Commentary on Isaiah 12:2-6
Isaiah 12 is the culminating hymn of the first section of Isaiah’s prophecy.
The first 11 chapters of Isaiah contain some of the most beautiful and treasured imagery of scripture, some of which also shows up in our advent lectionaries (Isaiah 9:2-7). Isaiah 11 culminates Isaiah’s assurance that a road of return is being prepared for the restoration of Israel. Even the far-off remnants will find their way back to God’s holy city.
After terrible trouble, salvation is finally being initiated for Israel by the mercy of God. Of course, in the coming chapters, Israel will hear a withering critique of its leadership in Judah during the arrival of Assyrian power. But suspended between the visions of fulfillment and the coming critique, is a brief interlude of Thanksgiving. Only six verses, Isaiah 12 gives Israel an opportunity to respond to the visions of fulfillment provided in the previous chapters.
I would encourage those interested in preaching this text to add back the first verse of the chapter. For one, it preserves the structural integrity of the hymn, allowing the symmetry of the direction, “You will say on that day,” a chance to communicate the imperative force of the hymn. By removing the first verse, we lose the balance where the first imperative is given to an individual and the second given to the collective.
Additionally, the direction in verse one is so wonderfully clear and direct, “You will say on that day: God, I thank you. For though you were angry with me, your anger has abated and you have consoled me.” Verse one makes plain the purpose of the hymn: thanksgiving. As a song of Thanksgiving it belongs in the company of the thanksgiving songs sung on the banks of the Red Sea in Exodus 15.
Another striking detail in this hymn comes in verse 3. Suspended between the two songs of thanksgiving, the water-drawing image suggests a ritual liturgical processional during the Feast of Tabernacles. With the city lit up, priests would carry water from the pool of Siloam through the water gate into the temple court. With music and singing, the High Priest would pour water on the altar. The Talmud states that “he who has not seen the delights of the water procession has not seen any of the pleasures of life (Sukkah, V, II).”
Reading this hymn in light of the advent season in which it is provided, I am struck by the twin stage directions provided in verse one and four. “And you will say…” I cannot help but hear the Christmas pageant director whispering the lines to a child dressed up in musty old costumes. In a context where Israel had been held captive by the Assyrian armies and their worship and practice was threatened, I am reminded of the grace of instructions. When we lose our ways, forget the old stories, or our imaginations atrophy, it is a grace to have someone say, “And you will say…” The hidden figure of the director stands behind these two hymns, gently coaxing the people into a long-forgotten posture.
Some of the best of our liturgies come in the form of prompts. The Lord’s Prayer, notably, is a moment where Christ directs us in prayer. Communion liturgies regularly come preset with prompted responses. These responses are not there to stifle creativity but are the necessary scaffolding for the creation of more liturgy. The scaffolding gives rise to the extemporaneous and the extemporaneous solidifies into meaningful prompts. As I read the interlude in Isaiah 12, I hear the scaffolding being created for future hymns of thanksgiving.
One year when I was the minister of the chapel at a New England seminary, I decided that for the final December service before finals we hold an all-school Christmas pageant. A student tracked down 150 costumes so that everyone who showed up to the service would be able to choose their part in the pageant.
The President of the school donned a shepherd’s robe. Three women professors put on the crowns of the Magi. We had three virgin Marys and only one Joseph. We had a camel costume that required two people, thus forcing someone to play the part of the camel rump. As everyone gathered in the chapel, I took the role of stage director. Prepared with my script, I told the Christmas story encouraging everyone to act out their parts.
With each movement of the story, I gently told each character, “And then you say…” As everyone played their part and felt comfortable in their role, they stopped taking my stage directions and started to enact the story themselves. Suddenly, without planning the donkey started dancing with the blessed virgin and within moments, the whole of the pageant decided to join them. The musician broke into “Go tell it on the Mountain,” and without planning or foresight, on the eve of their finals, everyone danced and sang together.
The stage directions were a doorway into the pageant. They were a form of permission. The stage directions were the type of initial binding suggestion that leads to creative freedom. Isaiah 12 is a gift to the Israelite community who is learning again, as we all have to, how to worship a God who has called us back.