23rd Sunday After Pentecost
November 17, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
As are most of the readings for Kingdomtide leading up to the beginning of Advent, this reading is future oriented, a prophetic oracle of promise and restoration. We often have difficulty hearing these types of texts in their own context as Scripture in their own right. We tend to rush too quickly to find New Testament applications or later historical fulfillment without first dealing with the text itself as a testimony and witness of the Old Testament faith community. As Christians, we cannot divorce these texts from their later application into the Christian faith, but we should not begin with such moves or make them too quickly or easily. So, once again, the concern needs to be expressed that we hear this reading in the context of ancient Israel before we hear it in the New Testament (see Hearing Old Testament Advent Texts).
Our reading is from the third section of the Isaiah traditions. There has been much controversy this century, especially from conservative and evangelical quarters, about the various sections or authors of Isaiah. It is not the intention here to enter those debates. For the purposes of this commentary, we will work from the perspective that this section of the book, comprising chapters 56-66, comes from a time period near the end of the sixth century BC or the first half of the fifth century BC, sometime between 515 and 450 BC. For a survey of the debates, as well as the rationale for placing this section of the book in this time period see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah.
This was a difficult time for Israel. The Israelites had been allowed to return from exile in Babylon after the Persian King Cyrus took over control of the Babylonian Empire and reversed their policy of holding captive peoples. In 538 he allowed the Israelites to return home if they chose.
But few had chosen to return. And those that had returned faced nearly insurmountable obstacles (see Persian Rule and Return from Exile). After the return, the community of faith in Israel was in a desperate situation. Not only were the economic and social conditions difficult, they began to face a theological crisis. The prophets had all promised a new day and a glorious future after exile. Since God had brought them home from exile, they had expected God to bring about the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. Yet, nearly twenty years after the first exiles returned home, the city of Jerusalem was still in ruins, the temple was still a blackened hulk, and the people were on the verge of despair. There was no new kingdom. The people were ready to give up on God because He had not done what they had expected.
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah had entered this situation around 520 BC and encouraged the people to get on with the rebuilding of the Temple, again promising a new day for Israel if they would only finish the building of the Temple. Haggai even proclaimed their postexilic leader, the Persian governor Zerubbabel who happened to be a grandson of Israel's last king Jehoiachin and thus in the royal lineage, as the new Davidic King who would establish the new reign of God in the world (Hag 2:23).
The Temple was completed five years later, but there was still no new Kingdom and no new king. By this time Zerubbabel has mysteriously disappeared from the pages of history, and a deepening crisis of faith enveloped the people. The old habits of Ba'al worship and the worship of the new gods of the Babylonians began to creep back into the community. We can only imagine their rationale for drifting back into idolatry, but it would probably make sense to people in desperate crises and with weak faith.
They had been back in the land nearly 100 years now, and not much had happened. The people in the community by this time had not seen much of God's work in the world. They were already one or two generations removed from the great act of God that their fathers and grandmothers had experienced in the return to the land. The grand promises seemed even further off than they had ever been. It would have been easy to begin considering that maybe the gods of the land, Ba'al and Marduk and Molech, or the spirits of the dead, might be able to accomplish what Yahweh seemed unable to do (57:5-11). There was a spirit of cynicism beginning to enshroud the people and even the leaders, a pessimism that saw no purpose in keeping the torah (56:12 cf. Mal 3:14-15). Even though they still went through the motions of worshipping Yahweh, they had begun to view the rituals as worthless because they caused God to do nothing (58:3).
The prophet had already reassured the people that God had not forgotten them and that they still had a future (56:1, 57:14-21). He had challenged the people for their apathy and lack of concern for social ethics and the things of God (56:1, 58:6-12). The prophet had read the flow of history differently than the people. They had complained that God had not heard their prayers, with the implication that somehow that gave them a reason to turn to other gods. Yet the prophet saw it in just the opposite way, that God had not answered their prayers because they had not been faithful to torah and had begun worshipping other gods. It was their sin that had prevented the new actions of God that they had expected (59:1-11).
As a result, he had called for a national repentance in which they would turn back to God and again begin practicing justice and righteousness as God's people (59:12-15). On the basis of that repentance, the prophet had then promised the restoration for which they had so longed. In language reminiscent of the second section of Isaiah, the old promises were renewed. In virtually identical language, he again promised a new kingdom and a new restored city that would be the centerpiece of the world (60:3; cf. 45:14, Hag 2:7).
