< November 01, 2009 >

Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-9

 

Food is not just the fuel that we use to propel our bodies through the challenges and joys of daily life.

Food is also a source of comfort; food is associated with fellowship as people eat together, celebrate together, and mourn together (cf. the notion of "funeral food"). It is little wonder that when Israel was trapped in the chaos of nations at war, one superpower following shortly on the heels of another resulting in food shortages and even famine, and they inevitably projected their hopes for salvation to the future, they did so in terms of food.

Isaiah 25:6-9, part of the Isaianic Apocalypse (Isaiah 24-27) that envisions the final redemption of God's people in terms of a cosmic battle with the forces of chaos, proclaims God's salvation in terms of a glorious banquet held upon Mount Zion. After God has destroyed all that seek to oppress the faithful, God is said to host a feast of rich food, the choicest, most luxurious foods possible. On the table would be literally "fat" dishes filled with marrow as well as well-aged distilled wines, i.e., wines that miraculously will not turn into vinegar if kept longer than a season.

Three points stand out from this rich text: First, in sharp contrast with the deprivation and the destruction that marked the daily lives of the prophet's audience, the banquet celebrating God's victory is characterized by exuberant joy. The joy that in Isaiah 24:11 was said to have gone into exile, now has returned with a force that erupts in jubilant praise songs (Isaiah 25: 1-5, 9; 26:1-6). After all the years in which there was no wine to drink and no songs to sing (Isaiah 24:9), people now will participate in a feast of good food and wine, rejoicing in God's salvation.

Second, it is significant to see how God's liberation extends to all people, as evident in the five-fold repetition of the word "all" in verses 6-8. In this eschatological vision, Israel imagined that God's saving actions on their behalf should not only benefit the community of Israel, but also extend to all the peoples of the earth (cf. Genesis 12:1-3), offering an intriguing perspective on the question people have struggled with throughout the ages, i.e., who is the "all" that have a place at this table.

Nevertheless, one should not romanticize the notion of radical hospitality evident in this text. Right after all the people are invited to the banquet hosted by God, it seems that all people really are not all as seen in the harsh words directed to Moab (verses 10-12). This contradiction helps us to understand something of the constant struggle of discerning God's word amidst the complexities and the messiness of life made up by real people who are very different from one another.

Third, the reason why Isaiah 25:6-9 was chosen to be the lectionary reading on All Saints' Day−the day on which we remember our loved ones who have already departed−probably has to do with the fact that this text asserts that the newly restored age cannot be fully established until every threatening force is removed. In verse 8, God is said to swallow up death forever. Typically it is the "earth," the "deep" or the "underworld"/"Sheol" that is said to do the swallowing (cf. e.g. Exodus 15:12; Proverbs 1:12). But now death and mourning, symbolizing all that threatens life, will be swallowed up by God (or one could say eaten). Moreover, we read in verse 7 that God will swallow the shrouds that envelop the people, so destroying all evidence of mourning (cf. also verse 8 when God is said to wipe away the tears from the faces of all).

This text strongly asserts that God will destroy the last enemy, i.e., death, forever -- an idea that is continued in Isaiah 26:19 when Israel's dead are said to rise from their deathly sleep and join in the joyful singing. Even though these texts probably do not refer to the resurrection per se at this point, one rather could say that the metaphor of resurrection is used to image God's restoration of Israel (cf. also Ezekiel 37). In later years, the Christian church would draw on these texts in light of what they had experienced in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Reading a utopian text such as Isaiah 25:6-9 amidst the stark realities of our current context with its markedly cataclysmic flavor, given the economic woes, the political strife, and the rising unemployment that have consumed our lives, is interesting indeed. It is remarkable to consider how believers centuries ago in the midst of the chaos that characterized their lives could proclaim that God will intervene and liberate them from all that seek to destroy life in all its goodness.

When things fall apart, when darkness is all around, amidst the hostility, fear, and cynicism that these days seem to be everywhere -- at work, on the television, at home -- it is good to remind one another that we believe in a God who is present in the chaos, a God who is fighting to deliver God's children from whatever threatens their wellbeing. Moreover, the image of a banquet denoting a joyful celebration even when Israel found itself at the height of the conflict is a powerful reminder of what is important.

Wherever we gather around a table in these difficult times, we are challenged to still savor the goodness of life: the food, the wine, the fellowship with the people around our table. Actually the image of the Eucharist where we gather around the communion table celebrating and looking forward to the heavenly banquet is a regular reminder of the table as sign of fellowship and hope in things to come. Finally, the inclusive nature of this vision reminds us, especially when things are most distressing, how very important it is to look beyond ourselves and beyond our immediate circumstances to find ways to include others at the table (even those Moabites!).