The time of Exile for ancient Judah and Jerusalem (587-539 BCE) was a time of great slaughter, deprivation, sighing and sadness at the hands of the Babylonians. A time of restoration was anticipated toward the end of the exile and the words of Isaiah 35 fed that anticipation. The very words of the chapter seem to leap for joy. Even so, it is not possible to appreciate fully the import of chapter 35 without an understanding of the chapter that precedes it.
Chapters 34 and 35 are commonly regarded as linked, like the two sides of a coin. They may not have been written by the same person, but it is possible that they were placed together originally to form an opening for the post-exilic prophecies of restoration in Second Isaiah, Isaiah 40-55. Isaiah 36-39, which is almost identical with 2 Kgs 18:13-20:19, was likely inserted even later when chapters 40-55 were attached to the material in Isaiah 1-33 in order to make a reasonable transition to the story of exile presumed in Isaiah 40.
In resounding poetic vision, Isaiah 34-35 describe the two paths humanity may tread in their relationship with God. Chapter 34 documents the profound destruction of Edom because of its collaboration with Babylon in the devastation of Judah leading up to the exile. Similar sentiments against Edom can be found in Obadiah and Ps 137:7-9. Edom was a small nation situated south east of Jerusalem, just across the Jordan valley. Its ancestry is traced in Genesis to Jacob’s brother Esau. The destruction of Edom described in Isaiah 34 is utterly comprehensive and final. God has spoken; there will be no resurrection for Edom. The land will henceforth be the habitation of only wild animals. Edom is here representative of the nations who oppose the righteous will of God. The poet uses apocalyptic language to express the final judgment of God in the ultimate clash between good and evil. To Isaiah, opposition to Judah and its religion is akin to opposition to God. The result is total destruction of the Edomites and the eternal desolation of their land.
Isaiah 35 represents the other side of the coin. Again it describes the intervention of God, but this time as restorer and deliverer. Verses 1-2 use mythic language to describe God’s action. They tell of the restoration of the very land through which the exiles will return to Zion. The ‘wilderness and the dry land’, representing the barren country between Babylon and Judah, participates in this restoration. The fertility and beauty of the land itself are restored and it bursts into joyful singing. The joy is expressed in the blooming of tree and flower where there had been dry and lifeless desert. The joy is expressed in the magnificent forests like those of fabled Lebanon, and lush vegetation like that of Mount Carmel and the Sharon, fertile areas in the land of Israel. The wilderness itself sings and rejoices as its fruitfulness returns. This is God’s doing as God prepares the appropriate ‘holy way’ along which the faithful people will return.
But in verse 3 the mood changes. Before they can make the return journey, the prophet must convince the fearful and weakened remnant of Judah that God will lead them back to Zion. There is reassurance that God ‘will come and save you’ (v. 4). After this time, the people will celebrate. Verses 5-6a detail the classic signs of restoration. The most vulnerable and weak among the exiles will have the greatest reason for celebration. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will be made strong, and the dumb will sing for joy. They will also witness the rebirth of the parched and exhausted land. It will be so overwhelming that parched land will become a swamp and grass will grow into tall reeds (v. 7).
The ‘holy way’ of v. 8 leads to the holy place, to Zion. Only the righteous can travel on it, the ‘unclean’ (or unrighteous) being disqualified. No one who sets out on the road will get lost, and the travellers will be protected from danger: ‘No lion shall be there’ or any other hungry wild beast (v. 9a). God has redeemed the righteous exiles from their misery and captivity, and they will return to Zion, singing songs of joy.
Matthew 11:2-5, part of today’s Gospel reading, makes a very strong link with these verses from Isaiah. The gospel writer explicitly associates the same signs of redemption with the coming of Jesus as messiah: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’ (v. 5) John the Baptist asks if Jesus is the ‘one who is to come’ (v. 3). In reply, Matthew’s Jesus does not answer the question specifically; he merely points to the restoration of the people in the Isaian manner (vv. 4-5). The Psalm for the day (Psalm 146) reiterates signs of the coming restoration (vv. 7b-8a), although (as with Isaiah) it is ‘the Lord’ who restores, not a messianic figure.
The connection between the Matthew passage and Isaiah 35 reminds us once again that the hope we have in Jesus, which is embodied in our Advent hope, is one which looks not just for some personal deliverer, someone to ease our individual troubles. What is envisaged is nothing less than the transformation of society and nature itself. Such transformation will ultimately depend on the Lord who restores. In the meantime, through participation in our political processes, in our struggles with drought, flood and bushfires over most of the last decade in various parts of Australia, with recent natural disasters in other parts of the world, in our support of those most affected at home and elsewhere, and with an urgent response to climate change on a global scale, as well as the many other activities to ‘help the blind to see and the lame to walk’, we can and do embody that Advent hope in our daily lives. Advent is more than a time of tinsel and planning presents and fancy meals. It is a time which embodies that calling to hope expressed in our daily lives – a hope for each of us, for all of us together and for creation as a whole.
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