When we are in the middle of extended periods of difficulty, whether on a personal level, such as ill health, a difficult relationship, or a prolonged bout of loneliness, or in the collective, like a pandemic or war, it’s common to fall into a state known as ennui, a sort of existential boredom and lethargy. Nothing in our lives feels like it’s growing; we feel like we’re stuck in the middle of a desert, parched and desperate for water. The oracle in Isaiah 35, assigned for today, plays with just this kind of imagery, using the return of new life — figurative and literal — as a powerful symbol of the renewal of God’s presence after an experience of desolation.
Once again, this oracle comes on the heals of an oracle of judgment. This time, however, it is not on Israel or Judah who bear the brunt of God’s anger, or the early or later imperial powers of Assyria or Babylon, but their southern neighbour Edom (whose lands were within what we know today as Jordan). The message of the first half of Isaiah is clear: The whole Middle Eastern world has gone rotten and God’s judgment is upon all of its nations and peoples. But, Isiah 34 describes just judgment primarily in terms of a curse upon the land of Edom itself:
And the streams of Edom
shall be turned into pitch
and her soil into sulfur;
her land shall become burning pitch.
Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever. (34.9-10)
I can’t help but be reminded here of the many stories in Indigenous cultures of the land suffering when its human inhabitants break faith with it. It seems like a similar idea is in play here: Human activities have a direct impact on the health of the whole environment.
Into this context of judgement as ecological destruction, chapter 35 strikes the opposite tone:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly
and rejoice with joy and shouting.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf shall be opened;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp;
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
Here we see barrenness transformed into new, lush, and luxuriant life. While the references to Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon are lost on most of us, these were regions of famed agricultural and natural abundance. Water, a symbol of life-giving refreshment and the Holy Spirit, returns to these parched lands to revive them. A similar transformation is also declared for those hindered by physical or psychological impairment, or social oppression. It’s interesting that these transformations are called “vengeance” and “recompense.” These words are uniformly negative in English, carrying connotations of retributive violence; but here we see a different colouring on them. God’s vengeance is nothing other than setting things right; though to those who had been powerful or comfortable and apathetic about the suffering of others this very well may seem like retributive violence, for the multitudes who are crushed by the status quo, “God’s recompense is received as transformative compassion.” (Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39).
Then the text transitions to the image of a road in the wilderness, prefiguring what will be a major theme in the second half of Isaiah:
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
This road for the “clean” is sure — not even a ‘fool’ can lose their way — and secure — there are no threats from wildlife or thieves. God has prepared it for those who have been redeemed or ransomed, brought back from shame and slavery. Just as the formerly desert places now sing with joy, so too will the travelers on the Holy Way be filled with gladness. With respect to the ‘cleanness’ of the travelers, some intertextual reflection is helpful. While generally speaking this term refers to the ritual purity associated with the Temple and priestly leadership, in the context of Isaiah — with its strong focus on justice for the oppressed — and the prophets more generally, it’s likely it’s this kind of reframed purity that is in mind here.
Like all of the oracles we’ve explored this season, this is a message of hope. Deserts can be made fertile; wildernesses can become home. God can — and will — make a way where there is no way. Once again, it’s an evergreen message, as true and needful for us as it was 2,700 years ago. Where God is, there is life. Where God is, God’s greening, life-giving power is at work. A new day is coming.