Commentary on Isaiah 52:7-10
The text from Second Isaiah follows closely on Christmas Eve’s reading from First Isaiah though historically they are situated far apart. As mentioned in yesterday’s commentary, Second Isaiah is prophesizing the return to Jerusalem out of the Babylonian exile.
The people are waiting — waiting for the messenger who announces the return of the Lord, for when the Lord returns to Zion then the people too will follow. But as long as the Lord abandons Zion, the people as well will remain in exile. Returning to life is completely dependent on God’s own choice to return, to return to Zion, and to return to the people.
The text sets up a classic scenario. From the battlefield, a messenger is sent to announce that victory has been won. The watchmen are straining to see the one who is coming and find out the news. In this case they sing the news of victory for all to hear. Despite this seemingly straightforward progression of events, upon closer look, we discover several surprises in the story.
Not only is a messenger coming to announce a victory from the battlefield, but God’s self is coming in triumph. The Lord returns! The battlefield is not just any confrontation between two armies but the field of history itself in which God is triumphant, for it is not only Jerusalem that is redeemed but also all the nations. Finally, the watchmen watching for the messenger cannot contain themselves! Even before the messenger arrives they recognize the news and sing it out!
The news is stated in cosmic terms: “Your God reigns!” Once again, we encounter the realignment of all earthly power and authority. The victory that is proclaimed does not belong to this or that king, to this or that country, to this or that ideology, but to God alone. Psalm 97, one of the psalms appointed for Christmas Day, also echoes this theme in song.
“The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” Psalm 98, the psalm coupled with this reading, proclaims the power of God’s holy arm. “The Lord has made known his victory!” Again, we pick up on the cosmic proportions of this victory, of God’s return. God comes as the ultimate judge, judging all the earth, the whole world with righteousness.
The “watchers” know of this wondrous news as they see the feet of the messenger running towards them. The “feet” is here used figuratively: beautiful refers not to the feet but to the entire messenger/message. This good news of peace is beautiful. It comes running to greet the oppressed. It is an embodied peace! The message is beautiful because it is for all creation. Zion and the towns of Judah constitute the watchmen. They hear and are glad because the Lord who reigns is the Lord who comes to deliver from oppression and from the wicked. The Lord who reigns is God over all gods, over all those forces, powers, idols, and obsessions that enslave the people. The message is peace, good news, and salvation.
As mentioned, the text gestures beyond its historical confines. This peace and good news and salvation are not simply for the exiles in Babylon. This deliverance is not only for the people of Israel and Judah but also for all the earth. God has acted for a particular people, for a particular city, for Jerusalem but the entire world and all people are brought into the vision and actualization of this deliverance.
The victory is a cosmic victory. The victory is peace but a peace that is more than simply an end to war. This peace is for all. It is a cosmic peace. War is now over, once and for all. This is the good news. All reasons for battle, all reasons for warfare, all reasons for hatred, pride, self-justification are eliminated.
All people, all creation is pulled into this salvific act. The good news that is announced, the peace and salvation given to all reaches beyond all the limits we may wish to place on it. Even the broken down walls, the ruins of Jerusalem are called into song. This shalom is a shalom for all creation and for culture and for expressions of human life; the city, for example, with all of its structures is called into this shalom.
We have come full circle. From the words of the prophet that begin Second Isaiah (Comfort! Comfort!) to this victory celebration in which comfort is clearly defined as God’s own coming, God’s engagement with God’s people, the text pulls us all out of ourselves and into song.
The watchmen cannot refrain from singing with joy. And their singing calls forth singing from all the ends of the earth. Joy is rooted in what God does. This is the source of all our singing. What God does cannot be reduced to an idea, a concept, an abstraction or a program. What God does bursts the walls of our isolation. Singing, this essential activity of any proclamation, brings that which identifies us most individually — our voice — and mixes it with many other voices. Our voices brought together now redefine who we are as recipients of the wonderful good news brought by the messenger.
This joy does not ignore the historical context. The singing arises out of great anxiety — a battle has been engaged, death is confronted. Today, we as well are keenly aware of the “battles” around us, the many places of death that the celebration of Christmas Day does not do away with. In fact, as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children. It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.