the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
Layman's Bible Commentary Layman's Bible Commentary
by Various Authors
THE BOOK OF
INTRODUCTION Isaiah 1-39
In the Book of Isaiah, Israel’s prophetic literature reaches its zenith in both religious profundity and artistic expression. Indeed, especially within the second part of the book, poetic intensity frequently becomes lyrical, possessing a singular beauty matched only by certain of the Psalms. Here the prophetic faith in God has exercised such a purifying effect that the forms of expression have become remarkable vehicles for conveying the prophetic message.
From the earliest times, however, people have pondered the words and wondered about their meaning. The evangelist Philip encountered a high official of the Ethiopian government who was reading a scroll of this book as he was riding in his chariot on his way home from Jerusalem. Philip said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). The writing is so much a part of its time and culture that it requires study and interpretation. Not only the question, “What does it say?” but also the more insistent query, “What does it mean?” have been the occasion for centuries of study and commentary.
The Isaiah Literature
During the course of the last one hundred years the Church’s most productive scholarship has come to the almost unanimous conclusion that we must think of the Book of Isaiah as the literature of a particular prophetic school. This Isaiah school of disciples preserved and brought together into one large scroll material centering in the words of two great personalities. One of these lived during the second half of the eighth century b.c., at a time of great crisis when the Assyrian army made repeated invasions of Palestine in preparation for the conquest of Egypt
The other lived two centuries later, during the second half of the sixth century, when Jerusalem was in ruins, when the Persians were taking over the whole of the Near East, and when the ancient world was full of excitement at the dawn of a new day. These two prophets are called “First Isaiah” and “Second Isaiah,” and the division of the material which marks the beginning of the words of the latter is at chapter 40.
How can we be certain of such a view? The first verse of the Book of Isaiah appears to say that the book is “the vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz,” and the date is given according to the reigns of Judean kings in the eighth century. Is that not a fact sufficient to settle the question of authorship? Yet all agree that when we study chapters 40-66 we find ourselves in the Persian period, two centuries later than the time of Isaiah the son of Amoz. In the past, those who have defended the single authorship of the book believed that Isaiah simply uttered true prophecies about things in the future. It must be said that this is a possibility; the predictive element is indeed an integral part of prophecy. Yet the prophet, as we shall see, understood that God had appointed him to an office in the divine government of the world. In that office it was his duty to report to Israel and to the world certain governmental decrees and decisions which the divine Sovereign wished his people to know.
While surrounding peoples made use of divination, spiritualism, and a variety of magical practices in the attempt to determine the will of the gods, such superstition was forbidden Israel. Instead, Israel is informed, God will raise up one of their own brethren as a prophet and will put words in his mouth that he may speak as commanded (Deuteronomy 18:9-22). The world of the occult is forbidden. What God wants Israel to know, he will reveal by means of his spokesman. The prophet thus had messages for his own people in his own day. It would not be within the primary function of his office to address another people in another time than his own. For this reason students of prophecy have suggested the following as a rule of thumb: a prophecy is earlier than what it predicts, but contemporary with, or later than, what it presupposes. In “First Isaiah” the prophet predicts the destruction of his people by the Assyrian army and presupposes the political situation of the eighth century. In chapters 40-55, on the other hand, the prophet predicts the return of Israel to Palestine by the power of God working through the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will bring the Babylonian empire to an end. He presupposes that Israel is in exile, that Jerusalem is in ruins, and that the most important man on the horizon at the moment is Cyrus. This means that God’s spokesman is sent with a message to a scattered and depressed people after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar in 587 b.c., but just before Cyrus the Persian takes Babylon and releases subject peoples in 539-538 B.c.
Chapters 56-66 predict a “new heavens” and a “new earth,” but presuppose that some Judeans have returned to Jerusalem and have rebuilt or are rebuilding the Temple. At least this would appear to be the implication of such verses as: “My house [temple] shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7) and “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house [temple] which you would build for me .. .?” (66:1). Consequently, while some interpreters used to speak of a “Third Isaiah” for these chapters, it is today more commonly supposed that they come from Second Isaiah and his disciples in the period between 538 and 500 b.c.
How were the words of the prophets preserved? This is a question for which we have far too little information. We can be sure, however, that the prophets themselves did not write them. Only a comparatively few people bothered to write in those days. Writing was a special trade, the profession of the scribe, who was comparable perhaps to the stenographer of our time. On one very special occasion when Jeremiah was forbidden to speak in public, he dictated a summary of all his prophecies to his companion, Baruch (Jeremiah 36); but that is thought to have been an unusual incident and not a typical occurrence. The biblical day was a time when memory was highly developed and culture was something transmitted orally from generation to generation. People did not depend upon books for knowledge. They depended upon memory and teachers.
The prophetic messages were given in the form of a highly sophisticated and exalted poetry. Why this was the case, we do not know. Yet the inspiration of Israel’s great prophets was of a type that elevated both intellectual and artistic expression to such a high point that we must say that Hebrew prophecy is a phenomenon unparalleled in the world’s history. How the prophetic poetry was produced is a mystery. Was it a carefully prepared series of compositions by the prophet? Like the great poem on love in 1 Corinthians 13, a few passages composed or quoted appear to be of this nature. Yet for the most part we must think of highly gifted men, disciplined by a commitment which was so absolute as to permit no interference from the outside. Their concentration on God and their ecstatic inspiration were so intense as to unite their whole being in one elevated expression of the will of God. Theirs was a great tradition of faith, and their knowledge of it and their singlehearted concentration upon faith’s Object led them to vocal expression far beyond anything normally expected as possible.
