Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 65-66, the final chapters in the book of Isaiah, pick up a number of themes and images prominent in Isaiah 40-66.

Luke 10:5
"Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace to this house!'"Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

July 7, 2019

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 66:10-14

Isaiah 65-66, the final chapters in the book of Isaiah, pick up a number of themes and images prominent in Isaiah 40-66.

It is like the end of a several season television show that flashes back to the best parts of the series in the final episode. In Isaiah 66:10-14 three of these themes are present: a call to joy, Jerusalem personified as a mother, and God comforting the children of Jerusalem.

A call to joy

Rejoice with Jerusalem! Be glad! Rejoice! Such calls are common in the section of the book of Isaiah following chapter 40, where hearers are called to rejoice, take joy, exult, sing and shout out (see also Isaiah 44:23; 49:13-14; 52:8-9; 61:10). Following the devastation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the subsequent exile of many of the city’s citizens, the news that the people may return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city is joyous. Even in this verse that calls for joy three times, there is a mention of past mourning, however. The joy and gladness called for here is a joy and gladness birthed out of deep suffering and pain, one that feels the joy that much more keenly for having also experienced its opposite. God is doing a new thing, but it does not erase the past.

A nursing mother

In Isaiah 66:10-14 Jerusalem is personified as a nursing mother. In the verses leading up to the beginning of this week’s reading, we read of a miraculous birth for Mother Zion, one free of labor and pain (Isaiah 66:7-8). It is a gift from God who has power to bring life from life. In verses 11-12 Jerusalem nurtures the children born, nursing them at her breast and dandling them on her knee.

The personification of Jerusalem as a woman appears elsewhere in prophetic literature (see Jeremiah 2:2; 4:31; 13:21-27; Ezekiel 23:1-49) and is a primary image in Lamentations 1-2. In much of the prophetic literature personified Jerusalem is described as an unfaithful woman whose actions will reap serious and sometimes violent circumstances. In the book of Lamentations, Jerusalem weeps over the loss of her children to an enemy — a vivid way of describing the Babylonian attack on the city of Jerusalem (Lamentations 1:2, 5, 7, 16, 18). All this is to say that when we encounter this joyful Jerusalem in Isaiah 66, she is a woman who has experienced much life — she has loved, and she has lost; she has sought, and she has returned home.

Even in the more expectant passages of Isaiah 40-55 — passages filled with the hope of a new mother — this past grief is not forgotten. In Isaiah 49:20-21, Jerusalem recounts her time of bereavement and exile as she notes with surprise that she has borne more children. In Isaiah 54:1-2, as Jerusalem is exhorted to sing out in joy and to enlarge the size of her tent in order to accommodate her future children, she is addressed as desolate and as a “barren one who did not bear.” As the reference to mourning in verse 10 signifies, Jerusalem’s whole past is present in these verses as well. This new thing that God is doing is not — as if it ever could be — cut off from past experiences.

Isaiah 66:10-14 is addressed to the people of Jerusalem — the young beloveds suckling at the breast and sitting at the hip of this city who now sustains their every need. Jerusalem had long been known as the place that God had chosen as an earthly dwelling, and the Temple atop Mount Zion represented this. Jerusalem, then, became a sign of God’s presence and blessing. Its destruction called this into question. The image of Isaiah 66 of the city of Jerusalem as one who nourishes her child is a vivid reclamation of this old theme, affirming once more that the city is a symbol of God’s presence and care.

I will comfort you

In verse 13 the mother image moves from Jerusalem to God. It is not, finally, the city — personified or otherwise — who offers mothering comfort but God. Like the images studied above, God as mother and the theme of comfort arise in other sections of Isaiah as well. In Isaiah 42:14, God cries out like a woman in labor, though the image there is not one of hope or new beginnings but an analogy between the gasping of labor pains and the panting of a warrior going into battle. In Isaiah 49:15 the metaphor is more hopeful, as God is depicted as more attentive and compassionate than a nursing mother. Never shall God’s children be left behind.

This theme of comfort recalls times when Jerusalem and her children were without comfort (Lamentations 1:2, 9, 16, 17, 21). Isaiah 66:13 forms a bookend with Isaiah 40:1. “Comfort, oh comfort my people, says your God.” In a sense this whole part of the book of Isaiah is enveloped in divine comfort. Between Isaiah 40 and Isaiah 66, other periodic exclamations of God’s comfort for God’s people emphasize this (see Isaiah 49:13; 51:3; 51:12; 52:9; 54:11).

All these recurrent themes point forward to a new, God-given future. There are two caveats. First, these chapters neither forget nor discount parts of the past that were less hopeful or joyous. Rather both the past and the present are integrated in this new, promised future. This has been stated above, but it bears repeating. Secondly, while this passage is one of joy and salvation, passages both before and after it hold words of judgment. In Protestant parlance, there is both law and gospel, each complementing the other. Rather than salvation and hope following judgment and law, the two continue to be paradoxically present at the same time, much as in our own lives.