CONSOLATION IN ISAIAH
The theological concept of God’s consolation is found primarily in Isaiah, 40-6-. Ben Shirach describes God’s consoling action in these words:
“In the power of the spirit he saw the last things, he consoled the mourners of Zion” (Si 48, 24).
Israel’s suffering and affliction was the result of their exile in Babylon - Nebuchadnezzar led the Jews into exile on three separate occasions. As during the Egyptian captivity Israel’s suffering found an outlet in lamentations to the Lord (Cf. Ex 2,23-25) so too in Babylon the exiles expressed their pain in plaintive cries.
The intensity of these lamentations is searing. Israel knows that its plight is the result of God’s judgement; Israel has been fickle, unfaithful and idolatrous - it has fallen short of its covenant obligations. In the depths of its despair it sees no comforter. Questions come to the author’s lips: “How can I describe you, to what compare you, daughter of Jerusalem? Who can rescue and console you, virgin daughter of Zion?” (Lm 2,12 = LXX).
These questions arise in the last stage of despair. The people have no other recourse but appeal to the Lord. Salvation is in the encounter between the people who cry and the Lord who responds with powerful words but even more powerful actions. This is genuine consolation. It had happened before when God heard the cry of Jacob’s descendants, “God heard … remembered … looked down … and knew” (Ex 2,23-25).
Divine intervention brings genuine consolation . It presumes awareness, confession and appeal. In the depth of suffering God finally intervenes – He responds to the suffering of his people. Even though this same sequence of verbs is not found in Isaiah 40-66, the text describes God’s determination to intervene in the same forceful way he did in Egypt. In Isaiah this saving intervention is called “consolation.”
1. God consoles through his messengers
The first passage in which God charges intermediaries with the task of consoling is at the beginning of Deutero-Isaiah:
“’Console my people, console them’ says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for’.” (Is 40, 1-2, TM).
The prophet is privy to God’s inner Counsel; God himself reveals the import of his message. The prophet would give voice to the incomprehensible speech of God himself. As was the case with the prophets, God’s plan of liberation and consolation is discerned and understood through the words of the prophet. The prophet’s message is true and authentic only when he has experienced God and become aware that he is being sent. He can only describe his experience (Cf. John the Baptist, Jn 1, 32-34).
The words the prophet must articulate are marked by the language of love – married love. They speak to the heart of a discouraged Israel – God calls them “my people”, “my spouse.” This sort of language signifies perfect reconciliation between God and the exiles; it revives, comforts and prepares souls to experience the same sort of wonders that accompanied the first exodus.
The prophet must immerse himself in the daily circumstances of the people’s life; he must understand its inner logic and know how to adapt the specific message of the one who sent him to these circumstances. Real life becomes the theological locus where God’s Will is made known through the prophet’s interpretative activity. The prophet shows the people how to read the signs of the times and at the same time he reassures them: the time – Kairós – is ripe for change.
This process is not the result of a sociological survey but derives from close and quiet attention to the voice of God which is only heard if one understands His intention. The genuine prophet contemplates divine reality. After this contemplation he speaks not on his own authority but in the name of God.
In our case the prophet has heard the word of God – he must go, bring it to the exiles and interpret it. He is the “Messenger.” His is the voice of consolation for those who have borne the yoke of slavery through the years. The message is one of joy – it portends the imminent intervention of God. It proclaims the end of slavery, the forgiveness of sin and the coming of God.
Already the first proclamation of Second Isaiah makes it clear that consolation involves more than a message of joy – it implies concrete action. Once the divine message has broken into history it automatically influences the situation. In this passage suffering is spoken of as already terminated, Israel’s sin is already forgiven. The words of consolation are the expression of a change that has already begun and will be completed shortly.
There is yet another text in Third Isaiah that describes the mediated action of God: “The spirit of the Lord Yahweh has been given to me, for Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison; to proclaim a year of favor from Yahweh, a day of vengeance for our God, to comfort those who mourn and to give them for ashes a garland; for mourning robe the oil of gladness, for despondency, praise. They are to be called ‘terebinths of integrity’, planted by Yahweh to glorify Him.” (Is 61, 1-3).
The prophet feels the Spirit of God overshadowing him and this authenticates his task as an evangelist, a herald who proclaims the new and the unknown. Here too the message is designed to prepare souls, to make people ready for the imminent intervention of God which will turn sadness into joy.
On their own these intermediaries are powerless; it is only “by proclaiming the joyful news” that their words become truly effective and reverse the human tragedy. The intermediaries have a mission from God: they must prepare souls and make men ready to seize the appropriate occasion for total and radical transformation.
The prophet becomes the voice of God and urges the people:
“A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yahweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken.’” (Is 40, 3-5).
The prophet’s highly symbolic language is saying that the people must prepare for God’s imminent and overwhelming revelation-action. This leads to an understanding of how complex the work of consolation is: although it begins with God’s exclusive initiative but uses human mediation – the prophet’s message merges with the people’s response.
