< October 11, 2020 >

Commentary on Isaiah 25:1-9

 

Isaiah 25:1-9 testifies to God’s wonderful transformation. It emerges from the so-called Isaiah Apocalypse (Isaiah 24-27).

The presence of eschatological language and a reference to the consumption of death/resurrection give rise to the notion of Isaiah Apocalypse. The writer of Revelation 21:4 re-uses the language. The confessions of faith, “you are” and “I will,” find their roots in the description of God that dominates the next major section of the poem (verses 2b-5).

What sort of deity provides a credible case for the end of death and the triumph of compassion? Isaiah 25:1-9 testifies to a cosmically powerful and compassionate deity. A core I-Thou relationship undergirds the rhetoric of the passage. The “Thou” of God evokes the “I” of the poet. It begins with a statement about God. By doing so, this thanksgiving psalm sets up an I-Thou language.

God has “done wonderful things.” Roberts’ translation is “performed marvels” (see also Exodus 15:11; Psalm 78:12; Isaiah 29:14).1 The NRSV translation “done” is less vibrant than Roberts’ translation “performed,” which captures the extraordinary element. The language of wonderful things and marvels gestures to the “surprise.” The wonderful thing and the marvel do not emerge simply out of serendipity; God performs marvels as a part of the movement of history. The language of old, faithful, and sure captures the reliability of the deity and history.

The activist God shapes history and politics. The metaphors “city” and “ruins” reflect an anti-imperial impulse. Isaiah 13-23, known as “oracles against foreign nations,” critiques imperial power and prepares the reader for the message of Isaiah 25:1-9. The city symbolizes the ideology of power of the city-states, such as Damascus, and of bureaucratic empires, such as Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. The destruction of the cities provides opportunities for those cities and empires to recognize the power of God, to repent, and to fear God (verse 3).

God attacks the imperial centers on the one hand and provides shelter for the vulnerable on the other. The writer uses parallelism to emphasize the advocacy of God for the poor and the needy. God provides shelter and refuge in multiple forms. Shelter protects the vulnerable from rain and gives shade in the heat. Remember that the weather pattern in this region has more of a dry season and a wet season rather than a four-season model. Rain and shade from the heat presents two ends of a spectrum meant to invite the reader to think of the two extremes and everything in between. The metaphor of weather then gives way to the political conflict. The “ruthless nations” function like the winter rainstorm. The poet suggests that the aliens represent the heat. However, like the heat of the previous verses, God dispenses the clouds to provide shade.

The passage turns on verse 6 with “God’s banquet on Mount Zion,” which gestures to a sense of place and the redemption brought by God. The phrase “on this mountain” (meaning Zion) occurs four times in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and three of those times are in this chapter (Deuteronomy 1:6; Isaiah 25:6, 7, 10).

From the first Passover in Egypt to the Last Supper, meals become locations for religious transformation. The writer describes rich food (including marrow, considered the best part of a meat dish) and excellent wine in detail.

The banquet on the mountain locates God’s consumption of the shroud. It is difficult to nail down what the shroud means in this context, but one could connect the shroud with death. One might imagine Lazarus wrapped in the death shroud. As Lazarus was healed, they had to remove the shroud so that he could walk out of the tomb (John 11:44).

The consumption of the shroud leads to the consumption of death. Once again, eating takes place on this mountain, Mount Zion, as God devours death. The Hebrew word for death is the same as the name of one of the Canaanite gods, Mot, providing a dual meaning. The Ugaritic Mot comes to a feast like the feast described in Isaiah 25:6. Mot and Sheol are described as ravenous (Habakkuk 2:5; Isaiah 5:14)—yet in this passage, Mot and Sheol are themselves being swallowed. Yes, this passage declares the end of death, but also the demise of the false god and the end of the idolatry embodied in the religion of Mot. Thus, the dual end of death and idolatry undergirds the passage.

The end of death moves to another metaphor of compassion. The language of “all” occurs again; the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces. But who and what do they mean by “all”? The structure of the passage indicates that “all” includes the people of the imperial communities as well as the exiles. By so doing, the idea of God’s people broadens substantially in the book of Isaiah.

If the tears are one metaphor, another is disgrace. An element in popular culture one might talk about, as Aretha Franklin did, is “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” The passage addresses the role of shame and stigma to survivors of trauma. Verse 8 ends with the prophetic formula, “for the LORD has spoken” (verse 8b), which conveys divine advocacy in history.

The editor frames the passage with verse 9. The events recounted in the passage evoke testimony through the affirmation, “this is our God.” The rationale for this affirmation comes through a poetic phrase, “we waited, and God saved.” The Hebrew here can be a simple past or a result clause, “so that God might save us.” The salvation instigates rejoicing and exultation.


Notes:

  1. J.J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah: A Commentary, Peter Machinist editor, Hermeneia series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 319.