The drip of melting snow and the chirp of birds in the trees were the first heralds in Narnia proclaiming the good news: the King was returning to the land. Before anyone laid eyes on the great Lion or before the mighty roar was heard over the castle of Car Paravel, the earth announced the good news of his coming. The eternal winter was ending and the thaw of a new day had dawned.
Walter Brueggemann suggests the reader of Isaiah linger in a long pause before turning the page from the sharp judgment of Isaiah chapter 39 to the sweet words of comfort in chapter 40. This long pause is appropriate to the historical context. Chapter 40 marks the beginning of second Isaiah. Generations have passed between first Isaiah, the destruction brought by Assyria and the announcement of Cyrus of Persia releasing the Israelites from captivity in Babylon. But more than mere historical context the long pause gives a dramatic moment of silence as we turn from judgement to salvation. The words of “comfort” and “good tidings” are the shouts from the earth that the long winter of judgement has come to a decisive end as “the Lord comes with might (40:10).”
Without that long pause this turn from judgment to salvation could give us some hermeneutical whiplash. Isaiah 1-39 is a prophetic text of warning to a people of “unclean lips” (6:5). The once faithful city of Jerusalem had become a whore, filled with injustice, murderers and thieves who ignore the cause of the orphan, the widow and the poor (1:21-23, 3:15). The prophet invites the people to walk in the light of the Lord (2:5), but that very light which will bring salvation is also an instrument of exposure, illuminating the depths of sin and corruption that have mocked the holiness of their God. Throughout the 39 chapters of first Isaiah the people of Israel are scorched in this searing light that lays bare the soul of a people who have rejected the reign of God’s justice, righteousness and peace (32:16-17).
In the long pause between chapters 39 and 40 Israel has seen this judgment carried out by both the Assyrians and the Babylonians. We hear the words of first Isaiah, “How long, oh Lord!” ringing in the ruins of a city laid waste, frozen in time (6:11). If we turn too quickly to second Isaiah we might be tempted to think that judgement and salvation are two different eras in God’s reign. We need this pause in order see how the frost of judgement gives way to the thaw of salvation. The parallels between chapter 40 with chapters 1-39, particularly chapter 6, lead the reader to see that the salvation God is bringing is not a departure from the judgement of the past but rather the fullness of God’s eternal desire for redemption.
Just a few of the parallels between chapters 6 and 40 reveal the connection between the initial proclamation of second Isaiah with the work of his predecessor.
The stopped ears and shut eyes are giving way to cries of good news and the signs of God’s glory. The judgment of the Lord is now interpreted through the herald of salvation. The gospel/good tidings (Hebrew: basar) announced in chapter 40 are like the first buds of Spring time emerging from the long winter. The glory of the Lord is being revealed in creation in perfect continuity with the salvific work of God from the beginning of creation.
When we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah on the lips of John the Baptist as he cries in the wilderness or in the song of Mary when she rejoices in the secret company of her cousin we are certain of two things: the king is coming once and for all and the salvation that he is bringing is perfectly harmonious with the salvific work of God from the beginning of time.
The first week of Advent we deal with the judgment passages. It’s nice to get the judgment part out of the way that first week so we can deck the halls the next. But Advent is a season for waiting and, perhaps, pausing. In this prophetic text the second week of Advent (and the Gospel text as well) we are reminded that at the heart of the gospel is an invitation to come and step into the light of God’s judgment. We do so without fear of retribution or wrath. The same light that exposes our cold hearts of stone and our icy systems of injustice has become the magnifying light of love that is thawing us into a new creation. Salvation springs forth from the earth and we are the heralds of the Kings return.
As you read the gospel words of second Isaiah, hear the echoes of judgement from first Isaiah. As you listen to the cries of John the Baptist and the song of Mary the virgin, hear the continuity of God’s magnificent love for all the world.