YEAR B: EPIPHANY 5
(Sunday between February 4 and February 10)
Isaiah 40:1-11 was the Old Testament reading in Advent 2 this year. Now we read further in this first chapter of the section of Isaiah commonly called Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah), chs. 40-55. People from Judah and Jerusalem had been in exile in Babylon for almost half a century. Now with the Persian Empire on the rise, the demise of the Babylonians was drawing near. There was hope for peoples who had been held captive. But the Judeans among them were not always ready to embrace that hope. See Advent 2 for further comment.
Throughout Isaiah 40 and in the following chapters the prophet uses various arguments to encourage his people. In Isa 40:12-31 the prophet stresses the sovereignty of Israel’s God, Yahweh, and his ability to save his people. The chapter is divided into five sections each introduced by a question (vv. 12, 18, 21, 25, 27). There are echoes of Job 38-41 here. It is in the style of a disputation. If we read this passage in the context of the exile then we should imagine the people’s insecurity and lack of faith. Their grandparents had experienced the horrors of military conquest and forced removal from their homeland. Their parents and they had only known the oppression and rule of the Babylonians. The prophet has the task of moving a tired and numb people from passivity to action as one writer puts it. They are the people who, in their plight, cannot imagine that Yahweh has any regard for them (Isa 40:27).
Two sections come immediately before today’s reading, one of which stresses that the nations are as nothing compared to Yahweh who is creator of all. Even their wealth is insufficient for him (vv. 12-17). The second asks what are idols compared to Yahweh (vv. 18-20). Even the very best of human endeavour, made of indestructible material, is pitiful in comparison to Yahweh. We might think the point here is to highlight the human propensity to trust in ‘false’ gods but we ought not to forget that to the ancients idols were representatives of real divine powers. The prophet is not just lampooning the people and their choices but also the divine powers themselves.
Verses 21-24 begin with another series of rhetorical questions. Do the people not know that it is Yahweh who sits above earth? The creation language carries with it implications of kingship, sovereignty and might. The last verse in this section (v. 24) comes back to a series of ‘negative statements’ comparing the rulers of the nations to plants which have scarcely taken root before Yahweh blows and they wither. The image picks up the thoughts of vv. 6-7 which speak of the people in general as grass. Rulers are no different to the community in general. All of this is intended to underscore Yahweh’s power to deliver his people.
Verses 25-26 come back to asking to whom can Yahweh be compared (see v. 18). The people are asked to lift their eyes to the heavens and observe their completeness. In the ancient world the host of heaven were considered deities and heavenly creatures. Yahweh does not let one go. This is a point about power, but also it should be one of comfort for Yahweh’s people.
Finally, verses 27-31 address Jacob/Israel who are asked why they think their way is hidden from Yahweh. The people’s lack of trust and faith is now confronted and ‘dismissed’ not in terms of the insecurity itself, which is what the prophet is at pains to address, but in terms of there being any truth in their statement. Have they not heard of Yahweh’s power and ability to give strength to the weak? The question of v. 28 repeats in part that of v. 21. The prophet proclaims that those who wait for Yahweh will be renewed, picking up a theme from Isaiah 5.
The repetition of the words ‘knowledge’, ‘hearing’ and understanding in vv. 14, 21 and 28 reminds us of the problem in Isa 6:10-13, i.e. the people’s lack of understanding etc. However, now it is not a point of judgment. The people’s lack of knowledge of Yahweh arises from their insecurity and lack of willingness to enter into faith, not from their wilful rejection. But the people need to grasp that Yahweh’s understanding is unsearchable and that he grants his power to the weak (vv. 28-29). In spite of the people’s inability to comprehend the way of Yahweh or to see any confidence in the future, Yahweh moves to deliver them. They will find both new energy and hope in waiting for Yahweh (v. 31).
The Isaiah reading has some affinities with the Gospel for the day (Mark 1:29-39). The Gospel of Mark records a ‘barrage’ of healing stories and accounts of casting out demons at its start. The effect of these episodes is to help the reader recognise who it is here who proclaims the good news of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). These stories in their own way pick up on the theme of divine power which lies beyond the realms of earthly experience, but which is perceptible to those who ‘hear and understand’ and wait. At the start of Jesus’ ministry in Mark we are reminded of the one who is sovereign over all creation, who can strengthen the weak and faint, whose word is one of promise and hope, and who is present in the activity and proclamation of Jesus. We have every justification for hope and confidence in the coming of God among us. As with Isaiah’s audience, however, realising that hope is not always easy. We may not be in physical exile in the church today, but there are enough ‘powers’ (or should I say demons?) in our governments, our press, and society who continue to play on our insecurities, our hopelessness, and our malaise, that we are overwhelmed by another kind of exile wherein it is hard to see a future or to hear the call of God toward the kingdom.
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