Commentary on Isaiah 51:1-6
These verses from Isaiah are packed as they celebrate what God will accomplish among the exiled people. Because they are still an exiled people, a new vision is required. These verses offer comfort, hope, and a vision of abundance. In the heart of captivity and despair, Isaiah seeks to fire their imaginations so that God’s people can participate in the deliverance God promises. Imagine moving from “waste place” to Eden, from desert to garden (verse 3), from captivity to freedom (verse 5)! My commentary will focus on cultivating imagination as central to God’s redemptive work, especially within a scarcity mindset.
You will need to draw the picture for your audience of a people broken and defeated. Paint this picture of people taken in chains to Babylon, losing their temple, their homes, their way of life and perhaps even their trust in God. Displaced and disoriented, God’s people know only loss and death. The world they knew has faded in memory and they can only see decades of captivity ahead. You will know here what analogs of displacement (perhaps church decline) and disorientation (perhaps pandemic) your own community may be facing.
Scarcity and imagination
It’s no surprise that the Israelites might be functioning within a framework of scarcity: “wilderness,” “desert,” “waste places”. When you’ve lost everything, it’s easy to cling to what little is left, gripping tightly to a few morsels protectively, suspicious of others’ motives and needs.
Into this scarcity mindset, Isaiah speaks an absurd vision of abundance. We can wonder whether it was jarring and even ridiculous to speak such words into lives devastated and displaced. Yet the prophet insists that deliverance resides in this very place, a transformation so concrete that people sing for joy (verse 3).
Notice the concrete images Isaiah invites them to see. This is not generalized “don’t worry, God will deliver you.” It is a specific and compelling picture to fire the imagination. Consider: God will “comfort all her waste places,” “her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord” (verse 3). And further, God’s justice will “be a light” (verse 4) to a people who know no justice. For a people defeated, is this merely pie-in-the-sky? Or does Isaiah expand the frame of reference beyond oppression, offering an alternative and prophetic line of sight?
Scarcity for us
Today, our gaze is fixed on scarcity. Doom-scrolling and toxic news convince us to fear each other and fear the future. Consumer addictions convince us that we need more, that our jobs, lives, relationships, possessions, homes, are not enough. We have allowed our consciousness to be colonized by the loudest voices and most frightening scenarios. Our scope of view is so crowded with outrage and fear, there’s no room in our view to imagine what God might be up to. Our vision is too preoccupied to recognize the abundant life God offers us, right here, right now.
Much like holding a child’s chin in order to direct their eyes, their attention, Isaiah shakes us—“Look!”—from the numbing stupor of the scarcity worldview.
Cultivating our imagination
What if imagination is the muscle we need most in order to have “eyes to see” the ways God is transforming wilderness into Eden? One of the first steps of cultivating imagination is to recognize that we don’t already know everything. We are so full of information, strategic plans, metrics and expectations, that first we must empty ourselves to make room for imagination to flourish. There is a sort of surrender in humbling ourselves in this way.
Second, we must relax, loosening our grip on having to be right. Instead, we must be willing to be playful or even foolish in order to cultivate imagination. When the inner critic is constantly saying, “No, that’s not right” and “God would never do that!” we shut down imagination before it can even begin. Think here of the key principle of improv comedy: “Yes!” or “Yes, and …” The goal here is to develop the muscle, not to figure out what is right.
Third, we must be patient, as these new “eyes to see” beyond our scarcity mindset will take time. This is a muscle that has severely atrophied. A historical note: Many Christians in the West have a deep suspicion of the imagination. The modern period’s epistemological privileging of the cognitive has added to this suspicion. Protestant Christians often consider the imagination as the devil’s playground and warn the faithful away from engaging it. Yet, imagination is central to the biblical witness and to Jesus’ own teaching. And, through neuroscience today, we know that the imagination is a powerful tool embedded in our entire neural-network. We deny the imagination to our own peril.
Follow Isaiah’s invitation to pay attention: “Look” and “listen” (verses 1-2, 4), “Lift up your eyes” (verse 6). Cultivating our imaginations is another way to pay attention to what God is up to, to “have eyes to see and ears to hear” the work of God at hand. That is, to see God’s dream—Eden, garden, deliverance, abundance.
Consider the scarcity mindset that may persist unawares with your listeners. Invite them to imagine beyond it in one or two concrete ways. The preacher might paint an image or two, playing with “how might we imagine our way from scarcity to the possibilities of …” Use the three steps from above if it helps:
1) Invite them to let go of what they think they already know.
2) Reassure them that they don’t have to get it right or have the answer. There’s no “gotcha” here.
3) Take your time. Let your imagination come as it will. This is a new muscle.
“Lift up your eyes … my deliverance will never be ended!” (verse 6)