< December 09, 2007 >

Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10

 

It's a "dog eat dog" world, we say: "Nature, red in tooth and claw." It's survival of the fittest, and it's not pretty. All true in its way. But is it all that's true?

"Nature, red in tooth and claw" comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson's lengthy nineteenth-century poem "In Memoriam" (canto 56), in which the poet wrestles with the incongruity between a good and loving God and the terrors of an uncaring Nature.1 Tennyson describes the person of faith,

    Who trusted God was love indeed And love Creation's final law-
    Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
    With ravine,2 shriek'd against his creed-

It's appropriate to rehearse Tennyson's incongruity here-a tension that still plagues us and our hearers-because we find in today's reading one of Isaiah's many "environmental impact statements." These are not unique to Isaiah in the Bible, but they are found often in this book-statements that make clear that the work of God affects not only human life and humanity's future, but the whole creation. Nature may be uncaring, but God is not. When God acts to rescue, creation, too, rejoices in its own deliverance (Isaiah 35:1).

But what of the vision of this text? Cows and bears grazing together? Wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, children and snakes? Can this be more than a fairy tale? There are, to be sure, fairy-tale motifs here, but if that's all there is to it, we might as well preach on Hans Christian Anderson (perhaps a bit less grim than the brothers of similar name).

The Bible is not naïve; it knows full well the pain inherent in the created order-even when that order is working as it should: "The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God" (Psalm 104:21). So how do we get to Isaiah's peaceable kingdom-and when?

The text is one of the positive messianic promises that are rather unexpectedly interspersed throughout First Isaiah, a book that is otherwise marked by perhaps the most shocking word of judgment found anywhere in the Bible: "Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed" (Isaiah 6:10). That terrible word is working itself out throughout these chapters, but it is not the only word included there. The prophet knows that God will finally take God's people in another direction, and Isaiah is given words of promise that live in their own tension with the words of judgment more typical for this eighth-century prophet (like Amos, Micah, and Hosea). The preacher and her hearers need to understand that these words of promise (several of which provide the Old Testament readings for this Advent season) are not merely "somewhere over the rainbow" images of another time and another place; they are included for the eighth-century hearers and for us because they tell us who God is and where God is taking God's people-a vision that will make possible full life in the present, then and now, not only "once upon a time."

David's family tree looked bleak in the eighth century-a mere stump of its former glory-under attack by the Assyrian hordes that would take captive much of the northern kingdom and turn the southern kingdom into a vassal state. But stumps can grow even in nature, and the more so in a creation guided by the active word of God. God will not renege on God's everlasting promise to David (2 Samuel 7:12-17): a new "David" will arise, anointed with God's spirit (see 1 Samuel 16:13), who will restrain the wicked with the power of a word (Isaiah 11:4b), in order to provide for the poor and meek (v. 4a), those who stand particularly in need of God's care.

And where will anyone see such a kingdom? Well, Israel saw a form of it in its own day as Hezekiah "did what was right in the sight of the Lord" (2 Kings 18:1-3) and relied on the word of promise that came from God through Isaiah rather than taking up arms in response to the threat of the Assyrian ambassador (Isaiah 37:1-38). And we have seen another form of it in a latter-day Prophet-he, too, anointed by the Spirit (Luke 4:16-21; cf. Isaiah 61:1-3)-who also confounded the expectations of onlookers by devoting his attention to the poor and the meek and insisting that God's kingdom welcomes all (Luke 4:25-27; cf. today's Psalm 72:4, 12-14).

And that peaceable kingdom where all God's creatures live together in perfect harmony? Not yet, to be sure, for this kingdom promises nothing less than a reversal of the curse of Eden's fall, putting an end even to the enmity between the human and the serpent (Genesis 3:15; cf. Isaiah 11:8). Such a possibility will come only beyond history as we know it, but we anticipate it now in faith because it is God's own promise. Though looking to the future, it had a present effect in the eighth century and can have one today as well. What if we chose to live now in the freedom of the promise, in accord with its pictures of God's future kingdom? God keeps showing us a world of peace where rulers and people care for one another, for the poor and the needy, for the creation and all its creatures. What if we moved into that world even now? True, our world remains compromised and dangerous, and we will have to deal with that in appropriate ways. But, to the degree we are given the courage, we can invite God's future into the present and practice it even now. And then the world of nature, red in tooth and claw-though it remains real-can be tempered by a new vision of a creation that sings God's praise because all are fed and all are loved.

 

1 The entire poem is available online at www.online-literature.com/tennyson/718/ (accessed 14 August 2007).
2 Using "ravine" in the obsolete sense of "impetus, violence, force" (Oxford English Dictionary).