Perhaps the most frequently quoted prophecy in scripture is the book of Isaiah. We hear of one sent to “Prepare the way of the Lord” and of one who will announce, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…” The coming of a “wonderful counselor” is announced at Christmas. Through the church year, these beautiful and familiar words come to us through Isaiah.
In addition to this familiar treasure, Isaiah gave the people of Israel a way to look for a life with God in their presence for two particularly turbulent centuries. It continues to help both Jews and Christians do the same in the twenty five hundred years since it became a book.
Enter this beautiful, poetic writing to learn the ways of God in our lives and communities today.
Meet Our Professors
Stephen L. Cook
Dr. Stephen L. Cook, is the Catherine N. McBurney Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Virginia Theological Seminary where he has taught for twenty years. Prior to his work in Virginia, Dr. Cook taught at Union Theological Seminary of Columbia University. Dr. Cook received his undergraduate degree from Trinity College in Connecticut and his advanced degrees from Yale Divinity School. He is the author of six books including “Conversations with Scripture: 2 Isaiah” and “Reading Deuteronomy: A Literary and Theological Commentary”.
Robert R. Wilson
Dr. Robert R. Wilson is the Hoober Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. Dr. Wilson has served on the faculty of Yale since 1970. He has published four books, including “Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel”, as well as many, many articles. He has focused much work and attention on the Old Testament prophets and their messages.
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The Book of Isaiah may be the most often read of the prophetic books in the scriptures. During Advent Christians hear prophecies of a “wonderful counselor (Isaiah 9:6).” Good Friday brings us one who “was wounded for transgressions (Isaiah 53.5).” In it we hear of one sent to “Prepare the way of the Lord” and of one who will announce, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 61 and Luke 4).” All of these fixtures in our church year come to us from God through the Book of Isaiah. It is indeed a constant source of food for the faithful. It will be especially wonderful to move from study of Isaiah straight into the season of Advent.
There is an additional good to be found here. As profound as these treasured and familiar verses are, in this study we will learn that the Book of Isaiah is not merely a source for good quotations. The spoken prophecies of this book helped the people Israel look for the life of God with them for the better part of two very turbulent centuries, and it has continued to help Jews and Christians do the same in the twenty-five hundred years since it became a book. Before we embark on that journey, here are a few words about the book’s origin.
The book presents itself as a unified work and is assigned by tradition to the prophet Isaiah, who was active in Jerusalem at least as early as 738 B.C., and possibly earlier. However, scholars working as early as the end of the Middle Ages already recognized that the book contains much later material, which seems to come from the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon (597-539 B.C.) and from the period after the exiles’ return to Jerusalem (539-515 B.C.). Modern scholars have therefore usually divided the book into three parts, each with its own author or authors. Isaiah 1—39 was assigned to the prophet Isaiah, who was active in Jerusalem by 738 B.C. and probably ceased to prophesy shortly after 701 B.C. This figure is traditionally called First Isaiah or Isaiah of Jerusalem. The second part of the book, Isaiah 40—55, seems to reflect conditions near the end of Israel’s exile in Babylon (around 538-539 B.C.) and appears to have been written in Babylon by an unnamed prophet of the exile. Scholars called this figure Second Isaiah. Isaiah 56—66 was thought to reflect a time after the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt, and this material was assigned to another anonymous prophet called Third Isaiah. Finally some scholars recognized a Fourth Isaiah, who was responsible for the apocalyptic material in Isaiah 24—27. This material is difficult to date, but scholars have usually dated it after the creation of Third Isaiah.
In recent years scholars have begun to challenge this picture of how the Book of Isaiah came together. Without denying that chapters 40—55 and 56—66 come from the period of the Babylonian exile and from the Second Temple Period respectively, a growing number of scholars have come to believe that exilic and post-exilic material appears in Isaiah 1—39 as well. Furthermore, scholars have increasingly reached the conclusion that the composition of the whole book was influenced by a belief on the part of the original prophet and the prophet’s disciples that Isaiah of Jerusalem’s words carried meaning for all future generations of the Isaiah Community that studied, interpreted, and preserved Isaiah’s words. In the course of studying the original oracles, the Community over time saw the fulfillment of the oracles in their own time, as well as in the time of the original prophet. This sort of activity led to the editorial updating of the whole book from time to time, in line with a belief that the prophetic divine word was endlessly revelatory. For this reason, the whole book was in a sense considered to be the work of Isaiah of Jerusalem, whose original words were reinterpreted by later generations of disciples in the light of their own situations and in the light of the divine revelations that they had experienced.
And so with this living expectation that Isaiah’s spirit of prophecy formed a trajectory we can follow, we turn to the book in hopes of learning the ways of God in our lives, in our community, and in our world. Enjoy the journey!
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I. Isaiah 6:1-9:21: The Prophetic Messenger and His Message
This early section of the Book of Isaiah opens with a spectacular vision describing the prophet’s call to be God’s messenger, an event which the text dates to approximately the year 738 B.C. (Isa. 6:1-13). In the vision Isaiah sees the Ark of the Covenant flanked by its guardian cherubim in the holy of holies of the Jerusalem temple, but in the vision the physical objects are transformed into the divine realities that they represent.
Such descriptions of the inner life of the prophet are not common in the Old Testament, and this one is even more unusual because it also describes a number of the important components of Isaiah’s message, making it a convenient Table of Contents for the larger book. The message appears not only in the divine commission to the prophet (Isa. 6: 9-10), but also in the visual dimensions of the vision itself. Once the components of the message have been stated, they appear repeatedly throughout the rest of the Book of Isaiah. Later, these themes were reinterpreted in various ways by the prophet and the prophet’s community over time, as new situations arose. Among the typical prophetic themes mentioned here are the following:
- God is powerful and exalted. The heavenly Monarch is enthroned, and the earth-bound prophet is able to see only the fringe of the divine robe (v. 2). The attendant seraphs do not appear as deities in their own right but are God’s servants and agents (vv.6-7). In this vision there is only one deity in the cosmos, and God’s glory or aura fills the entire earth (v. 3). The seraphs praise God as supremely holy, with the three-fold repetition of the word “holy” emphasizing the highest degree of the holiness. The word “holy” indicates separateness or distance and stresses the contrast between God and the world of humans. The appearance of the Holy One (one of Isaiah’s characteristic titles for God) threatens the stability of the earth itself, causing the temple to shake on its foundations (v. 4).
- The prophet is acutely aware of sin. In contrast to the sovereignty and holiness of God, the human prophet is immediately conscious of his own sin and the sins of his people and fears for Israel’s life as prophet and people face the divine presence (v. 5).
- Divine agents are required. Contact between God and humans requires the intervention of divine agents. The seraphs purify the prophet, and this purification allows Isaiah to hear God’s voice for the first time in the vision (vv. 6-8). When God finally speaks, the deity asks for a volunteer to serve as an agent or messenger. Although the question “who will go for us?” may imply that others are present in the heavenly court, it is a human, the prophet, who volunteers to serve as the messenger to Israel (v. 8).
- God judges Israel’s sin. God’s message to Israel is a message of judgment because of the people’s past sins. In this case the message takes a strange form. The prophet is to tell the people to listen but not to understand, to look but not to see. The purpose of this instruction is to prevent the people from repenting and changing their behavior so that they might be saved. The judgment is inevitable and cannot be prevented by any human actions (vv. 9-10).
- There is still hope. In spite of the divine decree of judgment, there is also a promise of hope and restoration. The whole land will become desolate, with its population exiled, but a remnant will survive, just as a stump of a tree remains after a forest has been cut and burned. Salvation appears only on the other side of judgment, but salvation will nevertheless occur (vv. 11-13).
- God’s words is true. No matter what humans try to do about God’s intensions, the divine word delivered by the prophet will be fulfilled. Just as surely as God’s word of judgment destroys the land, so also God’s promise of a remnant will come to pass.
Isaiah’s commissioning vision at the beginning of his prophetic activities lays out a model for God’s continued dealings with Israel. The prophecy of the vision is not understood as a prophecy referring to a single time or situation in the future. Rather the prophecy is capable of multiple fulfillments during Israel’s history as a nation and beyond. In this way the prophecies of Isaiah have an open-ended character that invites constant reinterpretation and reapplication to new situations.
For example, in the community of the Second Isaiah (500s BCE), struggling with the judgment that led to exile in Babylon, the community will focus on the ways in which the promise of restoration will be fulfilled. Earlier in Israel’s life, however (during the late 700s) the community focused in particular on two other historical crises. Along with demonstrating the flexibility and wide applicability of the prophet’s words, these earlier applications illustrate the way in which judgment and promise intermingle in God’s dealings with Israel.
Isaiah 7:1—8:4 narrates a threat to Jerusalem’s existence that arose in the period between 735 and 732 B.C. During this time, the northern kingdom of Ephraim, which had split off from the southern kingdom of Judah after the reign of Solomon, decided to enter into a league with Syria in order to recapture Judah and Jerusalem and to replace Ahaz, the Davidic ruler in Jerusalem, with a puppet king. According to the narrative, Ahaz was worried enough about this possibility to try to improve the defenses of Jerusalem, his capital city.
To the prophet Isaiah, this action of political alliance indicated that Ahaz lacked faith. God had earlier promised the permanent election of the house of David as the rulers of Judah and Jerusalem. God had also promised to dwell forever in the Jerusalem temple (2 Samuel 7). Had Ahaz forgotten God’s promises? Did he not believe them? Isaiah therefore confronted the king, and urged the king not to fear, promising that God would fulfill the earlier oracle of protection for the city and the dynasty (Isa. 7:1-9).
In order to authenticate this new promise oracle, Isaiah invited the king to name a divine sign, the occurrence of which would guarantee the truth of the divine word. Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, an action which Isaiah took to be an act of unbelief, an act which would deserve judgment as God’s response. Isaiah therefore supplied a sign, the famous sign of the birth of a child, who would not grow to adulthood before the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that the Ephraimite coalition would not be successful (Isa. 7:14). However, the salvation of the city will be followed by judgment against Judah and Jerusalem because of the king’s and the people’s unbelief. This judgment will take the form of an invasion by the king of Assyria, an event which finally took place in 701 B.C., when Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem.
In Isaiah 7:15-8:4 judgment and promise alternate in a complicated series of oracles, and time seems to dissolve, so that the subject of the oracles becomes highly ambiguous. It is not always clear whether the prophet is talking about Ahaz’s threat from the Ephraimite coalition or the much later Assyrian threat to Jerusalem, or both at the same time. At work in these verses are the efforts of Isaiah and his disciples to understand how the divine word given during the time of Ahaz is still applicable during the Assyrian crisis of 701. The two events are seen as two examples of the fulfillment of the revelation originally given to the prophet in Isaiah 6.
Isaiah 9:1-7 the prophet looks forward to the birth of a king, who in the “latter time” will be the opposite of the unfaithful king Ahaz. God will restore the Davidic line, thus fulfilling the promise originally made to David. Though Jerusalem and its monarchy may be punished, it will not be destroyed. In the present context, this passage may look forward to the enthronement of Hezekiah in 716 or 715, who will be presented in Isaiah 36—39 as a faithful Davidic ruler. However, the ambiguous nature of the passage (the future king is never named, just as the promised child of Isa. 7:14 is never named) may already indicate that the unit is the work of Second Isaiah, in whose time the Davidic line was disrupted by the Babylonian exile and who interprets the promise as referring to a future messianic king.
Peter R. Ackroyd, “Isaiah 1—12: Presentation of a Prophet,” in Congress Volume, Göttingen, 1977 (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 29; Leiden: Brill, 1978), 16-48; reprinted in Peter R. Ackroyd, Studies in the Religious Tradition of the Old Testament (London: SCM Press, 1987), 79-104.
Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 60-81.
Questions for Reflection:
- In Isa. 7:15-25, does the prophet lay out a clear sequence of events, or does the passage simply present a series of images that illustrate the way in which Israel’s life with God is a never-ending alternation between judgment and promise? For example, is the name given to the child, Immanuel, “God is with us,” a sign of God’s blessing or God’s judgment” [Isa. 7:14; 8:9; 8:10]; how does Matthew understand the name [Matt. 1:23; cf. also Matt. 2:13-18]. Are the oracles that begin “on that day” in Isa. 7:18-24 positive or negative?
- Is the incident described in Isaiah 8:1-4 related at all to the promise of the child in 7:14?
- In Isa. 9:2, who are “the people who walked in the darkness”? Are they related to the ones who see but don’t understand in Isa. 6:9-10?
- Is the royal child born in Isa. 9:6 related to the child mentioned in Isa. 7:14 or 8:1-4? Is there any way to know at what time in the future the birth will take place?
- Does Isaiah’s concept of the multiple fulfillment of prophecy allow for the possibility that such fulfillments might take place beyond the biblical period and even extend down to our own time?
- Do you experience the events of your own life as an alternation of God’s judgement and God’s promise? How would that worldview help? What are its dangers?
