Isaiah as portrayed by Michelangelo.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Isaiah and the Suffering Servant

Isaiah 40-55. The picture above, and this image both relate to Isaiah, or to the Suffering Servant texts.

In 40 we have the call of the prophet, and prophecy of the coming theophany which will show the power of God. 12-26 declare the power of God. 27-31 proclaim the power of providence.

41 opens with the calling of Cyrus (roughly 590-530 BC), who is a “man of destiny” (46:11), or messiah. The nature of the messiah is one of the sources of contention between Judaism and Christianity. The messianic nature of Cyrus, however, is to a Christian different from the messianic nature of Christ. Our view is influenced very largely by Peter’s echo of 53:5, which is from one of the servant songs, that we are healed by his wounds. Cyrus is a military man, and the expectation of another Cyrus would play a definite role in Herod’s reaction to the birth of a rival in Bethlehem.

42 is the first song of the servant. 42:7 is the proclamation of freedom to the captive, and is read by Jesus in one of the Gospels. He says that these things are being done, and thus identifies Himself with the servant.

43 addresses the liberation of Israel, and proclaims that Yahweh alone is God. So here we have a clear monotheistic statement (8-13). The destruction of Babylon is prophesied, as well as the ingratitude of Israel.

44 opens with a blessing on Israel, and includes a satire on idolatry. Now here I’m not sure whether or not idols themselves were ever worshipped. Was the worship given to the thing, or to what is behind the thing? The charge could be made that Christians who have pictures of Jesus in their home are worshipping an idol. That would be denied, but it might appear so to someone applying this understanding of images. At 21 we have an oracle, and at 23 a brief song of joy.

44:24 opens with a proclamation that Yahweh formed us in the womb. Here is an anti-abortion proof text. 44 concludes by referring to Cyrus as Yahweh’s shepherd (28).

45 opens with an oracle in favor of Cyrus, and an oracle of slavation. At 14 there is a proclamation that the heathen will rally to Yahweh. 18 marks the beginning of some of my favorite verses:

Yes, thus says Yahweh,
creator of the heavens,
who is God,
who formed the earth and made it,
who set it firm,
created it no chaos,
but a place to be lived in:

“I am Yahweh, unrivaled,
I have not spoken in secret
in some corner of a darkened land.
I have not said to Jacob’s descendants,
‘Seek me in chaos.’
I, Yahweh, speak with directness
I express myself with clarity (18-19).

Verses 20-25 proclaim that Yahweh is the God of all.

46 proclaims the fall of Bel, one of the pagan gods in the area, and then continues with more praise of Yahweh.

47 is a lament for Babylon.

48 is another proclamation of monotheism. At 12 is a statement that Cyrus is the beloved of Yahweh. 17 is a statement of the good things that God had intended for Israel. 20-22 is a song of departure from Babylon.

49 is another servant song. It opens by saying “Yahweh called before I was born, from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name” (1). This can be used as another proof text against abortion. At 2 we have the image of the mouth being made a sharp sword, an image that will be echoed in Revelations. 7-26 is about the return.

50 opens with the statement that salvation is still open. 4-9 are another servant song. In this song the servant is insulted and spit upon. Yahweh will come to help the servant. 10-11 are an exhortation to follow the servant.

51 begins with a promise of salvation to the sons of Abraham, and says that Yahweh will judge the world.

52 appears to be a continuation of 51, which ends with a call to Jerusalem to awake. 3-6 are a description of the nation in captivity, and the theme of the awakening resumes in 7. Here is the verse about feet, “How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news.” Gulley Jimson seems to have derived some inspiration from this. (Probably not, but I wanted to work a reference to The Horse’s Mouth in here. It should definitely be on anyone’s list of favorite movies.)

The fourth song of the servant begins at 52:13, and continues to 53:12. It is here that we find that the servant will bear our sufferings, and is pierced for our faults (53:4-5). Here he is also described as being led like a lamb to the slaughterhouse. There is a strange conditional at 10, “If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs&hellip.” Could the servant refuse the offer, and what would be his fate if he does? Does this lead to a theological murk, some kind of never-never land?

54 is a reflection on the love of Yahweh.

55 opens with a call to the poor to come to the water, to eat and drink. 3-5 are about the Covenant. 6-9 urges us to seek Yahweh, and to repent. It is here that Yahweh proclaims his radical difference from man, “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways” (8). At 10 is a proclamation that the word of Yahweh cannot fail. 12-13 is the conclusion of the chapter.

Next up is Plutarch, the lives of Caesar (yea Caesar), and Cato the Younger (boo!)