How Long? An Advent Reflection on Isaiah 25.1-10

I once had a dream in which I was in the hospital and diagnosed with a deficiency of hope. The doctor referred me to the ‘hope clinic’, but the closer I got to the clinic, the longer the hallways became, and the line of people waiting in front of me kept multiplying, from just a handful, to a couple dozen, to over a hundred. This sense of immensely delayed fulfillment of expectations hit on a recurring motif in my adult life. On so many fronts, it has felt like God has been whispering “Soon” into my heart, yet that ‘soon’ time never seems to come. I am far from alone in this feeling; I think to a large extent it’s simply part of being human. The phrase “How long?” appears forty-eight times in the Old Testament, including fifteen in the Psalms, the part of the Bible that most directly expresses the hearts and cries of the human pysche or soul:

  • My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O Lord—how long? (Ps. 6.3)
  • How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13.1-2)
  • How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? (Ps. 74.10)

And, to the theme of this Advent series on the Book of Isaiah, “How long?” is the prophet’s response to God’s first message of destruction on Jerusalem (Isaiah 6.11). How long?

All this points to the reality that one of the most difficult things in the life of faith is persisting in hope — trusting that, no matter how dark the night may be and no matter how long it feels, the light will come. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this when I read Isaiah 25 this week. Here we have a beautiful vision of what the fulfillment of God’s promises might look like, expressed from within the darkness of collapse of Judah and Israel’s national life.

The oracle begins with a brief psalm of thanksgiving — a conventional poetic style seen often in the book of Psalms, but also found throughout the poetic pieces of the Hebrew Bible:

O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you;
I will praise your name,
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of foreigners is a city no more;
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of foreigners like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.

The theme of patience for God’s faithfulness is prominent from the first verse, in which the solitary worshiper praises God’s wonderful acts, which he calls “plans formed from old, faithful and sure.” This recollection of God’s past miraculous interventions on behalf of the faithful in present distress is a common strategy in the Old Testament. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Israel keeps a ready stock of remembered miracles at hand, ready to recite, reaching all the way back to the Exodus and seeing in present upheavals yet another in that treasured sequence.” Because God acted according to plan in the past, in faithfulness to God’s covenant relationship with Israel, this is evidence for them that whatever God is doing now is likewise grounded in God’s faithfulness: “God is not acting mysteriously or arbitrarily. He is acting as he had promised to act. What was required … was patience and steady vision” (Seitz, Isaiah 1-39).

But there’s something strange going on with how this plan is described in verse 2. It refers to the destruction of “the city,” but there is no indication which city he’s talking about. (A similar context-less use of “the city” can also be seen towards the end of the previous chapter.) Throughout most of Isaiah until this point, the focus has been on Jerusalem, but it’s hard to see its destruction being a cause for celebration, even if the faithful are urged to understand it as part of God’s plan for them. And of course, Isaiah itself promises that Jerusalem will be rebuilt. But if it’s not Jerusalem, what might it be? While Assyria had three capitals over its long history, Assur, Nimrud, and Nineveh, only Nineveh has any symbolic traction in the Biblical text — and it lasted as a city well into the common era. And, if the oracle is a later reference to Babylon, well, it too remained an important city centuries after the fall of its Empire (ironically enough, it was particularly important for later Jewish history!). With this lack of obvious referent, it seems best to take “the city” as an icon, a symbol of the ways of Empire and exploitation: “[T]he city moves even beyond Babylon to be the ultimate city of wealth, arrogance, autonomous power, and exploitation. It is every city that is devoted to buying and selling, making money and abusing” (Brueggemann). The “strong” nations will be in awe of what God has done, and the “ruthless” will quake in their boots (verse 3). Why? Because the destruction of “the city” is an intervention on behalf of the poor and oppressed (verse 4). For them, God has been like shade on a hot summer’s day, or a gentle cloud compared to a winter’s flood (verse 5).

This symbolic reading of “the city” is supported by a shift in perspective in verse 6, where the past tense of 1-5 flip to an undefined future:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the covering that is spread over all nations;
     he will swallow up death forever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    “See, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. 
   This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.

Here we have yet another expansion of the Zion image we previously saw in chapters 2 and 11. Not only will the peoples and creatures of the world stream into Zion to learn from God and live in the ways of peace, but this will also be a great feast. God will remove the shroud of mourning from all peoples and death itself will no longer have meaning. Everyone will have full access and welcome to the unconfined, abundant well-being that is life in God’s Kingdom.

Only from this new condition are the people able to rejoice with the unrestrained confidence suggested in verses 1-5, and say, “This is the LORD for whom we have waited.”

What might all this have to say to us Christians today?

One of the most difficult tensions inherent to Christianity is that between the ‘now’ and the ‘not-yet’, what is known in theology as its ‘inaugurated eschatology’. We believe the great apocalyptic moment of deliverance has come, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming we remember in this season of the year. And yet, we still await the full realization of those promises of the Kingdom of God. We, no less than Isaiah, are left asking ‘How long?’ in an unjust world, where the wicked prosper, where the marginalized are oppressed, and where nothing is at it ‘should’ be. The trick, for us, no less than Isaiah, is to persevere in faith and to remain strong in hope.

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