If such is the case, then we cannot think in terms of literary compositions carefully written and preserved. We must instead think of oral composition which was given under the intensity of inspiration, portions of which were remembered by the prophet himself and by his disciples. It was the prophetic disciples who took upon themselves the transmission and preservation of the words of their master. They do not give us verbatim reports of entire prophetic messages but only portions which were remembered. Sometimes the original poetry has been lost and summaries are preserved mainly in prose, as is the case, for example, in chapters 7-8 of Isaiah. In the course of time certain anonymous prophetic words from the “School of Isaiah” came to be included with the materials of the master. In the Book of Isaiah samples of such prophecy appear in chapters 13-14 and 24-27, among others. °
The Identity of the Prophet
The story of the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings 22 may be taken as depicting the setting of the prophetic message between the ninth and sixth centuries b.c. The Aramean kingdom of Damascus about 850 b.c. holds Israelite territory across the Jordan. King Ahab of Israel has called the Judean king, Jehoshaphat, to his aid because they have a mutual assistance pact. But before the armies set forth for battle the will of the Lord is desired. A pagan army would have used a diviner. David a century before might have used Urim and Thummim, the sacred dice carried by the chief priest. But at least since the time of Samuel one central tradition was that God had instituted the office of prophet as a
means whereby he could speak freely to the king about what he should do.
Ahab, in any event, is surrounded by prophets, all of whom tell him piously that he is to go to battle because God is going to make him victorious. Jehoshaphat, from a more conservative environment in Jerusalem, appears unconvinced by this prophetic babbling. He asks whether there is not someone else from whom enquiry can be made. Ahab answers that there is one prophet, the man Micaiah, but says, “I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.” Nevertheless Micaiah is called, though he is solemnly warned in advance that if he knows what is good for him he will speak as the other prophets have done. After mimicking the words of the popular prophets, Micaiah finally says: “Hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.... I will ... be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ ” Micaiah also says: “I saw all Israel scattered upon the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd.”
Behind the great prophets there was this symbolic vision: A heavenly courtroom, presided over by the universal Ruler—a trial scene in which Israel is found guilty and where sentence is decreed to be carried out by a historical enemy of Israel. The prophet understands himself to be the official of that heavenly court, charged with making the decree public among those who have been sentenced. There is always a possibility that those who hear may repent so that God may stay the sentence. In this sense the prophet can be understood also as a watchman, charged by God with warning the people of their dire peril (see Jeremiah 6:17; Ezekiel 3:17), or as an “assayer and tester,” that the people be refined (Jeremiah 6:27-30).
While Micaiah’s announcement is a word against King Ahab, he stands at a moment when a great change in emphasis is beginning to be made among a group of conservatives in the Northern Kingdom. This is to the effect that Israel has so broken her pact, her treaty or Covenant with God, that God is about to declare the whole relationship abrogated and deliver Israel to the destroyers. As this theme is taken up by the eighth and seventh century prophets, they encounter a people who will have none of it, but who by cult and political maneuvering attempt to achieve security without any assumption of responsibility for treaty violation, without faith or confession. And as the prophets testify, all such cheap maneuvers fail. This, then, is the background of the prophecies of judgment.
The prophet Amos, who preceded Isaiah by a few years, and the prophet Hosea, who was his contemporary in the Northern Kingdom in his early years, were messengers of God’s judgment. Israel had been brought to trial in God’s heavenly court and had been found guilty of flagrant breach of Covenant. The sentence was destruction at the hands of Assyria and a new exile from the land.
Consider this time in which these prophets lived. It was the era of history’s first great imperialistic wars, the poles of power being on the Euphrates and the Nile. But the great days of Egypt were over. And now Assyria, and then Babylonia, found Palestine a troublesome problem on the border of Sinai pn route to Egypt. Hence they insisted on peace and stability in that country, and when it was not forthcoming, after warning, they simply laid both Northern and Southern Kingdoms waste, destroyed every sizable town, killed most of the inhabitants, and carried the leaders off into exile and transplantation.
This was the era of the prophets, and these were the events they were talking about.
People frequently say: What is the good of learning about the Bible as a series of past events? How does it all become contemporary? What good does it do to learn about the God of history and the mighty acts whereby he was confessed? How is he contemporary, in the here and now? The best answer is that of John Calvin: The Scriptures become the spectacles which enable us to see and bring things into focus now, but without which all would be confused. And, further, it has been the Church’s experience that in the study of the Scriptures, God by his Spirit brings them alive, if we read expectantly and at the same time face our own situation as resolutely as the prophets faced theirs.
One might well have said in the prophets’ time: What good is it to talk about the mighty acts of God in forming the nation centuries ago? Does this mean, as the popular prophets are saying, that all is going to be well with us, that God has only one attribute, namely love, and that he therefore will not do anything but love and help us? The prophets were those who read the signs of the times and made the classical confession contemporary. They knew the nature of God, his independence, and the conditions of the Covenant with Israel. They knew the long history of their nation well, and in particular its massive failure to achieve and maintain a political and economic order that in any way reflected the will of God. Threatened with being swallowed up also by the great imperialistic armies of the time, they simply put matters together in terms of the righteousness of God. The whole historical situation meant only one thing: in the complete flouting of every consideration of loyalty and justice, while attempting to buy off the demands of God with elaborate worship, Israel was doomed.
