Papal Address on Canticle in Isaiah 33

God Isn’t Indifferent to Good and Evil, Says Pope

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 30, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on Chapter 33 of the Book of Isaiah, verses 13-16. He gave the address in Italian.

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1. We find the brief text proclaimed today among the biblical canticles interlaced with the Psalms in the liturgy of lauds. It is taken from a chapter in the Book of the prophet Isaiah, the 33rd of his extensive and wonderful collection of the Lord’s sayings.

In the verses preceding those referred to (see verses 10-12), the canticle begins with the announcement of a powerful and glorious entrance of God onto the stage of human history: “Now I will arise up, says the Lord, now I will be exalted, now be lifted up” (verse 10). The words of God are addressed to those who are “far off” and to those who are “near,” namely, to all the nations of the earth, even the most remote, and to Israel, the people “near” to the Lord because of the covenant (see verse 13).

Another passage of the Book of Isaiah affirms: “Peace, peace to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them” (Isaiah 57:19). Now, however, the words of the Lord become harsh; they assume the tone of judgment on the wickedness of those who are “far” and “near.”

2. In fact, see how immediately after, fear spreads among the inhabitants of Zion in which sin and impiety nest (see Isaiah 33:14). They are conscious of living next to the Lord who resides in the Temple, who has chosen to walk with them in history and transformed himself into “Emmanuel,” “God-with-Us” (see Isaiah 7:14). Well, the just and holy Lord cannot tolerate impiety, corruption and injustice. He is unleashed as a “consuming fire” and “everlasting flames” (see Isaiah 33:14) against evil to annihilate it.

In Chapter 10, Isaiah already warned: “The Light of Israel will become a fire, Israel’s Holy One a flame,/ That burns and consumes” (verse 17). The Psalmist also sang: “as wax is melted by fire, so the wicked will perish before God” (Psalm 67[68]:3). What it means, in the realm of the economy of the Old Testament, is that God is not indifferent before good and evil, but shows himself annoyed and angry in the face of wickedness.

3. Our canticle does not end with this dark scene of judgment. Rather, it reserves the longest and most intense part to holiness received and lived as a sign of the conversion and reconciliation that is to come about with God. Just as some Psalms indicate, such as 14 and 23, which bring to light the conditions required by the Lord to live in joyful communion with him in the liturgy of the Temple, Isaiah lists six moral commitments for the true believer, faithful and righteous (see Isaiah 33:15), who can dwell, without suffering harm, near the divine fire, a source of benefits for him.

The first commitment consists of “walking in righteousness,” namely, in considering the divine law as a lamp that lights up the path of life. The second coincides with loyal and sincere speech, sign of correct and authentic social relations. As a third commitment, Isaiah proposes rejection of “gain from outrage,” thus combating the oppression of the poor and unjust wealth. The believer is then determined to condemn political and judicial corruption, shaking “his hands, lest they hold a bribe,” a thought-provoking image that indicates the refusal of donations made to deflect the application of the laws and the course of justice.

4. The fifth commitment is expressed with the significant gesture of “stopping his ears” when bloody proposals are made, acts of violence to be perpetrated. The sixth and last commitment is expressed with an image that, at first sight, is disconcerting because it does not correspond to our way of speaking. When we talk of “turning a blind eye,” we wish to say: “to pretend not to see, so as not to have to intervene”; however, the prophet says that the honest man “[closes] his eyes lest he look on evil” in sign of a complete refusal of any contact whatsoever with evil.

In his commentary on Isaiah, St. Jerome develops the concept, keeping in mind the whole passage: “Every iniquity, oppression and injustice is a blood decision: and even if one does not kill with the sword, one still kills with the intention. ‘And closes his eyes lest he look on evil’: happy the conscience that does not hear or contemplate evil! Whoever is like this, will dwell ‘in the highest,’ namely, in the Kingdom of Heaven and in the highest cave of the very strong Rock, in Christ Jesus” (“In Isaiam prophetam,” 10, 33: PL (Latin Fathers) 24, 367).

Jerome thus introduces us to the right understanding of that “closing of the eyes” evoked by the Prophet: It is an invitation to refuse, absolutely, any complicity with evil. As it is easy to note, the principal senses of the body are challenged: indeed, hands, feet, eyes, ears, tongue are involved in human moral behavior.

5. Well, whoever chooses to follow this honest and righteous conduct will have access to the Temple of the Lord, where he will receive the security of that external and internal well-being that God gives to the one who is in communion with him. The Prophet uses two images to describe this happy end (see verse 16): “He shall dwell on the heights, his stronghold shall be the rocky fastness, his food and drink in steady supply,” symbols of the prosperous and happy life.

Tradition has interpreted spontaneously the sign of water as an image of baptism (see … the Letter of Barnabas 11, 5), while bread has been transfigured for Christians in the sign of the Eucharist. It is what is read, for example, in the commentary of St. Justin Martyr, who sees in the words of Isaiah a prophecy of the eucharistic “bread,” “memoria” of the redemptive death of Christ (see “Dialogo con Trifone,” Paoline, 1988, p. 242).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Canticle found in the 33rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah announces God’s condemnation of human injustice and his summons to a life of holiness in fidelity to the Covenant. According to the Prophet, only those who walk in the way of justice and integrity, rejecting all complicity with evil, will enter the Lord’s holy Temple and dwell in his peace. God’s peace is described as an abundance of bread and water. In this rich imagery, the Church sees a foreshadowing of the life-giving sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

I extend a warm welcome to the priests of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College. I also greet the delegation from the Port Authority Police Department of New York and New Jersey, who honor their fellow officers who gave their lives in last year’s terrorist attack on New York City. Upon all the English-speaking visitors, especially those from England, Ireland, Canada, and the United States, I invoke joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

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