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This week we read a soaring piece of prophetic poetry from the book of Isaiah. From his native Judah (the Southern Kingdom), he witnessed the rise of Neo-Assyrian imperialism under the aggressive policies of King Tilgath-pileser III (745-727 BCE). In the latter’s reign, Assyria conquers or annexes much of Syria and its neighbors, including Israel (the Northern Kingdom). Neighboring monarchs opposed Assyrian growth, forming a grand coalition to resist this invading foreign power. They invite King Ahaz (of Judah) to join them in this counter-coup, threatening to replace him if he refuses to join their coalition. This conflict is called the Syro-Ephramite War (734 BCE). It’s described in Isaiah 7:1-2 and 2 Kings 16:5-9. Ahaz was right to resist their plans, but nonetheless Assyria, then Babylon conquer, annex and destroy Judah over the next years.
The book of Isaiah is complicated, prophetically addressing events from between 740 BCE until 686 BCE. A traditional view is that one person wrote all of this, and another hypothesis is that chapters 40 to 55 are written primarily by a different voice, an anonymous prophetic writer who is often called 2nd Isaiah. Chapter 55, which we read today, addresses a situation long after the Syro-Ephramite War, Assyria won, then was taken over the Babylonians. Our reading comes as the climactic ending to this larger section of Isaiah prophecy which begins in Chapter 40 with God asking the prophet to “preach” (Isaiah 40:6) and the prophet respond, “What shall I preach?” to the exiles in Babylon, devoid of hope, at the end of their rope, desperately pregnant with angst to see more clearly what God is doing in their world.
The prophet one key metaphor to talk about God’s Word and purpose in the world: a feast. It’s an image repeatedly used to portray the end of times, what God’s destines for all peoples, nations and tribes of the earth: a huge banquet table with the best foods, finest wines, where death, division and violence is overcome, and at which are seated all people: Jew and Goy [foreigner], elite and deplorable, young and old, women and men. It’s not the nations of the world, or great leaders, that make this happen. It’s the Word of God which is sent out, spoken to create, facilitate and further this feast, that establishes it as reality.
This word is spoken to the Exiles, God’s chosen people who are victims of history, but to whom God gives the invitation to leave the shackles of victimhood behind. All peoples are invited to seek the Lord, to leave other ideas, plans and hopes behind – this includes the exiled Jews. It’s a radical word of hope and peace which may have been hard for them to imagine. It’s the image at the foundation of our regular communion celebration of the joyful feast of the people of God. Maybe it’s hard for us to imagine in our time of political polarization, #metoo testimonies, and deepening tribalism in an increasingly interdependent world.
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation
Download a PDF study guide of Isaiah 55 HERE.
It must have been really difficult for the people to hear about the feast, and the joyous benefit of being chosen, and being faithful to God, when you are in fact conquered and enslaved. How could they believe that God really cared about them? It could only be that the riturals and the metaphors that were part of their lives and their histories reminded them God will be there, no matter the daily circumstances. Hope is the only succor when darkness covers the earth.