The 1989 made-for-television movie Polly is an adaptation of Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 children’s book, Pollyanna. In this movie version, Polly told the minister there were 800 “glad texts” in the Bible. Introducing his sermon the next morning, Reverend Gillis told the congregation that preaching the glad texts–he had counted 826–would keep him in sermons for the next sixteen years, and he intended to preach them all.
Isaiah 35 certainly counts in this cornucopia of “glad texts.” One would scramble to find many other ten-verse Scripture passages as heaped up, pressed down, and overflowing as these. Sometimes, a simple tally tells the tale. In these ten verses, “glad/gladness” occurs twice, “joy/rejoice” six times, and “sing/singing” thrice (NRSV, reflecting the Hebrew text).
Much more is here. The confident assertion of verses 1-2 is a glad text in both its vocabulary and its syntax: “The desert [Arava] shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly” (NRSV). The last two words are, literally, “blossoming, it shall blossom,” an emphatically superlative Hebrew construction. Lest we miss “blossoming” as a “joyful” activity of the crocus, and thus of the desert as, in future, it follows the lead of the crocus, three of our “glad words” follow immediately: “and rejoice with joy and singing.” Had we the space, we could greatly expand this aspect of our discussion, but other significant matters also invite our attention.
Most readers are inclined to treat such depictions of inanimate entities as metaphorical and anthropomorphizing. As a start, this may not be incorrect, but it is insufficient. Without veering into polytheism or pantheism, we may say that a complete, thoroughgoing biblical theology ascribes to the “natural” universe of God’s creation characteristics that are more than the sum of their natural(istic) parts. The inanimate wilderness/dry land/desert of verse one is more than atoms and molecules, more than aggregations of mineral formations into interesting geological/geographical topographies. In real but mysterious ways, the earth itself, in all its variegation, the multiplexity of its existence, has “personality”: perhaps not (fully) sensate, yet possessed of real abilities to respond to God, and also to suffer because of the natural world’s entrapment in our “fallenness.” The flourishing of the dry places of the earth spoken of here will be, after all, a healing of the present widespread barrenness of natural order(s).
Not only shall “it,” the dry places, be given “the glory of Lebanon” and “the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.” In identical language, verse 2 predicts “they shall see the ‘glory’ of the Lord, the ‘majesty’ of our God.” “They” are these same locales that are now the desolate dry-land places. How are geographical locations to “see”? Who knows, now?
I don’t want to make too much of this point, and I wouldn’t know how to proceed with confidence, anyway. But here we have something not only of eschatological but also of ecological importance, and Jesus did point out to the naysayers that if those shouting “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday had ceased their rejoicing at his coming that day, the very “stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). Moreover, Paul says, “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory (there’s that word again!) of the children of God,” for “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves . . .” (Romans 8:21-23a).
Both Jesus and Paul affirm the hope and the viewpoint of Isaiah 35. The eschatological redemption is not only for God’s human children, but also for the earthly creation which has suffered from our first parents’ decision to turn their backs on God–a decision ratified by all their descendants through every generation. The redemption, restoration, and renewed flourishing (shalom) of the human species is inseparably linked with that of the earth itself and all its children. One evidence of that here is that the exhortations to human encouragement (vv 3-6a) flow seamlessly from the eschatological joy in the earth’s renewal (vv 1-2), and back again to nature’s fecundity, beginning with the emphatic “for waters shall break forth” (6b), and continuing through verse 7.
The culmination of the chapter is a highway for the redeemed/ransomed through the formerly barren and dangerous wilderness. The previously fraught journey to Zion will be safe, carefree, and joyful. Both journey and arrival will be with singing, with everlasting joy, and with gladness. “Ecological” and “human” joy will be inseparable because, as in the primeval Garden, each once again will contribute to the other.
At first glance, “sorrow and sighing” may seem to transpose the song again to an all-too-familiar minor key. But they are mentioned only to assure God’s people and all creation that, in the familiar words of Lady Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” C. S. Lewis–another familiar apostle of joy–put it, “Joy is the serious business of heaven” (Letters to Malcolm).
So, what makes Isaiah 35 an Advent text? In the Christian calendar, the Advent Season aids believers to look back in time to Christ’s first coming, but also to look forward to his second coming. With this in mind, Christ-followers are justified in reading Isaiah 35 as a joyous, even exuberant, prediction/celebration of the already-here-yet-still-journeying-forward of the sure redemption and restoration of all God’s earthly creation. Though it will not be the Christian’s only understanding of the chapter, this reading is warranted. In the light of the Gospels, Isaiah 35 becomes one of many OT harbingers of the revelation of the humble Galilean tradesman as God’s appointed, anointed Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of Israel and of the nations, alike.
Zion as the specific geographical goal and culmination of the journey of the redeemed–celebrated with singing, everlasting joy, and gladness (v 10)–reminds the Christian reader that in Jesus’ thirty-three years upon the earth he circled back to Zion/Jerusalem time and again. His parents took him to the Temple in his infancy. At twelve, he amazed the Temple scholars with his erudition. He revisited the Temple repeatedly during his three-year ministry, most times “going up to Zion” as any pilgrim would have done. Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection occurred just outside the gates of Zion.
All this is the “looking back” of Advent, but Jesus’ ascension also occurred nearby; the Mount of Olives overlooks Zion from the east. The angelic prediction to the dismayed band of disciples invited them (and us) to an eager anticipation of his second Advent foreshadowed in the affirmation of 35:2 of the glory and majesty of Yahweh. Only at his return will the earthly creation see its full restoration–the flourishing God intended from the beginning, the gladness, joy, and singing anticipated and echoed throughout this chapter-promise of eternal shalom.