Yet the righteousness of God was also known to be redemptive. Hence the prophets could pray for repentance, and they could also proclaim a future beyond the impending destruction. Indeed, the present or coming terror is but the first step which God is taking toward the creation of the new age, when the desperate problems of the present will be resolved in the New Covenant, the new humanity, the new earth. But we note here the anticipation of what is to be central in the New Testament: Given life in this world as it is in rebellion against its Lord, there is no use in hoping for peace apart from judgment. Where there is gross evil, there will be no peace—only blood, fear, terror, suffering. Sin and death cannot be separated. And the only road to life is through the suffering. We, of course, want a future without anxiety and without blood, and we are very clever at devising schemes to get it, to circumvent the suffering. But, says the prophet—as also does the Cross of the New Testament—the door to hope is only through the valley of the shadow; the glory of God will become apparent only to those who have faced the darkness. Hence, in neither of the Testaments is religious faith or practice a guide to successful and happy life. It is rather a sure anchor in a heaving sea. It is a struggle to discover one’s vocation and the vocation of God’s people in a sinful and alien world, to praise the Lord for his marvelous goodness, committing one’s way entirely to him but without any certainty that history is organized for one’s personal security.
Perhaps enough has been said to suggest the importance of the biblical conception of historical reality, of the extreme sensitivity which the theology gave to the apprehension of evil, injustice, and dishonor in the world; and withal the joy and confidence of a faith cast adrift, as it were, within history but never doubting the everlasting arms below. Here is the basis for much Christian concern today about the “popular” church, accommodating Christians for whom faith is a device to ensure success, little more than a built-in optimism that confirms the self-righteous, an opiate which attempts to render the whole Christian enterprise in earth as little more than pretty and petty.
The Early Years of First Isaiah
The prophetic ministry of Isaiah took place in Jerusalem in the half-century between about 740 and 690 b.c. One usually begins the study of the book with the prophet’s autobiographical story in chapter 6 of his call to prophesy. There he says that the call came “in the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1). Unfortunately, that year cannot be fixed with certainty.
During the third quarter of the eighth century both the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south had enjoyed great prosperity under two very able kings, Jeroboam I and Uzziah respectively. Toward the end of that period, about 760-750 b.c., the Judean Amos had prophesied in Israel that the great era of peace was soon to end and that God was about to destroy the nation and send the people who survived into exile (Amos 2:13-16; Amos 5:2; Amos 5:27; Amos 6:14). For this he was accused of treason against Jeroboam by the high priest of the royal temple at Bethel and told to go back to Judah, whence he had come (7:10-13).
About 748 b.c., Jeroboam II died, and his death plunged the Northern Kingdom into an unstable political situation which lasted until the destruction which Amos had prophesied came about in 724-21 b.c. Menahem (about 748-738 b.c.) was the only king who managed to hold his position for as long as ten years, and he was helped in this by becoming a vassal of the Assyrian emperor, Tiglath-pileser III (Pul), and paying him a very heavy tribute (2 Kings 15:17-20). Tiglath-pileser (745-728 b.c.) in one of his inscriptions confirms the biblical account of this. The Assyrian says of Menahem, “I returned him to his place [and imposed tribute upon him,] gold, silver, linen garments with multicolored trimmings . . .” In a series of ostraca found in the excavations of Samaria, Israel’s capital, we have records of wine and olive oil shipments from wealthy landowners, which may indeed represent the special tribute which Menahem is said to have
exacted from the wealthy in Israel according to 2 Kings 15:20.
It was during the reign of Tiglath-pileser that Assyrian pressure on the west became so strong that it could not be withstood. Of particular interest is the fact that the monarch tells us in his own inscriptions that during his early campaigns against Syria he was confronted with a large western coalition of forces headed by King Uzziah of Judah. This cannot mean that Uzziah himself was the general at the head of the combined forces. The Bible tells us that “he was a leper to the day of his death, and he dwelt in a separate house. And Jotham the king’s son was over the household [prime minister], governing the people of the land” (2 Kings 15:5). Nevertheless, Uzziah’s leprosy seems not to have prevented him from exercising an able and vigorous rule. Judging from the inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser, Uzziah must have been one of the strongest political forces of the west, with the most stable government. Otherwise he would not have been the political head of the western coalition.
Since Uzziah (or Azariah) was still king during the two-year reign of Menahem’s son and successor and also at the start of the reign of the army general, Pekah, who slew that son and reigned in his stead (2 Kings 15:23-27), it seems likely that Uzziah’s long reign may have extended from about 769 to 734 b.c. In any case, during the last sixteen years of his life his son Jotham had shared the rule with his father and did not long survive him.
As was the case with all the great prophets about whom we have information, Isaiah’s call from the Lord came at a most critical juncture. The great king and leader of the west against Assyria was dead. New pressure from Tiglath-pileser was beginning; and the new king on the throne in Jerusalem was Ahaz, Jotham’s son. Our meager information about his reign seems to indicate that he was a man of weak and unstable character. One of his first political acts was to withdraw Jerusalem and Judah completely from the coalition. This was the occasion of the SyroEphraimite war. Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of the Aramean (“Syrian”) state centered in Damascus, immediately declared war on Ahaz to force Judah to remain in the coalition (2 Kings 16:5). At this time the famous meeting of Isaiah with Ahaz, as described in Isaiah 7, took place. We are there told that the king and his people were so frightened by the threat that “his heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (7:2). We are further informed that plan of coalition was to remove Ahaz from the throne and to put in his place “the son of Tabe-el” (7:6). This name is known from an Assyrian inscription as an Aramean land, probably in northern Transjordan. The identity of “the son of Tabe-el” is thus completely unknown, except that he was probably an Aramean, or, as has been suggested, he may have been a son of the Judean royal house by an Aramean princess from Tabe-el.
