Isaiah 57:14-21 | Seventh Sunday after Trinity B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

 14  And it will be said,

     “Rise up, Rise up, Clear the path,

      Remove the obstacle from the path of my people”

15  For this is what the Exalted and Supreme One says:

    — One who resides permanently, his name is Holy One:

     “I reside in an elevated and sacred place,

     and also with the oppressed and downcast,

     to revive the vitality of the dispirited,

     to revive the desire of the downcast.

16 Indeed, I will not contend endlessly,

     nor will I always be angry;

     Otherwise life itself would become weak before me,

      specifically humankind whom I myself made.

17  I was angry on account of the evil of his greed,

      so I struck him; 

      hiding I was angry when he lived

      turning back into the way of his heart.

18  I have diagnosed his condition and decided to heal him;

      I will make compensation for his sorrows,

      especially his heartaches”.

      For this is what the Exalted and Supreme One says:

19  — One who creates speech:

      “Peace, peace, to the one far and to the one near,”

      Yahweh says: “Truly, I have decided to heal him

20  but the disobedient are like the turbulent sea;

      when it is unable to be calm,

      and its breakers toss up mire and muck”.

21 My God says: “There is no peace for the disobedient.”

Isaiah (57:14-21)

The Word of the Lord

Please turn in your pew Bible or tablet to the first of the later prophets Isaiah – chapter 56.1-2. We’ll start there and wind our way to this morning’s lesson in ch. 57.14-21 

Once upon a time, long, long ago, an American flew out of So. California and made a right hand turn at Greenland heading toward Sheffield’s city centre by way of Manchester’s airport. David Clines, one of the American’s advisors, made a gracious rescue from sub-zero English weather. Adapting to the North of England took some time. Adapting to the rigors of post-graduate British Biblical studies also took time. Eventually it was agreed by the American’s advisors that he would take a seat at the grown ups table of Isaiah studies. At the head of the table was the most respected and influential scholar in European and British studies in the last 100 years – Bernhard Duhm. In his published research he asserted chapters 56-66 were a  “collection of unconnected verses” (allerlei zitaten) strung together by a post-Exilic “Third Isaiah”. These assertions had become the standard starting point. All of the others at the table were genuine scholars having done brilliant work. Seated at the table with such highly regarded scholarship, the American wasn’t confident he merited even crumbs from under the table. So the American, deeply respectful of their work, decided that persuasion rather than argument, criticism could reset the table at which he now sat. He would write that an alternative to 100 years of  “accepted scholarly conclusions about a collection of unconnected verses” could be achieved by a close literary reading of Isaiah 56-59 grounded in prophetic judgement speech.  

Like that American, my hope this morning is to persuade you to develop a habit of reading the Bible in its literary forms. Bible literacy, being a serious student of biblical literature, is the greatest asset you can carry into the days ahead. Careful and faithful reading of the divine library will equip you to lay hold of instruction and guidance. 

In the prophetic library, prophets are representatives for the covenant YHWH revealed at Sinai. The Prophetic Judgement Speeches have two priorities. One is showing YHWH as an incomparable, covenantally faithful Ruler and the other is showing the covenant is a close, intimate, voluntary relationship well beyond political, legal or social confinement. Judgement speeches are genuine back and forth dialog by means of a poetic literary convention. So the prophets intend for us to hear the voice of YHWH and others. The use of voice directly involves us in instruction, distress, hopes, questioning, laughter at absurdities and grief about broken relationships, especially with YHWH.

The Covenant theme 56.1-2

Following a thematic introduction at 56.1-2, our lesson will only have its most important meanings when read as a conclusion to the prophetic judgement speech begun at 56.9. Let’s read the theme:

1 This is what YHWH says:

“Watch over what is just

    Do what is right,

for my salvation is close by

    and my deliverance is nearly here.

2 Blessed is the one who does this;

    the person who grasps it,

Watching over the Sabbath without desecrating it,

Watching over one’s hand from doing any evil.”