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II. Isaiah 10-12: God’s Felling of Pride, Making Way for New Growth
The prophecies of Isaiah 10–12 have long engaged Christians with their vision of God’s “Peaceable Kingdom” and of a “Branch of Jesse.” Upon seeing one of Edward Hicks’s celebrated paintings of wild and domestic animals lying peaceably atop God’s mountain, most people will smile with familiarity. Each Advent almost all of us repeat “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” one of Christianity’s most ancient hymns. We sing of the “Rod of Jesse” (see Isa 11:1), who comes “from on high” graced with “wisdom” and “knowledge” (11:2). Such fascination with Isaiah 10–12 traces far back in time, as early as the work of the Second Isaiah group.
If we take the time to look closely within Isaiah chapters 10–12, we can see fascinating editorial work in which the Second Isaiah community is pondering older specimens of Isaiah’s prophecies. The work of the group brings out the powerfully expansive relevance of Isaiah’s texts. A message originally wrapped up in the dynamics of Assyrian imperial aggression against eighth-century Judah now brims with spiritual direction for exiles living two centuries later as well as for us today.
Assyria Felled by God and the Growth of a Fresh Branch: Isaiah 10:5—11:16
The editors of chapters 10 and 11 of Isaiah have organized Isaiah’s prophecies into two sections that mirror each other. Both sections move from a scenario of reversal of Judah’s national defeat to a focus on the remnant of Judah as the hope for the future. Isaiah 10:5-23 contains the first of these sequences; Isaiah 10:24—11:16 presents the second.
The Folly of Assyria’s Arrogant Boasting: Isaiah 10:5-19
Verses 5-19 of chapter 10 form a lengthy saying of woe against the ancient empire of Assyria, the superpower that confronted Judah at the time of the eighth-century prophet Isaiah. Perhaps what stands out here most is the haughty, boasting monologue of the Assyrian ruler, who dares to vaunt himself even over God. The Lord had used Assyria in punishing the sin of Judah, but its military success had gone to its head. Inflating itself in arrogance, it had far exceeded its divine mandate to punish God’s people for sin.
The way this poetry concentrates on the folly of arrogance may take a little getting used to. It is perhaps less appealing than the highly engaging portraits of a glorious Messiah in Isaiah 9 and 11, the surrounding chapters. Yet, its first editors found it significant enough to preserve, purposefully sandwiching it between more attractive visions of a glorious future. These nearby visions of promise raise lingering questions that call forth the insights of this material.
The Second Isaiah community had intense interests in how the nations of earth would fare in God’s promised future. They meditated hard on the all-encompassing interests of a God who governs the world from a high and lofty place, sitting “above the circle of the earth” (Isa 40:22). If God easily “brings princes to naught,” makes earth’s rulers “as nothing” (Isa 40:23), what would the fate of the nations be at the time of Kingdom Come? We know something of the answer of Second Isaiah from the content of Isaiah 40–55.
On the one hand, Second Isaiah reaches out universally to encompass the entire globe in God’s saving work (see Isa 42:4, 6; 44:5; 45:22; 49:6). On the other hand, its texts are clear that salvation is not indiscriminate. Obdurate pride can have no place in God’s future. Isaiah 47, composed by the Second Isaiah group during the exile, works overtime to expose the haughty pride of the Babylonian empire, an empire exhibiting the same spirit of arrogance that was present in the earlier Assyrian Empire of Isaiah’s own day.
These themes from chapters 40—55 make their way into chapters 10—12 in the form of editorial insertions. Although the editors have taken care to fit their additions into the existing prophecies, we can detect their presence, not only by their themes, but by the seams that appear in the flow of the oracles.
The Second Isaiah community affirmed the fate of Assyria depicted in Isaiah 10. In fact, in Isaiah 47:14 they echo the plan of God to consume such pride in fire (Isa 10:16-17). Back within chapter 10 itself, they show their editorial hand when the subject of idols and images comes up in vv. 10-11. These inserted verses interrupt the flow of Assyria’s boastful rhetoric, and introduce a key theme of Second Isaiah from chapters 40–55.
For Second Isaiah, what is spelling the world’s doom is its misapprehension of God’s otherness—God’s mysterious, transcendent control of humankind’s destiny. How else can humankind get God’s wind in their sails but by letting go of idolatry, a means of grasping for God’s mystery in order to yank it under control? The editors who added vv. 10-11 paint Assyria as so ignorant of God’s otherness as to be capable of ignorant slander that lumps God in with the impotent idols of the pagan nations.
Second Isaiah’s editorial hand appears again in v. 12 (a prose commentary, which stands out amid the running poetry of Assyria’s rhetoric). According to the verse, Assyria’s guilt lies in its “arrogant boasting” and “haughty pride.” Such boastful claims to invincible power run diametrically counter to Second Isaiah’s consistent insistence that true strength lies in reverent humility, the embrace of human frailty.
The undoing of Assyria’s pride is no ad hoc response of God, but part of a long-range plan and commitment to Zion (i.e., Jerusalem). Second Isaiah is clear in v. 12 that God is at “work” on Zion, accomplishing a divine purpose that arcs towards God’s reign. God’s short-lived work of chastisement will soon be “finished”; God’s indignation against Zion can last only “a very little while” (see v. 25).
When Assyria’s boasting resumes in vv. 13-14, it is countered with mocking rhetorical questions. Mere tools do not exalt themselves over those who wield them! The claims to sovereignty of prideful nations are ridiculous up against the true ruler of the cosmos. Assyria has no power of its own. The Second Isaiah group would certainly have appreciated this sort of satire. They used very similar language in Isaiah 45:9-13. Assyria’s military might was vast from a human standpoint, but miniscule over against God’s consuming reality. That reality would devour Assyria like disease and fire.
A Remnant Relying on the Holy One: Isaiah 10:20-23
The editors now describe “survivors of the house of Jacob,” who make it through Assyria’s devastating attacks. The ancient promises will hold, so a remnant of God’s people must survive. God has plans for them!
The language here about the remnant is cutting, however, rather than comforting (cf. Isa 48:19). Those who emerge from judgment have not gotten off scot-free, but are scathed and forever changed. They have learned the hard way that the only one on whom they may safely rely is the Holy One of Israel. God’s turning the tables on Assyria may be cause for rejoicing, but true joy will only come through full reliance on God. How could Ahaz, Judah’s king, have been so blind as to lean on Assyria’s power rather than God’s? His foolishness was obvious to Isaiah!
In confronting Ahaz over allying with Assyria, the prophet had brought along a son, Shear-jashub—“a remnant will return” (Isa 7:3). This name, Shear-jashub, signaled a threat alongside a promise (that is, a two-edged message, not just a promise of God to preserve Judah). A remnant results from a process of winnowing down, perhaps one entailing an awful trial, a torrential crisis. The Second Isaiah community knew about journeying through torrents. A new empire, Babylonia, would eventually bring an even more devastating trial upon Judah. They proclaimed God’s accompanying presence at such times (Isa 43:2).
Assyria Felled by God: Isaiah 10:24-34
A new section in Isaiah 10:24-34 reintroduces the encouraging theme of Assyria’s judgment. The earlier parallel had ended with images of Assyria as a burning forest, its glory humbled (Isa 10:18). Indeed, Isaiah 10:19 had described a forest left with almost no trees at all. According to the verse, “The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.” Resuming these metaphors, Isaiah 10:33-34 declares that the Lord will “lop the boughs with terrifying power.” “He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax.”
The editors of Isaiah’s prophecies reintroduce this poetry of Assyria’s felling with a bit of prose (vv. 24-27). Long after the Assyrian empire is forgotten, the continuing Isaiah group was studying and reinterpreting this text of Scripture, adding their ruminations. They found it relevant both to their own situation and to that of future generations of the faithful as well.
Their reflections in vv. 24-27a directly address God’s people, the remnant of Zion, living well after the passing of Assyria. As in Isaiah 40–55, readers hear themselves comforted as God’s intimates. God’s eternal promises are sure; we hear the command “Do not be afraid” (v. 24; cf. Isa 41:10, 13). Isaiah 41:11 will echo the selfsame assurance: “Yes, all who are incensed against you shall be ashamed and disgraced; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish” (cf. Isa 49:26; 51:22-23).
The poetry of Isaiah 10:27b-34 brings God’s incensed enemy to life. Since Assyria of the eighth century is not named, we are free to imagine some new “Assyria” rising up in pride against the faithful. The place names along the route of incursion are familiar to scholars, but match no known Assyrian invasion. This is poetic language, meant to evoke mental images of consummate arrogance opposed to God’s salvation. Such force may appear unstoppable, able to navigate the deviant and extraordinarily rugged route of the poem. The enemy is so determined, it willingly abandons its baggage at the torrent separating Michmash from Geba. (v. 28). “This very day,” such a force halts at Nob, at the threshold of “the mount of daughter Zion, the hill of Jerusalem” (v. 32). As it shakes its fist, we shudder at its menace.
Just at this point, all boasting is silenced as God fells the enemy. Verses 33-34 reiterate God’s reversal of all fortunes as a grand climax to the poem. Every new generation of the faithful should take heart at God’s sovereign victory. We should all prepare for the glorious age of the Messiah about to be described.
The Growth of a Fresh Branch: Isaiah 11:1-16
Isaiah 11:1-16 reintroduces the theme of a transformed remnant, emerging out of divine judgment to fulfill God’s promises. Whereas the earlier treatment of the remnant in Isaiah 10:20-23 was somewhat gloomy, now an inspiring vision of glory confronts us.
The section has two parts. Verses 1-9 describe the ideal rule of the Messiah, the Branch of Jesse. Verses 12-16 describe God gathering the dispersed remnant of God’s people. They emerge as the community of the Messiah, a powerful force subduing earth’s wickedness. Between the two poems stands the editorial prose of vv. 10-11. Editors from the circle of Second Isaiah created vv. 10-11 as a literary bridge joining the poems of vv. 1-9 and vv. 12-16. The bridge emphasizes the circle’s hopes for God’s coming reign, as becomes apparent from a glance at Isaiah 49:22-23. The parallels with Isaiah 49 are striking indeed.
Consider Isaiah 49. According to the text, a time is coming when God will make the root of Jesse a “signal to the peoples” of earth (49:22). Within the editorial bridge back in Isaiah 11, v. 10 conveys the very same thought. Next, as God’s “signal” is raised, the nations embrace subservience. They restore the remnant of God’s people (49:23). This is the selfsame message of the editorial bridge (Isa 11:11). God’s remnant returns to partake of the new messianic “growth” atop Zion.
The two themes go together, the editors believe. Jesse’s line is rising from the ashes, and this will transform the relationship between Israel and the world. Drawing the whole of chapter 11 together into a mighty two-pronged prophecy, the literary bridge of vv. 10-11 packages the message beautifully: the role of the Messiah includes the formation of God’s remnant and the reverence of the nations. The reference in the bridge to the “root of Jesse” points back to the new scion of Jesse (v. 1) who is transforming earth’s life. The adjacent reference to a “signal to the peoples” points ahead to vv. 12-16, where the nations take this very “signal” (v. 12) as a cue to fall in line and restore God’s people.
Modern readers may balk at how the reign of God so interferes in the world, even impelling earth’s nations to “lick the dust” of chosen feet (Isa 49:23). Why is Second Isaiah so keen to make the nations’ subservience part of the messianic vision? How does the group understand the language of subjugation in vv. 14-15 of Isaiah 11?
For Second Isaiah, God’s coming reign entails the deepest meaning of peace. Reverence must flood the entire earth to include the nations, so that those bent on destruction and devastation shrink back (Isa 49:17). The messianic reign comes in power, bringing danger to all opposition. The arrogant cannot stand before the uprightness and dependability of such a Messiah (Isa 11:4). This is peace with teeth, no cheap gift to the wicked (Isa 48:22; 50:11). For the mighty of earth to share in it, they must leap into God’s circle of joy.
Overcome by the sublime new “growth” on Zion, wise peoples of earth become its bond-persons, determined to support and serve it. They willingly lead back Israel’s remnant. Their service is purely unselfish and done voluntarily for the sake of the joy that it brings. Overcome by the virtue of reverence, the nations serve the Messiah’s cause willingly and gratuitously, without ulterior motives, and without feeling servile or demeaned in any way.
A few more words are in order about the new world of reverence that chapter 11 portrays. It is a world of rebirth, new life springing from the stump of a tree collapsed in judgment. Judah’s incensed enemies are absent from this world, but so also is the proud and corrupt Davidic dynasty. Only by God’s grace does the stump that remains retain living roots, which the poem links to David’s humble beginnings. (At first, David was merely the shepherding son of a rural landowner, Jesse of Bethlehem; see 1 Sam 16. God had chosen David “from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes”; Ps 78:70-71.)
The Branch of Jesse in chapter 11 exhibits striking qualities of humility and reverence that reappear in the great protagonist of the Servant Songs of Isaiah 40–66 (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12; and 61:1-3). This ruler is not preoccupied with pomp and glory but with absolute integrity. Revering the Lord (v. 2), he puts responsibility before privilege. In thoroughgoing other-centeredness he stands up for the poor and afflicted—those who have nothing to offer by way of buttressing his reign. He cares for them because his center of concern is outside himself, focused on the welfare of the members of his community. This ruler will be a servant, because he knows true strength lies in the living out of human frailty. Such a ruler possesses true moral force, and may even channel God’s awesome power.
