James Matthew Price
The prophetic tradition of Isaiah lays a pathway of truth through rich fields of concise yet eloquent language. It is like walking into the fecundity of a botanical garden. Take time to get our hands dirty as well as admire the beauty found here. In the selected passage of Isaiah 55:10-13, the second major patch of Isaiah’s community garden concludes with a beautiful refresher on the scale of God’s present faithfulness around us by pointing out the scope of God’s promised fruitfulness through us.
This week’s snippet from Isaiah 55:10-13 is a teaser for a word about God’s abundance. The lectionary readings for Proper 10A read like a tweet from Bob Goff, gushing with positivity:
–“You make the dawn and sunset shout for joy.” – Psalm 65:8b (NASB)
–“For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace. . . “ – Isaiah 55:12 (NASB)
–“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 8:1 (NASB)
–“And [other seeds] fell on good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold . . .” – Matthew 13:8 (NASB)
All of this biblical flourishing could easily be mistaken by proper cynics, impoverished preachers, and neo-Calvinists as too much prosperity and not enough gospel: seeking out God’s word just to get to the good stuff. It is here we need the context of Isaiah 55:10-13 for all of its positive vibes to make prophetic sense.
Hebrew prophets are not typically associated with light-hearted, upbeat messages. The lectionary during the past few weeks, however, have caught Moses (Exodus 19:2-8a), Jeremiah (20:7-13, 28:5-9), and Zechariah (9:9-12) collectively in a great mood, and not to give away any spoilers but the words of the prophets in the following weeks are no less enthusiastic about God’s good intentions (Isaiah 44:6-8; 1 Kings 3:5-12, Isaiah 55:1-5, 1 Kings 19:9-18, Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Isaiah 51:1-16, Jeremiah 15:15-21; Ezekiel 33:7-11). The common thread woven through these passages is that in spite of past judgment and current circumstances, God wants only well-being for creation, and works this goodness through the experiences of His people. This truth is captured well by the metaphor of “rain and snow upon the land” that begins our passage in Isaiah 55:10.
In order to understand this metaphor, however, we need to take a look not only at the rest of chapter 55 but also back to the preceding chapters 53 and 54. The opening question of chapter 53 (“Who has believed our message?”) is driven home by the violent dismantling of the Messenger in the verses that follow. The answer is no one, neither the outsider nor the insider; all have rejected what is heard. Also, the divine title of “The Righteous One” in 53:11 (Exodus 9:27, Proverbs 21:12, Isaiah 24:16, Acts 7:52, Acts 22:14) is brought together with the image of Servant (Isaiah 42:1, 19; 49:5-6, 50:4-9, Isaiah 52:13-53:12; see also the Servant Songs of Isaiah; cf. John 13:1-17 and Philippians 2:4-8). The Servant (Isaiah 53:10) and the Word (Isaiah 55:11) are brought together as one and the same, and both will accomplish God’s intention in the world (Hanson, 1995, 182). Not surprisingly, the Righteous One, the Servant, and the Word all become signifiers of Christ Jesus in the writings of the New Testament.
To illustrate from Year A lectionary passages from First Peter (Easter season) and Matthew (Epiphany and All Saints). In First Peter, the one that suffers for the sake of righteousness will define what it means to be righteous (1 Peter 3:14, side note–First Peter could be considered a midrash on Isaiah 53). Furthermore, the heart of a servant exemplifies right living. The gospel of Matthew canonizes suffering servanthood as part of the Christian ethic in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10, NASB). In Matthew 5:10, the direct connection to Isaiah 55, especially verses 1-2, cannot be more obvious: “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (5:6, NASB). The righteousness of God’s chosen people will be transformed into hope for the outsider (read as “nations,” Isaiah 42:6) even as the insider lives somewhat outside the societal norm (“as aliens and strangers,” 1 Peter 2:9-12) as reminders (“living hope,” 1 Peter 1:3) of what God intends to accomplish.
