Opening The Old Testament
Grace in the Darkness: Reflections on Isaiah 49:8-16a
Isaiah repeats his grand announcement of 40:3-4 when he says, "I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up" (49:11). The trip home will be completely unlike the trudging, long journey to exile some fifty years before. The return will be marked by abundant food and water and safety for all. Indeed, the "heavens and the mountains" themselves will burst into song" (49:13), a memorable metaphor the prophet repeats in chapter 55. The image of joyful and hopeful returnees is rich and memorable.
But what of Zion, the holy city? If any of the exiles ever saw it, their memory was of a devastated wreck, the king's palace burned, the Solomonic Temple stripped and destroyed stone-by-stone. What could they expect of a blasted hulk as a fit place for their hopeful future? The prophet imagines the city itself speaking: "YHWH has forsaken me; my YHWH has forgotten me" (49:14)! But just as II-Isaiah has buoyed the hopes of the exiles, so now he lifts the spirits of the struggling city in an astonishing and moving image. "Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb" (49:15)?
When our children were small, my wife nursed both of them for many months, since she had ample milk. But when she was performing this beautiful act day after day, the last thing she could have done was forget her nursing child! Her breasts needed regular sucking or she felt considerable discomfort. During those now long-ago days, she surely could not have forgotten the act of nursing nor could she have failed to have compassion (a Hebrew word based on one of the words for "womb") on those children. It may be conceivable that a woman might forget or her compassion may fail, as hard as it is to imagine such things, but the prophet says that YHWH "will not forget" (49:15). This is so, because God has "inscribed (Israel) in the palms of God's hands." And in a second metaphor, Zion's "walls are continually before God" (49:16).
Thus, both people and city are offered the everlasting and steadfast hope of the God of Israel. Even in exile God does not forget! Even when we forget our land and our city, God does not forget! Even when the city and its inhabitants lose hope, God always provides hope! Our own journey of Lent draws near. It can at times be a fearsome journey, leading us to look deeply into our own exiles, from self, from others, from God. But Isaiah reminds us that we never take this or any journey alone. God always journeys with us. God is always with us. The promise of Christmas, the gift of Emmanuel, God's presence with us, sustains us on the journey through life that we all must make. Thanks be to such a God!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.