Proper 9 • Isaiah 66:10–14 • July 4, 2010
By David I. Lewis
Several challenges face the preacher of this text: one challenge is how best to understand this text in its literary and historical context where it speaks to the restoration of Israel from captivity and how—if at all—this message then relates to our hearers today. Other challenges stem from this text using the imagery of Jerusalem as a nursing mother: some Christians may readily make a connection from “mother Zion” to “mother Church,” but one must ask if this move is justified on the basis of this text. Yet another challenge is how the preacher might proclaim a message of God’s love using the imagery of Jerusalem as a nursing mother to a contemporary American audience that may not readily identify with this image.
Today’s lesson comes in the second thematic half of Isaiah—chapters 40–66. One main concern in these chapters is Yahweh’s promise to restore those exiled in the Babylonian captivity. The initial exhortation to the preacher in 40:1 is “Comfort, comfort my people!” This exhortation is recalled as we hear Yahweh’s promise in 66:13: “I myself will comfort you and in Jerusalem you will be comforted” (the verb נחם is used in both 40:1 and 66:13).
A look through several Isaiah commentaries shows that there is some disagreement in seeing how the various prophetic utterances in Isaiah 66 are to be organized in relationship to one another. The Masoretic paragraphs in BHS indicate that vv. 10–11 are read together and vv. 12–14 with v. 15ff (see my outline below). Several modern commentaries suggest that vv. 7–14 are a literary unit (see also the division in ESV). Verses 7–9, if read with our text, do provide the most important immediate context: in these verses God speaks of Zion giving miraculous birth to a son. The context indicates that this non-literal language describes the restoration of Israel from captivity. This “rebirth” of the nation then seems to be the basis for the exhortation to rejoice in v. 10.
Verses 10–11. Three synonymous verbs in the imperative exhort the hearers to “rejoice with Jerusalem.” Again, if we read with vv. 7–9, the basis for this joy is that Zion/Jerusalem will give miraculous birth to this son/nation/children. Thus those who are called to rejoice are those who both “love Jerusalem and mourn over her.” These are those who, as Daniel in Daniel 9, understand why Jerusalem was punished, mourn over this, and trust in Yahweh’s promise to restore her; they maintain the true faith in the midst of the exile. Jerusalem/Zion is key because it is the central location around which the people of God based their identity: It is the capital of the Davidic kingdom and the place where the Temple was (and will be again), the place where Yahweh has put his name and where Israel is to go and present themselves to him.
In the imagery of vv. 7–10 the city is likened to a mother giving birth. The “Zion as mother” image continues in v. 11 where the hearers are promised that they will “nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast” and “slurp/drink deeply from her glorious abundance.” The hearers are both invited in v. 10 to rejoice at the birth of the son/nation/children mentioned in vv. 7–9 and promised in v. 11 that they too will nurse as children themselves. Are the hearers supposed to see themselves as distinct from the son of v. 7 to whom Zion gives birth? The promise of v. 11 may indicate that the hearers are perhaps identified with the children of v. 8, but there appears at least an initial distinction made between the hearers and the son of v. 7 when the hearers are invited to rejoice at the birth of Jerusalem’s son before they then are promised that they too will nurse from Jerusalem as children. The son of v. 7 is the nation of Israel and the hearers each members of this nation.
Verses 12–14. “For thus said Yahweh”—the initial line of v. 12 indicates that what follows will contain explanation/exposition of vv. 10-11. Verse 12a promises that peace and the glory of the nations (see Isaiah 2:2–3) will extend/flow to Jerusalem like a river/wadi. Verse 12b recalls once again the imagery of “Jerusalem as mother” in the promise that the hearers will be cared for as children by this mother. Verse 13, however, is most important in explaining what the earlier non-literal language means: the agent of this act of comforting is not Jerusalem but Yahweh: “As a man whose mother comforts him, I myself will comfort you, and you will be comforted in Jerusalem.” Yahweh is the one who will bring about this rebirth and restoration of the nation in Jerusalem.
The promise in v. 14a is that the hearers will see, rejoice, and thrive. Verse 14b contains a promise and threat that actually provides a good summary of the wider context of Isaiah 65:9–66:24: “The hand of Yahweh will be made known with his servants and he will be indigent with his enemies.” The threat of punishment is then developed further beyond our text in vv. 15ff. Those who trust in Yahweh’s promise to restore his people to Jerusalem will be comforted and live; those who scoff and reject this promise will be subject to his wrath and punishment.
Considerations for Preaching
In its original literary and historical context this text speaks to the restoration of Israel from exile. Yahweh promises that those in exile will return to Jerusalem; the faithful response to these words by those in captivity would have been to believe this promise. The narrative of Ezra-Nehemiah records the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises when many did return and the Temple and Jerusalem were rebuilt. Yahweh was faithful to Isaiah’s hearers and fulfilled his word to them.
Though Yahweh’s promises are fulfilled in the return from exile, nevertheless the prayer of Nehemiah 9, Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9, and even Zechariah’s prayer in Luke 1:67–79 indicate that the return of the exiles from Babylon did not alone represent a full restoration of Israel: David’s kingdom was not restored. Israel remained under foreign rule. The Messiah had not yet come. Peace and the glory of the nations (see 66:12a) had not flowed into Jerusalem. And so the OT narrative itself indicates that there is still more that God will do to restore his people.
In the NT this story picks up again with the person, life, and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and we are now called to believe in him. As the Gospels see Isaiah 40 fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’s forerunner, so perhaps we can also say that the comfort promised in Isaiah 66 is also ultimately fulfilled in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. (Many would probably object to the idea that Jesus can be identified as “the son” of 66:7, but that son is the nation, and Jesus is by extension Israel-reduced-to-one.) Yet the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 indicates that although repentance for the forgiveness of sins is now preached to the nations in Jesus’s name (Luke 24:47), we also still await the final restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Thus we find ourselves in a similar (though not exactly the same) situation as Israel in exile: as they awaited the return from exile, we await the restoration of all things on the last day. In the meantime we, as they once did, live by faith in the word and promises of God.
Since the non-literal language of 66:10–12 speaks of Yahweh’s act of comforting his exiled people—as literally expressed in second half of the simile in 66:13—I do not think that the interpreter needs to (or even can) make more of the metaphor and so force a connection between Jerusalem and the Church based on this passage. If the preacher chooses to make this move from “mother Jerusalem” to “mother Church” for homiletic reasons, then he should still stress that it is God the Father who gives and sustains life through the work of his Son; the Church may be his agent, but he is the cause.
In cultures where breastfeeding is simply accepted as the natural and normal means through which very young children receive their daily nourishment (duh!), the image of Jerusalem nursing Isaiah’s hearers can be a very powerful image of God’s sustaining comfort. In a culture where “polite society” often marginalizes this motherly activity, this image may seem bizarre and even offensive. The preacher should be aware of this if he chooses to speak at length in unpacking this image for his hearers in the pews.