’t want and was tricked into marrying:
“Leah’s eyes were weak.”
Many have taken this to mean that where Rachel was “beautiful of form and face,” Leah was ugly. But some translations take this text a more convincing (and less sexist) way, considering the Hebrew word here (רַך – rak) to mean “tender” rather than weak. Seen this way, Leah’s beauty was not absent but rather understated, delicate, mild.
We find support for this way of seeing when Leah’s reluctant husband Jacob himself later uses this same word (רַך – rak). At this time, in Genesis 33, Jacob is en route to Bethel, site of his prior vision of a ladder to heaven, where the LORD had made a promise to him (Gen. 28:15), the place where he had promised to return. And as Jacob returns, only one obstacle remains: his brother Esau. Now, in conversation with Esau, Jacob evokes the True Shepherd, saying this,
My lord knows that the children are tender and that the flocks and herds which are nursing are a care to me. And if they are driven hard one day, all the flocks will die.Genesis 33:13
Please let my lord pass on before his servant, and I will proceed at my leisure, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.
As always, we learn more by looking back. For God has introduced this tenderness before, in the story of three mysterious men who appear before Abraham and promise him that his ageing wife Sarai will bear a son. In keeping with a spirit of hospitality, after telling Sarai to prepare some bread, “Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf and gave it to the servant, and he hurried to prepare it” (Gen. 18).
Ah, see now, how through weakness our Saviour is taking on flesh!
God gives us more in David’s words about his “young and tender” son Solomon, God’s man Shalom, the king who would build a Temple to the Lord (1 Chron. 22:5-12).
Behold, a son shall be born to thee, who shall be a man of rest; and I will give him rest from all his enemies round about: for his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quietness unto Israel in his days.1 Chronicles 22: 9-10
He shall build an house for my name; and he shall be my son, and I will be his father; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel for ever.
This messianic anticipation, sown in weakness, builds as we move on to where God multiples hope through the prophet Ezekiel to Israel in exile. Here again, God chooses the image of tenderness (רַך – rak) to draw our eye through the trajectory of weakness in redemption, to He who would take on weakness.
Thus says the Lord God, “I will also take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and set it out; I will pluck from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one and I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.Ezekiel 17:22-24
23 On the high mountain of Israel I will plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar. And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches.
It’s here, as I’ve written previously, that we meet the gentle heart of Jesus, the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:13-53:12), the One who made Himself low. He took on the frailty of human flesh for our sake, was crucified in weakness, now raised in power to the glory of heaven (2 Cor. 13:4).
Perceiving this divine mystery through the eyes of faith, those with worldly weakness in Jesus’s time flocked to Him, were comforted and healed by Him body and soul (Jn 5, Mk 2:1-12). Jesus blessed the weak, and with Him they inherited the earth (Matt. 5:5, Lk. 18:15-17).
Here is God’s foolishness on display, wiser than human wisdom, stronger than human strength, bringing peace and rest greater than Solomon (Matt. 12:42, 1 Cor. 1:25). He brings down the high tree and exalts the low tree. He dries up the green tree and makes the dry tree flourish. He is the Lord. He has spoken. He will perform it (Ez. 17:24).
How do we learn the way of weakness? How must we then live? The Apostle Paul teaches us how to pattern our lives after the Gospel’s paradox of divine power in tenderness. As Paul imitates Christ, we are to imitate Paul, the least of the Apostles, who delights in his fragility, even boasts in it (2 Cor. 12:9)!
3 When I was a son to my father,
Tender and the only son in the sight of my mother,
4 Then he taught me and said to me,
“Let your heart hold fast my words;
Keep my commandments and live;
5 Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding!
Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth.
6 “Do not forsake her, and she will guard you;
Love her, and she will watch over you.
We too are to trace our Saviour’s foosteps, descending to weakness, by which we ascend with Him to glory. Like Paul, having known Christ’s tenderness, we are to care for, equip, empower the weak among us, for such is the kingdom of heaven (Acts 20:35, 1 Thess. 5:14).
This is a hard path for those gifted with the powers of this world, riches, privilege, favour (Matt. 19:24). So, having thus whet our appetite for holy weakness, here is God’s warning.
In Deutereonomy 28, God tells Israel what will happen if they scorn His path and seek heaven through earth’s strength. Judgement will rise up against them from afar, “a nation of fierce countenance who will have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young.” Thus unshepherded, exposed to an iron yoke of cruelty (v. 48), the “tender and delicate” men and women among Israel will turn in hostility and abuse the spouse they cherish, even their own children (v. 54-57).
By this we learn that the kingdom of this world is no place for the weak, for the vulnerable, for the downtrodden, for the needy and destitute (Ps. 82). But in the Kingdom of Heaven, those sown in weakness are raised in power (1 Cor. 15:43).
Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.Matthew 6:33
What mystery! That in this heavenly helplessness is an irony that the kingdom of this world cannot comprehend, nor can it grasp after by its own hands. For God chooses the soft things of this world to break the solid (Prov. 25:15). From among the wise He favours the foolish. To confound those who are mighty, He gives grace to the weak (1 Cor. 1:27). He bestows His honour on the weaker vessel (1 Pt 3:7) and raises the lowly to exaltation (Lk 1:46-55). All this we see in Leah, the woman with tender eyes, whom God saw was unloved. Whom He blessed (Gen. 29:31, 35; Ruth 4:11).
Prize her, and she will exalt you.
She will honor you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a garland of grace.
She will present you with a crown of beauty.