Of the color Red.
The book of Isaiah opens with the imagery of Israel represented as a vineyard which had produced no useful fruit but only wild grapes (Isaiah 5), and thus came under judgment – it would not be allowed to continue the violence, injustice, oppression of the needy and idolatry that marked its national life while maintaining a veneer of religiosity.
In the previous chapter, Isaiah 62 focuses on the call to pray for God’s intervention – to not allow God any rest from the prayers of his people seeking peace and a fulfillment of God’s promises.
And then, in the opening section of chapter 63, a mysterious figure appears. Isaiah describes him as coming from Borzah, a major city in the region of Edom. Both place names relate to the color ‘red’ and to the grape harvest, and indeed, his clothes are stained red. But it is not from treading grapes.
The unnamed figure is a warrior, having come from a battle, clothes stained with blood, having acted in wrath to fulfill the year of his redeeming work without any help or assistance. The imagery of the winepress is picked back up as an image of vengeance.
Who is this person? Is it God? Is it some military officer representing the Persian empire who helped the people of Israel, rescuing them from the ever present dangers around them? Critically, the speaker is not named. We might ask if it fits God, or how it might speak to the people in their historical setting, but as in many places in Isaiah, we’re not left with absolute answers.
Yet we can also recognize that this image of the blood-stained warrior is present in the New Testament, particularly in the book of Revelation (Chapter 19:13). And this image proves essential for how we understand these kinds of images in the Old Testament, because (as a colleague of mine pointed out long ago), the blood on the robes of the warrior in Revelation is the warrior’s own: it is the lamb who was slaughtered (i.e. Jesus) who reigns. As Greg Boyd points out: if Jesus is the true revealing of God, then this reframes how we understand the rest of scripture, even looking back to these bloody images in the Old Testament. God’s definitive way of overcoming evil and sin is to take it upon God’s own self, to expose the horror and costliness of it, and yet to address evil in a way that breaks the cycle of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ There is a reality of God’s ‘no’ to that which destroys and harms; a ‘no’ that extends as we have seen in Isaiah, even to God’s own people when they reject what is good. Yet in Christ, we see simultaneously that God’s desire is not to punish, but that our lives and hearts would be re-aligned with what is good, what we’ve been created for. That by embracing the love and truth of God revealed in person through Jesus, we allow God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Which brings us back around to something I hadn’t noticed until digging into the commentaries. That this first section of Isaiah 63 forms an answer to the call to prayer in Isaiah 62. Whereas Isaiah 62 contains this call to fervent prayer and wrestling (as we talked about last week), these opening words are an assurance that God has already been at work answering their prayer for deliverance.
Have you had an experience of seeking and praying for God’s intervention, only to learn later that the pieces of the answer to that prayer had been set in motion even before you began to ask?