Commentary on Isaiah 63:7-9
Not many people will come to church on December 29th.
It will probably be mostly just the regulars, the steadfast, the pillars, and perhaps one or two energized or interested new people. The church feels empty. The decorations have come down or else simply look tired and spent from all the activity and energy they represented just days earlier.
One cannot keep that Christmas spirit up forever, injected as it is with marketing, media, and public displays — an entire secular and national infrastructure of Christmas spirit just came to a screeching halt. And there you are, called to stand in the breach.
Today, the people in your pews are likely the ones who stuck with you during Advent…who tried to enter into your counter-cultural reflections on what anticipation of Christ’s coming means. Nevertheless, today is a tough day to be a preacher. You are, no doubt, tired. And no matter what you do, the sanctuary is going to feel a bit lonely.
Isaiah 63 is a lonely passage. Salvation here is not triumphant. It is marked by loss and theological collapse. Isaiah 63:7-9 are some of the first words uttered after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (587 BCE). Historical cues come in 63:18 and 64:10 where we learn that “our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary” and “your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.”
I am aghast at my own suggestion that post-Christmas let-down can be compared with the physical loss of homeland through warfare. Indeed, that would be a pretty egregious example of a myopic “first world problem.” But some occasions raise our capacity to hear the wisdom from of old. And here in the wake of the ringing collapse of secular Christmas, which often summons the personal pain of broken lives and relationships, we would do well to hear this powerful Isaianic response to his devastated audience.
Isaiah 63:7-9, part of a longer unit running from 63:7-64:11, initiates a communal lament. Given its psalm-like character, some have concluded that its composition was inspired by actual liturgical laments on the site of the ruined temple. Whether or not there were actually Judeans who held formal religious ceremonies there, this lament inscribes an audience of pillars, of regulars, of the steadfast, and perhaps the one or two energized or interested new people. It inscribes the people with cause to embrace the ruins of their central religious institution to find communal expression for their loss.
Today’s lectionary passage in verses 7-9 isolates the first element of the lament, historical reminiscence of the high points of God’s relationship with his people. As a stand-alone reading, these verses form a bold account of what is working in the long-term relationship with God, a “best-of” list, if you will. God’s mercy and stead-fast love take center stage.
The passage highlights what will later become the Christological idea of God entering the human world of distress to save his people. In Isaiah, it refers to the Exodus as God’s paradigmatic salvation event.
The passage shows how the Hebrew Scriptures, far from being an “old” [i.e., superseded] covenant, contain all the religious ideas which later informed Christianity’s account of God’s Trinitarian character. Covenant language abounds. “Gracious deeds” and “steadfast love” (hesed) is a benevolent response promised in a formal covenantal commitment. “Surely they are my people” summons formulaic language found in Deuteronomy. “Deal falsely” refers to abandoning the vows of a covenantal commitment.
The theology of the lectionary passage is put in a new and dynamic light when we read the entire lament. After the account of God’s activity on behalf of his people, Isaiah 63:7-64:11 contains several other typical elements of the communal lament: the people’s inadequate response (63:10), complaints about the contemporary conditions of misery (63:18-19 or 64:6), and urgent petitions to God (64:9) (cf. Psalm 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, and 94).
What was, at first glance, a standard theological account of God’s salvific character is now framed by the lament genre. Odd. Even more theological problems await: Isaiah 63-64 presents a glaring omission in the genre. The lament lacks divine assurance; God does not answer.
What could it mean to read about salvation in this dismal light? Here is salvation recounted amidst lament, loss, and complaint wherein God does not show up at the end to fix things? Throughout, God stands aloof. What great activity God accomplished through Moses cannot be found in the present. Listen to these questions: “where is the one…” (verse 11b), “where is the one…” (verse 11c), “where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion? They are withheld from me” (63:15b).
Interestingly, the people do not, indeed they cannot, adhere to religious tradition in this moment. There is no Jerusalem temple, so profound questions about the God of Zion confront Isaiah. Our passage displays several adjustments in what are acts of vigorous theological re-imagination.
Verse 15a urges God to “look down from heaven [note he’s not in the earthly temple] and see, from your holy and glorious habitation.” Also novel is the reference to God as a father in verse 16. The paternal qualities of tenderness, affection, and availability are sought in what was then only a newly emerging theological idea (cf. the late compositions of Malachi 1:6; Isaiah 45:9-11; Sirach 23:1, Tobit 13:4, etc.)
Isaiah gives God an old name: “our Redeemer from of old” (verse 16) and draws on the older (Canaanite) idea of a heavenly mountain theophany (especially in 64:3). But these elements are brought to bear on a moment of significant religious adjustment.
What is inspiring here is not only the theological flexibility of Isaiah, but also the prophet’s insistence that God show up in these new ways. God is a fire that can cause water to boil (64:2), the prophet insists. The lament genre already showcases this kind of bold piety as people decry God’s negligence and demand that he show up in new ways. (My favorite example of this type of demand is when God needs to wake up from slumber. cf. Psalm 44:23 and 78:65).
A bold piety and a demanding faithful; this is Isaiah’s ideal. This is probably what lies behind his own lament in 64:7, “[no one] attempts to take hold of you.” The loss of the temple and its god prompts this vigorous search for God in new places and with new metaphors.
I can imagine two fruitful tacks the preacher can take with this passage. We just discussed the first, the vigorous art of theological flexibility and religious adjustment. However, the second returns us to this odd juxtaposition of salvation and lament.
While the lament certainly provides a model for bold piety, the stark account of salvation in a communal lament might offer up an idea for how to preach on December 29th. The first week after Christmas may be the exact right time to remember the birth of Christ and then turn to the complaints and laments of the faithful people who have come to the lonely, December 29th sanctuary.
Third Isaiah, after all, is a text about rebuilding. And our passage may be among the earliest compositions in the post-exilic preaching of Isaiah 40-66. If this is true, it predates the famous Isaianic assurance that God will “comfort, o comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:1).
Before comfort comes the honest expression of what it feels like to live with a stubbornly aloof God. The post-Christmas, “what now?” can be honest about the fact that something supernal came on December 25th. But today is December 29th. What will renewal look like in this year, in your church, in the lives of your faithful? For our Isaiah passage, it does not start with God’s comforting assurance. It might instead start with communal lament.