Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In many of our churches, we tend to align salvation with God’s grace, themes that we then set over against divine judgment.

September 6, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 35:4-7a

In many of our churches, we tend to align salvation with God’s grace, themes that we then set over against divine judgment.

In the biblical witness, however, the salvation of the LORD is intimately connected to God’s judgment. In Isaiah 35, the LORD’s surprising mercy and terrifying justice converge and kiss. God’s coming is intimately tied to the return of the people from exile. In fact, the two events are seen as one, and both transform the wilderness into a well-watered garden of rejoicing. The created order is restored, and the weak and vulnerable in the social order are made whole when God visits God’s people.

Isaiah 35:4–7a begins with a brief instruction to exhort the people not to fear (verse 4). The lection emphasizes the great reversal that comes about through the LORD’s presence. Both the people and the desert land will be transformed (verses 5–7a). While this reading does capture some of the essence of the entire chapter, the oracle’s complete meaning becomes clear only in its broader context.

Isaiah 35:4–7a is a small selection from the larger vision found in 35:1–10. Chapter 35 can be divided into two sections:
1) The theophany of the LORD (verses 1–6a)
2) The return of the people (verses 6b–10)

Both units begin with descriptions of the desert changing from a dry and barren place into a land that is flourishing (verses 1–2a) with an abundance of water (verses 6b–7). The two sections also share the theme of joy, first at the coming of the LORD and then for the return of God’s elect. Most scholars assign Isaiah 35 to Deutero Isaiah, an exilic author, since the prophet uses the well-known theme of the LORD making a way or “highway” in the desert (cf. Isaiah 40:3; 43:19).

In its canonical context, Isaiah 35 serves as a thematic bridge between Chapters 1–39 and 40–55. Chapter 35 follows a series of judgments on the nations, especially Edom in Chapter 34; and, hence, the redemptive effects of the LORD’s “recompense” in Isaiah 35 provide a contrast with the devastating result of God’s judgment on the nations. The themes of a highway in the wilderness and the return of God’s people point forward to the opening vision of Deutero Isaiah in Chapter 40. Thus, Isaiah 35 both brings Isaiah 1–39 to a thematic conclusion and serves as an introduction to the oracles of hope that begin in Isaiah 40.

In verses 1-6a, the author draws heavily on the theme of the LORD’s coming (in Hebrew, bô’). God’s appearance in the created order, also known as a theophany, is the primary image within this first half of Chapter 35. The section begins in verses 1–2 with the wilderness rejoicing and blooming when it sees the “glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God” (verse 2). Thus, the barren ground responds and is transformed at the coming of the LORD.

Following this doxological response from nature, the people are encouraged to take heart and not to fear (verses 3–4). It is common within the biblical narrative for the people to respond in fear to the LORD’s appearance (cf. Exodus 20:18). Here, however, the writer provides assurance that God’s coming will result not in the people’s destruction but in their salvation (verse 4b). Moreover, just like the parched land, the weakest and most vulnerable in society will respond and be transformed–the blind shall see, the deaf shall hear, and the lame shall “leap like a deer” (verse 6a).

In verses 6b–10, the LORD’s coming parallels the homecoming of the exiles. The theophany in the first section has given way to the corresponding image of God’s people returning through the desert, a holy pilgrimage with Zion as its destination. Like the first section, this second unit of Chapter 35 begins with the transformation of the natural order. The desert becomes a well-watered land. The salvation of the LORD, whether depicted theologically through the appearance of God or anthropologically in the people’s joyful journey home, begins with the natural order’s transformation and response to the mighty acts of God. Rather than facing the harsh natural forces of the wilderness, the people return upon a well-watered highway. Instead of hostile terrain, the travelers encounter a flourishing path with “streams in the desert” (verse 6b).

The dangers that travelers would expect on such a journey are no longer present. The “lions” and wild animals are nowhere to be found, but “the redeemed shall walk there” (verse 9). This path through the wilderness, unlike other journeys in Israel’s narrative and creedal history, will not be paved with temptations or the fear of failure; rather, it will be a secure “way,” a road where no traveler can depart from God’s ways, not even the fools (verse 8).

This chapter, which began with the rejoicing in the desert (verses 1–2), ends appropriately with the returning exiles singing with joy as they return to their home (verse 10). The people’s grief and suffering, like the desert road on which they travel, has transformed. Their sorrow has become joy. Their mourning has turned into singing and rejoicing.

This passage emphasizes the radical nature of God’s work among humanity. When the LORD appears, strange and marvelous things happen. The wilderness becomes a flourishing path with streams of water flowing abundantly. Dangerous roads become secure paths upon which the redeemed can walk with assurance. The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame not only walk but leap for joy. The exiles return home.

When God visits God’s people, there is only one appropriate response. All of creation and humanity are transformed at the appearance of their God, and all rejoice together and sing for joy. The LORD’s presence, whether characterized by a theophany or manifested through the mighty works done on behalf of God’s people, changes everything, quite literally.