A new thing, springing forth (Isaiah 43; Lent 5C)

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:18–19).

These words are attributed to the prophet Isaiah, who lived in the southern kingdom of Judea eight centuries before Jesus, serving as a “court prophet” during times of abundance. Isaiah was active a time when the southern kingdom of Judah was flourishing. He became active in the last years of the reign of Uzziah, who, it was said, ruled as king for fifty-two years (788–736). He lived through the reigns of Jotham and Ahaz (16 years each), and died towards the end of the reign of Hezekiah, who himself enjoyed 29 years on the throne.

The year of Isaiah’s death is uncertain; he may well have been alive, still, when the Assyrian army of Sennacherib laid waste to the northern kingdom (722–721) and deported the northerners to clear the land. In such a context of stability, however, the promise that God would do “a new thing” sits somewhat uneasily in the situation we can reconstruct.

This is one reason why many scholars maintain that the section of the book of Isaiah where we find this passage (Isaiah 40–55) is set some centuries later, after the southern kingdom itself had been conquered by the Babylonians (587–586), and the people taken into exile in Babylon. This became the pivotal event in the history of Israel, the people as a whole—at least in terms of the stories that we have gathered in the scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah focus on Jerusalem and Judah (2:1; 3:1; 5:3; 11:12-16; 22:5-8, 20-25; 26:1) and Assyria (7:10–25; 8:1–10; 10:5–12; 14:24–27); 19:23–25; 20:1–6; 30:29–33). The final section of the book (chs. 36—39) is clearly the describing events of the 720s which led to the Assyrian invasion and conquest of the northern kingdom, Israel.

By contrast, second section of the book of Isaiah has a primary concern for the power which had taken the people of Judah into exile—Babylon (43:14–21; 47:1–15; 48:14, 20–21). The prophet promises a return to Jerusalem (40:1–2), but it is identified as Zion (40:9; 41:27; 46:13; 49:14; 51:3, 11, 16; 52:1-2, 7-8).

There are many stories in Isa 1—39 relating to the personal life of the prophet, but no such personal connections in Isa 40—55. By contrast, a very direct historical reference, in a section referring to Cyrus, King of Persia (44:24–45:19), indicates a later setting. Cyrus ruled the Achaemenid Empire from 559 to 530 BCE and, after defeating the Babylonians in 539, issued a decree permitting the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland.

We have already reflected on one passage from this section of Isaiah (55:1–12, Lent 3), noting how it differs from the worldview and understanding of God from earlier periods in the life of Israel.

This passage thus comes from a time when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. It was not a happy time for many of the people of Israel. (Psalm 137 is the classic expression of this; note especially the anger expressed in verses 8–9.) The people of Israel yearned to return home (Jer 29:10–14; 30:1–31:26). They looked back on the past with longing eyes. They remembered their years in the land which God had given to them. Now, they were living among Babylonians—foreigners, conquerors.

Soon, they would leave behind these memories, and grasp hold of the future that God has for them. God would “send to Babylon and break down all the bars” (43:14). God, the prophet declares, is doing a new thing! (43:19).

And yet, that “new thing” is informed by the past. The people once travelled out of slavery in Egypt, into freedom in Canaan, leaving behind the Egyptian “chariot and horse, army and warrior”, stuck in the waters of the sea that suddenly swamped them—“extinguished, quenched like a wick” (43:17; cf. Exod 14:26–31, 15:4–12, 19, 21). In the time of the prophet, “the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation” as the people depart (43:14).

In like manner, now, the people will take the journey back home, pass through the desert, and return to their land. The one who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (43:16) during the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15), will now “make a way in the wilderness” (43:19) for the people to follow, leading them right back to the land from which they had been forcibly removed decades earlier (2 Kings 25:1–21; 2 Chron 35:15–21).

As they were sustained in that desert journey long ago, so God now will give “rivers in the desert” (43:19) which will provide “water in the wilderness … to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) as they travel on that way. That caled for shouts of praise to God! (43:21).

The Exodus imagery was potent for Israel; not only was the story developed over centuries to provide a story of origins for Israel, but it was also co-opted into the prophecies predicting the return to the land, providing those oracles with greater strength and rigour. (And, of course, the story continued on into the feast of Passover, the annual celebrations which continue amongst Jews right through until the present day.)

The Exodus imagery also undergirds the Christian story. Jesus, declared by John the Baptist to be the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), affirmed by Paul as the new Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7), envisaged by the ageing prophet on Patmos to be the slaughtered lamb (Rev 5:6–14), is believed to enact a new Passover for his followers, according to the developing Christian tradition.

Just as the shedding of the blood smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites was their salvation (Exod 12:7, 13, 22–23), so the shedding of Christ’s blood is understood to effect salvation (Rom 5:8–10; 1 Pet 1:18–21). So the age-old imagery and symbolism is reworked by the early Christian writers, continuing the process seen in the words of the prophet speaking during the return from Exile (Isa 43:16–21).

See also

For our instruction … that we might have hope (Rom 15, Isa 11, Matt 3; Advent 2A)

As Paul comes to the end of his letter to the Romans—a letter in which he quotes, time and time again, from the scriptures of his people, the Hebrew people, the books we know as the Old Testament—he makes a passing comment which, in my mind, is a penetrating insight into how he operates.

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,

so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures

we might have hope, he writes (Rom 15:4).

We have that section of the letter included in our readings this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent. I suspect that the reason that this section is included is because Paul here goes on to quote from a collection of scriptures, each of which, in his mind, justifies what he is doing as he writes to the Romans.

My understanding of this letter is that Paul writes to persuade the Jewish Christians that they are to be welcoming, hospitable, and inclusive of the Gentile Christians who are part of the various house churches in Rome; as he says,

by grace, through faith, all are saved; there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Rom 3)

And so, the letter moves towards its close with this quotation:

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” (Rom 15)

This passage grounds the reality of the church in the gathering of disparates, Jews and Gentiles; it also grounds our faith in the advent of Jesus, the one who draws Jews and Gentiles together; and it provides us with this seasonal word, during the season of Advent, as it points us to hope.

In the prophetic oracle set in the lectionary alongside the apostolic letter, Isaiah offers a wonderful vision of cosmic peace and universal co-operation:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)

However, this vision of peace appears in our lectionary alongside some harsh striking words, about the judgement that is associated with this vision. As the evangelist writes about the coming of the promised one—the one who will,presumably bring about this era of peace—he reports words spoken by John the Baptiser, which offer this sense of judgement:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matt 3)

And again, in the Gospel for today, this message of judgement and punishment is vividly conveyed:

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3)

This is a stern word. It seems strange for us, during Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, to be hearing such clanging, jarring sounds. Although, as one of my colleagues said to me earlier this week, as we talked about the offerings on hand in the lectionary during this season:

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

For the incessant message of the prophets is one which calls us to account. The hammer strikes the anvil, once, twice, repeatedly, marking the surface, forging the shape, creating the essence of the person. And the message of the prophets places before us an insistence that we need to act ethically, live responsibly, with justice and equity, as we wait with hope for the coming of the one who will bring in the promised time of peace.

Indeed the prophet, as he envisages the presence of this one, so long hoped for, as he considers how “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”, describes him in this way:

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins. (Isaiah 11)

The one to come will exemplify righteousness, and will assess the fruit produced by those he encounters. He will execute judgement by swinging the axe, cutting down the tree, and burning the branches in the fire; and, as the prophet declares,

He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

As we reflect on these words during this season, we do so with prayerful anticipation, with resolute hopefulness, with persistence and openness to God’s way in our midst, for we yearn to encounter afresh this chosen one:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.