The command’s objects, Just/Right, are Sinai covenant themes that have been frequent companions throughout Isaiah. For example, read the first chapter of Isaiah for a preview of this text. The Sinai Covenant shaped Israel’s way of life expecting voluntary obedience to the revealed standards balancing encouragement for obedience against warning for those turning from obedience. Biblical themes Just/Right woven into the Sinai covenant opened horizons for newly freed Israel beyond the scope of merely political legality because they are rooted in relationships reaching for allegiance, faithfulness, forgiveness, reconciliation and longings for peace. In other words, Just/Right are dynamically linked to behavior as a display of voluntary obedience to morally informed covenant shaped revelation.

Not immediately apparent in English, the commands “Watch over what is just, Do what is right” are plural not singular – “y’all” –  it’s about community not the individual. Contemporary emphasis on individual faith has caused us to lose sight of the fact that biblical faith is formed in community. Every person in Israel is to know that she and he is absolutely essential for the wellbeing of the whole.The organic idea in the covenant community is that it forgoes authority over one another and works selflessly to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself”.

Maintaining community unity requires attention “for my salvation is close by and my deliverance is nearly here” (vs. 1) and effort “Watching over the Sabbath without desecrating it, Watching over one’s hand from doing any evil” (vs.2). There are many secular powers working against the household of faith. So we must measure unity constantly to the scripture’s narratives in order to discern the Spirit’s true bonds “Blessed is the one who does this; the person who grasps it” (vs. 2). Each member must hold each other accountable when unity is fractured by attitudes, conduct, utterances or choices. These thoughts bring us to Isaiah’s prophetic judgement speech, 56.9-57.21.

The Watchmen, 56.9-57.13

Moving our fingers down the page to 56.9, to the prophetic judgement speech itself, we’re about to hear an interplay of voices. YHWH commands “All wild animals of the field, Come to devour! all wild animals in the forest” (vs. 9). Clearly this is different from the commands at 56.1. Clearly a little short on the Just/Right bits. Right? But it’s Isaiah who gives us an explanation restaging the scene (vs. 10-11). 

10 His (YHWH’s) watchmen are blind- all of them

    they are not alert;

All of them are mute dogs,

    they are unable even to growl;

    Panting, lying sprawled out, desiring to slumber.

11 Those dogs are ravenous;

    they never know satisfaction.

Ah, these are wicked;

They lack discernment.

All of them turn to their own way,

    Each one in pursuit of unlawful personal gain – without exception

After calling the wild animals to attack Israel, the foreboding realization is there are already wild animals inside Israel – more offensive, more dangerous than those approaching. The Watchmen, the supposed guardians, have been revealed as self-serving, brutal, indifferent to the defense of the community yet alert to opportunistic personal benefit.  Clearly they are at odds with the virtues justice/right expected of all in the covenant community, again 56.1-2.

But a watchman interrupts the prophet’s explanation with his own commands worthy of any college frat house (vs. 12)  “Come,” “let us fetch wine! Let us guzzle an intoxicating drink! Tomorrow will be like this day – even far better.”

Having had enough of this Watchman’s defiance and faulty sundial, YHWH re-enters to confront the Watchmen directly with 12 interrogative accusations that would impress Law and Order’s Jack McCoy. I’ll summarize YHWH’s fast paced accusations uncovering the Watchmen’s misguided, misdirected behavior and motivations in 57.3-13. Perpetually hurried, restless, they move fast but they break things – a lot of things. They have a problematic track record. Things don’t go as planned. They have spent most of their time free-lancing. Their apparent charm and dynamism disguised a lack of serious intellectual formation and capability. Abandoning their pursuit of covenant holiness, they sing of hedonism, consumerist narcissism and secularism. They have blocked the covenant path with religious abuse, corruption, betrayal, deception.   

So who are these Watchmen?  Not immediately apparent in translation, “Watchmen” is, first of all, a pointed, skillful  play on words. It’s a form of the verb “watch over” used 3x in 56.1-2. But second, not immediately apparent in translation, it’s a pointed, skillful theological identification.  Watchmen is the covenant identification for the priestly guardians (השומרים) of the sanctuary and temple and YHWH’s priestly agents of covenant teaching (BDB 1036-1038; TLOT 3.1380ff).   

