Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (III)

The larger context of these verses (see 51:17-23) vividly describes how the people of Israel have been devastated and depopulated in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.

December 25, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 52:7-10

The larger context of these verses (see 51:17-23) vividly describes how the people of Israel have been devastated and depopulated in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.

These events are ascribed to the wrath of God; that is, the people have experienced the effects of God’s moral order — sins have consequences. But now the tables have been turned; Israel’s captors will drink the cup of wrath instead.

In view of this changed historical situation, “captive Jerusalem; captive daughter Zion” is called to “awake” from the slumber of exile and captivity and prepare for a new day (52:1-2). Get ready! A new day has dawned! In the passage following the lectionary text (52:11-12), the people are urged to depart from their place of exile, taking the captured temple vessels with them (for a description, see 2 Kings 25:13-16; Ezra 1:7-11). Leave! They can be assured that God will surround them in their return home, going before them and bringing up the rear. In an interlude of uncertain meaning (52:3-6), God declares that the people’s release from slavery will be accompanied by the defeat of Israel’s oppressors (Babylon) as had earlier been the case with Egypt and Assyria.

Turning to the text for Christmas day, the call goes out to the people to “Listen!” (52:8; echoing 51:1,4,7,21). In Isaiah 52 that invitation comes between the call to “Awake” (51:1-2, with other imperatives designed to prepare for a momentous and celebrative occasion) and “Depart” (52:11; note also the earlier calls to “Rouse yourself” in 51:17).

Hear the good news! The good news of return from exile is described in 52:7-8. It is worth considering what all these imperatives to the exiles are doing in a context that stresses the decisive action of God in Israel’s salvation. It is possible that actual historical realities are in view; that is, many of the exiles did not awake, listen, and return to Jerusalem and their own land; they preferred to stay in Babylon (and make their home there for centuries to come). The call from God is not irresistible.

Two primary images are used to convey the bringer of the good news. First, it is the image of a “messenger” that travels by foot over mountain passes to bring good news to a beleaguered people regarding a victory over the enemy — the fastest means to spread news in that world. How beautiful are those feet! How good is the news! You can tell by the way the feet move!

A second image used is that of “sentinels” keeping watch from the walls of the city. Their sharp eyes search the horizon for signs, signs of the messengers who bring the results of the battle in which the people’s future is at stake. And the view comes into “plain sight”! What God has done will be evident to all! The sentinels shout for joy over the news that the experience of warfare and all of the associated suffering has ended because of what God has accomplished.

The “ruins” of the city are invited, ironically, to “break forth” in singing (52:9). The word “ruins” describes Jerusalem after the Babylonian devastation. Now, in view of what God has done, ruins can sing! Ruins can live again as the people of God flow back into those spaces. The invitation to sing has been issued before (42:10-12) and not only human creatures, but heavens, earth, mountains, and trees have been called to join in the song (44:23). What God has done has an effect, not only on Israel, but on the entire creation.

A cascade of words is used to describe the communication these messengers/sentinels convey: peace, good news, salvation (repeated at the beginning and end of the pericope), God’s return to Zion, comfort, redemption. God’s “return to Zion” does not mean that God has been absent from the ruined city, but that God will closely accompany the people in their return to Jerusalem, surrounding them all the way (see verse 12).

Also, this does not likely mean that the sentinels see a vision of God (cf. 40:5). Rather, in view of a people returning from captivity to a major power, God will be understood to be present and active in their midst. In a sense, the people will embody the saving work of God. The “comfort” that God brings is a strong theme throughout this section of Isaiah, bracketing the entire segment (see 40:1-2; 66:13). The “good news” (a theme that is introduced so strongly in 40:9-11) is a “gospel” word and centers this text on all that God has accomplished for these captives of Israel. What God has done is captured in such key words as “salvation” and “redeem;” both of these words are understood in a comprehensive sense, with effects both bodily and spiritual. The words that best describe this new situation of the people of God are “peace” and “comfort.”

Such a wonderfully positive announcement is possible because “God reigns” (see Psalm 96:10). Be careful not to translate this phrase into CEO images such as “God is in control” or “God is in charge.” The emphasis lies not on God as a controlling deity, but on what this God has done for God’s people in the face of much adversity; God has exhibited commitment to promises made (bared his arm, that is, “rolled up the divine sleeves” to do what needs to be done rather than flexing his muscles) and brought peace and salvation (see 40:9-11).

What God has promised (see 40:1-2) has now arrived. God’s action is not some private act or simply some spiritual event, for the people will return home as part of a visibly socio-political event and the ruins of Jerusalem shall be reconstructed. This will be a deeply comforting event for the people, but this will also be a very public matter, visible and concrete; “all nations,” indeed “all the ends of the earth” shall see what God has done. As the returning captives “see” (verse 8), so that sight is now available to all peoples. What a sight!