Reading the closing section of Isaiah today may feel a little like watching a ping-pong match. Different passages seem at odds with each other. Theme and tone sometimes change from one set of verses to another without warning. If this was a high school writing assignment, it certainly wouldn’t get an ‘A’ for transitions.
These final chapters reflect yet another timeframe in the history of Israel; this time, they contain the writing of not just one but several additional authors. The collection of material in chapters 56-66 has come to be known as Third Isaiah, believed by most scholars to be composed during the early years after the people of Israel have returned from exile in Babylon.
It appears that there is some tension and disagreement among the people about exactly how the nation of Israel should be restored, a situation which is exacerbated by difficult living conditions as they initially re-enter the land. “Pie in the sky” hopes and dreams are confronted by the reality of a land laid desolate–the return home will not be as easy or comfortable as they had perhaps imagined. Differing “political” parties have contrasting ideas about how to set things right, and their competing voices can be heard in today’s reading.
There is the voice of the old guard, vindictive and harsh, demanding that all who have opposed Israel be brutally punished. There is the voice of accountability, calling the people to return to righteous obedience as an answer to their woes. Then, there is the voice of the new vision, looking ahead to a time that will be different from anything that Israel has known in the past; it embraces the day when all humanity will be able to worship God together, and yet still promises a special place for Israel among all nations. It is this voice that points toward the message of Jesus Christ, and once again today we read a passage in Isaiah that becomes a part of Jesus’ own ministry in the gospel of Luke:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. . .” (Isaiah 61:1)