“Comfort my people,” says God.
“Speak softly to Jerusalem.
And sing to her that she is free,
Her debt paid in full,
And she has received twice as much from God as she deserved.”
So a voice shouts:
“Make a road for God through the wasteland,
Make a highway for God run straight through the desert.
Fill in every valley.
Bring down every mountain and hill.
Level off he uneven ground.
Flatten the bumps.
“When it’s ready, the greatness of God will be obvious,
And everyone will recognize it in that instant,
Because God said so.”
A voice shouts:
“Shout it out!”
And I said,
“Shout what out?”
People are like grass,
They’re as flimsy as wildflowers.
The stalks dry up and the flowers wilt
When the wind of God blows on them.
Surely, people are grass.
The stalks dry up and the flowers wilt,
But what God says is permanent.
Go to the mountaintop,
Messenger of Zion’s good news,
And there shout out,
Messenger of Jerusalem’s good news.
Don’t be afraid to say it loud
To the cities of Judah:
“Here is God!
Here is God coming with power,
Arm upraised in victory,
Bringing the victor’s trophy,
God’s prize is God’s vanguard.
God will tend the flock like a shepherd.
God will gather the lambs in an embrace,
And hug them close,
And God will gently lead the ewes.
In spite of impermanence there is hope.
All we, like the wildflowers are here today and gone tomorrow. All we, like sheep, are just another dot on the landscape. And yet this poem has the audacity to claim that there is hope. Somehow, we are significant to someone somewhere. Someone cares. Cares enough to take up our cause, to make a way to us, and to lead us home again.
It’s an even more audacious claim now than it was then. Now we know that our existence is as one among the 7 billion inhabitants on the planet, and one planet among the billions scattered across the universe. Could it be true that some divine element or being “out there” has marked us, personally, for some kind of special significance? Or is the prophet merely hearing voices in his head?
Consider, though, that the occasion for this poem was the emancipation of a captive people. After being held in exile for a generation, they were being told they could finally go home. And that was, historically, something that happened that nobody had any reason to expect. It was an overwhelmingly fortunate turn of events. The kind of event that happens (or we hear about it happening to others) and we say, “Someone must have been looking out for us.”
A near miss of a traffic collision. A lucky break at work. No fatalities when a plane goes down in the Hudson River. Even the Goldilocks conditions of the universe that makes life possible on this planet seem to collude in a way that appears to replicate intelligence and care. (And this is the basis for the argument of intelligent design.) It’s the dream of hitting the lottery made all the more addicting because someone somewhere does hit the lottery every week with statistical certainty.
But for all the poem’s majesty and exaltation, the most compelling words are the question implicit in what’s sung tenderly to Jerusalem: Now that you’ve hit the lottery, and (however it happened) you’ve showed up on the planet with twice as much as you deserve, what are you going to do with it? How will you exercise your freedom, now that you are free?
Will you pay it forward, and make a road for someone else to get to freedom so they can sing too?