Prophet Isaiah at a writing desk

Studying Isaiah 49 18-23

We are finishing up Isaiah 49 – with verses 18-23 – for Sunday, June 19. This is the third of our four lessons from Isaiah in our set of reflections on humanity’s participation in God’s new creation. This week, we’re looking more closely at “daughter Zion’s” restoration to motherhood. While we’re at it, we ought to pick up the divine motherhood that we skipped over last week, and that underwrites Zion’s restoration. That, along with the divine ruthlessness that rises up in verses 24-26 and really underwrites the entire restoration enterprise. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The larger context for these verses (Isaiah 49:18-23) is the full chapter of Isaiah 49, including the second servant song. This chapter is part of a gathering announcement of deliverance for Judah. We heard a lament over doomed Babylon a couple of weeks ago in Isaiah 47. Then, last week, the song of the servant who is gathering Judah, and also becoming a “light to the nations.”

Now, the text turns to [personified] Zion’s astonishment at the return of her lost children. It’s a vivid image of incredulous joy, and of a massive, jostling family reunion.

The even larger context, of course, is the comforting announcement of redemption and of the end of exile that is the substance of second Isaiah.

We need to consider verses 14-17, and 24-26, as the immediate envelope of our text. Without those verses, we’d lose some of the meaning of the text we’re focusing on, in verses 18-23. Those preceding and following verses develop the imagery associated with God, who makes possible the restoration described in verses 18-23.

These verses of Isaiah 49 are not in the [Revised Common] Lectionary. We would never know this beautiful account, of God’s love for Jerusalem and of her restoration, was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned. Moreover, not only would we never know God compares Godself to a nursing mother if all we knew were the lectionary, we’d never even know it if all we knew were the Uniform Series Texts, either. What gives with that, eh? Just goes to show, maybe, that it still pays to actually read the book.

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CLOSER READING: We left off last week with verse 13, the prophet’s exultant cry to the surrounding creation. “Celebrate!” Because God has comforted God’s people.

In verse 14, then, Zion speaks. Zion has been mentioned in passing a few times since chapter 40, but not as an extended object of divine speech. More as “another name for God’s people.” Here, though, Zion becomes the main conversation partner.

Zion’s self-talk in verse 14 is decidedly negative: “YHWH has forsaken me.” We might envision Zion herself in exile in Babylon, but more likely we’re meant to imagine Zion sitting in/as Jerusalem, all alone. The inhabitants exiled, the Temple burned, the God whose presence the Temple represented gone. It makes complete sense, then, that Zion would say this.

The rest of the chapter is God’s detailed response to that self-talk.

In verses 15-16, YHWH in effect says “Never.” The demonstration is the simile of the nursing mother and the pregnant mother – that is, “I’d feel pain in my body that would make it impossible to forget you.” Plus, there are the inscriptions on the palms of the divine hands. “I see your name over and over, all day long, every day, every time I do anything.”

If Zion’s walls are continually before God, it must be as a memory, or a nightmare, or a vision, or even a Platonic form, since we know those walls have been pulled down, in real life. I go with vision, and perhaps also plan, since that seems most in keeping with the hopeful tone of the text here.

In verse 17, we get an image of a race between destruction and rescue.

The people gathering and coming in verse 18, are literally, “sons” or we could say “children” – hurrying to crowd out the destroyers. The image is, in a way, of a bunch of people coming through the front door while another group flees out the back. Or like an emptying that can’t keep pace with this refilling.

The bridal imagery in verse 18 probably should remind us that YHWH and Zion / the people of God are in a metaphorical marital relationship. That’s a persistent Biblical image. But beyond that, there’s a triple repetition and play on the verb “to bind.” While the bride “binds” on ornaments, the returning population will find the wide-open desolate spaces “binding” and the youngsters will complain that the place is too “binding” – too crowded. A nice problem to be having, after having felt all alone and forsaken and desolate and empty. [We might even be reminded of the way parents or grandparents hug their long absent children or grandchildren so long the kids start to wriggle away to go play …]

So, in verse 21, we get more of Zion’s self-talk, this time amazed at the reversal. It’s like a dream. “When did this happen? Where did these children come from?”

Verses 22-23 present a complex image. The nations bring back Zion’s sons and daughters, tenderly carrying them; the rulers of the nations appear as nannies. But also as groveling, so there is some abjection or possibly fear mixed in with the joy. Or maybe the comeuppance of the nations adds to the joy on Zion’s part. There is definitely a reversal of fortune, in any event.

The reversal of fortune intensifies in verses 24-26. YHWH is Zion’s defender now. Payback is coming for anyone who has hurt Zion. Verse 26 is over the top. We probably will read this as a “man of war” YHWH. But maybe, in light of the way maternal imagery saturates this chapter, we ought to be thinking of an enraged mother bear, or a mother god on the order of the Hindu Kali. Out for blood, on behalf of her suffering daughter Zion. I wouldn’t take that reading too far, but that image probably needs to flit across the back of our mind, at the very least.

However we read it, v26 is some bloodthirsty destruction offered up as consolation. We would surely rather be identified with Zion at this point than with the oppressors.

It’s a sobering reminder that new creation happens in a context; in this case, the context includes the destruction of the destroyers. Whether or not destruction like that is always ever the only option for bringing about new creation is not the question for this text. Isaiah 49 is not addressing “always ever,” but “this here” Zion on the verge of re-population and re-creation. Something to meditate on, maybe especially for those of us who prefer our images of new creation taken out of context.

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Images: Valentin Bousch, The Prophet Isaiah, 16th century stained glass window [detail], public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.; “Mount Zion,” Kyle Taylor from London, 84 Countries, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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