Return from Exile

When Cardinal Bergoglio, a Jesuit priest from South America, was elected Pope last year, many Roman Catholics were shocked that something so unexpected had occurred.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

December 15, 2013

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Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-11

When Cardinal Bergoglio, a Jesuit priest from South America, was elected Pope last year, many Roman Catholics were shocked that something so unexpected had occurred.

In a similar way, many people around the world were amazed when the United States elected an African-American, Barack Obama, to be President. Sometimes, just when you get used to the idea that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), something unprecedented happens.

The writer of this particular poem felt the same kind of shock at an unexpected, but fortuitous turn of events. This poem was written towards the end of the Babylonian Exile and contains the profound joy felt by those who saw God’s work in the international politics of their day.

At the time that the poem was written, the elite of Judah had been in exile for a little more than two generations. The targets of this oracle were the grandchildren of those who had been forcibly exiled when Jerusalem had fallen in 586 BCE. They had kept their identity as Jews telling stories to their children and grandchildren of the glory that had been Jerusalem.

By 538 BCE, however, Babylon had been conquered by the Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the peoples whom the Babylonians had exiled to return to their homelands. In some cases, he even funded their return.

Isaiah 40-55, which scholars refer to as Second Isaiah, contains poems celebrating Cyrus. In fact, in Isaiah 45:1, he is even called a “messiah,” meaning a king anointed by God to carry out God’s plans. The author of Second Isaiah firmly holds that the only possible explanation for such an unprecedented turn of events was that Yahweh was in control of all of human history. Many of the poems in this section depict the immanent return of the exiles as a new Exodus which ushers in a new creation.

Chapter 55 recapitulates many themes found in the preceding chapters. Because it is a summary of the earlier poems, it is not as cohesive as other poems in this section. It begins with the imagery of food and drink (verses 1-2) and moves on to the restoration of the Davidic line (3-5). The poem then exhorts the audience to seek God (6-7), ending with a reflection on the unknown of God (8-11). The language is powerful, evidenced by the number of contemporary worship songs that use phrases from this poem.

Lurking behind this text is the reality that many Jews living in Babylon at the time did not choose to return to Jerusalem. Recent archaeological finds provide evidence that by 538, the Jewish community had been integrated into Babylonian society. They had jobs, owned homes, and even lent money to others. Under the Babylonians and Persians, they were free to worship Yahweh, and suffered no coercion to recognize Babylonian gods. Furthermore, the cities within Mesopotamia were the financial, commercial, and cultural centers of that part of the ancient world.

In contrast, Jerusalem was in ruins. Those who returned would first have to stake their claims to land in the area. Many of the fields immediately surrounding Jerusalem had gone uncultivated. There was only a small settlement where the city had once stood, so they would have had to build houses, city walls — in fact, the whole infrastructure. Without the restoration of the monarchy, there were no prestigious jobs for skilled laborers. It was not an attractive prospect for a generation who had no personal experience of the old city.

Much of Isaiah 40-55 is an exhortation to this community to return. The poems promise that God will cause even the desert to bloom if they return. Chapter 55 can be read as the poet’s final exhortation. The poem begins by contrasting real food, with a promise of something better. Real food (which does not satisfy) is akin to any tangible wealth: money, luxury goods, financial security, etc. Verses 1-2 exhort the people to recognize that the tangible wealth that they enjoy in Babylon is nothing compared to the rewards God has in store if they return.

At this point in Israel’s history, many people still hoped for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, a wish seen in verses 3-5. Throughout the ancient Near East, the reign of an ideal king is associated with fertility and, therefore, an abundance of food. This poem inverts the normal order of king and food. It starts with the image of satiety, and from there infers the restoration of a glorious king.

Verse 6 begins a clear exhortation. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” implying that if one does not immediately seek God, Yahweh will not be found at some later date, such as after the city has been rebuilt. The time to return in order to enjoy God’s blessings is now.

The poem ends with their experience of God. For this audience, God’s ways are surprising and, ultimately, unknowable. In most other Old Testament texts, the notion of God’s unpredictability is linked to tragic events. Here, however, that unknown is tied to a joyful occasion, which was perhaps even more unpredictable than the original defeat.

The final verse probably refers to God’s covenants with Israel. God has sworn to those covenants, especially the covenant with David, referred to in verse 3. The exiles’ hopes rested in God’s fidelity to that covenant. Israel would be restored, not for their sake, but to show the world that God is in control of history.

Isaiah 55 was written at time when people felt anything was possible. They had not yet experienced the disappointment of a monarchy that is never restored. They had not yet felt the drought in the days of Haggai or the internal strife that stopped the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra. This is the voice that reminds us that, although things do not always turn out like we plan, sometimes, just sometimes, they turn out wildly better.



God of restoration,
Save us when we find ourselves spiritually thirsty. Help us walk your road with your purpose, strengthened by your living water. Amen.


Lo, how a rose e’er blooming   ELW 272, H82 81, UMH 216, NCH 127
My song is love unknown   ELW 343, H82 458, NCH 222


He came down, Marty Haugen