Second Haftarah of Comfort: Isaiah 49:14-51:3
The seven weeks of comfort or consolation following Tisha b’Av are especially relevant to the traumatized age in which we live. Like the Jewish generations that witnessed or lived shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple on Tisha b’Av, we live in the shadow of unspeakable loss in the Jewish world.
The readings from Isaiah between now and Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 21-22) were chosen long ago to bring comfort in the wake of loss. They speak appropriately enough about the restoration of the temple and Jerusalem and the land of Israel. But this second installment in the series opens with an even greater source of comfort—not only the good things that are going to happen to future Israel, but the qualities of the One who is going to make them happen. The God of Israel is going to redeem Israel not just because he’s promised to, and not just to demonstrate who he is—although these are both real factors—but out of the depth of his love for Israel.
Isaiah helps us begin to understand this love by comparing it to the love of a mother for her nursing baby, the child who has come forth from her womb and still draws nourishment from her breasts (Is. 49:15a). We might not be able to understand how God is, or is not, involved in human history, but we can understand this kind of love.
In my years of listening deeply to lots of different kinds of people, I’ve found that most people think about God in some way or another, but often tend toward the impersonal. The kind of intimate, personal relationship with the Creator that Yeshua-believers claim isn’t the usual understanding out on the street. Most people know there’s a God out there, but are content to leave the big picture vague and ill-defined. In our materialistic age, people tend to imagine God as a force, a mysterious power, something (not someone) that we shouldn’t try to define for fear of distorting him . . . or “her” or “it,” as the postmoderns might say.
I appreciate the caution about creating a god after our own image, but Isaiah is painting a whole different picture, a picture of God that we can understand in our own real-life terms. Think of the love that a mother has for her baby, for the child that has come forth from her own body. God loves you like that. He’s not an abstract, ultra-pure, and far-distant God, but a Being of great passion and connection to us. His love is actually more intense than the love of a mother for her nursing baby—
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me. (Is. 49:15b–16).
A mother’s love for her baby is as deep as it gets—but is it permanent? Can it remain unchanged in the midst of real life, which always changes? Hashem says that he possesses an even deeper love for his people, and that it’s carved into the very tissue of his hands, reminding him frequently, repeatedly, inescapably.
In our postmodern, post-Holocaust era, we find it hard to understand or explain God. And the more we try to, the more confused and uncertain we become. Instead, God gives us a picture, a metaphor, and invites us to comfort ourselves with this revelation of his very character. But how do we speak credibly about such a God to a generation traumatized by loss? Can our troubled and confused age really find comfort in a message like Isaiah’s? Isaiah tells us how he qualifies to bear his message in an era just as traumatized and uncomforted as ours:
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught. (Is. 50:4)
Isaiah can bring a word of comfort because he’s learned comfort from Hashem. If the greatest consolation to us is the unchanging depth of God’s love, we have to receive that love, to get hold of it ourselves, before we can speak about it to others. Like the prophet, we need to be awakened morning by morning to hear the fresh word that brings comfort. But Isaiah not only seeks daily renewal—he also pays a price for this message:
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting. (Is. 50:6)
A true prophet embodies the message he proclaims. He doesn’t point the finger at errant Israel, but walks amidst Israel, even when Israel is wandering off.
The voice of Hashem hinted at this very thing earlier in our passage. God tells Zion, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Commentators differ on the exact meaning of this engraving, but one thing is obvious: it’s got to be painful. We might be tempted to distance ourselves from the suffering and pains of the Jewish people, but God absorbs the pain. He tells Jerusalem, “Your walls are continually before me,” at a moment when the walls are a heap of ruins. If this is the God who seeks to comfort Israel, how can the prophet—and how can we—bring a message of comfort from a safe or self-satisfied distance?
Isaiah’s words remind us of the way of Messiah Yeshua. Isaiah identifies with suffering Israel, even as he suffers at the hands of Israel. Messiah Yeshua as one-man Israel bears that suffering to its full extent. His treatment by the authorities echoes the suffering of Isaiah—“And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him . . .” (Mark 15:19)—and goes far beyond. Messiah offers himself up as an atoning sacrifice, and then brings comfort in its fullest extent to Israel by rising from the dead.
This is the message for our traumatized age, and we’re not worthy to bear it. But like Isaiah we can be made fit to “sustain the weary with a word.” It requires daily encounter with Hashem, daily listening, daily renewal—and steady identification with our people, even if it costs something. Yeshua’s sufferings are unique and uniquely life-giving, but they are also an example for us, a standard that we might never meet, but which brings our personal sufferings into perspective, and forbids us to distance ourselves from the sufferings of all Israel. There’s an awesome tale of redemption going on, and the Spirit is seeking those willing to bear it.