Isaiah 62:1-5 is one of those texts that make modern people cringe. In an age in which women have made tremendous strides in education and earnings and thus, independence, this text comes as quite an anachronism. For in it, Judah is presented as a desperate, fallen woman in need of deliverance by a man through marriage.
The metaphor of marriage between Yahweh and his people is one of the central images used in Scripture to portray God’s redemptive, atoning purpose in relating to humanity. Whether it is a bloody sacrifice offered as reconciliation, a judge who takes the punishment of the guilty on himself, or the Christus Victor who triumphs over sin, Satan and death, each of these metaphors, including the one in Isaiah 62 are different ways of attempting to explain the elevation of the people from inferior to superior status.
It is important to remember that one of the most common prophetic motifs in the Scripture is that of Israel’s infidelity towards Yahweh. For example, the entire book of Hosea makes use of the image of the prostitute, whom the prophet is commanded to take as his wife, in order that Hosea might understand how it feels to be God in relationship to his unfaithful people. The image of the prostitute/harlot/whore is also widely used elsewhere in the prophetic literature (cf. e.g. Isa. 1:21; 57:3; Jer. 2:20; 3:1, 3, 6, 8; Ezek. 16:14-17; etc.).
It is against the backdrop of the incessant claims of covenantal infidelity, thatt this word of “vindication” (Isa 62:1-2) is presented. What seems to be celebrated here is that the shame of being a “fallen woman” has been lifted by the new relationship that the people have with Yahweh. The “nations” and “kings” (v. 2) who witnessed Jerusalem’s degradation now behold her “glory.” (v. 2) This seems odd to modern readers, in a context in which A) most people don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about their fidelity and B) most women aren’t looking to be “saved” by some man. But this reversal of fortune is crucial to the tableaux the prophet creates.
The concrete historical situation that this passage apparently represents is likely the return from exile. Having “played the harlot” Judah was humiliated before the whole earth by the destruction of Jerusalem and the carting-off of its best and brightest to work in the Babylonian bureaucracy. After more than half a century in this shameful estate, Cyrus the Persian freed them, and the prophetic response to this happy event are texts like this present one. Where once there was shame, now there is glory. Where once there was despair, now there is salvation.
The culmination of the passage is in the new name given to the people by the bridegroom. They had been living under other names: “Forsaken” and “Desolate.” These were not their given names, but rather those that they had acquired at the hands of the kings in nations that had witnessed their humiliation, and had imagined that things would always be as they were for Judah. But on this festal occasion, Judah is given a new name– Hephzibah (My Delight is in Her) and Beulah (Married). In our own time, we give our children names that usually reflect either trendiness or uniqueness, reasons that would have been foreign to the ancients. Nonetheless, we still have a sense of the power of names to define who we are. This is especially true when it comes to hurtful nicknames, which though we tell ourselves that they don’t matter, hurt nonetheless. In antiquity the situation was quite different. The power of the name in such cultures was thought to be an indelible mark on someone that defined both their character and their destiny. To be tagged with names like Forsaken and Desolate as Judah had, would have seemed to people to be an almost insurmountable obstacle to any kind of positive transformation. Yet on its wedding day, the prophet insists that such transformation has become a reality for Judah, and that the old names have been sloughed off in favor of a new identity.
The theme of reversal is a prominent one in the scripture in both Testaments. What is special about this particular text is that Its vision of reversal is so intimate. The care and concern that God has for the chosen people is manifested in the tenderness of the marital metaphor. It isn’t just that God loves the people; it is that God has the deepest affection and regard for the people in the same way that a husband would for his wife. That intimacy will later capture the imagination of several writers throughout the New Testament, who will pick up on this theme to describe the relationship between Jesus and the church.
The tricky part for the preacher is to communicate the intimacy and tenderness of the text in such a way that the sexism of the text is placed in its proper context. People don’t think in these kinds of categories at all anymore, but the inviting Pastor can draw his or her hearers into the world of the text such that they can appreciate the wonder and beauty that is portrayed therein. The text suggests that God never forgets the promises, and that God takes great delight in raising up people from the dust whom everyone else has given up on. In some ways, this text represents an inversion of the classic tale “Beauty and the Beast,” which is about a relationship that exists between an equal partners, out of which the seemingly deficient partner grows to full potential. That God sees the world not as it is, but as it might be is the invitation to the people of God to think likewise.