2. God consoles in person
Second and Third Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah) are a collection of texts that describe God’s activity as “Consoler.” Some of these texts can help us understand what this consolation involves.
“I, I am your consoler. How then can you be afraid of mortal man, of son of man whose fate is the fate of grass? You have forgotten Yahweh who made you, who spread out the heavens and laid the earth’s foundations.” (Is 51, 12).
God defines and presents himself as the all-powerful creator, “He who consoles.” In Is 51, 12 he proclaims himself “I, the Consoler,” it is almost as if the work of consolation is an intrinsic part of being God. God uses all of his creative power to eliminate obstacles to his salvific process. He presents himself definitively as “consoler.” God responds to the anguished pleas of the people seeking consolation. God defines himself as authentic Consolation (Is 57, 18).
Having seen the plight of his people and the “ruins of Zion” God does not limit himself to casual comments – the words of his intervention radically change the situation:
“And now I want to console you, O Zion, I have consoled your ruins and I will turn your desolation into the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness shall be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of music” (Is 51,3 = LXX).
Through the positive intervention of God, the Creator-Consoler, Zion, the City of God, the Bride once afflicted and disconsolate, has been miraculously rebuilt. This is what the author means when he speaks of setting its stones on malachite and its foundations on sapphires (Is 54,11). Zion, the Bride, will be filled with wedding song, exultation and joy; it will witness renewed worship of the Living God consisting of celebratory proclamation and unifying praise.
This people, the “poor worm of Jacob,” “the mite of Israel” (Is 41,14) will fear no longer because the Holy One of Israel is coming to its aid. God could not forget the people he had chosen (Is 41, 8; 44,1; 46,3). God’s faithfulness is manifested episodically in time and history; the last end of salvation history involves periodic interventions by God. Israel must never lose sight of this final goal or it will experience God’s silence and abandonment.
The prophet uses two graphic images to describe the efficacy of God’s consoling activity: the shepherd and the mother:
“He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and consoling the mother ewes” (Is 40,11).
Israel is familiar with the bucolic image of the shepherd; it is frequently applied to the pilgrim people God leads and “puts to pasture” (it appears in the New Testament – Mt 18,12f; Lk 15,3-7; Jn 10,1-16 and elsewhere). The Lord is solicitous and anxious for his flock. He nourishes it, he brings it together, he protects it from the dangers of the night and brings it back to the sheepfold – and most important he takes special care of the weakest – the lambs and the ewes. The weakest members of the flock experience his consoling activity – he is ready to intervene when the situation requires it.
God’s solicitous attention is further described with the image of the mother:
“Like a son consoled by his mother will I console you, and in Jerusalem you will be consoled” (66,13 = LXX).
Here God speaks of himself as a mother who consoles her son. Like a mother he bends down to Jerusalem and dries its tears – “to dry every tear on every face” (Is 25,8). Since we are speaking about God power and tenderness are linked. As the God-Consoler he acts as God-Creator and God-the-Mother.
The beneficial effects of God’s consoling intervention are abundantly clear in Isaiah. The first positive result is the elimination of Israel’s enemies – they become a ransom paid to redeem the chosen people (43, 3).
A second even more striking effect is that God himself leads the new exodus; he prepares a path in the desert (49, 11). The exiles’ return will be followed by extensive rebuilding of Jerusalem; Jerusalem is the mother (primary image of consolation) at whose breast the children will be nourished (Cf. 66,11). Through this new exodus Israel establishes a new relationship with God. This new relationship will be more perfect than the former one and will be infused with the Spirit of God – which alone guarantees its stability and durability (44,1-5).
A final beneficial effect can be seen in created nature itself. The desert and arid steppes of the past will give way to rivers, springs, streams, pastures and gardens with trees. God’s consoling action has made a new creation. Creation is called to collaborate with the Lord, to join the joy of the returning exiles – it responds meekly:
“Shout for joy, you heavens; exult, you earth! You mountains, break into happy cries! For Yahweh consoles his people and takes pity on those who are afflicted” (49,13).
God’s consoling action in Isaiah 40-66 consists of forgiveness of sin, destruction of enemies, return from the Babylonian captivity and a new creation; it has a special character. In the first place – as we saw earlier – God does not confine himself to comforting words or promises but intervenes personally “with word and power,” and changes his people’s sorrow into joy. In the second place he acts with all the power of the Creator. In the third place he joins power to love - he compares himself to the mother who consoles. Finally he emerges as the only Principle and Source of consolation; the prophet is his messenger, the humble, submissive mediator who works with the Lord and effectively articulates “the joyful proclamation” of God’s consoling action.
- Do I know real situations that need “consolation?” Can I hear unspoken cries for help?
- In the light of everything above – who is the prophet? What role does he play in the context of consoling action?
- Can there be a prophet of consolation who is not contemplative? And what is contemplation in the framework of consolation?
Fr. Antonio Magnante