< November 14, 2010 >

Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25

 

Isaiah invites us into a theological vision of what life can be for God's faithful people.

In the Isaiah traditions are interwoven memories of ancient truth and promises of a radiant future for Israel. In this lection come to magnificent expression three Isaianic motifs: the motif of former and latter things, the motif of the glorification of Zion, and the motif of the shalom (peace, well-being, prosperity) of God's holy mountain.

Deutero-Isaiah proclaims a Creator who has always been in control of history. God has spoken about things before they came to pass, demonstrating both omniscience and the power to effect the divine purpose over aeons (44:6-8). Other gods are mere illusion. "Tell us the former things, what they are...declare to us the things to come," sneers the God of Israel in a sarcastic challenge directed at other deities, who of course cannot answer because they have no substance (41:22-24). God alone foretold the coming of Cyrus of Persia as deliverer for Judeans in Diaspora (41:25-29); God alone has the power to speak new things into being (42:9). Post-exilic Judah--traumatized by exile, fractured by internecine strife--may dare hope for healing only because of the power and compassion of their mighty God.

The LORD reassures this devastated people, "the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind" (65:17). All that recent history had held for Judah--the terror of the Babylonian invasion, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the forcible dislocation and abjection of Judean leaders, perhaps even Judah's own sinfulness (65:1-7)--will no longer be considered, for God is creating "new heavens and a new earth." This promise reconfigures everything that Judah had known about its life and its identity. Judah had been under threat from the very earliest cultural memories preserved in biblical tradition. Enslavement in Egypt, living under the shadow of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires according to its formative narratives, Judah had often struggled on the brink of extinction.

Preachers will need to take account, of course, of the imperialistic and xenophobic strands within Scripture as well, evident in those texts in which God commands the genocide of indigenous Canaanites (e.g., Exodus 23:23-24; Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 6:21, 8:21-26) and the obliteration of Israel's and Judah's enemies. But it is a central part of biblical testimony that Israel itself has been regularly oppressed and hounded. In that context, our hearts may thrill to hear the promise of Deutero-Isaiah that there will be a new exodus, this time from Babylon (35:1-10; 48:20-21; 52:7-12). Endless rejoicing will be the portion of the faithful!

The second Isaianic motif given expression here is the glorification of Zion, the personified Jerusalem. Earlier passages promised that Zion will be vindicated, bejeweled, made dazzling as an enduring sign of God's faithfulness (see 60:8-22, 61:10-62:12). In our passage, the focus highlights the city's inhabitants. They are gems in Zion's crown; they will be living proof that God loves God's chosen city.

Verses 17-19 are absolutely luminous with language of creating and delighting. "I am about to create," God sings. "I am creating...I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight." Peace and righteousness will oversee the life teeming within Zion's gates (60:17); violence, predation, and fear will be no more. The idyllic picture that unfolds in 65:20-25 constitutes one of the most beautiful oracles in all of Scripture.

Preachers may want to dwell on these promises of our God concerning abundant life, for in this oracle we may hear deep resonances with incarnational theology. God's people will know no more weeping or cries of distress, no more premature loss of life; homes will be built and inhabited; vineyards will be planted and their fruit enjoyed (implicitly contrasted here is the ancient terror of being dispossessed by an enemy; see e.g. Jeremiah 6:12, Zephaniah 1:13). "Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be" (verse 22) we imagine a mature olive tree, gnarled and green and leafy, being a metaphor for spiritual serenity and fruitfulness. (Compare "I am like a green olive tree in the house of God," Psalm 52:8; "your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table," Psalm 128:3; "[Israel] shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree," Hosea 14:5-6).

Labor will never again be in vain. No minor promise, this may reverse the threat in Leviticus 26:16 of toil bearing fruit only for enemies when God's people do not obey the Torah. Childbirth will yield generation upon generation of blessed offspring. There is a poignant divine word for a traumatized community that felt God's absence keenly during the exile: "before they call, I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear" (verse 24). Never again will God hide God's face.

In verse 25, a utopian vision articulated in the earlier part of Isaiah is reasserted. Wolf, lamb, lion, and ox appear again, a collocation of creatures evoking the peaceable kingdom in Isaiah 11. A heightened emphasis on erstwhile predators and prey feeding together sets up a contrast at the end of the verse: "but the serpent--its food shall be dust!" That line, three simple but devastating words in Hebrew, brings the Garden of Eden fully into focus. God's curses on the serpent and Adam and Eve (Gen 3:14-19) are referenced: in these latter days, the primeval ancestors' sorrows will be transformed into the joy of blessed offspring and enduring enjoyment of the fruit of human labor, but the curse on the serpent is reaffirmed. The serpent in future will remain subjugated, so this blessedness will never again face threat.

Thus Israel's glorious restoration will be of Edenic proportions and cosmic significance. The "new heavens and new earth" that God is creating will have Zion at their center. A healed Israel will be cherished within the very heart of God's delight. Good news indeed: "They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD." The believer is left longing for that place of unending reconciliation and joy.