Now hit the pause button: It is important for us to grasp the intentions of a Judgement Speech. The issue is:  the Watchmen have abandoned their pastoral vocation to abuse their position with authority and power. YHWH is in a struggle for their very life. The accusations do not want to drive the Watchmen away but to draw them back through repentance to obedience, faithfulness, back to “watching over” the community. 

So here’s the big idea:  it’s crucial that one does his/her religious leadership job well in Israel and the church, by extension. And here’s the important difference. It’s not our corporate format of top down – follower leadership . No, biblical leadership is pastoral. It’s a release of authority to take responsibility as a servant who serves well. That’s a very difficult idea to put our head around, especially in our follow the leader culture. It’s an ancient issue even Jesus commented on: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk.10.42-45). The pastoral vocation is to become equippers, prodders, encouragers, promoters of all in the household so that each one fulfills his or her vocation. The pastoral vocation in discipleship is not something to be marketed, a commodity to buy, to be successful at. The household of faith isn’t a vending machine of religious goods and services catering to people’s wishes, whims, tastes. Rather a faithful community is an educated, commissioned body of people sent on a mission. Pastoral discipleship is the nurturing of missionary people who warn, evangelize, educate and speak prophetically – risking displeasure and scorn at times. Rightly understood, the pastoral vocation in Israel and the church has been and will always be a highly demanding calling.

The Community 57.14-21

Let’s move our fingers down the verses to our lesson – 57.14-21. I’ll summarize the thoughts. Certainly Israel suffered from the decisions of leaders who sacrificed the good of the people for celebrity, success, and profit. They were unconcerned with the safety, faith or holiness of the men and women YHWH put under their care. Much to everyone’s horror, then, when the leader’s failed, the community was negatively impacted. YHWH’s commands “Rise up, Rise up, Clear the path! Remove the obstacle from the path of my people” direct the first of his closing remarks to the Remnant – those faithful people surviving the Watchmen catastrophe (vs. 14).  In a thematic sense, we’re back where we started – 56.1-2. YHWH’s command, once again, is to every single person in Israel that she and he is absolutely essential for the wellbeing of the whole. Everyone has a responsibility to watch over the work of the Lord in, for and through them. 

After all the accusations against the Watchmen and the disaster that has come down on Israel, it’s YHWH’s internal questioning, wrestling and deliberations in vs. 15-21 that are eye opening. YHWH’s penetrating, thoughtful self-examination leads him to decide to revive (v. 15) and to restore (v.18). Limiting his power and authority, the gravity of the sinfulness is mercifully healed rather than punished “I have diagnosed his condition and decided to heal him” (vs. 17).  Judgement’s sentence is not his choice. Shocking no doubt to a great many who would argue the covenant condemns. But lest you think thoughtful divine decision making is a one off, fast forward to the deliberation embedded in these words: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.16-17).

The underlying tension in prophetic judgement speeches is always the need for a grounded, embedded faith and obedience that can withstand assaults within and without. I’ll be honest. The process of healing from trauma such as inflicted by the Watchmen is not easy. It can be hard to disentangle the Lord who loves me and the household of faith from misrepresentation by an unhealthy religious leader. We’re left with the shards of broken faith cutting us. The pain seems unstoppable. Understandably, many people get angry, bitter. Others decide to leave all together. Possibly the hardest thing to do when you and I experience the failure of a religious leader is to hold the tension between grace and truth, between justice and reconciliation. Will any of us hold the tension perfectly? No. Does this release us from trying? No. That’s why it’s important to recognize the example of YHWH’s many sided deliberations in vs.15-21. They call us to wisdom, to keep watch over our speech so our response doesn’t add to the tearing down that’s already in action. We must always have the expectation to speak up. But following YHWH’s example, sometimes, this means taking a step back processing the situation before saying anything. It is important to step back for a moment and remind ourselves who the Lord is apart from some hurtful leaders. The life of a first or second covenant believer will always be highly demanding. By the way, I suppose by now you realize I’m that American.

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