The OT passage in the lectionary readings for tomorrow can be summarized by the words “eat, drink, listen, live.”
The passage is Isaiah 55:1-9. The English Standard Version (ESV) groups verses 1-13 together, with the heading “The Compassion of the LORD.”
Many Bible scholars encourage us to think of Isaiah as a book in 3-parts: First (proto) Isaiah, 1-39; second (deutero) Isaiah, 40-55; third (trito) Isaiah, 56-66.
Chapter 55 concludes the middle part, designed to encouraging the Israelites as their Babylonian captivity was coming to an end.
The term “Babylonian captivity” designates the period of about 70 years which began when the inhabitants of Judah, principally of Jerusalem, were forcibly removed to the city of Babylon after King Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the First Temple of the Jews (Solomon’s Temple) in 587 BCE.
Martin Luther famously titled one of his books “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” In it, he used the image of the Babylonian captivity of Israel as a metaphor for the Pope trying to control Christians by making false claims about the power of sacraments.
When Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered Babylon, he allowed displaced persons to return to their places or origin. He even encouraged them to rebuild and reuse temples which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
Second Isaiah is a set of promises, predictions and instructions designed to encourage and hold together the descendants of Jacob (Israel). It’s called “the book of comfort” because of its first verse (Isa 40:1-2):
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned.
There are four “servant songs” in chapters 42-53. The servant is Israel, and centuries later, the Lord Jesus.
The first song, in 42:1-4, says the mission of the servant is “to bring forth justice to the nations.” Israel was to be a nation where justice reigned, where everyone was treated as equal, made in the image of God. It was to be the place everyone, worldwide, dreamed about.
The second song, in 49:1-6, includes these words: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” This is one of the reasons why Jerome (347-419 CE), one of the earliest Bible translators, called Isaiah the gospel in the OT.
The third song, in 50:4-9, says those who oppose the servant “will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.” The servant-reformer is assured of opposition, strength, and victory!
The fourth song, in 52:13-53:12 is known as the Song of the Suffering Servant. These 3 verses, 53:4-6, are among the most famous – and surely were part of the reason for Jerome’s assessment of Isaiah:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned – every one – to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Israel, whom God called to live according to His ways, rebelled. God punished them. God forgave them. God promises to extract them from living as a laughed-at minority and restore them to nationhood.
After hearing what God said in chapters 40-54, how could chapter 55 do anything but invite people to eat, drink, listen, live?
We are often criticized for calling people to God as He is revealed in Christ. We are accused of wanting to “convert” people. When I face such criticism, my answer is always to quote the Sri Lankan evangelist, DT Niles:
Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread.
We cannot convert anyone. We share good news because we are good neighbours. If others choose to become Christ-followers like us, that’s between them and God.
But tomorrow’s OT passage points out another thing, which we would do well to remember:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Richard Neil Donovan, to whom I am indebted for much of what I’ve written above, explains why:
One reason that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts is that God’s thoughts are not contaminated by evil. Another reason is that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) and we fall far short of that standard.
Let’s eat, drink, listen, live, and rejoice over the mystery of our calling.