In this season of Lent, Isaiah 55:1-9 may be a sobering text for us. In this election season amid shrill or buoyant rhetoric, we may not notice that there are real choices to be made — even as Jews in ancient Babylon were confronted with real choices of a most elemental kind.
These verses are addressed to elite Israelites who had been forcibly deported to Babylon when Jerusalem had been destroyed. While these deported elites yearned for a return to Jerusalem, it is clear that they also came to terms with the Babylonian regime and the Babylonian economy, enough to participate in the opportunities and requirements of the imperial order. In doing so, they inevitably compromised their quite distinctive Jewish identity as members of a neighborly covenant. It was an uneasy balancing act for them, to participate fully in the dominant economy and to practice at the same time an intentional and distinctive faith identity. That same uneasy balance is the very one that many of us seek to maintain in our own political economic setting.
Into that uneasy arrangement comes the powerful poetry of the text. The message of Isaiah is that he wants his Jewish listeners to heed his call to reembrace their distinctive identity, and so to retreat from commitment to the empire. The purpose of his summons is that his listeners will be prepared to return to Jerusalem with a clear covenantal identity, because geo-politics is about to permit such a release as the grip of Babylon wanes in the face of Persian power.
In verses 1-5 the poet calls his listeners to make a clear choice. He offers them an option of the generous self-giving of YHWH, the God of covenant. This God has in times past given Israel manna-bread and water in the wilderness, and will now generously give all that is needed for life…free water, free milk, and free wine, all gifts of God. But reception of these free gifts in faith requires his listeners to choose against the quid-pro-quo economy of Babylon. In that imperial economy of demand-production, these deported Jews had to do work that was not satisfying; they had to buy consumer goods that had no sustaining value. The quid-pro-quo of production (“labor for that which does not satisfy”) and consumption (“that which is not bread”) is in fact a dead-end project that only results in fatigue, disappointment, and despair. The summons of the poem is that, because of the living God, an alternative way is possible. That alternative way is a homecoming that will be enacted because of God’s fidelity to the covenant with David.
In verses 6-9 the poet introduces a second riff. While verses 6-7 may be familiar to us as a generic “call to worship,” in fact these verses are not a “call to worship.” Rather they are a call to sanity in a quite specific social situation. The “wickedness” and “unrighteousness” of which Israel is to repent concerns Israel’s wholesale compromise with the quid-pro-quo of the Babylonian empire that entailed a shift away from covenantal commitments. Thus the Jews who compromised with Babylonian practices, values, and procedures of production and consumption are invited back to the generous governance of YHWH who, in the context of the parsimonious empire, gives the gifts needed for life. To return to YHWH is to depart the Babylonian calculus and reengage the covenantal values of a neighborly kind.
The ground for such a radical reengagement with faith is the elemental contrast between the anxious assumption of deported Jews who thought they were on their own in Babylon and the intention of YHWH who has indeed left God’s people on their own for a time (see Isaiah 54:7-8), but who will now provide what they need. The poem makes a vigorous and emphatic contrast between “your ways and thoughts” and God’s “ways and thoughts.” The poet dares to introduce to Israel in exile an alternative resolve that has not been on their screen. “Your ways,” you who have colluded with the empire of quid-pro-quo, is a way of fear, scarcity, and anxiety that requires labor that does not satisfy and purchases that are not bread. God’s way, by contrast, is a way of generous, reliable fidelity that makes such fearful collusion both inappropriate and unnecessary. Thus Isaiah’s listeners are summoned to deal with the reality of God, God’s way, God’s thought, and God’s future that constitute a palpable alternative to the offer of Babylon.
It takes no deep imagination to see that this poem continues its powerful summons in a contemporary way even for us, perhaps especially in an election season that converges for now with Lent. The political rhetoric to which we are now relentlessly exposed is either: a) to be very afraid and angry about a system that has not kept its promises, or b) to have confidence in the restored system that will keep its promise of wellbeing and security. Either way, in fear and anger or in confidence in the system, the horizon of our political rhetoric is, perforce, limited to the claims of the U.S. market and the promise of security guaranteed by the National Security State. Both market ideology and the National Security State are given cover by the claims of U.S. exceptionalism that boldly offers theological assurance as the chosen of God. All of that, however — market, security, exceptionalism — assume that there is no “way” but the “way” of the US market-security system, no “thought” except the thought that the United States is God’s most surely chosen people. All of that, whether in despair or in pride, bets everything on the imperial wonder of the United States, thus not very different from that of ancient Babylon.
The choice to which the text may summon us is a choice for a covenantal horizon that allows for a purpose other than our own. That alternative choice is grounded in a holy claim; but it has real life political implications. The covenantal offer has in purview a practice of neighborly justice, on which see Isaiah 56:1. This alternative breaks the harsh demand of quid pro quo. It recognizes that there are neighbors who are entitled to generosity. It knows that healthy social relationships depend on generous hospitality. It consents that instead of score-keeping quid pro quo, large acts of forgiveness are in order, large acts that include cancelation of the debts of the poor.
The news is that the reality of God creates alternatives in real time. Lent is an opportunity to host such alternatives. The election season is a time for deep critical faith that exposes phony ideological claims. In ancient time, only some few took the option of returning to a covenantal identity that is grounded in another way and another thought. We now, in the presence of this text, face a like opportunity.
This article originally appeared at On Scripture.