The children of your bereavement
will yet say in your ears:
The place is too narrow for me;
make room for me to dwell in.’
Then you will say in your heart:
‘Who has borne me these?
I was bereaved and barren,
exiled and put away,
but who has brought up these?
Behold, I was left alone;
from where have these come?’”
Isaiah 49:20-21

We experience plenty of various and sundry heartaches in this world, and while I wouldn’t say hearts were made to be broken (because the opposite is almost certainly true), it’s hardly a risky proposition to say given enough time (usually not very much is needed), every heart gets broken.

The best part of any good story is the closing paragraphs when everything comes together and gets resolved. But in order for the end to satisfy, the heart of the story needs to be full of conflict, injustice, evil, disappointment, heartbreak, or even death.

For many, heartache is a daily part of life, the constant witness of a soul’s wound that never completely heals. However we got them, we got them, and for the chosen people of God, they’re gotten under a Father’s watchful eye, which feels really confusing in the moment of pain.

I was reading through Isaiah 49 the other day, taking my sweet time, savoring in particular the inter-Trinitarian haggling between Father and Son over how much of the humanity’s mess the Son, as Servant, would get to restore.* Their conversation goes something like this:

Son/Servant: God has made me awesome and prepared me for a monumental task of restoration, and hidden me away until it’s time to do it (v.1-2).
Father: You are Israel, and I will be glorified in you (v.3).
Servant: Israel? Just Israel? That’s kind of a waste of my labors. I could handle more (v.4).
Father: I made you to restore Israel. But you’re right, you can do more. I’ll give you the job of restoring all the nations and bringing my glory to the ends of the earth (v.5-6).

And then this picture of the restoration of those in misery begins to unfold:

saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’
to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ (v.9a)


they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them. (v.10)


the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted. (v.13b)

But Lord, wasn’t it you who brought all this misery on us? Our lives were so miserable we just figured you’d abandoned us forever (my own take on v.14).

God replies:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.” (v.15)

And in an apparently universal expression of fundamental human nature, when times become good and stable, people start building stuff:

Your builders make haste;
your destroyers and those who laid you waste go out from you. (v.17)

In the midst of this portrait of God putting an end to His people’s misery and repairing and restoring their world it was these lines in particular that, perhaps unsurprisingly, caught my eye:

The children of your bereavement
will yet say in your ears:
‘The place is too narrow for me;
make room for me to dwell in.’ (v.20)

I’m not saying it’s the deepest heartache known to man, because I’ve not experienced all of them, but losing a child is the deepest heartache I’ve ever known, and I suspect on good evidence that it wounds a mother much deeper than a father. If your house burns down, that stinks, but you can build another. If your marriage is falling apart, it might yet be repaired. But the death of a child leaves a hole only that child can fill, a hole symbolized by an empty chair at the table, an empty bed, neatly arranged dolls with no one to play with them. A mother’s ears listen in vain to hear that voice, her arms yearn to hold that little squirmy one for only one more moment. Sorry Elkanah, you’re not more to your wife than ten sons (not surprising he thought he was, being a guy who thought having two wives was a good idea).

It seems perfectly appropriate then that one of the sketches of God’s restoration and healing of His people would be the voice of “the children of your bereavement” saying, “This place is too full!”

I remember traveling with the family a day or two after Alice died, and because she wasn’t there in her spot, our minivan, even with seven of us in it and every seat full, still felt like an empty bus. The supper table felt (and still feels) unfilled, the room she shared with Kylie terribly oversized. Everywhere she should have been, including in our arms, was just yawning, cavernous nothingness.

This apparently is not a feeling unique to Michele and me but was felt also by the ancient people of God who were violently uprooted from their homes and forcibly removed to a foreign nation, leading difficult lives which were marked by the loss of children. Life under times of national upheaval is pretty miserable, especially when God Himself has abandoned a nation for her abandonment of him. The Assyrian exile program was no joke.

But in time, God sets about to restore things, and when he does, there’s a voice that falls on a mother’s ear, a voice she’s longed to hear so intensely she thinks at first it’s just her imagination again:

mom… Mom… MOM! I’m squished! Tell my brother to move over and give me some space!

Oh, the joys of a house so full of children it’s too small! The kids’ complaints fall like sweet music on the ears of those parents who have lived too long hearing nothing but the echoes of an empty house.

In the margin of my Bible beside this verse I simply wrote “Alice :-)” That’s all that needs to be said.

But it gets better…

Then you will say in your heart:
‘Who has borne me these?
I was bereaved and barren,
exiled and put away,
but who has brought up these?
Behold, I was left alone;
from where have these come?’ (v.21)

The picture here seems to be of a dad and a mom discovering children they never knew they had: “Who has borne me these?” God is joyfully (over)filling houses with children parents never knew they had, and the look on their faces, a combination of bewilderment, shock, and pure happiness looks, in my imagination anyway, quite amusing. These were their kids – and they had no idea.

I wrestle with the tension that all children ultimately belong to God because there’s a very real sense in which they belong to their parents, too. It wasn’t wrong for God to say, “Abraham, take your son…” Of course, God can take children from their parents, or allow them to be taken away. David and Bathsheba’s first son together was taken by God in a rather direct fashion, Job’s first seven sons and three daughters more indirectly. Still, David had every expectation of getting his son back, and it’s probably significant that Job ended with double the number of all the stuff he started with, like camels and sheep, but not double the number of children, which I take to mean he hadn’t really lost the first ten, so technically God did double his kids. So kids belong to God, yet they are a gift from God, and a gift is, by definition, a thing given. We could say our kids are on loan from God, and I get the sentiment, but I’ve not found the verse. And apparently there’s some gifts we’ve been given that we don’t yet know we have.

We all know what a “surprise” child means for forty-year-old parents of teenagers. This is kind of like that, but not quite the same. And it’s plural: “these.” Surprises. Maybe lots of them. As a Dad of lots of kids, I’ve discovered that every additional one is just as unique and mysterious and absolutely irreplaceable as the last, so I’m rather excited about these surprises. I surely wouldn’t (and haven’t) happily given any of mine back, and I’m never sad when another comes along.

There’s a lot I don’t know about the continuity of family relationships between this world and the next, but there’s no reason to think there isn’t any. I still haven’t figured out how there could be no marriage in heaven and still have anything resembling a family, but the names of the twelve tribes inscribed on the walls of the heavenly city seem to indicate that some familial identity carries over.

What I do know is that every woman who’s ever miscarried (which may just be most of them) feels the desire to know the little one and the pain of not being able to, and I think Isaiah may just be indicating this will happen. And probably women now considered barren and husbands who are childless will find God has children waiting for them, and they’ll say, “I was left alone; from where have these come?
Indeed; where do these babies come from?

As a non-Israelite, I’m rather happy the Servant haggled for a broader scope of work. And as a bereaved Dad, I’m rather excited for the day when He goes into “put everything back where it belongs” mode, because I’ve lost a few things that belong to me that I’m kind of itching to get back, and might be pleasantly surprised to discover a few more that I didn’t know existed.

Sooner is better.


*I’m deeply indebted to the Puritan John Flavel for this insight.