John the Baptist, Alexandre Cabanel, 1849, Musée Fabre (France – Montpellier)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the 1st Reading
Second Second of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
December 6, 2020
Today, we read the opening of what has come to be known as “Second Isaiah,” the writings of the second person to use the name Isaiah: Yahweh is salvation. The first as we have seen many times was an 8th century BC prophet, “Isaiah of Jerusalem”. Despite being a prophet, he was well connected to the king and his court. The Isaiah from whom we read today, “Isaiah of Babylon,” wrote from the community of exiled Jewish leaders in Babylon sometime after 539 BC. Despite the difference of time and place they share similar ideas. The first is the nature of the call itself.
Our passage opens with:
Comfort, give comfort to my people,(Is 40:1–2b)
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
This is court language. The LORD, like any king, has his courtiers and servants who attend to his needs and executes his will. Isaiah of Jerusalem was also called to God’s court. (see commentary for Feb. 10, 2019)
In the year that King Uzziah died,(Is 6:1)
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty;
and the hem of his robe filled the temple
The experience of both is that the LORD’S concern is so deep that it brings the power of heaven itself to aid the Jews.
The service of which this passage speaks is the “Babylonian captivity.” We usually use this to refer to time that the Jewish leaders were removed from Jerusalem and taken to Babylon and added to the Babylon civil service. Isaiah of Babylon reflects the change of rulers from the Babylonians to the Assyrians. The Assyrians used native elites in their colonial administration and offered the Jews an opportunity to return to Jerusalem as their administrators. The exile is conventionally dated 589-539 BC but that is not completely accurate on both ends. There were several deportations, the last one in 586 BC, and not all the Jews returned to Jerusalem. Life in Babylon was not entirely bad, and they would have known that the restoration would be difficult. Indeed, so many Jews remained that it was a major center of Jewish learning for over 1000 years.
Why then was this so important and how did it show the LORD’S power and love?
The passage continues:
her guilt is expiated;(Is 40:2)
Indeed, she has received
from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.
Not only have the Jews “paid back” the debt of their sinfulness but have been punished more than their sins deserved. There is more going on here. The Jews are being prepared for a divine task. He will tell them in greater detail what this is in the rest of his book – Isaiah 40-55 – but he will first show them how he will reveal himself to them and hint at why.
A voice cries out:(Is 40:3)
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God
The voice is that of an angel, one of the heavenly hosts that attend the LORD.
He speaks to them of the desert. This has two meanings.
They will need to go through a literal desert to get from Babylon to Jerusalem. Isaiah is assuring them that the Lord will be with them. He is also reminding them that they went through a desert before from Egypt to the promised land. And just as the LORD led them before he will do so this time.
Every valley shall be filled in,(Is 40:4)
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
The rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
This language reflects the practical concerns of transporting themselves and their equipment to Jerusalem. Roads were often in poor shape. But also roads were repaired when kings needed to travel often at great expense and with tremendous fanfare. The LORD himself will lead them with great majesty.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,(Is 40:5)
and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken
This will reveal his glory – tangible and real presence. But notice not only to the Jews but to all people. The New American Bible translates flesh in this passage as mankind. This is a hint of why they were more than punished. It was to prepare them for their task which will be revealed later as to become:
a covenant to the people,(Isaiah 42:6c-7a)
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
A brief section follows in which the Jews are reminded that all power comes from the LORD and however mighty Assyria may seem it is subordinate to him, (This is found in 1:6-8 and is not in the passage we read at Mass.) We then are transported to Jerusalem which figuratively calls the people to return.
Go up onto a high mountain,(Is 40:9)
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
Cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Second Isaiah is as much a recruiter as a prophet and poet and he is assuring them that the LORD will guide and protect them. It is the LORD as with Moses who will lead them. He next shows them how:
Here comes with power(Is 40:10)
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
He has the power to rule and to destroy any force which opposes the People of Israel. Yet
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;(Is 40:11)
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care
He is concerned about each of the people as individuals. He has the power to end the exile by moving the kings of this time like chess pieces, but he has the love to desire a relationship which will build the community which will be his means of bringing the world together in his name.
We are in our year of exile due to COVID. Like the returning Jews, we will need to rebuild our community. It will be difficult but let us take comfort in the assurance of Isaiah of Babylon that the power of God which can do all things wants nothing more than to know and love us.