Old Testament Lectionary 6th Sept Trinity 14 Isaiah 35:4-7a

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).

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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

OT Lectionary December 7th Advent 2 Isaiah 40:1-11

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.

OT Lectionary October 19th Trinity 18 Isaiah 45:1-7

Our passage for today comes from the second part of the book of Isaiah, and therefore dates from the period when Israel was in exile in Babylon. Towards the end of their imprisonment God sent a prophet, known only to us as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, to proclaim their coming release and repatriation. Today’s passage forms the epicentre of his message, and it contains some deeply counter-cultural messages if we can unpack the background and understand them.


We must begin with the prevailing view of God, or rather ‘gods’. It worked a bit like the Anglican parish system – depending on where you lived, there was a particular god who ruled over your patch. So it was a common feeling among the exiles who, in spite of the fact that they should have known better, became infected with this worldview, and therefore thought they had moved out of Yahweh’s patch and so now were beholden to the gods of Babylon. There was also a sense of conflict among the different gods, a kind of ‘my-god-can-beat-up-your-god’ mentality, which suggested that Yahweh was just one among many, and might well be liable to lose when playing an away match. This passage, like much of Deutero-Isaiah, sets out to subvert these worldviews.


So the previous chapter contains a vicious attack on idols and those who manufacture them, as satirical as any stand-up comic today. The message is that Yahweh alone is God, there simply is no-one else with whom to fight, and certainly no-one to whom he might lose the fight. The chapter comes to a climax in v 24-26 with the declaration that God is the Redeemer, the Creator and the Lord, who promises that Jerusalem will be restored and reinhabited.

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But then ‘Cyrus’ walks onto the stage. Whohe? In fact he would have been something of a celeb to the Israelites, but the way he is described would have shocked their socks off. He was the king of Persia, the latest up-and-coming nation, who in fact was to go on and rule over one of the largest empires ever in the area. Yet he is described by the prophet as God’s ‘shepherd’, at whose command Jerusalem is to be rebuilt. But an even greater shock comes in 45:1 where Cyrus is announced as God’s ‘anointed’ – the word is literally ‘Messiah’. What came to pass was that Persia conquered Babylon (you can read that story in the book of Daniel) and decided to let the Israelite slaves return home. All this, the prophet claims, is what God is doing, moving the nations and leaders around like pieces on a chessboard for his purposes and for the good of his people. Not only is he the only God: he is also more than able to use pagan rulers to further his purposes.


So how would we react if a preacher told us that the one true God has called ISIS to fulfil his purposes, or to have referred to Usama bin Laden the ‘Messiah’? I think we have a similar degree of shock here among the exiles at the prophet’s words. Yet we are still tempted to believe that we have a powerless God, who has been defeated by the combined forces of secularism, the multi-faith society and Richard Dawkins. We are still tempted to divide the world into two – the bits God rules over (ie church) and the rest where he has little power. We need Isaiah’s radical message as much as ever, although we need to remember that the exiles had been living as slaves, and believing their delusions for a long time before it was heard.

OT Lectionary September 7th Trinity 12 Ezekiel 33:7-11

There is an interesting dynamic of ‘tipping points’ in today’s passage from the prophet Ezekiel. Firstly, chapter 33 forms a kind of pivot point between 1 – 32, which are predominantly about judgement, and 34-48, which have much more to say about restoration. As though to emphasise this great pivot the news comes to Ezekiel in v 21 that ‘The City has fallen!’ We can’t really imagine the significance of this for the exiles, but the destruction of 9/11 doesn’t come close. It is as though we heard that Westminster, Canary Wharf and Canterbury Cathedral had all been blown to bits in a single act of warfare.

So this passage sets before the people the need for repentance, and the role that the prophet has in calling them to it. The image of the ‘watchman’, one which Ezekiel commonly uses, relates to those placed on city walls to give early warning of imminent attack. But the danger here is less about the physical destruction of their home capital, and more about the internal eating away of their society by the cancer of immorality and godlessness.

But there is a smaller, more subtle pivot in the centre of the passage for today. By the time we get to v 10 the people apparently need no further calls to repentance: they are only too well aware of their offences and sins, and the results of them. Ezekiel’s word to them must now be different. No longer is he to give a warning of judgement: now his message is one of hope and restoration, and repentance as the way to it.

This corrects two common caricatures we may have unconsciously slipped into regarding prophets and their God. So often we think of those with prophetic giftings as miserable people who can only speak of gloom and destruction: indeed many modern-day prophets only serve to reinforce this caricature. This in turn can lead us to the belief that God himself is a miserable punisher. One of my bosses used to say that the job of the Holy Spirit is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’, and we have something of that here. To presumptuous and self-satisfied sinners God’s word is a harsh one, but to those who realise their own need of repentance he speaks mercy and restoration. This of course can’t help but raise the question ‘Where am I?’ and ‘What would God want to say to me?’ Clearly to speak words of peace to sinners who are completely unrepentant is as useless and counter-productive as calling to repentance those who are already broken-hearted. But so often all we want is to hear God saying to us that everything is just dandy.

There is also an interesting question here about how this passage might relate to evangelism. In the past it was thought to be all about calling sinners to repentance: indeed that is the thrust of most of the preaching recorded in Acts. But now the fashion has changed, and in a society which doesn’t really ‘do’ sin our call is more likely to be about comfort than confrontation. Maybe we need to rethink what the call of God on our generation really is.


OT Lectionary May 4th Easter 3 Zephaniah 3:14 – 20

Zephaniah 1:1 tells us that this prophecy dates from the reign of King Josiah, which would place it in the early 600s BC, and therefore before the Babylonian exile. This certainly fits with the earlier chapters of the book, which are full of dire warnings to the Israelites of the coming judgement when God the Mighty Warrior will turn on them and give them the come-uppance they so richly deserve for their opulent and profane lifestyles. But then at 3:14 there is an abrupt change of tone: suddenly the people are called to rejoice and celebrate because God has commuted their punishment, defeated their oppressors and purified their nation.

As with the book of Isaiah, which we have looked at previously in this blog, it does seem likely that the final paragraphs are later additions, the happy ending written much later towards the end of or after the judgement and purification of the exile. It would rather seem to undermine the prophet’s message of warning if he went on to tell the people that it was all going to end up fine. Neither, as history clearly tells us, was it the case that the restoration happened before the punishment, or instead of it. It was only through the experience of abandonment and punishment that Israel could learn her lesson and step back into God’s favour.

As a post-Easter reading this seems to speak to us of cheap grace. The salvation of the human race, whilst it had always been God’s plan, didn’t happen without judgement or punishment. It was only through the cross that we could be restored to our inheritance as God’s people. I have often said to different congregations, whilst talking about that greatest of post-modern virtues ‘tolerance’, that God is not tolerant; he is forgiving, and there is all the difference in the world between those two concepts.

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But once we have been ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven, just look at the scenario which Zephaniah paints for us! Once the Mighty Warrior is for you rather than against you, there is no need for fear, no room for oppression, no call for dishonour or shame. When the one who was fighting against you because you were living against him starts singing songs of joy over you as a beloved daughter, you know something dramatic has happened. In the past it took a generation or more of exile: in Christ it took three days. Hallelujah – what a Saviour!

So often when we come to worship we see ourselves as in some way putting on a performance which we hope God will enjoy. This passage helps us to see things differently. In a most un-Anglican way God is seen singing, shouting, delighting, rejoicing. He may even have put his arms in the air like a good charismatic: who knows? The really good news is that we are invited to join in. He is not in the audience holding up cards with numbers on to assess our attempts at worship: he is partying with all he’s got, and inviting us to the party too.