The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose.
It will blossom abundantly,
and rejoice even with joy and singing.
Lebanon’s glory will be given to it,
the excellence of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see Yahweh’s glory,
the excellence of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make the feeble knees firm.
Tell those who have a fearful heart, “Be strong!
Don’t be afraid!
Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God’s retribution.
He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.
Then the lame man will leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute will sing;
for waters will break out in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.
Grass with reeds and rushes will be in the habitation of jackals, where they lay.
A highway will be there, a road,
and it will be called “The Holy Way”.
It will be for those who walk in the Way.
No lion will be there,
nor will any ravenous animal go up on it.
They will not be found there;
but the redeemed will walk there.
Then Yahweh’s ransomed ones will return,
and come with singing to Zion;
and everlasting joy will be on their heads.
They will obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins.”
The voice of one who calls out,
“Prepare the way of Yahweh in the wilderness!
Make a level highway in the desert for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The uneven shall be made level,
and the rough places a plain.
Yahweh’s glory shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it.”
The voice of one saying, “Cry!”
One said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is like grass,
and all its glory is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers,
the flower fades,
because Yahweh’s breath blows on it.
Surely the people are like grass.
The grass withers,
the flower fades;
but the Word of our God stands forever.”
You who tell good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
You who tell good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength!
Lift it up! Don’t be afraid!
Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold, your God!”
Behold, the Lord Yahweh will come as a mighty one,
and his arm will rule for him.
Behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will gather the lambs in his arm,
and carry them in his bosom.
He will gently lead those who have their young.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
and marked off the sky with his span,
and calculated the dust of the earth in a measuring basket,
and weighed the mountains in scales,
and the hills in a balance?
Who has directed Yahweh’s Spirit,
or has taught him as his counselor?
Who did he take counsel with,
and who instructed him,
and taught him in the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations are like a drop in a bucket,
and are regarded as a speck of dust on a balance.
Behold, he lifts up the islands like a very little thing.
Lebanon is not sufficient to burn,
nor its animals sufficient for a burnt offering.
All the nations are like nothing before him.
They are regarded by him as less than nothing, and vanity.
To whom then will you liken God?
Or what likeness will you compare to him?
A workman has cast an image,
and the goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts silver chains for it.
He who is too impoverished for such an offering chooses a tree that will not rot.
He seeks a skillful workman to set up a carved image for him that will not be moved.
Haven’t you known?
Haven’t you heard?
Haven’t you been told from the beginning?
Haven’t you understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in,
who brings princes to nothing,
who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
They are planted scarcely.
They are sown scarcely.
Their stock has scarcely taken root in the ground.
He merely blows on them, and they wither,
and the whirlwind takes them away as stubble.
“To whom then will you liken me?
Who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high,
and see who has created these,
who brings out their army by number.
He calls them all by name.
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power,
not one is lacking.
Why do you say, Jacob,
and speak, Israel,
“My way is hidden from Yahweh,
and the justice due me is disregarded by my God?”
Haven’t you known?
Haven’t you heard?
The everlasting God, Yahweh,
the Creator of the ends of the earth, doesn’t faint.
He isn’t weary.
His understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the weak.
He increases the strength of him who has no might.
Even the youths faint and get weary,
and the young men utterly fall;
but those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength.
They will mount up with wings like eagles.
They will run, and not be weary.
They will walk, and not faint.
Image: Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace,
who brings good news,
who proclaims salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Your watchmen lift up their voice.
Together they sing;
for they shall see eye to eye when Yahweh returns to Zion.
Break out into joy!
Sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem;
for Yahweh has comforted his people.
He has redeemed Jerusalem.
Yahweh has made his holy arm bare in the eyes of all the nations.
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
A shoot will come out of the stock of Jesse,
and a branch out of his roots will bear fruit.
Yahweh’s Spirit will rest on him:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh.
His delight will be in the fear of Yahweh.
