(~) Isaiah's Message of Hope



(~) Isaiah's Message of Hope


August 21, 2005

Isaiah 51:1-8
Psalm
138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Isaiah's Message of Hope

Isaiah's message from God in 51:1-8 is addressed to people who had become
deeply discouraged when the Babylonian armies destroyed their homeland,
including the Jerusalem temple, and deported them into exile far away in
Babylonia. In their despair, Isaiah says in verse 1, they seek justice
(Hebrew sedeq). They seek help, deliverance, and salvation from God.

It is most significant for our understanding of God that Isaiah has
structured the first poetic line of chapter 51 in a special way. Here, the
very personal name of God stands in direct parallel to the word for
justice. In Hebrew poetry, parallel structure pairs words that connect
closely in meaning. The personal name of God in Hebrew, given to Moses at
the burning bush, is YHWH (traditionally printed only with its consonants
and never pronounced out of deepest respect for the divine reality). This
name means "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be" or "I am always
there." And here, that very meaning of God's name is paired by Isaiah with
justice. Isaiah is saying to the exiles, and to all who find themselves in
need of God's help and salvation, this is where we
should be looking--to God who will always be there and who is
justice.

To better understand this passage, it is helpful to look at the chapters
just before 51. Isaiah issues a call from God that the people of God
should recognize the authority of Cyrus the Mede, who very suddenly
brought an end to the Babylonian empire, capturing the royal city of
Babylon without a struggle. After centuries of Assyrian and Babylonian
policies hostile to minority peoples throughout the Near East, it was
surprisingly the policy of Persia to let exiled peoples return to their
homelands, and indeed to give them royal authority to rebuild their cities
and temples. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell how this happened in
Jerusalem, and even cite the official edict of Cyrus authorizing this
deliverance and new opportunity.

Isaiah's prophecy reminds the people that this is God's doing and, strange
as it may seem, God is working through Cyrus and the Persian government
(though they don't know that) to restore Jerusalem and the Judean
homeland. In chapter 45:1, Isaiah recognizes Cyrus as God's "messiah"
(Hebrew for "anointed one"); in other words, a specially appointed agent
who will carry out God's will. Centuries later, Simon Peter (Matthew
16:16) was able to recognize Jesus as God's messiah (in Greek, christos),
the one who would also carry out God's saving will for all people.

Three times in the short span of 51:1-8, Israel is asked to "listen" to
God (51:1,4,7). Isaiah is signaling in this way that this is a crucial
announcement. Indeed, he uses the same verb (Hebrew shema' ) here as is
used in Deuteronomy 6:4 ("Hear, O Israel..."), an imperative calling the
people's attention to what God is declaring.

The word from God is to look to the model of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis
14:18-20) who journeyed afar in faith. In a real way they are the
ancestors of any peoples in exile. If the Judean exiles think they have
been reduced to almost nothing, they are to remember Abraham and Sarah who
were a childless couple of advanced age when God chose them to raise a
child. Isaiah reminds his hearers that the Lord God can bring blessing in
the least expected situations, and that what God once did, God can do
again. God can restore withered lives, make deserts bloom like Eden, and
save those who find
themselves lost.

As Isaiah says in verse 4 (GNT), "Listen to me. . .I give my teaching to
the nations; my laws will bring them light." The new policies of Persia
will provide more respect to minority peoples and help restore ruined
homelands, but Isaiah's message here is that, if we but listen and look,
we can see that God is ever at work in the events of human history and can
at any time bring startling change, deliverance and salvation.

Even beyond the possible benefits Persian policies may bring, Isaiah
reminds the people, the justice and reign of God will be more enduring and
permanent than even the heavens and the earth themselves! This is a God of
incredible grace, abounding in steadfast love, forgiving those who turn
and repent, ever ready to rescue. "Listen to me. . .the deliverance I
bring will last forever; my victory will endure for all time."(verses 7-8,
GNT). This is the wondrous God who created the universe and all that is,
who saved
Israel from Egyptian slavery and from exile, and who, in Jesus the Christ,
brings the hope of salvation for all people.


This week's Reflection was prepared by David G. Burke, Ph.D., retired Dean
of the American Bible Society's Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship
and an ordained minister with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America.
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