Isaiah 26:9-20; Psalm 119; Romans 8:22-39; 2 Peter 1:19
The fifth Biblical Ode, taken from the song in Isaiah 26:9-20, is both challenging, and encouraging. It begins practically, with a description of human vigilance before God, and ends pragmatically, with a reminder that human beings are given by the LORD a time of rest, for He is the main Actor in our world. Between these bookends, we hear of righteousness and judgment, of the fate of the ungodly, of the peace offered to God’s people, of the importance of patience in tribulation, and of the great hope of the resurrection. Here is the song, from the Greek Old Testament:
In the night my spirit rises early toward you, O God,
because your ordinances are a light upon the earth.
Learn righteousness, you who dwell on the earth;
for the impious one has come to an end;
he will not learn righteousness on the earth; he will not perform truth.
Let the ungodly one be taken away
so that he may not see the glory of the Lord.
O Lord, your arm is lifted up, and they have not known it,
but once they realize it, they will be ashamed.
Jealousy will take hold of an uninstructed people,
and fire will now consume the adversaries.
O Lord, our God, give us peace, for you have granted us all things.
O Lord, our God, take possession of us;
O Lord, we know no other besides you; we call upon your name.
But the dead will not see life, nor will physicians raise them up;
because of this you have brought them and destroyed them
and taken away all their males.
Bring more evils on them, O Lord;
Bring more evils on the glorious ones of the earth
O Lord, in affliction I remembered you;
with small affliction your chastening was on us.
And as a woman in travail is about to give birth and cries out in her pangs,
so were we to your beloved because of the fear of you, O Lord.
We conceived and travailed and gave birth;
we brought forth the spirit of your salvation on the earth,
but those who dwell on the earth will fall.
The dead shall rise, and those who are in the tombs shall be raised,
and those who are in the earth shall rejoice;
for the dew from you is healing to them,
but the land of the impious shall fall.
Go, my people, enter your chambers; shut your door;
hide yourselves for a little while
until the wrath of the Lord has passed.
In commenting upon this song, several ancients remind us of the importance of keeping vigil, both personally, and corporately, as in the monasteries and convents. One fourth century father has this to say:
And now, beloved, I ought to say a word about the antiquity of the tradition and the utility of vigils. It is easier to begin a work if we keep before our eyes how useful it is. The devotion to vigils is very old. It has been a household tradition among the saints. It was the prophet Isaiah who cried out to the Lord: “My soul has yearned for you in the night. Indeed, my spirit within me seeks you early in the morning.” (Nicetas of Remesiana, Vigils of the Saints, FC 7:58, alt.)
Notice how he calls this a “household tradition,” and reminds us of its antiquity, using the prophet Isaiah’s words as a warrant to call us to this watchfulness, before we begin our work of the day. Similarly, Caesarea of Arles encourages us not to neglect the vigils that we keep together with our brothers and sisters:
Hasten to the vigils with cheerful and fervent devotion because of what is written: ‘O God, my soul yearns for you in the night’; and again: ‘To you I pray, O Lord; at dawn you hear my voice.’ (Caesarea of Arles, Sermon 198.5 FC 66:52)
And our beloved St. John Chrysostom describes the morning vigils in the monasteries, when he comments in his homily 14 on 1 Timothy, but does this in terms of the early morning yearning of Isaiah for the LORD. These who are dedicated to the LORD, the Golden-Mouthed reminds us, keep watch at night on our behalf! In this way, whether at home, at church vigils, or in the monastery, Isaiah’s example of rising even before the light in the early hours is followed. In this way, the Church keeps her watch, waiting for God to act, and showing forth our human yearning for communion with the LORD. One of the stepping stones to this communion are the ordinances of God, which Isaiah says are a “light” on the earth, and which we may meditate upon while keeping vigil.
We are reminded of the many psalms which teach us that God’s “word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119/118 LXX):105. As new covenant Christians, we know even more surely than the ancient people of Israel how God’s word directs us aright. As the apostle puts it, because Jesus has fulfilled the Law, and because we now know that it pointed forward to Him, “We now have the word of prophecy made more sure” (2 Peter 1:19a). Thus, he continues, “you will do well if you attend to it, as to a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19b). All of the words of the LORD are given for our learning and our sustenance: not least this word of the prophet Isaiah, where he speaks about rising early, and yearning for God in the darkness. Yearning leads to learning!
Our desire comes both from a recognition of our neediness in the dark, “in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1), and from the knowledge we have of the One who alone is Light, and Water, and Food, and Healing for us. By Him we learn true righteousness, so that by His strength we can “perform truth.” Those who scorn this light, says Isaiah’s canticle, will never see the glory of the LORD. This is both a natural consequence of turning away, and a result of God’s raised hand of judgment. Yet, as the book of Hebrews says, “But, beloved, though we thus speak, we are persuaded that there are better things for you, things that accompany salvation.” And so Isaiah goes on to speak of the great “peace” of the LORD, and “all the things” granted to those who are in His household. We are reminded of the words of the father to the elder son in Jesus’ parable: “Son, you are always with me, and all things that I have are yours.” Through our baptism, we have a close relationship with God Himself. Yet, we have a yearning to be more fully His, and cry with the prophet, “Take possession of us, O LORD!” We “know no other” God besides Him; because of Jesus, we can call upon His name!
