< December 30, 2007 >

Commentary on Isaiah 63:7-9


The Sunday after Christmas is typically a "low Sunday." The energy and anticipation of Advent has given way to wonder at the incarnation. Travelers weary from star-lit journeys now rest and rejoice in the light that shatters all darkness.

And ever so gently, we fold and store away the Christmas pageant costumes, tuck the musical scores of our favorite hymns into file drawers, and turn our attention to the new year. But a prophet urges us not to be so hasty. "I remember," the prophet whispers, and then, with words likely first uttered to the community in exile or struggling to rebuild in its aftermath, the prophet known as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) testifies to the long history of God's outrageous generosity-testimony that, in these early days after Christmas, reminds us God has been our Savior "all the days of old" (63:9). Moreover, the prophet leaves no doubt that God's redemptive work, God's decisive intervention in the world, is not due to our righteousness. Like our ancestors, we are prone to rebelliousness and doubt; we too easily "deal falsely" (63:8). Indeed, despite the many Christmas trappings yet around, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to entrust our lives wholly to the One who, for the sake of the world, has torn "open the heavens and come down" (Isa 64:1).

From the bold confidence of a powerful yet disturbingly violent hymn about God's "redeeming work" against Edom (Isa 63:1-6; cf. 34:5-17), the prophet abruptly shifts into a communal lament (63:7-64:12). Perhaps the telling of God as "mighty to save" (63:1) evokes for the prophet God's many saving acts on behalf of God's people, even as God's working "alone" with "no helper" (63:3, 5) recalls the people's perennial desertion and disobedience. As is common in laments, the prophet opens with praise to God's generosity (63:7-14; e.g., Psalms 76, 106, Nehemiah 9)-the first three verses of which comprise the lectionary reading (63:7-9).

The prophet praises God in terms that are general and broad-sweeping ("because of all that the LORD has done for us," 63:7). Verse 7, which in the Hebrew is framed by the term ("steadfast love"), emphasizes that God has acted (the verb "to do or show," occurs twice), God has acted on behalf of ("for us.to the house of Israel"), and God has acted on behalf of generously ("all.great"). God's generosity springs from God's character-God's abundant steadfast love, favor, mercy, and compassion. But why is it for us? The prophet puts the rationale on God's own lips: "Surely they are my people" (63:8), a claim that evokes God's covenant with Israel (e.g., Lev 26:12; Deut 29:13). God's commitment to and faith in God's people ("children who will not.") inspires God to be their savior (cf. Isa 60:16; 63:1).

The interpretation of 63:9a is difficult. The Hebrew (MT) reads "in all their distress, [God] too was distressed and the angel of God's presence saved them" (so, e.g., NIV). Because the phrase "the angel of God's presence" is awkward and occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, many interpreters read with the Septuagint (LXX): "it was no messenger or angel, but [God's] presence that saved them" (so NRSV). Whichever way we construe the puzzling line, the spotlight is squarely on God as the agent of redemption-a point the prophet underscores immediately by use of an independent personal pronoun ("he [God], [God] redeemed them") and God as the only active subject ("[God] lifted them up and [God] carried them"). God's people do nothing but receive God's salvation and compassion. God alone makes our lives possible and peaceable.

Proclaiming this good news, and developing it further with memories of the Exodus (63:10-14), the prophet moves the community from praise to confession (63:15-64:12). Perhaps we do well to follow on this first Sunday after Christmas. Our advent joy still fervent, the prophet wraps around us the thick and well-worn mantle of God's many saving acts. God has been, God is, and God ever will be our Redeemer (cf. 63:16)-words of assurance and comfort for the exilic or postexilic community, no doubt, and for us today, whatever our distress (63:9). At the same time, the prophet reminds us that God envisioned God's people as those who "will not deal falsely" (63:8). Yet we do. We act, again and again, in ways that are utterly incongruous with God's graciousness. And so we linger a little while longer on this "low Sunday," exuberant and humble, joy-filled and grieved, grateful and remembering.