“So will My word be which goes fourth from My mouth; it will not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it”. These are words which I have read in the Book of Isaiah and which I am beginning to suspect have been misinterpreted by a good many people. Or I may be misinterpreting them now. I will let the reader be the judge.
I have known people who believe that this scripture tells us that there is some special quality inherent in the words of the Bible, such that whenever those words are spoken in public they will work God’s will. I do not wish to offend those who hold this view, but it seems to me that those who hold that view believe that there is a power in those words which is almost magical, and that by the mere act of speaking them audibly in the hearing of others they initiate some action by God to affect His purposes in ways that may or may not be seen. It is this logic which compels those who are of this opinion to drop some line of scripture on the bus or train, in the break room, or anywhere else where there are people who are not believers of the story presented in the Bible, with the assumption that something good will happen regardless of where the hearers of those words might be spiritually. I have witnessed this practice and conclude that it is a misreading the passage in Isaiah, and that rather than affecting the end desired by God it more often than not results in the hearer thinking that the speaker is an unenlightened, irritating, and indoctrinated dolt.
When I read that passage of scripture I am reminded that the Bible must be interpreted in the context of the whole book and that building a theology on one verse can lead to radical and dangerous errors. As an example, in I Chronicles 4:10 a man prays that God would increase his wealth, which God does for His own reasons. Out of this verse has arisen a theology of wealth which flies completely in the face of the teaching of the Bible, especially the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. Similarly, in the Book of Revelation Jesus is described as a lamb, a bridegroom and having a two edged sword protruding from His mouth. I do not worship a sheep in a tuxedo with a sword sticking out of his mouth. All of this symbolism is useful to make a point; it is useless however for building a complete theology in a vacuum, apart from the whole biblical picture. I believe that it would be valuable to take a closer look at the particular bit of God’s word in question in the context of the whole Bible.
To begin with, God doesn’t have a mouth but He does have a Word. One thing that is clear in the Bible is that God is spirit and does not have a physical body. This fact is one thing that makes the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ so special; that in Jesus God did inhabit a human body with all of its frailty and vulnerability. Yahweh God fills the universe, so how could He be physical? There wouldn’t be room for anything else if He was physical! So the quote “…which goes forth from my mouth” must be an expression of God’s will delivered to humankind for the benefit of that group but which did not take the form of an audible word. Do we have any examples of a word like that in the Bible? We most certainly do.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” All of the Christians that I know accept that the Word of which, or Whom, John spoke is the uncreated, pre-existent God the Son, whom we call Jesus, who has been present with Yahweh God for eternity and was the active force in the creation of the universe and everything in it. Genesis, a poetic and highly symbolic book as well as good history, records that “God said….” Again, God doesn’t have a mouth; doesn’t have lungs to push air past vocal cords which also do not exist. According to John, who spent a very great deal of time living and speaking with Jesus, the Word is Jesus Himself, and so Jesus is the Word which was “spoken” by God to affect the creation of everything.
Much more could be written about Jesus as “the Word”, but for brevity’s sake let us bring the topic back to Isaiah 55:11, only allow me to modify the text in accordance with the theme that I have been developing. “So will Jesus, my effective Word, not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent Him”. This makes much more sense to me than an interpretation which posits scripture as magic words, the recitation of which changes things which would not have otherwise worked out as God wanted them to. In a narrow sense it could now be interpreted that this accomplishing of what God desired happened once in history, during the lifetime of Jesus, and that the course of all history has now been set in motion by that act and we need only wait to see God’s master plan brought to fruition. I believe that such an interpretation would be as wrong as is the initial interpretation with which I opened this topic. We must take a broader view in my opinion. Jesus, God incarnate, has left us for the time being, and I do not believe that God’s plan is to pull supernatural strings to get people to act in ways that bring about His will while his followers sit smugly on their hands, any more than He depends on well-meaning followers quoting to an unbelieving audience unfamiliar and, to them, silly or offensive phrases in King James language to achieve some unspecified end.
The only interpretation which makes sense to me is that God’s human followers on Earth are called to be Jesus in His absence. On the bus Jesus’ followers are to be the ones who remove their gloves and give them to a homeless person with red, cracked hands on a cold day. In the break room they are to be the person who finds something good to say to and about the person whom nobody else likes, or who sits next to a neighbor or coworker who has just learned that their spouse is leaving them or that they have cancer and says “I have no idea what to say, so can I just sit here with you?” Put more plainly, I believe that a skeptical, cynical, and even hostile world needs to see the Word in action a great deal more than they need to hear a word which, to them, does not seem to have any relevance and acts more to put distance between him and the Christian faith than it does to close the gap.
This interpretation of Isaiah 55:11 does not give us a pass on saying the right biblical scripture at the right moment. Instead, it calls upon followers of Jesus to study His life and teaching in the Gospels and to model that life with love and humility in this world, sharing the truth of God’s written word when the hearer is ready to hear it. Viewed this way, the speaking of God’s word would be the easy part; being God’s Word is the much tougher assignment.