Qualities of reverence also characterize the ideal world of the Messiah described in vv. 6-9. Only in a reverent world, where people recognize their mortality and need for friends of all stripes, will the strong and the powerful live together in harmony with the weak and the powerless. The strong must realize that even the world’s “lambs” have much that is crucial to offer. That is why the Hebrew wording of v. 6 pictures the wolf living dependent on the sheep. In the Hebrew, the wolf does not merely “live” with the lamb, but sojourns with this neighbor as a guest in need of hospitality.
The texts of Second Isaiah in chapters 40–66 expand on Isaiah 11 and its vision of messianic reverence. The first Servant Song in Isaiah 42:1–9 alludes to the passage through half a dozen verbal and thematic correspondences. Isaiah 53:2 again echoes the passage in describing the Suffering Servant with a metaphor of new growth pushing up out of dead ground.
Eventually the tradition of Isaiah 11 proved foundational in the vision of God’s coming reign in Isaiah 65. After announcing God’s imminent creation of new heavens and a new earth (v. 17), Isaiah 65 stipulates that Kingdom Come will see the vision of Isaiah 11 fully and literally realized (v. 25). Isaiah 65:25 directly references and affirms Isaiah 11:6–9, summarizing the passage in an alternative late, postexilic Hebrew idiom.
A Hymn of Praise for the Day of Salvation: Isaiah 12:1-6
The very first words of Second Isaiah in chapters 40–55 are “Comfort, O Comfort my people.” They are familiar to most of us from the Scripture lessons of Advent and from Handel’s Messiah. What we may not realize is that the Scripture means us to see them as the fulfillment of past prophecy. These words look back to Isaiah 12! Isaiah 12 is a liturgical passage that concludes the Scriptures we have been studying. It looks to a future day of promise, a day when God’s chosen remnant will respond in praise to the realization of Isaiah’s prophecies of reversal and new growth. It characterizes this fulfillment of prophecy as the comfort of the Lord.
The editors of Second Isaiah have given the remnant these words for a reason. They want to insist that the original prophecies of Isaiah burst beyond immediate concerns about Assyrian aggression. They concern God’s long-range plans, plans that extend to the era of Babylonian exile and beyond.
For Second Isaiah, God’s past Word of promise is the necessary context for understanding God’s present activity. The divine Word is powerful, concrete, and “will stand forever” (Isa 40:8). Because of this, the life of faith is no moment-to-moment reaction to whatever life tosses up, but a trajectory of God moving from promise to fulfillment. Far from living life in an ad hoc manner, the faithful live oriented by a future secured by God’s past prophecies. For this reason, Second Isaiah’s great words of “comfort” in Isaiah 40–55 can never be reduced to an immediate political hope for repatriation from Babylonian exile. They must be understood as something much larger and deeper. They are nothing less than an anticipation of the reign of God on earth.
John Braostoski, “Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom” http://www2.gol.com/users/quakers/Hicks_Peaceable_Kingdom.htm
Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 87-111.
Questions for Reflection:
- What do you make of Second Isaiah’s critique of idolatry? What is the problem with using concrete images / idols to access the power of Heaven? What idols tempt us to worship them in our lives today? Is Second Isaiah’s critique still relevant?
- Several of the prophecies in this section of Isaiah sound rather sour to modern ears. Text such as Isaiah 11:14-15 may even sound nationalistic and chauvinistic. Can/should Christians today appropriate such texts? Does the editing of the texts by the Second Isaiah circle provide any guidance?
- From their editorial additions, it seems clear that the Second Isaiah community saw Isaiah’s earlier prophecies as part of long-range trajectory pointing to God’s future. Can you see yourself on that continuing trajectory? How about the church?
- How would you explain the virtue of “reverence” to a modern, secular person? Why should modern people embrace a messianic vision of reverence? Would reverence add anything to our modern live that we currently lack?
Yale Bible Study
III. Isaiah 34-39: Promise in the Context of Renewed Judgment
This week we turn to the last section of “First Isaiah” – the prophecies that immediately precede the splendid outbreak of light and hope that will appear in those familiar words, “Comfort, comfort ye my people,’ says your God (40:1).” If week one gave us the faithlessness of King Ahaz, this third session holds up Hezekiah as a mostly-righteous king who maintains faith in God’s promise and plan and offers prayers to God, even in the midst of Assyrian military and political threats. The section features the glorious vision of chapter 35, an anticipation of God’s favor and the wholeness that attends it. However, our eyes will be directed specifically to two focal texts (37:21-38 and 39:1-8) that depict this prophet’s conviction that God has controlling power over the broad direction of history. Kings of the world may imagine that their might is supreme and determinative, but to the great God of Israel they are mere pieces on a chessboard.
Isaiah 34 appears as a general oracle of judgment against the nations, although it is one without a specific historical context. Its placement following Isaiah 33 suggests that the events described in chapter 34 are a sequel to the deliverance of Jerusalem celebrated in ch. 33, although the prophecies do not supply specific details concerning the historical context. However, the sequence of events described in these chapters is clear: The destruction of Israel’s enemies described in ch. 33 brings about the salvation of God’s people in Jerusalem and the exaltation of God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness.
The juxtaposition of chapters 33 and 34 implies that the deliverance of God’s people leads to judgment against the nations that have oppressed God’s people. In ch. 34 God summons the nations for judgment, although the specific crimes of the nations are not described. The nations are punished, but their punishment is pictured in cosmic terms and extends even to the heavenly realm (34:1-4). Edom is then singled out for particular attention (34:5-17), although the specific reasons for this narrowed focus are not given. The biblical writer’s antagonism toward Edom may in fact come from that nation’s efforts to take over Israelite territory after the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem in 587/586 B.C. If that is the case, these verses feature material produced during the exile in Babylon – much later than Isaiah’s career in Jerusalem, the period of “First Isaiah.” But even if that scene in Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest is the background of these verses the specific historical background has been suppressed. Rather in this chapter Edom seems to be representative of all of the nations, and its punishment is treated as an example of what awaits the rest of the world.
In contrast to the judgment against the nations in Isaiah 34, Isaiah 35 abruptly turns to the theme of the Israel’s return to Jerusalem, a theme which assumes that the exile of Israel to Babylon has already occurred. While Isaiah 34 looks backward to the deliverance of Jerusalem in ch. 33 and anticipates a future judgment against all of the other nations of the earth, Isaiah 35 looks to a future return from exile, a fact that implies that a judgment against Jerusalem involving exile has taken place, although such an event is not narrated. Rather the chapter describes the joyous transformation of nature that will occur when the people return to Jerusalem (35:1-2), and the people are encouraged to strengthen each other so that the future return can take place (35:3-4). Then the people of Israel, who are described as blind, deaf, lame, and speechless, will see, hear, leap, and rejoice as all nature is transformed to facilitate their return to the land (35:5-9). These events reverse the task given to the prophet in ch. 6, where Isaiah was sent to dull the minds of the people, stop their ears, and shut their eyes so that the people could not repent and be healed (Isa. 6: 9-10). Chapter 35 ends with the anticipation of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem (v. 10). However, a specific historical account of this event is not given. Rather the description of the return is in general terms. When this chapter is read together with chs. 33 and 34, the text describes a general alternation between judgment and salvation for the people of God that characterizes the life of the people of Israel. The lack of historical detail in these chapters seems to be for the purpose of articulating a general principle concerning the nature of the people’s life with God. The disobedience of the people may bring judgment, but the judgment does not destroy the divine-human relationship. God’s word of judgment is never God’s final word, according to Isaiah. Rather the prophet in this section seems to imply that life with God will be a never-ending alternation between punishment and blessing until Israel finally learns what God expects and lives in the context of the blessing.
The general principles that are articulated in Isaiah 34—35 are given a concrete form in Isaiah 35—39 through the story of the Israelite king Hezekiah’s confrontation with the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 B.C. What was implied in general terms in Isaiah 34—35 (trust in God leads to divine protection and salvation, while rebellion leads to judgment) is now illustrated in a specific case study. The Assyrian invasion is the subject of a number of oracles in Isaiah, including those in Isaiah 7—8, 10, and 28—33, although in those chapters the prophet’s words of judgment and promise are mixed tightly together. The event was seen both as a curse and a blessing, a mixture of divine punishment and salvation.
The actual narrative of the invasion, however, traces a somewhat different course of events and portrays king Hezekiah’s actions as those of a good and faithful king, whose behavior is in direct contrast to the behavior of king Ahaz in Isaiah 7—9. Where Ahaz’s response to political crisis is condemned by the prophet and leads to God’s punishment in the form of the Assyrian invasion itself, the prophet here holds up Hezekiah as offering the correct response to such crises. The faithfulness of the king is brought out in the sequence of events described in the narrative, even though scholars generally argue that the individual parts of the story originally had a life of their own before being arranged in their present order (compare the version in 2 Kings 18—19).
In the present form of the text, the message of the story is clear: The Rabshakeh, the messenger of the King of Assyria, appears before the city wall of Jerusalem in exactly the same spot where Ahaz was confronted by Isaiah in Isa. 7. This introductory description immediately suggests that the story in Isaiah 7 is to be compared and contrasted with the story in Isaiah 36—39. The Rabshakeh delivers to Hezekiah’s messengers a long speech casting doubt first on Hezekiah’s ability to save the city and then on God’s ability to save it. The Rabshakeh therefore suggests that the prudent political course is to surrender peacefully to the Assyrians and to accept the inevitable exile to Assyria.
Unlike Ahaz in Isaiah 7, Hezekiah is terrified by the Assyrian message but refuses to give up his faith in God’s promise of divine protection for Jerusalem. Hezekiah does not negotiate but instead prays to God for deliverance. In response to the prayer, God sends a message of hope to Hezekiah through Isaiah (37:21-38). The oracle condemns the Assyrian king for not recognizing that he is merely one of the human agents of the divine will. The king has no power of his own but is simply the tool that God is using to punish Judah. This has been part of God’s plan from the beginning, so the actual actions of Sennacherib had nothing to do with the course of historical events. The Assyrian king will succeed, not because of his own power but because God has planned it that way. Therefore, the cities of Judah will crash into ruins and the people will become like plants in the field and grass on the housetops, both of which wither in the summer heat (Isa. 37:26-27).
However, Sennacherib’s power will end, because God has already achieved the divine purpose by punishing Judah, and Jerusalem will be spared further punishment (Isa. 37:28-35). Isaiah’s oracle of salvation for the city is dramatically fulfilled when the Assyrian army is destroyed by God’s direct action, and Sennacherib returns to his country, where he is murdered. In contrast to the reactions of Ahaz in Isaiah 7, where the king refused to believe that God would provide supernatural protection for Jerusalem, in this case Hezekiah’s faithful response brings about Jerusalem’s salvation. The overall message is that participation in political dealings with foreign rulers is a bad idea and only leads to trouble. The appropriate response to a threat against the nation is to have faith in God’s promise of divine protection.
While Hezekiah is portrayed positively in the story of the Assyrian invasion, he does not fare as well in the final story in this section, the story of the Babylonian messengers sent by Merodach-baladan (Isa. 39:1-8). The Babylonians, who at this time were vassals of the King of Assyria, were received cordially by Hezekiah and shown all of the royal possessions. This action was a violation of the isolationist policies that Isaiah favored, and the prophet therefore delivers an oracle of judgment predicting the exile of the inhabitants of Jerusalem in Babylon. Although Jerusalem survived the Assyrian invasion, the city will not fare as well with the Babylonians. However, the general pattern laid down in Isaiah 33—35 and illustrated concretely in the stories in Isaiah 36—39 will continue. Faith in God’s promise of protection will lead to salvation, while disbelief will lead to punishment. However, divine punishment will not be a sign that God has rejected Israel or that the promise will not be fulfilled.
Peter R. Ackroyd, “Isaiah 36—39: Structure and Function,” in W. C. Delsman et al., ed., Von Kanaan bis Kerala: Festschrift für J. P. M. van der Ploeg (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1982), 3-21; reprinted in Peter R. Ackroyd, Studies in the Religious Tradition of the Old Testament (London: SCM Press, 1987), 105-120.
Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 249-287.
Questions for Reflection:
- In what ways are the events narrated in Isaiah 36—39 concrete examples of the theological themes introduced in Isaiah 6? How do the stories about the salvation of Jerusalem during the Assyrian invasion illustrate the notion of God’s total power over the cosmos? The use of human agents to achieve the divine will? The mixture of judgment and promise in Israel’s history? The inevitable fulfillment of the divine word delivered through the prophet?
- Is the story of Hezekiah’s actions during the Assyrian invasion in any way related to the promise of a future king in Isaiah 9:1-7? Is Hezekiah yet another fulfillment of the promise of a royal child in Isa. 7:14?
- In Isaiah 34—39 the prophet seems to advocate an isolationist foreign policy that relies solely on God’s protection of Israel. Is this a viable position to adopt in the modern world?
