Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10
“They will rejoice.”
This is the first word of Isaiah’s vision in chapter 35, and it is the focus of the entire passage. The time of these opening verses is future, though exactly when is not specified. The place is named clearly and repeatedly: it is the wilderness. This detail is not incidental. It locates God’s promise within every human lack, every loneliness, and every desolation. It locates God’s promise within a complex history of slavery and redemption, failure and faith.
Wilderness (midbar) has many meanings for Israel. It is a place of flight and of freedom (Genesis 16, 21; Exodus 3, 13). It is populated by deadly animals (Deuteronomy 8:15). Water is scarce (Exodus 15, 17), and crops do not grow. It is dangerous (Exodus 14:3). It is wide (Deuteronomy 1:19). And it is easy to get lost (Num 32; Psalm 107:4). Wilderness is where God’s people learn to trust. In wilderness God carried them (Deut 1:31), fed them (Exodus 16), and gave them improbable water (Exodus 17). In wilderness God found God’s people, guarded and cared for them, and lifted them up (Deuteronomy 32).
Isaiah’s wilderness sings. “They will rejoice: wilderness and dry land. Desert will shout with joy and it will bloom like a crocus. It will bloom (really bloom!)! And it will shout with joy — joy and joyous song” (35:1-2a). The first verses of Isaiah’s vision are remarkably redundant — it is a poetic style the prophet sustains throughout the vision. The prophet declares the joy of an earth wrung dry — wilderness, dry land, desert — and then shows us the reason: a profusion of blooms, shoots of new growth budding toward fruit (cf. Isaiah 27:6). Earth’s joyful response swells into an echoing chorus, celebrating the gift of life. This dry earth will be given glory and splendor, visible manifestations of creaturely fruitfulness and abundance, even as God’s own glory and splendor, the visible manifestations of divine sovereign power, are revealed. And the God whose glory they will see, declares the prophet, is our God (35:2b).
The future time of the vision now shifts to the present tense. With this shift in tense comes also a shift in focus from earth to people, from dry land to weak and frightened bodies, from green growth to courage and strength. Isaiah has given a vision. Now Isaiah gives to the audience — to you, and to your congregation — a commission. The prophet shows us a pair of hands that have grown weak, soft and slack from disuse. They can hold nothing and no longer do the work they were made for. Make them strong. The prophet shows us a pair of knees that give way to staggering and stumbling. Who can walk like this? Make them firm (35:3). The prophet shows us people whose hearts and minds are racing, gripped by anxiety. Tell them, says Isaiah,”Be strong, do not fear.” And the prophet gives a reason, drawing attention now to the one source of strength and salvation. If you open your eyes and look, you will see that right here is your God (35:4a).
God is here. God will come. Isaiah offers assurance for present and for future. In the future, Isaiah asserts that God will act for the people to reverse oppression and deliver them. The prophet does not describe specific conditions of oppression, but speaks in general terms in a direct address to the audience: God “will come and save you” (35:4b).
God’s arrival brings something more. When God comes, “they will be opened, the eyes of the blind, and the ears of the deaf will be opened. Then a lame man will leap like the stag; a silent man’s tongue will shout. Because waters will break open in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (35:5-6). God’s arrival transforms every inability into ability and every lack into miraculous abundance. God’s coming brings the capacity to see and hear to those whose senses are starving for light and sound. Nerves heal and grow and send and receive signals, atrophied muscles grow strong and limber. What are these capacities for? They are for celebration. They are for nothing but the gratuitous expression of joy in what God can do and what God has done. The man who could not walk will have strength in his legs to walk. But he won’t walk. He will jump. He will leap and bound like a fool for God. The man who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak will find himself able to talk. But he won’t talk. He will shout. He will sing. He will praise God at the top of his lungs.
Isaiah now shows us a wilderness running with water, using language that evokes themes of creation (cf. Psalm 74:15), redemption (cf. Exodus 14:21; Isaiah 48:21, 63:12), and provision (cf. Psalm 78:15-16). The water bubbles and gushes forth until every marker of desolation is transformed into an emblem of abundant life (35:7). Parched desert becomes marsh. But this flooded wetland is not home for God’s people. There is one more miracle still: the road home.
There, in the place that once was wilderness, once a place of wandering, will be a raised road. There will be no more wandering (35:8) and no more danger (35:9). The people God has redeemed and ransomed will walk on it, and they will turn, and they will come home (35:8-9). As they walk homeward, upon their head, like a canopy, a garland, or a crown, will be a joy not bounded by time. Rejoicing and gladness will meet them on the road. Sorrow and sighing will flee (35:10).
Isaiah 35 invites us to reflect on this Advent season not only as God’s coming in Christ, but also as our coming home. God comes. God is here. We leap and shout and sing. And together we walk home.
December 12, 2010