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6: Second Isaiah
Biblical scholars agree that chapters 40-66, which they have labeled “Second Isaiah,” of the book of Isaiah weren’t written by the same person who wrote chapters 1-39. Second Isaiah involves events that occurred about 160 years after the time of the prophet Isaiah and thus historically can be placed after Ezekiel. It appears likely that what is now Second Isaiah was at some point put into a scroll with the earlier material to make the “book” of Isaiah.
There is disagreement as to whether Second Isaiah represents the work of more than one person. There are several distinct parts, some of which seem to be in scrambled order. It has been suggested that chapters 40-48 are more coherent when read in reverse order. There is an obviously out of place satire against idolatry (44:9-20). Some scholars have sought to “restore” what they believe to have been the original order via extensive rearrangement of passages. As with other biblical manuscripts it may have been that the order of the parts of the scroll that became the book of Isaiah were mixed up in the process of sewing them together. Whatever may be truth as to its origins and early history, Second Isaiah contains some of the OT’s most outstanding examples of soaring poetic beauty and profound theological thought.
The Babylonian exile is a turning point in the history of ancient Israel and the development of Jewish theology. In 539 BCE, almost 70 years after the elite class of Judea was taken captive to Babylon, the Babylonian empire was overthrown by Cyrus, the ruler of Persia. Persia was tolerant of religious diversity and allowed the Judean captives to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. This is the setting for Second Isaiah.
Chapters 40-55 have been titled “The Consolation of Israel.” Second Isaiah opens with a very different message than that of earlier prophetic books: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her time of service is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from Yahve’s hand double for all her sins” (40:1-2). “Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (41:10).
There are some passages recounting Israel’s past sins, denouncing idols, and a lamentation for defeated Babylon, but on the whole Second Isaiah’s message is positive and affirming. There is a shift from the vindictive Yahve of prior prophets to a loving and forgiving deity. God persisted with wayward Israel due to his loving graciousness not, as in Ezekiel, because of concern about his reputation “among the nations.” Second Isaiah echos earlier messages downplaying the importance of ritual worship. God doesn’t desire fasting and rituals, but kindness and justice with the emphasis on kindness (58).
There is also a new focus on an explicit monotheism. Israel’s God is no longer a tribal deity but is the only God who rules the entire world. “I am God and there is no other. . . . Nothing takes place except through me” (45:5-6). Salvation is not limited to the people of Israel but is open to “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” (56:6). According to Samuel Sandmel, “From this moment on it would be appropriate . . . to replace the word Yahve with the word God.” And so I shall.
God is the redeemer of Israel which has been “tried in the furnace of affliction” and purified like silver (48:10). Past transgressions have been blotted out. The motif of the wife who “plays the harlot” is reworked: Israel is like “a wife of youth when she is cast off. . . . For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you . . . with everlasting love” (54:7-8).
The time has come for the repentant Judeans to return home. There are parallels with the Exodus from Egypt, but this time there will be no hurry to escape: “You will not come out as in haste, Nor go as if in flight” (52:12).
Israel is no longer just God’s chosen people but is described as God’s servant who will “establish justice in the earth” (42:4) and make his revelation known throughout the world. The glory of God will be declared “among the nations” (66:19) and “all flesh shall come to worship before me” (66:22).
In two separate sections (50:4-11, 52:13) which have no apparent relationship with the rest of the text there is a description of a mysterious “suffering servant” whose suffering and death enables salvation for others. The idea of vicarious atonement appears nowhere else in Jewish tradition. Sandmel speculates that the Suffering Servant texts were originally part of a larger poem which has been lost. Whatever may be have been its original meaning in its Jewish context, Christians came to regard the Suffering Servant texts as descriptive of Jesus’ suffering in atonement for the sins of humanity.
Second Isaiah describes Cyrus as God’s anointed, literally “messiah” in the only OT passage where messiah refers to a non-Israelite. The Persian ruler, even though he doesn’t know God, is God’s instrument to bring about the return of Israel. For Second Isaiah the defeat of Babylon and growth of the Persian Empire is all about the restoration of Israel. The impact of Persia on virtually all of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world is largely ignored. This reminds me of the Seventh-day Adventist view that world events revolve around their destiny as “the remnant of Israel.”
God lovingly leads Israel’s return to the Holy Land, smoothing the way for them. “Every valley will be raised up, every hill and low place will be lowered. The crooked will become straight and the rough places will be made flat” (40:4). “He leads his flock like a shepherd, in his arms he picks up lambs, he carries them in his bosom, and leads the young gently” (40:11).
Some verses indicate that not all of the exiles wanted to return to Jerusalem. And history tells us that some did indeed stay in Babylon to form a thriving community that prospered into medieval times under the rule of tolerant governments.
Second Isaiah ends with several chapters describing the glorious restoration of Israel mixed with reminders of her past failings. “I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (65:17. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (65:25).
I remember hearing many of Isaiah’s beautiful poetic texts again and again and being told that they described, not ancient Israel, but what would happen after the Second Coming of Jesus. Which of course is how Christians, in a tradition dating back to the New Testament, have read the OT prophets. But there is nothing in the actual texts implying that they have reference to anything but the fortunes of Israel. Which sadly turned out differently. That is unless one believes that Christianity is heir to promises made to Israel which have yet to be fulfilled.
© 2021 James Moyers