Reflections on Isaiah 51:1-6: The Courage of Optimism

Rarely in the study of the Hebrew Bible can an interpreter be certain of the specific occasion of any writing. Who finally knows when Genesis or Exodus or Deuteronomy or the great tales of Saul, Samuel, and David first saw print? But Is.40-55 offers us no such confusion. He (we assume a male writer, but one perhaps ought not speak with absolute certainty) without doubt was writing during the exile of Israel in Babylon, and most likely toward the end of that exile, a brief time before and slightly after 539BCE when Cyrus of Persia put an and to Babylonian history once and for all. We thus know those to whom he wrote: those Israelites, most of whom had been born in Babylon, had never seen Jerusalem or Israel, had grown up in the great metropolis, never expecting to live anywhere else. It was to these half-Babylonian Israelites that Isaiah addressed his words.

And such words they were! I have often in my writings over the years characterized these words as astoundingly optimistic in the face of bleak times. Please do not misunderstand me: not everything this poet composed is to my liking. His view of God I find much too sweeping; when he claims that YHWH “makes weal and creates woe” (Is.45:7), I turn to the book of Job, his contemporary, I believe, and want to start an argument between themIshtar_gate_in_Pergamon_museum_in_Berlin. about such a grandiose, and potentially odious, theological claim. When he characterizes his listeners as mere “drops in a bucket” only “dust on the scales” (Is. 40:15), I cringe a bit at being reduced to such a triviality before YHWH.

And yet, I am nothing less than amazed at his encouragement of these exiles who have nearly forgotten their past in Israel and who perhapscannot even imagine what the distant YHWH may still have in mind for them, if anything. “I send you as a light to the nations,” thunders Isaiah, “so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6)! What can that possibly mean for a forgotten group of foreigners, living in Tel-Aviv by the river Chebar in the greatest city in the world? Just how can they, exiles, strugglers for meaning and purpose in a foreign land, be any sort of “light to the nations?”

Such language, such glorious portraits of purpose, arises either from pie- in-the-sky foolishness or the courage of optimism in the face of scant hope. I choose to believe that Isaiah was announcing the optimism of YHWH, and it took great courage to do so. I need that courage in my own life now.

My wife, Diana, and I have three months ago moved to Los Angeles after making our life in Dallas, TX for nearly 40 years. The move was made in order that we could witness the lives of our two children first hand, both of whom live in that city, and to see as much of the growth of our two grandchildren as we can during our last years. To enable our son, daughter-in-law, and those two grandchildren to live in the part of LA that offers gooLA_Skyline_Mountains2d public schools, we have sunk all of the earnings from the sale of our Dallas house into a property that includes a front house and a two-story garage, the top of which will be our son’s music studio (that is his work), while the first floor will be converted into our place of living. We will have at best 500 square feet of space. After these months, we have plans and a contractor, but no permits yet to begin that work.

Diana and I are in limbo, trying to maintain a sense of equilibrium when we have lost long-time friends, financial security, and perhaps 7/8 of our worldly goods, those things that will simply not fit in our new place. It has been a hard three months, as you can imagine. We have both had our times of despair; what have we done? Was this a foolish move? Could we not have stayed in the place we knew, and continued to visit our family, keeping our physical and psychic security? Unlike Israel, we were not forced into exile, but exile it certainly feels.

I will not speak for Diana, but I need a large dose of courageous optimism right now. I need to hear that there is still a mission for me among my family. I need to imagine that I can somehow still be some sort of light to the nations, though at times I feel only darkness. I need to hear “Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (Is. 43:5). Unlike the poets of Ps. 137, I want to be able to “sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land.” I hope I still have YHWH’s song to sing, and the throat still to sing it. I need a burst of courageous optimism. I thank old Isaiah for his.

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(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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