Today’s blog follows the Episcopal daily readings in the light of a headline from world news
The Eternal Covenant of Peace
54Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labour!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.
2 Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.
3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.
4 Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace;
for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more.
5 For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name;
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.
6 For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God.
7 For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.
8 In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.
9 This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.
10 For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
11 O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted, I am about to set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires.*
12 I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of jewels, and all your wall of precious stones.
13 All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children.
The prophet has a delicate task to perform: he must deal with the fact that if there is a “God of Israel”, he appears to have abandoned his people to the enemy and allowed them to be taken away in exile to Babylon. How can the one who abandoned the people now purport to console the survivors? Or what excuse can he offer for his behaviour?
The obvious answer is that the people had abandoned their God long before he abandoned them; that they had worshipped foreign deities, forgotten the justice of God in their social dealings and made unwise military alliances with foreign powers-and they had refused to listen to the warnings of the prophets. All of these could have been mentioned by the prophet in God’s name. But he is silent on these matters. Why?
Because he knows that in the eyes of those who are returning to Jerusalem, nothing their ancestors might have done could justify the destruction of the city and its temple and the long exile in Babylon, to say nothing of the fact that when they got back they found natural antagonism from their compatriots who had made a new life in the ruins of their country. The prophet reckons that this is not the moment for a recital of former sins. So he does something astonishing.
Without mentioning the cause of his anger, Isaiah’s God admits responsibility for turning away from his people. He has behaved like a headstrong man in turning away from the wife of his youth! Surely this is an even more undignified image of God than that of a woman gasping in labour which Isaiah has also used. Now, struck by regret for what He has done and compassion for the hurt of his wife, the Lord has reached out to take back his true love, to re-instate her in his household and to promise her everlasting loyalty, affection and wealth.
The daring of this conception lies in what is unspoken; that the abandoned wife has a choice. She can say, “No thanks, I’m better off without you,” or she can accept the offer. That God should put Himself in this pitiful situation beggars belief, but the prophet is convinced that God is capable of this profound love and humility. The God who has admitted at the outset of his revelation to Isaiah that the people has received from his hand a double measure of punishment for their sins, now woos their affection with tender words and large promises.
The comparison with the “days of Noah” supports this interpretation, for then too the scripture tells us that God regretted his angry destruction of his world and promised that it would never happen again. God takes responsibility even for the sins which have brought his people into conflict with his justice; He even takes responsibility for the wrath which has abandoned them to chaos; and he turns towards them in love. Where did news of such of God come from?
We can only answer according to the evidence, that it arose from the passionate relationship of Israel with her God and especially from the prophetic tradition. More specifically however it comes from the imaginative and compassionate genius of the author of this passage.