Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
We begin by noting two somewhat strange things about this passage. The first is that it reads much more like Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) than Isaiah of Jerusalem, in whose section of the whole book is it placed. It seems as though this chapter has become detached, although the bigger context demonstrates well why this might be an appropriate place for it. The second strange thing is why on earth our dear friends the lectionary compilers have whipped an odd three and a half verses out of a chapter which makes perfect sense, and which falls neatly into two halves midway through our passage.
In a bigger context still chapter 35 contrasts dramatically with the preceding chapter, an announcement of God’s judgement. Edom in particular is singled out for punishment, and there are vivid pictures of a thriving land reverting to desert under the Lord’s vengeance. By contrast, therefore, the Israelites in chapter 35 are to experience two events: God himself coming among them (v 1-6a) and the nation’s return from exile as the desert once again becomes fruitful (v 6b-10).
One key word which links all these thoughts together is the word ‘vengeance’ in v 4. We usually tend to see rescue and vengeance as two equal and opposite things, which show God as nice and nasty respectively. But the Hebrew word naqam is more nuanced than that: it refers to judgement and punishment by a legitimate authority, and so that justice can be restored for those who have been treated badly. Sometimes you can’t have justice and liberation without punishment: Moses as well as Isaiah knew that.
Like many prophecies there is something of a telescope effect here. Just when are we to expect the fulfilment of these words? On an immediate level the text clearly refers to the return from exile in Babylon, and the language of highways and blossoming deserts is unmistakably linked to later passages such as chapter 40. But the healing of v 5-6 sounds more Messianic and even eschatological. Does ‘entering Zion’ in v 10 refer merely to the return to Jerusalem, or does it seek fulfilment much further ahead in the heavenly city? The Bible often uses this multi-staged approach, and seems to remain deliberately vague. Sometimes the small positives in our lives can point to a much bigger and eternal reality, and hope can sustain us and spur us on in our discipleship.
Note also the language of separation implicit in this passage, as it is throughout the Bible, making life very difficult for universalists. The fearful, the weak, the blind, deaf and lame are to the be recipients of God’s favour, while the unclean wicked fools will be excluded. Only the redeemed, those whom God has rescued, will enter Zion. We need to make sure that through Christ our Messiah we are those who will receive the restitution part of God’s naqam, and not the punishment.
Image: By Rennett Stowe from USA (Desert Flowers Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons