< December 11, 2016 >

Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10

 

If I had to pair this text with one Advent song, it would be O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

The first verse is particularly relevant: “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”

Isaiah 35 is a powerful poetic word of comfort for the mourning Judahite exiles, who lost their temple, land, and sovereignty. Their suffering is manifested in “weak hands” (verse 3), “feeble knees” (verse 3), a “fearful heart” (verse 4), obscured vision (verse 5), hindered hearing (verse 5), broken bodies (verse 6), and silent tongues (verse 6). The literary “body” constructed in Isaiah 35 has been utterly overwhelmed by despair and weariness. Their capacities needed to move through this world have been diminished. The exiles feel God’s sorrow in their very bodies.

The good news is that the God of Jacob does not abandon God’s people to their despair. Their sorrow will come to an end, and on a day when the sick body will find new life in God:

the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
            and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (verse 10).

Silent tongues will be loosed to sing songs of joy and freedom. Formerly feeble knees will walk themselves to Zion. Fearful hearts will look to the future with faith, hope and courage, while sorrow and sighing will be on the run.

Up to this point, I have emphasized the text's use of corporeal language, but the text actually begins with the non-human creation (verses 1-2). For Isaiah 35, salvation is imagined in creational terms. The general theme is that desolate, dry places will be transformed into paradise. Those who live in desert environs can appreciate the transformative power of water on the desert. Overnight, even a small amount of rain can change a dry desert into a vibrant landscape. But Isaiah’s poem moves far beyond the natural consequences of water on the desert. Creation itself will "be glad," "rejoice," and sing (verses 1-2). Creation’s praise joins human praise, in recognition of God’s marvelous work.

The text turns abruptly to members of the audience, giving them both a task and a sermon:

            Strengthen the weak hands
                        and make firm the feeble knees.
            Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
                        “Be strong, do not fear!
            Here is your God.
                        He will come with vengeance,
            with terrible recompense.
                        He will come and save you (verses 3-4).

Like so many other texts in Isaiah, and especially chapters 40-55, Isaiah 35 confronts fear with promise: "Here is your God ... He will come with vengeance ... He will come and save you." In switching to the second person, the prophet leaves nothing to chance, making sure that his audience knows that this message is “for you.” The poem further concretizes the message by deputizes its audience, giving them a brief sermon for the weak-hearted, and asking them to amplify his message.

Salvation opens up the world in new and miraculous ways (verse 5). Formerly hostile environments are transformed into places that are not only habitable, but are also favorable for life. The "old" and "new" creation are contrasted in terms of hydration and desiccation: water in the wilderness, streams in the desert, pools from burning sand, etc. (verses 6-7). God’s work in the wilderness recalls Israel’s earlier wanderings from Egypt to Canaan. Then as now God promises to accompany Israel in the wilderness, and to ensure its passage from bondage to inheritance.

Given the exilic context, Isaiah 35 quite appropriately culminates in homecoming (verses 8-10).

The text doesn't offer any details about the road's precise location, and it doesn't need to. What's significant about this "Holy Way" is the fact that it finally leads to Zion and that it will be free of threats to human life. While one might be tempted to believe that a “Holy Way” must inevitably be a narrow way, lined with numerous pitfalls, ditches, and off-ramps, this is not the case in Isaiah 35. The path, in fact, is so wide and easily navigable that even a fool can walk it without fear of wandering astray (verse 8).

I urge preachers to highlight texts like Isaiah 35 during Advent. They offer a remarkable opportunity to remind congregations that, through faith in Christ, Israel's story has become their story. Christians have been adopted into an epic narrative that is driven by promise, obedience, judgment, and redemption.

In the 6th century BCE, God promised a new, holy path for Israel that would lead them out of bondage in Babylon to a new future for Judah. Christian interpretations of exile and redemption will inevitably look different than they did for ancient Judah. Nevertheless, our days are also filled with God’s wrath and judgment (Psalm 90:7-12). We daily wander from obedience to God and into the open arms of sin, death, and devil. The confession we pray on Sunday is true every day of the week: “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” We daily need water in the wilderness to strengthen our weary knees and to renew our faltering faith.