< July 12, 2020 >

Commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13

 

Isaiah 55:10-13 concludes the section of Isaiah often called “Second Isaiah” (chapters 40-55) by offering a poetic vision of restoration from exile.

These verses serve that vision by declaring God’s power to transform the world. Although addressed to exiled Judeans in the sixth century BCE, their hopeful words eloquently address contemporary challenges.

Water and God’s word

Isaiah 55:10–11 is an extended simile comparing God’s word to precipitation, emphasizing their respective results. By their nature, rain and snow cannot help irrigating the earth, making plant growth possible. Similarly, the divine word successfully achieves its intended purposes. But like any poetic simile, this one resists simple paraphrase. Its affective impact is as important as its intellectual content. Verse 10 unfolds an image of abundance that engages the senses. We can feel the cool dampness of the rain, see the greenness of the verdant landscape, and taste the bread in our mouths. That, the prophet/poet tells us, is what God’s word is like. Refreshing. Abundant. Life-giving.

This text owes its place in this week’s lectionary to its connections with the Gospel reading, Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23. Both texts are about God’s word, and both use agricultural imagery, including the language of “sower” and “seed.” Unlike Isaiah’s vision of unopposable divine fiat, however, Jesus’s parable presents multiple scenarios in which God’s action doesn’t achieve its desired end. We shouldn’t gloss over this difference. It’s the tension in which Christians must live, hoping for the culmination of God’s reign, yet realizing how much in our world remains contrary to God’s will. At the same time, both texts agree that God’s word works in subtle, unobservable ways, and ultimately produces unimaginable abundance.

A similar reflection on the divine word appears near the beginning of Isaiah 40-55. Isaiah 40:6-8 contrasts the transience of humans, who are as short-lived as seasonal vegetation, with “the word of our God [that] will stand forever.” Isaiah 40-55 predates the emergence of the idea of canon, so the divine “word” in in 40:8 and 55:11 doesn’t refer narrowly to scripture. Instead, it signifies God’s work in our world more broadly. After long decades of disappointed hopes, the Judean exiles needed reassurance that this work would be effective. In response, the prophet/poet masterfully uses human words to convey the power of God’s word.

The return of the exiles

The final verses of Isaiah 55 dramatically depict the accomplishment of the divine word. Verses 11 and 12 are linked by the verb “go out” (Hebrew yatsa’), but the subject changes from God’s word to God’s people. The text doesn’t identify their destination, but the larger context of Isaiah 40-55 suggests the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem (see Isaiah 48:20; 52:11). The text directly addresses these exiles as “you” (plural in Hebrew), in turn inviting contemporary audiences to identify with them and hear the text’s words addressed to us.

Isaiah 55:12 describes nature’s participation in the exiles’ return. Mountains and hills break out in harmony, while the forest claps the rhythm. The very landscape transforms itself. Pernicious weeds are replaced by tall, luxuriant trees. (For similar depictions of changed landscapes, see Isaiah 41:18-19; 43:19-20; 51:3). This new creation becomes an “everlasting sign” of the life-giving power of God’s word, language that looks forward to the next chapter (compare Isaiah 56:5).

The idea of exile offers rich possibilities for reflecting on our own situations. Many people are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic as an exile from the usual structures and comforts of life. For African-Americans, whose first enslaved ancestors were forced here more than 400 years ago, the persistent realities of institutionalized racism make the United States an ongoing site of exile. And literal exiles—refugees who’ve been forced away from their homelands by violence or lack of opportunity—face continued abuse in today’s xenophobic climate. How might the ancient words of Isaiah 55 offer hope for the future in these different experiences of exile? How might it encourage our solidarity and advocacy for those in exile?

Ecological implications of Isaiah’s imagery

Although the water imagery in Isaiah 55:10 serves the larger theological point of illustrating the effectiveness of God’s word, it’s worth lingering over it to reflect on the importance of water in God’s creation. The Hebrew Bible is the product of a subsistence agricultural economy, where the amount of annual precipitation could mean the difference between life and death. This concern is hardly restricted to the ancient world. Climate change has increased the number and severity of droughts in our own time, and billions of people worldwide lack access to safe water.1 By using water as an image of God’s gracious word, this text encourages us to appreciate water as a divine gift and think carefully about our stewardship of it.

Similarly, the nature imagery in Isaiah 55:12-13 enhances the depiction of the exiles’ return as an  unprecedented divine action. As one should expect in poetry, these verses involve exaggeration and personification. (Trees don’t really have hands, after all!) At the same time, they join other scriptures to suggest that the non-human creation has its own, independent relationship with God. In multiple psalms, nature itself praises God (Psalms 19:1-4; 65:12-13; 148:1-10). And according to Romans 8:22-23, “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” awaiting God’s redemption.

The Christian tradition has sometimes encouraged the view that nature is a commodity for humans to use and exploit at their pleasure. This attitude has led to massive environmental degradation, which has in turn harmed vulnerable human populations. In conversation with other biblical texts, Isaiah 55:10-13 encourages a different view of the natural world, one that emphasizes its standing with God and inherent value as God’s creation. The text powerfully depicts humanity and nature alike responding to God’s call. In our current ecological crisis, that is a vision worth proclaiming.


Notes

  1. See https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water.