Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness, Pier Francesco Mola, c1640, National Gallery (UK)
Isaiah: 35:1–6a, 10
Dec 15, 2019
We read a section of this passage last year, and we can review the key parts quickly. Although chapters 1–39, were generally written by first Isaiah in the 8th century BC, chapters 34 and 35 were composed by second Isaiah around 520 BC. Chapter 34 describes the destruction of the Edomites. This was a tribe which had land issues with the returning Jews. The imagery is very brutal:
their slain shall be cast out,
their corpses shall send up a stench;
The mountains shall run with their blood,
and all the hills shall rot;
The heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll,
and all their host shall wither away,
As the leaf wilts on the vine,
or as the fig withers on the tree.
It is so strongly written to emphasize the fairness and justice of the LORD. He has punished the Jews with exile and the destruction of the temple for their disobedience and he will do the same to their enemies for unjust aggression. He is LORD of all.
The imagery that we find in today’s reading from chapter 35 is intentionally similar and in some cases almost identical with sections of Isaiah 40–55. As we have seen repeatedly, the Jewish leaders in exile in Babylon were given the opportunity to return to the devastated Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. In exchange, they were to administer the area for the Assyrians. Enough went to make it worthwhile. Let us first look at how close the language is in these passages, then why it is placed where it is and finally what this can teach us:
The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
Wild beasts honor me,
jackals and ostriches,
For I put water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland
for my chosen people to drink,
Israel did not have abundant water, Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon did. The LORD is telling the people that he will literally transform the Land of Israel.
They will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
Then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the dumb will sing.
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
And most directly:
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
They will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
So the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
These chapters form a bridge from the pre-exilic to the post-exilic period. The name Isaiah was not chosen accidentally: all three authors share some basic ideas in common. The most important is that the LORD is lord of history. Israel is a sacrament to the nations, the means by which God will be known. The final editors of Isaiah are showing clearly that this message is the same because the LORD’S power and love are the same at any at every time and in every place.
Yet the editors know their craft and they have more to teach us than simply that the LORD is really powerful and really likes us.
In the section from chapter 35 not quoted in today’s selection we read:
A highway will be there,
called the holy way;
No one unclean may pass over it,
nor fools go astray on it.
No lion will be there,
nor beast of prey go up to be met upon it.
It is for those with a journey to make,
and on it the redeemed will walk.
This resembles Isaiah 40:3:
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God
But notice the differences not only this passage but all the parallel quotes from second Isaiah. It is called the holy way, no one unclean indeed only the redeemed may walk on it. The lack of dangerous animals show that this is about the time of the Messiah not a return of political exiles. This is very similar to last week’s reading from first Isaiah in the 8th century BC:
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
All the writers and editors of Isaiah eventually realized that the LORD’S world would come but it would be in his time and by his direct intercession. There would be no earthly paradise until then, but he would never abandon them during this time.
To make this even clearer the editors placed today’s reading between two examples of carnage. As we have seen chapter 34 relates the destruction of Edom in sickening detail. Chapters 36-39 return to the 8th century and detail the end of the reign of Hezekiah. These are unpleasant episodes in Jewish history, but the dream of the messianic age is still present.
I am writing this while the impeachment hearings in Washington are continuing and the climate conference in Spain is concluding. Every indication is that the presidential campaign this year will be squalid. Yet the kingdom of God is among us, already but not yet fully present. So it is, so shall it always be until the LORD returns. We have spent these first three weeks of Advent looking for the LORD’S return but have been reminded not to examine the movement of stars or armies, but the action of love in our own communities. We may not see the deaf hear and the lame run, but if there is any faith at all on the earth, we will see some brave disciples bringing light wherever the darkness may be found.