God in Exile
Fourth Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 51:12–52:12
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
One of the first things to learn in counseling and rabbinic-pastoral care is, “Just show up.” For someone grieving the death of a loved one, or facing their own death or long-term illness, or the trials of a wandering son or daughter, being present with them is more important than any words of comfort or advice you might bring. We sometimes describe care for people in need as “spiritual accompaniment,” and Jewish tradition pictures God himself as the model.
Rabbi Hama once asked: What does it mean, “You shall walk after the Lord your God” (Deut 13:5)? Is it possible for a person to walk and follow in God’s presence? Does not the Torah also say “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Deut 4:24)? But it means to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be he. . . . The Holy One, blessed be he, visits the ill, as it says, “And God visited him in Elonei Mamreh” (Gen. 18:1); so you shall visit the ill. The Holy One, blessed be he, comforts the bereaved, as it says, “And it was after Abraham died that God blessed his son Isaac…” (Gen. 25:11), so too shall you comfort the bereaved. The Holy One, blessed be he, buries the dead, as it says, “And he buried him in the valley” (Deut. 34:6), so you too bury the dead. (Talmud, Sotah 14a)
As the Lord performs these deeds of kindness he is present—he just shows up with the sick, bereaved, dying, and even the dead. This attribute of presence isn’t an add-on to God’s nature, but an essential aspect of who he is.
So, when Isaiah seeks to provide comfort for Israel after his warnings of horrific judgment and exile, he draws upon this same attribute of God. In the first Haftarah of Comfort (Isaiah 40:1–26), which we read three weeks ago, Isaiah pictured watchmen looking out on the highway to Jerusalem, ready to announce good news.
Get yourself up on a high mountain,
you who bring good news to Zion!
Lift up your voice with strength,
you who bring good news to Jerusalem! (Isa 40:9a TLV)
“You who bring good news” in this passage is a single word in Hebrew, mevaseret. One of the suburbs of modern Jerusalem is named Mevaseret Zion, after Isaiah’s wording, “you who bring good news to Zion.” I have close friends in Mevaseret Zion, and I’ve been there many times. From various vantage points in the city, you can look out at the hilly streets and byways of Jerusalem. You can see Highway 1, the busy thoroughfare from Tel Aviv that leads up to the Jewish capital. This is the image Isaiah is painting: Mevaseret or mevaser, herald-of-good-news, watching over the highway to Jerusalem (Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem here), eager to announce the approach of . . . someone.
Since the entire block of Isaiah’s prophecy beginning in chapter 40 is about Israel’s return from captivity in Babylon, we imagine that the highway here is the one leading back from Babylon to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem. But what’s most striking in this passage is that the herald isn’t watching only for the return of the Israelites, but also—and above all—for the return of their God.
Lift up your voice with strength. . . .
Lift it up! Do not fear!
Say to the cities of Judah:
“Behold your God!” (Isa 40:9b TLV)
God’s presence has gone into exile with Israel and his presence will return, leading them back to the land of their inheritance. Before the herald announces God’s promised return, however, he calls on the people to prepare the way, using images of highway building: “Make straight in the desert a highway,” “the rough ground will be a plain and the rugged terrain smooth” (Isa 40:3–4). Centuries later, Mark opens his eye-witness account of the life of Yeshua of Natzeret with words from this same passage: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Then Mark echoes the call to prepare the way: “John appeared, immersing in the wilderness, proclaiming an immersion involving repentance for the removal of sins” (Mark 1:4 TLV).
The “good news” in Isaiah and in Mark is that the God of Israel is returning to his people and that the people need to return to God. This proclamation reflects all that the prophets have promised and that the people have come to hope for. Mark reveals that God is returning to Israel in and through his Son, Yeshua the Messiah.
This week’s haftarah employs the same terminology as Isaiah 40 to adorn this picture of hope and restoration:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the mevaser, herald-of-good-news,
who announces peace, the mevaser, herald-of-good-news of good,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Your watchmen lift up their voices,
their voices together for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion. (Isa 52:7–8, my translation)
The watchmen here, as in Isaiah 40, are looking out over the road to Jerusalem, the highway back from exile, and now they lift their voices in joy at the Lord’s return. The words “return of the Lord to Zion” imply that he has been absent from Zion. He has been in exile with Israel.
God’s return from exile is portrayed even more clearly in the conclusion to the haftarah, as the prophet tells the Jewish refugees:
For you will not go out in haste,
nor will you go in flight,
for Adonai will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard. (Isa 52:12 TLV)
God’s presence surrounds us, before and behind, even amidst the sufferings of exile.
Isaiah 51:12–52:12 is the fourth in the series of haftarah readings leading up to the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It reveals the Awe in the Days of Awe—the presence of Hashem, with us and among us.
Messianic Jews sometimes seem to require an explanation for observing the Days of Awe, especially Yom Kippur. We’re forgiven, we have atonement in Messiah Yeshua; why do we still need to go through the ritual of confession and pardon year after year? But this question misses a major dimension of Yom Kippur. The personal drama of confession and pardon takes place on a much larger stage, all Israel. The language of confession on Yom Kippur isn’t “I” and “me,” but “we” and “us.” Moreover, the day isn’t only about sin and forgiveness, but also about recognizing and honoring God’s presence among his people. We don’t confess and seek atonement to get God to be present with us, but because he is present with us. If God is present with his people even in exile, we Messianic Jews need to be present too.
The ever-present God is Immanuel, God-with-us, both in our exile and wanderings and in the holiest of times on Yom Kippur. As this day approaches we can prepare for it, along with all Israel, by making straight in the desert of our chaotic lives and divided hearts a highway for our God.