Wednesday of Week 4 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 49:8-15

The reading is part of a celebration of the people’s joyful return from their exile in Babylon to their home in Jerusalem. It comes from Second Isaiah, a book full of hope and consolation which looks forward to the end of the exile and the people’s going home again.

The Hebrews are still in exile, and though their lives are led in hardship and bitterness, the prophet assures them that better times are on the way. In response to the cry of God’s people:

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you;
on a day of salvation I have helped you.

The reference is probably to the year of jubilee, but the return from exile will bring about the same restoration of land for the people as the jubilee did for those who, because of debt problems, may have had to sell their land.

So the Lord now calls on his people:

…to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages,
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”
to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”

It is a time for the restoration of justice to all. The end of their sorrows is symbolised in phrases like:

…they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down…

Their God is with them:

…he who has pity on them will lead them
and by springs of water will guide them.

The way will be made clear for their return:

I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.

He will give them back their land, seized by the foreign invader. He will bring freedom to the prisoners and light to those in darkness. They will be surrounded by fertile lands, untouched by heat or thirst, and luxuriate in springs of fresh water. The ways to the homeland will be cleared and exiles will return from as far away as the “land of Syene” (or Sinim – now known as Aswan, the first cataract on the River Nile in Egypt).

It is a time for great rejoicing, in which the whole of nature should take part:

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!

Yet, Zion is still sceptical:

But they are wrong – utterly wrong. God does not forget his people. He is full of tenderness and compassion, as gentle as that of any mother, expressed in those extraordinarily gentle and affectionate words:

Can a woman forget her nursing child
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these might forget,
yet I will not forget you.

In our darkest moments, let us not forget the unchanging intensity of God’s love for us.

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