Opening The Old Testament
New Names for Us: Reflections on Isaiah 62:1-5
Those Crazy Prophets
Of course, it is precisely at such times that prophets show up. It is in the face of hopeless realities that prophets offer their visions and dreams; that is the main reason why so few people ever pay attention to prophets—they are so unrealistic, so unreasonable, so absurd!
The second Isaiah prophet (Is. 40-55) took one look at the exiles in Babylon, many of whom had been in the pagan city their whole lives, probably having adopted Babylonian ways and Babylonian faith, and announced to them that YHWH, the vindicator of Israel, still had big plans for them. "It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will send you as a light to the nations in order that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Is. 49:6). This glorious proclamation was made to scruffy exiles, living in the Babylonian ghetto of Tel-Aviv, near the river Chebar. They could probably not keep their own families together; how in the world were they ever going to be "lights to the nations"? Such talk was ludicrous in the extreme!
And so here we go again in Isaiah 62. "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent (this is YHWH speaking), and for Jerusalem's sake I will never rest until her vindication (or "righteousness") shines out like the dawn and her saving like a flaming torch" (Is. 62:1). YHWH will loudly and unceasingly restore Jerusalem and will recreate the place in such a way that its righteousness will shine and spark like a fiery dawn. And all will see this divine action. "The nations will see your righteousness, the kings will witness all your glory. You will be called by a new name, one that the mouth of YHWH will give" (Is. 62:2). The new name will be so prominent and so wonderful that the whole world will know it and will know that YHWH has done it.
"You will be a beautiful crown in YHWH's hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God" (Is. 62:3). YHWH still has Israel in the divine hand, and the city will be a stunningly beautiful and royal crown, resting in that hand. And as YHWH places that crown on the brow of the city, its new names are bestowed. "No more are you called Abandoned (azubah), nor will your land be named Desolate (shemamah)" (Is. 62:4a). Here the prophet recognizes what the city has been seen to be, namely, abandoned and desolate; that is the reality that the people face now. But the new name of Jerusalem will be "My Delight is in Her" (hephzibah); and your land will be married (beulah)" (62:4b). From the last name we receive the theme of that old gospel hymn, "Dwelling in Beulah Land." Yet, that hymn assumes that Beulah Land is a place in the sky, by and by, when we die. That is far from Isaiah's intent. Beulah Land is the near future of the Holy City of Jerusalem; it is no longer forsaken and abandoned, but is now the delightful bride of YHWH.
"For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your people marry you; just as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you" (Is. 62:5). The future of the ruined city is secure as the delight of YHWH. The future of our life is secure as we too are the delight of YHWH.
We Are the Delight of God
But is this all just too romantic in the face of the harsh realities that all of us face in our 21st-century world?
Do we run the risk of being so many Pollyannas doomed to utter inane hopes, when we ought rather be people of realism and face up to the world we can see, not the one we wish we had?
I think this text, along with many other prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, announce a central truth about what it means to be a believer in any age of history; we Christians (and Jews and Muslims) cannot finally be cynical about the world given to us by God. To be a Christian and to be a cynic is nothing less than an oxymoron. In the light of Epiphany, we are given a new name by our God; we are the "Delight of God," and as such we can live always in hope. We could all use this new name from God; it would go far to lead us into new patterns of living, new ways of being in the world that God has bestowed on us.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.