The opening word in this chapter is an odd Hebrew word meant to emphasize the urgency of the message. In English, it’s sometimes translated “Ho!” as in, “Ho there and listen up!”
Apparently John Calvin remarked on this opening word: “The prophet exclaims, as with a voice above the usual pitch, “HO!” – for so great is the sluggishness of folk that it is very difficult to arouse them. They do not feel their wants, though they are hungry.”
I hate to contradict Calvin, but I think he might be wrong about this. These days, I think we do feel our wants very keenly indeed. I don’t mean our thirst for water or our hunger for food. We are too rich and comfortable for that. I mean our deeper longings. Our thirst for righteousness and our hunger for justice.
Don’t we feel helpless grief over the brutal invasion of Ukraine, and a deep longing for peace?
Don’t we feel helpless anxiety over the IPCC reports about the climate crisis, outlining with thousands of footnotes and alarming charts and graphs, just how much damage we have already done to this earth and to the most vulnerable people on it—and how much more we will do, unless we act now? How we long for some assurance amid these fearful warnings.
And don’t we feel helpless anger over the sexual harassment of women in so many workplaces, including at the offices of Christianity Today, for crying out loud, as was just exposed this week? Don’t we feel helpless anger at our insane political divisions, and fake news, and relentless racism? How we long for all the craziness to just stop.
And don’t we feel helpless exhaustion after two full years of this pandemic? How we long for it all to just be over.
Even apart from the daily news cycles, don’t we feel a deep and abiding longing to be known and seen? How we crave, all our lives, to be loved.
It seems to me we are quite in touch with our wants these days, our deepest hungers and thirsts.
But when it comes to satisfying these longings, we cannot muster whatever currency is required to buy the peace and healing we need. It’s all just too big and too difficult. When it comes to fixing the world, we are small, and we are broke.
So the prophet brings to us the Word of the Lord. And the most amazing thing about this passage, at least to me, is the evident fact that God is longing, too.
Come to the waters, come buy and eat. Listen, give ear, seek the Lord. The passage is packed with imperative verb forms. Notice that these imperatives are not so much demands, though, as love songs: come, listen, see, seek. God is longing for Israel to return to the God who loves them. God calls, ardently, for reunion.
Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel when they are scattered and oppressed, suffering under the yoke of their Babylonian captors. The Israelites have plenty to repent from—the prophets do not hesitate to point out that their idolatries got them into this mess in the first place.
Yet God still loves them, still longs to bring them home and renew, again, the everlasting covenant that binds them to God’s purposes in the world.
In what ways, I wonder, are we in exile today? In exile, often enough, because of our own idolatries? Perhaps we, too, are spending money on what is not bread, laboring for what does not satisfy. I don’t mean just our personal spending habits, I mean the way we all spend our energy, our love, our time, our influence, everything we have to spend. We might understand all too well what futile effort feels like. But honestly, what are we supposed to do? Here we are in post-industrial America, caught up in an extraction economy, maybe caught up in exhausting jobs, caught up in a culture full of prejudices and sicknesses. How do we slip the trap of all that? We have to survive somehow. We’re all sort of captive to Big Babylon Incorporated here.
I think God understands this. So God calls us, from within this exiled place, to return, to come to the full life God offers—for free. God calls us to return to the deep goodness that God built into our created origins, to a harmonious community of creation that God declared, in Genesis 1, to be, as the Hebrew says, tov me’od: very good.
It’s remarkable to me that the grand climax of this passage focuses on plants: “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle.” The people of Israel are languishing under a foreign empire, and God is promising cypress and myrtle? I mean, cypress and myrtle are great, but really?
Well, yes. When God waters the earth in verse 10, plants grow. They grow, partly to sustain people with what we need. And I think in this passage plants are more than metaphors. They are teachers. They teach us about the reliability and expansiveness of God’s purposes.
Verse 11 of our passage declares, The word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty. It shall accomplish that which I purpose. God’s word is reliable.
And what is that purpose? Rejoicing, of all things. Notice that, in verse 12, this rejoicing is not just for humans, but for the whole creation:
You shall go out in joy;
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
God’s word is reliable, but it’s also expansive. That longing of God that we saw in those imperative verbs—God longs for renewal of the whole creation—for tov me’od in all things. Not just for a weary people, but for the weary earth itself, the trees and hills and waters. Even those poor thorns and briers that don’t get a lot of love in this passage. After all, Isaiah is talking to an agricultural society. They may not have loved thorns and briers, but we know that these are plant adaptations that have their place, too.
God’s word is reliable and expansive, and we see this demonstrated most vividly and fully in Jesus Christ, THE Word. Christ is the Word through whom—as Colossians 1 reminds us—all things were created. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s longing to reconcile to Godself all things.
The Greek word for all things is panta, and panta is repeated over and over in Colossians 1. “This is the gospel,” says Paul in Colossians 1:23, “that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” Every creature.
The Bible is full of testimony to God’s purpose in this vision of ultimate flourishing. Even so, here we still are, in exile. So if God’s purpose is always achieved, as Isaiah so fervently claims, well then, how do you explain the crises we are in today? What is God waiting for in fulfilling that purpose?
Good question. I suppose this is why we need verses 8 and 9: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. We are left with the doctrine of Providence, I suppose, and a sense of our own smallness against God’s eternal mystery.
But we also left with our task in this long meanwhile of waiting: to witness. Isaiah reminded the Israelites, even in exile, that they were covenant people so that they could be witnesses among the nations to the purposes of God. So that they could offer some glimpse, for all people, of justice, peace, and flourishing.
We seek the Lord, then, we return to the Lord, by witnessing to those places where the Lord is at work. And we partner with God in bringing about the renewal of tov me-od for all things.
We can do none of this, of course, without the strength that comes from God. And so we seek the Lord in the sanctuary, among the people of God. We come to the waters of baptism. We buy bread and wine without cost at the communion table, where we can eat what is good and our souls can delight in the richest of fare. Even amid our many exiles and desperate longings, we come to glimpse again and again that vision of flourishing that we trust is the true purpose of God. We come to receive the love of the God who longs to bring us home.