Lesson 40: Enlarge the Place of Thy Tent – Isaiah 54-56, 63-65 #BCCSundaySchool2018

As mentioned in previous #BCCSundaySchool posts, there is much scholarly discussion about the origins of the Book of Isaiah, and various scholars have identified two or three distinct sections in the book. Where precisely one might draw the boundaries between these sections, and whether or not one believes them to have been produced by different authors, the structure within Isaiah they identify is useful for extracting meaning from the text. Our selections today (Isaiah 53-56; 63-65) come from what are usually identified as the latter two sections of the book. It should be noted there is some debate about where the second section ends and the third begins, and also whether there is a third section at all. But regardless—what we hear in the words of the last dozen or so chapters of Isaiah is the prophet’s fervor ascending to a crescendo, and what we see in his imagery is a vision of Zion ascending in a glory heretofore undescribed in the Bible.

Normally, the tripartite breakdown of Isaiah goes something like this. It is often agreed that Isaiah 1-39 (with the possible exception of chapters 24-27, a rather hallucinatory apocalypse with overtones of Daniel) contains warnings of a coming judgment against Israel and Judah, at the particular hands of Assyria, which indeed conquered Israel in 722 BCE. It’s full of warnings and judgment and castigation against Israel that God will not protect them from conquest because of their wickedness; that their rituals will not protect them if they abuse the poor; and that, as Isaiah 6 declares with melancholy, that the people may simply not listen. It also contains the most biographical material about Isaiah.

Beginning with Isaiah 40, we seem to be in a different world. The latter section of the book focuses not on warnings and judgment, but God’s justice, mercy, and promised salvation of his people. Assyria is gone; instead these chapters focus on Babylon, which conquered Judah and held the Jewish leadership in captivity in the 500s BCE, and God promises here that Babylon despite its conquest of Jerusalem will be God’s tool for its redemption. While the first 39 chapters of Isaiah warn of destruction, these chapters herald restoration. By the last dozen chapters of the book—which some scholars believe is a third section—Isaiah has gone beyond simply restoration. The last chapters of Isaiah describe by name Zion, the coming New Jerusalem which God will establish in the future.

The arc, then, of the book of Isaiah is in many ways the arc of the Bible in total—from the fall of Adam and Eve through the redemption of the New Testament and the promised celestial salvation of the end of the book of Revelation. It’s the grand meta-story of all of scripture, and of Judaism and Christianity in total. And the passages of this lesson are those of God’s promise, and of what is to come.

As God says in Isaiah 65:17, one of the famous and repeated phrases Isaiah coins, he is about to “create a new heavens and a new earth,” a new kingdom out of the old, and thus not simply a restoration but a redemption, a divinized and celestialized version of the society his people had built before the destructions wrought by Assyria and Babylon.

I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

(Isaiah 65:18-19)

This is language closely echoed at the end of the Book of Revelation, which illustrates the wide applicability of Isaiah’s vision: the prophet is here describing the universal ideal of God’s Zion, that society aspired to and sometimes achieved throughout scripture: though nearly always also a society lost, to be dreamed of and rebuilt again.

One of the marvelous things about Isaiah’s vision is how indeed universal this Zion is. For much of the Bible that we’ve seen so far, God’s people assume that Zion is intended for they themselves: the descendants of Abraham. The Book of Jonah is a lovely puncturing of this view; Jonah spends the book running from God’s command that he preach to his enemies in the city of Nineveh, and in chapter 4 God explicitly corrects him, telling him that non-Jews are as worthy of God’s word as Jews themselves are. Isaiah, similarly, tells us this in Isaiah 55:1.

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Is there a better explication of grace in the Bible?

Similarly, Isaiah 56:

 Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people. Neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.

For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant: even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.

 Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain.

This is a particularly interesting passage, for two reasons. First, it specifies two groups commonly excluded: the “eunuchs” and the “sons of the stranger.” Gentiles or those traditionally separated from the covenant could enter into Isaiah’s kingdom. Eunuchs, traditionally excluded from the covenant as per Deuteronomy 23, are embraced as well. Second, this inclusion specifically is fulfilled if they keep God’s sabbath. The sabbath, and other Jewish holidays, were instituted in contradistinction with the endless labor and work of Egyptian slavery; indeed, the sabbath is best understood as grace translated into time, God telling his people they should be liberated from the grinding demands of work and earning and wealth and materialism. These last chapters of Isaiah, then, are more than anything else about the radical liberation that God’s grace offers.

This brings us to a question of prophecy. It is common in Mormon Sunday schools to hopscotch through Isaiah from “a voice from the dust” to “man of sorrows” to “the mountain of the Lord’s house” in order to play matching games with various events in Latter-day history and theology. This is not how prophecy works. It is not so specific. When Isaiah speaks of the man of sorrows, Christians see in this symbol the tormented Christ. Jews see the suffering nation of Israel. Others might see the prophet himself, tormented by the ruling powers of the day.

Which of these is “right”?  All, none? There’s no right answer. Rather, what prophecy tells us is something about how God works with his people; divine patterns repeated and repeated again. God parts waters in Genesis 1, in the creation; in Genesis 9, at the end of the flood, in Exodus 14, in Egypt; in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at the baptism of Christ. Is it right to say that any one of these is a reference only to any other single one of them?  No: Rather, the motif is to draw our minds to the broader pattern of creation and re-creation.

Let all Sunday schools therefore henceforth do away with the “X means Y” strategy for engaging with Isaiah. Instead, let’s see the far more expansive work that the prophet is actually performing.

Comments

  1. Jack of Hearts says:

    “the sabbath is best understood as grace translated into time”

    Thank you for this thought, one in a post filled with excellent ones.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Matt.

  3. I don’t like there not being right answers from the scriptures? Aren’t the scriptures where I’m supposed to go for the right answers? If I can’t find the right answers in the scriptures, why should I be reading scriptures?

  4. jader3rd, I don’t think the point is that the right answer isn’t found in the scriptures but it is found somewhere else. I think the point is that for many (most?) situations, there is NO right answer to how to interpret the scriptures. That is in my opinion their power: the flexibility to be helpful in many completely different situations.

    Thank you Matt for your lessons — I use them a lot in preparing to teach Sunday School in my ward.

  5. Jarell Angell says:

    Thank you for your insights! It’s nice to have some help better understanding Isaiah!:)

  6. Great thoughts. The message of grace and inclusiveness are so important.

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