Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:
Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
and avenge myself on my foes!
I will turn my hand against you;
I will smelt away your dross as with lye
and remove all your alloy.
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
the faithful city.
Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
For you shall be ashamed of the oaks
in which you delighted;
and you shall blush for the gardens
that you have chosen.
For you shall be like an oak
whose leaf withers,
and like a garden without water.
The strong shall become like tinder,
and their work like a spark;
they and their work shall burn together,
with no one to quench them.
Several years ago, I attended a prayer vigil shortly before Christmas to mourn the loss of a mother who had been tragically murdered. We collectively grasped for words, held hands, prayed, and read Scripture on streets that were already decorated with Christmas joy. Our words were clumsy, unfiltered, and full of grief. Sometimes pain collides with joy—interrupting our prayers, thoughts, and desires.
The late Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs once described the tail end of the first chapter of Isaiah as an exilic dirge. In other words, there is something in this passage that feels drawn from the same well of words that are drawn to mind during a funeral procession. There’s something raw, incomplete, and out of place if we fail to comprehend that these troubling words are coming within a context of unfathomable loss. Israel, facing the painful demise of one part of its story, utters words of unbridled anger and lament. The end of this first chapter of Isaiah reads as a brittle prayer spilling across the page. It’s a prayer for God to intervene in the midst of a pain that—without God—would be insurmountable.
In being honest with the text, the human desire is one of retribution—of wanting someone else to suffer for the harm and trauma they’ve caused. Depending on your life experiences, you might find this desire comforting, off-putting, or confusing. But in processing these words, it’s important to see that violence isn’t being enacted by those who were wronged. Instead it’s a prayer for God to act in accordance with God’s own sense of justice. It’s a cry of desperation by a people whose pain has blurred their sense judgment. These words are a cry for God to act with clarity and righteousness. In this season—and in every season—let us pray for God’s goodness and justice to be known.