Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Everything about this final chapter of Isaiah heralds God’s sovereignty.

July 4, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 66:10-14

Everything about this final chapter of Isaiah heralds God’s sovereignty.

From the opening portrait of God as the cosmic king, who sits enthroned in heaven with feet propped on the earth (66:1; cf. 63:15), to the concluding announcement of a divinely-wrought “new heavens and new earth” in which all flesh will worship God (66:22-23), God commands center stage–larger than life, all powerful, and awe-inspiring. The prophet’s relentless insistence that God reigns supreme renders comparatively insignificant any other claim to ultimate importance, whether from the Temple (“what is the house that you would build for me?,” 66:1), certain believers (“they chose what did not please me,” 66:4), or political powers (“I am coming to gather all nations and tongues,” 66:18).

Because God made and rules over everything (66:2), nothing on earth should ever take itself too seriously, including the community of faith.1 Thus, the prophet condemns some in the postexilic community who consider themselves models of piety: they choose “their own ways” (66:3; cf. 66:17; 65:2-5), imbuing their worship with such self-importance that they contort the observances into abominable acts. They do not listen when God calls (66:3-5). Conversely, the prophet assures the “humble and contrite,” who “tremble at [God’s] word,” and are rejected for their faithfulness (66:2, 5), that God sees and is with them. Indeed, God intervenes suddenly and decisively in their favor (66:7-16).

In the verses immediately preceding the lectionary text, the prophet compares God’s intervention to a painless birth–one “before [Zion] was in labor…before her pain came on her” (verse 7). Repetition of verbs meaning “to labor” and “to give birth” in verses 7-9 holds the reader’s attention on the miraculous event, even as rhetorical questions underline how astonishing it is (“who has heard… who has seen such things?” in verse 8). God delivers the people in “one day…one moment” (verse 8)–instantly reversing all expectations. Yet again, God makes a way forward when there is no way, and then God wonders why anyone would expect otherwise (verse 9)! The remarkable moment sets up the lectionary reading, which unfolds in two units: a summons to rejoice (verses 10-11) and a promise of comfort and wellbeing from God (verses 12-14).

God’s sudden and unexpected deliverance turns lament into joy (verses 10-11). The verb “to rejoice” (sus) frames the lectionary text (verses 10, 14) and, as if to pull every last person up from the dust, the prophet unleashes a string of imperatives–using three different verbs–to summon the community to celebration (“rejoice…be glad…rejoice in her rejoicing..,” verse 10). Repetition of “all” contributes to the sense of comprehensiveness: not a single one who loves Jerusalem need mourn any longer. Moreover, the celebration enlivens the joyful, who now nurse until satisfied, slurp until refreshed from Jerusalem’s “comforting” (nhm, verse11; cf. verse13) breast; the prophet’s frequent use of the labial letter “m” in verse 11b evokes the sound of contentment.

Imagery of milk merges with water as the prophet reveals God’s promise for comfort and wellbeing (verses 12-14; cf. Isa 40:1; 49:13). Like a river, God will send shalom (“peace”)–a broad term that prophet pairs with the parallel phrase “the wealth of nations” (verse 12). As Isaiah testifies elsewhere, the restoration of Israel disrupts socioeconomic realities so that an abundance of the finest goods streams to Zion (e.g., 60:4-16; 61:5). And, as the world turns toward Jerusalem, God turns as well, speaking directly and personally of great comfort–“you will nurse, you will be carried, you will be dandled” (verse 12b). The parental and playful images culminate in a threefold assurance of “comfort” (nhm): as does a mother–as does Zion–so God will comfort you (verse 13; cf. verse 11). God’s comfort transforms the community and the world, for even as the faithful witness God’s power and renew their strength, “it is known,” presumably by everyone, that God stands with them (verse 14).

The lectionary text ends prematurely, preferring to bask in the joy and comfort of God’s deliverance than to plunge back into the messiness of communal conflict that frames the reading and provokes God’s action (verses 1-6, 14b-16). Only the last line of verse 14 hints at the utter divisiveness with its mention of “[God’s] servants” and “[God’s] enemies.” By wresting God’s decisive action from the very context that prompts it, however, we miss the prophet’s claim that God’s deliverance brings–within the community of faith–comfort and danger, affirmation and threat, joy and despair. We miss the urgent call to reflection: Are we among those who “choose their own ways” (verse 4)? Do we “tremble at [God’s] word” (verses 2, 5)? How we answer, after all, determines whether we hear the uproar in the city–God’s thunderous voice from the temple–as heralding good news (verse 6).

1See W. Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 252.