To understand today’s passage we need first to understand the concept of ‘apocalyptic’ literature. The word literally means ‘unveiling’ and is applied to the kind of writing, usually coming from times of great tribulation and persecution, when our eyes are lifted from the present troubles to the final page, on which God will have the ultimate victory and everything will be fine. We’re most familiar with this genre from the book of Revelation, but there is plenty more of it throughout the Bible, and Isaiah chapters 24-27 have been called ‘Isaiah’s Apocalypse’. Like all apocalyptic literature it is gloriously vague as to geography and timescale: ‘on that day’ is used seven times over these four chapters, but never with any indication of exactly what day. Similarly ‘this mountain’ (v 7) is never identified. It is also difficult to place from which period of Israel’s history this passage originates, although the evidence would suggest that it comes from difficult times.
So all this vagueness notwithstanding, what was the point of writing this stuff, and what truths can this text tell us? The idea of apocalyptic is always to encourage, to help people stay focussed, remain steadfast through the trials, and somehow to find the strength to keep plodding on. It does this by encouraging the readers to see past the trouble to the outcome. For a marathon runner it might be the vision of the winners’ podium; for a dieter it could be a picture of the new slimmed-down you: for persecuted Israel it is a banquet. Enemies will have been defeated by the hand of God (v 2, 5), and yet the original call of Abraham to bless all nations is being fulfilled by the inclusivity of the feast which is ‘for all peoples’ (v 6). As you might expect the banquet is no Tesco Value kind of meal: there is no ‘Christian Quiche’ or ‘Beige Buffet’ in sight. Only the best will do for God’s purposes.
Then, in line with apocalyptic vagueness, there are even greater purposes behind God’s final action: ‘the shroud that enfolds all peoples’ (whatever that is) will be taken away, ‘the people’s disgrace’ will be removed, and death itself will be swallowed up. The God who has been a refuge in hard times (v 4) becomes the warrior who will not just hide people from trouble but will deal with those causing the trouble at root level. The punchline comes in v 9, where the people are encouraged to anticipate the final dénouement, and to celebrate the fact that in spite of it all God has been with them and for them.
Christians are often accused of ‘triumphalism’ (which I define as ‘wanting your triumph too early’), and of an excessive concern with ‘pie in the sky when you die’. This passage, like so many others in Scripture, forbids triumphalism by taking seriously the present evil, but also promises exactly ‘pie in the sky’, even if we don’t have to die to get it. Every strand of the NT motivates Christians by holding before them the promise of future reward, from the Sermon on the Mount, which is all about being rewarded, through to Revelation and its glimpses of final glory. I love the quote from CS Lewis:
“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.
“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised to us in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.
“We are far too easily pleased.”
(C S Lewis, The Weight of Glory.)
God will have the last word – let that encourage you!