“…let him take hold of my strength, that he may make peace with me; and he shall make peace with me.” Isaiah 27:5
At 22 weeks, Baby Chris now has the tiny fingernails that his parents will fear trimming. Sometimes he gets the hiccups and Mom feels them too. His testes are descending and the ultrasound photos leave no doubt as to his sex. (Will his parents want to know, or will they want to wait and be surprised?) He’s also refining his baby-skills: thumb-sucking and grasping.
All babies are born able to grasp, but at first their fists are clenched – after all, wouldn’t you be annoyed at your first exposure to the bright lights, noise and drafts of “life on the outside,” after being unexpectedly forced to leave your warm, dark and comfy home? But touch your finger to his palm and he'll curl those little fingers right around yours! It won’t be long before he begins to examine his hands and flexes them on purpose and his ability to grasp will improve exponentially in his first months. Soon his parents and grandparents will begin their years’ long lookout for things he shouldn’t be grabbing or sticking in his mouth! As his hand-eye coordination improves, he’ll move from swatting at the mobile over his play mat at three months, to throwing things at nine months; and by the time he’s a year old, he’ll be fascinated by crayons.
In language we use “grasp” different ways. It can mean “to reach out and take something.” Sometimes it means “to hold onto.” It can also mean, “to understand” – to “grasp” a concept with your mind. Negatively, it can mean to “reach out snatch or steal,” or as the characteristic of someone with a reputation for cheating or taking more than his share – a “grasping person.”
There are a few famous uses of “grasp” in the Old Testament. Probably the best-known is the story of the twins Jacob and Esau. The name, Jacob, means “grasper,” “supplanter” or “cheater.” Jacob was grasping Esau’s heel as they were being born, which turned out to be a predictor of how their lives would unfold, as over and over Jacob reached out to grasp the rights of his firstborn brother for himself (Genesis 25-27). It can be hard to like the Jacob portrayed in the stories of God’s unfolding covenant with him, but the good news for Jacob – and for us – is that God works with who Jacob is, as he is. God meets Jacob’s fight with his own fight: God wrestles with him strength-for-strength. God holds onto Jacob and doesn’t let go. And before too long, Jacob’s name is changed to “Israel” – “God contends” (Genesis 32:22-32).
Then there is the desperate “grasp” that is the clutch of faith, when we cling to God as our refuge. In the ancient sanctuary of God, the altar had four protrusions on its corners known as “the horns” of the altar. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, the priest would anoint each horn with the blood of the Sin Offering, in order to “atone for the altar” – for all the sins of the whole Israelite people (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 16:16-18). Any time a fugitive was being pursued by a victim’s avengers, the fugitive could run to the sanctuary and grasp the horns of the altar, claiming its holy protection for his sinful act – in effect, appropriating the sacrifice that had been made for his sin as a member of the people of God – thus avoiding the death penalty. It is a picture that “faith is something much more vital than intellectual assent or credence…an act of the whole [person] realizing his need and casting himself on God.”
Our infant’s clenched first is analogous to the way all humans are primed and ready for a fight with God and with our fellow humans right from the day we’re born. It’s a cute pink symbol of the ugly dark selfishness and aggressive covetousness with which we all struggle – or at least we know we should struggle. But we aren’t left alone in the fight – God makes room for rebellion and honors the struggle as we gradually learn that we are really just flailing futilely at the wind (Ecclesiastes 6:9). We long for peace – peace within ourselves, peace with our neighbors and most of all, peace with God. We are not good with this peace thing – those fists are always at the ready. So, God provides the sacrifice (Genesis 22:8), God provides the altar, and God provides the atoning work of our Savior, Christ Jesus, the One to whom we run for protection. But we are not left to grasp the horns of the altar with our puny strength – instead, God will firmly grasp and uphold us with his righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10).
"For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee,
‘Fear not; I will help thee.’" Isaiah 41:13