people in thoughtful conversation

Reflecting on Isaiah 49 18-23

We’re reading and thinking about the conclusion of Isaiah 49 [verses 18-23, with verses 14-17 thrown in for good measure here] for Sunday, June 19. [That’s also Juneteenth National Independence Day, which seems thematically appropriate for Isaiah 49 – a celebration of liberation.]

One overarching question that we might need to consider in relation to this text – a recurrent one – is how we can, or should, relate ourselves to this news that was being given to an ancient people. That is: the text involves God speaking words of promise to people who lived centuries ago, far away, and who arguably had a different relationship with God than the one we have. Or, did they? [Another question.] So, can we hear any of these words as words addressed to us? And if so, how? For instance, do we think of them as revealing something about God’s character which we can then transfer to ourselves? Or, something about the kinds of relationships peoples have with God, which we can then apply to ourselves?

Or, are none of these words addressed to us, but do some of them tell us something important about God, and about humanity, anyway? This is a big question, that applies to the Bible generally, but that seems particularly relevant to this text. How we answer this question for ourselves makes a lot of difference in the way we read the Bible, so it makes sense to think about it explicitly, from time to time.

Some notes on the text are here. Here are a couple of additional questions we might want to think about or discuss:

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The overwhelming imagery and promise in our selected verses (18-23) is that of family, children: suddenly, there are people everywhere, filling up space that was previously barren and empty. The children are being brought from all over, by royalty. They are even whining about there not being enough room. Zion – personified as a mother – can’t believe her eyes.

How do we respond to this imagery of blessedness? Does it connect to or resonate with any of our own personal experiences? What thoughts or feelings does it raise in us? Why is that, do we think?

Do we have any reservations about these images? What are those? Where do those come from, do we think?

[More theoretical, maybe] Would we say the Bible generally affirms life? Would we call this prophetic text an example of that affirmation? Why?

[More personal, maybe] Would we say we share that tendency to affirm life? Why? Thoughts, feelings about that?

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In verse 15, God uses a comparison to a nursing mother, and a pregnant mother, to confirm God’s absolute faithfulness. How do we respond to this imagery? Does it feel welcome, for instance, or perplexing?

Does it give us any different images of God? Or of the relationship between God and Zion, or God’s people? What different images? How does that feel to us? Why?

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Verse 23 depicts other nations as deeply humble before Zion. How do we respond to this image? Does it feel to us like an image of blessedness? What thoughts or feelings does it raise in us? Why, do we think?

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Overall, it might be worth thinking about the “cultural distance” that lies between us and the original readers of this text – and then, whether we think we need to do anything about that. That is: presumably, this text is offering its original readers an extravagant promise of good things. So – one set of questions revolves around whether this would feel to us like an extravagant promise of good things, or whether there are any pieces of the promise we’d like to modify or return or exchange for something else. And another set of questions might revolve around whether we think we are supposed to accept these images of blessedness as thoroughly good – since, after all, they are the Bible’s images of blessedness – or whether we think our sensibilities can change, legitimately. [For instance, would it be OK for us to pass on our enemies eating their own flesh and drinking their own blood, as in verse 26? Or is the prophet telling us we should value that?]

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Men in conversation

Image: “The Conversation,” Arnold Lakhovsky, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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