January 14, 2013 0

Episode 20 – Isaiah

By in Blog, Podcast


And thus begins the TWENTIETH installment of this thing called BOOK.


Welcome back to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. If you’re just joining us, the premise of the show is simple: an honest and open-minded exploration of the contents of the Judeo-Christian bible with special attention to the history which produced the text and the literary form of the text itself. Here is a very brief recap of where we’ve come so far:

The first book of the bible is the Torah, divided in five scrolls in which the ancient family of Israel gave their own account of their transformation into a nation. After the Torah we looked at Joshua and Judges, which detailed the messy business of the people of Israel inhabiting the land that would be Israel. Ruth and Samuel told how Israel went about choosing kings, and Kings and Chronicles gave two very different perspectives on the national period and the performances of those kings. After a nasty civil war and a division into a northern and a southern kingdom, Israel’s national period came to an end, the northern kingdom being defeated by Assyria in the eighth century BCE and the southern falling to Babylon in the sixth.

After Kings and Chronicles we took a break from the historical narrative to examine some of the specialized literature of the bible: the poetry of the Psalms and the wisdom writings like Proverbs, Qohelet, and Job. Now we turn our gaze to yet another variety of biblical text, one which gives us a side door back into history, but from a very unique and easily misunderstood perspective. We’re going to read the writings of “the Prophets.”

So far we’ve seen prophets as characters in Israel’s historical pageant, and we even speculated that they are the likely authors or editors of the scrolls called “Kings.” Now we encounter several books written by individual prophets, or at least compiled from their public speaking by followers or assistants. Isaiah is the first of the “major” prophets to get his own book in the bible, and that text will be our focus today. First, a few words in review about prophets.

While most people today imagine prophets as hopped-up holy men roaming the street predicting the end of the world, their actual role was much more practical and relevant, even political. Prophets were less like far-off dreamers offering vague, cryptic pronouncements of gloom and hellfire, and more like pundits offering an analysis of an urgent, contemporary crisis. And most prophets weren’t delivering their missives to random citizens in the street, but rather pointing their fingers directly at kings. This is certainly true of Isaiah, who appears to have been an “official” prophet of the royal court of Judah during the reign of King Ahaz in the eighth century BCE. We saw him a couple of times in Kings.

Unlike prophets like Samuel and Elijah, we have little to no biographical information about Isaiah. He does not appear to be a priest, nor does he have any named career other than being a prophet of the court. The book which bears his name is long and dense, and does not have a friendly narrative structure. We often need to consult the corresponding history in Kings to bring it into focus. For purposes that will become apparent as we move along, we’re going to divide Isaiah’s scroll into two sections. The first consists of what we call chapters 1-39.

1 Isaiah, as we’ll call it, corresponds with the eighth century setting in which we met Isaiah in 2 Kings. The backdrop is the growing threat of the Assyrian empire and the bad choices of Judah’s kings. We get five whole chapters of straight-up, open-mic prophecy before we get any sort of introduction to Isaiah himself, but those five chapters tell us some interesting things about Isaiah. His message in this first part of the book is one of dire warning to the kingdom of Judah for losing its way. Most of the kings in his lifetime were corrupt and had rejected the traditional, Davidic, covenantal religion of Israel’s past. Here in chapter 1 Isaiah predicts drastic consequences for the once-great city of Jerusalem:

[21] How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was once full of justice!
Righteousness once lodged in her, but now murderers.

[23] Your rulers are rebels and cronies of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
[24] Therefore the Lord declares, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:
“I will get satisfaction from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes.”

[27] Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
[28] But rebels and sinners shall be crushed together, and those who forsake the LORD will perish.

But Isaiah isn’t simply a crank, calling down fire and brimstone on all the fat cats. The second thread running throughout the first section of Isaiah is a salient hope that Judah will be restored to its former glory. This is from chapter 2:

[2] It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, [3] and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
[4] He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah imagines a triumphant day, a day when not only will Judah be restored as “God’s mountain,” but it will be established as a shining beacon for the whole world, and when warfare between the nations of the earth will end. For some reason, in our own day, when people read and remember biblical prophecy, they only remember the gloom and doom stuff, and the hope is often overlooked. I’ll push that point even harder when we get to apocalyptic literature.

In both of those excerpts we observe one of the remarkable distinctives of Isaiah’s thinking and writing: his use of “Zion” or “mountain of God” imagery. Remember when we first talked about kings and prophets, we observed that they had two very different – and often conflicting – ways of looking at life, religion, and current events? One way of summarizing those viewpoints is the contrast between two mountains: SINAI and ZION. SINAI is the mountain of prophets, a lost location where God showed up briefly to deliver a message through his servant Moses. For prophets, God is transcendent, elusive, and always thwarting man’s expectations. ZION, on the other hand, is Jerusalem, the mountain of the palace and the temple, where God “permanently” established his authority on earth. For kings, God is present, immovable, and predictable.

