Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

As much a catalyst as it is a comfort

Painting by Valentin de BoulogneWikimedia Commons, Public domain.

July 16, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13

It is not always easy to proclaim to a grieving congregation that God’s word will not return empty. A promise that God’s blessings never fail can feel naive and even evoke bitterness in churches that have lost beloved members or can remember seasons when their sanctuary was fuller and their programs busier. A preacher to such a community may feel tempted to omit the expectant words of Isaiah 55:10–13 in hopes of finding something more suitably sober and exhortative in the Epistle or Gospel. But the prophet who promises triumph to his community is no stranger to suffering and his message is not one of platitudes. Rather, utilizing both the rich imagery of creation and rhetorical innovations on familiar prophetic tropes, Isaiah 55:10–13 articulates a message that is as much a catalyst as it is a comfort.

Isaiah 55:10–13 compromise the final words of what is sometimes designated as “Second” or “Deutero-” Isaiah. While no formal divisions exist in the text itself, biblical scholars have long argued for several discrete sections of the book (for example, First Isaiah: chapters 1–39; Second: 40–55, and Third: 56–66). While there are still debates regarding how these divisions relate to the dating, authorship, and formation of the book, most scholars agree that several different hands were involved in writing and editing Isaiah and that these figures worked in different historical periods.1 Despite some lingering uncertainty regarding provenance, then, we can nevertheless read these four verses as a conclusion to the quasi “second act” of the book of Isaiah. This interpretive lens can, in turn, inform how we preach Isaiah 55:10–13.

As an overarching theme, Second Isaiah up to this point has been concerned with the problem of Judah’s exile in the sixth century BCE, but chapter 55 begins to broaden the scope to more general words of hope.2 Whether first articulated during the period of the Babylonian captivity or merely set there literarily, Second Isaiah’s oracles are directed to a people who have seen (or have been told) of the invasion of their homeland, the imprisonment of their king, and the destruction of their temple. Through the prophet, God has promised these refugees and their descendants, “comfort” (Isaiah 40:1), “redemption” (Isaiah 44:22), and a triumphant return from Mesopotamia to the land of their ancestors (Isaiah 52:7–12). Chapter 55 reiterates some of these promises (for example, verse 7b; verses 11–12), but it also includes a reflection on the nature of God’s word itself:

10. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11. so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10–11).3

These two verses form an extended comparison: God’s word is like the rain and snow. At its most basic level, the comparison emphasizes certainty. When precipitation falls, it can be relied on to nourish life on earth. Likewise, we can trust that what God promises will come to pass.

Additionally, the use of creation imagery in the metaphor invites closer analysis. How might God’s promises come to pass? To begin, God’s word does not work in seclusion but through non-dominating collaboration with creation. Just as the rain and snow do not have unilateral agency in where they fall and in how the plants they water might grow, so also God’s creative word acts through God’s people and God’s people are co-creators with God. Lutheran biblical theologian Terence Fretheim connects these verses to God’s creative acts in Genesis 1, suggesting that God’s word is by nature relational.4 Commenting on the repeated refrain “Be fruitful and multiply (for example, Genesis 1:28), Fretheim observes that:

If creative power is an essential element in the imaging of God in the creation account, then human likeness to God in one respect consists in our procreative capacity… God remains involved in the process (see Psalm 139:13) but not in a micromanaging way so that human decisions and actions do not count or potentially random events cannot wreak havoc…5

Thus, while the prophet in Isaiah 55 reassures God’s people that they will, indeed, be liberated, the metaphor suggests also that they have a role to play in fulfilling that promise. Just as the farmers and the bakers must harvest and prepare the grain that the rain has grown, so also must God’s people make decisions that matter to those around them and affect creation itself.

The final two verses continue the use of creation imagery, this time to paint a picture of praise:

12. For you shall go out in joy
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

13. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle,
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off (Isaiah 55:12–13).

The poetry elucidates what it looks and feels like when God’s word and God’s people work together in productive harmony: Creation itself rejoices because it has been transformed and can now thrive.

Against the backdrop of the Exile, the prophet’s promise is pervaded by somewhat dissonant feelings of grief and hope. Perhaps this is why many Jews read Isaiah 55:6–13 as part of the afternoon prayers on minor fast days. The slightly larger edit of that liturgy includes the call to repentance in verses 6–9 that the Revised Common Lectionary omits: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 5:6). The inclusion of that exhortation reminds us of our own creative potential when we collaborate with God’s word. One can thus imagine these verses as a prophecy not shouted with fanfare but rather as one that is whispered, perhaps with some trepidation, though not lacking in conviction. Isaiah 55:10–13 was and remains drops of life-giving hope for dry but fertile communities, both in antiquity and today.


  1. H. G. M. Williamson, “How Many Isaiahs Were There?,” Bible Odyssey,
  2. Bob Becking, “Babylonian Exile,” Bible Odyssey,
  3. All translations from the NRSVue
  4. Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 34.
  5. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, 50.