Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-11
The passage seems to contain multiple voices: a preacher and healer, an administrator, and YHWH. These three speakers play a major role in the Jerusalem renaissance.
General Mission 61:1-3b
The literary motifs of Isaiah 40-55 appear in the background in our text. The language of spirit endowment connected to the servant (Isaiah 42:1; 48:16) appears here as well. The special gift metaphor occurs in the third servant song (see Isaiah 50:4). The spirit of the LORD echoes Isaiah 59:21.1
The poet/prophet refers to three populations he is directed to serve. The poor occurs often in the Psalms (Psalm 9:19; 10:17; 22:27; 25:9; 34:3; 69:33; 147:6; 149:4) but only three times in Isaiah (Isaiah 29:19; 32:7; 61:1) and once in the book of Amos (2:7). The second group, the brokenhearted, occurs here and Psalm 34:19). The final group, the captives, occurs more often mostly in narrative texts with three references in the Psalter (Psalms 68:19; 106:46; 137:3), five times in Jeremiah (13:17; 41:10, 14; 43:12; 50:33), once in Ezekiel (6:9), and another time in Obadiah (1:11).
The poet/prophet uses a series of infinitives: preaching, healing/liberation, and proclamation. The first infinitive “to bring good news” shares tone and texture of proclamation (the herald language also appears in Isaiah 40:9; 41:27; 52:7). The second infinitive, “to bind up,” often means to saddle a donkey, but here it means to bind up wounds (Job 5:18; Isaiah 1:6; 3:7; 30:26; Ezekiel 30:21; 34:4, 16; Hosea 6:1). Psalm 147:3 reads, “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” The third infinitive, “to proclaim,” returns us to the homiletical.
The poet presents us with one Hebrew word for binding in a healing context and another word for binding in a political/legal context. In other words, the message is to bind the wounds and unbind the people. The verb in 1b is often rendered as “to open eyes” which prompted the translator of the Septuagint to render this as “open the eyes.” Hence Luke’s gospel (4:18) following the Septuagint uses the Greek as the infinitive “recovery of sight.”
The infinitive “to proclaim” of verse 2 blends the day of the LORD’s vengeance and the day of God’s vindication. The day of the LORD’s vengeance draws on the day of the LORD tradition in other prophetic literature. Sometimes this is also construed as the day of God’s favor but the jubilee year (Leviticus 25). A similar confluence of the day of vengeance and favor occurs in Isaiah 34:8. The images of divine favor and vengeance re-affirm the ministry of comfort (Isaiah 40:1).
The poet continues to use the infinitive. This time the infinitive designates the fate of the persons of Jerusalem. The reference to “all the mourners” (verse 2) gets further specification. All the mourners are now equated with those who mourn over or in Zion. For this group, there will be a reversal of fortunes metaphors for suffering that will be displaced with metaphor of favor. The cadence of “instead of” sets in the mind of the hearer the transformation that is underway. These mourners now receive a mission.
Mission to Zion 61:3b-7
The first element of the mission is the new designation as the oaks of righteousness. After this designation, their mission is to rebuild the community. The theme of rebuilding the ancient ruin echoes substantially other passages in Isaiah (see Isaiah 58:12; 49:8; 60:10). It is easy for today’s reader to blithely move over ancient ruins, former devastations, ruined cities, and devastations of many generations. It might be good to take a moment and rehearse the reclamation projects after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina, and other various floods, fires, and tornados.
As if to underline the degree of transformation, the poet/prophet introduces the reader to a new group, the strangers (verse 5). The poet/prophet continues the reversal with a positional dislocation. Now the stranger and the foreigner become the agricultural workers. The naming of the mourners as the priests and ministers of God means that they are now freed from agricultural work that is now being done by the stranger and the foreigner. This theme will occur later in the book (Isaiah 65:21-23) that describes the worker who benefits from his/her labor. The colonial setting of book of Isaiah frames issues of wealth and labor that can be quite controversial in many congregations today.
The shame and dishonor was double (Isaiah 61:7a) and therefore the reclamation should be even more exuberant. The “double” motif while using different vocabulary nonetheless echoes Isaiah 40:2b, “double for all her sins.” The idea that joy would match the grief and disaster today seems like a nonsensical equation that may take some unpacking for todays readers.
God’s Justice 61:8-9
The self-presentation formula “For I am the LORD” that opens verses 8-11 occurs a number of times in the book of Ezekiel but also several times in Isaiah 40-66. The self-presentation formula often connects to the word pair love and hate. The vices robbery (Leviticus 5:23; Job 20:19; Isaiah 61:8; Ezekiel 18:12, 16, 18; 22:29) and injustice do not occur as often as justice. The language of recompense or reward occurs five times in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:10; 49:4; 61:8; 62:11; 65:11).
The promise “I will make an everlasting covenant” echoes the Noachic covenant (Genesis 9:16). The song of assurance (Isaiah 54:1-17) also contains a statement of perpetual covenant (verse 10). The covenant in perpetuity also connects Isaiah 61 with Isaiah 59:21. The reality of disaster invites theological reflection to move to assurances of perpetual covenants. However, this short virtue vice list (verse 8) sets the stage for a covenant that will span multiple generations.
Hymnic Conclusion 61:10-11
Verse 10 returns to the first person speech that started the chapter. Prayers for deliverance as we find them in the Psalter often end with a vow (cf. Psalms 7:18; 22:26; 56:13; 61:6,9; 116:14,18). The earth and the garden become metaphors for God’s crop of righteousness.
1 C. Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66” NIBV. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994), 513.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Spirit of the Lord God,
You bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the prisoners. You comfort all who mourn, and shower your people with the oil of gladness instead of mourning; a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. We will greatly rejoice in the Lord, our whole being shall exult in God, for the sake of the one who brought righteousness to life, Jesus Christ our salvation. Amen.
Hark, the glad sound! ELW 239
Let streams of living justice ELW 710
Praise the One who breaks the darkness ELW 843
Choose something like a star, Randall Thompson