And yet we find in Isaiah a prophet who frequently invokes ZION and refers to Israel’s God as “YHWH tsava’ot,” “LORD of hosts” – that is, the God who leads our armies to victory against our enemies. Isaiah is an extremely royal prophet, and his vision of Israel’s future doesn’t involve the dissolution or abandonment of Israel’s monarchy. The monarchy itself will be at the center of the nation’s rescue. More of that anon.

In chapter six we come to a very different sort of text, and something we might have expected at the beginning of the book. It’s the closest we get to an origin story for Isaiah. Give it a listen:

[6:1] In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. [2] Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. [3] And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
his presence fills the whole earth!”

[4] And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. [5] And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
[6] Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. [7] And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
[8] And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

Each of the major prophets gets what is referred to a “calling” episode, a description of the events which began their careers as God’s messengers. Isaiah’s is a strange vision with unearthly beings flying around the throne of Israel’s God. This is very much a precursor to the apocalyptic texts, in which outrageous symbolic images are employed to present ideas and realities which could not otherwise be communicated. In this case we have “seraphim,” which is the Hebrew word for “flames,” and so we strain to imagine beings made of flames, flitting around with six wings.

By the way, nitpicky side note: These are not angels. Angels in the bible, whatever else they are, are humanoid beings who are never said to have wings. Medieval European artistic interpretation has given us the ubiquitous image of little winged, naked baby angel, but that’s a messy mutation and cross-pollination of several distinct biblical images, with a little linguistic error thrown in for good measure. The word “cherub,” for example, was unknown to medieval rabbis who decided it must be Hebrew, che-ruv, “like a child,” and artists just ran with it. In truth the word derives from Akkadian and Babylonian, and describes a winged lion, the symbol of royal power in the ancient Near East. All of this should keep us humble as we attempt to affirm or dismiss any particular interpretation of the bible. OK, end of rant.

So Isaiah is enlisted to act as God’s messenger to Judah, and his “unclean lips” are purified by a piece of coal. Strange as it sounds to us, there is actually evidence of this very practice from the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. And what is the message Isaiah is to carry? Turns out it’s a very specific one for a very specific crisis. We discussed this is in great detail in our Christmas episode, because this is source of the famous “Immanuel” passage, wherein Isaiah heralds the birth of an important child. You can listen to that other podcast for an in-depth discussion of the New Testament treatment of this passage. Right now we just want to see how it works here in context.

Chapter 7 presents Isaiah’s words to King Ahaz, a confrontation described in 2 Kings 16. Judah is at war with Israel, which is in league with the neighboring state of Syria. Desperate and afraid, Ahaz seeks protection from the brutal and growing empire of Assyria. Isaiah insists that Judah must remain unaligned, and entreats Ahaz not to make a foolish alliance with a huge enemy just to stave off a small one. Here are Isaiah’s words to the king:

[13] And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you must weary God also? [14] Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. A virgin is with child and is about to bear a son, and will call him Immanuel. [15] By the time he knows to reject the bad and choose the good, the people will be eating curds and honey. [16] For before the boy knows how to refuse the bad and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”

Isaiah says, “don’t get in bed with these bad guys, just be patient and God will deal with them.” The image he employs to announce a hopeful future is the birth of a child, an image he picks up several times in the book. “A virgin is going to have a baby” is most likely a reference to a maiden of the court, to the imminent birth of a new king. Once more, Isaiah’s royal theology is showing. There is hope in a new king, hope that he won’t be as cowardly and reckless as Ahaz.

And lest we have trouble believing that Isaiah’s prophecy is meant primarily for his own day, he repeats it again in similar language in chapter 8:

[3] I was intimate with the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz [which means ‘make haste to the plunder’]; [4] for before the boy knows how to cry ‘my father’ or ‘my mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.”

And, wouldn’t you know it, Isaiah is proven to be right, according to the accounts of 2 Kings. The next king is Hezekiah, a sensible and faithful king, and in his lifetime Israel and Syria are both devastated by Assyria, and yet Assyria fails to conquer Judah.

Isaiah goes on to proclaim, in a famous passage in chapter 9, more hope for the future of Israel, once more employing the hopeful spectre of childbirth:

[2]  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.
[3] You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
[4] For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
[5] For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
[6] For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and authority shall be on his shoulders,
and his name shall be called
“Mighty God is a Wonderful Counselor, The everlasting father is a peaceable ruler.”
[7] Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

This is another popular “messianic” text, and we’ll have a few words to say about “messiah” later in the podcast. For now, this is more typical Isaiah. God is going to rescue Israel, and turn things around. And he will not do this in spite of Israel’s throne, he will accomplish through the monarchy itself.

