Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

The text this week holds two thoughts in tension.

February 8, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31

The text this week holds two thoughts in tension.

The proclamation of what seems impossible to believe is held together with the truth of what is impossible to deny. The opening lines of Isaiah 40 announce what was surely impossible to believe. Exile had left the people in a land far from their own wondering silently, if not aloud, what had happened to Yahweh. What happened to the covenant promises? At their existential core the people were left in silence, bound by the certainty of an unknown future in the hands of a foreign people. These opening verses, however, break into such silence, shattering it with the announcement that “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (verse 5), that “the Lord GOD comes with might” (verse 10), in order to “gather the lambs in his arms” (verse 11).

In hymnic praise, the remainder of chapter 40 (verses 12-31) answers one key question: “Who is this God that will do such a thing?” What do we know of a God who will let His people fall at the hands of the Babylonians and their god, Marduk? What do we know of a God who appears to have fallen by the wayside in silence? Can such a God be trusted by a people who have grown weary and exhausted (Isaiah 40:29), too tired to even sing the psalms of Zion any longer (Psalm 137)?

The writer of Deutero-Isaiah answers with an emphatic declaration.  In verses 12-17 the writer draws attention to the creative capacity of Israel’s God, and it is this capacity exhibited from of old that remains fundamental to this new confession. Unlike other Ancient Near Eastern religions depicting a pantheon of gods in conjunction with the making of the created order, it was Israel’s God alone that “measured the waters in the hollow of his hand” and “marked off the heavens with a span.” The recent experience of Israel at the hands of the Babylonians might have led the Israelites to believe their deity was in some way an inferior deity when compared with Marduk, or at least that Yahweh was simply part of a pantheon of the gods in which earthly history played out among the gods at the cosmic realm. Yet, Deutero-Isaiah calls Israel to throw off all such ruminations. Deutero-Isaiah calls those who are weary and exhausted to shirk off attempts at reconciling their experience with what they know to be true of their God. And so the opening lines of this powerful hymn announce it is Yahweh alone that provides the hope because he is the one who creates and who continues creating.

The opening lines in the passage for this week begin with a series of four rhetorical questions. Such rhetorical questions in Hebrew can also have the force of an emphatic statement: “Surely you have known! Surely you have heard!” This is not new information provided by the prophet. But like a good prophet, he draws the people back to the confessions that stand as their identity. So how is it possible that the exiles could be delivered from Babylon? The prophet announces that the truth is impossible to deny. It has been told from the beginning. The NRSV translates verse 21 as “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” The Hebrew text, however, actually reads, “Have you not understood the foundations of the earth?” Thus the final rhetorical question is actually the climax in a short series of staccato lines: surely you know, surely you have heard, surely it has been told to you; surely you understand the foundations of the earth. And if you understand the foundations of the earth, how can you believe in the possibility of any other god at work in our world? This God, and this God alone, stands above the world, creating a place for those who are like grasshoppers (verse 22) to live. Yet this same God is intimately involved in the historical and political machinations of human life, “bringing princes to naught and making earthly rulers as nothing.”

The final section (verses 27-31) is perhaps the most well known in this week’s text, and arguably, the most prone to misinterpretation. Occasionally, the language of verse 30 concerning those who are weary and exhausted is isolated and used pastorally for all who are in difficult circumstances. And while there is little doubt that the God is concerned about all who are weary and exhausted, these verses have a more pointed focus. Verse 27 aids in our interpretation. There the poet quotes the lamenting people, asking why they say, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? The weary and exhausted are those who have felt abandoned by their God–and their circumstances do little to deny such a thought. The poet does not deny such weariness, but instead suggests that such weariness does not deny God. The God of Israel is the “everlasting God,” and the “Creator of the ends of the earth.” This God is the one who not only created, but creates; the One who not only brought nations into existence, but remains in control of world political affairs.

The promise of an end to exile and renewed strength seems impossible to believe because their current plight is so impossible to deny. And what seems irreconcilable is, in fact, not because of the identity of the One in whom they confess. While “His understanding is unsearchable,” His identity is undeniable. He is the Creator who recreates, shaping and reshaping the world and all who live in it.