A Story of Loss and Hope

The book of Isaiah is like a great fugue, always advancing to fresh statements, at the same time continually returning to pick up and restate themes already sounded. The book is a longitudinal study of the destiny of the city of Jerusalem, for the book believes that all the purposes of God and all the claims of Israel are concentrated in that old and troubled city. Over the centuries, the city of Jerusalem was buffeted about in turn by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. The book of Isaiah asserts that all the vagaries of international history and geopolitics are to be understood in and through the hidden, resolved working of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

The pivot point of the book of Isaiah is in the unwritten, unspoken silence between verses 39:8 and 40:1. It is commonly thought that chapters 1-39 come from an older prophetic source in the Assyrian period (between 740 and 700 B.C.E.) and chapter 40 begins a new theme in the Babylonian period, two centuries later (540 B.C.E.). In that textual gap the book of Isaiah encompasses the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and the deportation of the people from Jerusalem into Babylonian exile. Chapters 1-39, with insistent warning, move toward that destruction and deportation; chapter 40 in turn begins a hope-filled move out of exile into a new historical possibility of homecoming for deportees, a homecoming willed by Yahweh. In its two parts, the book of Isaiah is about deportation and homecoming, about loss and hope. But in terms of Yahweh's intention, it is about the judgment of God upon Jerusalem and the deliverance of God for a new Jerusalem.

The judgment of God upon the city of Jerusalem that culminates in destruction and deportation is rooted in the old Torah traditions of Moses. From its beginning, Israel is under the commands of Yahweh, and its well-being depends upon response to Yahweh in the form of obedience. It is the pervasive opinion of Isaiah 1-39 that Israel and particularly Jerusalem have grossly disobeyed Yahweh and will surely be punished. The particular indictment against failed Jerusalem is given, for example, in 5:7:

He expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

The city is willed by Yahweh to practice justice and righteousness—that is, neighborliness toward everyone in the community. The series of "woe statements" in 5:8-23 details the abuse of justice in the form of actions that are greedy, self-serving, and exploitative—that is, anti-neighborly. Specifically, verses 8-10 comment on what must have been a widespread temptation whereby acquisitive land practices produced huge landed estates at the expense of the common well-being of the community. Yahweh's judgment upon the city specifically concerns economic practices that are an exhibit of distorted theological and ethical commitments.

The judgment against Israel is matched by a judgment against foreign nations in chapters 13-23, whereby Israel's neighbors and adversaries are named, one by one, as those who have organized their policies in anti-Yahweh, anti-neighborly ways.

THE THEME OF JUDGMENT is massive and pervasive. There are, however, two other dimensions to this literature worth noting. First, in the beginning, just after a forceful condemnation, there is an invitation to repent and to embrace new behavior:

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow

The accent falls on the last lines,"widows and orphans." Jerusalem's "chance" is to reorder its life for neighborliness, a chance not taken.

Second and more important, even at its most devastating the faith of the book of Isaiah everywhere affirms that beyond judgment, Yahweh will work a newness of well-being. God's final word to the city is not destruction but well-being after devastation (1:26-27). The theme of coming well-being is voiced as well in the well-known poems of 9:2-7 and 11:1-11 and in the vision of peaceableness in 2:1-4. The hope of the city, however, is after, and does not exempt the city from judgment.

A move into chapter 40 and following is a leap into the "afterward" of the book of Isaiah and the "afterward" of the city of Jerusalem. As chapters 1-39 have culminated with the royal family becoming lackeys in the alien empire of Babylon, so chapter 40 envisions a great, glorious homecoming in joy, exuberance, and well-being. The new highway is for a victorious return (verses 3-5). Yahweh has reversed course because the city under judgment has "served its time" and now is forgiven (40:2).

The poetry of chapters 40-55, made familiar to us in Handel's Messiah, is the most eloquent testimony to God's resolve to love, save, and deliver Israel that is found in the entire Hebrew Bible. The "gospel" of 40:9 (where the term "gospel" is twice used) is that Yahweh is back in action in the public process from which Yahweh had earlier withdrawn. Yahweh will intervene against the claims of Babylon and will show that the gods of the empire are in fact weak, impotent, and irrelevant. The only force that counts now is Yahweh's purpose, and that purpose is the homecoming of Jews and the end of exile. Yahweh is an exile-ending God who intends well-being for the city and people of Jerusalem.

The decisive articulation of Yahweh's new resolve on behalf of Israel is expressed as "fear not":

Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God (41:10).
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,
I have called you by name, you are mine

Jews in exile had been frightened and intimidated by Babylonian gods and by Babylonian imperial power. Yahweh's reversal of field is to move against that hostile empire with power and grace and determination. Israel in exile is to give up its fear, its anxiety, its temptation to submit to imperial authority, and to claim its own identity and destiny as Yahweh's beloved community.

The claim of this poetry is that in a cosmic struggle Yahweh has defeated the gods of Babylon. That is the news! Jews in exile need no longer obey or trust or serve the empire. The alternative now available is that Israel may go home to a restored Jerusalem:

Depart, depart, go out from there...
For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight;
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard (52:11-12).
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace

The poetry envisions a restoration and reconstitution that decisively reverses the judgment of chapters 1-39.

The homecoming, however, is not to a self-indulgent future, any more than the Exodus was an emancipation for autonomy. Liberated, restored Israel is given a new mandate, to be Yahweh's servant people in the world, to be God's human agency in the establishment of God's well-being in the world. That is, the new, restored Jerusalem is to do precisely what Jerusalem in chapters 1-39 has refused and failed to do. The large issue, characteristically, is justice:

I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations...
he will faithfully bring forth justice,
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching

The mandate is somewhat more specific in 49:6-7:

I have kept you and given you
as a covenant for the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners,"Come out."