This reading is at the climax of those renewed promises of restoration. We should note that these promises of restoration and newness are conditional in this section. They are predicated on the repentance of the people and their faithful response to God. It is not that their actions will somehow cause God to act. That would be to revert to the very magical world view represented by the nature deities of Canaan and Babylon. But the prophet had insisted that they had not yet experienced the renewal for which they expected because of their failure to respond to God's acts of grace. Combined with the call to repentance that precedes the promises of newness, the message is clear that they could expect no renewal until they begin acting like God's people. They must practice faithfulness to God before they can truly be his people. And the implication is that the expected renewal, the promised newness, will come only to a people who are God's people.
The opening metaphors use creation language, a favorite theme of the exilic Isaiah traditions (for example, 42:5, 43:1, 45:7, etc.). The Hebrew word "create" (Heb: barah') is a theological word, and only has God as its subject in the Hebrew Bible. Only God can create. That in itself is a significant theological affirmation. Any genuine newness that can and will come, will not be the creation of the people, no matter how righteous they might be. Any newness that emerges in this community's future will be God's creation.
This is the first of only twice in the Old Testament that the idea of new heavens and a new earth occurs (v. 17). While the idea would be used in later traditions, especially in apocalyptic literature (Rev 21:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:13), it occurs only in this context in the Old Testament (the second occurrence is in the next chapter of Isaiah, 66:22). The apocalyptic traditions tended to take this concept as more or less literal, and saw the future in terms of the end of the world with a radical discontinuity between the present and whatever lay beyond the end of all things. The present world would be destroyed and the "new earth" would be essentially different than the present one. Frequently, the apocalyptic perspective would also be cast in Greek philosophical ideas. The present physical world was understood to be so contaminated with sin by its very nature of being physical that the only solution was to destroy it and begin again with a new earth, free from the constraints of the present sinful physical reality. (For the influence of this way of thinking in a different direction, see Body and Soul: Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture).
But here there is no sense of the "end of the world" of apocalyptic thought. Verse 18 clearly states that what is to be created is Jerusalem. This suggests that the new heavens and the new earth are a metaphorical way of speaking of a new act of God within history, without at all implying a radical destruction of the world. There is no doubt that this envisioned newness for Israel and indeed for the whole world because of the newness in Israel. The center of that newness would be Jerusalem, which suggests, as had the earlier Isaiah traditions (for example, Isa 42:6, 49:6), that the vision here is of an Israel that would be an instrument, or at least the locus, of the newness that would engulf the entire world.
The "former things" is another idea picked up here from the earlier Isaiah traditions (v. 17). In the second section of Isaiah, coming from the end of the exilic period (c. 539 BC), the "former things" referred to God's great acts of the past whereby he had delivered Israel, specifically the actions of deliverance out of Egypt in the exodus (41:22, 42:9, 43:9, 18, 46:9, 48:3). That section of Isaiah had declared that as great as the exodus was, it was only the beginning of God's work in history. The return from exile would be an even greater act of God (esp. 43:18). In those same chapters, there was also an emphasis on the newness of God's acts in history (42:9-10, 43:19, 48:6), again related specifically to the return from exile following the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC.
This is the only other time outside of that context that the idea of "former things" is used in Isaiah. The significance of the use here in this context, and coming more than a half century after the previous passages, is again to place this promise of renewal in the sequence of God's acts in history. Only now, the "former things" would also include the return from exile, since it would have been an already accomplished event by this time. The earlier prophet of the Isaiah traditions could link the return from exile with the exodus, and speak of the "former things" of the exodus and the "new thing" referring to the return from exile. Here, this later prophet could include the return from exile with the former things, and speak of a still greater act of God looming in their future as the "new thing."
There is both discontinuity and continuity here. Exilic Isaiah had said both to remember the former things 41:22, 46:9) and to put the former things out of mind (43:18, 65:17). The continuity is on the level of God's actions in history, his faithfulness to these people across the centuries, a faithfulness that for generations they had been called to remember in traditions and ritual.
The discontinuity is that this new action of God would be something at a new time and place in history, and would in some sense be quite unexpected. Even though the slaves in Egypt had cried out to God, they had not quite believed that God would really hear and answer. And even though Jeremiah had promised the exiles that they would come home someday, the actual return was not really expected and so was a "new thing." Here the suggestion is that even though they are expecting God to do something, and expecting it in quite specific terms, yet his future action would be something that would truly be new, and would be something different or go beyond what they had expected. So they are no longer to dwell on the past works of God, because the new works of God would become a new future point of reference for the community as the exodus had been in the past.
The next verses of the reading (vv. 18-20) emphasize by hyperbole the extent of the newness. This is obviously highly descriptive poetic language, and is not to be taken as a literal prediction of the state of the restored city. But it rather dramatically illustrates the shift from endings and sorrow to newness marked by joy and hope for the future. In fact, joy is the primary purpose of the creative activity of God in the new city (v. 18). It is also significant that the mitigation of death is a major feature of these verses for both young and old. Death is not eliminated in this new Jerusalem. But the emphasis is clearly on the joy of life where death is no longer such a familiar part of it as had been the case in the crises of the recent past.
The imagery of verses 21-22 would have been a familiar threat warning of God's judgment. Indeed, the images of building houses and others living in them or planting vineyards and others eating their produce were not just idle threats. More than once the community had experienced the upheavals of history that had resulted in invaders coming and taking the produce of their vineyards and seizing their houses and lands. It was such a reality of life in an unstable world, a world that was far removed from modern experience for most, that simply planting vineyards and enjoying their produce became a way to convey peace and security (Psa 107:36-37, 2 Kng 19:29, Eze 28:26).
Yet as early as the eighth century BC, the prophet Amos had used this imagery as a warning of the consequences of sin. In much of the biblical traditions, sin was not just a spiritual or legal matter that had consequences at some point far in the future as it is sometimes viewed today. Rather, sin was understood to be a matter of living in ways that violated God's order in the world, and had consequences that worked out in physical ways in the reality of life. So the prophets unabashedly proclaimed real life consequences for unfaithfulness to God. Amos' had reversed the images of security and made them a warning of consequences for failure to live out in real life being the people of God (5:11):
Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.
Zephaniah in the seventh century (c. 630 BC, 1:13) had picked up the same warning, and the collectors of the Mosaic traditions in Deuteronomy had used this same imagery to warn of the consequences of breaking the covenant with God (Deut 28:30-39). This community of returned exiles had experienced those consequences working out in their own history not that long ago. The horrors described in the same chapter of Deuteronomy (28:47-68) are likely a description of the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem by those who had experienced it.
And yet the prophet here uses what had become a metaphor for destruction and endings to speak of blessing and newness. Returning to the positive implications of building and planting, perhaps even picking up Jeremiah's earlier use of these same images of hope and promise (for example, Jer 24:6, 42:10), he painted a picture of peace and security in which the people would no longer be threatened by enemy or hardship. He underscored this emphasis on stability by comparing the renewed people to a tree (v. 22). In the arid Middle East, a tree was a sign of life and stability, especially if it was located by a stream or source of water (Psa 1, Jer 17:8). The emphasis on long life (v. 22b) as well as the succession of generations (v. 23) again emphasizes the stability of a world that is secure from threat. In fact, throughout this section, this is the very dimension of newness that is emphasized in the new creation.
Verse 24 describes a close relationship with God that would be a part of the new creation. It is easy to miss the power of this verse, because its background is much more pathos filled than it might appear on the surface. Its roots are buried deeply in the Old Testament traditions going all the way back to the exodus. There, as the Israelites suffered the oppression of slavery under Pharaoh's they cried out to God for deliverance. And God heard their cries and delivered them. The people had often cried out for deliverance from their enemies, from the time of the judges to the Assyrian invasions. And many times God had heard and brought his presence and deliverance. Crying out to God for deliverance from the circumstances of life had become a common feature of lament psalms in Israel's worship (for example, Psa 10). And yet the people had not been faithful to God, and had consistently worshipped the gods of the land in spite of God's care and grace given to them.
And they had cried out to God for deliverance from the Babylonians. But with tears Jeremiah had sadly told then that because of their sin, their rejection of him as their God, he would no longer hear their cries, that when they called he would not answer (Jer 14:11-12). They had been warned enough, they had corrupted their worship of God for too long, and so they would face the real life consequences of their actions. The result was the horrible catastrophe of the Babylonian invasion, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the long period of exile.
But in this reading, the prophet declared not only a reversal of Jeremiah's dark proclamation, but a newness that would go beyond what they had ever known. Not only would God be present among them, but they would no longer have to call to him in the same way. He would hear and answer their cry even before they spoke it. This was a powerful affirmation of God's renewed presence with this people. It was a way to affirm again that God had not abandoned them, that he would be with them and would establish them securely as his people.
The final verses of this reading are some of the most well known verses in the Old Testament. The vision of peace, security, and well being presented here in such vivid imagery has captured the hearts and imaginations of people across the centuries. Even those who profess no religious affiliation can understand the vision and the dream for humanity that lies behind the poetry.
