We read Isaiah in a ‘binocular’ way. (Isaiah 64:1-9) With one eye we consider his words tear open the heavens and come down, in their original context. In that context the Israelites who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity in about 539 BCE, found a ruined city and a destroyed temple from which the Ark of the Covenant and all the rich tapestries had been pillaged. Isaiah’s words reflect the desire of the people for God to enter their world and totally transform it as when fire kindles brushwood and causes water to boil. Isaiah’s original audience would have also understood the phrase you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence as referring to the mountain shaking when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:18).
But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, is the Israelites understanding of the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of the leadership. (The phrasing of the passage feels backward. The sense we get of it is But we sinned and you were angry; because we transgressed you hid yourself.) They had ignored God and were punished for turning away from him.
The reading closes with another metaphor asking God to reshape them;
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
This prayer acknowledges both the sin and the need to be reshaped and asks God to forgive and re-form his people.
With our second “Advent eye” we look at how these passage apply to the birth of Jesus Christ. Verse 1 begs God, O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. With the birth of Jesus, God answered that plea. We can lift the words from their original context and read them as a plea that was fully answered in the incarnation of Christ as the Word of God. When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down (v 3) …the conclusion of that sentence is that the mountains quaked at your presence and could be read as referring to how the earth trembled when Jesus died on the cross and fulfilled the promised salvation… (Matt 27:54).
This practice of re-reading the Old Testament texts to find in them prophetic statements that could apply to the life of Jesus was common, especially in Matthew’s gospel. He did this notably in chapter 1 of his gospel when he quoted Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Perhaps there is also a “third eye” way of reading this passage. In our own time we can read Isaiah with reference to our own world.
Come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood. Seventy-one earthquakes greater than magnitude 1.5 have shaken Mexico in November 2017 and the volcano in Bali threatens to blow any time. Forest fires burned through the interior of British Columbia and Sonoma in August and September, 2017. While the time, the distance, the climatological circumstances differ so much that we can discount the relevance of the prophesy to these specific events we can still find the words make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! apply to us.
And we can still say to God, …consider, we are all your people. We can still invite God to become incarnate in each of us and in the communities in which we live and pray.
Advent is a time when we prepare spiritually for the anniversary of God’s incarnation. Part of the way we do this is to look back in history to the centuries before Christ’s birth to the hope and anticipation of his arrival. As we read the poetry of Isaiah we try to put ourselves in the place of the Israelites of his day and sense their longing. We interpret what has happened in light of their prayers. We try to learn from them how we are to relate to the Messiah. We see how differently the Christ was from their expectations of a king like David and we wonder about whether our hope and expectations are correct. We know that our society needs to be transformed and reshaped so that it orients itself to God. Finally, we learn from the Israelites that we have to wait and while we do, listen for the voice of God.
- When you read Isaiah’s opening line tear open the heavens and come down can you feel the longing for divine intervention? Can you imagine how the people of Israel read these words 540 years later, when their land had been occupied by the Romans and they lived under the oppression of pagan rulers? Do you find the words relevant today?
- Have you ever prayed for something and had your prayers answered but in a way that was completely unanticipated? Try and put yourself in the mind of the Israelites of Isaiah’s day and imagine the Messiah of their hopes. Would they have recognized Jesus as the answer to their prayers?
- Do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people remains a relevant prayer of penance and request for reinstatement of our relationship with God. It is a prayer with which we enter Advent, in the hope of restoration of our connection with him.