1 February 2012

Isaiah 54:1-10

"For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you."


The image of a childless woman unexpectedly bearing children is one that echoes through the Old Testament. Sarah (Genesis 18), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Hannah (1 Samuel 1) all have the experience of bearing sons through the grace of God. Even in the West in the twenty first century, couples long for the fulfilment of the gift of children, and in many patriarchal societies a woman's status depends on the children she bears. The promise of children is a dream come true.

Isaiah takes this image further (verses 2-3) by describing a tent fit for the television programme Grand Designs; this is a house extension with a vengeance as the tent grows and grows to accommodate all the children who will need space there. It is a wonderful evocation of the optimism that suffuses these verses.

In verse 4 the image changes to that of a woman who, for one reason or another, has lost her husband. The story of Ruth and Naomi (in the Book of Ruth) makes it clear how hard the life of the widow was. Then the woman is no longer a widow, but suffering the ultimate disgrace: abandoned by her husband, forsaken (verse 6). Dark stories such as that of Tamar (Genesis 38) reveal just how much some women had to face.

Many writers now recognise that the patriarchal bias of these images makes it harder for modern women and men to empathise with the underlying ideas. Israel is always depicted as the woman in a broken relationship, wholly dependent on the compassion of her lord. That said, however, this range of imagery enables a deep understanding of the levels of personal pain that can exist within a multilayered relationship of this nature, and the intense joy of unexpected reconciliation.

And beyond that - amazingly - God appears to take responsibility, even apologise, for the moment when Israel was abandoned to their fate, leaving her to endure exile. The first lines of verses 7 and 8 both contain this admission: I did it. There is no attempt to blame Israel or find an excuse; it is a simple acknowledgement of reality.

And on that basis, God promises that it will never happen again. The passage weaves round the great words of covenantal promise: compassion (a word linked in Hebrew with 'womb'), love, steadfast and eternal, redeemer. And the reference to the story of Noah develops this promise. As God undertook never to flood the earth again (Genesis 9:12-17), so will Israel never again be abandoned. The promise is of a complete end to exile.

And yet such an experience, even when in the past, leaves its mark. Israel remained - and remains - a community who knows what it is to be exiled.

To Ponder

How does Jesus' cry from the Cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) help in understanding this passage?

What would you like to ask God to apologise to you for?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.