- Isaiah in these chapters gives several examples of God’s absolute control over human events, and the prophet suggests that God has a divine plan that determines the events of human history (Isa. 37:26-27). What are the theological and practical implications of adopting such a view? Can it still be maintained today?
- These chapters clearly illustrate the alternation between judgment and blessing that Israel’s life with and experience of God involved. Even the faithful Hezekiah eventually made the wrong decision and led the nation into the punishment of exile in Babylon. Do you experience God’s involvement in the world and in your own life this way? Do you think that the alternation described here is inevitable? Can it be escaped? Does the alternation ever stop, with the result that God’s people live forever either under judgment or under promise?
Yale Bible Study
IV. Isaiah 40:1-31: The Fulfillment of the Divine Word: God’s Faithfulness to Israel
In Isaiah 1—39 we have seen several instances of prophecies that show signs of being reinterpreted in later periods to show how the divine word is capable of more than one fulfillment. Prophecies that were understood to be fulfilled in one historical circumstance were by virtue of their fulfillment thought to contain true divine words which could apply to future events as well. For this reason, in Isaiah 1—39 references to the Babylonian exile and even to the return to Jerusalem after the exile, references usually associated with the exilic prophecies of Second Isaiah, are sometimes intermingled with the earlier prophecies of First Isaiah. True divine words are timeless and can be fulfilled over and over again.
However, in Isaiah 40—55 direct traces of the work of First Isaiah seem to disappear, and all of these chapters assume the reality of Israel’s exile in Babylon, which stretched from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. to the capture of the city of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus II in 539 B.C., a year before the Persian king allowed the exiled Judeans to return to their land. Throughout Isaiah 40—55 the tone of the literature is exhortatory, with the prophetic voice encouraging the exiles to return to Jerusalem. Cyrus himself is hailed as a messianic figure, and themes of liberation and redemption dominate the literature.
The Book of Isaiah does not describe the exile itself, but chs. 34—38 make clear the regular alternation of judgment and salvation that in the mind of Isaiah dominate Israel’s history with God. The last words of Isaiah 39 foreshadow the Babylonian exile, while with ch. 40 the attention of the prophet turns decisively to the possibility of return to Jerusalem.
Isaiah 40:1-11 begins with language that calls to mind First Isaiah’s call to prophesy in Isaiah 6. In that chapter the holy of holies in the Jerusalem temple is transformed in the prophet’s vision of the heavenly realm, where God is enthroned. God searches for agents to work the divine will in Israel. The prophet volunteers and is assigned the task of delivering the word of judgment that has been decreed against the people. Isaiah 40 opens with another divine call for agents, messengers, or servants who are to take on the job of comforting Jerusalem. In the Hebrew text the imperative verb forms in Isa. 40:1-2 are plural (“comfort,” “speak,”), an indication that God is in search of more than one agent. The identity of the addressees is unclear in the text, although God does not seem to be issuing an open call for help, as in Isaiah 6. God seems to have some particular group in mind. However, even if the identity of the agents is not clear, the content of their message is plain. They are to speak to Jerusalem and tell her that she has “served her term” and paid her penalty.
The judicial language of these first verses implies that the city has been serving time for a crime. Even more than that, God, who is clearly the speaker, says that Jerusalem has paid double for all her sins. This is a strange statement that some commentators have connected with laws requiring two-fold restitution for certain types of crime, although why such a law would be relevant in Jerusalem’s case is not clear. More likely the implication of the statement is that Jerusalem has in fact paid a larger penalty than her sins justified. The notion of this extra penalty may be related to Isa. 53:4-6, where God’s servant is said to have suffered vicariously for the sins of the community. If that is also the reference in Isa. 40:2, then the message is that Jerusalem’s suffering has been in some way redemptive, although that idea will not be worked out until later chapters.
In Isa. 40:3-5 a voice, probably either God or another of God’s agents, is said to cry out. The message this time concerns the return of God from exile in Babylon, where the deity has taken up residence temporarily with the displaced Israelites. Again the imperative verbs are plural (“prepare,” “make straight”), so the addressees may well be the same people referred to in vv. 1-2. The people called to “comfort” Jerusalem in Isa. 40:1-2, are also the people told to prepare a road in the wilderness for God’s return. The allusion here may be to the Exodus from Egypt, when Israel crossed through the wilderness in order to reach the land that God had promised to them. However, this time God’s return, presumably followed by the exiles themselves, will be made much easier by the cooperation of nature itself: a road will be prepared, valleys will be raised, mountains will be made low, and uneven ground will be leveled. All of this will happen because of the command of God. The divine word will bring the return from exile into being.
The early Christian church understood this instruction to God’s agents or servants to refer to John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way again for the return of God, this time in the person of Jesus (Luke 3:4-6). This New Testament reading of the Isaiah passage is in harmony with Isaiah’s notion of the multiple fulfillment of prophecy. The address to God’s servants in the Babylonian exile concerning God’s return to Jerusalem was fulfilled with the return to the land of Israel, but the prophecy is eternally true, and it can therefore be fulfilled again when John prepares the way for God’s Son to return to Jerusalem.
In Isa. 40:6-8, again an unidentified voice commands someone to cry out. This time the command uses a singular verb, and the prophet answers with a question about the contents of the message. The prophet also probably speaks the words at the end of v. 6 and in v. 7: how can the prophet do anything? “All people are grass….The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.” This description picks up the words of Isaiah’s oracle concerning Sennacherib during the Assyrian invasion of 701, when God says through Isaiah that the king’s attack on Israel is part of a divine plan. When the Assyrians come, the inhabitants of Judah will become like the plants of the field and the grass in the hot summer sun (Isa. 37:26-27). Those words were indeed fulfilled by the coming of the Assyrians, but they were fulfilled again when the Babylonians exiled the inhabitants of Jerusalem to Babylon. Now in Isa. 40:7, the prophet complains that the exiles in Babylon are again like the withered grass. “What”, the prophet seems to be asking, “can anyone do”? The divine answer comes in Isa. 40:8 in an affirmation from the community of faith: “Yes, the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” God’s word of promise to Jerusalem during the Assyrian invasion was fulfilled in the salvation of the city. But now it can be fulfilled again. God has not rejected Israel in exile, but has been with them and will now lead them back to their land. The promise of God’s presence in Jerusalem will be fulfilled again when God returns with the people.
In 40:9-11 the prophet finally proclaims the good news. Zion itself is now addressed as one of God’s agents and is told to proclaim the news of the return of God, not just to Jerusalem but to all the cities of Judah. God’s own return is described, along with the protection and peace which God’s return brings. These words of promise must have resounded among exiles whose hopes had been dashed, whose cities had laine in ruins, and whose God had seemed far away and inactive. Their present and their future has just taken an abrupt and wonderful turn.
Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 289-311.
John Goldingay, Isaiah 40—55 (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 1.60-92.
Questions for Reflection:
- Isaiah 40 begins with a call for human help to implement God’s plans for Israel’s salvation, just as in Isaiah 6 God seeks agents to bring about divine judgment on Israel. In chapter 6 the prophet volunteers to be God’s servant. Who are the servants addressed at the beginning of Isaiah 40?
- In Isaiah 40:3-5 God’s return to Jerusalem is described in cosmic terms. The implication of this language is that God has not simply sent Israel into exile in Babylon but has actually gone with them and shared the experience with them. This suggests that God voluntarily suffers along with the people. How does the New Testament understand this idea, and how do the Gospel writers relate it to their understanding of Jesus?
- In Isa. 40:8 the writer affirms what may be the central theological truth of the whole book: God’s word, once given, will inevitably be fulfilled, not just once, but over and over again. How did this belief help the early Church to understand Jesus and to understand its own role in the fulfillment of God’s will. Do you think that this same belief can be applied in the contemporary church?
- Beginning in Isaiah 40, Second Isaiah places a particularly strong emphasis on the role that human agents play in doing God’s work in the world. The text up to this point has talked about several kinds of divine servants: individuals like the prophet, divine beings who are servants, the unidentified group addressed at the beginning of Isaiah 40, the unidentified individual in Isa. 52:13-53:12, whose suffering and eventual exaltation are redemptive for the whole community, and the city of Jerusalem itself, which perhaps suffers for the redemption of Israel and which proclaims God’s salvation to all the cities of Judah and ultimately to the whole world. What are the implications of this idea of servanthood for understanding the role of individual Christian communities in the world?
Yale Bible Study
V. Isaiah 41:1-44:23: God’s Coming Vindication and Deliverance
Building on chapter 40’s introduction, Second Isaiah announces the fulfillment of God’s goals for Israel and the world. The Judean exiles in Babylonia have complained that God is disregarding their misery in captivity (Isa 40:27). Now God responds by summoning the nations to court, challenging the no-gods of earth, and presenting a chosen Servant who will start to set things right. Israel is suffering exile for good reason, but the new exodus that God is planning will entail a new creation. All the pain of Israel’s history of sin will be soon forgotten. Transformed, the people will become an image of divine splendor on earth.
God’s Otherness and God’s Commitment: Isaiah 41:1-20
Second Isaiah’s poetry transports us to a law court, where God is the prosecutor and the nations the defendants. The authors have good reasons for the legal language: they want to get people thinking, weighing the evidence. They insist that if one looks around and uses one’s brain, one will see who is really God. Verse 4 makes the answer plain: “It is I, the Lord, the First and the Last. I alone am he” (nlt).
In vv. 1-7, the Lord calls for the attention of earth’s far-flung peoples. They should come forth and argue out who is in control of the world. “Let us together draw near for judgment” (v. 1). Given the great international events of the times, the answer should be apparent. The static folly of business-as-usual is looking increasingly bankrupt.
Something enormous is off and running, redirecting history. Happening terribly fast, it is yanking history back on a course of God’s choosing. Shaken, earth’s idolaters huddle together. They nail down their idols firmly to their bases, lest the rising tempest topple them. Cyrus the Great of Persia (558-529 b.c.e.) is upending geopolitics, introducing the world to the spirit of reverence, and liberating God’s exiles, still captive in Babylonia. Better get the idols battened down! Things are going to be demoralizing enough without the embarrassment of the idols smashing.
Verses 8-16 establish the very different position of the exiles from earth’s trembling pagans. Although the transcendent God of otherness cannot be accessed through idols, God has committed to Israel on God’s own initiative! Twice the poem declares Israel, the offspring of Abraham, to be God’s servant (vv. 8, 9). They are already aligned with God, ensconced in God’s sure work in history. Their imperative is thrice repeated and crystal clear: “Do not fear” (vv. 10, 13, 14).
Israel’s security is grounded in an ongoing relationship with God, stretching far back in time. As the “offspring of Abraham” (v. 8), the exiles are heirs to specific, eternal promises of God. As an “everlasting covenant,” God promised Abraham “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7). This perpetual, unilateral commitment of God to God’s people lies at the heart of Second Isaiah’s theology. In calling Abraham “my friend” in v. 8, God uses a Hebrew idiom identifying him as an eternal covenant partner (cf. 2 Chr 20:7). Verse 10 affirms the promise, repeating the oath of Genesis 17:7 that “I am your God.”
The reference to Israel as a “worm” and an “insect” in v. 14 is at first unsettling. How can God permit such dehumanizing? The exiles join the psalmist in crying, “I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people” (Ps 22:6). A powerful paradox, central to Second Isaiah’s theology, emerges here. Such lowliness is a portal to amazing power. This “worm” is about to become a “threshing sledge, sharp, new and having teeth” (Isa 41:15).
For centuries, interpreters have noted how topsy-turvy is the world of Second Isaiah’s thinking compared to what most of us encounter in our daily routines. Impressed by the radicalness of Second Isaiah, the fifth-century patristic commentator, Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus, described its claims as completely new and unexpected. Encountering these claims, he writes, is like entering a bizarre hospital where the physicians undergo the operations and their patients obtain the healing!
Verses 17-20 establish the security of God’s people with alternative imagery: a vision of miraculous fecundity. Fecundity is the hallmark of the new world to which the exiles will be heading after their exodus from Babylonia. Rivers, fountains, and pools of water appear in a parched and barren landscape (v. 18). The cedar, the cypress, and the pine spring up in the wilderness (v. 19). It is hard not to be reverent in the presence of such stately and majestic trees, which arise so inexplicably in what was previously a wasteland. Their towering grandeur will unite God’s people in shared feelings of humility and finitude, reinforcing communal bonds of mutuality and caring.
Power through Vulnerability: Isaiah 41:21–42:17
Paralleling the initial poem of this section, vv. 21-29 challenge the idol-worshipping heathen to argue things out in court. The God’s of pagan mythology are moored within the flux of creation, ensconced in nature’s immanent forces. They know nothing of the towering, transcendent perspective of the true God, awesome, majestic, and other. They can neither explain what the past means nor accurately plot the course of the future. In fact, there is little if anything they can do. They are a “delusion” (v. 29). In contrast, the Holy One has declared beforehand the march of Cyrus the Great.