In his fright Ahaz appealed to Tiglath-pileser for aid. The Assyrian moved quickly, taking advantage of the confused situation. He sent his army first down the coast, taking the Philistine plain and placing a blocking force against any Egyptian intervention. Then he conquered and took away from Israel all of Galilee and Transjordan, and moved from the rear against Damascus, which he laid waste. All conquered territory was reorganized as Assyrian provinces, ruled by Assyrian governors. Thus by 732 b.c., Israel was left as little more than a city state around the hill country of Samaria. She had kept that much independence only because someone named Hoshea murdered Pekah, took over the Israelite throne, and paid tribute to Assyria (2 Kings 15:30; 2 Kings 17:1-3). Judah and Jerusalem were saved, but at the expense of becoming a vassal of Assyria.
The biblical story of Ahaz represents him as surrendering his country’s faith for the religion of his conquerors (2 Chronicles 28). In any event, he had to go to Damascus to pay his homage to the Assyrian monarch, and he had to continue that homage by the use of a special altar set up within the Temple precincts in Jerusalem (2 Kings 16:10-16). For Judah it was a period of religious syncretism, and we learn from Isaiah that all sorts of foreign practices and superstitions were introduced, together with social and moral decay.
From a realistic point of view it now seems that if Ahaz had done anything else but surrender, his country would have suffered as severely as did Israel. Isaiah, as we shall see, interpreted the Assyrians as instruments of God’s judgment against Israel and Judah. It seems probable that he indeed advocated a policy of nonalignment against Assyria. At the same time, the instability and complete lack of faith and courage on the part of Ahaz caused him to throw himself at Tiglath-pileser’s feet and open his country to every policy, internal and external, that betrayed it. Nonalignment with Assyria, as well as with Israel and Damascus, would have involved payment of tribute but not the abject sur
render of faith and morality. The Israelite prophet Hosea speaks of this period as a time when Israel is “like a dove, silly and without sense, calling to Egypt, going to Assyria”; it is “a cake not turned”; “they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 7:11; Hosea 7:8; Hosea 8:7).
In less than a decade, presumably with the backing of Egypt, Israel again foolishly revolted. In 724 n.c., Shalmaneser V of Assyria sent his army and destroyed every remaining city, with unimaginable horror, as we may surmise from the excavation of such places as Shechem, Tirzah, and Dothan. The highly fortified capital, Samaria, held out for some time, and the Assyrian forces simply surrounded it to starve it into surrender. Finally, just as a new Assyrian monarch, Sargon II, came to the throne in the winter of 722-21 b.c., the city gave up, and Sargon claimed the victory for himself. He says that he took into exile 27,290 people. In the years that followed, people from various parts of Assyria were settled in the land. Israel as a kingdom was at an end, utterly ravaged, with most of its population killed (see 2 Kings 17).
The Later Years of Isaiah
The later prophecies of Isaiah, including much of chapters 1, 28-33, and 36-39, derive from the reign of Hezekiah. The biblical sources are confusing regarding the date of this king’s reign. If, however, we take 2 Kings 18:13 seriously, to the effect that the invasion of Judah by the Assyrian army under Sennacherib in 701 b.c. occurred in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah (contrast 2 Kings 18:1; 2 Kings 18:9-10), then this king must have begun to reign about 715 B.c. The historical appendix to the collection of materials related to First Isaiah in chapters 36-39 (taken from 2 Kings 18:17—20:19) indicates that Isaiah was a well-known figure in the royal court and evidently an intimate of the king
Hezekiah was a very different and much stronger person than his father Ahaz. He undertook a major national reform at a time when the Assyrian emperor, Sargon, was kept very busy with revolts and yearly campaigns to hold his empire together. The only Assyrian campaign into Palestine in this era appears to have been in 711 b.c. when the revolt of Ashdod, the chief Philistine city-state along the coastal plain, was crushed. Isaiah 18, 20, and perhaps 14:28-32, are related to this event. Of particular
significance for the national hopes was the revolt of Babylonia, led by Merodach-baladan, with the result that for more than a decade Sargon had no control over the southern Mesopotamian giant which a century later would supplant the Assyrians.
We are told of Hezekiah’s sweeping reforms in 2 Kings 18:3-6 and 2 Chronicles 29:31. Since the Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and Assyria appeared preoccupied, the political side of the reform included the reunification of Palestine under the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. Visions of the Messiah, the new king whom God would provide as savior, were seen and gave a fresh impetus to the Messianic hope (Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Micah 5:2-4). Whether the national hopes and the plans of Hezekiah were in any measure frustrated by Sargon, we do not know. What we do know is that at Sargon’s death in 706 b.c. many parts of the empire revolted, and it was some years before the new emperor, Sennacherib (705-682 B.c.), got matters under firm control. Among those who revolted was Hezekiah, who led a coalition of the small states backed by Egypt, and to judge from 2 Kings 20:12-19 and Isaiah 39, backed also by the kin g of Babylon, who for a brief period about 703 b.c. again established his independence. In the north the Phoenician cities led by the king of Tyre were also involved.
Sennacherib responded in strength in 701 b.c., moving first against Tyre. With its surrender he quickly moved down the coast into Palestine, crushing the revolt. In his own version of the campaign he says: “As for Hezekiah, the Judean, he did not submit to my yoke. I laid seige to 46 of his strong cities . . . and conquered [them] ... I drove out [of them] 200,150 people Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage . . .” Hezekiah surrendered in time to save Jerusalem, though he had to pay a heavy tribute which Sennacherib describes as “30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches [inlaid] with ivory ... his daughters, concubines, male and female musicians ” The biblical story says that Hezekiah paid three hundred talents of silver and thirty of gold, stripping both the royal and the Temple treasuries to do so, and even including the gold leaf from the doors of the Temple (2 Kings 18:13-16).
