In the first semester of a masters of divinity program at Union Theological Seminary, you are required to take a course in the Old Testament (with New Testament in the spring). Along with thrice weekly lectures with the professor, you also have a 90-minute “tutorial” with a teaching fellow, where you and nine of your new best friends review and deepen knowledge of the material. In my case, it included some spectacular moments of insight, incredibly emotional explorations of troubling texts, along with some hysterical moments, out and out buffoonery, and cooing over new puppies.
While many moments from that tutorial stick out to me, the one that I am remembering now, and which actually relates to the hymn is when we were doing Isaiah. Now many of you are well educated and know that the Biblical texts were written by many different hands at many different times. But it may come as a surprise to some that some entire books were written by various people; this is the case with Isaiah, , from which our lyric comes.
Our teaching fellow, Amy, helped us understand the reasons why texts might be attributed to an earlier writer or teacher, and that we could tell through linguistic study, along with theme and theology, which was the original Isaiah text, and which came after. Amy was gentle, saying she learned her lesson after teaching a Sunday school class at a Southern Baptist church while she was at a southern university.
“These poor old church ladies lost their minds when I told them about Second Isaiah – they couldn’t believe they’d been misled their whole lives. One of them went screaming down the hall to the pastor’s office. Another nearly fainted. As I watched them fall apart, I changed the next part of my lesson plan. I didn’t have the heart to tell them about Third Isaiah.”
This text is actually from Second Isaiah, or Dutero-Isaiah, a gorgeous affirmation to the exiled Judeans that their God would not abandon them.
And it’s helpful in these days, even for us with our various understandings of the Divine, as it turns our gaze back to the interdependent web and the lessons the earth can teach us.
O come, you longing thirsty souls, drink freely from the spring.
And come, you weary, famished folk, and end your hungering.
Why spend yourself on empty air? Why not be satisfied?
For everywhere a feast is spread that’s always at our side.
For as the rain and snow above fall not in vanity,
but for this purpose water earth: to feed humanity.
So shall the word of spirit serve as seed within our loam,
that we may bear so rich a yield as brings the harvest home.
For we shall go in peace secure and leave in joy sublime!
The hills outside will burst with song, the trees will clap in time!
No more shall thorns and nettles grow! The bay tree and the pine
shall sign for us th’eternal Name that makes the world a shrine.
This is the third time so far we’ve used Ralph Vaughan Williams’ tune Forest Green (see All Beautiful the March of Days and The Sweet June Days. It’s not the most familiar for me, but it’s quickly growing to be my favorite use, at least today. I return again and again to its gentle lilt and cheer. This is a lyric I find particularly well suited to the tune, as it invokes hope.
And lord knows, we could use a little hope these days.
You may wonder why I chose this drawing of three owls for this hymn. Well, first, owls are cool. But more, but I love that the artist, Isaiah Stephens, said, “I added a Snowy Owl and a Barn Owl to my original Owl Sketch.” First, Second, and Third Isaiah, indeed.