Where exactly within the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, you might ask, do we find God’s accurate prediction of the rise of Cyrus of Persia? The answer might surprise you. The prediction is found right here in v. 25 of Isaiah chapter 41!
The authors of Second Isaiah may be writing during the Babylonian exile, 150 years after the ministry of the eighth-century Isaiah. Their intention, however, is to furnish us with the fullest possible picture of his prophecy. Thus, the words of Second Isaiah come out of the mouth of the same dramatic persona of Isaiah who speaks throughout the book’s 66 chapters. Isaiah 1:1 introduces the whole scroll as “the vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” That includes Isaiah 41:25.
With our next poem, Isaiah 42:1-9, we come to something special: the first “Servant Song” of Second Isaiah. These “Songs” are unique prophetic poems that sketch out the life-style and story of an ideal figure, the Servant of the Lord. The poems have perplexed and engrossed readers for centuries. They speak of an individual with unique traits and a personal story, yet they do not tell us where, when, or how in the world to find her or him. Their language creates a strange new way of seeing things, and outlines a set of values, perceptions, and interactions foreign to many of us. In fact, it paints a portrait of a new form of life, where much is upside down. I suggest that we view the Servant as an ideal figure—a spiritual meditation on servanthood. The description of the figure expands on Isaiah’s theme of the powerful potential of human frailty, which we encounter throughout Second Isaiah.
A sevenfold use of the word “not” strikes the reader of the poem, especially since in biblical symbolism seven signifies completion and perfection. Whoever the protagonist of this poem may be, clearly what he does not do is as important as what he does. The power of God’s Servant is power to refrain from self-assertion on the one hand, and power to resist the sway of external forces on the other. He is completely—even perfectly—unpretentious and non-violent. Simple, patient, and gentle, he is at the same time not stoppable. Completely assured and calmly resolute, he will never stop God’s work, or be stopped, until his mission is complete.
Verse 2 grapples with how God’s Servant gets people’s attention. Since time’s dawn, humans have tried to influence others through tirades, tantrums, grand standing, and threats of hell fire. History’s judgment is usually to smirk, for such public displays release plenty of energy but look foolish, or infantile, in retrospect. The ancient Greek comedy, The Wasps, by Aristophanes pokes fun at a judge who runs his courtroom as if he is Zeus, the thunder god: “‘O Lord! O Zeus!’ say the passers-by, ‘How thunders the court within!’”
Explosive theatrics often seem to get results, given their power to stimulate the reptilian core of the human brain. They do not win an enviable legacy, however. The example of a lifestyle of integrity is far more impressive in the long run, a lifestyle like that of Abraham and Sarah, Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King.
Verse 3 has even stronger poetic art than v. 2. Its imaginative negative understatements in parallel clauses portray the Servant’s quiet methods and great caution. He acts unobtrusively and empathetically, helping those struggling to find their way in the world, those in need. The Hebrew word for “reed” signals an easily bent water-plant that cannot stand up to much force. A flame that is “dim”—the Hebrew reveals—is one that is faint and barely noticeable.
The emphasis in each parallel clause is on the object of the Servant’s ministry, not on the Servant himself. The objects of his care come first in each verset, illustrating through the art of words how in his way of living, others literally get priority. The self purposefully takes a back seat—a rear place in each verse segment. Subsequent Servant Songs in Second Isaiah will show just how far the Servant is willing to go in his commitment to self-sacrifice. Suffice it for now to note that the drama the Servant enacts has long sent shivers up readers’ spines.
The lifestyle at issue in our poem wields a unique kind of power, entirely more effective than coercion. No wonder it is the Servant’s life-manner of choice in pursuing justice on earth. What exactly is this power? It is a kind of power today’s world does not know well. It is the power of patience and sacrifice, which postpones immediate gratification in favor of a greater, long-term good. It is the power of non-violent resistance, which defeats its enemies by changing their hearts rather than hardening them. And it is the power of human community, which may so protect and nurture the lives of all its members—even the weakest—that they selflessly promote its cause, even when the reward is merely preserving fellowship.
The Servant does his work “faithfully” (v. 3c), that is, as the Hebrew says, with “firm commitment” despite the odds. He works to set earth right steadily and firmly, even though success looks like a long shot given such a cautious, caring program. A modern Christian covenant from Zimbabwe, Africa, captures the same spirit of faith and discipleship: “I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded, or delayed…. I will go on until Christ comes, and work until Christ stops me. I am a disciple of Jesus.”
The final poetic line in v. 4 plays upon the language of v. 3, using identical Hebrew verbal roots. Although the Servant is protective of other’s dim lights, he refuses to allow his own light to burn dim (“grow faint”). Although caring about those around him who are bruised reeds, he lets no one bruise (“crush”) him until his work for God is finished. The well-crafted poetic wordplays of our text drive home the theological paradox. Allowing one’s energy and concern to move out beyond the boundaries of self—out in the direction of others—does not make one weak. It does not lower one’s worth and power. In God’s mysterious grace, it affirms and strengthens them.
The “coastlands” wait for the Servant’s “teaching,” according to the climactic end of our poem in v. 4. The word “teaching” here is literally torah, that is, God-revealed instruction. Such torah points or shows God’s true way of life, the way to go if one wants to live life abundantly. How astonishing that the Servant possesses such a torah, and more astonishing still that earth’s coastlands are interested in the fact. In Hebrew idiom, the coastlands are the foreign, distant lands beyond the seas. They are earth’s far-flung corners. The poetry presents this extreme image as a way of pointing to everyone, that is, all peoples of the earth, everyone imaginable.
Contrary to what one often hears, God’s ways in the Old Testament are not merely for the benefit of one tiny cross-section of humanity. God’s plans and God’s purposes extend to the ends of the earth, whose people God hopes to grant new lives and indeed, in God’s time, new creation.
Following the Song, vv. 10-17 round off chapter 42 with a hymn of praise and a startling image of God, who appears gasping and panting like a woman in childbirth. The rhetorical strategy at work here is marvelous! The exiles had deep suspicions that God is powerless. After all, God had been silent for decades. But what if God is “like a woman in labor”? If God is at the point of birthing new life, then a lot has been going on for months without it being apparent to the people.
God’s helplessness has actually been a means of doing something quite powerful indeed. A woman’s helplessness and frailty during labor is nothing less than power, the power to bring about new life—something a “powerful” male cannot do! This theological theme that vulnerability and frailty is a source of stupendous power is truly central in Second Isaiah.
God’s “pain” is the suffering to which a stance of vulnerability exposes one. When one puts aside the ego-self, drops one’s guard on behalf of something greater than the self, then one is almost guaranteed to be hurt. In Second Isaiah God is seen to put aside God’s right to justice, to put aside what is fair and deserved. Others should be doing their part, but God ends up having to pull everyone else’s weight for them (cf. Isa 41:28; 59:16; 63:5). When you embrace other-centeredness, you often get “burned,” you take the “fall,” you open yourself up to misunderstanding and deep rejection precisely at a point where you have exposed your soft flesh. I believe that this is the nature of the pain that God is feeling here in Isaiah 42.
Bring Out the Blind and the Deaf: Isaiah 42:18–43:21
Verses 18-25 of chapter 42 bite the bullet and explain why God must birth a new creation in the first place. Why must God do a new thing in Cyrus? Why must God call forth a unique new Servant? After all, the exiles themselves, the extant posterity of Abraham, should be fulfilling the role of servant of the Lord. The answer is that God’s people have thus far failed in the role of servant. God has exiled them to Babylonia for good reason, which has nothing to do with divine ignorance or apathy (cf. Isa 40:27; Lam 5:20). The focal problem has been a spiritual imperception and obtuseness, which even now show no signs of improving.
The following poem, Isaiah 43:1-7, assures the people that although their exile was deserved, the time of redemption and regathering is at hand. They remain obtuse, but, amazingly, God’s grace will triumph anyway. The gathering of the dispersed remnant has been prophesied back in Isaiah 11:12-16, and that Word stands. Israel is God’s special people, destined to become an imago Dei that will channel the splendor of the high and lofty one to earth.
Next, the poetry of vv. 8-13 renews the metaphor of earth’s nations on trial, but this time God’s people are present offering hope. Ensconced in God’s ongoing implementation of salvation, Israel can attest to the truth of God’s work (“the former things,” v. 9). The chosen people stand at the center of this poem as God’s witnesses to the entire globe. Their destiny is to make the Holy One known universally on earth.
Verses 14-21 conclude this section of Isaiah. The power of Babylonia will indeed be broken, and Israel shall certainly go free in a new exodus. The old exodus from Egypt through “a path in the mighty waters” (v. 16) was monumental, but the new exodus that is coming will so far transcend it as to render it hardly worth recalling (v. 18)! Second Isaiah builds its theology of comfort on God’s eternal promises to the ancestors, God’s commitments to Abraham and to Sarah long before the sojourn in Egypt. God is finally fulfilling these commitments in radical acts of new creation. Israel’s sorry history of unfaith and murmuring from the time of the Egyptian sojourn is no longer to impinge on its destiny.
A New Israel: Isaiah 43:22–44:23
Isaiah 43:22-28 begins a new subsection, which picks up earlier themes and pushes them farther. The unit begins with continued trial speech, in which God reiterates Israel’s culpability in its exile. The people’s problem has not been God’s disregard of them, but their lack of respect for God’s radical otherness. They did not even do the minimum of offering sufficient sacrifices to ritually cleanse the temple. In the priestly theology of reverence borne by the Second Isaiah community, God experiences Israel’s sin as a tainting, repelling force. It makes continued contact with the people burdensome. Yet, there is great hope, for God is “He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake” (v. 25).
Reiterating the theme of bountiful new life, Isaiah 44:1-5 promises deliverance to God’s sin-tainted people. A sprouting, blossoming new creation is coming. An image of effortless fertility appeared already in Isaiah 41:17-20 (cf. Isa 43:19-20), but here the spiritual dimensions are far more obvious. Alongside ecological transformation comes a pouring out of God’s spirit on descendents, a blessing on offspring (v. 3).
This offspring (v. 3) is none other than the “offspring of Abraham,” already mentioned in Isaiah 41:8-16. The Hebrew wording of v. 3 again emphasizes how the specific commitments of Genesis 17 are finally reaching fulfillment. A new emphasis on universalism is present, however. New followers of God are sprouting up like grass on a prairie—uncultivated, uncontrolled. As God will later declare, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isa 45:22-23).
Verses 6-23 round off this division of Isaiah by reiterating God’s otherness, God’s singular incomparability. From the beginning, the role of God’s people, Israel, has been to bear witness to this otherness, to the Lord’s transcendent perspective and work. Verses 9-20 are a long, prose polemic against idols, greatly extending the satirical critique we glimpsed in Isaiah 41:5-7. The short poem in vv. 21-23 issues a concluding call for the people to return to God. Why should they not, for they already stand redeemed? In overpowering transcendence, God has disposed of their transgressions “like a cloud,” their sins “like mist.” Through God’s mighty redemption, the divine splendor shall manifest itself on earth in Israel. All creation should belt out its praise.
Walter Brueggemann, “Second Isaiah: An Evangelical Re-reading of Communal Experience,” in Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah, ed. by Christopher R. Seitz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 71-90.
Questions for Reflection:
- What do you make of Second Isaiah’s court-room language in this division of the book? Should Christians speak and debate about God in the public square after the fashion of this sort of language? Are the arguments of Second Isaiah appealing in our modern context?
- Several of the prophecies in Second Isaiah appeal back to the eternal promises of God to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis. What is the spiritual power of these unilateral commitments of God? Do they appeal to your own spirituality?
- What questions do you have about the identity and mission of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 42? What do you make of this figure’s lifestyle and its relevance for today? What are your suspicions and concerns about the Servant? Your hopes for what the Servant might do?
- This section of Second Isaiah contains some biting satire and taunts aimed against idolatry. Should modern people view this as objectionable, or is it an appropriate spirituality? Is satire a sign of “irreverence,” or can we somehow envision it as a mark of reverence (defined as awe before the transcendent otherness of God)?
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VI. Isaiah 44:24-48:22: The Agents of God’s Redemption
This section of Second Isaiah opens with an oracle identifying God as the speaker. This is a normal pattern for prophetic oracles, but it is rare in Second Isaiah (Isa. 44:23). The use of the traditional opening here gives particular emphasis to the divine origin of the words which follow. In the world of this prophecy, God is talking directly to Israel here.
Two other important theological points are made in the opening verse.
First, God is given the title “Redeemer,” a title that occurs frequently elsewhere in Second Isaiah. The title refers originally to family members, who have an obligation to “buy back” property belonging to the family so that it will not be separated from the family. Sometimes this “property” is even a family member. For example, a family member who has been sold into slavery for the non-payment of debt may be redeemed so that the family may remain whole (Lev. 25:47-55). Similarly, family property may be redeemed so that it will not leave the family (Lev. 25:23-34). If a member of the family is injured or killed by an outsider, a family redeemer may take vengeance on the perpetrator and “redeem” or pay back the harm done to the family (Num. 35:31-34).
