Posts Tagged ‘Second Isaiah’

ISAIAH 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

“Now consider, we are all your people.” You can hear the desperation, mixed with frustration, in the prophet’s words.

The collection of oracles in which they are found is know as “Third Isaiah,” written shortly after the exiles had been allowed to return home to Judah and its once-glorious capital, Jerusalem. First Isaiah (chpts 1-39) is attributed to the eighth-century prophet Isaiah himself and addresses the tense time leading up to the Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE. The anonymous writer of the so-called Second Isaiah (chpts 40-55) sought to extend and adapt the essential message of Isaiah to the crisis of the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) and the harsh conditions of living in a strange land. Now, upon their return home, another anonymous contributor to the tradition (chpts 56-66) reworks it once again, this time in face of the challenge of clarifying a new destiny for the people.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem was now a shared effort, between the returning exiles and their compatriots who had been left behind in the ruins a half-century earlier. But in addition to the physical repairs, there was some serious psycho-spiritual healing that needed to happen as well. The arrogance and complacency which the prophet Isaiah had predicted would end in national calamity, was now replaced by a rather serious guilt-complex and a crippling shame. There is reaffirmation of the moral balance holding reality together, but the dark interval of suffering in exile has definitely humbled (we might better say humiliated) the community’s sense of entitlement as God’s chosen people.

We don’t deserve security, happiness, or long life (the community admits via the prophet), and we are entirely at the mercy of God’s will. Perhaps we (the returnees) were spared total extinction in exile, but for what exactly we cannot know. We desire a prosperous future, but we are neither capable nor worthy of it. It’s all in your hands, God.

… But don’t forget, we are all your people!

This calling on God to remember his covenant promises would be a refrain throughout Jewish history, becoming especially fervent during and after the Holocaust under Hitler.

ISAIAH 49:8-16a

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
    on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
    as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
    to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”
    to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways,
    on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
    neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
    and by springs of water will guide them.
11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
12 Lo, these shall come from far away,
    and lo, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene.

13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
    break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
    and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

The writer known as Second (Deutero-) Isaiah flourished in ministry during the Babylonian exile (587-538 BCE) and lived among the community of those who had been taken from their homes in Jerusalem. Defeat by the Babylonian army and deportation to a foreign land induced an identity crisis of the first order. When your monotheistic beliefs trace the causality of what befalls you to the will of God, every upset and loss begs the question: Why?

Especially when a respectable reputation and your honest efforts at living right still land you in a dark and painful place, this question of the relation of your suffering to God’s will can cut deep into your faith. There were many contemporaries left behind in Jerusalem (Zion, the mount on which the temple was built had become a synonym for Jerusalem itself) who felt compelled to conclude that God had simply forgotten his covenant with Israel. Divine amnesia was at least more theologically sustainable than the idea that God had deliberately abandoned them.

Away in Babylon, Isaiah was hearing similar cries among the exiles. God had promised a long and prosperous future to his people. What happened? Were they being punished for some unbeknownst sin – perhaps for the sins of their ancestors? This was one answer. But Second Isaiah (along with a fellow exile who adapted the story of Job) insisted on the innocence of his generation, and outright rejected the popular idea that God punishes children for the sins of their parents.

Following an insight that would later have revolutionary implications in the Christian era, Isaiah turned the crisis of exile into redemptive suffering on behalf of the entire nation. His generation, a collective taken as an individual, had served as the ratifying sacrifice of God’s renewed covenant of blessing. Their affliction and loss had opened a new future of hope and salvation for everyone.

ISAIAH 50:4-9a

4 The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.

7 The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8     he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
    who will declare me guilty?

Chapters 40-55 are believed by scholars to have been written during the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE), after the southern kingdom of Judah was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army and a significant population of its capital city of Jerusalem were taken in chains to Babylon.

As the siege was about to befall Jerusalem, there had been a few prophets who assured the people that God would protect the holy city and its sacred temple. So when it actually came to pass, and now in the distant land of their captors, not a few were ready to assign blame – not to God for failing his people, but to the exiles themselves for sinning against God. Some even suggested that the catastrophe was God’s retribution on the sinful nation.

