YEAR A: EPIPHANY 8
(Sunday between February 25 and February 24)
At the end of a long season of Epiphany we return to Isaiah. We began the season by reading Isaiah 42:1-9 in the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus. We have heard about the light of God shining in the darkness and have been reminded of the nature of our discipleship and obedience to God. Now we hear of unhindered praise as the Lord delivers his people from prison and darkness.
Isaiah 49 begins the second part of Second Isaiah, Isaiah 40-55. The prophet speaks in the whole of this section to a people held captive by the Babylonian Empire. Now they are looking toward a time of release as the Persian Empire rises in the east and threatens to overwhelm the Babylonians. Chapters 40-48 largely speak about this hope as they focus on the advent of Cyrus, King of the Persians, who is even called ‘messiah’ by the prophet (Isa 45:1). The Persians were known to have a different attitude toward vassal nations than the Babylonians. They were happy to let such people go about their ordinary lives, even in terms of their worship, as long as they remained subject to the Empire. This meant that under the Persians captive peoples such as the Judeans in Babylon could return home if they wanted.
In chapters 49-55 the prophet turns to deal with matters internal to the community especially the significance of the suffering of the people during exile. The four so-called suffering servant passages (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12) as well as the passages on the ‘daughter of Zion’ (Isa 49:14-26; 51:17-52:2; 54:1-10) are part of this section. Today’s reading follows immediately on the second of the servant passages (see Epiphany 2) and overlaps with the start of the first passage on the ‘daughter of Zion’.
Immediately after the second servant song the prophet speaks about the exiles returning home from Babylon to Jerusalem. Verses 8-12 speak vividly about the Lord’s deliverance of the people. God has heard their prayer (v. 8a). The language used throughout these verses echoes some of the first servant song (cf. 42:6-7 especially with vv. 49:8-9) as well as other earlier sections of Second Isaiah. These people are called to come out of darkness (v. 9a) and journey toward ‘the land’ and their ‘heritage’ (v. 8b). They will be fed along the way and led safely by the one who ‘has pity on them’ (vv. 9b-10) just as the flocks of the shepherds are fed in their travels (cf. Isa 40:11; 41:17).
This journey is not just a small event, although, in fact, it appears just that involving the release of a relatively small number of exiles to return to a backwater of the empire. But there is another dimension to this journey. Cosmic upheaval accompanies the trip (v. 11; cf. Isa 40:4). Mountains will be levelled, valleys will be filled and a smooth highway created. This is an engineering feat to rival all others by the sounds of it. The language is over the top precisely to show that this event has an impact beyond the meagre numbers of prisoners freed and the insignificance of their place in the world scene. These are a people whose return will be hailed by none other than the very heavens, the earth and mountains themselves (v. 13a; cf. 44:23; 45:8). This is none other than a second exodus, led this time not by a Moses or similar individual but by the very Lord who releases captives and who has compassion on them (v. 13b).
The last part of the set passage, vv. 14-16a, is as we noted above the beginning of the first passage about the ‘daughter of Zion’. These passages are marked by an address to a female figure. The passage set for today begins with Zion, the city of Jerusalem speaking (v. 14). As the passage continues the pronouns ‘you’ or ‘your’ are in the feminine form in the Hebrew. The speaker is either the prophet or God and the purpose is to describe the lot of this figure, the city personified as a woman in various situations or states.
We do not get very far with this first ‘daughter of Zion’ passage in what is set for reading today. The lectionary compilers have simply taken the first two and a half verses to illustrate God’s commitment to the people in exile. The section begins in v. 14 with Zion complaining that the Lord has forsaken her. We should note that here there is a parallel with the servant who also complained about the vanity of his experience (49:1-6). The Lord responds by asking in v. 15 a rhetorical question: whether a woman can forget her child. The Hebrew is clear in v. 15a that the child referred to is one feeding at the mother’s breast, that is a fairly young child utterly dependent on its mother. Could a woman in that situation forget her child? The expected answer is ‘no!’ but even if this impossible thing should come to pass, the Lord will not forget Zion. The word ‘forget’ is used three times in close succession in this verse matching Zion’s declaration in v. 14 that the Lord has forsaken or forgotten her. But the Lord proclaims that Zion has not been forgotten. Israel’s name is inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. This picks up the thought of 44:5 where some of the redeemed will write the Lord’s name on their hands. What was a sign of belonging earlier is reversed here in order to strengthen it. Not just do the faithful inscribe in their own flesh the Lord’s name, but the Lord inscribes on his own hands their names. We could also compare Deut 6:8 regarding the tephilim or prayer bands around the arms as a sign of belonging.
The reading set for today breaks off at v. 16a on a positive note. If we were to read on in the story of the ‘daughter of Zion’ we would hear also that the Lord admits to having abandoned Zion once (54:7). Overall one feels that the Lord, in the image of a husband/suitor, has to work very hard to convince his ‘bride’ of his continued fidelity and care. The hurt the Lord’s people have felt and their sense of abandonment are very real and will not be overcome easily by further promises of loyalty. But that is another story. Today’s passage uses the metaphor of the Lord as ‘husband’ to speak of the Lord’s closeness to the people who are redeemed and called to a new exodus.
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