Lent 4 · Isaiah 12:1-6 · March 14, 2010
By Erik Herrmann
There is some stiff competition in the lectionary with our Old Testament lesson for this Fourth Week in Lent. The Epistle reading is 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul’s declaration that we are a new creation in Christ who has reconciled us to God and given the church the ministry of reconciliation. The Gospel lesson is the incomparable parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15—always a difficult passage to pass by. And don’t forget the Psalm for the day, Psalm 32, with those opening lines that were so important for Luther’s doctrine of justification, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.” However, when considered all together, the texts reinforce a common theme that gives Isaiah 12 a wonderful context for proclamation. The theme is joy, which is rather striking in the midst of a penitential season. Liturgically, this had precedence in the old lectionary’s Laetare Sunday, which functioned as a pause for joy in the middle of Lent (some priests even wore pink like the third candle of Advent. . . no, I’m not recommending this!). Perhaps a better reason for the theme is the theology of joy in the midst of penitence. Such contrition is a godly sorrow that already looks forward to a promise of salvation—a joy over sins forgiven, reconciliation, and fortunes restored. Here, Isaiah 12 is a perfect example.
In the chapters that precede and culminate in our text, Isaiah brings an ebb and flow of weal and woe, judgment and justification, wrath and rescue. Judah and Jerusalem is chastened for her rebellion and disobedience, faces the threat of Syria and Ephraim, and the coming ambition and arrogance of Assyria, and yet she is at the same time offered the hope of salvation in the coming of a Davidic king— the paradoxical root and branch of Jesse, who will bring with God’s presence (“Immanuel!” 7:14) judgment and justice and peace. All this, Isaiah says, will come to pass “in that day” (cf. 10:20; 11:10,11; but also 2:2,12, 20; 3:18; 7:18, 20, 21, 23), indicating a promised future yet to be realized. In that day, a song of gratitude for salvation won will be sung—but here in our text it is given to God’s people even before “that day.”
The joy of this song begins in the singular, personal expression of thanksgiving for the turning away of God’s anger and the coming of his comfort and consolation: “O God, you are my salvation, I will trust in you and not be afraid. For ‘my strength and my song is Yah[weh],’ O Yahweh, ‘and he has become my salvation'” (v. 2). But by the end, the singular has given way to plurality, the individual to a nation. The song grows into a chorus that makes known God’s deeds and name among the peoples, a chorus that sounds forth from Zion, in whose midst is “the Holy One of Israel,” to echo throughout all the earth. The salvation of God is never parochial but speeds quickly to cosmic dimensions.
While Isaiah writes about a time yet to be, the promise and hope of this song are grounded in the faithfulness and might of God’s past acts of deliverance. Throughout these chapters, Isaiah repeatedly refers to the Exodus as precedent and exemplar of God’s saving work (cf. 10:24, 26; 11:11,15-16), and now in verse 2, he quotes Exodus 15:2 directly: “My strength and my song is Yah, and he has become my salvation.” In the midst of tumultuous events and terrible times to come, Isaiah anchors the future of God’s people in the past. Just as Israel burst forth into song after witnessing the sea become both their passage of deliverance and Pharaoh’s destruction, Isaiah promises God’s people a reason to sing again. God will save his people, and it will be mighty and wondrous. The Holy One of Israel who dwells in the midst of Zion will be found in the promised Immanuel.
Isaiah’s song comes to our lips now in a new way because “that day” has already dawned for us in Jesus. Yet our song arises out of a similar condition of remembrance and hope. Our present age continues to be a churning of weal and woe, of tragedy and blessedness. As the prophetic voice still warbles between present pain and future bliss, like Isaiah we anchor our future in the deeds of the past. In his Son, God has opened up the “wells of salvation,” so that we might already draw “living waters.” In the cross and resurrection, the judgment and justice of “that day” have come to pass, so that even in present sorrow we find reason for hope and joy . . . even in our Lenten wilderness we rejoice . . . even in our pilgrimage through “this present evil age” we sing of the joy of our salvation.