YEAR B: EPIPHANY 7
(Sunday between February 18 and February 24)
Today’s passage is another of the oracles of hope and return from exile in Babylon found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). We have already read two passages from Second Isaiah this year, both from ch. 40 (see Advent 2 and Epiphany 5). Those passages, from the introductory chapter to Second Isaiah, set out the major themes of the prophet – the forgiveness of the people and their return to Jerusalem in a ‘new exodus’, and the recognition of Yahweh’s sovereignty in the world. The prophet strives to bring hope and comfort to the people (e.g. Isa. 40:1) and to encourage them by reminding them of the greatness of Yahweh and announcing his presence with Israel (Isa. 40:8-31).
Today’s text is part of a larger trial scene (Isa. 43:1-44:5) in which Yahweh’s sovereignty is at issue. Our reading opens part way into the third oracle in the chapter (vv. 16-28). In each oracle Yahweh is identified in a different way: ‘your creator’ (v. 1), ‘your redeemer’ (v. 14) and now as one ‘who makes a way in the sea’ (v. 16). Like the opening oracle, today’s passage has the Exodus in view. Yahweh brought Israel through the sea and caused the demise of the Egyptian military (v. 17). The two longer oracles are concerned with the distant past, with Israel and Egypt (vv. 1-13 and 16-28). While they recall the past actions of Yahweh with his people, they in fact support the brief intervening oracle (vv. 14-15) which speaks of the power of Yahweh to release Israel from Babylon. The present circumstance (Babylon) is addressed by remembering the past (Egypt).
In this way, the prophet directs Israel’s thoughts to the present and the future. But a curious thing is then said, and this is where today’s reading starts. Israel is urged to forget the things of old and not even to consider them (v. 18). This is curious since the prophet has just used memories of former things to help encourage people in the present. This curiosity operates at several levels. There is an element of hyperbole in v. 18 serving to highlight that the ‘new thing’ Yahweh announces will be so tremendous, that past experiences, no matter how great, will fade in its light. The prophet aims to create anticipation and to reinforce a forward looking view. But more is implied.
The ‘new’ is a recurring theme in Second Isaiah (e.g. Isa 42:9; 48:6-8) but each occurrence of the theme presents a mixture of material and topic, so that the meaning of the ‘new’ is not spelt out clearly. In Isaiah 48, ‘new’ refers to things that Israel has never heard because they are newly created. From earlier chapters we might conclude that the ‘new’ is the restoration of Jerusalem. However, the ‘new’ announced in Isaiah 43 seems to go well beyond just one historical event.
The ‘new thing’ is described as a way in the desert and as ‘rivers in the desert’ (v. 19). The journey through the wilderness during the exodus and the provision of water spring to mind. This suggests that the ‘former things’ (v. 18) were, in fact, the experiences of Israel in their wilderness journey to the promised land. But why should Israel forget such an important event?
Here we must understand the sense of ‘remember’ in the Old Testament. ‘To remember’ does not simply mean to bring something to mind. Rather it means to give thought to and act appropriately (cf. Gen 8:1). The call for Israel not to remember the former things is a call to Israel not to dwell on the past as past, i.e. not to think of it as a past act or possibly not to lament over it as a past that is no longer present. The ‘new thing’ that Yahweh does is in fact the ‘old thing’ in a new time and place. The old thing (i.e. the exodus) becomes a paradigm for present divine action. But the people’s attention needs to be on this ‘new’ expression of that same old thing. The prophet calls the people to live in expectation of a new event which is, in a way, a repeat of the past. So the past becomes an image of the future and, thus, generates hope. It brings with it the image of liberation and captures the experience of the sovereignty of Yahweh in release from captivity. It also captures the theme of distance and journey and makes hope concrete.
While this part of today’s reading picks up the theme of the ‘new exodus’ from Isa. 40:3-11, the second part (Isa 43:22-25) picks up the theme of forgiveness from Isa. 40:2. In Isa. 43:22-25 Israel has not called on Yahweh, and in not doing so wearied him. Yahweh has not demanded offerings; neither have the people brought them. What they have burdened him with is their sin. But Yahweh is the one who now blots out transgressions and does not remember past sin. This is precisely the purpose of offerings made to Yahweh – to seek forgiveness and oneness again. The significant thing here is that even without the sacrifice, Yahweh does not remember the sins of his people any more. They have paid the penalty for them (Isa. 40:2). Just as the people are not to ‘remember’ things of the past in such a way that their focus and hope is in the ‘new’ thing Yahweh is about to do, so Yahweh’s focus is not on remembering their sins of the past, but on his ‘new’ act of redemption.
The Gospel reading for the day, Mark 2:1-12, echoes themes from Isaiah. There is a focus on forgiveness that leads to new life – a very real new journey for the paralysed man. He becomes a living example of one for whom ‘former things’, while not totally put out of mind, are no longer the focus of life. Just as in Isaiah, where issues of Yahweh’s sovereignty needed to be dealt with for the people to perceive the realisation of their hope, so too in Mark, the authority of Jesus is established so that all may see God’s presence and work in him – in doing a ‘new thing’.
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