These actions of Hezekiah brought him into sharp conflict with the prophet Isaiah. Playing the international political game was not Judah’s mission in the world. To Isaiah it was a violation of all faith in God as Sovereign of world history to enter into foreign alliances. Assyria was God’s agent (Isaiah 10:5-19) for the time being, and the nations which were in revolt were in rebellion against God. The agreement with Egypt for revolt was “a covenant with death,” a bed “too short to stretch oneself on it” (28: 15, 18, 20). “‘Woe to the rebellious children,’ says the Lord, ‘who carry out a plan, but not mine; and who make a league, but not of my spirit . . . who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my counsel’ ” (30:1-2). “The Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit” (31:3). “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning [repenting] and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’” (30:15). Yet the people are rebellious and say to the prophets, “Prophesy not to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions” (30:10). In chapter 1, which appears to date from the Sennacherib period, Isaiah points to the consequences of the Assyrian campaign as God’s judgment on a faithless people.
The events at the end of the reign of Hezekiah are not very clear. A number of historians have argued that Sennacherib must have led a second campaign against Judah a decade or more after his first one. If so, then we are to read 2 Kings 18:17— 19:34 and Isaiah 36-37 as referring to the second campaign. While the historical passages are perhaps somewhat ambiguous with regard to this question, the later prophecies of Isaiah are more easily understood if two Sennacherib invasions are assumed. The reason is that there are two groups of passages which say opposite things about what is to happen at the hands of the Assyrians. The prophecies which seem clearly to date from the time of Hezekiah’s revolt in 705-701 b.c. denounce the king’s action and the Egyptian alliance, as we have noted, and pronounce disaster for it as the decision of the heavenly court. In the midst of the revolt, the prophet at times appears to counsel surrender. On the other hand, there is a group of sayings which announce that God is going to deliver Judah and Jerusalem from the hands of the Assyrians, and that disaster is going to fall upon the latter (14:24-27; 17:12-14; 29:5-8; 31:4-9; 37:22-35).
Isaiah’s prophecy that God would not destroy Jerusalem was evidently remembered over a century later and was taken to mean that the safety of Judah lay in its Temple, for God would not destroy his own house! This became the slogan of the priesty who in 608 b.c. called upon the people to rally around the Temple for their safety. At the risk of his life the prophet Jeremiah publicly called this program a lie and a delusion, and in its place called for complete national reform as the only ground of safety (Jeremiah 7). Isaiah’s divergent attitudes with regard to Assyria are not easily reconciled unless a second and disastrous campaign of Sennacherib, already suggested on other grounds, is presupposed. It seems clear that the remarkable deliverance of Jerusalem which Isaiah announces as God’s decision is probably not the salvation purchased from Sennacherib in 701 b.c. by payment of a huge tribute.
Introductory Prophecy. Isaiah 1:1-31
Editor’s Superscription (1:1)
The Indictment of the Nation (1:2-20)
Concerning Jerusalem (1:21-31)
Prophecies Regarding Judah and Jerusalem. Isaiah 2:1—12:6
World Peace in the Kingdom of God (2:1-5)
The Day of the Lord (2:6-22)
The Coming Social Chaos (3:1-15)
The Women of Jerusalem (3:16—4:1)
Jerusalem Purified (4:2-6)
The Vineyard of the Lord (5:1-7)
Laments Over the Evildoers (5:8-23)
“His Hand Is Stretched Out Still” (5:24-30)
The Call of the Prophet and the Syro-Ephraimitic War (6:1— 9:7)
“His Hand Is Stretched Out Still,” Concluded (9:8—10:4) “Assyria, the Rod of My Anger” (10:5-19)
“A Remnant Will Return” (10:20-27b)
The Enemy Is at Hand (10:27c-34)
The Messiah and His Work (11:1-16)
Songs of Praise and Trust (12:1-6)
Prophecies Against Foreign Nations. Isaiah 13:1—23:18
Concerning Babylon (13:1-22)
Fall of the King of Babylon (14:1-23)
Destruction of the Assyrian Army in Palestine (14:24-27) “Rejoice Not, O Philistia” (14:28-32)
Lament Over the Destruction of Moab (15:1—16:14) Fragmentary Prophecies (17:1-14)
Message to Ethiopian Ambassadors (18:1-7)
Concerning Egypt (19:1-25)
The Prophet’s Acted Sign of Egypt’s Destruction (20:1-6) “Fallen, Fallen Is Babylon” (21:1-10)
Disaster Coming to Arabian Tribes (21:11-17)
Exultant Jerusalem in 701 B.c. (22:1-14)
Prime Minister Shebna of Jerusalem Condemned (22:15-25) Concerning Tyre (23:1-18)
The Age to Come. Isaiah 24:1 — 27:13
The Earth Made Desolate (24:1-23)
God Be Praised (25:1-12)
“Thy Dead Shall Live” (26:1-21)
“In That Day” (27:1-13)
The Covenant with Death. Isaiah 28:1 — 31:9
“The Bed Is Too Short” (28:1-29)
Jerusalem Besieged and Delivered (29:1-8)
The Present Conspiracy and the Future Salvation (29:9-24) Egypt as “Rahab Who Sits Still” (30:1-17)
“This Is the Way, Walk in It” (30:18-33)
“The Egyptians Are Men, and Not God” (31:1-9)
“The Lord Is Our King; He Will Save Us.” Isaiah 32:1 — 35:10
The Effect of Righteousness (32:1-20)
“Your Eyes Will See the King” (33:1-24)
The Day of the Lord’s Justice (34:1-17)
The Highway of the Lord (35:1-10)
Isaiah and King Hezekiah. Isaiah 36:1 — 39:8
The Surrender of Jerusalem to Assyria Demanded (36:1-22) Responses of Hezekiah and Isaiah (37:1-38)
The Critical Illness of Hezekiah (38:1-22)
Babylonian Envoys in Jerusalem (39:1-8)
COMMENTARY Isaiah 1-39
INTRODUCTION Isaiah 40-66
As noted in the Introduction to Isaiah 1-39, the historical situation presupposed in chapters 40-55 is that of the middle of the sixth century B.c. Jerusalem lay in ruins (44:26); the Persian king Cyrus was the great figure on the horizon of world politics (44:28; 45:1); Babylon had been the dominant world power but was now about to fall (ch. 47); and the captive people of Israel were shortly to be released from exile by Cyrus and permitted to return to Palestine (45:13). These indicators point to a date about 540 b.c. as the time when these prophecies were composed. A prophet was God’s messenger whose duty it was to deliver a message to Israel. The conditions presupposed give us this particular prophet’s date. The message in this instance is that “the Lord God comes with might” (40:10) to set his captive people free and lead them back to their former homes.
