Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Note: During Advent the Lectionary occasionally appoints other readings in place of a Psalm.
This is Isaiah’s song of praise to the Lord for being his salvation. It lies at what J. Ross Wagner calls a “crucial juncture in the book of Isaiah.” Our text, after all, ends the opening section of Isaiah’s prophecy which has spoken of God’s judgment and cleansing of Israel. It also follows the prophet’s announcement of eschatological deliverance and restoration. Isaiah 12’s prophecy, however, also points ahead. It anticipates the prophet’s message of deliverance and comfort in chapters 40-55.
In our text Isaiah thanks God that while God has been rightly angry at Israel, God has graciously replaced that anger with mercy for God’s children. In many ways that’s the very kernel of the whole gospel. Human rebellion against God angers the Lord. Yet for the sake of Jesus the Christ, God has replaced God’s anger with mercy.
This offers Isaiah 12’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on perceptions of God. People, after all, naturally worship not the living God as revealed by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, but the kind of God we imagine. So we don’t naturally think that God ever gets angry. Most can only imagine that God is always merciful. Isaiah 12 doesn’t just serve as a good corrective to that misperception. It also helps readers begin to know how to hold God’s anger and mercy in proper tension.
In verse 2 Isaiah affirms that God is his “salvation,” a prominent theme in this text. The prophet, after all, mentions salvation three times in verses 2-3. What’s more, the name “Isaiah” essentially means, “the Lord is my salvation.” So even the prophet’s very name stands as a kind of testimony to God’s amazing grace. On top of that, his patient, hopeful trust in the Lord’s salvation also served as a kind of sign to rebellious Israel.
Because God is Israel’s salvation, her “rescue,” Isaiah asserts that Israel can both trust in God and not be afraid (2). Fear is, of course, the natural human response to threats. People can’t naturally muster trust in the face of danger. So trust is God’s gracious gift to those who are afraid.
Echoing Israel’s song on the far side of the Red Sea whose waters swallowed up her Egyptian pursuers, Isaiah sings, “The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (2). In doing so, the prophet links his own salvation about which he sings to Israel’s earlier salvation from both Egyptian slavery and Pharaoh’s pursuing army. This helps to draw lines from Israel’s Exodus to her coming return from exile to which the prophet alludes in our text.
Isaiah basically implies that despite Israel’s chronic unfaithfulness, God will again show himself faithful by again granting her an “exodus,” by rescuing her from exile’s “slavery.” Of course, Christians can hardly hear Isaiah’s song of salvation without thinking of Jesus Christ as being our salvation.
Those who preach and teach Isaiah 12 may want to explore what seems like a grammatical quirk in verses 1 and 2. We, after all, usually think of God as graciously giving God’s sons and daughters things like salvation, strength and reasons to sing. Yet here the prophet speaks not just once but twice have God not as granting him salvation and strength, but of God as his salvation itself.
Is there a difference, or is the prophet simply offering another way of saying God gives salvation? Might we think about it a bit this way? We sometimes say something like, “She was a real lifesaver.” That suggests a rescuer didn’t just offer rescue. She was also rescue. That rescue helped define who she was. In a similar way, God doesn’t just save us. God is salvation. It largely defines who God is.
In verse 3 Isaiah goes on to sing, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” It’s an evocative picture of God’s redemption being like a cup of cold water for thirsty people. God’s salvation is refreshment for spiritually parched people. A couple of things about that phrase stand out. Isaiah compares salvation to a well that offers what people can’t live without: water. That suggests that salvation is as necessary for human well-being as water itself. What’s more, the “wells of salvation” suggest not a thin trickle of salvation, but a deep abundance of salvation. And, of course, Christians can hardly hear this phrase without thinking of Jesus Christ, the “Living Water” (John 3:10, 13-14).
Verse 4’s phrase “in that day” links to verse 1, as well as Isaiah 10:27’s announcement of God’s judgment on Assyria “on that day” and 10:20 and 11:10-11’s announcement of Israel’s restoration “in that day.” Here Isaiah invites Israel to lift her eyes from her present “day,” from her current misery to a day when God will transform and restore her. It’s a vision that grants hope to suffering Israel in the midst of her current loss and deprivation.
Modern preachers and teachers rightly shy away from the heresy that claims Christianity is just “pie in the sky, by and by.” After all, God’s gift of eternal life begins here and now. God’s salvation already affects the whole person. Yet while God is already making all things new, “in that day” God will complete the creation’s transformation and restoration. Israel’s current circumstances, either in exile or on its cusp, don’t offer much reason for being hopeful. Knowing that God, not evil or misery, will get the last word gives strength to those who currently feel beaten, worn and discouraged.
And when God restores Israel by judging Assyria, the prophet announces in verses 4-6, Israel will be free to sing psalms of praise. This “mini-psalm” echoes Psalm 105:1-2’s call to “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done.” Here too, after all, Isaiah promises that someday redeemed Israel will be free to give thanks to God.
Yet God’s salvation of Israel also has missional implications. This is a message not just for God’s Israelite sons and daughters, but also for “the nations.” What’s the content of that message? God has done “glorious things” (5). “Great is the Holy One of Israel” (6).
In that day of salvation, Isaiah prophecies, Israel will be able to sing to the Lord because God has restored to her that for which God created all people: life lived with God in our midst. The human story is that of creation for intimacy with God against which our first parents rebelled, sending all people naturally in a dead sprint away from God. The good news of our text and of the Scriptures is that the Holy One of Israel has come to and is “among” us. This, of course, points us ahead to Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us” as well as to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit by whom God lives within God’s adopted sons and daughters.
The Lectionary appoints Zephaniah 3:14-20 for this Sunday. Our text from Isaiah forms an appropriate response to Zephaniah’s promise to bring exiled Israel “home” (3:20). What’s more, Zephaniah 3:15 assertion that “The King of Israel … is with you” also echoes Isaiah’s insistence that God is “among” Israel.
This also provides a link to the New Testament lesson appointed for the day. In Philippians 4:5, after all, Paul invites the Philippians to rejoice because “the Lord is near.” Our text from Isaiah also resonates with John the Baptizer’s announcement of the coming of the One who will follow him who baptizes “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
Few citizens of the 20th century modeled the kind of trust Isaiah professes more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German pastor and theologian whom the Nazis imprisoned for this part in the 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
To greet the beginning of the year 1945 Bonhoeffer wrote a poem from his prison cell. Among its most poignant verses is this (very roughly translated): “By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,/ we fearlessly wait, come whatever may,/ God is with us in the evening and in the morning,/ and most definitely on every new day.”
Bonhoeffer could peacefully await whatever happened to him because he knew that God was with him night and day. On April 9, 1945, just months after he wrote this poem and before they were driven from power, the Nazis hanged him. Yet as Eric Metaxas notes in his biography of Bonhoeffer, the attending physician said that he’d never seen anyone approach his death with such grace and peace.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 13, 2015
Isaiah 12:2-6 Commentary