The title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” has become a popular aphorism for the reality of change on many levels of human experience.
It joins the ancient words of Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”
These words and recent attention to the prophetic words of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) have come together in reflections on our collective experience with the challenges of the pandemic.
Now five months into the disruption of “normal” life by the measures necessary to confine the spread of the virus, there is a natural longing for things to get “back to normal.”
Reasons behind this desire are not only psychological, but also economic, educational and social. The hardships of the disruption are critical for vast numbers, as we painfully see in the reports.
The context of what we know as Deutero-Isaiah is the pending end of the Babylonian exile (586-537 BCE), as the Persian Cyrus was making inroads into the realm of the weakening empire.
While much of Israelite life had no doubt been “re-normalized” in the 40-plus years of their foreign setting, the testimony reveals the enduring longing to “return to Zion.”
The prophetic voices from this period shift from the critiques and judgments that precede the exile to words of hope and promise of a new kind of future beyond the loss and devastation.
Deutero-Isaiah’s vision of their return is not to the glory that Israel once was, but to a different kind of community that Israel could continue to become.
People and all of creation will be restored under the care of the Lord, who will “feed his flock like a shepherd” (2 Isaiah 40:11).
The tempering of expectation is hard to miss in these oracles. While the dream of restoration of an earlier time is powerful and understandable in the context of loss, the affirmation here is forward-looking to a “new thing” that God is doing (2 Isaiah 43:19) and to a different kind of future as God’s people.
There is an intriguing and significant shift of imagery in the prophetic message here.
The agents of Israel’s covenant journey and their descent into captivity in previous generations was a series of kings, and the agent of the pending liberation from bondage is a king (Cyrus).
Yet, the agent of the restoration is a shepherd and a servant, identified both as the character of the Lord and as the community of the liberated.
The return will not be to a greatness that once was, which we can easily see as hardly an unblemished façade, masking many forms of injustice and idolatry, but to a goodness that can be a pervasive feature of a community that reflects in all levels of its relationships the justice, mercy and humility that has been the core of the prophetic message from its earliest written expressions (Micah 6:8).
The promise of their return was to a place where they had been geographically, but to a very different place theologically, politically and morally.
Returning to Zion, they would be armed with an emerging understanding of their covenant that would locate God’s presence not in land, building or ritual system, but in sacrificial love (as portrayed in the “servant poems” of Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 52-53) and compassionate service.
This would not be a tribal possession as reflected in the nationalism of their pre-exilic history, but as a feature of God’s agenda for all people.
There is a risk in suggesting parallels between settings and periods of history. The danger lies in seeing a comparison of features as an equivalence of significance.
The disruption of a pandemic is hardly “the same” as a 40-plus year captivity and the destruction of a homeland.
Still, the “return” that is longed for and that is claimed as a gift of God’s redemptive providence shares the reality that the place and the people of the return will not be the same as the one left behind.
Something happens in the experience of “exile” – whatever its specific form – that provides a new reality for the journey going forward.
I hope we can think, long and carefully, about what has happened to us as a people amid our current disruption and the discoveries we have made about ourselves and our own “national covenant.”
Might we be returning to a place we’ve never been — with less systemic racism, less greed-driven consumerism, more appreciation for those who serve in the realm of basic services, more humility and hospitality and a deeper commitment to a common good?
Prophetic voices, then and now, seem to call us repeatedly to that kind of expectation as an alternative to the “normal” that held us before.
Deutero-Isaiah offers a “simple” three-part admonition to those about to leave exile: remember who you are, hold fast to the teaching that guides you and don’t let those who would revile you for your commitments detract you from your calling (Isaiah 51: 1-8).
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).