One of the lectionary readings for this week is Isaiah 35:1-10. In chapter 34 we read of desolation, destruction, slaughter. The host of heaven rotting away and falling “like leaves falling from the fig tree” (Is 34:4). We read this: “The LORD has a sword; it is sated with blood; it is gorged with fat…” (34:6). Chapter 34, taken alone, gives a dark and desperate picture of God’s plans for the world.
But there is a strange, even impossible shift. Chapter 35:1 begins: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad“! And the entire chapter tells of the abundance and rejoicing. Healing and pools of clean water. “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy” (35:10). A strange shift. The modern Christian notion is that God’s vengeance in ch. 34 is God’s wrath upon the damned and that the blessings in ch. 35 are the blessings of heaven for the saved. But this is not what Isaiah means.
In the center of ch. 35 Isaiah says, “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you” (Is. 35:4). The hope for our fear and the calming of our anxieties is God’s vengeance? What could be comforting about the blood-drenched sword?
The prophet speaks as if we are trapped within something dark, some force that we can’t break out of on our own. This chapter promises that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened… and the tongue of the mute shall sing for joy” (vv. 5-6). The healing of an illness that is far beyond our power, the breaking of some evil enchantment that we are all trapped in. God’s sword in ch. 34 is for the slaying of the darkness, for winning us back. Isaiah knows nothing of a “personal Lord and Savior,” or of individual salvation whose primary or even only end is the salvation of one soul from hell. Salvation rushes in like a flood (Is. 35:6-7; cf. Ezekiel 47). Salvation is for those broken beyond repair. For the hopeless, for the ones dying in hospitals or dehumanized in prisons, for the drunks and addicts. Salvation is for the trees and animals and water. The curse is broken. The whole earth is healed. And we can rejoice.