Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

The wedding metaphor that sets up our passage in Isaiah 62 is probably the reason it was chosen to serve as a Christmas text.

December 25, 2013

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Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12

The wedding metaphor that sets up our passage in Isaiah 62 is probably the reason it was chosen to serve as a Christmas text.

God comes to marry his city. Christian tradition tends to read here a metaphor of Christ’s marriage with the church. “See, your salvation comes” (verse 11).

Striking then, on the day of Jesus’ birth, we do not read one iota about the bridegroom. There is certainly no infant. There is not even a royal figure. Instead, Isaiah 62:6-12 focuses on the city of God, over whom the bridegroom rejoices and takes delight (62:5). And why not focus on the city that God yearns to save? Why not focus on the transformation of war-torn urban destitution? Why not focus on the industriousness of a city in recovery as it builds highways that salvation may enter its gates?

The City of God and Mortal Peace

Isaiah’s hopes for urban salvation are set in the streets of a devastated Jerusalem. Isaiah 62 was written during a time when this urban utopia seemed possible, during the restoration period in Judah.

To get at Isaiah’s vision for the city, I want to lift up some ideas presented in Augustine’s City of God. Although addressing paganism and early church in the Roman Empire, City of God serves as a powerful para-text for Isaiah’s redeemed city. Augustine explores the corporate life of the church through appeal to both the heavenly and earthly cities, which both cultivate, in his words, “inevitably a social life” (XIX:17).

These remarkable basic metaphors cast the heavenly city as a corporate pilgrimage through the streets of the earthly city. Remarkably, the earthly city is a necessary ally in the goal of establishing mortal peace. For Augustine, the Christian pilgrimage requires mortal peace. Further, mortal peace in the earthly city is necessary unto itself.

Jesus sought mortal peace in the earthly city. As an incarnated savior with a mortal life devoted to healing and human relations, Jesus, Augustine, and, as we will see, Isaiah 62 turn our attention to an often neglected aspect of the life of the church: its corporate mission to serve the earthly city on behalf of mortal peace.

Building the City of God

Isaiah 62 is replete with an impractical goodness that can only stem from God’s activity. Several proclamations celebrate the supernatural transformation of the urban-scape. Best captured by the verses of renaming (verses 4, 12), the people receive a new identity as the “Redeemed of the Lord.” However, this transformation in identity corresponds with a far more mundane and practical description of the city of God.

In three short phases of activity, the city goes from ruin to being redeemed. It is these more practical aspects of building the city of God to which our Christmas attention can turn. Phase one involves the work of memory-makers (verses 6-7). Phase two sets the city on a course for mortal peace (verses 8-9). Phase three outlines a blue print for inclusivity in the city of God (verse 10).

In verses 6-7, we meet the memory-makers whose primary task is to set the heavenly city back on its feet. The passage opens with a description of the watchmen on the walls (verses 6-7), our first indication of the city of God’s urban personnel. A watchman or sentinel usually refers to a Hebrew prophet, one who is called to provide visions concerning imminent safety or threat to the people in the city.

Here, the prophets have a slightly different task which takes two surprising turns. First, their job is not to look towards the threat or safety on the current horizon, but to look back in time. They are given a title, mazkirim, which literally means the ones who cause to remember and which may refer to an official role, perhaps through writing or record-keeping. They are tasked with bringing memories alive.

The second surprising turn captures the increasing notion that prophets could sway the powers they consult. Here we do not find an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God of philosophy whose ways are eternal and only people need nudging. On the contrary, in the city of God recovering from destruction, it is God who needs reminding. The NRSV provides the best translation for verse 6c: “you [watchmen] who remind the Lord.” When followed by verse 7, “and give him no rest” it is clear that the 24/7 persistence of the mazkirim is directed at God, calling God back to the city.

The memory-makers are squeaky wheels, calling out from the walls of the city in persistent re-narrations of the past. They strive to awaken God in the face of urban destruction. They struggle against the memory-destroying work of warfare. The memory-makers “take no rest” in demanding that a memory-soaked God embrace his city once again.

I can imagine the preacher taking on the role of the memory-maker. For people considering a life in the city of God, it could be powerful to look up to the walls and hear the preacher’s incessant and insistent demands on God that he wake up to a new narration of the past on behalf of their present.

The second phase of practical matters turns our attention to the plight of the earth-weary. Verses 8-9 introduce the farmers who live on the outskirts of the city, who grow grapes and grain around Jerusalem. In Isaiah’s vision for the city of God, these farmers will enjoy the fruits of their own labor. Here, we begin to see the promise of mortal peace for the earthly city because the vision reverses a dire hardship inherent in the ancient experiences of labor.

For a few centuries, Jerusalem’s surrounding farmland was prime real estate in several systems of economic oppression. In periods of war, unprotected field crops became the provisions for enemy troops. The siege warfare of the Assyrians and Babylonians sometimes lasted for multiple-year periods. Jerusalem’s walls protected the water and food storage inside the city, but the surrounding farmers, if they survived, would certainly have been placed into subscription to grow food for their enemies.

Even in periods of relative peace, the Assyrian system of taxation and tribute levied a huge burden on regional farmers. So whether during periods of active war or during the long decades of imperial usurpation, farmers had long been denied the full harvest of their labor.

The mortal peace of the farmer is of primary concern to the city of God. The worker who grieved the usurpation of his life and labor by an economic and martial system of oppression has become an integral part of the Isaianic vision. To draw on the language of Augustine with our glance towards today, we are talking about workers who suffer from oppressive economic practices.

For Augustine, the heavenly city looks to and supports those earthly systems aimed at supporting the peace of the worker (see XIX:17). For Isaiah, we can go one step further. The city of God must promote the mortal peace of the worker. The peace of the heavenly city is not possible without a system of mortal peace for those laborers in and surrounding the city.

In the Gates of the City of God

Augustine’s notion that the heavenly city is less like a civic institution and more like a corporate pilgrimage works well with the famous words of verse 10. “Prepare the way.” “Build it up.” “Clear it of stones.” Taking a tip from urban planning, the city of God must build a transportation infrastructure. Isaiah 62:10 opens up the gates of the city to forge pathways to God.

Verse 10 is not a plan for missionary work. No one is commissioned to go out to the nations to bring good news of God. In fact, the clear indication in the passage is that the goal of outward-facing activity is mortal peace, restoring farmers to the dignity of their work. Verse 10 is also not a call for toleration. The gates are not opened so that people can stand awkwardly beside each other in silent judgment.

Toleration always implies disapproval. When, as we are saying, “the life of the city is inevitably a social life,” disapproval is bound to breed tension and disdain. Instead, verse 10 offers a shining model for inclusivity. Isaiah 62:10 describes how to prepare a processional way to the sanctuary for full inclusion in its spiritual life.

The city of God must “prepare the way for the people.” It’s time to get down to work. Make the city accessible. Build up the roads for all manners of pilgrims. Identify the obstacles and remove them. Why might outsiders miss your gates on their weary road? Clear those paths. Make ready a processional way for people to stream into the city.

For Augustine, the city of God is like a collective pilgrimage set against the backdrop of an earthly city. In the Isaianic vision, the city promotes mortal peace and inclusivity.

While this Heavenly City, therefore, is on pilgrimage in this world, she calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages. She takes no account of any differences in customs, laws, and institutions, by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved — not that she annuls or abolishes any of these, rather, she maintains them and follows them, for whatever divergences there are among the diverse nations, those institutions have one single aim — earthly peace” (City of God, XIX:17).