ISAIAH 34-35. THE CONTEXT
Chapter 35 presents a vivid contrast to chapter 34, where “Yahweh is enraged against all the nations” (34:2). In that chapter, “Yahweh’s sword is filled with blood” and will effect “a great slaughter in the land of Edom” (34:6) and “a day of vengeance” (34:8). Edom’s “streams will be turned into pitch, its dust into sulfur” (34:9). “It will lie waste” and “no one shall pass through it” (34:10). “The pelican and the porcupine will possess it” (34:11). “Thorns will come up in its palaces, …and it will be a habitation of jackals, … ostriches, …wild animals, …wolves, …and wild goats” (34:13-14). This is the Lord’s judgment on a sinful land.
But in chapter 35, the prophet/poet pictures a glad land, where “the desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose” (35:1)—where people “shall see Yahweh’s glory” (35:2)—where the Lord “will come and “come with vengeance” to “save you” (35:4; note the contrast with 34:8)—where the blind will see and the deaf will hear and the lame will “leap like a deer” (35:5-6a)—where “waters will break out in the wilderness” (35:6) and “grass with reeds and rushes will be in the habitation of jackals, where they lay” (35:7; note the contrast with 34:9, 13). “A highway will be there” (35:8; note the contrast with 34:10). “No lion will be there, nor will any ravenous beast go up on it” (35:9; note the contrast with 34:11-14). “Yahweh’s ransomed ones will return, and come with singing to Zion” (35:10).
Because chapter 35 has something of the tone of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-66), some scholars suggest that it might be the work of Second Isaiah. However, the majority think that Second Isaiah started his work with chapter 40.
ISAIAH 35:1-7. A CHIASTIC STRUCTURE
A chiasmus (plural “chiasmi”) is “a rhetorical construction in which the order of the words in the second of two paired phrases is the reverse of the order in the first. An example is ‘gray was the morn, all things were gray” (Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2004) or “an inverted relationship between the syntactic elements of parallel phrases (as in Goldsmith’s to stop too fearful, and too faint to go)” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2007).
Chiasmi are quite common in Biblical poetry. Brueggemann suggests that we see verses 1-7 as a chiasmus:
(a) the transformation of creation (vs. 1-2)
(b) the transformation of disabled humanity (v. 3)
(c) the assertion of God’s coming rescue (v. 4)
(b’) the transformation of disabled humanity (vs. 5-6a)
(a’) the transformation of creation (vs. 6b-7)” (Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching, 20)
Note the parallels between a and a’ and between b and b’—with c as the center point, the focus, the point of it all.
ISAIAH 35:1-2. THE WILDERNESS AND THE DRY LAND WILL BE GLAD
1The wilderness and the dry land will be glad.
The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose.
2 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.
“The wilderness and the dry land will be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose. It will blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing” (vv. 1-2a). This contrasts dramatically with the land soaked with blood and the soil turned to sulfur and burning pitch in 34:7, 9. In chapter 35, the desert wilderness remains a desert, but a glad desert that rejoices and blossoms.
Those who have lived in deserts know how quickly deserts can come alive with colorful flowers after a rain shower. It is a sight that inspires joy in the hearts of those who are accustomed to seeing the more usual desert colors. This is the image that our prophet/poet captures to convey the sense of vitality and joy that will be present in the place that he is portraying.
Wilderness, dry land, and desert refer to the arid land that could be lovely when the rains came—but they seldom came. The wilderness could stretch a shepherd’s ingenuity to the breaking point, and could claim the life of the unwary traveler.
But while a desert wilderness might seem forbidding, it was in the wilderness that Yahweh forged Israel into a nation.
- It was through the wilderness that the Lord carried Israel, “as a man does bear his son, in all the way that you went, until you came to this place” (Deuteronomy 1:31).
- During their forty years in the wilderness, the Lord was with Israel so that they lacked nothing (Deuteronomy 2:7).
- It was in the wilderness that the Lord humbled Israel, “and fed (them) with manna, which (they) didn’t know, neither did (their) fathers know; that he might make (them) know that man does not live by bread only, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
- John the Baptist will go to the wilderness to proclaim the need for repentance (Matthew 3:1).
- Jesus will be tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1ff.), and will retreat to the wilderness to pray (Luke 5:16).
In other words, the wilderness is inextricably interwoven with the spiritual history and discipline of Israel.
Therefore, a wilderness that blossoms abundantly and rejoices with joy and singing represents more than geography. It is a metaphor for spiritual renewal and vitality—for a people who are in a right relationship with the Lord and are blessed to enjoy the prosperity which the Lord has given them.
“Lebanon’s glory will be given to it, the excellence of Carmel and Sharon” (v. 2b). These three places, Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon, are famous for their lush beauty.
