Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

The job description of the prophet contains among other less than coveted tasks the ability to speak a life-giving word of hope when all the events seem to point to the contrary.

July 13, 2008

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13

The job description of the prophet contains among other less than coveted tasks the ability to speak a life-giving word of hope when all the events seem to point to the contrary.

In Isa 55:10-13 one sees the prophet performing this task particularly well when in but a few short verses, the prophet is able to conjure up a world where the impossible seems possible again. Ever since chapter 40, the prophet has been seeking to provide his fellow exiles with much-needed perspective, helping the survivors to look at their broken world with new eyes.

The people to whom the prophet is speaking were in desperate need of such a word. The trauma of the Babylonian Exile they had lived through was too much to bear. After seeing their beloved city destroyed; families torn apart; houses demolished; their country lost, it was not surprising that members of the prophet’s audience were not so sure anymore whether they still believed in the God of their ancestors. In an exuberant lyrical conclusion to not only chapter 55 but also to the whole of Deutero-Isaiah, the prophet is presenting these doubters with a word of hope from the Lord that has the purpose of transforming the exiles’ fractured lives.

Reminiscent of the earlier claim in Isa 40:8 that even though the grass withers and the flower fades, the word of God will endure forever, the prophet describes the word of God in v. 10 as substantive and life-giving. Like rain and snow that waters the ground, causing nourishing food to grow that sustains the body, the words to which the prophet refers feed the soul. The Word of God will achieve its purpose; it will not return empty (v. 11).

The metaphor of rain and snow would have been particularly effective for people accustomed to arid conditions. The prophet’s audience would most likely have understood the vital importance of rain and snow to transform dry land into conditions able to sustain the vegetation necessary for human survival. Rain and snow ensured food for the next year as well as the seed that would secure subsequent crops (v. 10). Within such conditions, precipitation indeed meant the difference between life and death, thus serving as an apt description of the ability of God’s word to have a transformative effect on the lives of the exiles.

So sure is the prophet of what he is saying that he all but bursts out in song. Immediately following the statement about the efficacy of God’s word, the prophet employs imaginative words that conjure up a world where the mountains and the hills break out in song and the trees of the fields clap their hands in accompaniment. The prophet’s words envision a world where the thorn trees and briers that throughout Isaiah were used as a symbol of judgment (5:6; 7:23-25; 32:13) now will be transformed into luscious green myrtles and cypresses. This radical transformation serves as a powerful symbol for the new life that lies ahead for the exiles after the devastation brought about by the Babylonian exile.

Within this exuberant display of joy with all of creation joining in song, the return of the exiles is imaged in terms of a festive procession. The term “to go out” in v. 12 is reminiscent of the paradigmatic account of the Exodus of God’s people (Exodus 14-15). This original exodus account became a way of talking about freedom from bondage and despair–freedom from settling for less than what God intended creation to be. And it is not just the exiles who are affected. One tends to forget that the brutal scorched-earth policy of the empire that destroyed everything in its way also had an effect on nature. But now the promise of God’s restoration, healing, and peace also impacts the trees of the field; the mountains and the hills that now joyously can sing about the powers of chaos that have been defeated.

This week’s lectionary text ends with the promise that the word of God will be a memorial–an eternal sign that shall not be cut off. Referring back to God’s covenant with David that formed a central theme earlier in this chapter (vv. 3-4), the prophet once again reminds his audience of God’s loyalty and steadfast love. It is with this promise of the eternal God that the prophet concludes his words to the people in exile. It is a promise of a God that is with God’s people always–even in exile; even though they may sometimes feel very much alone in the foreign land in which they were forced to dwell.
The prophet did not have an easy task to speak a word of hope when everything around him seemed hopeless. However, he succeeds in proclaiming a word that is counter to the words of the world; a word that stands over against the policies of the empire whose intent is to kill and destroy; a word that is able to imagine a world where everything is possible, where all of creation is mended and restored, where the exiles can go home and live in peace.

Even more challenging than speaking a word of hope in an improbable situation is to hear and to embrace this word, so living into the promise. Similar to the image of eating that was used in the beginning of this chapter (vv. 1-2), the people had to make the life-giving word from God their own. The ultimate intention of the prophetic word is that the exiles must take the first steps home by breaking with the empire and by joining the alternative world imagined by the prophet.

Centuries later, this point is still valid. It is true that if one cannot imagine it, one cannot live it. In actualizing this prophetic word for a contemporary context, the preacher once more has to engage in the prophetic task of painting a picture of the world as it ought to be, which seeks to transform the world as it currently is.