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Commentary: Isaiah 62:1-5 Part 2

At the risk of being sexist (a real risk whenever one takes the analogies of the Bible seriously), I "propose" a dramatic casting of Isaiah 62. The Lord plays the part of the prospective groom; Jerusalem, the prospective bride. The prophet appears in the role of the older brother (or sister!) whose central function rests in preserving the honor of the betrothed. Let's call our mini-drama "Calling God to the Altar," or "The Prophet as Best Man."
Jerusalem/Zion, the personification of God's people, has been plundered, pillaged, and raped as judgment upon her waywardness (see Is 3:16ff), and sent into exile (compare Lam 1 and 2). Following her period of penance, she is brought back home accompanied by the tender words and saving actions of her Lord (Is 40:1ff). However, once back, things seem to have stalled (we're locating this text in the late 6th Century BCE). Restoration and reunification are not going as planned; her past beauty and fruitfulness continue only as memories (read a Bible dictionary for accounts of this time). Some more dramatic signs of Jerusalem's return to the role of God's Beloved must be given.
"A wedding! That's what we need! A public wedding!" declares the older sibling. Perhaps viewed as a renewal of vows (see the tradition of Israel as God's bride in the wilderness, Jer 2:2), perhaps experienced as a first-time event (at least, first time acted out in public, "before the nations"), it's high time the Lord made concrete his commitment to Jerusalem, his Beloved. "For Zion's sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest," cries the prophet, "Until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch" (v. 1)! The language bespeaks a deep urgency (note the repetitive use of "shall" in the NRSV); the imagery, a televised, versus private, ceremony ("The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory," v. 2). Out go the words of the prophet, like the click of a cocked shotgun: "Here comes the bride!"
The Role of the Groom
At first glance, you would think it sufficient for the Lord to play the part of Warrior, Savior, Deliverer. Indeed that seems to be the casting first envisioned by the prophet back in Isaiah 40: "See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him"(v. 10).
However, even back here, before the added humiliation of Jerusalem's inglorious restoration, the role for God is a peculiar type of hero: "He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep" (v. 11).
Someone who has been ravaged requires particularly careful comfort. More than simple deliverance is necessary. Though back home, Jerusalem continues to wander the streets sensing a scarlet A on her chest: "All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at daughter Jerusalem; `Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth? (Lam 2:15).'"
Having pushed the metaphor of the masculine Lord once ("like a shepherd"), the prophet now bursts another barrier. Despite Israel's long-standing discomfort with marriage metaphors, especially metaphors which cast the Lord as groom (traceable undoubtedly to the more explicit images of the fertility cults round about), nothing less here will do. Jerusalem needs a new name: from "Forsaken" and "Desolate" (v. 4) to "My Delight Is in Her" and "Married" (v. 5). Jerusalem needs to be reclothed: "You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God (v. 3)." What we need is a wedding, with the Lord as the groom: "For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (v.5)."
The Role of the Bride
Surely the greatest difficulty with this drama for us today is the purely derivative nature of the bride's glory. Clearly, unless the Lord delights in this bride (v. 4), and her land wins the designation "married" (v. 4), her value, in the eyes of others, will be forever threatened, her honor disgraced.
However, while we can and ought to question a metaphor which links a person's value to her (or his) marital status, we must not overlook the more basic truth underneath. Beauty, royalty, and (especially) glory are all derivative terms in the scriptures. They must all be bestowed upon human beings by God. It is not only brides who must be given new names by the Lord. Such a quest goes back all the way to the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). It is not only brides whose glory rests upon the Lord's near presence. Such a need goes all the way back to the exodus (Ex 33:15-16).
What is truly radical about the casting of this drama has little to do with gender. In stead, it rests on the proximity of God's presence with God's people—as close as a bridegroom to his bride. Sound familiar? "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church…(Eph 5:25)."
The Role of the Prophet
Perhaps the most powerful punch of this passage flows from the casting of the prophet. When was the last time we experienced the disgrace of Christ's Church like the public humiliation of a younger sibling? When have we ever had the audacity to call the Lord on the carpet for his failure to make tangible his vows of commitment to his people? Surely part of the reason for this reluctance has to do with our constant awareness of the faults of this bride, ourselves, Christ's Church. But nobody could ever argue that Isaiah was blind to the faults of Jerusalem (again, see Is 3). Nevertheless, this prophet would not keep silent. Isaiah was working for a wedding, not only with words, but, surely, with actions.
Tying It All Together
It should go without saying that we are dealing here with metaphors: "as a young man marries a young woman" (v. 5)," and "as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride (v. 5). Surely, all metaphors carry risks (especially when they draw together God and gender). However, just as surely, we would be worse than foolish to reject all personal biblical metaphors because of the harm they might cause if wrongly applied to our own, all-too-human relationships. Why do the other lectionary passages push toward "the body" as metaphor for the Church (1 Cor 12), compare God's love to a feast (Psalm 36), and locate Jesus' first miracle at "a wedding in Cana of Galilee" (Jn 2)? Because the communion God desires with humankind is personal, intimate, steadfast, and public in nature: "Then I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev 21:2). Maybe the question for the preacher this day is whether she desires such a relationship between God and her congregation, and whether they are willing to pray and work for it, with actions and with words. Is anybody up for a wedding? Here comes the bride, and the groom!
Richard Boyce
First Presbyterian Church
Belmont, NC