But others didn’t buy it. Jeremiah and Ezekiel did their best not to place blame, but instead looked to a future of resurrection (Ezek 37), return and restoration (Jer 31). For his part, the “Second Isaiah” (as this author is known) chose not to look outside the suffering of his generation for its possible meaning or purpose. Rather than interpret it as punishment for sin, however, he reframed the experience as redemptive in its own right.

                                                                                          

Every so often, a system in dynamic balance will begin to experience feedback in the form of “vibration,” “heat,” “wobble” or “noise.” At such times the system needs to be reset in order to recover its center and balance. If the feedback is allowed to persist unchecked, it can amplify to the point where the system cracks up and breaks down.

Second Isaiah didn’t dispute the theory that Jerusalem had fallen because the people had lost their center. The devastation and exile indeed represented a major breakdown of the system, precipitated by the amplifying feedback of false hope, lost focus, and moral indifference. Not this generation, born in exile, but those before it had allowed things to fall off course. 

His creative contribution was to see the generation in exile as bearing the consequence, absorbing the shock of the tragedy, and symbolically taking the nation’s guilt on its shoulders. His generation’s suffering was redemptive in the way it removed this guilt and recalibrated the system. Second Isaiah and his fellow captives were not suffering to pay for sin, but to restore righteousness (balance and wholeness). They were not the shame of their nation, but its hope!

Much later on, some followers of Jesus would use this metaphor of vicarious suffering through the bearing of a burden to understand his death as a turning-point in redemption history.

ISAIAH 9:1-4

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.

A prophet is one who is able to look beyond the conditions of current reality through a vision of future possibilities. Abraham Heschel has characterized the prophets of the Bible as individuals gifted with “depth perception,” where the envisioned possibilities of the future are in fact the concealed potentialities of the present. In other words, the prophet is able to discern the underground movement of history and seeks to bring this awareness to his or her contemporaries in parables of warning, consolation, and hope.

The eighth-century prophet Isaiah flourished during the rise of Assyria to world power, and his basic message was concerning the holiness (divine otherness) of God and the need for Israel to resist the temptation to protect herself against the Assyrian threat by building up her Department of Defense and forming alliances with neighboring nations.

To put her faith in such investments and strategies would amount to abandoning confidence and trust in God. “Pull yourselves together,” Isaiah urged, “and return to the faith you once had.”

It wasn’t a going back to some distant apostolic age that the prophet was advising, but a going within to the inner ground of spiritual power. Don’t misunderstand: neither was this a world-renouncing withdrawal into some sectarian fortress of ascetic practice or dogmatic fundamentalism. Instead it was a call to connect with the God who is the very ground and hope of existence itself.

                                                                                                  

Isaiah’s confidence in God, even in spite of his guarded optimism over the likelihood of his generation returning to faith, made him hopeful for Israel’s future. He was sure that God had brought this nation out of bondage and onto the world stage for a purpose, and that this purpose had not yet been fully realized.

This purpose would achieve greater clarity and focus through the ministry of Isaiah’s successor, the so-called Second Isaiah who took up the prophet’s main themes and transformed them for the situation of exile a century-and-a-half later.

One of the dominant themes of this tradition is that of light, explored for its attributes of radiance and warmth as well as its power to purify. Used poetically, light is also a metaphor for awareness and higher knowledge (fittingly called enlightenment).

The prophet looked with expectancy to the time when God’s truth would dispel the dark shroud of ignorance that blankets the collective consciousness of the world. His “land of deep darkness” is a poetic reference to the global conditions of spiritual confusion and dogmatic blindness, along with the violence, oppression, and suffering that spin out of these.

The thing about such prophet-mystics is that they know, because they’ve seen it, that the holy light of truth is already there beyond the veil of ignorance, shining in all the fullness of power. Now the veil just needs to be pulled aside.

ISAIAH 42:1-9

Here is 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.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out,
    who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
    and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
    I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
7     to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.

The topic of vocation has become increasingly important in the recent literature, both religious and secular, interested in the question of purpose or mission in life, business, and personal development. Since the word itself is identified in the popular mind with an individual’s profession or occupation, the general preference in this literature has been to recover the root meaning of the term vocation itself, which refers to one’s calling.