The mandate is, on the one hand, to reach beyond Israel to the peoples of the world. On the other hand, it is to reach to the socially rejected, the blind, prisoners (usually the poor), so that they may be restored to full dignity. In this mandate there is a large ethic asserted. But beyond ethics, the theological point is crucial. The gods of Babylon, characteristically, are allied with the prevailing power structure and give no thought or attention to the disadvantaged or marginalized. It is precisely the God of Israel who has, since the Exodus, carried this peculiar commitment to the outsider that Yahweh's people must now enact. Thus the homecoming rooted in gospel victory permits exuberance at return and resolve for a new, transformative obedience.

A Community of Justice
It is commonly thought that chapters 56-66 reflect yet a later situation, early in the Persian period (perhaps 520 B.C.E.). Now the Jews have returned from exile and are at home in Jerusalem. With the reorganization of the city, difficult, disputatious questions arise that had to be argued out. It is plausible that our text in late Isaiah reflects one side of the debate, the side that is consistently open and risk-taking. From the very outset in 56:1-2, this poetry insists that the restored community must be one of justice:

Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come.
and my deliverance will be revealed.

That is, new, reconstituted Jerusalem must enact the very justice mandated in 42:1-4 that the earlier community in 5:7 and 5:8-23 had refused. The entire literature swirls around the issue of justice that is both the primal commitment of Yahweh and the key problematic for Israel's socioeconomic, political power.

We may identify two questions faced in the re-established city. First, Who belongs? Every serious community of faith and discipline faces that question. The question, moreover, always evokes both a view of restrictiveness and an urge to inclusiveness. In this case, Isaiah 56 is wholly on the side of inclusiveness. It takes the radical position that "foreigners" may be admitted without good pedigree if they keep covenant and practice Sabbath. Moreover, the same criteria pertain to "eunuchs" who have compromised their genitalia in order to advance politically in the empire. This urging must have been deeply problematic in a community preoccupied with ethnic purity and the defense of spiritual and perhaps ethnic pedigree.

The second question is, What constitutes true religious discipline? There were of course the traditional candidates, prayer and fasting. Chapter 58, however, observes that such practices that are not internally bad can be passionately undertaken while at the same time economic injustice and exploitation are enacted toward working people. Such a dishonest religious discipline is of course of no value. As an alternative, this text proposes that "true fast" consists in human solidarity with and caring for the socially marginalized who are homeless, and without food or clothing. Indeed, care for these is made to be a prerequisite for well-being from God.

It is difficult to imagine a more sweeping alternative vision of the new Jerusalem than is offered in chapters 56 and 58. It is the very vision of neighborly obedience that early Jerusalem had resisted in chapters 1-39. This radical ethic leads to chapters 60-62, some of the most eloquent poetry in the Bible. There it is declared that Jerusalem, presumably the obedient, justice-embracing Jerusalem of chapters 56 and 58, will be the beneficiary of Yahweh's good blessing. Yahweh will guarantee for the new city safety, prosperity, and well-being of every kind. That anticipated city, beloved of Yahweh, is deeply contrasted to the failed city of the earlier chapters that is under assault and finally abandoned. In the midst of these three chapters, 61:1-4 again presents "the servant." God's spirit is to be present in the city now to enact deep transformation of all social relationships. The city will be healed and restored, the land will be fruitful, productive, and blessed.

The sweep of the book of Isaiah is unparalleled in the Bible for lining out the history and destiny of Jerusalem, a history and destiny that have a deep fissure at the center. This poetic account is so crucial for biblical faith, because Jerusalem is the sign and embodiment of Yahweh's way with the world, so that we may extrapolate God's way here to God's way elsewhere, a way of fidelity, judgment, and healing.

To be sure, the history and destiny of that ancient city are remote from us, even though we continue to care about and pray for the present city of Jerusalem. The book of Isaiah in its characteristic use, however, invites a most imaginative interpretation that does not stay confined to historical specificities.

The grid of the book of Isaiah is Jerusalem lost and Jerusalem restored, with the fissure located between chapters 39 and 40. That is clear and concrete. Without denying that, it has been possible in Christian interpretation to see that this grid of lost and restored becomes the way in which the pivotal events in the life of Jesus are construed:

loss = crucifixion;
restoration = resurrection:

"That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). That is, the life of Jesus relives the life of Jerusalem. In both cases, it is the miracle of restoration (resurrection) that is "the news."

A second extrapolation, I suggest, can also be made with reference to our own Western culture. Such an extrapolation might indeed be immensely illuminating for us, if we face the fact that in its failure to do justice, white, male Western culture is now deeply eroding. We do not know the new shapes of humanity that God will give, but we have reason to expect that the new forms will be marked by justice and peace that will mark social, racial, ethnic, economic, and sexual relationships. Thus:

loss: the demise of old cultural patterns;
restoration: the emergence of genuinely human relationships and institutions.

In so far as this extrapolation works, it is clear that we are not yet into the buoyancy of chapters 40-55 or the imaginative settlements of chapters 56-66. We are still only just between chapters 39 and 40, still acknowledging loss, catching only glimpses of the newness God will give. Everywhere in this drama of loss and restoration, it is justice that is at stake:

"Justice, and only justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Walter Brueggemann was a professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, when this article appeared.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"A Story of Loss and Hope"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines