Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Giving attention to the text and getting at tension in the text:

October 12, 2008

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 25:1-9

Giving attention to the text and getting at tension in the text:

Sound biblical interpretation has always required careful attention to texts within their scriptural and historical contexts.  When I was in seminary, the primary goal of exegesis was to determine the single, major point of a biblical passage — this point became the theme of the sermon. One does not have to read a lot of the Bible, however, to realize that the more attention we give to many passages, the more difficult it becomes to identify one central theme. Thus, we often attend to one set of ideas over another, and such choices are part and parcel of preaching ministry.

Careful attention to the content of Isaiah 25 in its context uncovers more than just several themes; it also gets at tension — significant theological tension — within its verses. Consider the following: tension between the past tense praise (vv. 1b-5) and the future tense prophecy (vv. 6-9); between the “fear” expressed by the “strong/ruthless” (v. 3) and the “refuge” experienced by the “poor/needy” (v. 4); between the ruined “city” (v. 2) and the rich “mountain” (v. 6); between the finality of judgment upon “the palace of aliens” (v. 2b) and the ultimate blessing for “all peoples” (vv. 6-7); between the apparent universal rejoicing among all peoples/nations in the prophecy (vv.6-9) and the exclusion of the nation of Moab, mentioned immediately after our passage (vv. 10-12).  These images do not easily fit together, but that is the beauty and promise of tension in Isaiah’s theology. At the risk of marring that beauty and oversimplifying the tension, I offer these observations on our Old Testament lection.

First, it is tempting to resolve the tension simply by addressing the text’s literary genres or canonical location. Some scholars suggest that the thanksgiving psalm in vv. 1-5 and the apocalyptic vision in vv. 6-9 obviously represent different forms and authors, explaining the seeming ambiguity. Others propose that the book of Isaiah’s complex literary history accounts for the tensions, since one or both of the two sections (vv. 1-5 and 6-9) has been relocated here.

Regardless of the importance of literary history and form, the fact is that these sections have internal tensions of their own (e.g., the arch-typical “city” destroyed in v. 2; “ruthless” cities glorify God in v. 3). We must eventually reckon with the current canonical setting that places the two parts together, uniting them by repeated mention of “peoples” and “nations” throughout the nine verses as well as the inclusionary phrases: “Lord…my God…I will praise” (v. 1) and “this is our God…the Lord…let us be glad” (v. 9). Incidentally, I would  encourage including at least v. 10a with this lection (as the NRSV implies), since “this mountain” balances its occurrence in v. 6, thus enveloping the stanza.

Second, even if we could resolve the tension by moving or dividing up the passage, we would still have to deal with the thematic content. The fact is the whole book of Isaiah operates with a complex understanding of how God’s justice relates to God’s mercy and how Israel relates to the nations. For example, “the city” destined for ruin (v. 2) most likely represents “the world structures without reference to God,”1   but Isaiah also uplifts the city of Jerusalem when he speaks of “this mountain.” Moreover, what sounds like blatant xenophobia in v. 2 (“palace of aliens is a city no more”) is mitigated when one hears that God’s eschatological banquet is for “all peoples” (v. 6) and his resurrecting power is for “all nations” (vv. 7-8). And yet Moab’s exclusion (in vv. 10-12) stands as a reminder of God’s undiminished righteousness, much like the similar tension in the wedding banquet parable in today’s gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14).

Thus, as Brevard Childs wisely notes, Isaiah does not proclaim “the modern ideology of religious universalism, characterized by unlimited inclusivity.”2  But whatever the nature and scope of God’s inclusivity, the universal spirit in Isaiah’s vision means that the theological tension persists for us.  In spite of all the atrocities and terror of our time, the prophecy places in us this heart-felt desire for all the nations ultimately to come to the rich banquet, a sentiment consistent with “the biblical witness…that no one will be truly satisfied until everyone is fed.”3

Third, even if we could resolve theological tensions in the text, we remain unable to resolve them in our lives. Although we may wish for quick and decisive resolution to our significant problems and needs, we know that such resolution is neither possible nor desirable. Even if we could assure positive outcomes for every crisis we face, would we seriously want to keep such contentment and provision all to ourselves? If we tried to resolve every person and nation’s competing claims to justice in our finite and fallen world, we would experience the same chaos Jim Carrey observed when he granted every human’s prayer requests in Bruce Almighty.  Only the exalted Lord of hosts can be trusted with such justice; only this God will mete it out in perfect consistency with “His salvation” (v. 9).

As I write this, my state of Iowa has been buffeted by tornadoes and floods. It is easy for despair to creep in, to feel a “shroud that is cast” over us. The theological tension in Isaiah 25:1-9 means that while we aren’t given an earthly means for overcoming all disasters and tragedies, we are given a glimpse of a world in which death is swallowed up forever and “God will wipe away the tears from all faces” (v. 8). Now that vision should get our attention!

1Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 208.
2Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 186.
3Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, “Bread of Heaven,” The Princeton Seminary Review ns 7 (1986): 24.