Hope Found in Isaiah 55

The prophet did not have an easy task to speak a word of hope when his hearers were living a life of despair. However, he succeeds in proclaiming a word that is counter to the words of the world; a word that stands over against the policies of the nations whose intent is to kill and destroy; a word that is able to imagine where all of creation is mended and restored, where the exiles can go home and live in peace.

 

Hope Found In Isaiah 55:

John Holbert suggests that to understand Isaiah 55 we need to know the what’s going on with Isaiah’s audience.  It takes place at the very end of the long Israelite exile in Babylon. Having been born in captivity, most of his audience have only heard about the old land of promise and its capital, Jerusalem.  In the depth of despair, before  Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon and decides to send the Jews back to from where they had come,  Isaiah shows up.   The theological message was that God’s anger has cooled against the Jews and that God still has a mighty task for them to fulfill, namely to be “a light to the nations in order that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” . Some who heard Isaiah may have been thrilled to the hope and challenge that God had for them. For many the announcement was a cruel absurdity, words filled with foolish and empty promises.  

They had to be asking themselves how poverty stricken and scruffy exiles could play any sort of role as “light” for the nations? They could barely light their own homes, let alone offer light to other nations.  God seemed very distant, indeed, for these people in far off Babylon!

Yet, Isaiah claims that God is still very near and still anxious for the people to play out the role prepared for them from the very founding of the nation. In lovely metaphor, Isaiah calls to “everyone that thirsts,” urging them to “come to the waters” to have that thirst quenched. And even if you have no money, which was their situation, they are told you may still “buy and eat.” In fact, you may buy both wine and milk without money.  What a wonderful reminder: God’s gifts are without price.  They come free. Stop spending your time and treasure on things that don’t and won’t satisfy “delight yourselves in rich food,” that is the food that only God can offer . Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Isaiah then calls the people to listen and come, because God is about to reestablish the covenant made so long ago with David.  3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, 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.

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let 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. The nearly 500-year-old promise made to David that the covenant with God would never end is now re-instituted for the exiles, for those who have nearly forgotten what God had promised, who need a reminder of past promises out of which they must live.

To capture anew the promises of the covenant they first had to recall it and reclaim it.  Only then will they be equipped to engage in God’s challenge to them to “… call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you will run to you, because of your God, the Holy One of Israel, because God has glorified you”. Isaiah promises the exiles that their task is to be a “light to the nations,” a light so bright that nations they do not even know, along with nations that have never heard of them, will come running to join a community that they never knew they needed and desired. Isaiah promises that with the renewal of God’s covenant the whole world will become new! New communities of nations and peoples will form around the reformed nation of Israel.

All this high-flown talk to impoverished exiles in Babylon had to have sounded ridiculous. Who are you kidding, Isaiah? If by some magic act we are able to return to our homeland, just how do you imagine that we will be able to create some sort of new community with peoples we do not even know and who do not know us? And here is Isaiah’s answer to that question and his answer to our questions when we imagine that God really cannot do anything new for us: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the skies are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Our human thoughts have a very difficult time conceiving how the world can become new. But God can and calls us to we could ever do by ourselves. And that is the gospel of second Isaiah. And that is the gospel, the good news of God. With this God, all things are finally possible.

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; 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. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The people who heard Isaiah’s metaphor of rain and snow would have understood the vital importance of moisture to sustain the vegetation necessary for survival. Rain and snow ensured food for the next year as well as the seed that would secure subsequent crops. Precipitation meant the difference between life and death, thus serving as an apt description of the ability of God’s word to have a transformative effect on the lives of the exiles.

Isaiah uses imaginative words that envision an animated world where the mountains and the hills break out in song and the trees of the fields clap their hands in accompaniment. Like the sound of wind through an aspen grove. The prophet’s words imagine a world where the thorn trees and briers that throughout Israel’s history were symbols of judgment are transformed into luscious green myrtles and cypresses. This radical transformation serves as a powerful symbol for the new life that lies ahead for the exiles after the devastation brought about by the Babylonian exile.

Within this exuberant display of joy with all of creation joining in song, the return of the exiles is imaged in terms of a festive procession. The term “to go out” in v. 12 is reminiscent of children of Israel called “to go out” from Egypt. This original exodus account became a way of talking about freedom from bondage and despair–freedom from settling for less than what God intended creation to be.

And it is not just the exiles who are affected. The brutal scorched-earth policy that destroyed everything in the path of the Babylonians also had an devastation impact on nature. But now the promise of God’s restoration, healing, and peace also impacts the trees of the field; the mountains and the hills that now joyously can sing about the powers of chaos that have been defeated. Isaiah once again reminds his audience of God’s loyalty and steadfast love. It is with this promise of the eternal God that the prophet concludes his words to the people in exile. It is a promise of a God that is with God’s people always–even in exile; even though they may sometimes feel very much alone in the foreign land in which they were forced to dwell.

The prophet did not have an easy task to speak a word of hope when everything around him seemed hopeless. However, he succeeds in proclaiming a word that is counter to the words of the world; a word that stands over against the policies of the nations whose intent is to kill and destroy; a word that is able to imagine a world where everything is possible, where all of creation is mended and restored, where the exiles can go home and live in peace. Even more challenging than speaking a word of hope in an improbable situation is to hear and to embrace this word, living into its’ promise. Similar to the image of eating that was used in the beginning of this chapter (vv. 1-2), the people had to make the life-giving word from God their own. The ultimate intention of the prophetic word is that the exiles must take the first steps home by breaking with the powers of the world and partnering with the alternative world imagined by the prophet. Centuries later, this point is still valid. It is true that if one cannot imagine it, one cannot live it.

Can you imagine a restored creation as God intended? Can you imagine your role in helping to restore such a world. We can feel pretty down sometimes. We can think that all that was good in the past and in looking back stumble over what the future is holding out to us. The what gives hope to the future is the good new that it is God’s vision of a restored creation into which we are called.

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; 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. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

 

 

 

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