Reflection on Isaiah 42:10-17

God Is Near, Even When He Is Silent, Says John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 2, 2003 ( Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave today at the general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on Isaiah 42.

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1. In the book that bears the name of the prophet Isaiah, scholars have identified the presence of different voices, all placed under the patronage of the great prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C. This is the case of the vigorous hymn of joy and victory that was just proclaimed, as a part of the liturgy of lauds of the Fourth Week. Exegetes attribute it to the so-called Second Isaiah, a prophet who lived in the sixth century B.C., at the time of the return of the Israelites from their exile in Babylon. The hymn begins with a call to «sing to the Lord a new song» (see Isaiah 42:10), just as occurs in other Psalms (see 95:1 and 97:1).

The «novelty» of the song, which the prophet requests be sung, is certainly the opening of a horizon of liberty, as a radical change in the history of a people who have known oppression and sojourn in a foreign land (see Psalm 136).

2. «Novelty,» in the Bible, often has the tone of a perfect and definitive reality. It is almost the sign of the beginning of an era of salvific fullness that seals the suffering history of humanity. The canticle of Isaiah is characterized by this high tone, which is well adapted to Christian prayer.

The world in its totality, which includes the earth, sea, islands, deserts and cities, is invited to raise a «new song» to the Lord (see Isaiah 42:10-12). The whole of space is involved to its furthest horizontal confines, which even include the unknown, as well as its vertical dimension, which starts from the desert plane, where the nomad tribes of Kedar are found (see Isaiah 21:16-17), and rises to the mountains. The city of Sela is found there, identified by many with Petra, in the territory of the Edomites, a city placed among rocky peaks.

All the inhabitants of the earth are invited to form a sort of immense choir to acclaim the Lord with exultation and give him glory.

3. After the solemn invitation to sing (see verses 10-12), the prophet has the Lord enter the scene, represented as the God of the Exodus, who has liberated his people from the slavery of Egypt: «The Lord goes forth like a hero, like a warrior» (verse 13). He sows terror among his adversaries, who oppress others and commit injustice.

The canticle of Moses also depicts the Lord during the crossing of the Red Sea as a «mighty man of war,» ready to extend his powerful right hand and terrify the enemies (see Exodus 15:3-8). With the return of the Israelites from the deportation to Babylon a new exodus is about to take place and the faithful must be conscious of the fact that history is not left up to fate, to chaos or to oppressive powers: the last word is with the just and strong God, the Psalmist already sang: «Give us aid against the foe; worthless is human help» (Psalm 59:13).

4. Having entered the scene, the Lord speaks and his vehement words (see Isaiah 42:14-16) are mixed with judgment and salvation. He begins by recalling that «For a long time I have held my peace,» that is, he did not intervene. The divine silence is often the cause of perplexity and even of scandal for the just, as Job’s long cry attests (see Job 3:1-26). However, this is not a silence that indicates absence, almost as if leaving history in the hands of the perverse, while the Lord remains indifferent and impassible. In reality, that silence ends in a reaction similar to that of a woman in travail who pants, puffs and cries. It is the divine judgment on evil, represented with images of aridity, destruction, desert (see verse 15), which has as its end a living and fruitful result.

In fact, the Lord makes a new world arise, an era of liberty and salvation. The eyes of the one who was blind are opened, so that he can enjoy the bright light. The way becomes easy, and hope flowers (see verse 16), making it possible to continue to trust in God and in his future of peace and happiness.

5. Every day the believer must know how to discern the signs of divine action, even when it is hidden by the apparently monotonous and pointless flow of time. As an esteemed modern Christian author wrote, «the earth is pervaded by a cosmic ecstasy: There is in it an eternal reality and presence that, however, normally is asleep under the veil of custom. The eternal reality must now reveal itself, as in an epiphany of God, through all of that which exists» (R. Guardini, «Sapienza dei Salmi» [Wisdom of the Psalms], Brescia, 1976, p. 52).

To discover, with the eyes of faith, this divine presence in space and time, but also in ourselves, is the source of hope and trust, even when our heart is troubled and shaken «as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind» (Isaiah 7:2). In fact, the Lord appears on the scene to rule and judge: «To govern the world with justice and the peoples with faithfulness» (Psalm 95[96]:13).

[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 42nd chapter of the Book of Isaiah calls for «new song»: in praise of God who liberates his people and brings them salvation. Composed at the time of Israel’s return from the Exile, the hymn invites all creation to sing the triumph of God’s justice and saving power. If at times God may appear to be silent, this «silence» is but a prelude to his decisive intervention on behalf of his faithful ones. The Canticle urges us to reaffirm our faith in God’s lordship over history, to discern the signs of his presence in our world and to trust in the fulfillment of his saving promises.

I am pleased to welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, especially those from England, Denmark, and the United States. Upon you and your families I cordially invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

[English text distributed by Vatican press office]

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