He will not judge by the sight of his eyes,
neither decide by the hearing of his ears;
but he will judge the poor with righteousness,
and decide with equity for the humble of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat,
the calf, the young lion, and the fattened calf together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young ones will lie down together.
The lion will eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will play near a cobra’s hole,
and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Yahweh,
as the waters cover the sea.
It will happen in that day that the nations will seek the root of Jesse, who stands as a banner of the peoples; and his resting place will be glorious.
It will happen in that day that the Lord will set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. He will set up a banner for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
Isaiah 11: 1-12
It shall happen in the latter days, that the mountain of Yahweh’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all nations shall flow to it.
Many peoples shall go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the mountain of Yahweh,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
and he will teach us of his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.”
For the law shall go out of Zion,
and Yahweh’s word from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations,
and will decide concerning many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Who could withstand the might of your arm?
Because the whole world before you is as a grain in a balance,
and as a drop of dew that comes down upon the earth in the morning.
But you have mercy on all men, because you have power to do all things,
and you overlook the sins of men to the end that they may repent.
For you love all things that are,
and abhor none of the things which you made;
For you never would have formed anything if you hated it.
How would anything have endured unless you had willed it?
Or that which was not called by you, how would it have been preserved?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Sovereign Lord, you lover of souls.
Wisdom of Solomon 11:21-26
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died.
Their departure was considered affliction,
and their travel away from us ruin;
But they are in peace.
For even if in the sight of men they are punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having borne a little chastening, they will receive great good;
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself.
He tested them like gold in the furnace,
and he accepted them as a whole burnt offering.
In the time of their visitation they will shine.
They will run back and forth like sparks among stubble.
They will judge nations and have dominion over peoples.
The Lord will reign over them forever.
Those who trust him will understand truth.
The faithful will live with him in love,
because grace and mercy are with his chosen ones.
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
This beautiful passage describes heaven. I particularly like the reference to the souls that, “will run back and forth like sparks among stubble.” I have never found any interpretation of this, but I assume it refers to St. Elmo’s Fire – static discharges in the winter-dry harvested wheat fields that probably mysteriously illuminated the night in ancient times.
(This passage may not be familiar to Jewish and Protestant readers. The Wisdom of Solomon is considered Apocrypha in those traditions.)
I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys.
As a lily among thorns,
so is my love among the daughters.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight,
his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banquet hall.
His banner over me is love.
Strengthen me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;
for I am faint with love.
His left hand is under my head.
His right hand embraces me.
I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem,
by the roes, or by the hinds of the field,
that you not stir up, nor awaken love,
until it so desires.
The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he comes,
leaping on the mountains,
skipping on the hills.
My beloved is like a roe or a young deer.
Behold, he stands behind our wall!
He looks in at the windows.
He glances through the lattice.
My beloved spoke, and said to me,
“Rise up, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.
For behold, the winter is past.
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth.
The time of the singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens her green figs.
The vines are in blossom.
They give out their fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.”
My dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hiding places of the mountainside,
let me see your face.
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely.
Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes that plunder the vineyards;
for our vineyards are in blossom.
My beloved is mine, and I am his.
He browses among the lilies.
Until the day is cool, and the shadows flee away,
turn, my beloved,
and be like a roe or a young deer on the mountains of Bether.
Song of Solomon 2
For the Lord Yahweh says: “Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered abroad, so I will seek out my sheep. I will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture; and their fold will be on the mountains of the height of Israel. There they will lie down in a good fold. They will feed on fat pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will cause them to lie down,” says the Lord Yahweh. “I will seek that which was lost, and will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick.
“I will set up one shepherd over them, and he will feed them, even my servant David. He will feed them, and he will be their shepherd. I, Yahweh, will be their God, and my servant David prince among them. I, Yahweh, have spoken it.”
