“Listen to
me, O coastlands!” (Isaiah 49: 1)

“O, I do like to be beside the seaside
O, I do like to be beside the sea!”

Well, I would say that because I’ve just come to live in
Scarborough judging by the numbers of people I have seen enjoying the towns beaches
(and clogging up its roads with traffic!), it would appear there are plenty of
people who agree with me. But my wife and I have owned our apartment in
Scarborough for 12 years, and we don’t just visit it in the summertime when the
place is thronged with tourists: we have also seen Scarborough in the winter
when the wind is blowing a gale and the tides are high. Then being by the
seaside is not such a pleasure. That is more the way ancient Israelites looked
at the seaside. It held no attraction for them. Look at a map today and it will
seem that Israel has a number of seaside places: Haifa, Natanya, Ashdod. But
during most of Ancient Israel’s history those places were the territory of the
Philistines. Before the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the only port Israel had
ever had was Ezion-geber, near Eilat on the Red Sea, which it controlled during
the reign of Solomon. The rest of the time, Israel was landlocked and its
people feared the sea. They used the sea as a metaphor for disaster (“All
your waves and your breakers have swept over me” Psalm 42: 7) or of the
forces of chaos which God confronts (“Therefore we will not fear, though
the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the seathough its
waters roar foam and the mountains quake
with their surging” Psalm 46: 2-3). There are even remnants in the Hebrew
Scriptures (Old Testament) of an old creation account which closely resembles
the one told in Assyria and Babylon, where God has to conquer a sea monster,
and creates the dry land out of its dead body (“Awake, awake! Clothe
yourself with strength. O arm of the Lord, awake, as in days gone by, as in
generations of old. Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that
monster through? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great
deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross
over?” Isaiah 51: 9-10) And if the sea represented the forces of chaos or
evil, it stood to reason that those who lived close to the sea had to be in
league with those forces. The fact that the people who did live near the coast
were either the Philistines who had been Israel’s number one enemies almost
from day one, and the Canaanites who lived around the cities of Tyre and Sidon
(the Greeks later called them “Phoenicians”) who were related to the
people that Israel had to conquer to get a foothold into the promised land,
didn’t help their reputation with the writers of the books that make up the
Bible. But here is God’s prophet (the same one that talked about God piercing
the sea-mosnter through) calling on the coastlands to listen to him! And what
is his message? Not a message of punishment or revenge. No, he is telling of
God’s servant who was called to bring Israel back to their God (Isaiah 49:5)
and saying that God has made this servant a light to the nations. The Hebrew
word for “nations” is also used in later Hebrew literature to mean
“Gentiles”
“Coastlands” is also used as code for “foreign
nations”. God was calling his people to bring al people of all nations to
come to him, something he achieved finally through His Son, who was acclaimed
by an elderly man at his birth as “a light to the nations”. Through
Him God brings all people of all nations to praise him and to enjoy a personal
relationship, and to join with him at last in the promised land of his heavenly
kingdom.