But for people of faith, these verses are more than beautiful poetry. They are a profound confession about the world, indeed about the very nature of God as its Creator. "They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain" echoes the earlier dream from Micah and the Isaiah traditions nearly 300 years earlier: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Mic 4:3, Isa 2:4). This is a confession grounded in the most fundamental understanding of who God is, and what kind of God he is. This is the God who had heard the cries of oppressed slaves in Egypt, who had established his torah for humanity that placed righteousness and justice at the center of his instruction (Heb: torah) for them, who had chosen to reveal himself in the world through a people to whom he had showed grace and forgiveness. This is the God who had called them to be a blessing to the nations, who had called them to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8).
The idea of peace and security for God's people was not itself something new. There are various passages that talk of peace and security in the land for God's people, and yet at the same time speak of taking vengeance on enemies (for example, Lev 26:3-9). There is no doubt some of that here as well, since the focus is on Jerusalem. Still, this peace and security is here envisioned as coming from a new creative act of God that would transform even nature itself. If the prophet had had such a concept in his repertoire, he surely would have spoken of the cosmic scope of this transformation. There is no talk here of the slaughter of enemies, even though in the next chapter there is mention of the consequences for those who do not respond to this newness. This is the beginning of a vision of peace for humanity brought by the God who created the world for human activity and not chaos (Isa 45:18-19).
Since the language is identical, there is little question that the final imagery of peace among the animals (v. 25) is drawn directly from the Isaiah traditions of chapter 11 (vv. 6-9). While we often read chapter 11 as a messianic prediction of Jesus, it is much more closely tied theologically to its historical context in eighth century Judah (c. 733) during the reign of King Ahaz. His rule had been marked by the worst kind of apostasy from God. The Assyrians were threatening to invade the land, and would destroy the Northern Kingdom in a few short years (see Assyrian Dominance, especially the reign of Ahaz). Isaiah of Jerusalem had warned of dire consequences if the nation did not return to God. And yet the weak and vacillating Ahaz not only did not respond to God, he embraced the gods of Assyria as a matter of political expediency.
So the prophets and people longed for a new leader, one who would be a faithful servant of God rather than worshipping the gods of Assyria and Canaan. They expressed their faith in God's leadership of the nation in terms of a new righteous king modeled on the figure of David, the man after God's own heart, who would be the kind of leader that they needed to lead the nation back to God. They needed a king who would have the interests of the people at heart, who would teach them torah, who would do justice for the people, and trust in God more than he trusted in chariots, weaponry, and alliances with pagan nations. They needed a righteous king sent by God who would bring peace and stability into their lives so they would be able to serve God as his people.
And from what they had come to understand about God, indeed what God himself had revealed to them about himself, he would rise up for them such a leader as part of his faithfulness to them. And so the prophet expressed faith that God would work in the future to bring this about by proclaiming a new and coming king whom God would anoint to bring peace (shalom, well being), who would provide them with a future beyond the ravages and constant threat of the Assyrian wars. Isaiah 11 expressed the dreams and longings of a people too long at war, too often swept away by conflict, yet who understood God as the only one who could bring peace and order into world.
And so the description of that God-anointed leader in Isaiah 11 became the ideal of what a king who reigned over God's people should be. In that historical context the prophecy was likely about Hezekiah, because he came to power and led the people in a renewal that eventually averted destruction from the Assyrians. But in later traditions long after Hezekiah, as they again had kings and leaders and even prophets and priests who served only themselves and the trappings of an external religion that actually forsook God, they took that chapter to express the longings of a restoration that God would bring to the people so that they could truly become his people. They moved the chapter from the past into a confession about how God works with his people, how he would work out their future.
And so almost 300 years after Isaiah of Jerusalem had confronted Ahaz and encouraged Hezekiah, the later prophet of the Isaiah tradition again used the vision of peace and security as a way to confess God's work among his people. There is here no talk of a new monarchy, likely because the historical context during his time under Persian control would not allow such talk. Overlords would not have taken kindly to talk of new kings ruling over their territory (just as Herod did not receive the same news with any enthusiasm!). Yet the vision, the understanding about God, is still there.
Perhaps that says that the real vision did not lie so much with kings and rulers and empires and nations, it did not lie so much with the specifics of history that they could predict or plan out in advance, or to which we can look back for proof of the correctness of our ideas. Perhaps it lay more with God himself. If God is the kind of God that they had experienced him to be in the past, they knew that he would again work to restore them as his people. Others had tried to plot that course and were mistaken (cf. Hag 2:23). They simply did not know what course their history would take. But they knew that God was God, and they knew that because he was, there would be a future restoration of his people, indeed of the world itself.
