“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” (Isaiah 43:18)
“Review the past for me.” (Isaiah 43:26)
These two verses, from within the same chapter of the book of Isaiah, are sometimes said to be an example of the Bible contradicting itself. While the one verse clearly tells us to forget the past, the other verse is equally clear in stating that it should be remembered.
As is so often the case, the simple answer to this apparent contradiction is found in the contexts in which the two verses appear. When we look at the verses surrounding Isaiah 43:18 we find that God is speaking of working with those who had turned to him and whom he had redeemed. We see this beginning in the first verse of the chapter: “But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you'” (Isaiah 43:1).
The same situation applies in a number of verses in the following chapters – as when we read “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist” (Isaiah 44:22). It is because of this forgiveness that God offered the comforting words: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.”
But the situation is entirely different with those who had turned from God and refused to walk in his ways. It is to those people that the words of Isaiah 43:26 and its surrounding verses were addressed. Notice that verse in full: “Review the past for me, let us argue the matter together; state the case for your innocence. Your first father sinned; those I sent to teach you rebelled against me” (Isaiah 43:26-27). Here, God instructs those who rejected him to remember the history of humanity and what that rejection had caused.
This principle of urging those who were not following God to remember the past is repeated several times in Isaiah. We read, for example: “Remember this, keep it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:8-9). Here, God clearly reminds those who rebel against him of his actions – both of correction and blessing.
There are other biblical verses, of course, that urge us to remember the things that God has done for us in the past. For example, Deuteronomy 6:12 states clearly: “be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” In exactly the same way, the apostle Paul reminds us of our past and tells us to “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” ( Ephesians 2:12).
But in the context of Isaiah 43, we see God differentiating between those who rebel against him and those who do not. Isaiah, like many other biblical writers, shows that God works with us according to our attitude. His message to those who turn to him and want to walk in his ways is very different from the message he addresses to those who refuse and rebel.
So there is no contradiction between verses 18 and 26 in Isaiah 43. In actuality, the two verses simply provide examples of two different situations. The first shows God urging the repentant to refuse to be afflicted by their past mistakes – as one of the benefits of his forgiveness. The second shows God urging the unrepentant to consider the past – as a reminder of both his blessings and his judgments.