Opening The Old Testament
New Names for Us: Reflections on Isaiah 62:1-5
January 20, 2013
Names are very important. What a person or thing is named is a determining factor concerning how that person or thing is evaluated. When our son was born thirty-eight years ago, we decided to name him "Darius." In 1974, Darius was not the most common of names, and when I told my mother that that was the name we had chosen, if the baby was a boy (this was well before the days when everyone could learn the sex of their unborn child), my mom prayed mightily for a girl! She simply could not get her head or her mouth around the name Darius. Well, boy he was, and his name is Darius. Of course, now he could be no one else.
And my son has continued the tradition of unusual names. His daughter was born a few weeks ago, and her name is Saoirse (pronounced "seer-sha" for you non-Gaelic speakers). The name means "freedom" in Gaelic, and that is precisely who she is, a free spirit dropped into their busy lives.
The Hebrew Bible is filled with names that possess large meanings. Abram is "father of many," and so he becomes; Jacob is "Grabber," and so he is, grabbing and taking what he wants again and again; Isaac is "laughter" (what else would you call someone born to parents in their tenth decade of life?); Samuel means "God hears"; and so on. Names in the Bible are very often destiny; how people are named goes a long way to configuring just who they are and who they will be.
What's In a Name: Jerusalem
When the prophet we know as III-Isaiah (or at least one of the several prophets who comprise the oracles of Isaiah 56-66), he knew well this name game and proceeded to play it with the holy city, Jerusalem. There has been considerable argument concerning the meaning of the name "Jerusalem," but no one can miss the word "shalom" that makes up a part of the name. "Peace/unity" is the crucial designation of the city's name, but the history of the city, known all too well by this prophet and by the people to whom he is speaking, has not known any real peace or unity for a very long time. Jerusalem was shattered by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.E., and the city remained essentially a ruin for at least the next one hundred years, if not longer. For the exiles in Babylon, those who escaped the wrecked city and those who were born in Babylon never having seen the city, Jerusalem was merely a faded memory or only a place of dreams.
Yet, Jerusalem still represented the center of Israelite life and hope. When Cyrus, the Persian conqueror of Babylon, asked the Israelite residents of that city what they wished to do with the freedom he had granted to them, they all said that they wished to return to Jerusalem. And the Persian complied, not only allowing them to return, but helping them make the journey. Upon their return, though, they did not find the Jerusalem of their dreams, but a city more the stuff of nightmares. Indeed, until the coming of the Persian-born governor, Ezra, and his compatriot Nehemiah perhaps one hundred years later, the city was hardly habitable at all.
We may then guess that the words of Isaiah 62:1-5 are uttered in the light of a most tenuous and dangerous reality. The people have finally seen Jerusalem, and their hearts are heavy at the horror of it. How can anyone possibly imagine a future for this ruined place? How can anyone imagine that God has any plan for this hulk of a city with its blasted temple, destroyed palace, and hopeless inhabitants?
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.