The Real Meaning of Beulah Land: Reflections on Isaiah 62:1-5

Lectionary Reflections
Isaiah 62:1-6
January 17, 2016

I begin with confession. I love the old gospel songs when sung by a male quartet (sexist, I know!), with the lead baritone crooning the melody, the stratospheric tenor singing far higher than the staves, the "normal" tenor providing inner harmonies, all anchored by a stentorian bass, whose low notes defy logic and gravity. I still listen to such stuff, knowing all too well that these hymns enshrine terrible theology, little of which I can stomach, and more than a few hokey intonations that make me cringe and smile all at once. When I read Isaiah 62, one of these old tunes pops into my head: "I'm Dwelling in Beulah Land."

I doubt many of those who sing this chestnut realize that they are in fact singing something in Hebrew; Beulah is Hebrew for "married," and the prophet, echoing the mouth of YHWH, announces that the formerly "desolate" land of Israel (shemamah in Hebrew) will no longer be alone and devastated but will now find genuine happiness as when a young man and a young woman marry. In fact, "your builder" (YHWH) will marry you and will, like a young bridegroom, rejoice over God's bride (Israel). In short, Isaiah proclaims an end to the disaster of exile and foretells a rich future for the shattered land, one filled with hope and joy. This new thing will be accompanied by a change of names; Shemamah ("the devastated") will turn into Hephzibah ("my delight is in her"). I once had a distantly related relative named Hephzibah, but I have never known anyone named Shemamah. A good thing, no?

But does the old hymn capture the full meaning of what Beulah land represents to Isaiah? I think not, and in this transformation from Isaiah to Charles Miles' song of 1911, we could discover a tragic truth about what has happened to our appropriation of the biblical word. Isaiah is focused clearly on YHWH's actions on behalf of the chosen people of Israel, whose "vindication" and "salvation" will be witnessed by "the nations" and whose "glory" will be seen by "all the kings." God's work of vindication and salvation are public acts, political acts, designed to demonstrate to the entire world what YHWH has in mind for the earth God created.

Compare that public proclamation with Miles' understanding of Beulah Land.

Far away the noise of strife upon my ear is falling;
Then I know the sins of earth beset on every hand;
Doubt and fear and things of earth in vain to me are calling;
None of these shall move me from Beulah Land.

I'm living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky,
I'm drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry;
Oh, yes! I'm feasting on the manna from a bountiful supply,
For I am dwelling in Beulah Land.

Several things should be quickly noted about this portrayal of Beulah Land. It is "far away" from noise and strife, removed utterly from the "sins of earth," completely devoid of "doubt and fear and things of earth." But, note carefully that all of those things still exist on the earth, but they do not exist at all in Beulah Land. Also, the pronoun is consistently "I." "I'm living" and "drinking" and "feasting" on a mountain under a sky without clouds.

In short, Beulah Land is something like a popular notion of heaven, a place where individuals may find rest and safety from the horrors of earth that are characterized in the second verse by "the storm of doubt," where the "sons of men in battle long the enemy withstand." (Only three years after the hymn's writing, World War I will break out and many sons of men will find their muddy deaths in the trenches of France and Germany.) But such agonies are not for those who dwell in Beulah Land: "Safe am I within the castle of God's Word retreating; nothing then can reach me — 'tis Beulah Land."

Verses three and four promise more of the same. "I am safe forever in Beulah Land," because "dwelling in the Spirit, here I learn of full salvation; gladly will I tarry in Beulah Land." This portrait of an individual salvation, protected by "the castle of God's Word," cradled calmly in God's Spirit from which I learn of "full salvation," is in every way not at all what Isaiah envisioned in his prophetic word.

Isaiah speaks clearly of the refusal of YHWH to "keep silent" until Jerusalem's vindication rises like the dawn, until her salvation is a "burning torch" (Is. 62:1). YHWH will never rest until all the nations and each one of their kings witnesses these actions of God. Beulah Land here is not some place of individualized heavenly rest, far above the warring masses that pollute the earth. Beulah Land is Jerusalem transformed by the power of YHWH into a model place of justice and righteousness, a place that can serve all the nations as the very symbol of YHWH's desires for the entire earth. After all, YHWH is the earth's "builder," its creator; YHWH desires for it the fullest measure of shalom, that is, unity and wholeness, a beacon light for the entire creation.