Commentary on Isaiah 63:7-9
Unfortunately the long standing tradition of celebrating Advent and Christmas is becoming replaced by the sole focus on a one or two day event.
Because of the enormous amount of resources invested into Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services, some churches have even opted to cancel their Sunday services following Dec 25th. By doing so the Church misses out on the opportunity to mediate upon today’s readings from the lectionary.
It is common knowledge in the medical community that the holidays bring about a sharp increase in cases of depression, primarily due to people’s unmet expectations for the season. The lectionary reading for the first Sunday after Christmas, Isaiah 63:7-9, provides a word to minister to those facing disappointment. Advent and Christmas are not singular events, but rather form a season of hope, lament, celebration, worship, penitence, and challenge. The lectionary readings, taken as a whole, provide guidance for the people of God to experience the full breadth of the significance of Christ’s coming.
The literary unit where Isaiah 63:7-64:12 is found is generally classified as a communal lament, and contains many of the same elements of texts such Lamentations, Psalm 79, and Nehemiah 9. The community complains to Yahweh because of the lack of compassion shown to his people (63:15), the absence of his presence (63:17), and the people’s defeat before their enemies (63:18). Their response is to confess their sin (64:5-6), call upon Yahweh to reveal himself in a theophany (64:1-2), and address the distress of his people (64:9, 12).
What is odd is that while the passage appears to be written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the profanation of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., it is found in Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66), a text that was composed in the restoration period following the exile. Even though the Israelites had returned to their homeland and had begun construction on the Second Temple, the difficulties and opposition they faced prompted them to remember and relive the laments of the generation before them. Contrary to Second Isaiah’s (Isaiah 40-55) call, “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!” (42:10), Israel continues to sing an old lament.
Isaiah 63:7-9 functions as a recital of the past faithfulness of God, a literary element that oftentimes begins many lament Psalms (e.g., Psalm 89:1-37). The thanksgiving in verse 7 is rather generic, a recitation offered numerous times throughout the Psalter. The word ḥasadim, translated as “gracious deeds” and “steadfast love” in the NRSV, is a word that describes the loyalty of Yahweh to his covenantal relationship to Israel. In a time when nothing good could be said of their situation, they can at minimum, acknowledge the basic and undeniable fact that God has been good to them in the past and that they continue to be his people today.
Whereas in Isaiah 57:4 the following accusation is made of Israel: “Are you not children of transgression, the offspring of deceit?,” in 63:8 Yahweh reminds Israel in verse 8 that as God’s covenant people they are characterized as “children who do not deal falsely.”
Verse 9 has been difficult to translate due to the variations in the ancient manuscripts. The NRSV follows the Septuagint: “in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them,” but virtually all other English translations following the Qere reading of the Masoretic Text: “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them” (NIV). Certainly both readings are legitimate options, but the latter ought to be preferred.
The verse then recalls the events of the exodus, particularly the episode in Exodus 33:1-34:9. This text describes how Yahweh assures Moses that his presence will remain with him despite Israel’s disobedience in the golden calf incident. Israel’s first redemption, the exodus from Egypt, was followed shortly with the disappointment of a false and deceitful people. Nevertheless Yahweh did not depart from his people and continued to be their savior through their distress, particularly their wilderness wanderings.
Second Isaiah announced a new exodus of cosmic proportion featuring elements such as the transformation of the wilderness (41:17-20), an ingathering of the global diaspora (43:1-7), and Yahweh’s return to a renewed Zion filled with joyous celebration (52:7-10). In chapters 60-62 of Isaiah, Zion is described in its glorified state, vindicated and exalted over the nations. Yet the readers of Second Isaiah did not experience such a city. They continued to be oppressed by the Persians, harassed by the local people of Yehud, and engaged in intra-community conflict. The great salvation that Yahweh announced through Second Isaiah was not merely one event, but would be fulfilled over a series of events. God’s people then had to learn to be faithful in times of disappointment. God’s salvation may have its fits and starts, but the presence of the Holy Spirit will never depart from his people.
Thankfully the Scriptures provide the people of God the means to be faithful during all seasons of life. December 26th through 31st is oftentimes a period of reflection and reassessment for people as they acknowledge their regrets of the past year and renew commitments for the upcoming year. It is a period of penitence and hope. The lectionary acknowledges that along with spring and summer, the people of God must experience fall and winter. Isaiah 63:7-9 provides warmth to the saints during the cold winter months.