Thursday of Week 2 of Advent – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 41:13-20

We continue reading from ‘The Book of Consolation’. The Jews are coming to the end of their period of exile in Babylon, and today we have a message of encouragement. God is coming to help – to redeem his people. For us during Advent, the message points clearly to Jesus, our Redeemer and Saviour. The theme of today’s reading is that God will protect Israel against its enemies and meet its needs in the desert wilderness. Israel’s enemies will vanish, the empire of Babylon will be no more, but God’s people will continue under his loving protection.

Do not fear, you worm Jacob,
you maggot Israel!

Israel seems so insignificant when seen in comparison with its powerful conquerors. But it is a deceptive weakness, as there is a Strength on their side.

The prophet tells the people that God, “the Holy One of Israel” is their ‘redeemer’. The word in Hebrew originally refers to the nearest male relative who will avenge the blood of someone who has been murdered. He is also the one who pays off a debt, and frees the debtor from prison; his duty also is to protect the defenceless.

Leviticus (25:47-55) also speaks of a situation where a person has to sell himself to a foreigner. He can be ‘redeemed’, that is, bought back by a brother or uncle or cousin or any other relative (note that the word ‘redeemer’ comes from the Latin redemptor, meaning ‘someone who buys back’).

‘Redeemer’ then comes to refer to God as one who protects the oppressed and who liberates his people. The word is used frequently in this sense in Second Isaiah. The word then was applied to Jesus, who is the Redeemer and Liberator of us all.

Far from being weak, God tells his people:

I will make of you a threshing sledge…

Just as the emperor Cyrus reduced his enemies (including the Babylonians) to dust (Isa 41:2), so too Israel will deal with its enemies:

…you shall thresh the mountains [meaning their powerful enemies] and crush them…

For the Israelites, good times are coming as they leave their place of exile and return to their homeland. This is symbolised in the provision of an abundance of water – the formation of rivers and lakes. It is reminiscent of Moses who produced water from the rock for Israelites during the Exodus. The desert is thus transformed by all kinds of magnificent trees. Some of these trees are named later in connection with the adornment of God’s sanctuary. Acacia wood was used for the tabernacle. In Isaiah chapter 55, we are told that pine and myrtle replace thorns and briers.

In fact, King Cyrus, who crushed the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, is seen as an instrument doing God’s work. Through all these manifestations, the writer foresees the coming of the Messianic age:

…so that all may see and know,
all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Commenting on this text, the Christian Community Bible rightly describes that the Israelites, depressed by their exile experience, are being reminded to stop looking back at the ‘good old days’ or their glorious past and to look forward to a promising future:

“For centuries the Jews had looked upon their past, always expanding the memory of the wonders worked by God in their departure from Egypt. Now, they must look to the future. This time, a new departure is being prepared from Babylon, and it will be accompanied by wonders greater than those of the first Exodus.”

We, too, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, need to remember that our celebration is not just a nostalgic look at the past, but a renewal of hope and energy in working for the building of the Kingdom in the year ahead.

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