Passages from Isaiah form the backbone of our first readings through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this year. This reflects the importance of the book of Isaiah for our understanding of who Jesus is.
Notwithstanding its position in the book, Isa 2:1-5 is usually regarded as a very late addition to the material associated with Isaiah, possibly having been written after the exile of Judah and Jerusalem in 587 BCE and hence 150 years after the prophet Isaiah lived. Isa 2:1 provides a second start to the book and a second vision for the prophet (cf. 1:1). Themes in vv. 2-5 to do with Zion will be encountered in later sections of the book (e.g. 1:21-31; 33:5-6, 17-22). The title ‘God of Jacob’ (v. 3) was also popular in that later period (cf. Isa 46:3; 48:1). The passage has parallels to Isa 4:2-6, another late editorial passage. Finally, Isa 2:2-5 is repeated almost exactly in Micah 4:1-5. These suggest to many that Isa 2:1-5 reflect a later look back on the overall aim of the Isaiah collection and have been placed near the start of the book to give readers a sense of direction.
The scene has a universal flavour. While the call to the nations could be understood as a call to the dispersed Judeans of the exile, the emphasis on peace between the nations seems to dictate a universalist theme, rather than one of dispersal. Verses 2-4, set in the ‘latter days’ provide a vision for the far future. The mountain of the temple of Yahweh will be established as the highest of mountains. The imagery is not to be taken literally as Mount Zion is little more than a hill overlooked by other surrounding hills. This is mythic imagery of the cosmic mountain that joined heaven to earth; the mythic description of the place where God dwells. It emphasizes the cosmic rather than the literal ‘elevation’ of Zion.
There is a play on familiar mythic themes here. The theme of people ‘flowing’ to Zion is a reversal of the theme of the river of life which was said to flow from the divine mountain (cf. Ezekiel 47). Where once water flowed out giving life to the entire world, now people flow in. What flows out is the torah of Yahweh (v. 3) or the word of the Lord which offers life and ‘instruction’ to all.
The function of Yahweh as judge, once confined to Israel, now has a universal flavour. The outcome of Yahweh’s teaching will be peace on an unprecedented scale (v. 4). Joel 3:10 expresses the reverse, but in Isaiah 2 the lack of a need to learn war is the point. There will be no further need for disputes under the just law decreed by Yahweh.
Verse 5 forms an extra addition addressed to the house of Jacob. They are invited to walk in the light of Yahweh (cf. the frequent use of the theme of light in later Isaiah passages where Israel is described as light: 42:6; 49:6; cf. 51:4; 60:3). Verse 5 also picks up on the theme of the house (of the God) of Jacob from v. 3, and connects it with the following passage (vv. 6ff).
In the final shape of the book of Isaiah, this elevation of Zion comes after its destruction or desolation. The latter is described in chapter 1 of the book. Isa 2:1-5 prefigures a theme of hope beyond destruction. It is as if we get a picture of the end of all things right at the start. At the end of the last Christian year, the Old Testament readings returned to the beginning of things as we approached the celebration of the reign of Christ (cf. the reading of Isa 65:17-25, Year C, Pentecost 25). Now as we start Advent we not only look to the coming of the Lord as the child of the Christmas season. We look way ahead to the fulfilment of all our hopes in him. We anticipate his reign even as we await his birth.
This raises some profound theological issues. First, it indicates that our present time is bound up with a period that lies beyond time itself. Our history, with all its associated events, the things that fill our news broadcasts and papers each day, is not divorced from God’s eternity, God’s reign in Christ. Indeed they belong to each other and we cannot speak about one without invoking the other. What we do today, in society or as individuals, is related to that time beyond time. And what we say or believe about the latter bears heavily on the way we live and perceive our life in the present. This is the point made by our Gospel reading for today about the unknown hour of the coming of the ‘Son of Man’ (Matt 24:36-44). Secondly, as we approach Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we are reminded in another way that the flesh and blood of humankind is the form that the one who reigns eternally, takes as his own. The whole of our life is caught up in the eternal, redeeming work of God in Christ, and the reign of Christ, finds its expression in the ordinary flesh and blood existence of the least of all human life.
Isa 2:1-5 speaks of beating swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. Our daily news seems to speak only of the use of weapons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and elsewhere, and of the use prison bars to contain those who seek refuge from the weapons. In Advent we await the coming of our Lord. May our waiting be filled with both calls and prayers for peace in our world and justice for those who suffer the horrors of war.
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