The Assyrian empire weakened and fell in the last quarter of the seventh century. Nineveh, its capital, w 7 as destroyed by the Medes and the Babylonians in 612 b.c. The Babylonians (now called also the “Chaldeans”) rapidly took over the Assyrian empire, destroying Jerusalem and Judah in 587 (or 586) b.c. for the conspiracy and rebellion which had been encouraged by the promise of Egyptian help. With the death of Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s greatest king, in 561 b.c., however, this empire in its turn rapidly weakened. Meanwhile the Persian king, Cyrus, united Media and Persia (modern Iran) and then moved into Armenia and Asia Minor, defeating Croesus, king of Lydia, in 546 b.c. In 539 b.c., Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army headed by the crown prince Belshazzar (Daniel 7:1; Daniel 8:1) and was welcomed into Babylon itself by its people. Among his first acts were decrees permitting subject peoples who had been dislodged from their homes to return to them. The government was to aid in their resettlement. The Hebrew version of the decree for the release of Judeans is given in Ezra 1:2-4; another decree, permitting the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, was subsequently found in the files of the Persian government and is quoted in Ezra 6:3-5.
The rebuilding of the Temple was completed between 520 and 515 b.c. by a governor named Zerubbabel, a descendant of David (Ezra 3; see Matthew 1:12-13), whom the prophets Haggai and Zechariah believed God would designate as his Messiah who would usher in the new era on earth when the Temple was rebuilt (see Haggai 1:1—2:9; 2:20-23). Chapters 56-66 of Isaiah appear to come from this time of the rebuilt Temple (56:5-7; 62: 9). Indeed, 66:1-5 suggests that the prophet or his disciples, in the spirit of First Isaiah, derided the false hopes being placed in the new Temple and accused those so intently concerned with it of choosing that in which God was not pleased. In the past it has been customary to think of chapters 56-66 as reflecting not only a different period but also a different author, sometimes designated “Third Isaiah.” While it is true that a number of the interests of this material differ from those in chapters 40-55, the difference is surely to be credited to the changed situation to which the prophecies are addressed. Because of its style and breadth of perspective, such a passage as 61:1-11 can most naturally be considered as deriving directly from Second Isaiah. Indeed, all of the prophecies in the final eleven chapters can safely be credited at least to the disciples of Second Isaiah, and dated about 520-500 b.c., though a specific date for the material is difficult to prove.
Second Isaiah’s Message
Hebrew prophecy reaches its highest point of lyrical, joyous expression in Second Isaiah. The days of judgment have passed. Israel has gone through the fire; her iniquity is pardoned (40:2). Now God will come as the Good Shepherd and “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (40:11). The prophecies appear to be arranged in a series of poems, some of which may have come in their present arrangement from the prophet himself. It is seldom that we find lengthy compositions preserved in prophecy, but a number can be discerned here, even though the precise beginning and ending of a given composition is not always clear. The chapters do not present an argument that gradually builds in a rational fashion. Instead, the prophecies center around a few central themes which are looked at from a variety of perspectives and referred to again and again.
The first emphasis to be observed in Second Isaiah is one concerned with the power, universality, and sole sovereignty of God. If the broken and scattered people are to listen to the prophet and take heed of his words, then faith must be restored in him who alone can “renew their strength” so that they may “run and not be weary,” and “walk and not faint” (40:31).
Repeatedly this theme is stated, and on occasion the prophet will suddenly stop and break into a doxology:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth! (42:10).
Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it; shout, O depths of the earth . . . (44:23).
Of course, the ground of this praise is not simply the fact that God is powerful. It is rather that God has used his great power for the sake of righteousness, which in Israel was understood to be the salvation of the lost, the depressed, the blind, the weak. Indeed, the love or grace of God was precisely his use of his unlimited power to reach down into human society to save those who had no savior.
Closely associated with the emphasis upon the sole sovereignty of God is the emphasis upon God as the Creator. The meditation on the nature and identity of God in 40:12-31 makes great use of God’s creative relation to nature. Typical of the thought and relationship of ideas is 42:5-6. Reference to God the Creator is simply the preface to the proclamation of God as Redeemer. He who has the power to create is Lord and Savior. The creation by God is not set forth as a matter for speculation in and for itself alone. It is a means of proclaiming the sole Lordship of God: it is the first of his mighty acts in history whereby men may see and know his sovereignty.
