First of all, apologies to my regular readers for missing a week. Busy busy busy doing discipleship around the diocese. I’m now back in the office so here we go with the third section of the book of Isaiah, from chapters 56 – 66.
So far we have heard Isaiah of Jerusalem warning the people of imminent punishment by exile, and Deutero-Isaiah comforting them and telling them that their punishment is over. The final few chapters of the book once again presuppose a very different audience in a very different situation, suggesting a third prophet, whom we have quite logically named ‘Trito-Isaiah’. The people are now no longer wicked, idolatrous and godless, nor ravaged and in despair. They have returned to Jerusalem, the city and the Temple have been rebuilt, and all their hopes and dreams have come true. And yet …
You know that feeling when you come back from a great holiday? You’ve been looking forward to getting back home, but then it all feels just kind of … flat. It was pretty rough for the people in exile, but it certainly wasn’t boring. Now, though, they have lost vision. They need a new hope, a new future, now that everything they had hoped for has happened. So the prophet addresses the people with three main themes.
He turns his attention, firstly, to a much bigger and more eschatological vision for the future. ‘There is more to life than this!’ he tells them. There are images of glory for the nation which are far more exciting than mere comfort and more of the same. The prophecy ends with a vision very much in keeping with John’s in Revelation: there will be a new heavens and a new earth, a reign of peace and prosperity, and a special place for those who are God’s people.
Secondly he sets before the people a much wider vision of their role among the nations. This is a theme which we have seen time and time again since the call of Abraham: God’s chosen people are chosen to give the good things of the kingdom to everyone else. Perhaps the most purple of the passages in this section are chapters 60 and 61, both of which are calls to an outward-looking focus.
But thirdly he sets before them a reminder of things past, implying a warning for what might yet be to come. The God who allowed them to be punished for all those years in Babylon is still an active God, capable on the one hand of silencing their enemies and raising them to glory, but also equally capable of further punishment if they do continue to refuse him and live out their lives of relaxed, selfish comfort. These three themes together act like carrot and stick to encourage the people to wake up out of their self-satisfied but unsatisfying stupor and live lives of what we would nowadays call 24/7 discipleship.
Today first Isaiah might be addressing the godless, the evil and the depraved of our society. Deutero-Isaiah would be addressing the poor, broken and downcast victims. But Trito-Isaiah might well be addressing C of E ‘churchgoers’, calling us to a more glorious vision of the future, a more outward-looking and missionary lifestyle, and a whole-life discipleship which means that we really mean it when we sing ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.