Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

The Politics of God’s Plenty—Isaiah 55:1-5 (Alastair Roberts)

14-08-03 - Oasis in Libya

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

These verses present a dramatic divine reversal of Israel’s fortunes. In chapter 8, the nation rejected the soft-flowing waters of Shiloah and God sent the overflowing waters of Assyrian judgment—symbolized by the mighty Euphrates bursting its banks—in their place. In the previous chapter, the prophet spoke of waters of judgment again—the ‘waters of Noah’ (54:9-10). However, these waters now frame God’s commitment to be angry with and rebuke his people no longer. As he once placed the rainbow in the sky as the sign that he would never again destroy the world in a flood, so God now establishes a covenant of peace with his people. The judgment has passed and a new season of divine pleasure arrives, their old slate wiped clean by the retreating waters. Wrath having been assuaged, the nation is summoned to the sweet waters of blessing once again. The gift they once rejected God bestows again, more richly and freely than ever before.

The reversal of God’s judgment is attended by an extension of his Davidic blessing. Through the work of the faithful Davidic Servant, the promises and status that were once enjoyed by David and his seed alone are thrown open to all of the people. The entire nation is invited to enjoy the royal treasures of this storehouse of divine munificence. In addition to being made recipients of God’s goodness, the nation is exalted to a new level of office, as it now shares more directly in the royal vocation of the Davidic Servant. The authority and dignity that were previously the particular possession of the king is now enjoyed by the whole nation.

These verses offer us a vision of the politics of a restored nation on the other side of judgment. The nation has been raised up again, through the leadership of the Davidic Servant, to stand secure among the nations of the world. No longer are they fleeing before their enemies, but nations run to them to share in God’s blessing. Of all of the elements of this vision, it is probably the economic elements that are the most startling.

This passage confounds the logic of our capitalist economies. As if the owner of a great market, God summons his people to buy, yet ‘without money and without price.’ Wealthy or penniless, all are called to the waters in the same manner, invited to share in the Promised Land’s riches, its wine and its milk. Those who have been weighing out silver for things that do not sustain them and expending their wages on items that do not satisfy are called to delight in God’s abundance and to feast on the good things that he offers.

The powerful images of this passage might remind us of God’s provision for his people in the wilderness journey. Like the waters, wine, milk, and bread offered here, the manna of the wilderness subverted the logic of regular human economies. It couldn’t be accumulated and stored. None experienced lack, yet none had excess. The needs of all were perfectly met in plentiful divine gift. In the invitation of this passage, the possibility of a world beyond the fundamental economic inequalities of human society and the bitter exigencies of scarcity-driven economies is once more seen.

The absence of a price tag on the waters, wine, milk, and bread that God offers to his people indicates not only the gratuitous character of their bestowal, but also the fact that nothing is worthy to be exchanged with them. To put a price on God’s waters would be to fail to recognize their true value, to fail to appreciate their uniqueness. The economic subversion that occurs here also ensures that these riches must be both received and enjoyed as gifts, gifts that can never be alienated from their Giver and subjected to the power-grasping often inherent in human exchanges of property. They can never become anyone’s private possession, but are furnished as an open banquet to all who respond to a general invitation. In answering this invitation, the people are invited to return to the Giver, whose gifts they are, invited to return and to continue returning. The land is his open table and all of the people of the nation are his welcomed guests.

The subversive political import of the invitation of these verses shouldn’t be missed. Waters, wine, milk, and bread were the most elementary blessings of the Promised Land, blessings that God here offers as a free gift to all of his people, irrespective of their social rank or economic wealth. The whole nation is elevated to enjoy royal privileges and promises. By this decisive action, God indicates his determination to oppose and overthrow the injustice and oppression of the politically and economically powerful persons among the people.

Over recent years there has been a growing awareness of the acute problem of economic inequality within Western and particularly American society. Expressions such as the ‘one percent’ have become familiar and the work of such economists as Thomas Piketty have presented in sharp relief the problems entailed by the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. In addition to our increased sensitization to such issues, we continue to live in a society shaped by intensifying cycles of dissatisfaction, consumption, and disposal, cycles that appear to be both environmentally and socially unsustainable.

Isaiah’s prophetic vision meets our society—just as it did to the society to which it was first declared—like a cool and scented breeze in the cruel heat of a barren wilderness. It offers us a glimpse of a better world, a world where the needs of all can be meet. When our gnawing sense of existential lack has been quenched in the enjoyment of divine goodness, we are freed from our fruitless cycles of weighing out money for items that do not sustain us and spending our wages in futile quests for satisfaction. Rather than a world where many experience deep poverty and the great riches of our society are the preserve of a privileged few, God’s earth and empowered vocation are rediscovered as gifts for all to participate in. There is more than enough to go around. No one need be without.

This vision promises a new world, a world that we clearly do not yet experience. However, in reflecting upon such a vision we can find hope, determination, and a sense of direction. This is what we look forward to. This is what we must seek to make a reality. Within the life of the Christian Church, this passage acquires a new potency in our celebration of the Eucharist. All alike are invited to partake of God’s food and drink at this table. There is no one percent in God’s kingdom. Like those to whom this prophecy was first directed, the Church is called as a witness to the nations. Not only are we to live out this vision within the life of Christian communities, but we are to be the heralds of this vision to a wider world, those who both announce and serve as a foretaste of the promise of God’s new kingdom, those who work and pray to establish the patterns of this heavenly kingdom in the lives of our earthly societies.

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