Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-9
Isaiah 55:1-9 comprises most of the final hymn of the exilic portion of Isaiah (chapters 40-55, commonly called Second Isaiah), which invites exiles living outside of Judah in the sixth century B.C.E., at the dawn of Persian rule, to uproot themselves, move to a land their generation never knew, and reclaim their ancestral home.
For more on the Babylonian exile and on Second Isaiah’s response to it see the discussion of Isaiah 43:1-7 on January 13, the Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord.
Though a real event in an earthly world, the Babylonian exile of the Jews was portrayed in Scripture with such moving imagination that later readers saw in it much more than history. Poetry eloquently describing a pragmatic return from exile in spiritual terms soon came to be read as describing the spiritual journey of every believer from our various alienations to our home in God.
Second Isaiah constructs several bold arguments for this journey: to reclaim the legacy of Abraham and Sarah (Isaiah 41:8; 51:1-2); to reenact the exodus from Egypt so many centuries before (43:16-17; 51:9-10); to live out Israel’s role as God’s own creation (42:5-6; 43:1, 7, 15; 51:16). Here in chapter 55 the poet imagines repatriation as welcome to a bountiful feast of satisfying foods, hosted by none other than God.
The image of Judah’s land as one “flowing with milk and honey” (see Deuteronomy 26:9) is implicit in this invitation. In the book of Proverbs, Woman Wisdom speaks very similarly, preparing her food, setting her table, and sending her servant girls to fetch the ignorant, saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:5-6). Just as Wisdom employs food as a metaphor for wise teaching, here God’s banquet not only recalls the promise of the land’s fertility but also the spiritual richness of life before God.
The bold exhortation embedded in verse one’s thrice-repeated imperative verb “come … come … come” is to choose well. Come to the water; come to the banquet; come buy without money. In other words, don’t take what has value and waste it on nothing. Don’t settle for what doesn’t feed; take only what is good. This theme of choice permeates the whole passage. Soon the food imagery recedes, and returning to the land is merged with returning to God (verses 6-7). Clear distinction between seeking God’s ways and failing to seek them is made in verses 8-9. Because God’s ways are so radically different from human ways, because God’s thoughts are not human thoughts, they won’t be found by any other means than through this Godward journey.
The chapter’s final four verses, 10-13, return to the theme of nutrition, as God’s own words are compared to the rain and snow that bring food from the ground. Mountains, hills, and trees — powerful figures of the natural world — are imagined singing and clapping in celebration when the exiles return. Verdancy quickly follows as cypress and myrtle appear. Isaiah 55 beckons its audience to choose to position themselves as recipients of God’s bounty, both physical and spiritual.
In light of this passage, it’s worthwhile to consider the economics of food and water. In Lamentations 5:2-4, conquered people had complained of the high cost of what had once been available for free:
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to aliens.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
our mothers are like widows.
We must pay for the water we drink;
the wood we get must be bought.
Those who lost their heritage to encroaching foreigners were forced to pay money even for natural resources freely found by those owning property. Not only fuel, but even water, had been commodified. This harsh reality faced by the generation of the conquered makes the offer of free water, milk, food, and wine all the more moving.
What of the choices in our world? On a spiritual, individual plane we can certainly speak of the invitation to make healthy choices for one’s own soul, to choose what gives life, rather than what does not nourish, and to meet our gracious and giving God in that place. On a more literal plane we can point to the growing health crisis in America born of poor choices both individual and social.
We can point to the consumption of what writer and food activist Michael Pollan has called “food-like substances,” processed, packaged items with unpronounceable ingredients, developed not for their nutritional value but for their usefulness in converting government-subsidized field corn into sweets that children will crave and parents will buy, food-like substances that substitute in the American stomach for the nutritious, varied diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that doctors recommend. Why spend money for what is not really food? Why labor to buy what does not satisfy?
On a broader social scale, we might also examine what we are offering the world, a world where, as among the ancient Judeans, basic necessities, even water, have been increasingly commodified. Hunger advocates repeatedly state that we are growing enough food today to feed all seven billion of us, if we only distribute it fairly. Yet many subsistence communities abroad have been forced to give up farming, displaced by cash crops that feed richer nations, and instead to depend on expensive, nutrient-low imports. As Sojourners editor Jim Rice recently put it, “Poor families who in the past may have eaten a diet high in fruits and vegetables from local farms now rely mainly on starchy staples and ingest higher proportions of fats and sugars.”1
They are not the only losers from society’s food choices. Even here at home, we find “food deserts,” neighborhoods lacking grocery stores to provide fresh, healthy foods. In food deserts, nutrition is disproportionately poor not simply because of individual choices, but because transportation beyond the fast food restaurant or convenience store is simply unavailable to those who cannot afford a car.
What would happen if we were to take seriously the graceful cornucopia of this passage, offering nutritional gifts not just for ourselves, but for all for whom God cares?
1. Jim Rice, “Obesity in a World of Hunger,” Sojourners (May 2012). View the entire article at http://sojo.net/magazine/2012/05/obesity-world-hunger?quicktabs_top_magazine_articles=2