The Baptism of Christ, Grigory Gagarin, c. 1840–1850
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
January 10, 2021
Advent / Christmastide is the season of Isaiah as we continue reading the book of Isaiah in all its manifestations. This week, we will examine the conclusion of the writings of Isaiah of Babylon. He addressed the Jewish leaders exiled in Babylon after the final destruction and abandonment of Jerusalem in 586 BC. This was after Babylon itself was conquered in 539 BC by Cyrus, the Assyrian king. Cyrus offered the Jews in Babylon return to Jerusalem if they rebuilt it and functioned as their colonial administration. Isaiah of Babylon—usually called second Isaiah as he was the second person to use this name—is a man of notable talent who provides political commentary, a theology of history, eloquent exhortations to Justice, and much else. Yet we must remember that he is also a propagandist for the LORD. He sought to convince people to take up this invitation and return to Jerusalem and rebuild Jewish life. In this passage today, he reviews his best arguments and reveals a lesson for us in the here and very now.
He is a very sophisticated writer and can balance two themes together at the same time. Water was very precious then as now in the Middle East and the street vendor for water is a common sight and sound. His readers would certainly have heard:
All you who are thirsty,(Is 55:1)
come to the water!
This would have gotten their attention and is followed with:
You who have no money,(Is 55:1)
come, receive grain and eat
That was never heard and would have demonstrated that something new is being said. The more biblically aware might well have remembered passages about wisdom like this one from the book of Proverbs:
Wisdom has built her house,(Pr 9:1–6)
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals,
she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live.
Those who will take this journey to Jerusalem should not be guided only by material wants and hopes but by the demands of Wisdom. This is the LORD’S will and is a “mature” response to his call.
It was nonetheless a difficult one.
The majority of those who will heed his call were born and raised in Babylon and may have done well there. Isaiah is shrewdly speaking to a part of them which is not comfortable in a land which may always be foreign, to a part of them which yearns to fully practice their faith, to a part that nothing material can satisfy,
Why spend your money for what is not bread;(Is 55:2)
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
For them, the ultimate desire is to fully restore the convent with God which requires the worship of the example.
Come to me heedfully,(Is 55:3)
listen, that you may have life.
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
Note this is for those who come “heedfully” who are consciously aware of their calling. The “you” here is plural and promises life through the covenant with the benefits assured to David.
What to do with the covenant of David was a key issue after the destruction of Jerusalem. Not only was temple worship extinguished but also direct lineage of David. Should they even attempt to restore it? Ezekiel and Jeremiah who wrote somewhat before Isaiah thought that there would be some kind of physical continuation. Isaiah, as we can see, did not. The people who returned to Jerusalem would take on David’s role. Isaiah has a particular view of what this is. It is very much in continuity with his belief that the Jewish people were called, despite its small size, to be major players on the world scene.
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,(Is 49:6)
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth
This is what he means by witness and why they will have a role in guiding other nations.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,(Is 55:4–5)
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
It is not their own power that is important but that they reflect the glory to God. It is only by connecting with the holiness of God that this is possible. Thus, they must go where the Lord is found—Jerusalem—and call upon him in worship. Because the LORD is Holy, they must themselves be Holy and act with mercy and justice.
Seek the LORD while he may be found,(Is 55:6–7)
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
All of this he can do, not only forgiveness, but also expanding the covenant because:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,(Is 55:8–9)
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts
God’s word is always powerful and successful:
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;(Is 55:11)
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.).
If we were in any doubt that our nation would need reconstruction that was ended thus week with the occupation of the Capital and the events which led up to it. Every element of our country will be needed to restore our democratic institutions. As inheritors of the Prophetic tradition, we can bring a vision of Justice which acknowledges universal human dignity and the universal need for forgiveness to this mix. The God of Israel is no less powerful and loving in modern America than he was in ancient Jerusalem. Will we respond to His call?