If you’re looking for inspiring, uplifting, beautiful religious language, the later chapters of the Book of Isaiah are as good a place to start as any. For it’s here where the prophetic voice turns from chastising and warning a people who’ve turned from God to offering hope for a better–if not idealistic–future in Jerusalem, the center of the Hebrews’ religious universe:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. –Isaiah 65:17-25 NRSV
It doesn’t get too much better than that! And maybe that’s part of the problem in dealing with this wonderful scripture passage this week.
Throughout much of earlier prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible (Christianity’s Old Testament) prophets such as Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah (the early Isaiah, which many, many scholars contend was a different guy than the one who wrote the passage above) rail against the sins of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They hold out the threat of eventual destruction and/or exile at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians (with a smattering of trash talk about Egypt for good measure). Almost three millenia later we know how all that turned out. It’s tempting to conclude that the Hebrew prophets were all about predicting stuff, especially the destruction of Israel/Judah. But that’s only one part of the prophetic function–and probably a minor one at that.
Prophets speak “God’s word” in a particular situation, time, and place. Sure, sometimes that requires literal language but more often it calls for metaphors and other such figures of speech. And to a people freshly returned to Jerusalem from 70 years of humiliating, debilitating exile in Babylon, the prophet offers words of hope that God is ready to start all over. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that the language used invokes images of the Garden of Eden. Animals that ordinarily live out the expected “rule of the wild” act in extraordinary ways. Lions eating straw instead of lambs unfortunate enough to be separated from shepherds and their flocks.
Maybe the exiled Jews had spent much of their time weeping by the rivers of Babylon, unable to sing the songs of Zion as their ancestors had done back home in their promised land. But now God was wiping away their tears. In the ancient world most infants and a fair number of their mothers died in the process of childbirth. Now God was changing all that! It was just as rare for the majority of the populace to live long lives. They were embedded in abject poverty and misery unlike anything we see in the modern world, except perhaps in those countries that don’t even qualify as part of the so-called “developing world.” Yet in this wonderful vision of a new era, the prophet contends that old age is the rule not the exception. Furthermore, we’re given a picture of comfortable homes and businesses and vineyards.
And why is the prophet speaking all this? Because the promise of a faithful God will be fulfilled. Because even though the people screwed up about as badly as people could, God is starting over, resurrecting this people to become a “holy people and nation” once again. With images like this, what response can there possibly be other than to rejoice!
- Narrative Lectionary: Isaiah Foretold WHAT? (Isaiah 9:1-7) (revgalblogpals.org)
- “By the Rivers of Babylon…” – the Importance of the Babylonian Exile in the Salvation History of All Mankind (prayers4reparation.wordpress.com)
- 10/13/2013 Get Up and Go (richbrownforewords.wordpress.com)