The difference between occupation and calling, just as far as literal definitions are concerned, is the difference between the role one occupies in the commercial fields of labor, manufacture, service, intelligence and trade, and the deeper human purpose to which one is being summoned by the evolutionary universe itself.

As our quest for fulfillment forces us to look beyond the relative rewards of professional success and economic value, more and more people today are being drawn to this question of human purpose. What is it that the supreme reality is calling us to become? What is the evolutionary goal of humanity?

In the middle section of the book of Isaiah, called Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), this question of human purpose is the driving focus of the author’s work. His answer to the question will reflect the actual conditions of his historical situation and that of his community, but his central metaphor of servanthood is something that has been proven to transcend time and circumstance altogether.

                                                                                             

While in exile, the author of Second Isaiah received a vision of his displaced community in terms of a corporate personality, with the entire generation caught up and unified in the image of God’s chosen servant. This image enabled him to look through their shared circumstance of captivity in order to discern the deeper hidden current of God’s purpose being worked out through their loss and adversity.

By definition, a servant is one whose principal task is to carry out the will and purpose of another. Different from a slave, a servant occupies a recognized social class, providing services in exchange for room, board, social protection, or a regular wage. When Second Isaiah fastened on this metaphor of servant as a way of conceptualizing the experience of his people, he opened the path toward incorporating their suffering into the purposes of God.

Significantly, however, his image did not simply assume the popular idea of suffering as punitive for sins. Instead of the Suffering Servant of God enduring hardship as punishment for the past, their – remembering that the title refers to the exiled community as a whole – travail is interpreted as birth pangs of a future reality.

Of course, the idea of God working out a purpose through a people had been around for some time. It was central to Abrahamic religion. But now, even suffering was seen as redemptive.

ISAIAH 63:7-9

7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
    the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
    and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
8 For he said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
9     in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
    but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) was likely composed sometime after the return of the exiles from Babylonia, when the people of Judah were rebuilding upon the ruins of once-glorious Jerusalem. While the author of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), writing during the period of exile, had developed the metaphors of his displaced generation as the scapegoat of world redemption and the suffering servant of God’s saving purpose in history, this last section of the book reflects the concerns of a more settled community.

References to God carry a consistent acknowledgment of divine transcendence, and the community is quite obviously shifting in its self-awareness as an agency of evangelistic fulfillment (Second Isaiah’s theme) to becoming increasingly involved in the sacramental practice of remembrance and worship.

The spiritual life very clearly moves through seasonal cycles, with each “season” presenting the organizing motifs of our journey into God peculiar to its location in the larger rhythm of time. Typically a period of establishment and expansion (thesis) will give way to a season of crisis and redefinition (antithesis), which in turn opens out to yet another time of reorientation and new (or renewed) commitment (synthesis).

Eventually this synthesis itself becomes the status quo that must break open or break down for the deeper impetus of growth to advance. Staying in one place or remaining permanently the same is never a viable option – unless our goal is extinction!

                                                                                                    

It is typically in retrospect that we can see God’s present hand at work through the ordeals, adversities, and bereavements of life. When we are blessed in these difficult moments with an “angel” of mercy, guidance, or strength (depending on our need), the timely ministry of our angel is often seen only afterwards as the incarnated grace of very God (in the language of the old creeds).

This may be because our notions of the Divine have become so trapped in transcendence as to disqualify in our minds even the possibility of the Real Presence of God in the midst of it all.

That is, in fact, the essential crisis of the middle period, experienced and universally symbolized in the imagery of autumn (fall) and winter, when the life seems to be draining from the world we once thought was so secure. According to the theory of faith development, this is the “dark night” when our (idea of) God is no longer sufficient to our actual need.

The danger is that we might insist even more frantically (and fanatically) that our (idea of) God remain unchanged, and thereby deny (reject, suppress, rationalize) our actual experience – and with it the authenticity of our spiritual life.

In the third phase of synthesis (the coming-together of a new perspective), that earlier time of denial and absence becomes the birthplace of Emmanuel – “God with us.”