Salvation is a journey – Monday, 2nd Week in Advent – Isaiah 35:1-10
Amid rumours of war and desolation, Isaiah 35 surprises us. A voice speaks without addressing anyone by name, without the particularity of time. Many scripture scholars wonder why this text finds itself in this section of the book of Isaiah when it almost sounds like a cut copy and paste from the second section.
Today’s reading is in sharp contrast to the destruction of Edom described one chapter earlier. In chapter 34 we find “Yahweh enraged against all the nations” (34:2), his sword is filled with blood and will effect “a great slaughter in the land of Edom” (34:6) and “a day of vengeance” (34:8). Chapter 35 stands in stark contrast. The prophet declares the joy of an earth wrung dry.
In the 6th century BCE, God promised a new, holy path for Israel that would lead them out of bondage in Babylon to a new future for Judah. Isaiah 35 is a powerful poetic word of comfort for the mourning Judahite exiles, to a people who have been punished, who lost their temple, land, and sovereignty. Isaiah does not prophesize a quick end to Israel’s suffering. Most of us have come to the realization that God does not remove all of our problems the moment we enter into God’s presence. Yet God is always working for our good, our renewal, and yes, even our joy. God is always looking out for us, acting on our behalf and making a way in the dry deserts of life.
Isaiah seeks to assure Israel that God is present in their suffering; God has not deserted them. When our world is crashing in around us, everything is out of control and we fear for our survival, we sometimes doubt God’s presence. This passage speaks the same message to us as it did to the people of Israel—God has not deserted us. God is present in the middle of our situations and suffering.
Israel has been in exile for decades, and their bondage has sapped their spirit and strength. The first step to recovery of physical strength is recovery of spirit. Anticipating each argument for not making the long and arduous journey home (verses 3&4) the prophet calls people to begin that recovery with the help of God. It lays the foundation for them to hope. A person with no hope can be expected to have weak hands and feeble knees, but when hope is restored, they will find reservoirs of untapped strength—both spiritual and physical strength. Hence words of encouragement are given, “Strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees.”
In verse 8, the word “highway” is used and one would imagine that Isaiah is describing the road home (highway) to Jerusalem from Babylon. But as is the case with so much of Isaiah’s language, this term is used figuratively rather than literally. Rather, the prophet refers to a holy way of life, the sacred way. When the people return to Zion they will practice a religion without crookedness. Not only will life return to nature but all kinds of disabilities will be removed from people’s lives – the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leaping like deer, the tongue of the speechless singing for joy. A prophecy we find constantly confirmed by the works of Jesus and foretold by him at the beginning of his public life (Luke 4:18), using a similar prophecy from Isaiah, (61:1).
Among other things, this text helps us understand what it means to “be saved” in the Bible. It not only pertains to individual souls, but rather a transformation of humanity and creation that enables all to sing together in present and eternal joy.