The implication of the title “Redeemer” in this context is that Israel is part of God’s family, and God therefore recognizes an obligation to redeem family members. Exactly how God will do this is unclear. Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary claim, and it is very different from the idea that Israel’s suffering in exile brings about its own redemption. Israel has always been part of God’s family and was not taken into the family at some point late in the nation’s history. Israel became family by virtue of God’s creation of the nation at its birth. The theological message of this statement is clear. Israel has been in God’s family from the beginning, and neither the behavior and events leading up to the exile, nor the exile itself did anything to change that fact. Israel remains part of God’s family, and God now recognizes an obligation to redeem members of the family.
The second important theological point here has to do with God’s ability to redeem God’s people. God has the power to redeem Israel because God is the creator of the entire cosmos, and is therefore powerful enough to bring Israel back from captivity in Babylon. This sort of creation language is common throughout Second Isaiah, and underlines the notions of God’s power that were already present in First Isaiah’s call vision in Isaiah 6. As for God’s power over history, the stories in First Isaiah of Ahaz and Hezekiah both feature the prophet’s firm conviction that God stands over history and moves history according to God’s design.
Isa. 44:25-28 addresses several issues connected with Israel’s redemption.
God first challenges the truthfulness of other prophets, diviners, and the wise, who deliver messages that are different from the one that Second Isaiah is delivering. The word of God’s servant, the prophet Isaiah, is confirmed, and God also assures the fulfillment of the words of the divine messengers, perhaps the people addressed in Isa. 40:1 (Isa. 44:25-26). These words would have been aimed at boosting the confidence of exiles in Babylon, newly-but-tentatively hopeful about their/God’s future.
Second, God repeats the promise that Second Isaiah has been emphasizing, the promise that God will cause Jerusalem to be reinhabited and Judah’s cities to be rebuilt (Isa. 44:26; see Isa. 40:1-11). Given the horrors of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, these words may have been incredible to the exiles.
Third, God designates the Persian king, Cyrus, as God’s shepherd, a title traditionally given to legitimate kings, and Cyrus is designated God’s agent, who will rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. Again here we see emphasis on God’s orchestration of history, which would have been a comfort to these Israelites, who must have been tempted to feel like pawns of other kings.
The direct commissioning of Cyrus takes place in Isa. 45:1-8. God speaks directly to the king and promises divine aid to accomplish his intensions. By grasping the king’s hand, God legitimates him and gives him the power to subdue nations and take over kingdoms. Just as God will prepare the way for Israel to return from exile (Isa. 40:3-4), so here God prepares the way for Cyrus and gives him the spoil of nations, a sign that God supports the Persian’s efforts, even though Cyrus does not know Israel’s God. All of this is done for the sake of God’s servant Jacob/Israel, God’s chosen. Israel’s God is able to do this because this God is the only God in the cosmos (cf. Isaiah 6). Second Isaiah is an absolute monotheist. There are no other gods in the cosmos except Israel’s God, who alone has the power to shape events in the world. Israel’s God controls all things that happen: “I am the Lord and there is not another, the one who makes light and creates darkness, the one who makes good/well being and creates evil” (Isa. 45:6-7 [my translation]). Of all of God’s servants mentioned in Second Isaiah, this is the most extraordinary one. After Isaiah 40, the prophet says nothing about the restoration of the Davidic monarchy in Israel. Rather political power is to be given to Cyrus, who is designated as God’s anointed one, God’s messiah (Isa. 45:1). Just as God used the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, as a tool to punish Israel (Isaiah 10), so now God designates Cyrus as the agent of Israel’s restoration to the land. The promise of the restoration of a Davidic ruler in Isaiah 11 seems to have been forgotten, and the promise of a future just king in Isa. 9:1-7 may now be understood to refer to Cyrus.
The themes that are highlighted in Isaiah 44:24-45:8 are repeated for emphasis in chs. 45:9-48:22. God’s plan will be worked out, even though people question its wisdom, and in particular God resists the idea that the divine will cannot be done through Cyrus, whose special status is reaffirmed (Isa. 45:9-17). God has made the divine plan known through the prophet (Isa. 45:18-19), and there are no other divine powers in the cosmos to thwart God’s will (Isa. 45:20-46:2). God’s care for Israel in the past will continue in the future, for God has planned future events from the beginning, and the divine plan will inevitably be fulfilled (Isa. 46:3-13). Israel’s captor, Babylon will fall (Isa. 47:1-15), and Israel has long ago been promised a glorious future. The words of promise spoken by First Isaiah are now to come to pass, and Israel’s redemption is at hand (Isa. 48:1-22).
Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 344-379.
John Goldingay and David Payne, Isaiah 40—55 (International Critical Commentary; London: T & T Clark, 2006), 2.3-151.
Questions for Reflection:
- In Isa. 44:23 Second Isaiah speaks of the idea of God’s family and grounds the idea of redemption in a family context. Israel has been part of God’s family since its beginnings, and that relationship has not changed because of the exile. How do Christians fit into this picture? They too claim to be part of God’s family and trace their own redemption to that fact. Yet Second Isaiah implies that Israel’s family status has not come to an end. How do all of these things fit together (for one New Testament view on this, see the comments of Paul in Romans 9—11).
- In Second Isaiah membership in God’s family implies that God will fulfill the obligation of redemption within the family. Does Second Isaiah also imply a similar obligation for members of the family toward each other?
- To the long list of human agents of the divine will that Isaiah mentions, the passages being considered in this section add the Persian king, Cyrus, who is given God’s support and sole political control over Israel. Do you think that God uses non-Israelite/non-Christian agents to accomplish the divine will? Is there a limit to the various sorts of servants that God might use?
- In Isa. 45:6-7 Second Isaiah not only stresses yet again an absolute belief in monotheism but also states clearly the implications of such a belief. If God is the only power in the cosmos, then God must be responsible for evil as well as for good. What are your reactions to Second Isaiah’s conclusion? Are there alternatives to the prophet’s position?
- Second Isaiah’s frequent references to God’s divine plan for world events suggests a belief in a kind of determinism in which all events in history have been planned from the beginning of creation. In Second Isaiah’s context this view is intended to offer Israel reassurance that God’s promises of restoration will inevitably take place. Is the idea of a divine plan still a viable one today? Is it possible to believe in one God without accepting a deterministic view of historical events?
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VII. Isaiah 49:1-52:12: God’s Servant and God’s Bride
To this point, the great corpus of Second Isaiah in chapters 40–55 has been focused on King Cyrus of Persia as the instrument of God’s new creative work on earth. Toward the end of chapter 48, however, the Servant of the Lord, whom we met in Isaiah 42:1-4, spoke up. He interjected his own voice as a way of marking a shift in orientation within our poetic corpus. “Now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit” the Servant proclaimed (Isa 48:16). As we move forward with the poetry of Second Isaiah, we learn much more about the role of the Servant and the ordeal he must endure as God’s instrument of salvation. We also read of Jerusalem personified as Daughter Zion, the bride of God, and her coming glorification in God’s new world.
The Witness of the Servant of the Lord: Isaiah 49:1-13
Immediately at the start of this division of Isaiah, the Servant presents his programmatic testimony (vv. 1-6). He bears witness to key themes of his life’s work, including his special divine election and his commission to display God’s splendor. God is glorified as the Servant works to realize all God’s expectations (v. 3). These include not only restoring the tribes of Jacob to God but also becoming an instrument of salvation for earth’s many nations (v. 6). Due to him, God’s salvation becomes global. Both Israel and the Gentiles are about to have their worlds inverted, and be left greatly in the Servant’s debt.
The poetic lines of v. 1 betray a remarkable tension. The first summons a global audience; the second exposes an inner self. Isaiah’s poetry challenges modern convention here, for many today consider it awkward or incorrect to broadcast the details of private and complex relationships, especially spiritual ones. The Servant is asking us to put aside niceties and politeness for a moment, to open ourselves to the possibility of inner transformation. Indeed, he is not just asking. The “sharp sword” and “polished arrow” of his poetry (v. 2) pierce the rigid enamels of custom and conditioning that nowadays encrust our true selves.
Pride and egoism do not motivate the Servant in expressing his personal calling by God, for he does so from a position of vulnerability. He admits flat out that his qualifications for God’s global mission include little more than marginality and obscurity. He speaks twice of his hiddenness in the poetic lines of v. 2, driving home his peripheral status through Hebrew parallelism. In v. 4 he confesses he has nothing yet to show for his life. His exertions, to all appearances, have been in vain, only for empty breath.
What a contrast to the standard autobiographies of earth’s great leaders. Ancient Near Eastern kings, such as Assurbanipal of Assyria and Pianchi of Egypt, made similar claims to divine election from the time of the womb, but primarily to buttress their royal position. The Servant’s motivation and purposes are far different from theirs, and it is the differences that allow him to invert the world. First, admitting his frailty, he allows God to be his strength (v. 5). By moving his self out of the way, he points to another: he lets God shine (v. 3). Unlike earth’s rulers, the Servant’s obscurity and humility provide a mirror reflecting God’s grace and glory on earth.
Second, whereas Near Eastern kings subdued human beings through campaigns and conquests, the Servant empowers them through word, through example, and through openness to relationship. His opening language of prenatal experience evokes a mood of transparency. To think of the Servant in the womb is to imagine him powerless. The Servant is even more open and vulnerable in v. 4, where his parallel statements admit to frustration and failure: “I have labored in vain,” “for nothing and vanity.” These are surely honest words of human frailty.
Israel’s infertile ancestress Sarah cared enough about God’s work, and about Abraham, her husband, to become vulnerable like Isaiah’s Servant. Determined that God’s promise of numerous descendants for Abraham should triumph, she shared her husband sexually (Gen 16:2), shared her own status as his wife (Gen 16:3). The move was self-sacrificial, and it exposed her to contempt (Gen 16:4; cf. Isa 49:7), but in making it she become a co-worker with God, a servant of the Lord, at least for a time. Hagar the Egyptian was also the Lord’s servant. Though a powerless slave-girl, severely abused, she distinguished herself through her patience (Gen 16:7), self-sacrifice (Gen 16:9, 11), and her faith (Gen 16:13). She accepted a great promise from God, and allowed the Lord to work a blessing on earth through her (Gen 16:10). These echoes of Abraham and Sarah’s story, which represent the birth of Israel, are summoned by v. 1’s image of the Servant in embryo.
Isaiah 49 provides powerful poetic metaphors that help us believe incredible claims, namely, that servants of the Lord will transform the world. Consider the poetic lines of v. 2, whose artistry encapsulates a profound paradox. Each begins with a metaphor of the Servant as an elite weapon, daunting and effective. Here is the scandal of Isaiah’s vision in its essence—the book’s exceptional claim is that frail mortals are God’s instruments, sharp, select, and polished. Readers may justly raise eyebrows about such theology, the poem’s first readers—powerless exiles, captive in Babylonia—no less than we today. Isaiah’s carefully chosen metaphors, however, confront all doubts. They are full of power to transform our thinking, as we experience firsthand when we ponder the final versets of the lines we are studying: “In the shadow of his hand he concealed me”; “In his quiver he hid me away.”
Swords and arrows are often concealed weapons, bearing hidden potential. And potentials are not publicly manifest. They lie in preparedness, available for display at just the right moment. This metaphorical truth fuels a breakthrough deep in our spirits. The present frailty and obscurity of God’s servants is not the basis for skepticism or discouragement that we thought, but is as natural as a sword in its sheath, an arrow in its quiver. The humble, selfless qualities of servants are perfectly compatible with the lofty status they hold in God’s divine plan.
God wills to confront earth’s challenges through what appear to be extremely unlikely means and instruments. Instead of meeting arrogance with arrogance and oppression with oppression, God’s approach is servanthood. Servanthood, with all its frailty and vulnerability, is the necessary means and cost of setting things right on earth. As we begin to take up a lifestyle of servanthood, just as Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar did, we become God’s chosen instruments in guiding history toward its divinely determined goal.
God speaks up and responds to the Servant Song in the subsequent poem, Isaiah 49:7-13. The Holy One, the Redeemer of Israel, wants to affirm and second the spiritual paradox to which he has given voice. His obscurity and humiliation will indeed be pathways to worldwide vindication and recognition.
There is a flash-forward here to Isaiah 52:13-15, part of the fourth Servant Song. By flagging that upcoming text here, Second Isaiah makes it clear to readers that God’s redeeming work comes at the cost of the Servant’s being despised, abhorred, and a slave. As God carries out Zion’s restoration (v. 8), the new exodus (v. 11), and the re-gathering of Israel’s remnant (v. 12), God will be working through the Servant’s frailty and mortality, as becomes clear in Isaiah 52–53.
God Responds to Daughter Zion: Isaiah 49:14–50:3
Alongside the Servant of the Lord, a second major dramatic player in this division of Isaiah is Daughter Zion, the city and temple of Jerusalem personified as God’s wife. She makes her appearance in Isaiah 49:14-21, voicing her agonizing struggle with loss of children and lack of fertility. In the wake of the tragic devastations leveled against her by the Babylonians in the sixth century b.c.e., Zion was left “bereaved and barren…all alone” (Isa 49:21). God responds to this tragedy of barrenness and sterility by granting Zion beauty and new life, which issue in an awesome supernatural fecundity.