What is God’s purpose in his present historical activity? It is none other than the redemption of all mankind. Distant people in the time to come “will make supplication to you, saying: ‘God is with you only, and there is no other ...”’ (45:14). To all God gives this invitation:
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’ ” (45:22-23).
The universalism and sole sovereignty of God (“I am God, and there is no other”) is so stressed in this prophecy that a previous generation of interpreters believed that Second Isaiah was the first explicit monotheist in the Old Testament. There is no question but that belief in God’s use of Cyrus to effect the release of the Hebrew exiles has led the prophet to an unusual emphasis. It is not impossible that he himself lived in Babylon and returned with the exiles, but of this we have no certain knowledge. Furthermore, the desperate need for faith on the part of the broken people led the prophet to a special emphasis on God’s sole sovereignty in the world. There is only one God who has been active in history, only one power able to save: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (40:28). The prophet’s interest is not in elaborating a monotheistic creed; it is rather the upbuilding of faith. But throughout the Old Testament there is such an emphasis upon God as the sole object of religious attention that there is a radical devaluation of all other powers, both divine and human. Hence, the introduction of such a term as “explicit monotheism” into the discussion of Second Isaiah is probably to throw the picture somewhat out of focus.
The Role of God’s Servant, Israel
God’s agent in his plan of universal salvation is a special people: “You whom I took from the ends of the earth . . . saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”’ (41:9). The people of Israel as God’s servant were blind and deaf; they refused to obey him and he gave them up to “the spoiler” (42:18-25). They have not honored him with worship but have burdened him with their sins (43:22-24). Yet now God is about to do a new thing (43:19; 48:6), and by his prophet he will gird them for their special task.Though punished they have not been forsaken. God repeats his promises to them; they are his chosen ones. Therefore, “fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you . . .” (41:10). He is about to prepare a highway in the wilderness by
which all may return home (40:3; 43:19; compare 35:8-10). The Persian Cyrus is to set them free (45:13), and though they once were rebels God now will blot out their transgressions (43:25). He will pour out his blessing upon them and their descendants, like “water on the thirsty land” (44:3).
The task God expects of them is indeed great. In the current disorders of the world, Israel is to be witness to all men that the meaning of all the contemporary situation is to be found only in the God who has revealed himself and his will in Jerusalem
(43:10-13; 44:1-8; see comment on ch. 41). He alone is Lord; he alone is in control; his purposes determine the meaning of history. Israel as God’s servant has been given by God as a “covenant”; that is, as a promise or instrument of salvation, to give “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (42:6-7; 49:8-9). The use of the term “servant” for Israel is fresh and unusual. It should be borne in mind that the term does not lay the emphasis on a particularly lowly status before the Lord, but rather on the service Israel is to perform. The “servant people” are a people who have a specially given work to do as a service for the Lord.
Four passages in chapters 40-55 have frequently been separated from their contexts and called the “servant poems.” They are 42.1-4, 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13—53:12. While in many other passages the “servant” is clearly identified as Israel, in these poems the identification is not made. They read as though an individual were meant. The sole reference to Israel in 49:3 is by no means clear. The best-known of the four passages is that of the “suffering servant” in 52:13—53:12 who “was wounded for our transgressions . . . bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (53:5). The age-old question about this writing is that of the Ethiopian eunuch to the evangelist Philip: “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” (Acts 8:34).
A solution to the difficult problem is made all the more difficult, however, when one begins with the assumption that the servant poems” must be severed from their present contexts. It is often argued today, as in the past, that the servant in the four passages cannot be separated from the servant in adjoining passages, who is clearly identified as Israel (for example* 41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1). Jewish exegesis has always seen in the suffering servant of the Lord an interpretation of Israel’s past, her suffering in the world, her weakness, her sin, and in the age about to dawn her mission in God’s salvation of all people on the earth. The personal vocabulary involves an ancient Semitic manner of thinking and speaking of a group or nation as a single personality. Thus the patriarch Jacob can be pictured as an individual and also as the nation Israel (see, for example, 43:1). A similar phenomenon appears in the New Testament, where Christ can be spoken of as the “head” of the “body” which is the Church (Ephesians 5:23), or as the “body” in whom the various members are joined (Ephesians 4:12).
In this corporate conception the “servant people” are God’s agent in his work of redeeming the world. Second Isaiah sees the whole of God s work with Israel in the past as preparing her for the great mission which is to be hers in the new age that is about to dawn. The royal and the redemptive features of the Messianic theology of Jerusalem have been separated by the prophet in a most original way. God’s “anointed,” his Messiah, is believed to be Cyrus, whose hand God has grasped “to subdue nations before him” (45:1). God’s “servant,” however, is one who gave his “back to the smiters,” who did not hide his face “from shame and spitting” (50:6), and like a lamb led to the slaughter “so he opened not his mouth” (53:7). Yet God has put his Spirit upon him so that “he will bring forth justice to the nations” (42:1). It will not be until New Testament times that a new and remarkable exegesis of the servant passages will be made. That was to interpret them Messianically, to see them as pointing to the earthly mission of the Messiah. Thus in his life, Christ was the Suffering Servant, but in his death God exalted him, raised him to his “right hand” (Psalms 110) as the royal Messiah foretold of old. It was this new interpretation of Old Testament Messianism that most of the Jews could not accept.