• LEBANON (on the Mediterranean seacoast about 25 miles or 40 k. north of the Sea of Galilee) is a land of snow-capped mountains, snow-fed mountain streams, and cedar forests. Solomon arranged with Hiram of Tyre to use cedars from Lebanon to build the temple (1 Kings 5), because they were the trees fit for a king—or for the Lord.
• MOUNT CARMEL (on the Mediterranean seacoast 17 miles or 27 k. west of the Sea of Galilee) rises majestically from the sea. Although it is only about 1740 feet (530 m.) high, it enjoys abundant rain that fosters verdant growth.
• THE PLAIN OF SHARON is a lovely coastal plain stretching along the Mediterranean seacoast south from Mount Carmel for about 35-40 miles (55-65 k.)—known for its fertile fields and flowers (Watts, 540).
These three places, all on the Mediterranean seacoast, are remote from the wilderness both geographically and spiritually. They represent prosperity, while the wilderness represents austerity. But the prophet says that the wilderness will be like these glorious, majestic places.
“They will see Yahweh’s glory, the excellence of our God” (v. 2c). In the preceding phrase (v. 2b), the prophet spoke of “Lebanon’s glory” and “the excellence of Carmel and Sharon.” Now he speaks of “Yahweh’s glory” and “the excellence of our God.” Isaiah is a great poet, so this parallelism is deliberate. If Lebanon is glorious and Carmel and Sharon are majestic, they are only reflecting, however imperfectly, the glory and the majesty of the one who created them. If the wilderness will become glorious and majestic, it is only because the Lord has deigned it to be so.
The prophet provides no clear antecedent to the pronoun, “They”—so who are “They”? “They” could be the wilderness and the desert of verse 1. “They” could be Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon of verse 2. “They” could be God’s people (v. 8). Or this could be a royal, all-embracing “They” that wraps its arms around all people everywhere.
ISAIAH 35:3-4. “BE STRONG. DON’T BE AFRAID!”
3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4Tell 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.
“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” (v. 3). Israel has been in exile for decades, and their bondage has sapped their spirit and strength. The first step to recovery of physical strength is recovery of spirit. The prophet calls people to begin that recovery, and begins to lay the foundation for them to hope. A person with no hope can be expected to have weak hands and feeble knees, but when hope is restored, he/she will find reservoirs of untapped strength—both spiritual and physical strength.
“Tell those who have a fearful heart (literally “hasty heart”), ‘Be strong. Don’t be afraid'” (v. 4a). Fear makes people’s hearts beat faster and makes them weak. But these people have no reason to be afraid, because Yahweh is their God—and Yahweh is present with them.
“Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God’s retribution. He will come and save you” (v. 4b). This, in fact, will happen. Yahweh will raise up Cyrus of Persia who will defeat Babylonia and establish Persia as the dominant power. Cyrus will allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem.
But the counsel of verse 4a not to fear and the assurance of verse 4b that God will save is eternal—applies to God’s people in every time and place. The God of Israel is our God too. The God who promised to save Israel has also promised to save us.
ISAIAH 35:5-6a. THEN THE EYES OF THE BLIND WILL BE OPENED
5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.
6a Then the lame man will leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute will sing;
“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” (v. 5-6a). This is poetic language, and thus lends itself to various interpretations. It could reflect a Godly concern for people with physical infirmities. It could be a metaphor for the people of Israel who will experience joyous freedom. It could be a metaphor for the people of God generally. It could have an eschatological (end of time) character, portraying the beauty that we can expect with God in heaven. Most likely, it is all of these—and more.
The New Testament portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of this promise. When John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers,“Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:3-5; see also Luke 7:22). That passage follows a host of healing stories:
• Of a leper (Matthew 8:1-4)
• Of a centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13)
• Of many people at Peter’s house (Matthew 8:14-17)
• Of a Gadarene demoniac (Matthew 8:28-34)
• Of a paralytic (Matthew 9:2-8)
• Of a little girl and a woman (Matthew 9:18-26)
• Of two blind men (Matthew 9:27-31)
• And of one who was mute (Matthew 9:32-34)
“then the lame man will leap like a deer” (v. 6a). This will be fulfilled literally when the Apostle Peter heals a man lame from birth. Luke reports that the man jumped up and began to walk—”walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8).
ISAIAH 35:6b-7. FOR WATERS WILL BREAK OUT IN THE WILDERNESS
6b For waters will break out in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert.
7The 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.
The preceding verses portrayed salvation with various metaphors—as a blossoming desert (vv. 1-2)—as God coming to save the people (vv. 3-4)—and as infirmities lifted (vv. 5-6a). Now the prophet/poet returns to the wilderness metaphor.
While not devoid of life, deserts present a challenging environment for most life forms. Lack of water makes it impossible to raise traditional crops. Finding water for grazing animals is a challenge. Many people die trying to cross deserts because they run out of water. While it is possible to get some moisture from cacti and to eat some desert animals (rattlesnakes, for instance)—the desert does not easily support human life.
