Funny how God works. In our world today, nearly every political leader makes claims to restore former glory or to lead their people to new heights of prosperity and power. This passage in Isaiah seems to have a similar goal—restore what has been lost, renew those who have been famished, bring to song those who have known only sorrow.
The difference between these two promises of a better life is the approach—how the people are brought from one place to another. Among nations, the tools for this resurrection are often investments in military power or economic programs, appeals to nativism or racism, slick propaganda promoting this ideology or that. Even corporations get into the act, promising to restore everything from one’s hairline to one’s social status via the right ointment, car, clothing, or other consumable.
For Isaiah, the means of this transformation is through a person or people of promise. This is not to be a monarch or magnate, as is typically the case in our world, but a servant. This servant leads by being a light (a beacon), a covenant (a connector), and even a slave-like figure (one who draws others through unmerited suffering).
Some of the most powerful figures in recent global and national history fit this unconventional model of leadership. Malala Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt for her role in promoting girls’ education in Pakistan, then went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. There are movements across the United States for justice for those historically excluded, led by these very excluded ones even as they experience pushback from many sides.
In our own denominational history, we think of figures like Ted Studebaker, who famously said, “Give me a shovel instead of a gun,” and went to Vietnam as a service worker rather than a soldier. He faced pushback from many in his community and eventually gave his life for the cause, but now is an inspiration for young peacemakers.
Isaiah recognizes there is something deeply powerful about this way of being in the world—bringing changes with more staying power than those wrought by the weapons of war or commerce.
Isaiah reminds the people of Israel of their higher purpose, the important mission God’s given them. Not only will their own people experience redemption through the servant, but the light of salvation will shine beyond them to all nations—even to the ends of the earth. The writings of Isaiah are part of the transition in scripture away from a narrower view of who resides within the scope of God’s care and concern to a more universal audience for God’s redemptive work.
What is the nature of this redemption? It is very concrete: land, release to captives, emancipation of those who have lived in the shadows, sustenance from the earth. In sum, it’s a path to a better future thanks to a combination of social and environmental justice.
The importance of land was clear on a visit to Batwa communities in Rwanda, among whom the Rwandan Brethren are ministering. These people (sometimes called pygmies) had been driven out of their ancestral forest home decades ago to make way for national parks and agricultural interests. Consigned to squatter settlements and without land of their own, they were dependent upon day labor and cross-border trade with Congo when the pandemic hit their area, ending these income-producing activities. This laid bare their loss of land, as they had no good way to grow food to eat or sell.
Our text is attentive to people such as this. Those who have been excluded from goodness by disenfranchisement of one kind or another are promised to be led along highways made straight and lined with springs of water.
Barriers to abundance
In our world today, many people have been sent on a journey. But rather than being cared for and catered to along the way, they are part of the global refugee crisis. Indeed, one out of every one hundred people in the world has fled their home due to war, climate change, ethnic conflict, religious persecution, or other factors. Our own nation has vacillated between cracking and closing the door to these exiles.
Our passage today promises food and water aplenty, shelter from scorching sun and wind, and access to these things for people from all corners of the earth. What a world that will be!
But alas, we need to look no further than climate change to find shortages of food and water, overages of heat, increases in severe storms and wildfires, and the displacement of people and other living things from their home areas. Fossil fuel combustion will also kill 8.7 million people this year around the world because of air pollution, accounting for one out of every five deaths worldwide.
So, the very things our scripture promises “on a day of salvation” (v. 8) not only have yet come to pass but also seem even more in jeopardy as time goes along.
There is a remedy, however. God has chosen the one (or ones) needed to bring the lost back, comparing this servant to a polished arrow hidden away in the quiver for this special assignment (v. 2). The mission (should you decide to accept it . . .) will be to restore the scattered ones, bringing them back to God and into a future of promise and prosperity, as described above.
Good news for all
This will be no mean task, but God being God considered this “too light a thing” (v. 6) and sets the bar even higher. The chosen will also be a light to the nations, spreading the good news of this salvation to the ends of the earth.
The ends of the earth may be at the end of a 20-hour flight—or at the end of our driveway. I recently heard the testimony of a relatively new member of one of our congregations. Her pilgrimage began as a Roman Catholic and then passed through a couple of other denominations, but at each stop she found herself ostracized over things she felt were essential to her faith. These mostly had to do with intransigence in relation to understanding scripture and/or accepting others.
After being away from the church for several years, she met the pastor from the local Brethren congregation at a meeting of folks working at immigration issues. At some point, as she explored joining the church over the coming weeks, the pastor told her with a smile that her era of wandering was over: “You are more Brethren than you know.” She had found her home.
The Batwa people of Rwanda, too, had been made to be wanderers. However, as they shared their desire for land for cultural, nutritional, and economic reasons, Brethren pastor Etienne Nsanzimana listened to them and worked with them to identify just over seven acres for sale near their community. Funds were raised and sent, potatoes were soon in the ground, and it was not long until a photo was forwarded of women dancing between the rows of flowering potato plants. As people anywhere are provided the sustenance and security they need, they do indeed exult, just as our scripture predicts they will. As God’s servants, we are to stand between the promise maker and those to whom the promise is given—the covenant linking these two, enabling the suffering ones to be comforted and shown compassion.
David Radcliff, an ordained Church of the Brethren minister, is director of New Community Project, a nonprofit organization working at care for creation and peace through justice. This study is selected from the summer quarter of A Guide for Biblical Studies, which is celebrating 150 years of the International Sunday School Lessons.