The portrayal of vicarious suffering in chapter 53 is one of the most profound and penetrating conceptions in Scripture. If we allow the prophet some flexibility in his poetic intensity, we can understand the shifting emphasis on the corporate and then on the individual aspects of the servant, until in chapter 53 the latter are used exclusively. The servant, like Moses in the wilderness bearing the burden of his people’s sin (see Deuteronomy 1:37; Deuteronomy 3:26; Deuteronomy 4:21), bears in his body the evil of the world. This vicarious burden led him to be “cut off out of the land of the living”; to pour out his soul to death (53:8, 12). Yet in his giving of himself as an offering for sin the will of the Lord prospers in his hand (53:10). In his willing assumption of the world’s burden which leads to death, God’s purpose was served —a hard but profound interpretation which throws fresh light into one of the darkest areas of existence.
A New Heavens and a New Earth
Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah are heavily eschatological. That is, the advent of Cyrus on the world scene and the release of the exiles are understood as the beginning of a series of divinely sponsored events which will culminate in the new humanity, the new heavens and the new earth. So confident were the prophets of the goodness of God that they could not believe that the disorder and alienation present in the world are the final meaning of history, or that human sin could finally thwart God’s purposes, or that God would fail in the plan expressed and implied in his promises to Israel. Before the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the summer of 587 B.c. (or 586), the prophets saw that coming destruction as the first stage in the series of eschatological events. First Isaiah interpreted the fall of Israel in 733-721 B.c. in the same way. Second Isaiah lived after the punishment of Israel was over. The next event is restoration and the servant’s service as a “covenant,” a light, for all men. In this context we read the remarkable invitation to the eschatological feast: “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters . . . Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. . . . Seek the Lord while he may be found For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace .
From the time of the rebuilt Temple comes the description of the Temple as “a house of prayer for all peoples,” for foreigners and even for eunuchs (56:3-8), whose service in royal courts had forced upon them the bodily change which, by an old law, meant that they, too, were excluded from the innermost courts of worship. Chapters 57-59 have much that reflects the spirit of denunciation of the older prophecy. A restored community is actually in existence, and its life is in contrast to its purpose. Yet in chapters 60-66 the proclamation of the coming God again predominates.
The redemptive service and the nationalistic glorification of Israel, however, are at times not kept in balance in this material. On the one hand, it is said: “You shall be called the priests of the Lord, men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God” (61:6). Yet at the same time it will be claimed that, having been depressed and persecuted for so long, Israel in the new era will be the chief of all peoples and the nations will be Israel’s servants. “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish” (60:12). “You shall suck the milk of nations” (60:16); “you shall eat the wealth of the nations” (61:6). While, after terrible suffering, the desire for such a radical reversal of a people’s fortunes is humanly understandable, it is nevertheless far removed from the picture of the servant role of Israel to be found in chapters 40-55.
Yet through and beyond it all there is deep faith in the salvation of God. “The Lord will be your everlasting light” (60:1920). His salvation is at hand. His eradication of the world’s evil will soon be seen (chs. 59, 63). The Lord comes to judge the whole earth, to purge it, to change it.
The prophetic hope in the New Creation is an expression of faith in the dependability of God. In the New Testament this hope was taken up in the Christian faith as the future which God has promised in the Parousia (the second coming of Christ). It has had a powerful influence on the Western world as one of the Bible’s most creative portrayals. As distinct from the religious situation in Far Eastern countries, the Bible has trained the West to think of history as a meaningful procession of events en route to a goal. Even among those who have completely secularized and materialized human goals, as among Marxists, the biblical promise has set meaning within human affairs, and this life has become a meaningful effort. The struggle for humanity is worth the cost because this creation is not in itself evil. Man can hope and work and plan, for the evil that now prevails and defeats man’s hope of earth is not eternal.
Of course, there have been Christians in every century who have read the biblical words as though they were a kind of literal prose, a blueprint of the future instead of a poetic and symbolic portrayal of faith and truth that can be proclaimed in
no other way. In every Christian century there have been those who were sure that the biblical prophecies of the future were to be literally fulfilled in that very time. All have been wrong. God’s time and man’s time are not the same. Both the Church and the Synagogue have had to learn to await God’s time. Yet these pictures of the future are a vital and integral part of biblical and Christian faith. By them we can know the direction of the future; we can shout aloud in faith even in time of tragedy, for we know that man’s sin cannot finally defeat the Lord of all creation and redemption. This hope and faith are what can energize the ethical struggle of the present, because the ultimate future is on the side of those who love and labor for the welfare of their fellow men.
Introduction to the Prophecy. Isaiah 40:1-31 The Call of the Prophet (40:1-11)
Proclamation of God’s Saving Power (40:12-31)
The Plans of God for Israel and the World Revealed. Isaiah 41:1 — 48:22
The Assembly of the Nations (41:1-29)
The Servant of the Lord (42:1—43:7)
Israel as God’s Witness in the Assembly of the Nations (43:8 —44:23)
Cyrus and the Salvation of the World (44:24—45:25)
The Fall of Babylon and the Salvation of God (46:1—48:22)
The Mission of Israel. Isaiah 49:1—55:13
The Servant of the Lord Commissioned (49:1-26)
“The Lord God Has Opened My Ear” (50:1-11) Encouragement of Zion (51:1—52:12)
The Lord’s Suffering Servant (52:13—53:12)
“Your Maker Is Your Husband” (54:1-17)
Invitation to the Banquet of the Lord (55:1-13)
Prophecies from the Rebuilt Jerusalem. Isaiah 56:1 — 66:24 Divine Exhortation (56:1—59:21)
“Arise, Shine; for Your Light Has Come” (60:1—66:24)