Opening with God’s Word


Sunday’s readings present us with a rarity: the opening lines of two books of Scripture. We get to hear both Deutero-Isaiah and Mark’s introduction to their works. The evangelist even weaves some of the prophet’s words into his own prologue, which is why the third verse of the first reading (Is 40:1-5, 9-11) sounds so familiar: "A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of Yahweh!"

The way a sacred author begins his work is important. It tells us a lot about the problems with which the writer is dealing and how he will address them. No one ever starts writing in a vacuum, not even our biblical authors. If something weren’t wrong in the community, they wouldn’t write.

For Deutero-Isaiah, "what’s wrong" isn’t just the Babylonian Exile: it’s also his people’s belief that they’re never going to get out of exile. Beaten down by almost 50 years of forced separation from the Promised Land, they’ve given up all hope of return.


Then Deutero-Isaiah comes on the scene. This unnamed prophet tells the Israelites that he represents a God of consolation, a God who is no longer punishing them, a God who wants them to start building a road through the wilderness separating Babylon from Israel, a God who demands they notify their families and friends that they’re on the way back home. They’re about to take part in a new Exodus!

A great promise, but how can Deutero-Isaiah be certain that all this is going to happen? His response is simple and to the point: "The mouth of Yahweh has spoken!"

The prophet believes whatever God says will happen as certainly as God says it. Since Yahweh says we’re going home, there’s but one thing left to do: "Start packing!" God’s word is just as effective as God’s actions.

No prophet emphasizes God’s word more than Deutero-Isaiah. It actually provides the theological foundation for many other biblical introductions. The priestly author of the Genesis I creation myth, for instance, had a copy of the prophet’s 16 chapters in front of him when he described God creating by the force and power of God’s word alone. And John the Evangelist certainly revolved his Gospel’s initial concept of Jesus as God’s "word made flesh" around the insights of his predecessor from 600 years before.

Even Mark starts his Gospel by referring to John the Baptizer as Deutero-Isaiah’s "voice proclaiming God’s word in the wilderness" (Mk 1:1-8). Yet, God’s word is more complicated than just a prediction that always comes true. It’s almost never fulfilled in the way people anticipate.

New Insights

Deutero-Isaiah ran afoul of his community’s expectations by designating an uncircumcised, pagan king, Cyrus, as the "messiah" who would bring Yahweh’s Chosen People back to their Promised Land.

The biblical John the Baptizer eventually had problems with his own understanding of the "one more powerful than me who is to come after me… the one whose sandal straps I am not fit to stoop and untie." Could this person be the unassuming carpenter from Galilee, or should we be looking for another?

In the same way, the author of II Peter discovers that he must deal in a different way with Jesus’ world about His return in the Parousia from the way earlier Christian authors dealt with it (2 Peter 3:8-14). Since he writes at the beginning of the second century, he emphasizes the idea that "a thousand years are like a day in the Lord’s eyes." In other words, don’t expect Jesus to return anytime soon.

Those authors who mention God’s word at the beginning of their writings are, like Bette Davis, telling their readers to "buckle their seat belts." It’s not only going to be a "bumpy ride," but also the most fascination ride humans can ever experience.