Commentary on Isaiah 35:4-7a
The oracle begins with a command to speak, to proclaim words that remedy weakness and conquer fear (Isaiah 35:4).
Who needs to hear this word of strength and courage? The prophet names the audience for the sermon you will preach. In the NRSV they are “those who are of a fearful heart” (Isaiah 35:4). It’s not a bad translation, especially in light of the instruction “do not fear” later in the same verse.
But a more literal rendering of the Hebrew phrase nimharê lēb yields, “ones whose hearts are racing.” Isaiah calls you to preach to people whose hearts are racing.
As you prepare your sermon, I ask you to attend to the vivid, bodily imagery of this phrase, and to notice that Isaiah’s oracle is in fact filled with vivid bodily imagery. We move too quickly to treat such imagery as metaphor, as mere poetic device. When we do, we fail to mark the reality it discloses. That reality beats in your own chest and pumps between the ribs of every person who waits for you to proclaim the word of God.
The heart races. We know something about this. A hormone we call adrenaline or epinephrine courses through the bloodstream. It stimulates muscles, directs blood-flow, and accelerates metabolism. At the same time, it causes the senses to close in — the field of vision narrows and the world becomes strangely quiet. It is a stress response. It might energize the body for battle, or to run away. Or it might mimic paralysis.
Attend, as you prepare your sermon this week, to the fact that you are preaching to people in bodies. Their bodies might be telling them to fight or to run. Another’s body might want to run, but feels inexplicably frozen in place. Theory has it that we evolved these responses for situations of acute danger. Yet for most of us the world we now live in bombards our nervous systems with stimuli, or stressors, almost constantly. The danger is not usually acute, but our bodies have a limited repertoire for dealing with stress. A response that may, in extreme danger, help save our lives, more often breaks us down.
Attend to the racing hearts in your congregation. This one fights with everyone who gets close. This one’s body now fights with itself. This one hasn’t stopped running in years. Another is so terrified that she cannot even speak. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Hearts race in hope.
At the center of this passage’s first verse is a word I do not much like: “vengeance” (naqam). Usually when I read through this lection I find myself skittering past that word as quickly as possible. But I trip and land squarely on it, and decide that I’m not likely to understand what is going on in this passage if I do not attend to why the word holds such a prominent place. For this is the promise that purports to drive out fear. We are supposed to show the people that their God is right here in this place, close enough to touch. And we are supposed to promise that vengeance will come. I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.
Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels has shown that the Hebrew word naqam, the one translated by NRSV in this verse as “vengeance” (NAB offers “vindication”; NJPS translates here “requital”), refers to retribution by a legitimate authority. In Isaiah 35:4 and similar texts, it has the further emphasis of “retribution that brings liberation to the oppressed[,] … freedom from a situation of need and the restoration of justice.”1 Its meaning is closer, then, to what we call “restorative justice” than to “vengeance.”
The word naqam is further modified and delimited in this verse by the appositive phrase, gemûl elohim, translated in the NRSV as “terrible recompense.” This is an artful rendering, but a more literal translation reveals a wider range of possible meanings for the phrase. The Hebrew word gemûl often means simply “dealing”; it could also be translated “response,” “benefit,” or “payment.” We might translate the phrase here as “God’s response” or “God’s dealing.”
Say to the people, God is here. Restorative justice is on its way. Hope now in God’s dealing. Expect God’s response.
And this promise of God’s response, the command to proclaim that God is here right now and is working to make things right, focuses our attention on the need, in this place at this very moment, for restoration, repair, healing and transformation. It focuses our attention once again on the beating, racing hearts of the real people in our churches and communities. It demands that we see what they are running from, what they are fighting, what has immobilized them and stolen their voices. And it demands that we see and name their hope.
To preach this passage, then, you will need to exegete not only text but also context. The oracle gives no sure clues as to its own originating context. The contexts it calls you to interpret are your own and those of the people who have called you to preach. You are called also to exegete embodied human life. Only then can you speak words of strength and courage to the ones whose hearts are racing.
1Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.