For Zion to experience God’s beauty is for her to enjoy effortless fertility—miraculous progeny. Verse 18 leaves us with little doubt: beauty is actualizing itself as fecundity in this passage. Zion’s newborns are beautiful gems, worn like jewels on a bride. As the jewels draw her focus, she finds that they act like small tears in the surface of her world, pulling her through to a vaster space. In the presence of a beauty that seems incomparable and unprecedented, Zion senses a newborn world, and moves toward a stance of welcome and embrace. She rediscovers harmony with God.
Verses 22-26 of chapter 49 have been anticipated by Isaiah 11. The Second Isaiah authors edited that chapter to show how the appearance of God’s “signal” (Isa 49:22), the root of Jesse (see Isa 11:10), will cause the nations to embrace subservience and restore the remnant of God’s people (49:23). The role of Jesse’s scion encompasses the reverence of the nations and the formation of Daughter Zion’s newborn children.
In the final poem of this section, Isaiah 50:1-3, God challenges the exiles to come up with Daughter Zion’s “bill of divorce.” They cannot, for in Second Isaiah’s theology, God’s commitment to Zion is unilateral and eternal. Isaiah 54:4–8 will expand this understanding. God is no divorced spouse but a husband-redeemer, ransoming his estranged wife from indentured servitude.
The Self-Transcendence of the Servant: Isaiah 50:4-11
Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord practices an art of living where the self takes a backseat and others get priority. This trait of self-transcendence is remarkable; how far will the Servant go in his commitment to it? An answer begins to emerge in the third Servant Song, Isaiah 50:4-11. It is one thing to meet others where they are in openness and vulnerability (v. 4). It is quite another to sustain this gift of self despite rejection and violence. Yet, v. 6 of Isaiah 50 shows the Servant giving himself up into the hands of the enemy, risking his life. All the while, the Servant remains calmly resolute. Despite all abuse, he simply will not turn backward (v. 5); he has set his face “like flint.”
The poem leaves no doubt that the Servant’s life of vulnerability is a response to God’s direction. Verse 5 presents God’s Servant as one who follows divine orders. He understands his life as a sure discipleship; to take a safer course would be “rebellious.” According to vv. 7 and 8, the Lord God is the Servant’s vindicator. By portraying the Servant’s flint-like courage in the face of actual physical and psychological abuse, our poem demonstrates this vindication to be without limits. The true servant of God trusts that God will vindicate him—not let him go down the drain—even if he goes as far as it takes to put others first, even if he puts his life on the line.
For the Servant to take up this life-mode of selflessness is to work at living into humanity’s creation in God’s image, humanity’s imago Dei (Gen 1:27). It is to embrace God’s intention for a community of friendship and love on earth. And, it is to live the fullest possible expression of human nature, completely real and completely free. It is our nature, as persons, to place the center of our intention and realization outside ourselves in the neighbor. This commitment to others purely for others’ sake builds up the entire community of persons. Everyone’s human potential is actualized when a community of friends upholds fellowship as its ultimate end, an end in itself.
The self-transcendence of Isaiah’s Servant—his sacrifice of self—bears incredible spiritual power. Repeatedly emerging with Second Isaiah is the paradoxical theme of God’s turning of human frailty and vulnerability to ultimate advantage. We have yet to plumb the full depth of the mystery and the text before us gives only starting points for further progress, not crystal-clear answers. It provides a model for defeating violent enmity, but does not explain how it works.
What is the secret power of purposively bearing others’ harm, of openly accepting their violent persecution? Perhaps we do not need our text to spell out the answer. We know from the examples of Jesus, Gandhi, and King the transformative power of nonresistant suffering. Such suffering, in fact, does indeed bear the paradoxical power to disarm violent aggression. The faithful self-sacrifice of God’s apprentices has the power to strip human selfishness and sinfulness of all pretension and delusion.
When you turn to beat someone, you figure he or she will fight back or run, not purposely stand there and take it. When you humiliate them, they should spit back or at least offer rebuttal and defense. If instead they hold steady and resolutely bear your attack, you have completely lost the upper hand. If you continue your assault, any righteous veneer to your aggression will quickly shade to abuse. By turns, you will find yourself a brat, a bully, and a brute. In the end, you will make yourself into a sadist who cannot bear to look in the mirror. Your victim’s servanthood has triumphed. The victory will be hollow, however, for the real goal of servanthood is to change people’s hearts, not to “heap burning coals on their heads” (Rom 12:20).
Genuine servanthood strives not to quash enemies but to turn them into friends, to transform their very natures. Presenting no resistance to violence, it deprives the enemy of its disposition to be hostile. Exposing a soft underbelly, it shows the enemy that it can let go of its fear. By meeting violent malice with the mystery of nonviolent, suffering love, it offers the enemy something much more valuable than victory by force. To receive the freely offered security and worth of true friendship is a priceless gift, which one need not hoard in fear.
Verses 10-11 offer comments supportive of the Servant. Their harsh tone indicates the audience of the Servant Songs has become partially unreceptive, even hostile (cf. Isa 42:20; 48:22). Are some of the Servant’s potential tormentors to be found within the very community of the exiles? If so, they should take heed. The Servant and the Lord God have a parallel status (v. 10). Those drawn in by any other flame are likely to get burned.
Awake, O God; You Too, O Zion! Isaiah 51:1–52:12
Isaiah 51:1-8 envisions Zion renewed as a garden paradise. It speaks of God making “her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord” (v. 3). To comfort Zion is to infuse her “waste places” with verdant new life. It is to water and fructify them. God’s ability to shower us with new life is obvious in the miraculous beginnings of God’s people. Verse 2 reminds us that all the masses of Israel stemmed from one solitary infertile couple, Abraham and Sarah, whom God “blessed” (see Gen. 17:16) and “made many” (see Gen. 17:2).
Like a community lament from the psalms, the next poem, Isaiah 51:9-11, calls upon God to intervene in Israel’s distress. The poetry sets the imminent rescue of the exiles within the widescreen drama of God’s age-old work. The restoration will parallel the parting of the Red Sea (v. 10), which itself was a reflex of God’s primordial creation (note the ready applicability to the exodus events of hoary poetic and mythological imagery of cosmic genesis). All three epochal interventions—creation, exodus, and restoration—partake of the selfsame, consistent purpose of God with the world. As a striking cross-reference to earlier prophecy (Isa 35:10) confirms, God has long purposed an ultimate divine victory over all “sorrow and sighing” (v. 10). God’s triumphant overturning of the world of sorrow, not a mere political repatriation of exiles, is the core vision of Second Isaiah.
God responds to the people’s supplication in Isaiah 51:12-16. Comfort and help are promised, as God reiterates Second Isaiah’s insistence that God’s transcendence dwarfs any and all machinations of mortal flesh. If the Holy One stands with them, the people of the Lord need fear no oppressor. In v. 16, God turns from the people as a whole to address the Servant and all those who purposefully align with him. In this remnant, God is rebirthing a faithful Israel, hidden in the shadow of God’s hand (see Isa 49:2), lovingly spoon-fed God’s Word (see Isa 59:21). Like an irrepressible green shoot, it will push itself up through dry ground.
The people have called on God to “awake,” and Isaiah 51:17-23 now summons Daughter Zion to do the same. The passage is notable for God’s acknowledgement of his bride’s incomparable suffering. As elsewhere in Second Isaiah God makes the divine self vulnerable, admitting that divine judgment has entailed unspeakable horrors for Zion. She is practically comfortless. Such an admission, which sides with the wife’s point of view, is crucial in reestablishing trust and intimacy.
Again, the call for Daughter Zion to awaken to a new world sounds in Isaiah 52:1-6. God now clothes his wife with uncanny, beauteous holiness as her garments. Beauty is a key element of God’s otherness in Second Isaiah, where the poetry espouses a deity of glorious visage who plans to bathe Zion in splendor (see Isa 46:13; 49:18; 60:7, 19; 62:3). The grant of splendor is nothing less than the poetic equivalent of salvation (Isa 46:13). To save Zion is to adorn her with beauty, transforming the city into an environment where one comes to know God.
The final poem of this division, Isaiah 52:7-12, summarizes the core themes of comfort and fulfillment that have sounded since chapter 40. The Lord is leading back the exiles to Zion; God’s reign is manifesting itself before the eyes of the world. Particularly since chapter 49, a faithful remnant has been taking shape. It consists of those oriented on the Servant (Isa 50:10), those glowing like jewels for Bride Zion (Isa 49:18). The poem emphasizes that this remnant, not some indiscriminate assemblage, is the group returning to Zion. These servants are shining and pure, fit bearers of temple vessels (Isa 52:11).
P. T. Willey, “The Servant of Yahweh and Daughter Zion: Alternating Visions of Yahweh’s Community,” in Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, 1995, ed. by E. H. Lovering Jr. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 267-303.
Questions for Reflection:
- Two dramatic players emerge prominently in this division of Isaiah: the Lord’s Servant and Daughter Zion. Do you relate to one of these figures more than the other? What qualities of that persona draw your attention and empathy?
- How do the Servant and Zion relate to each other? Why are both part of God’s plans?
- It sounds odd to many modern people to consider beauty a central part of God’s saving plans, yet Second Isaiah highlights this theme. How do you react to the idea that beauty is of importance in spirituality? Have you or someone you know ever had an experience of beauty that was life-changing, or even life-saving?
- Have you or someone you’ve known ever had occasion to emulate the lifestyle modeled by the Servant of the Lord? Have you ever put yourself in harms way out of other-centered caring? Was any person (or persons) affected? Were “hot coals” heaped on anyone’s head? If you do not wish to share from personal experience, can you recall any compelling illustrations from literature, the cinema, or the daily news?
- How do the creation, the exodus, and the restoration from exile “mirror” each other? Why is it important that we understand that they do?
Yale Bible Study
VIII. Isaiah 52:13-55:13: The Arm of God Manifest in Suffering
The poetic corpus of Isaiah 40–55 reaches its climax in a final set of prophecies in Isaiah 52:13–55:13. The fourth and most celebrated of the Servant Songs dominates this division, presenting the Servant taking his orientation of other-centeredness to the farthest extreme. His sacrifice makes many righteous as he bears their iniquities. God’s salvation floods to earth, and Daughter Zion thrills at the presence of miracle children abounding on her heights. The new children turn out to be the offspring of the Servant (Isa 53:10), extending his ministry on earth. The role of Israel was concentrated on the person of the Servant for a season (Isa 49:3), but it now branches out to bloom as an expansive community of “servants of the Lord” (Isa 54:17). They enjoy majesty as God’s royal vicars, and the nations run to bask in their beauty (Isa 55:5).
The Sacrifice of the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 52:13–53:12
Brace yourselves as we move into the fourth, climactic Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13–53:12. The poem has entranced brilliant minds and devout spirits for centuries. Examining it, we encounter the Servant to the profoundest extent yet in our study and wrestle most directly with our response to his work. The fourth Servant Song is unique in guiding us through the changing reactions of witnesses to the Servant’s sufferings.
Reading the first six verses of the Song, we hear the Servant described as repulsive to those around him. His appearance is “marred” (Isa 52:13); he is “despised and rejected” (Isa 53:3). The figure comes across as repellent, someone people treat as scum. The Hebrew adverb “surely” at the start of v. 4, however, emphasizes a new perception, indeed, an about-face.
As of v. 4, the chorus that has been describing the Servant confesses to a radical conversion. The narrators have reached a startling new understanding of the Servant’s sufferings and have entered into an amazing new relationship with him. By setting pronouns such as “our” and “we” together next to pronouns such as “he” and “him,” the poetry of vv. 4, 5, and 6 coveys the narrators’ new experience of relationship to the Servant and each other.
The repeated pronouns interlock the parties, while at the same time driving home the wonder of their mysterious solidarity. “Our burdens are piled on him, on him!” The sound of the poetry reinforces this truth, since the words “he” and “our” in Hebrew both use long-u sounds. The same sounds also project an eerie awe: u-u-u-u, u-u-u-u. Through careful poetic composition, the chorus is expressing how, for them, the Servant has startlingly become the significant-other of existence.
As we reach v. 6, we experience the narrators’ consciences as fully awakened. They have linked the Servant’s suffering directly to their own wrongdoing, selfishness, and apathy. “Our sins did this to him, our sins!” To have made such a link is to have experienced a rush of empathy for the Servant in his miseries. The chorus is letting us know they have come to care deeply about the Servant’s fate, for which they realize their responsibility.
The rise of conscience in v. 6 presupposes the reality of new closeness between the chorus and the Servant. Our narrators have become preoccupied with the Servant’s intentions and actions, his very being. They have embraced him both as innocent sufferer and as friend, someone who has acted with nothing but their welfare in mind. In a core way, as we observe in the spiritual transformation of the chorus, our poem is about the rise of intimacy on earth.
