Opening The Old Testament
Thy Kingdom Come: Reflections on Isaiah 65:17-25
Every Sunday of every year Christians recite the Lord's Prayer. They could say it in their sleep; I often wonder if some do! Rather like the "Gary, Indiana" in Meredith Wilson's classic musical, The Music Man, that prayer sort of "trips along softly on the tongue this way." In other words it just comes out without a whole lot of thought. But one of the requests we make in that prayer is fraught with power and rife with implications for us and for our world. It happens early on: "Thy Kingdom come," we ask. We say we want God to come now and reign over us; we want God to rule in our lives. We want no longer to rely on our own resources to make our own way in the world. I want to be honest with you; sometimes when I say that, I have another voice in the corner of my mind saying, "But not today! I rather like the way I am directing things at the moment, God. Maybe tomorrow, please!"
I may not be speaking for you in my confession, but all of us think we believe that we want God to reign over us, I imagine. It is, however, worth our time to ask just what we mean by such a thing: what would it be like to have such a life, such a ruler, such a world? It would be like Isaiah 65:17-25 or at least something very like it. So let's see what that is. And let's see if we really want it after all.
These words come from the so-called Third Isaiah (or fourth or fifth). Scholars hardly agree just how many writers are represented in the material found in Isaiah 56-66, but it is plain that these writers, regardless of their number, have read and absorbed the two earlier Isaiahs, 1-39 (mostly from the 8th century B.C.E.) and 40-55 (clearly from the exilic 6th century B.C.E.). This author of chapter 65 joins a sort of Isaianic school as he describes what God's fresh activity will be like, referring to earlier thought and adding some new things of his/her own.
Isaiah 65:16c frames the grand vision of the rule of God when it says, "The former troubles are forgotten." Exactly what is in mind here is not completely clear, but anyone who has read much of the long and troubled history of Israel, from Egyptian toil and escape to grumbling in the wilderness to the struggles of the new land to the oppression of kings to prophetic warnings to exile into Babylon, knows all too well the content of troubles. Echoing Isaiah 43:18-21, God is once again about to do a new thing, this time the creation of "new heavens and new earth" (65:17), a fresh creation offered to a people wearied by the same old troubles that seemingly are as old as creation itself (Gen. 1-3).
But now "troubles" will be replaced by "gladness" and "rejoicing" (v. 18a). Jerusalem itself will be a joy, and its inhabitants nothing less than a delight (v. 18bc). God will now rejoice in Jerusalem (v. 19a); no more weeping will be heard, no more cries of distress (v. 19bc). Compare those images with the horrors described in Lamentations where Jerusalem is lonely, empty, filled with tears (Lam. 1:1-2). But now just look and listen! No infant will die young (v. 20), surely a too common feature of life in the ancient world, and old persons will live full lives (v. 20b). Anyone dying at 100 will be called a mere youth; anyone falling short of 100 will seem cursed (v. 20c).
Buildings will not be handed over to someone else as spoil of war; those who build will inhabit what they build (v. 21a). All plantings will be for those who planted (v. 21b). People will be tree-like, living very long lives, long enough to enjoy to the full the work of their own hands (v. 22). All labor will be rich and fulfilling, not empty; all children will be born in hopefulness, not into a world filled with frightening terrors (v. 23ab). All and their descendants will be blessed by YHWH, the Lord (v. 23cd).
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.