“I will make with them a covenant of peace, and will cause evil animals to cease out of the land. They will dwell securely in the wilderness, and sleep in the woods. I will make them and the places around my hill a blessing. I will cause the shower to come down in its season. There will be showers of blessing. The tree of the field will yield its fruit, and the earth will yield its increase, and they will be secure in their land. Then they will know that I am Yahweh, when I have broken the bars of their yoke, and have delivered them out of the hand of those who made slaves of them. They will no more be a prey to the nations, neither will the animals of the earth devour them; but they will dwell securely, and no one will make them afraid. I will raise up to them a plantation for renown, and they will no more be consumed with famine in the land, and not bear the shame of the nations any more. They will know that I, Yahweh, their God am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord Yahweh. You my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are men, and I am your God,’ says the Lord Yahweh.”
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23-31
The balance of this passage indicates that Ezekiel is fairly angry with the priests of the time, who clearly engaged in a lot of self-dealing and neglected the needs of their flock. However, today our interest in this passage is God’s promise to that he will take over the shepherding of the flock Himself. Nothing will stand in the way of God’s Covenant with us.
The theme of God, or God’s chosen, as shepherd reverberates throughout Scripture. David is tending the sheep when he is chosen to be the next king. Shepherds are called to witness Jesus’s birth. Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd looking after the lost sheep (perhaps an oblique reference to this passage), and as having a voice the sheep of his flock will hear and recognize. Shepherding today is often given a moral connotation: the shepherd moves a group of insensate or resistant creatures along a path of good behavior and appropriate belief. But Scripture generally does not mean it that way. Shepherding in the Scriptural sense is purely protection. It is the shepherd’s duty to ensure the flock has abundant pasture in which to browse, and clean water from which to drink. The Shepherd protects the flock from predators and tends to their wounds. In this case, God will release them from slavery and protect them from fear.
Image: Jean Baptise de Champaigne, 17th Century
a time to be born,
and a time to die;
a time to plant,
and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill,
and a time to heal;
a time to break down,
and a time to build up;
a time to weep,
and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn,
and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace,
and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek,
and a time to lose;
a time to keep,
and a time to cast away;
a time to tear,
and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence,
and a time to speak;
a time to love,
and a time to hate;
a time for war,
and a time for peace.
What profit has he who works in that in which he labors? I have seen the burden which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts, yet so that man can’t find out the work that God has done from the beginning even to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good as long as they live. Also, that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God. I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; and God has done it, that men should revere him. That which is has been long ago, and that which is to be has been long ago. God seeks again that which is passed away.
Carrying on from yesterday’s existentialist theme, today the Preacher again affirms that there is little we can do that will persevere. Additionally, everything has its time, nothing is out of place. I am reminded of the fact that our Creation narrative is not a creation out of nothing, but rather an ordering of Chaos. God starts with darkness over the Deep, and separates water from earth, earth from sky, and night from day. When Chaos returns in the form of the Flood, God puts Noah on a life raft and locks the door behind him so that he can float safely over the Chaos until it subsides. God is with us when Chaos returns. It, too, has its place and finally has no power over us.
Existentialism has a reputation for gloominess, but for Ecclesiastes, it is all good. God has made everything beautiful and eternal, regardless of what we may do or not so, so that all of it can be the subject of reverence and rejoicing.
In vain!” says the Preacher. In vain! All is that is done is done in vain. What does man gain from all his labor in which he labors under the sun? One generation goes, and another generation comes; but the earth remains forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to its place where it rises. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. It turns around continually as it goes, and the wind returns again to its courses. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness beyond uttering. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there a thing of which it may be said, “Behold, this is new?” It has been long ago, in the ages which were before us. There is no memory of the former; neither shall there be any memory of the latter that are to come, among those that shall come after.
I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under the sky. It is a heavy burden that God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is done in vain and a chasing after wind. That which is crooked can’t be made straight; and that which is lacking can’t be counted. I said to myself, “Behold, I have obtained for myself great wisdom above all who were before me in Jerusalem. Yes, my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
The typical interpretation of this passage uses the term, “vanity,” which distracts from the true meaning and suggests this is a passage about humility.