How God works his restoration is really irrelevant. Finally, the faith is in God, and not in how they, or we, think he will work in the world. Finally, it is the vision of the new heavens and the new earth, God's new heaven and new earth, on whatever terms he wants to bring it, that is our source of hope. With God as the Creator of that newness, if we are willing to respond as his people, the details simply do not matter. We most likely would settle for far too little anyway!
This section of Isaiah opens with the injunction to "Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed" (56:1). This reading is the assurance of the future that allows God's people to carry out that present command.
This is a passage about hope and faith, and most Preaching Paths for this text will lead in that direction. How that faith and hope might be expressed in specific ways will depend largely on what a particular congregation or group of believers needs to hear to meet whatever darkness and hopelessness they face. That is the nature of hope!
The dream of peace is a nearly universal one for many people, especially those who have lived in a world torn by conflict and strife on whatever level. It is no accident that in so many languages, a common greeting is, "May you have peace." It is more so for people who understand the revelation of God in the world as a God of grace, love, and compassion. The human heart longs for serenity and stability, for absence of conflict, for a way to simply live life without threat, the ability to be able to provide for one's family, to raise children, to grow old without the constant threat of annihilation, or horrible suffering.
Peace is no idle dream if we seriously look at the world in which we live and allow ourselves to see it in its awful ugliness and darkness. There is much light in the world, because human beings have great capacity for good and beauty, for lighting candles in the most unexpected corners of darkness. But if we look very long and stare very deeply, the darkness begins to overcome the light as the reality of the world begins to take shape before us. It is before that reality that the human heart longs for something better than the violence of a world dominated by sin and its horrible consequences. It is the dream of the human heart as it cries out in its most anguished moment for God to be God in the world, for God to take the world and transform it into what it ought to be if he were really Lord of the earth.
It was the dream of mothers in Kosovo who did not know if they would live to see another day, let alone live to see their children grow up and marry. It is the cry of fathers in Rwanda, in Algeria, in Iraq, in a dozen other places around the world where the darkness of sin has all but snuffed out the light of God. It is our dream as we watch with revulsion so much of the world slide into the dark morass of self interest that is willing to commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of a cause or a faction or a political party, or even a religion. And we cry out to God, wondering why there is no relief, why he does not act in the world.
It is a dream not only for humanity but for all creation (Rom 8:20-22). It is a dream that swells from the deepest heart of human beings as we somehow know that the world can be different. And so we cry out that if there a God, there must be a better way, and a better world.
And yet, in our more sober moments, we know that the world is not this way because God has made it this way. We realize, as the earlier prophets had so clearly proclaimed, that the world is this way because we human beings have exercised our freedom to reject God, and to take our own path in the world without God. The world is this way not because God has made it this way, but because we have made it this way. And so we cry out all the more at what we have lost, indeed, at what we have given away to our own selfishness, to our own pride and arrogance. And we collapse under the weight of that guilt.
Can it ever be restored? Can the world that God made so good, can the humanity for which God created to be so much better, can it ever recover what it has so wantonly squandered? Is there any hope for humanity?
Into that darkness comes the word of this prophet who says that there is a better way.
It is not about solving how that can be or figuring out the exact sequence of historical events that can bring this to pass. Because finally this is not about history. It is about God. It is a willingness to trust God with that future, realizing that we cannot make it happen any more than we can make the sun rise tomorrow. Perhaps it will be in an apocalyptic end in which the world explodes into a ball of flame and ignites the whole cosmos so that God can begin anew. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it will be in the flow of history and yet another act of God whereby he again calls us to recognize and respond to him as God. We do not know. And perhaps it is good that we do not know, because if history is any indication, we would surely find some way to pervert it.
But we do know that God will not leave this world the way it is. He will come and restore his creation. One step of that was the incarnation of Jesus the Christ. And we still wait, like the Israelites, for what that will become. As they waited after the return from exile for another act of God, we are poised between the coming of Jesus and whatever awaits in that future restoration. We still expect, yet not knowing when or how or even what to expect. But we believe. We believe because we remember the former things. And because we know that God is a God of new things, of new heavens and a new earth. And we realize that we have not seen anything yet!
It is on that basis of hope that we are called to be faithful to God in the world. Not to make the future happen, but because it is a truth about God. We are called to live in the world on the basis of the certainty of that future. We can "maintain justice, and do what is right" precisely because "my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed." Hope, and faith, that God will not leave the world the way it is frees us to be his people, frees us to light candles in the present darkness of sin, knowing that finally the darkness will be vanquished!
This Sunday in the Church Year
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