Commentary on Isaiah 43:1-7
If we think of the prophets as thundering proclaimers of collective sin, which they often were, this passage shows the capacity of one prophet to offer reassurance.
Just as the ancients in Israel and Judah needed to hear divine judgment against injustice, so does the contemporary church. Nevertheless, dispirited people also need to hear reassurance of divine love, protection, and presence. This poem from the prophet scholars call II Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) speaks tender, encouraging, empowering words to those who faced an uncertain future. In their original context, the words in this passage helped motivate Judean exiles to embrace their faith and return to Jerusalem to rebuild. The wise and brilliant prophet evoked images of divine love and care to speak to the exiles who tentatively considered whether to leave the stability of life in Babylon to return to the rubble of their former home (or the home of their parents).
His first words contain multiple meanings. By using the verbs “create” and “form,” II Isaiah recalls the creation stories in Genesis. The verb “create” contains the same root as Genesis 1:1 used for the creation of heaven and earth. The verb “form” contains the root for God forming the human from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). God created heaven and earth, as well as shaping the human into life.
These verbs also speak to the formation of Israel and Judah as a people, a community. God took them from servitude to become God’s people. God has a claim on the people, but also a commitment to them, emphasized by the verbs in the second half of the verse: “redeemed” and “called.” The verb “redeem” alludes to a family member who frees one from debt or slavery. The relationship is deep, but also comes at a cost. “Called” refers to God’s choice of the people for God’s purposes.
As the people embark on the journey back home, the poem confirms divine presence and protection with them. The people will face dangers and obstacles along the way. They will not face them alone. Besides communicating protection for what the people face in the future, the words of the second verse recall the exodus event of their past. To gain entrance into the promised land, the people passed through the waters of both the Sea of Reeds and the Jordan river.
The three titles for God in verse 3 give a comprehensive understanding for the people. The term YHWH (Lord) evokes the exodus, the burning bush of Moses, and the giving of the teaching at Sinai (Exodus 20:2). The title “Holy One” refers to God’s distinctiveness. The first part of Isaiah uses this title (see 1:4). “Savior” alludes to God’s protection for Israel and Judah.
Verse 4 states the divine love in explicit, tender, straightforward ways. The word “precious” was used of such things as expensive building material (I Kings 7:9) or life itself (Proverbs 6:26). God will call the people from wherever they live to join the community. Verses 5 and 6 engage in hyperbole to describe the extent of God’s call to the people. The diaspora was not that extensive in all directions. Nevertheless, the use of all four directions speaks to the wide range of God’s call to come join the community. The use of “sons” and “daughters” alludes to the comprehensive nature of the call, including everyone. This part of the poem ends with the repeated use of the verbs “form” and “create.”
Typical of poetry, the passage speaks in art, not in precision. Neither the prophet nor the contemporary preacher can promise that God will protect from all danger. Rather, the poem assures the people and the contemporary church of God’s presence along the journey. The poem does not suggest that God’s people have a guarantee against danger. By winter (when this passage will be read), the contemporary church will still remember the damage of hurricanes just a few months ago. People did not pass safely through the waters. Fires of various kinds have done extensive damage. Nevertheless, the preacher can apply as an analogy the words of the poem to the church.
God promised to guide the community back home. The community itself would survive and perform God’s mission. The contemporary preacher can assure the congregation of God’s presence with the church. God will work through the church despite the dangers it faces. The church can do its ministry without paralyzing fear, because of God’s presence.
We read the prophet on the Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus. Just as the prophet reminded the people of God’s call on them, baptism establishes God’s claim on the church. The words of God at Jesus’ baptism in Luke confirm the relationship between God and the Son. The prophet speaks of the tender relationship between God and God’s people, including the church of the baptized. This passage enables the preacher to flesh out the relationship between God and the church on the Sunday when we focus on Jesus’ baptism.
God formed the church, loves the church, calls the church, enables the church to survive to do its work. Even if the church passes through the rivers of controversy and the fires of conflict, God will be present with the church. God’s affirmations of Jesus at his baptism confirmed God’s work through Jesus, but certainly did not protect Jesus from harm. The church may face danger, but God will be with the church, empowering its ministry and work.
January 13, 2019