But modern irrigation has proven that it is possible to farm the desert. Water is all that is needed, but providing water to the desert is, for the most part, an elusive dream. But the prophet pictures a desert where waters gush forth and streams flow—where the rocky haunts of jackals become a swamp and grasses (suited to dry land) become reeds and rushes (suited to marshy land).
In the previous chapter, one mark of the curse was that “It shall be the haunt of jackals” (34:13). Now that curse is reversed as the habitat of jackals is transformed into a swamp.
ISAIAH 35:8-10. A HIGHWAY WILL BE THERE
8A highway will be there, a road,
and it will be called The Holy Way.
The unclean shall not pass over it,
but it will be for those who walk in the Way.
Wicked fools will not go there.
9No 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.
10The 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.”
“A highway will be there, a road, and it will be called The Holy Way” (v. 8a). In the last chapter, the prophet, describing the land of the curse, said, “No one will pass through it forever and ever” (34:10). But in this chapter, describing the land of blessing, the prophet says, “A highway will be there.”
“The unclean shall not pass over it, but it will be for those who walk in the Way” (v. 8b). God gave the Israelites a number of ceremonial laws codified in the Torah to determine whether a person is clean (ceremonially fit for worship) or unclean (unfit for worship). This has to do with spiritual rather than physical cleanliness. It has to do with ceasing to do evil (Isaiah 1:16)—and ceasing to worship idols (Ezekiel 36:25)—and not defiling the tabernacle or temple (Leviticus 15:31).
Israelites could be rendered unclean by eating animals proscribed by the law (Leviticus 11)—by giving birth (Leviticus 12:2ff.)—by contracting leprosy (Leviticus 13)—or by coming into contact with certain bodily discharges or dead bodies (Leviticus 11:39; 15:18). But the Torah also prescribes remedies for various unclean states so that unclean people might become clean. The purpose of these laws is to establish Israelites as a holy people—separate from other people—set apart to be God’s people (Leviticus 20:26).
The highway promised by the prophet will be reserved for God’s people—people who maintain themselves as separate from other people—people who keep the law—people who keep themselves ceremonially clean and free from evil.
This is cause for rejoicing, because God’s people will not have to worry about thieves and muggers and others who might pose a threat. They will not have to post a guard to warn of enemies. They will not have to circle their wagons into a defensive configuration at night. The only people that they will encounter on this road are God’s people.
“Wicked fools will not go there” (v. 8c). Blowing sand can quickly obscure a desert pathway so that only a highly skilled guide can find the way. Those who lose their way are likely to wander aimlessly and die. But this is no obscure pathway. It is a well-marked, smooth highway. No skilled guide is required. The way is so sure that even a fool can proceed without danger.
But fools (those opposed to God’s will) will not go there. Their perversity will cause them to regard a Godly pathway as unattractive. In his book, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis notes: “We are afraid that Heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.” Therefore, only the redeemed of God will travel that road.
“No lion will be there, nor will any ravenous animal go up on it. They will not be found there” (v. 9a). In the previous chapter, the cursed land was populated with jackals, ostriches, wildcats, goat-demons, and buzzards (34:13-15). But the blessed land of this chapter will be free of all dangerous animals.
“but the redeemed will walk there” (v. 9b). Redemption has to do with being freed from bondage by the payment of a price. However, “when God is said to be the redeemer, as in Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 41:14; 47:4), the emphasis is placed upon his mighty act of deliverance that will be like the Exodus” (Myers, 876).
The redeemed shall not only walk on this highway, but they shall also walk boldly, having nothing to fear.
“The 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” (v. 10). The wording is the same at verse 51:11.
“The Yahweh’s ransomed ones will return” (v. 10a). Ransom is the price paid to redeem (to set free) a slave or prisoner of war. In other words, redemption is the process of freeing a captive and ransom is the price paid to achieve redemption.
The Torah requires families to redeem (pay ransom for) the property of family members who have been forced to sell their property (Leviticus 25:25-34)—and to support family members in need without enslaving them (Leviticus 25:35-46)—and to redeem family members who have been forced to sell themselves in to slavery (Leviticus 25:47-55).
But here it is the Lord who redeems (pays the ransom for) the people of Israel. It is the Lord who insures that they will return.
This idea of the Lord redeeming his people continues into the New Testament (Mark 10:45; Luke 1:68; 21:28) with a strong emphasis on the redemptive work of Christ (Romans 3:24; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; 1 Corinthians 1:30).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bartelt, Andrew H., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Scott, R.B.Y. (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 1-39); Kilpatrick, G.G.D., (Exposition of Isaiah 1-39); Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Smith, Gary V., The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, Vol. 15a (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2007)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Tucker, Gene M., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Nelson Reference and Electronic, 2005)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 19-39, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969)
Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan