Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendour everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look towards the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
1 Blessèd be the Lord, the God of Israel,*
for he has come to his people and set them free.
2 He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,*
born of the house of his servant, David.
3 Through his holy prophets, he promised of old*
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us;
4 He promised to show mercy to our forebears,*
and to remember his holy covenant.
5 This was the oath he swore to our father, Abraham,*
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
6 Free to worship him without fear,*
holy and righteous in his sight,
all the days of our life.
7 You, my child,
shall be called the prophet of the Most High,*
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
8 To give his people knowledge of salvation*
by the forgiveness of all their sins.
9 In the tender compassion of our God*
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
10 To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,*
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord,…”
This is one of the most well-known verses for Advent – because I think everyone hears it with Handel’s music as an accompaniment. In Messiah’s first recitative after the words, “comfort ye my people,” come the words from our gospel today, this quotation from Isaiah, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” – we have probably also heard the statement declaimed on the street corner by one of the more determined evangelists of modern days.
With all that in mind, I would like to look at this quoted verse in a little more detail, because I once was in conversation with a fellow who said that we christians had misunderstood this verse. But how could this be the case? How could everyone get this verse wrong? – First, I think we have to see where it appears in the narrative. The story of John the Baptist enfolds this quotation. This verse was taken as explaining the significance of John the Baptist, that prophet who could be found in the rough places outside the city, down by the river where the outcasts were to be found. John was that voice in the wilderness crying loudly that everything must be prepared for the coming of the Lord. This message is much the same as Jesus’ gospel, when he preaches, “The Kingdom of God has come very close.”
With this reflection about John the Baptist in mind, I think it is quite easy to understand our misappropriation of this verse. Naturally this prophet speaks about making ready the world for the Kingdom of God. Where does John preach? In the waste places, in the desert. So when we come to remember this verse – how would we remember this prophet’s preaching? Yes, easily we punctuate it to go with this interpretation of the words. “The voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
Well, another thing comes to my aid in understanding our mistaking of this verse from Isaiah. Who has ever seen a Greek manuscript,
or, more importantly, who has ever seen a Hebrew manuscript?
This fellow who spoke with me those many years ago, berates us christians because the usual way we hear this verse is wrong. The quotation should actually read, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” The voice cries out everywhere, not just in the wilderness. Isaiah’s voice was heard in the midst of Jerusalem, not only in far reaches of the desert places.
He told me that punctuation was essential to our understanding of this proclamation. The misplacement of the comma and our quotation marks has determined a great deal in our tradition of devotion to God.
This critical fellow is not alone, NT and OT scholars agree that the tradition has got it wrong.
One of the first things teachers of the Bible will tell you is that there is no punctuation as we have it in the earliest manuscripts. No commas, no full stops, no paragraphs. There are no chapters and verses. So, many would ask, how do we have what we have?
The meaning of the manuscripts guides us. The arrangement of the words tells us a great deal. We all know how this works, don’t we? How we place the words on the page, their order, determines how our meaning is put across. A word in the wrong place badly makes our message. Word placement is interesting – it reveals so much. This is the function of exegesis, when we read out of the text the meaning. The words on the page should always guide our interpretation. How they relate to each other should guide us in finding the meaning. The philosopher tells us to go “to the things themselves!” Good interpretation does precisely this.
But word placement is not the only thing at work when we approach a text. We often have what is called “an agenda” in anything we do in life. That often determines how we see things. If I am convinced of conspiracy around me, then everything I look at confirms that people are against me. In that frame of mind, nothing can convince me that I am a free agent in the midst of all. My agenda forces me to read into the text a meaning, and I will fail in my purpose to reveal God’s purpose in the text we study.
We could say that this has happened in the tradition, especially in the placement of the punctuation in this verse. So, many are right in the judgement of prejudice in this verse. More importantly, we have perverted the meaning of the text of the Word of God here and it has consequences in the working out of the tradition.
Who has ever heard of “the Desert Fathers”?
They represent a very important wave of people who took this verse very seriously. They are the vanguard of the monastic movement in the early church. The monks would forsake “the world” and depart into the desert to be that voice in the wilderness crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The desert fathers abandoned life with family and friends and would live like hermits in the wilderness. They would often ignore those who approached them seeking guidance in their quest for the perfect religious life. At other times they would grant an audience and their words of counsel would eventually be collected into our “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” which found prominence in church history courses when I was studying.
These Fathers were following this real call to abandon the world. They authentically responded to the meaning of this verse. They went to the desert to be the voice crying out. They were in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. Consequently the world beat a path to them, and they were able to preach the Gospel.
Ironically, this misreading of the text provided a positive meaning in ecclesiastical history. The world is richer for the monks who abandoned the world to become voices in the wilderness. It turns out that their barren places became rich in the meaning of the gospel. But that does not always happen, does it? Sometimes our wilderness experience does not lead us to humility and patience, sometimes arrogance and intolerance results. We can see this in the events of the last few weeks, in Syria and now in this country. Our eisegesis has determined our actions and has blinded us to the message of the gospel. Let us hope that proper exegesis of the text of life around us will happen, that the gospel message will emerge in the wilderness we find ourselves in today. May our voices each call out wherever we are, “In these desolate places may we prepare the way of the Lord.”