The Song lays bare our human crisis of avarice, displaying it openly in the world’s treatment of the Servant. Twice in v. 3 the poem describes the Servant as “despised,” a Hebrew term for evaluating worth. People assign the Servant no worth because they believe him under God’s curse and of no use for them. Verse 3 ends by reporting, “We held him of no account,” of zero value based on a calculus of usefulness. “Struck down by God” (v. 4), his moral debts seemed to negate his importance for others. Utilitarian calculation is everyone’s standard for evaluating this figure.
It is a poverty-stricken world where people are objects, evaluated in utilitarian terms. To make another person a thing is not only to dehumanize him or her but also to become estranged from one’s own true self. Eventually, of course, the poem prohibits this view of the Servant, this view of the world. The chorus confesses that the Servant’s agonizing ordeal renders the world’s normal logic impossible.
The most powerful event in the poem is the chorus’ perception of the Servant as innocent, falsely accused. No economic or moral calculus can account for what he endures at the hands of his fellows. Far from a worthless sinner or a piece of scum, the Servant suffered and died undeservedly. Once this truth comes out, everything in the poem immediately changes. The Servant is no mere object, safe to ignore, but a subject, a significant other, an intimate.
The one everyone considered subhuman turns out to be their best friend on earth, a friend with everything to live for who gave it all up for them, profitlessly. Discovering a friend like this can change one’s whole stance towards the world. It removes utility and calculation from the human equation, making everything new.
The sacrificial death of an innocent victim is a shocking, senseless act, but something blessed may come of it. The potential of a ritual sacrifice lies in its very lack of sense and gain. Since the victim’s death is blatantly and horribly for nothing, it violently severs all connection between him and the cold, calculating world of mundane life. No longer can anyone consider the victim a commodity, an object, or a thing. In one blow, with his profitless “consumption,” the world of avarice is short-circuited.
The violent, profitless consumption involved in the horrible excesses of ritual sacrifice necessarily overturns all cold calculations, withdrawing the victim from the order of things. The sacrificial drama moves victim and witnesses together to a place where they find a true intimate participation in each other’s existence. It brings them to a place where they rediscover their mysterious, human solidarity. The Servant’s violent immolation is a horrible but necessary means of renewing human mutuality on earth.
When all is said and done, the Suffering Servant undergoes the horrible ordeal that he must undergo if he is to undo the reduction of others to things, that is, to objects of use. The reader is rightly filled with remorse—even anguish—that intimacy and community have vanished from earth to the point where such extremes are necessary. It is not our place, however, to renounce the Servant’s gift of himself, his gift of intimacy. Our world is so cold, so flat, and so full of avarice, the Servant cannot set it right without embracing the primal violence of his mission. Submission to deadly violence is the harsh price he pays for birthing a new world of intimacy, of human mutuality. To him, the price is worth it.
As we read through to the end of the Song, the Servant’s ordeal emerges clearly as a ritual sacrifice. Directly, v. 10 declares that he presents himself before God as an atonement offering, specifically an offering for sin. Images in the surrounding verses, including the figure’s lack of moral blemish (v. 9; cf. Lev 1:3) and his comparison to a lamb led to the slaughter (v. 7), reinforce this ritual interpretation of his work. Just as ritual sacrifices, especially certain key types, aimed to make things right between God and Israel, the Servant, by means of his suffering, literally “bore the sin of many, / and made intercession for the transgressors // ” (v. 12; cf. Exod 28:38; Lev 10:17; 16:22). His anguish serves to “make many righteous” (v. 11).
Israel’s priestly instruction, as seen in books such as Leviticus, included a variety of specialized offerings, each designated with technical vocabulary, and Isaiah 53:10 reflects a careful choice from among this range. The Servant’s death is not just any sacrifice but a “reparation offering.” Such an offering atones for sacrilege, that is, failure to respect God’s burning sanctity. This is significant, for in the book of Isaiah, Israel’s primary ailment, and the reason for its exile, is its uncleanness in the face of God’s transcendent holiness (see Isa 6:5, 11–12).
Among ancient Israel’s sacrifices, the reparation offering aims to make people come to grips with their wrongdoing through giving up and profitlessly turning over a precious part of their lives. The guilty provide this type of sacrifice when they realize their guilt, take responsibility for it, and make restitution.
Taking responsibility for sin is central to Isaiah 53’s poetry. The Servant’s sacrifice shocks people into realizing their embedded selfishness. By getting to know the Servant and his experience, the chorus begins to realize their personal guilt: We have all gone our own way, taken our own self-centered course, they admit (v. 6). This has had a violent, murderous effect on others. One in particular was tortured (v. 7), beaten bloody (v. 8), and thrown in a grave with criminals (v. 9). All this happened despite the Servant’s innocence, since he had never hurt a soul (v. 9). With this deeply profound realization, the witnesses of the Servant’s death accept blame for their part in the world’s alienation and estrangement.
Perhaps more significant, the witnesses of the Servant’s sacrifice are mysteriously able to make profound restitution by means of his ordeal. They come to discover the Suffering Servant as one who dies as their representative—that is, as a vicarious sacrifice on their behalf. “By his bruises we are healed,” they confess (v. 5). As such a sacrifice, his death not only substitutes for one that they deserve but also provokes within them, as a profound effect, the demise of a dear part of themselves. The Servant’s suffering death, in other words, entails what theologians call an inclusive place taking. In his death, those who understand and identify with him in some profound sense die as well.
How precisely do we who witness and embrace the Servant’s ordeal die with him? I believe the mystery of servanthood, as Second Isaiah upholds it throughout its poems, provides the answer. When a true servant of God puts love for neighbor first, giving the self a back seat, the neighbor’s need for self-protection and self-promotion vanishes, at least within that particular relationship. The neighbor’s self is sufficiently upheld by the unconditional love of the servant-friend that self-centeredness begins to wither and die. Upheld by the friend, the neighbor is pushed to let go of self-concern and turn outward in friendship, love, and intimacy toward the other. The focus on “our own way” of Isaiah 53:6 vanishes.
In the Servant Songs of Isaiah, we have the ultimate gift of freedom from the prison house of self-concern. The Servant puts not just any neighbors before himself but his enemies, that is, those who perpetrate an unforgivable violence against him that cries out for revenge (Isa 50:6–7). As the Servant makes this sacrifice, the chorus of witness realizes that the narcissistic world in which they have been living is upside down. As he dies, the Servant’s ordeal converts them from judgmental scoffers to frail, self-convicted human beings (Isa 53:5–6). He includes them in his death and they embrace a death-judgment for their self-centeredness.
The Renewal of Daughter Zion: Isaiah 54:1-17
As we have seen, Daughter Zion is a second major dramatic player in Isaiah 40–55 alongside the Servant of the Lord. She desperately needs the proffered salvation, since the devastations wrought by the Babylonians have left her a “barren one,” a “desolate woman” (v. 1). Blessedly, an effortless new fecundity is in store for her, and she lets loose with joy over her new children (vv. 1-3). As in Isaiah 49:21, her mood is one of utter surprise. When Isaiah 60 again repeats the scene, Zion’s heart thrills and rejoices (vv. 4-5). In Isaiah 54:3, the motif of multiplication and dominion fulfills Genesis 1:28; 22:17.
According to Isaiah 54:4–8, God is no divorced spouse (cf. Isa 50:1) but a husband-redeemer, permanently bonded to Israel. A redeemer (vv. 5, 8) is a close kinsperson—a husband or father if possible—who stands up for a relative in trouble. Often, the redeemer ransoms the relative from indentured servitude. Such an act is an obligatory moral duty, deeply incumbent on the kinsperson. If the kinsperson is a husband-redeemer, there is more than kinship bonding and kinship honor at stake. It must often have been deep marital love that compelled the husband to redeem.
God’s irrevocable agreement with Noah (Gen 9:8–17) is a fine example of the unconditional and eternal nature of God’s commitment to Daughter Zion in Second Isaiah. The unshakeable quality of this covenant made it the perfect model for vv. 9-10 to draw on in following up on the “Redeemer” language in vv. 4-8. Referring directly to Genesis 9, Isaiah 54:9 reads, “Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you.”
Chapter 54’s concluding poetry in vv. 11-17 lavishes exuberant promises on Daughter Zion. As earlier in Second Isaiah, adornment in beauty is central in her salvation. “Sapphires,” or lapis lazuli, will be her foundations. Dark cement will set off the stones of her walls just as “antimony,” ancient mascara, highlights the eyes.
God uses God’s uncanny, beauteous holiness as a healing balm to bring about a new spiritual centeredness within the people. In the presence of such beauty, the mind clears up to perceive a larger, more encompassing fairness and majesty in reality than it had previously apprehended. The world around tears at the seams and a new universe reveals itself, in which the human subject is standing in a new position with balance and fairness restored to life.
Of special interest is the spirituality of Zion’s new children, the redeemed remnant. When v. 1 refers to their great number, the Hebrew terminology echoes how the Servant “shall make many righteous” (Isa 53:11). When v. 3 refers to them as “descendents,” it uses the same Hebrew term that describes the Servant’s anticipated offspring (Isa 53:10). And when v. 13 describes them as “taught by the Lord,” the phrase specifically echoes a trait of the Servant stressed in Isaiah 50:4. It appears that Zion’s miracle children will live lives incorporating and extending that of the Suffering Servant.
Verse 17 confirms the impression. It specifically identifies those to inherit Zion’s new glory as “the servants of the Lord.” The use of the plural term “servants” is unique in chapters 40–55, and it marks a watershed development. The remnant of promise that has been developing as the prophecies have built on each other has now emerged in full divine vindication. The third major division of Isaiah in chapters 56–66 will treat the “servants” in greater detail.
The Majesty of Servanthood: Isaiah 55:1-13
Isaiah 55:1-5 proclaims that God’s new servants on Zion will rise up established in David’s royal covenant, God’s “steadfast, sure love for David” (v. 3). God promised him this covenant back when Israel’s monarchy first emerged (2 Sam 7). Its blessings, to which God is committed forever, must now blossom on earth. Zion’s children are to be royal vicars of the Lord, leading earth’s nations in God’s worship.
Genesis 17 anticipates Isaiah 55’s vision of an entire community of royal servants, an expansive, inclusive sacral kingship. It presents Abraham and Sarah as a royal couple, progenitors of kings (v. 6) and mentors to the nations (vv. 4, 5; cf. Ps 47:9). Long before David, God elevated Abraham to royal status and made all his seed—not just a single dynasty—beneficiaries of an “everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7 // Isa 55:3). The authors of Second Isaiah had no need to resort to innovation and creativity in proclaiming the majesty of the remnant. This was all part of God’s original saving plan.
The great corpus of Isaiah 40–55 comes to its conclusion in Isaiah 55:6-13. Here, its basic assumptions find definitive reiteration. God’s salvation draws near; now, at this moment, “he may be found” (v. 6). The power of divine salvation is wrapped up in God’s otherness, God’s transcendence “higher than the earth” (v. 8). It must be accessed in humility and frailty, since the only really objective, solid reality in this cosmos is God’s word (cf. Isa 40:8). It is neither airy nor dreamy, but bracing like cold rain or snow (v. 10). Its hard-hitting smack speaks to us of God’s programmatic intention for us.
Beyond programmatic, the game-plan of God for history is failsafe. Like the sprouting of healthy crops after seasonable weather, the effectiveness of God’s word is assured. Verse 11 describes how the divine word gets results and achieves prosperity. Like natural precipitation, it is fully effective apart from human stress and strain. Given its guarantee of success, it would be foolish not to align our lives with it.
Verses 12-13 announce again the great homecoming to Zion (cf. Isa 40:11; 52:12), where a lifestyle in tune with God’s will is honored. A naturally teeming fertility will accompany the march home, embodying the effortless grace of living life reverently. Adapting our ways and thoughts to God’s game-plan makes for natural, efficient living. Why exhaust ourselves rowing against the stream, when ours sails can easily fill with God’s wind? Why dig irrigation ditches, when we can count on water from heaven?
David J. A. Clines, “Selections from I, He, We, They: A Literary Approach to Isaiah 53,” in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. by Stephen E. Fowl (Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997), 210-218.
Questions for Reflection:
- Modern people are often troubled by the violence in the Bible. What do you make of v. 10’s claim about the Servant that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain”? Why was the Servant’s violent death necessary?
- As you encounter the Servant through this text, does he become a “significant other” for you? If so, how does his person and work question, bend, and transform you? Does he cause you to see yourself or your world differently? What has changed?
- According to Isaiah 57:15, God—“the high and lofty one”—dwells most intimately with “those who are contrite and humble in spirit.” Does the humble suffering of the Servant bring God near? Witnessing his sacrifice, do we experience intimacy with God?
- Isaiah 54:9-10 compares the exiles’ emerging from Babylonian captivity to Noah’s emerging from the great flood of Genesis 6–9. Do you see the similarities? What is the point of this comparison?
- Second Isaiah has a communal vision of salvation rather than an individualistic one. What are the inspiring and/or challenging dimensions of spreading out the role of servant to form new human community on earth?