Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-5
Nothing in life is free. Particularly if one has grown accustomed to the harsh policies of the empire that is set to exploit the peasants by means of heavy taxation.
However, it is exactly with this message of free food and drink that the prophet in this week’s lectionary reading is seeking to draw his audience into the world he imagines.
In Isa 55:1-2, the speaker urgently invites the exilic community burdened by imperial policies in a three-fold repetition of the imperative “to come.” They are invited to “come,” “buy,” and “eat” from the rich gifts of food the prophet is offering: the wine and the nourishing milk well-suited for a festival. The audience is called to take part in the feast, to eat what is good, and to delight themselves in rich food (v. 2). Making a connection between food and the word (or wisdom as in Woman Wisdom’s invitation in Prov 9:1-5), this text offers evidence that food increasingly is understood on a spiritual level, intended to still Israel’s spiritual hunger and thirst.
The recipients of the prophetic word in Isaiah 55 are described as being needy. To be thirsty and to have no money (v. 1) indeed are fitting metaphors that describe well the situation of the exilic community. The traumatic experience of the exile and its aftermath had unquestionably depleted not only the physical but also the emotional and spiritual resources of these weary survivors.
What is remarkable about this invitation is that people are encouraged to come buy the expensive fare without money . Denoting the utter inability of the exiles to change their situation, this text asserts that the gift of salvation offered by God is completely and utterly free–there is nothing one can do to earn this gracious gift.
For people who have experienced the devastation brought about by food supplies being cut off (cf. e.g., the famine imagery in Lam 2:11-12 where babies and infants are fainting in the streets, crying out for bread and wine), the image of abundant food and drink would have been particularly significant. Drawing on the connotations of milk as a nourishing and thirst-quenching drink, as well as wine’s ability to gladden the heart (Ps 104:15), Isaiah 55 explores both the life-giving quality as well the joyous nature of the transformation effected by God’s word (cf. also the theme of euphoric joy at the end of this chapter when the trees of the field will burst out in song in v 12).
The prophet’s invitation in Isaiah 55 suggests something of the inner appropriation of the prophetic word (cf. also Ezek 2:8-3:3). To “come,” “buy,” “eat,” “listen,” and “delight” all are actions of participation. Like food and drink become part of the body, so the word and the prophet’s message should be fully embraced. To dine on God’s gifts of food, to listen, to make the good news of the return from exile their own, is to receive the gift of life (v. 3. Cf. also vv. 6-7). The prophet is imagining a new life filled with joy ahead for the people who have had more than their share of suffering and pain. However, the people have to join this world filled with life-giving possibilities by feasting on the Word.
Central to the prophet’s message in Isa 55:1-5, one encounters a creative tension between holding on to the memories of the past and creatively applying these traditions to the new challenges that have presented themselves. Isaiah 55 very much responds to the burning questions haunting the exiles that God’s covenant with them had been broken. The crisis brought about by the Babylonian exile surely raised all kinds of questions about whether God still remembered the covenant made with David (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89). On the one hand, Isa 55:3-4 seeks to assure the exiles that the God of David is still their God. The everlasting covenant is a sign that God’s steadfast love endures forever.
On the other hand, however, one sees evidence of the creative actualization of the covenant traditions when the original meaning of the covenant is significantly expanded. The particularity of the Davidic covenant is modified by the universality of the invitation that is directed to all people. One could say that “the house” that God had promised to build for David in 2 Sam 7:11, which denoted a sense of permanence and stability, now is opened to all people who would heed the invitation and join the festival that leads to life. This roomier understanding of the covenant relates to the servant’s vocation in Isa 42:6-7 to be a light to the nations, fulfilling Israel’s mission to be a blessing by providing healing and justice to those in need. It is exactly the love God had for David that serves as a witness to other nations who do not know God (v. 4). And it is by means of this act of expanding God’s steadfast love for David to include others that nations will be drawn into God’s love (cf. also Isa 2:1-5 where the nations will stream to Zion).
This balance between holding on to the traditions of their ancestors while at the same time looking for ways to creatively apply the memories of the past has important implications for our own application of biblical texts. The living word of God, which is as nourishing to the soul as milk is to the body; which brings as much joy to the mind as wine does to the human heart, can never become stagnant and mechanically transmitted from generation to generation. The living word of God has to be constantly actualized in terms of the new challenges presenting themselves in each new interpretative situation. Continuing the metaphor of serving a meal of good food and drink, contemporary preachers are called to proclaim God’s word in such a way that they offer a nourishing alternative to the emptiness that all too often is dished up by an increasingly capitalistic, technologically-obsessed and media-saturated society.