Commentary on Isaiah 43:16-21
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
This is hope. Audacious. Unbridled. Expansive. Fulsome. Yet not fanciful or fabricated. But rooted in the realities of the past and present and leaning fully into the conviction of what God can and will yet do for God’s people. This passage boasts of God’s power and goodness, portraying a God who cannot be stopped in their commitment to redeem God’s people. There is no challenge too hard, no obstacle too great, no body of water too wide, no desert too dry to keep God from creating or recreating the necessary conditions for God’s people to flourish and all of creation to rise up in praise to God.
This is a text to read when it feels like the world is crashing down around us, when our minds are too jaded and our spirits too discouraged to see how God may be present in our current darkness. This is the passage to read when the dull thrum of life’s rhythms feel especially meaningless and tortured. This is the text to read during Lent when we come face to face with the mess we as humans have made of our relationships and of this world, when we recognize how profoundly broken and how incapable of fixing ourselves we are. For it is in this place of helplessness and disorientation that hope emerges.
For the original audience, this word came to them in exile—their past a trail of broken dreams, disappointments, shame and horror, their present filled with the constant ache for home. Consumed by the past and present, I imagine there was little mental or emotional energy to think about the future. It was enough just to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other. Into this situation, the prophet’s voice resounds, calling the people not to despair but to hope. Why? Because the same God who brought this people out of the land of Egypt is not yet done with them. Babylon is not an end but rather, an opportunity for God to display his power and his grace to his people once again.
The prophet’s vision doesn’t emerge out of nowhere. It is not a fantasy of his own imagination. Instead, it is rooted in the memory of what God has done for Israel in the past, of God’s faithfulness to their ancestors. They know how God orchestrated the release of the Hebrew people from the tyrannical grip of the Pharaoh, how God led them into the wilderness and cared for them, and how, beyond all that is humanly possible, God parted the sea to allow them to cross, drowning Pharaoh and his minions while ensuring safe passage for God’s people.
A demonstration of God’s power, goodness and steadfast love, the exodus is central to Israel’s self-understanding of what it means to be God’s people. God heard their cries, saw their oppression, and responded with justice and compassion, meeting them in this darkest of places not just to rescue them from slavery but to adopt them as his own people. This is a narrative they would return to often to remind them of God’s faithfulness. But now, the prophet says, forget the former things. See, I am doing a new thing.
It is not immediately clear what the “former things” refer to. Some commentators have suggested that the former things are Israel’s former sin and the judgments of first Isaiah that led up to the exile to Babylon. This is certainly a possible reading. But given that the whole passage seems to be juxtaposing the first exodus with a new one, it seems likely that the former thing is indeed the exodus from Egypt itself.
If this is the case, then the prophet is not saying that once Israel was under God’s judgment, but a time is coming when they will be redeemed. Instead, the prophet is suggesting that once God performed an amazing act of redemption for Israel but now, the redemptive thing God is going to do will be even greater. Instead of parting the waters temporarily for Israel to walk through on dry ground, God will bring about a re-creation, a re-edenizing of the world to make it a place where God’s people can flourish again.
This new redemptive work is not confined to a historical moment in time, but is a cosmic event turning tohu webohu into a place that is safe and supports life. Streams of water will replenish the earth and wild animals will respect the limits God places on them. This new thing is reminiscent not just of the exodus then, but of creation itself, of God preparing the world to be a place for human beings to live, flourish, and even walk and talk with God. The ultimate goal of God’s redemptive work here is not just redemption and restoration of Israel as a people, but rekindling Israel’s relationship with God, the praise of God by God’s people.
Just as this announcement inspired hope for the Jews in exile so many thousands of years ago, so it does the same for us. It encourages us to look beyond our current realities to wonder what more God will yet do in this world and to anticipate with longing Christ’s return and the world to come. In this sense, it’s a good reminder that our current reality is temporary, an along the way time in our life with God, and part of the journey toward a time and place when like Israel, our hearts might find their true home in God, the one who made us, redeems us, loves us, and calls us to himself.