Already in the lyrical affirmation of new (restored) creation after the chaos of the flood, Israel celebrated the regularity of creation as the various seasons follow reliably in sequence one after another:
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease (Genesis 8:22).
You can count on it! Farmers depend on it! Indeed the entire economy that must have food counts on that reliability without even thinking about it. Even in the midst of climate change, the seasons follow one after another as witness to the governance of the creator.
Now in this lectionary snippet Isaiah appeals to that same reliable regularity (Isaiah 55:10). In this pre-scientific doxological awareness, the source of rain and snow is “from heaven,” that is, from beyond human contrivance. Rain in the summer and snow in the winter bespeak the willingness of the creator to sustain the earth. The point is celebrated in the Book of Job:
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered in the earth?
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put out forth grass? (Job 38:22-27)
That which we take for granted is recognized in Biblical faith as an awesome witness to the fidelity of the creator. This fidelity is the elemental source of “seed and bread.”
Isaiah makes an appeal to this reliable regularity not for its own sake, but for a very different accent.
As verse 10 points to that reliable regularity in creation, so verse 11 points to a very different reliability, one that is as sure as that of creation. In verse 11 it is the word of God’s mouth that is reliable. That word from God’s mouth is performative; it does what it says. It is not idle chatter (empty). It is purposeful in the world. Thus the juxtaposition of verses 10 and 11 is the juxtaposition of God in creation (“nature”) and God in history, in the affairs of the nations. The Bible always takes “creation and history” as twin distinct spheres of reality that share in the force of God’s governance.
As a consequence, we may ask what that word from the mouth of God purposes and promises.
This claim of course contradicts all Enlightenment thinking that features a “turn to the subject” and wants to squeeze out God’s governance or reduce God’s work simply to that or “clock-maker.” The prophetic tradition, however, has no doubt that God’s purpose permeates and occupies the on-going processes of human history as it does the processes of creation. Mostly those purposes are recognized and known in retrospect; it is prophetic poetic work, however, to anticipate that out-working of God’s purpose in history from what we know of God and what we know of God’s past performance of purpose.
In the book of Isaiah, Second Isaiah in the exile begins in the chapter 40. In that chapter made famous by Handel’s Messiah, the poet gives us access to a debate in the court of God as members of the court (angels, godlettes) ponder the rule of God.
In this conversation, it is conceded that the grass withers and the flower fades, that is, nothing in creation is finally durable. But then in 40:8 one voice asserts to the contrary that one thing lasts and does not wither or fade. God’s word, God’s purpose, God’s declaration of rule is unlike withering grass or fading flower because that word does not wither or fade. It lasts forever!
The poet executes a stunning rhetorical maneuver. On the one hand, the poet makes this sweeping cosmic claim for the decree as the sovereign rule of God. On the other hand, however, that word is given specific historical fleshly content. The great sovereign purpose of God is the Jews in exile will return home from Babylon to Jerusalem. Thus in 55:11-13, the poet conjures a dramatic scene: “you”—you exiled people of God—shall go out (from Babylon) and be led back (to Jerusalem). “Joy and peace” will mark the journey home.
It is a celebratory procession of homecoming.
The Great Highway on which the returnees travel (see 40:3-5) will be lined with those who gather to cheer them home. Lined up to cheer are all the other creatures who also trust the good rule of God: the mountains, the hills, and the trees, the same cast of characters who in Psalm 96:11-12 applauded the kingship of God. The image we get is not unlike that of the corridors of a hospital lined with medical personnel cheering those recovering from the virus on their way home with a prospect of restored health. The returnees from exile are like that, cheered on their way home into recovery and wellbeing.
For all the grand lyric of the poem, we should not miss the astonishing historical import of the poetry.
This poetic utterance is offered while the Babylonian empire is still the master of estrangement for these displaced Jews to whom the poetry is addressed. In prophetic imagination that refuses to give in to Babylon, the word of God outruns and contradicts the will of the Babylonian empire. The purpose of God overrides all other sovereignty. And now that divine will is put to work on behalf of the emancipation of the Jews who had been held helpless and impotent by Babylon.
No one could have anticipated such an emancipation and no one could have hoped for such a restoration. Given this historical horizon of Babylon, emancipation and homecoming are impossible. The point of the poetry, however, is that the word of God does what the world judges to be impossible in order to restore to wellbeing those whom God loves.
The preacher need only extend this deep counter-truth, with specificity, to our own time, place, and circumstance. The preacher is always to assert the good news of God in circumstances of crisis that are closed down, hopeless, and in despair. This means, every time, that the resolve of God
opens what is closed down,
hopes against hopelessness,
overrides despair in resolve, and
makes all things new!
The poet does not explain; it is not the work of the poet to explain. Nor is it the work of the preacher. The poet and the preacher proclaim the counter-truth among us so as to expose the false claims of fear, scarcity, and greed that cannot withstand the word of God. This counter-truth is variously addressed concerning:
-the poor who are locked into poverty;
-the wealthy who are sated by commodity,
-people of color who suffer exclusion,
-white people who are locked into fear,
-all of us amid the virus.
The news is that there is a word at work among us from beyond us, “sent from heaven above” that is as reliable as rain, as regular as snow. The church has seen this transformative word fleshed in Jesus.
No wonder he dazzled the people (Matthew 7:28-29). And no wonder he had to be executed because he threatened the certitudes of the fearful. Pharaoh, Caesar, and the National Security State always have it all buttoned down, made safe and secure for the privileged.
The narrative entrusted to us, however, is the news of emancipation from the forces of greed, fear, and violence that cannot finally prevail because the word of God is at work in the world.
That word is a wedge of newness in a world seemingly closed. That word evokes human energy and recruits human courage for the endless work of emancipation, restoration, and homecoming.
Once human agency embraces that sovereign word, the juices of wellbeing are set loose in the world! That is why the next verse in Isaiah after the glorious procession home speaks of the maintenance of justice that is genuinely human work (Isaiah 56:1)!
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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