All of Isaiah’s words have a particular poignancy for those of us who know of God incarnate, of the cross, the resurrection, and the ascension. Without this Living One, death remains death, and there is no hope. Perhaps we pause just a moment at this verse regarding death in the poem. Why does the prophet say, “Bring more evils upon them?” And why do we continue to recite these verses, verses that seem to be a curse? Elder Paisios has some wise words to say about this. In harmony with the experience of Isaiah and the people of Israel, who were being oppressed by the pagans round about them, and were about to be taken into exile, the elder asks us: “When the barbarians are attacking…and are ready to destroy…and the people are praying that their enemies encounter obstacles, that their chariots break down and their horses get harmed, is that good or bad? That’s what it means: that they may run into obstacles. It’s not a curse.”
Our best prayer, of course, is that those who are unrighteous will be transformed, like the apostle Paul, and join us in watching and praying. Meanwhile, they must be thwarted in their evil intent, and prayers that their plans go awry are not out of order. This may not be the ultimate “hope” of God, who “wills that all should be saved:” But it is a practical response to evil around us to pray that God will put a cog in the wheel of the one who is attacking.
For, despite the accomplished victory of Jesus, we are still here, on an earth and in a society that continues the rebellion against God. We find ourselves like a woman in childbirth, crying out with the pangs of delivery, and hoping for God to bring it all out into joy. This is not only an OT image, but found also in Romans 8:22-39, where we hear of the whole earth in childbirth, and of the people of God, helped by the Holy Spirit, giving voice to the suffering, and crying out to God. Paul’s picture of the compassionate Church’s prayers for a suffering world moves from hope to triumph:
In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As Paul looks for the time when God’s anointed ones will be revealed in glory, so too the prophet expresses a confident hope: “We conceived and travailed and gave birth; we brought forth the spirit of your salvation on the earth.” Some more contemporary versions have translated this more negatively, as though a woman labors hard but only brings forth wind, not a child. But most early fathers have understood the “wind” as the “spirit” of salvation, commenting in the same vein as St. Ambrose:
Nature provides woman with a womb in which a living person is brought to birth in the course of time. Such too is that characteristic of the soul which is ready to receive in its womblike recesses the seeds of our thoughts, to cherish them and to bring them forth as a woman gives birth to a child. This and no other is the meaning of the words of Isaiah: ‘We have conceived and brought forth the spirit of salvation.’ (St. Ambrose, Cain and Abel 1.10.47, CSEL 32 1:377)
Even now, then, God’s people have a part to play in His working of salvation. But we have this role only because of Jesus Himself, already risen from the dead. And we look to the time when, as Isaiah puts it, “The dead shall rise, and those who are in the tombs shall be raised, and those who are in the earth shall rejoice; for the dew from You is healing to them.” Sadly, that time of vindication also brings with it the darker action of judgment for any who will not herald the light: “the land of the impious shall fall.”
God is good, but His goodness is also truth! Knowing, then, the goodness and the light of God, the prophet ends his song with wise advice, to hide ourselves, as God’s people, in our own chambers until the mighty act of judgment has passed. What does this mean? Does it mean to be inactive? That is hardly possible, given the encouragement to vigilant prayer, the learning of righteousness, and the expectant pangs of spiritual childbirth. Our older siblings in Christ give two options of interpretation. Origen pictures Noah’s ark and the chambers, and says that Isaiah is calling us to remain in the Church until the very end:
Therefore [Noah] constructs the ark and makes nests in it, that is, certain chambers in which animals of various kinds are received. The prophet also speaks of these chambers: “Go, my people, into your chambers, hide yourself a while until the fury of my anger pass away.” This people, therefore, which is saved in the church is compared with all those, whether men or animals, which are saved in the ark Homilies on Genesis 2.3 FC 71:78).
We remember that God Himself brought the fury of the wind and waves against all those not in that ark! And other fathers, such as St. Augustine, see this a way for us to think of the sleep of death, not as a trial, but as a time of rest as we await God’s mighty actions:
In death is rest, as the prophet says, “My people, enter into your chambers, hide yourself a little until the indignation of the Lord pass away.” But in the resurrection there is perfect happiness in the whole person, that is, in flesh and spirit. Consequently we are not to think that both of these are to be marked by the labor of fasting but rather by the rejoicing of refreshment. (Letter 36 FC 12:166 alt)
Both ways of reading this final strophe of the canticle are helpful—we must remain in the rooms of God’s Church, and live within her; we can look to death as a release from struggle, and a time to wait for that great joy, when the dead shall rise. Both actions bespeak a confidence in God, the same faith that begins this canticle, where we rise early, yearning for full communion with the One who created us, brought us to new birth in baptism, and is recreating us to be all that He intends for us to be.