Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Like many other selections from the lectionary, Isaiah 55:1-5 is a small unit that, while relatively self-contained, has connections both to what precedes and what follows (preachers beware!).

July 31, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-5

Like many other selections from the lectionary, Isaiah 55:1-5 is a small unit that, while relatively self-contained, has connections both to what precedes and what follows (preachers beware!).

Chapter 55 as a whole is the last chapter in a larger collection (chapters 40-55), typically called Second Isaiah and attributed to an anonymous prophet active during the Babylonian exile. Many see chapter 54 of Second Isaiah as the theological climax of Second Isaiah,1 but chapter 55 is the final chapter that is typically included in the unit. 

Even if it is not the climax, it is at the least the “epilogue” that corresponds to the “prologue” of chapter 40.2 As for the relationship of our specific unit to what immediately precedes it, some scholars are of the opinion that Isaiah 55:1-5 is connected to and concludes the sentiments of chapter 54, while others mark these verses off from chapter 54 (note the change in address), and relate them instead to what follows in chapter 55. Whatever decision is made, the unit remains a discrete section and therefore capable (and worthy!) of being preached.

Verse 1 begins with an attention getting device: Hebrew hôy, which is often translated “Ho” (NRSV, NJPSV/Tanakh). This translation is now archaic and if it draws attention to itself, it is probably mostly because it sounds old if not altogether off-putting. NIV chooses not to represent hôy at all. A better contemporary idiom would probably be “Hey!” or “Listen up!” especially because what follows is a call to come and buy food to eat and wine and milk to drink, even if one lacks money. 

The first part of that call–to buy food and drink when one is hungry–makes good sense and may well be related to the actual practices of food and water-sellers in the markets of ancient Israel, hawking their wares with “Hey!” “Ho!” and “Hôy!”3 The second part of the call is odd, though: how does one buy without purchasing power (money)? And what seller would call for someone to (par)take of their goods without spending any money? And who is this seller anyway?

While the language of verse 1 may derive from the marketplace, it is also found on the lips of personified Woman Wisdom (e.g., Proverbs 9:1, 3-6; Sirach 24:19-22). But these two options are ultimately complementary: Woman Wisdom “is often described in the Old Testament in the idiom of an aggressive hawker.”4 Connections between Isaiah 55:1 and Woman Wisdom make the summons not just compelling (a la a pushy salesperson) but reasonable, shrewd, and wise. In Proverbs, after all, Wisdom sounds an awful lot like God (see Proverbs 1:20-33) and is said to be God’s right-hand woman as it were (Proverbs 8:22-36). It sounds like a good idea, then, on many levels to drink when thirsty and eat when hungry and to buy it up, especially when money is no object (required)!

Regardless of the traditions that lie behind or influence verse 1, the specific (and odd) content of the verse is crucial. The unspecified addressees (plural in Hebrew) are thirsty, evidently hungry too. They are summoned to the waters, commanded (the verbs here are imperatives) to buy and eat (presumably bread/grain, as connoted by the verb used for “buy”) and to drink wine and milk–a combination of the essential (water, bread/grain) with the “superfluous” (wine and milk).5–again, all without money and without price. Not only is that not a bad deal, it is also a signal that what we have in this unit is nothing less than a proclamation of salvation and good news.6

This good news is signaled, in turn, by the fact that things shift in verse 2. Suddenly we learn that those addressed have means after all (“your money” and “your labor”); they’ve just been spending it on the wrong things: things that aren’t bread and that cannot satisfy.  It’s high time that changed. If only the audience will “listen carefully” (an emphatic construction in Hebrew) to “me” they will “eat what is good, and delight…in rich food.” 

In light of what is said in this verse and the verses to follow, the “me” here is probably God.7 God’s speech (assuming this referent is correct), continues the food imagery, but the register shifts yet again. Eating what is good and delighting in rich food is conjoined with careful listening in verse 2; and in verse 3a we hear again of coming, but not of coming to the waters or of coming to purchase, but of coming to God (“me” again). Such coming depends on listening and such listening produces life (verse 3ab).8

In the middle of verse 3 things shift once more. The satisfaction of food gave way to listening to the divine voice, which led to life, which is now defined (at least by means of poetic juxtaposition) as the making of “an everlasting covenant” (bĕrît ʿōlām). That term occurs a number of times in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 9:16; Exodus 31:16; Leviticus 24:8; 2 Samuel 23:5; 1 Chronicles 16:17; Psalm 105:10; Isaiah 24:5; Jeremiah 32:40; 50:5; Ezekiel 16:60; 37:26) with different valences; here it is immediately modified–again by poetic juxtaposition–by “my steadfast, sure love for David.”9  The eternal covenant in question, then, is the Davidic one (see 2 Samuel 23:5; 1 Chronicles 16:17).

