(I’ve chosen not to go for St Bartholomew, as you probably will be less interested in the OT if you’re going to celebrate him this Sunday. I should transfer him to Monday if I were you: I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.)
As with last week there seems to be some unnecessary filleting by the lectionary-makers, and v 7-8 are also clearly a part of this passage. (By the way, it is OK to read more than the lectionary tells you to!) but unlike last week there has been no return from exile yet, and the people are still far from home struggling with questions of identity and purpose. The prophet encourages them to look: indeed this passage is full of looking. Clearly they are people looking for God in the geographical and theological disorientation they feel during the exile: ‘Listen to me … you who seek the Lord.’ (v 1) So where is he to be found?
First, says the prophet, look back. Look to Sarah and Abraham, those founders of our once great nation, your ancestors from whom you are descended. God called them, and as a result of his power you exist today. You are no accident, no unwanted mistake. The unusual term ‘quarry’ (v 1) means in Hebrew an empty hole: perhaps there is an allusion here to Sarah’s empty womb, and a reminder that emptiness is not the last word. But you can look even further back than that if you want more reassurance: right back to Eden (v 3). There is another promise here of restoration and joy to replace barrenness and aridity.
Then, continues the prophet, you might like to look forwards. God’s justice and restoration is coming – you only have to lift up your eyes and look for it (v 6). We ‘look forward’ to a birthday or holiday because we believe it really is coming: in the same way the prophet encourages Israel to eager expectation instead of drowning in the drudgery of the here-and-now.
Take a look at the created world, urges the prophet (v 6). All that you see around you is nothing more than a temporary place for you to live, rather as Babylon is. When you look to the future you’ll see all this lot vanish (v 6), and along with it you’ll also see a disappearing act from all those who are currently oppressing you (v 8).
But then, crucially, they are to take a look around. It is a major theme of Isaiah to remind the people of the original calling given to Abraham, to be blessed and to bless. Again and again Israel has grasped at the first part but forgotten the second and become narrow and exclusive, so even as he tells them to prepare for freedom, he reminds them of this calling, which makes them God’s chosen people: it is the nations who will be enlightened by God’s instruction, and the nations and islands who will be liberated along with Israel if only they will do what they are supposed to be doing. When God’s people stop looking inward and realise that the good things of God are for those currently outside, there is blessing in abundance for all who will come to him.