In fact, this passage and all of Ecclesiastes is an extraordinary study in existentialism. The Preacher notes that everything we can accomplish in our lifetimes will inescapably be erased. Even the pursuit of wisdom is, ultimately, not worth anything. Nature itself reflects this – the sun goes up, but its progress in the sky is reversed as it goes down; the winds blow one way and then another; the rivers labor to fill the ocean to capacity but it never happens.
Most of us define ourselves by our accomplishments – whether it is building a business, building a family, promoting good, filling our eyes with memorable sights, or filling our minds with memorable experiences (e.g.: the recently minted term, ‘bucket list’). If we are asked to say a little about ourselves, we inevitably start with career, vocation, family or something else that identifies us with a group or an interest. At life’s crossroads, especially at the end of earthly life, this can all seem like an exercise in futility. And it is.
Fortunately, our relationships to each other are not about what purpose we serve for each other. Our relationships transcend what we can accomplish for one another. This is especially, transcendentally true of our relationship to God. We are not what we can accomplish for God, and God is not what He can accomplish for us. We stand is an existential relationship – He loves us regardless of our accomplishments on our résumés and regardless of our wisdom, experiences or goodness.
It is said that faith provides us with meaning and purpose. I don’t think that’s entirely true. Faith confirms we need not serve any purpose and still be the beloved of God. And that infuses our lives with extraordinary meaning.
Image: Earth seen from the surface of Mars.
Image: Earth seen from the surface of Mars.
Praise Yahweh, my soul.
While I live, I will praise Yahweh.
I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist.
Don’t put your trust in princes,
in a son of man in whom there is no help.
His spirit departs, and he returns to the earth.
In that very day, his thoughts perish.
Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help,
whose hope is in Yahweh, his God:
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps truth forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
Yahweh frees the prisoners.
Yahweh opens the eyes of the blind.
Yahweh raises up those who are bowed down.
Yahweh loves the righteous.
Yahweh preserves the foreigners.
He upholds the fatherless and widow,
but he turns the way of the wicked upside down.
Yahweh will reign forever;
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Hear my prayer, Yahweh.
Listen to my petitions.
In your faithfulness and righteousness, relieve me.
Don’t enter into judgment with your servant,
for in your sight no man living is righteous.
For the enemy pursues my soul.
He has struck my life down to the ground.
He has made me live in dark places, as those who have been long dead.
Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed within me.
My heart within me is desolate.
I remember the days of old.
I meditate on all your doings.
I contemplate the work of your hands.
I spread out my hands to you.
My soul thirsts for you, like a parched land.
Hurry to answer me, Yahweh.
My spirit fails.
Don’t hide your face from me,
so that I don’t become like those who are forgotten.
Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning,
for I trust in you.
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
for I lift up my soul to you.
Deliver me, Yahweh, from my enemies.
I flee to you to hide me.
Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.
Your Spirit is good.
Lead me in the land of uprightness.
Revive me, Yahweh, for your name’s sake.
In your righteousness, bring my soul out of trouble.
In your loving kindness, spare me from my enemies,
and those who afflict my soul.
For I am your servant.
and you know me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up.
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
but, behold, Yahweh, you know it altogether.
You hem me in behind and before.
You laid your hand on me.
This knowledge is beyond me.
I can’t attain it.
Where could I go from your Spirit?
Or where could I flee from your presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!
If I take the wings of the dawn,
and settle in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand will lead me,
and your right hand will hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me.
The light around me will be night,”
even the darkness doesn’t hide from you,
but the night shines as the day.
The darkness is like light to you.
For you formed my inmost being.
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to you,
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Your works are wonderful.
My soul knows that very well.
My frame wasn’t hidden from you,
when I was made in secret,
woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my body.
In your book they were all written,
the days that were ordained for me,
when as yet there were none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is their sum!
If I would count them, they are more in number than the sand.
When I wake up, I am still with you.
Search me, God, and know my heart.
Try me, and know my thoughts,
and lead me in the everlasting way.
Psalm 139: 1-18, 23
Image: The Carina Nebula