Mention of the great king–one of the Old Testament’s (and God’s) favorites–leads into a three-fold description of him. God claims to have made David:

a witness (Hebrew ʿēd) to the peoples
a leader (Hebrew nāgîd) and
a commander (Hebrew mĕṣawwēh) for the peoples.

The problem here is that the David we know from Samuel and Chronicles doesn’t quite match up to this description, especially since the twice-repeated term for “peoples” is not one that is used for the people of Israel, but for the nations more broadly (Hebrew lĕʾūmmîm). The terms are also somewhat unspecific though they appear to share a common trait–namely, that they all “express communicative activities.”10 Communicative activities, it should be stressed, to the nations.

Perhaps this is an idealized “David,” perhaps it is even the portrait of David as known from the Psalms;11 regardless, the point is not so much the pertinence of these descriptors for David but their application now to “you”12–the audience itself. Most commentators agree that this transfer is quite radical because it means that the promises to David are “taken out of the political sphere and the sphere of kingship” and promised to the people/nation as a whole.13

Many scholars refer to Psalm 89 at this point, which is a bleak psalm that laments God’s abandonment of the covenant with the Davidic monarch.14 Perhaps that psalm, too, is exilic in origin (or at least mood). Whatever the case, in comparison, Isaiah 55 can be seen as “a direct refutation” of such a lament.15 It may seem like God has broken the covenant with David, but that isn’t accurate. From God’s own lips Israel now learns that the Davidic covenant is not broken but newly re-made. This new version is for the people as much as–better: rather than for–kings. 

The end result will be the pilgrimage of the nations (here Hebrew gôy) to Israel (verse 5a). At this point, then, at the very end of Second Isaiah we see a notion found much earlier in the unit as well: that Israel is to be “a light to the nations” (42:6; 49:6). The “newness” business ought not be overdone homiletically, however: as in the case of the “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31:31-34, there is profound continuity and interrelationship with what has come before. This is, after all, the “steadfast, sure love for David,” we are talking about, and David was the monarch who also received an eternal covenant, and who is also said to have received nations while ruling in Jerusalem (see Psalm 72:8-11; note also the imagery in Isaiah 2:3-4; 11:10, 12; 49:22-23).

All well and good–and a beautiful ending (or at least promise) to the tragedy of exile and Second Isaiah’s complicated poetic response to all that16–but verse 5 is not yet done. All this isn’t happening, despite the continuities, because of David.  Neither is it happening because of exile or because God feels badly about that.  Neither because of Israel or its repentance. 

Verse 5b makes very clear that all this will happen “on account of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel”; that, yes, and one more thing: “because he has glorified you” (my translation).  This means, of course, that this newly re-fashioned eternal covenant is truly one of grace.  So, back to the beginning: “Hey, you! Come buy and eat!  No money necessary!”

1See, e.g., Isaiah 54:7-10; and, more extensively, Katie M. Heffelfinger, I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes: Lyric Cohesion and Conflict in Second Isaiah (Biblical Interpretation Series 105; Leiden: Brill, 2011). 
2So Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55 (translated by Margaret Kohl; edited by Peter Machinist; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 465.
3See Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (translated by D. M. G. Stalker; Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969 [German original: 1966]), 282. 
4Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 433; cf. Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah, 467. 
5Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 282. 
6Ibid., 281. 
7Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah, 466, is only certain that God speaks verses 3b-4.  He ultimately decides that personified Jerusalem/Zion speaks verses 1-3a (ibid., 467-68) and an unidentified speaker utters verse 5 (ibid., 473). 
8Childs rightly warns against false dichotomization between the material and spiritual in the opening verses.  For Israel both kinds of gifts “are closely fused and cannot be torn apart” (Isaiah, 434).
9The genitive phrase in Hebrew (ḥasdê dāwīd hanneʾĕmānîm) could be either subjective (“David’s steadfast, sure love” [adapting NRSV]) or objective (“steadfast, sure love for David”).  Most translations and commentators prefer the latter (see Childs, Isaiah, 434).  Regardless, note that the pronominal suffix “my” used in NRSV and NIV is not present in Hebrew. 
10Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah, 471.
11See Childs on the David in verse 4 as “a prophetic construct used to depict David’s true vocation according to the original, theological purpose of God for his anointed one” (Isaiah, 435; further, 436-37).  See Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah, 471 on the David here being that of “the psalms of David” (he is following the earlier work of F. Delitzsch). 
12Here the grammar is masculine singular, apparently referring to the people of Israel.  The restored city would presumably be designated by the feminine singular. Baltzer thinks the final suffix in verse 5 (“glorified you“) is probably feminine (Deutero-Isaiah, 468). 
13Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 286; see further ibid., 281, 284-85; Childs, Isaiah, 435-37. Baltzer speaks of the “democratization” of the David tradition at this point (Deutero-Isaiah, 470-71). 
14Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 284; Childs, Isaiah, 435. 
15Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 284. 
16Again, see Heffelfinger, I Am Large