YEAR C: LENT 3
Isaiah 55:1-9 (10-13)
This passage bursts with the excitement of an invitation to a banquet. It ends (vv. 12-13) with an unparalleled description of joy and peace. All that one needs to accept the invitation is a thirst.
The magnificent poetry of the passage brings to life all kinds of scenes and images in our imagination. However, the background to the text reminds us of the very real problems addressed by the prophet. This chapter concludes the second part of the book of Isaiah (Second Isaiah, Isaiah 40-55). The people of Judah and Jerusalem have been in exile. They had been violently removed from their homeland by the Babylonians 40 years earlier. The prophet brings a word of hope of return. This hope is a fulfilment of God’s promise to the people. Earlier the prophet sought to comfort them with the message that their servitude was over (Isa 40:1-11). But people who have suffered badly do not embrace hope easily. In Isaiah 40 the prophet tried to convince the people that God was powerful enough to save, and had the will to do it. At the end of his message he again returns to the themes of human frailty and the utter reliability of God’s word (cf. Isa 40:6-8 with 55:8-11).
The opening of Isaiah 55 has reminded some of the invitations of the water sellers in the town square, but what is offered far exceeds that image. The thirsty and the poor are invited to drink. Neither one’s need nor one’s ability to pay will stifle this gift. Far more than water is on offer – wine and milk, delightful things are for the taking and at no cost. To have access to these in the ancient world one had to be a landowner, with vineyards and herds or flocks, or have the goods to exchange for them. Not so here. Nothing is required of the “purchaser” in this deal and nothing is demanded by the giver. The point of v. 2 may not be simply to chasten those who spend frivolously, but to say that nothing we could afford through wealth or effort will satisfy. What matters is listening and responding (vv. 2b-3a). That is the key to life. And listening implies hearing a word. A similar point is made by Jesus in the parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-10).
The reference to David recalls the covenant made with his dynasty (2 Samuel 7). According to Psalm 89 (v. 39) it is precisely the Babylonian exile which cast doubt on the eternal nature of the Davidic covenant. In Isaiah 55 that doubt is challenged at the same time that the ideal and task of David’s kingship is extended to the whole people. The people are called to witness to the nations just like the servant about whom Second-Isaiah also speaks (cf. Isa 49:6). The prophet directly challenges the people’s doubt and fear (cf. Ps 89:49). The passage acknowledges that God’s promises can be doubted and challenged, but it affirms in the strongest of terms that any such doubt or challenge will be met. The promises of abundant life will succeed.
Isa 55:6, however, expresses the need for a response by the people – seeking the Lord, calling on him while he is near, forsaking the wicked way or unrighteous thoughts, and returning to the Lord. The Lord’s reply is mercy and abundant pardon – compare the generous offer of wine and milk earlier. The mystery of this wondrous offer is expounded in v. 8. God’s ways are not ours, nor our thoughts like God’s. There is a lovely piece of chiasm in vv. 8-9 around the words “ways” and “thoughts”. Central to the image is the height of the heavens above the earth – both in physical and metaphorical terms. At first glance an impossible chasm lies between God’s ways and thoughts and ours. On the other hand, the prophet wants to say that this chasm has been bridged, by God. It is the otherness of God’s thoughts and ways – of offering rich food without price – which achieves this. This is utterly astounding. God’s ways and thoughts are thoroughly focused on letting us seek him, and having our ways become like his (vv. 6-7).
The lectionary reading for this week breaks off at v. 9. That is unfortunate for the passage turns to some exquisite poetic imagery about the word of the Lord – what makes the above (vv. 1-9) possible. The prophet returns to the theme of the word raised earlier in Isa 40:8. Now there are images of rain and snow falling from heaven, not to return there but to cover the earth with their life giving substance, refreshing it, and bringing forth the seed that is necessary to sustain life on earth. We again return to the image of an abundant supply of food for the people. We started with thirst and necessary drink, now we finish with hunger and necessary bread. We might like to think of this in relation to the elements of the communion – the wine and bread for our pilgrimage. Both come through the word, in Christian terms especially through Jesus Christ.
The passage finishes with a great expression of joy and peace (vv. 12-13). All nature bursts into song. Nature responds to this purpose achieving word of the Lord, even as we should. The image of briers and thorns sends us back to an earlier message of an earlier “Isaiah” in ch. 5 where the rebellion of the people led to the vineyard, so tenderly cared for, being broken down and left to wild, chaotic and destructive ways. The message in Isaiah 55 is of an overwhelming sense of the fulfilment of what God promises. Certainly there are “thorny patches” along the way, but the prophet is certain God’s purpose will prevail and not the forces which seek to destroy life. Every little sign of life that emerges in the world around us – love, joy, hope, some small achievement of justice, a stand for truth – is part of that everlasting sign or memorial to the life giving, generous, merciful, free offer of God. And it is all founded in a word which is neither withdrawn once given, nor sent out on some vain task, but which succeeds in that for which it was sent.
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