Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
Usually it’s good to hear a passage read before listening to a sermon about it, but I have found that there is great impact from this particular text if you do it the other way round. It marks the transition from Isaiah of Jerusalem to so-called ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, who was writing around the end of the exile in Babylon. So why not just take a moment to think yourself into the world of his original hearers?
You’ve been snatched from your homeland and marched across the desert to a strange, foreign land with a weird language, an unknown culture, all kinds of alien gods. You are suffering from what sociologists nowadays would call ‘cultural dislocation’, with all its attendant anxiety. Some of you are working like slaves at hard physical toil, under taskmasters who can be extremely cruel.
But at a level deeper than the mere physical and mental pain there are a set of theological questions to be answered. What are we to make of God in this current situation? Prophets (like Isaiah) have been warning you that unless you turned back to God you’d be in trouble, but, hey, those prophets can get a bit grumpy: they need to lighten up a bit and enjoy life. Maybe they were right all along, and God has washed his hands of us. We know that God has been patient with us for years, but now maybe we’ve blown it once and for all. He’s used up all his mercy and now we’re on our own.
Or maybe there’s a different problem. Lots of the nations around us treat their gods as though they were in the Anglican parish system. Depending on where you live you have a different god looking after you. So while we were back home in Jerusalem Yahweh was our God, but now we’re in Babylon, have we moved out of his patch? Should we be praying to Bel, Nebo or one of the others to save us? We know our God is a mighty God, but maybe his power doesn’t extend this far.
Or is it about punishment? OK, we can now grudgingly admit that we might just have been a little bit naughty as a nation, and we know that God hasn’t always been pleased with us. But is this it now? Is he going to punish us for ever, with no hope of forgiveness or restoration?
You can just hear the agonised theological questioning, can’t you? And then, without warning, a new voice is heard in the land: a new prophet. We know nothing about him except what we can discern from his writings. But the message he brought, in fact the first sentence of the message he brought, swept away all their anxious questioning in one go.
‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God’
Doesn’t sound all that, does it, until you put in some italics:
‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God‘
When you look back through the OT there is a formula which is used again and again of the covenant relationship between God and Israel – ‘You will be my people and I will be your God.’ Isaiah deliberately uses this phraseology in his very first sentence, and the meaning is abundantly clear: the deal is still on! Whatever you’ve done, God’s mercy is still there for you. Imagine the relief!
But there is one more beautiful twist to this tale, and it hangs on the Hebrew word translated ‘double’ in v 2. The word Kiphlaim does mean ‘double’, but not in the sense of twice as much. If you have a ‘double’ it means that someone somewhere looks exactly like you do, a complete match. So the prophet is saying that the punishment you have received for your sins is the exact equivalent. It’s done, it’s over, appropriate sentence has been served, and there is no more debt to pay. You’re free! You’re going home!
The next 15 chapters merely unpack there themes further, but the real good news comes all in the first two verses.