1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
3 Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Ancient Israel’s history. The writings were compiled from about 700 BCE to about 300 BCE.
Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and are the words of a prophet (one who speaks for YHWH – translated as “LORD” in all capital letters in the NRSV) who called for Jerusalem to repent in the 30 years before Jerusalem came under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55. In these chapters, a prophet brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 in which a prophet gave encouragement to Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem (which was largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile ended.
Today’s reading is the entirety of Chapter 35. As an analysis of the chapters surrounding Chapter 35 shows, this chapter is an insert into the Book of Isaiah that demonstrates the “patchwork quilt” quality of the Book.
Chapter 34 is an oracle (actually, a diatribe) against Edom – the neighbor of Judea to the East that despoiled Judea during the Exile. Chapter 34, although it is included in First Isaiah, was based on events that occurred during the Exile, so it was clearly written after the Exile (as was Psalm 137 which has many of the same themes).
Chapters 36 to 39 are another insert into the Book and are an “Historical Appendix” that parallels 2 Kings 18 to 20. These chapters describe events in the last days of King Hezekiah (around 701 to 698 BCE).
Chapter 35, as an insert, connects thematically with Chapters 40 to 42 and can be seen as presenting an eschatological vision of a restored and ideal Judea after the Exile. In this sense, Chapter 35 would be a link to “Second Isaiah” in that the prophet presented hope to the Judeans that they would be the “ransomed of YHWH” (v.10).
The Jewish Study Bible also suggests that Chapter 35 presented an alternative path from Babylon to Jerusalem. The “normal” route from Babylon would require traveling northwest along the Euphrates River, and then south through Syria (Aram) to Israel. Seen as an alternative path, the desert will be transformed into a fertile area so that the “remnant” (the ransomed of the LORD v.10) could go due west from Babylon to Jerusalem. This return is portrayed in Second Isaiah as a new Exodus. The JSB says that in this understanding, the remnant was ritually clean (v.8) as it traversed this Sacred Way.
7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Although the authorship of this epistle is not known, it has traditionally been attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, who is presented in Chapters 12 and 15 of the Acts of the Apostles as the leader of the Jesus Follower community in Jerusalem.
This James (sometimes called “James the Just”) is distinguished from “James the Great” (the apostle, brother of John, and son of Zebedee) and “James the Less” (apostle and son of Alphaeus). “James” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Jacob.”
The letter is seen by some scholars as the expansion of a sermon likely delivered by James prior to his martyrdom in 62 CE. The sermon was edited and expanded by someone skilled in Hellenistic rhetoric. It was addressed to Jewish Jesus Followers and emphasized the importance of good works. It mentioned Jesus of Nazareth only twice in the letter.
This emphasis on works has been understood by some (including Luther) as being opposed to Paul’s position (particularly in Romans) that one is saved by Faith.
These positions are not, in fact, opposed and can be reconciled by recognizing that salvation/wholeness (however defined and understood) is the byproduct of the combination of Faith/Trust that leads to good works and to Faithfulness in doing good works.
Today’s reading is from the last chapter of the Epistle. The first six verses of the chapter are a condemnation of rich persons for their focus on accumulating wealth and for treating laborers fraudulently. The chapter then shifted in tone and offered consolation to the hearers.
Like many other writings from the late First Century, this reading expressed the understanding that a Second Coming of the Lord was near (v.8). The idea of a Second Coming arose among the Jesus Followers because they affirmed that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah), but many of the expectations (based on scripture) regarding the Messiah that were prevalent in the First Century had not occurred. For example, a “New David” had not united the dispersed Jews, restored the nation, and overthrown the Roman overlords. There was not a general peace and good order (Shalom).
The expectation of a Second Coming among Jesus Followers gradually evolved into the belief that the Second Coming would bring about (or be a sign of) the fullness of the Kingdom of God on earth.
The last verse referred to suffering and patience, and the verses that follow spoke of the “endurance” of Job (v.11).
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
The Gospel of Matthew highlights Jesus’ origins and identity. Written around 85 CE by an anonymous author, the Gospel began Jesus’s genealogy with Abraham and depicted Jesus as a teacher of the Law like Moses. More than any other Gospel, Matthew quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures (using the Greek Septuagint Translation) to illustrate that Jesus was the Messiah.
Having been written after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Gospel reflected the controversies between the Jesus Followers and the Pharisees for control of Judaism going forward. Accordingly, the Gospel contains many harsh sayings about the Pharisees. The Gospel is aimed primarily at the late First Century Jewish Jesus Follower community.
The Gospel relied heavily on the Gospel of Mark and included all but 60 verses from Mark. Like Luke, Matthew also used a “Sayings Source” (called “Q” by scholars). There are also a substantial number of stories that are unique to Matthew: the Annunciation of Jesus’ conception was revealed to Joseph in a dream (rather than by an angel to Mary as in Luke); the Visit of the Magi; the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod; the Flight to Egypt; the Laborers in the Vineyard; and the earthquake on Easter Morning, among others.
Matthew’s Gospel, like that of Mark, identified Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ) from its first verse. (Mark, in some later versions, add “Son of God” in 1:1. In Luke, the angels announced to the shepherds that the child who was born was the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11).
Today’s reading is “Q” material and is found only in Matthew and Luke.
John’s imprisonment (v.2) is also mentioned by the First Century historian, Josephus.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible notes that many First Century groups, including the Essenes (as shown by the Dead Sea Scrolls), expected a messianic or redemptive figure to overthrow the Romans and unite the people of Israel. Accordingly, John the Baptist’s question was understandable in this context.
Consistent with Matthew’s prediction-fulfillment mode of presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the answer that Jesus gave (vv.6-9) paraphrased a number of messianic predictions of Isaiah (29:18, 35:5, 42:18 and 61:1).
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary points out that Jesus’ response is a statement that his messiahship is not one of sovereignty and judgment, but one of healing and helping those in need. The Jewish Annotated New Testament suggests that Jesus did not directly answer the question posed by John’s disciples lest a claim by Jesus of messiahship be reported to Herod Antipas by Herod’s guards.
Jesus’ statement about John (v.10) as God’s messenger is a “fulfillment” based on Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.