In the passages immediately preceding Isaiah 55:10-13, the distressed people of God have endured the isolation and desolation of divine judgment (Isaiah 54:1-4). The accusations of guilt and shame caused by the horrors of war and exile encountered by the people (Isaiah 54:11-15) will be vindicated (Isaiah 54:16-17). The scarcity of the past grows dim in light of the vibrant clatter of a bustling marketplace where only the goodness of abundance can be found (Isaiah 55:1-3). It is here that God’s goodness is free to share with all who reach out to take it.
It is in the familiar imagery of the created world where God’s presence is made known; the One over all is also nearby, what may have once been hidden is found, so now is the moment to seek and call out to God (Isaiah 55:6). This message is delivered as the “everlasting covenant” and “enduring word” of the Lord (Isaiah 55:3; 1 Peter 1:23-25; cf. Isaiah 40:9). The flourishing of divine grace is what the second part of Isaiah 55 is all about.
Isaiah 55:10 is a metaphor amplifying the message of God’s gracious provision from the previous verses. The rain and snow represent the faraway blessings of God falling down to saturate the fallow ground of a parched people. The dry “barrenness” of Isaiah 54:1 is reversed. The promised flourishing of Psalm 65:9-10 is fulfilled:
“You visit the earth and cause it to overflow; You greatly enrich it; The stream of God is full of water; You prepare their grain, for thus You prepare the earth. You water its furrows abundantly, You settle its ridges, You soften it with showers, You bless its growth.” (NRSV)
The land not only produces “bread for the eater” in the present season but also “seed for the sower” to perpetuate God’s promised covenantal love into future generations.
The root of this fruitfulness is God’s “word” preceded by joy and followed by peace (verse 12). The profound truth of this new liberty can only be met with exuberant celebration. The high places in the mountains where idols were once worshipped now rumble with deep resonate song to their Creator. Living in the Val d’Isere in the French Alps for a year brought this image home. The rumble of thunder rolling between the mountain peaks late at night is a memory not easily forgotten. Groves of trees once carved into Asherah poles for worshipping local deities now clap their branches (Heb., kippah) to Yahweh, as if they were hands (Heb., kaph) (verse 12b, see 2 Kings 21:1-7, 23:1-8). God’s people, as a procession of those once exiled now returning home, should “burst forth” (Heb., yatsa), in celebration of this word come true, following the example of the rest of creation. For those who were once “far off have been brought near . . ..” (Ephesians 2:13 NASB). In summary, Paul Hanson adds, “In the festive celebration, humanity is joined by nature, for everything in creation is brought to wholeness by the Redeemer” (1995, 182).
Even in the midst of this celebration, maybe even because of it, it is easy to miss the good news of this passage: What was dead is now alive. The disobedient have heard and returned to God in a way even former kings could not do. In the past thorns and briers overwhelmed the expansive vineyards of the hapless and faithless King Ahaz, unable to see the possibility of hope in the divine message conveyed by the prophet Isaiah in the face of impending doom (Isaiah 7:14, 23). The reversal of judgment continues. Now, “new life for the remnant” has come to the land through the grace of God giving them a new chance to obey, to hear the word of God, again (Seitz, 1994, 481).
In southeastern Utah, the arid red sandstone hills reveal in their creases abundant evidence of water just below the surface in the presence of juniper trees and the life-giving seeds of the pinyon fir tree (Heb., berosh, Isaiah 55:13). In the same way, God’s refreshing grace is found in what seems at first glance to be only dry, barren stones. The sharp, bristling leaves of the nettle are replaced by the fragrant scent of the flowering myrtle tree. The presence of God will bring out the best in creation as an “everlasting sign” of covenant relationship. The divine faithfulness of covenantal grace will be memorialized in the beauty of fruitfulness.
In his commentary on this passage, John Oswalt concluded, “This is imagery from start to finish, and it is imagery to express the joy of all creation at the possibility of sinners being made holy through the Word of God . . . And this work of redemption will stand for all eternity as a witness to the nature of our God” (1998, 448).
Hanson, Paul D. 1995. Isaiah 40-66. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Nashville: John Knox Press.
Oswalt, John.. 1998. The book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans.
Seitz, Christopher R. 1994. “The Book of Isaiah 40-66.” In Introduction to Prophetic Literature; Isaiah. Volume VI of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press.