Commentary on Isaiah 12:2-6
Many of us have a greater appreciation for water lately.
The drought of 2012 left many with withered lawns and watering bans, left farmers without crops, and left animals both wild and domestic in danger of starvation and dehydration. Others of us, however, have seen too much water in recent months, with homes, crops, businesses, and communities devastated by flooding.
On this third Sunday in Advent, Isaiah’s language in 12:2-6 of the wells of God’s salvation speaks both to those who suffer water’s absence and those who feel drowned in the waters of destruction. God’s salvation flows and overflows, fulfilling the deepest need of parched souls with the very presence of God in their midst.
Chapter 12 provides a transition between Isaiah’s narrative of Judah’s history, marked by periods of obedience and disobedience to God’s will, and oracles of judgment against the nations. The chapter reflects the context of chapters 1-39, with Judah living under the grip of Assyria’s domination, and it points to the theme of God’s comfort for those returned from Babylonian exile in chapters 40-66.
It also points toward the day of God’s judgment and salvation — a day of joy, exaltation, and praise. That day, which is referred to twice in chapter 12, is described gloriously in 2:2-4: the peoples of the world will stream to the mountain of the Lord, where God will instruct and judge, and they “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” The day of which Isaiah 12 sings is the day when the peace of God will finally be established upon the earth, and the nations of the world will wage war no more.
Two distinct voices can be heard in Isaiah 12, possibly reflecting the linkage of two hymns for the purposes of communal worship. The chapter begins with an individual’s song of thanks for God’s anger being turned away (verse 1), and of praise for God’s salvation (verse 2). In this verse an almost exact echo of the song of Moses following the deliverance of the people of Israel from Pharaoh’s army is heard: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (Exodus 15:4).
The speaker demonstrates that God continues to provide deliverance of God’s people from all that may enslave them. In verse four, the song continues in a communal voice, praising God’s glorious acts of salvation and calling on the people to make that glory known through all the earth (verses 4 and 5). The singer calls upon the people to live in expectation of the day of salvation and, in so doing, to make the kingdom of God known here and now.
Zion is exalted because the ineffable and majestic God, the “holy one of Israel” (verse 6), has actually chosen to live in her midst. The two parts of the song are linked by verse three. The verse is a promise to the people that on the day of judgment they will know in abundance the joy of God’s salvation.
Water is a common motif in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are narratives of God’s miraculous provision of water for desperate persons (Genesis 21:19) and communities (Exodus 17:1-7). Water is often used as a metaphor for salvation (Isaiah 35:6-7 and 55:1; Ezekiel 47:1-12). And water represents the very presence of God with individuals (Psalm 42:1 and 63:1) and with communities (Isaiah 44:3).
Here in Isaiah 12:3, the “wells of salvation” from which the people will draw seem to reflect both salvation and divine presence, as the reference to God’s indwelling with Israel suggests. Another passage in Isaiah speaks beautifully of the salvation and presence of God as water for those who thirst:
When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
the Lord will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
And the dry land springs of water. . . .
so that all may see and know,
all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this (Isaiah 41:17-20).
The wells of salvation, the water of God’s gracious presence, are bottomless, endless. These are the waters that give life, restoring vibrancy to a world that is dying of thirst, and seeking wholeness for those overwhelmed by the floods of destruction.
The water of forgiveness, of liberation from all that holds us in captivity, of refreshment of souls that are parched for grace, is the same water of which Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well: “those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). The water of salvation that flows with the very presence of God is coming again to the world in endless supply for our deepest need.