14 December 2013

Isaiah 48:1-11

"Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel ..." (v. 1)


The historical setting of Isaiah 40-55 is the period just before the Persian conqueror Cyrus overwhelmed the Babylonian empire around 550-540BC. The Persian Empire was already large and strong, and overshadowed the ailing empire of Babylon. A new superpower and world order are about to be established. The prophet who speaks to us in these chapters senses this and sees God's hand and purpose being fulfilled in this upheaval. The intention of the prophecies is to awaken those in Exile to the divine at work in the midst of their history, and to present a renewed and sometimes breathtaking vision of God. The theological themes being worked out in these chapters are in some ways a reworking of the great themes of Israel's history - the creation, the exodus from slavery, and the journey to a new land. At the same time there are new themes which emerge in and through the reworking: God as redeemer, the purpose of Israel's exile, and the role and identity of 'the servant' - a figure who appears regularly in this section of the book of Isaiah.

Today's passage appears to be the first half of a carefully crafted poem. It unfolds its message though three sections. Verses 1 and 2 say that Israel should be worshipping in Jerusalem. This is where their identity lies and although worship in Jerusalem has not been possible in exile, that period is over and Jerusalem beckons to the exiles. Verses 3-8 point back to the original Exodus and assert that God predicted the first Exodus and it had come to pass. Now the new Exodus is to happen and God's word declares it but, just as long ago, people do not hear and they do not see that it is God who is at work. Rather they are inclined to attribute the changes to other causes or even idols. Verses 9-11 state that God's purpose will proceed, regardless of popular recognition or response.

In other words, the prophet announces that God is calling God's own people home and has a new exodus journey for them to travel. People may be slow to hear but God's purpose will be fulfilled; and you can be sure that this is not a return to the old pattern of life or worship in Jerusalem but the beginning of a new future.

To Ponder

  • How might someone born and grown to adulthood in exile and never seen Jerusalem have reacted to this message?
  • How do you think God speaks through world events?
  • Have any large scale changes nationally or in the world made you reconsider how you should live? What were they and what reconsiderations did you make?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Roger Walton

Roger Walton is a Methodist minister and chair of the West Yorkshire Methodist District. From 1999-2010 he was the director of the Wesley Study Centre, Durham and before that was responsible for adult learning and training in the Methodist Church.