Isaiah 55:1-9 is replete with beautiful imagery for preaching during the season of Lent. The text opens with an invitation to all who are thirsty to come and ends with a reminder that God’s ways are higher than our own. In between, we are challenged to understand how a people are moved to seek God in difficult circumstances and find hope for new life. To better understand the text, it is important to grasp the larger context of Isaiah 55. As part of the second major movement in the book, chapters 40-55 focus on Israel in exile in Babylon. Devastated by the destruction of Jerusalem, they were worn down by deportation to foreign lands. There, by the highways and byways of Babylon, the people faced economic, social, and religious pressure to assimilate to a different way of life, a life that slowly eroded their hope and belief that God remembered them. In the midst of this exilic situation, the prophet calls the weary people to return to God. The call to return is shaped by three distinct movements. First, a call to come, to drink, and eat. Second, a call to listen to the covenant God has made with the witness. Finally, a call to return because God’s ways are greater than human ways.
The first movement of the text focuses on God’s call to come. He proclaims that these weary, downtrodden people should come to the water. (v. 1) Come to the water and drink. This call is important within the larger context of Isaiah chapters 40 through 55, as the image of water has played a significant role. In these chapters, God is referenced as being the one who controls the water (40:12), the one who will not abandon the poor and needy who seek water (41:17), and who opens streams and springs in valleys and makes deserts into ponds (41:18). Later, God reminds Israel of how water is poured out for them on dry ground just as God’s spirit will be poured out on the descendants of Israel (44:3). In 49:10, God promises to lead Israel by springs of water so that they will not grow weary and in 54:9, God recalls the covenant made in the time of Noah, where God promised to never again cover the earth with water and rage against humanity.
Now, in chapter 55, God calls for the people to come and drink. One might wonder why God has to call to the people. Where are they? Why do they have no money? Why are they apparently “spending their possessions on that which does not satisfy?” Taking into consideration the context of the original hearers, it is likely that they are in exile, perhaps feeling abandoned. Perhaps, they have chased after the gods of Babylon. Perhaps, they have simply tried to stay alive in a foreign land, scraping by, pulling together a life that leaves them wanting something, anything that resembles living. One cannot know for sure the exact state, but this oracle presumes that life has been hard enough that they are parched and starving.
As we enter into this long Lenten season, it might help us to stop and reflect on this first part of the passage. Where in our own journeys do we see people much like the original hearers of this text? Who is thirsting for real water? In light of crises where people are forcibly moved from their home or where their water supply has been tainted, who might hear this call from God as a call to come to one who might actually provide water to drink? More metaphorically, who might find themselves in a desert time in their life? Who’s journey may have left them in a dry and wasted place, far from home and in need of living water to refresh their being? As we think alongside this text, one of its offerings is a portrait of a God who calls the downtrodden to a well of water and a table of good food that welcome exiles home.
A second movement of the text is a call to listen to the covenant God has made with the witness. In the second part of verse 2, God calls out to “listen!” (some texts read “really listen” or “indeed listen”). This particular construct, called the tautological infinitive absolute in Hebrew, is a way of drawing attention to the most important aspect of a section of text. What this means is this phrase, which uses the root s hema, “hear,” is telling the audience that the most important thing to do in this text is listen to God. In the Old Testament, specifically Deuteronomy 6:46, the idea of listening or hearing is not something that is passive. Instead, it is an active thing every Israelite was supposed to do. In Deuteronomy 6:46, every Israelite is instructed to hear that God is one and they are to love God with all their heart, life and strength. The fact that Isaiah 55:3 uses the same root, perhaps alludes to this great command and recalls Israel to listen again to God’s instruction. Specifically, the instruction Israel is called to listen to is the eternal covenant of hesed, often translated as “steadfastlove”or“lovingkindness”. God has made this covenant with David (2 Samuel 7) and his heirs. The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. apparently brought an end to that covenant in the mind of some Israelites. However, here in Isaiah 55, God reminds them that his covenant promises are never broken. In fact, God promises that his faithfulness, which is what the term hesed means - that God keeps his covenant promises - is still being fulfilled.
The witness referenced in verses 4 and 5 has been interpreted in a number of ways. In chapters 40-55 there are the “Servant Songs”, songs which refer to a servant who is a witness for God in the exile. Some scholars have thought that the servant is Israel. Others have thought it was the prophet. Still some believe it refers to Jesus. In this context, it could also refer to an heir of David. Whoever the witness is, this person will lead the community, bear witness to many people, and cause them to come to the Holy One of Israel.
This section might invite us to think carefully about how we are called to hear God anew. As God called Israel to listen again to the covenant so that they might find life, we too are called in the season of Lent to listen again to the narratives of Jesus and his journey toward Holy Week. Here in the beginning of Lent we will hear texts that will confront us and challenge us, sometimes in ways that are uncomfortable. Can these texts, “stretch our ears to hear and live,” by challenging how we think about God’s covenant faithfulness? Certainly Israel had thought that God’s covenant faithfulness would protect them and keep them from suffering defeat at the hand of Babylon. As we enter into Lent, perhaps we too are afraid of how journeying with Jesus through the desert of suffering may look. Can we journey through the season of Lent, examine ourselves and trust in God’s guidance? Likewise, can we see where others may be suffering unjustly and witness to God’s justice in the midst of that suffering?
Finally, God’s call of return is made because God’s ways are higher than human ways. In the final movement of the lectionary selection, the prophet implores his listeners to forsake their wandering ways and return to God while God may be found. The nearness of God is described as a great mercy, a reason for the wicked and the one of trouble to turn from their ways. An implied question is answered in verse 8. The people have apparently asked, “Why should one return?” or “How is return possible in light of what we have experienced?” The answer to this question is that God’s ways are higher than human ways. This verse has often been used to end arguments or theological debates where two sides disagree. However, in this context, the ways of God that are higher than human ways are in the area of mercy and restoration. In fact, as the following verses describe, including the verses 10-13 which are excluded from the week’s selection, God’s ways are so much higher than humans ways that it is not even close. This word will accomplish its purpose, people will return with rejoicing, places where death is expected will produce life; all of this goodness will attest to God’s faithfulness. Part of the great good news of this text is that God’s mercy is far more extraordinary than we can comprehend.
In this season of Lent, our practices draw us to face our mortality and brokenness, calling us to repent. Perhaps we might also hear the good news that God is calling us to a deep mercy which brings new life where none could be previously found. We might think about places in our own life where there seems to be no hope of newness blossoming. We might want to consider relationships where have we come to believe that God’s ways could not be higher than our ways, that we must accept the way things are right now. We might want to reevaluate our assumptions about our contexts and carefully reflect on what “ways” we have accepted as the controlling narrative of our life. Do we live into the narrative this world often offers us, one that is full of dryness, food that does not satisfy, and ways which lead to death? Our text invites us, as it did to the Israelites sitting in exile long ago, to live into a world in which the normal order of things is overturned. It bids us to live in God’s higher ways of life: forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. It calls us to drink and eat at God’s table, where all are welcomed. Here, the outcast, the broken, and the downtrodden are offered new life.