Commentary on Isaiah 43:1-7
Like other prophetic writings, Isaiah 40-55 (which scholars call Second Isaiah) aims to change people’s minds.
Unlike most other biblical prophets, though, Second Isaiah is filled not with warnings over wrongdoing, but with encouragement to reevaluate Judah’s past and future. Composed for exiled people in the mid-sixth century BCE, just as the international tide is turning, just as the possibility of returning to the broken city of Jerusalem is reopening, Second Isaiah soars with inviting poetry of hope, offering to pave the way homeward with confidence and expectancy.
More than any other biblical prophet, this writer tends to employ a first-person divine voice, as here. Whereas Jeremiah and Ezekiel portray themselves in dialogues with God, in Second Isaiah the divide between divine and prophetic speech is so thin that they are sometimes indistinguishable, as in the preceding chapter, where a divine voice in verse 19 suddenly becomes a human voice in verse 21. Here, though, the divine voice is announced in verse 1 and carries at least through the end of the chapter, punctuated only by reiterations of “thus says the Lord.”
Because the words of Second Isaiah are overwhelmingly positive and comforting, it is one of the portions of the prophets most frequently quoted in the New Testament, in the Jewish Haftarah lectionary, and among Christians and Jews since. To view words offered to ancient people in a very particular crisis as God’s words to believers in many situations since has precedence in second temple writings such as Third Isaiah and Baruch, in which descendants of the exilic community, even though back in Jerusalem, still consider themselves exiled from full restoration.
I used to caution myself and others not to adopt the language of exile and promise too glibly for ourselves. We were America, after all, the most privileged nation ever known, more Babylonian than Judean. Americans who call ourselves exiles are like the tenured professors I once heard about who, losing all perspective, spent a faculty meeting fighting over who among them was the most marginalized. To equate our own problems to those of exiled Judeans trivializes the carnage, the displacement, the multiple layers of loss — loss of homeland, loss of temple, loss of neighbors and family members, loss of identity, loss of trust in God.
If we want to learn about exile, I said, we should study the Lachish frieze, the Assyrian portrayal of the destruction of a major Judean city in the late eighth century BCE, depicting soldiers impaled on enemy spears and children guided out of the burning city by parents in chains, carrying all that refugees can carry in their two hands. This is a scene some people know today, but not Americans.
Though we still risk trivializing by applying these words too freely to ourselves, if we keep in mind the differences in scale, exile may nevertheless be an increasingly apt metaphor for contemporary experience. Americans still want to be exceptional, but jobs have left us, educational systems have failed us, and we are no longer first in technology, or ideas, or health, or well-being. And what we may become is still yet to be seen.
On an environmental scale, nature itself is suffering decline. The age of innocence, of a world shared with abundant sturdy species enjoying their ancestral habitats, has ended, and thousands of species are dying or at risk. On a more intimate scale, many congregations know or fear that theirs is the generation that will close down the building. And on the most intimate scale possible, many among us grapple with lost opportunities, lost jobs, lost homes, lost hope. The new experiences of exile that we face are both widespread and personal.
Into this despair comes a preposterous word — neither fire nor flood will separate exiles from God and God’s saving acts of grace. The passage doesn’t promise there won’t be fire and flood, but rather that they will not be faced alone, and they will not overpower the faithful.
Both flood and fire figure heavily into Israel’s story. It was through the water of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14-15) that Moses brought their ancestor from the “iron furnace” of Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:20, KJV). God’s presence was made known through a burning bush (Exodus 3:2), a pillar of fire (13:21), and a fire on Mount Sinai (19:18), and it was through the waters of the Jordan that the Israelites eventually entered the promised land (Josh 3:15-16).
It was enemies, whose overwhelming hoards were often compared to floods of raging water (Isaiah 8:7-8; Psalm 124:4; Jeremiah 47:2), who had burned the city with fire (2 Kings 25:9). In earliest stories it was through the flood that Noah and his family were saved (Genesis 6-9); in latest stories it would be in the furnace of blazing fire that Daniel’s companions would be found alive and praising God (Daniel 3). In today’s lectionary psalm, Psalm 29, God’s power is associated with both fire and flood (verses 3, 7), as God presides over weather powerful enough to break the cedars of Lebanon and cause the oaks to whirl.
Most pertinent to the placement of this passage on the Sunday celebrating Jesus’ baptism, early Christians experienced themselves as renewed through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:4), just as the Jewish ritual of purification in the waters of the mikveh continued and still continues to cleanse the whole self. But it isn’t only water that purifies. The prophet Isaiah spoke of smelting Jerusalem’s dross (Isaiah 1:25), and John the Baptist himself said: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
Believers in every generation have seen in fire and flood all that is larger than ourselves, all that consumes not only hope but life and limb as well. Yet Scripture, including Isaiah 43:1-7, transforms these elements from threats into sources of healing through adversity.