The rest of Isaiah’s “first” book consists of sharp warnings against wayward Judah AND its enemies (like Assyria, Babylon, Philistia, Moab, and others), peppered with hopeful anticipation of the vindication of David’s family – the rightful kings of Judah. Isaiah even predicts (or perhaps responds to) the Assyrian defeat and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel, promising that “a remnant shall return.” At the same time, he predicts a similar fate for Jerusalem, should its current kings not change their ways.

Then, in chapter 40, something happens. There is a palpable change in tone and orientation. The historical backdrop and the central message of Isaiah himself seem to shift. This is why we are identifying two “books” of Isaiah (though our Jewish and Christian bibles do not make any such division). While chapters 1-39 overflowed with warning and hope in the face of the eighth century crisis of Assyrian aggression, chapters 40-66 seem to bear a different message for a different time. This is from chapter 40:

[40:1] Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
[2] Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
[3] A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

It becomes clear as we read on that the crisis behind these chapters is no longer the fear of Judah in the face of the Assyrian threat, but the sorrow of the citizens of Judah who have been dragged off to exile in Babylon. Isaiah is preaching comfort to the people after the fall of Jerusalem, some two hundred years AFTER the Assyrian threat dissolved. This presents a potential problem for our reading of the book. Did Isaiah, after addressing the crisis of his own day, look into the future and predict the rise of Babylon, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile? Or did someone else write the Babylon material under his name?

This is only a huge problem if we have an overly simplistic and anachronistic notion of prophets and authorship; if we insist that a man named Isaiah must have sat down and wrote this entire book on a Tuesday afternoon in the presence of a notary public. The reality is that Isaiah the man, whoever he really was, did not necessarily write any of this material. It is possible – perhaps likely in his case, according to scholarship – that Isaiah’s words and ideas were captured and recorded by a group of students, personal disciples of the prophet. Is it possible that Isaiah gained some insight into Judah’s future? Absolutely. But it’s also possible that there was an “Isaianic” school of prophecy which preserved his ideas and his message for subsequent generations, and that this group is responsible for the message of hope found in the “second” book of Isaiah.

And what is that message of hope? Well, remember Isaiah’s response to the Assyrian crisis: hope would spring from the line of David. God would use the monarchy and kings like Hezekiah to rescue Judah. Well, that was at a time when Judah inhabited the land and Jerusalem stood secure. Now, Jerusalem has been razed to the ground and the people of Judah are scattered throughout the pagan world in exile. Appeals to Zion and kings and Jerusalem are tragically pointless. The author of Isaiah must find new and innovative words of hope in these devastating new circumstances. Among the words of comfort and encouragement, an interesting new thread develops. Chapter 42 begins like this:

[42:1] Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Isaiah imagines a mysterious “servant” who becomes a central presence throughout the rest of the book. This is chapter 53:

[3] He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
[4] Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
[5] But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we were healed.

Instead of a victorious king, Isaiah now envisions a lowly, suffering nobody. A “man of sorrows” who seems to embody Israel itself and all of its troubles. His suffering, which is their suffering, will be the means by which God rescues and restores his people. This is one of the foundational strands of what will be known as “messianic” expectation (though the word “mashiach” does not appear in the Hebrew Bible). We’ll have a lot more to say about messianic expectation when we examine the New Testament gospels and their frequent appeals to Isaiah. For now it’s sufficient to observe that the “suffering servant” of Isaiah, like the humble “son of man” we’ll meet in Daniel, is the embodiment of the hope that Judah’s exile will be ended, and Jerusalem be restored.

And the return from exile is what Isaiah’s message is all about. Here’s one last passage, from chapter 55:

[10] “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
[11] so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
[12] “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
[13] Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Verse 11 here – the bit about “my word shall not return to me empty” – is often used today as a sort of self-authorizing defense of the bible, since many Christians refer to the bible as “the word of God.” Not only is that anachronistic, it misses the point of the whole passage. The “word of God” here is not “the bible,” but the actual word, the will of Israel’s God, specifically his plan to bring Israel back from exile. The restoration of the nation is depicted in agricultural terms: God will plant Judah back in the land like a seed, and it will grow and prosper. The weeds of destruction will die and the foliage of new life will spring up.

There’s a lot more we could say about Isaiah, but let’s wrap up our discussion with some concluding observations. Questions about authorship and New Testament invocations have dominated modern discussions about Isaiah. I hope in our overview we’ve allowed the original voice of the text to be heard. Whatever else Isaiah – or his students – might have been saying about the near or the distant future, the primary message is clear: hope for right now. Hope for those quivering in the shadow of a violent empire. Comfort for those dragged from their home into forced exile. We do well to remember that texts like Isaiah were not written to fuel theological debates in future millennia, but to answer true human suffering in the present.

Next we’ll look at two other “major” prophets of Israel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both offering their own response to the horrors of exile, one at home in devastated Jerusalem, and one in the strange land of Babylon. The literature they produced is harrowing and beautiful.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, tweep, kleep, blog, tumbl, stumble, chumble, and flooz it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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