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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Second Isaiah

Scholarly analysis of Second Isaiah has been hindered because of a lack of consensus on the length of the poems. Scholars have given an exceptionally wide range of answers to the question of how many poems should be distinguished. They range from fifteen to seventy distinct poems. Judgment of poetic length is crucial for the interpretation of the prophet's message. If one assumes chapters 40 through 55 to be a collection of very short pieces, one will be inclined to view the prophet as a lyric poet given to short outbursts. But if one judges these same chapters to consist of lengthy poems, then one will be inclined to regard the author as a thinker who develops ideas in a complex way.

Why has there been such a wide range of assessments? In the early decades of the twentieth century, many scholars were influenced by the assumption of form criticism that the prophets borrowed literary forms from daily life, such as accusations from the law court, hymns and laments from temple worship, and love songs. That assumption is in fact largely correct, for the prophets communicated in language and genres that were familiar to their audience. Yet the prophets, especially Second Isaiah, were also theologians who developed their ideas in new ways in order to persuade people to certain modes of action. Thus they went far beyond popular speech and the familiar genres of everyday life. This essay takes the view that Second Isaiah was a thinker and theologian who composed lengthy poems to develop his ideas. The list below proposes the following poems in Second Isaiah and for each gives a title expressing in very brief form the content and point of the poems.

  • 1. The Lord speaks good news to Israel ( 40, 1–11 )

  • 2. Strength for an exhausted people ( 40, 12–31 )

  • 3. Judgment in favor of Israel ( 41, 1–42, 9 )

  • 4. The divine warrior removes the obstacles to his people's return ( 42, 10–43, 8 )

  • 5. Israel raised to be a witness to the Lord ( 43, 9–44, 5 )

  • 6. Witness to their Maker ( 44, 6–23 )

  • 7. The Lord appoints Cyrus king ( 44, 24–45, 13 )

  • 8. The Lord will not leave the holy city in ruins ( 45, 14–25 )

  • 9. The Lord carries his people to his city (46)

  • 10. The destruction of Dame Babylon (47)

  • 11. Openness to the interpreting word (48)

  • 12. The servant performs his task in the sight of the nations (49)

  • 13. The light that follows punishing darkness ( 50, 1–51, 8 )

  • 14. A prayer that the Lord destroy the foe and bring his people to Zion ( 51, 9–52, 12 )

  • 15. The many confess that the Lord upholds his servant ( 52, 13–53, 12 )

  • 16. Zion, the secure city of the Lord (54)

  • 17. Come into the life‐giving presence of the Lord! (55)

Second Isaiah wrote in the mid‐sixth century, about a century and a half after First Isaiah (in modern terms the span of time between the American Civil War and the present). The prophet's audience was in Babylon, not Palestine as in chapters 2 through 38 and 56 through 66 . The traditions he employed differed strikingly from First Isaiah's. Instead of traditions concerning Mount Zion and the Davidic king, Second Isaiah preferred to work with those concerning the Creation and the Exodus. He employed different genres: chiefly, trial scenes and oracles of salvation rather than the biographical narratives and warnings about social justice favored by First Isaiah. His message, too, was distinctive: not warnings to prepare for the judgment, but calls to return to Zion. How then can Second Isaiah be said to continue the preaching of First Isaiah?

The reason that Second Isaiah can be called his legitimate successor, despite his differences from First Isaiah, is that he had the same view of the judgment process as First Isaiah and regarded his commission as continuing the commission given earlier to First Isaiah. The judgment was an ongoing process, in his view, continuing into his own day. Second Isaiah, too, felt called to monitor its progress and to invite the people to play their part as it unfolded. The difference in Second Isaiah was that a new stage had been reached: the earlier phase of punishment and destruction was over and a new phase was about to begin—rebuilding. Second Isaiah received the commission to preach consolation ( 40, 1–11 ) in the very same divine assembly where First Isaiah earlier had received the commission to announce devastation ( 6, 1–11 ). These passages calls are portrayed as parallel commissions. As Isaiah of Jerusalem had lamented his people's suffering, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips” ( 6, 5 ), so Second Isaiah likewise felt obliged to express the vast suffering the people have already undergone, “The grass withers, the flower wilts, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. [So then, the people is the grass]” ( 40, 7 ). At first sight, Second Isaiah's commission seems to be the opposite of the first: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God” ( 40, 1 ) versus First Isaiah's commission, “You are to make the heart of this people sluggish, to dull their ears and close their eyes; else their eyes will see, their ears hear, their heart understand, and they will turn and be healed” ( 6, 10 ). In fact, the commissions are complementary, for the second reveals the next stage in a seamless plan of destruction and rebuilding. The pastoral task now consists in summoning the people back to Zion rather than in calling them to social justice.

There is a second striking progression in the judgment process. The pagan royal instrument of God is Cyrus of Persia rather than the king of Assyria. Instead of “Woe to Assyria! My rod in anger.… Against an impious nation I send him!” ( 10, 5–6 ), Second Isaiah announces “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred” ( 45, 1 ). Both kings are unaware of the divine choice ( 10, 7; 45, 4 ).

The commission to announce the divine plan provides the basis for the continuity between First and Second Isaiah. The divine plan in chapters 40 through 55 is a mirror image of the plan in chapters 1 through 39 , which accounts for the correspondences between the two prophets. It is the mirror imaging of the main points of the message of one prophet in the other that one most readily senses the continuity between them.

As with First Isaiah, the revelation to Second Isaiah demanded a response on the part of the people. Theory and practice were not sharply distinct in the prophets. Second Isaiah heard a member of the heavenly council give the orders, “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” ( 40, 3 ), that is, build a road through the desert from Babylon to Zion so the exiles can return home. Convinced that his task was to persuade people to embark on the journey, he announced: “Go forth from Babylon, flee from Chaldea!” ( 48, 20 ). The exiles were to return to their native city and begin anew. It would, however, be a mistake to view Second Isaiah solely as a pragmatist whose only task was to make certain that the people returned home as quickly as possible. In the prophet's dramatic view of national vocation, the people had ceased to be Israel when they were removed from the land that gave them their identity. To become Israel fully, they must do what Israel had originally done to become a people—participate in an exodus from the land of bondage to the land of promise. Israel was far from their homeland like the Hebrews in Egypt; the wilderness was like the Red Sea, and the servant who will lead them was like Moses ( 49, 1–6 ). The new exodus advertised to the nations that the Lord, the God of Israel, still acted in the world.

As was common in Hebrew rhetoric, the new exodus was depicted with mythic as well as historical qualities. The mythic dimension gives the event a universal scope. A good example of the mixing of historical and mythic levels is 51, 9–11, where the prophet prays that the Lord act, invoking his powerful arm:

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord! Awake as in the days of old, in ages long ago! Was it not you who crushed Rahab, you who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, Who made the depths of the sea into a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Is 51, 10–11 ).

Blending even more obviously mythic and historical elements is 43, 16–21:

Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, Who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, Till they lie prostrate together, never to rise, snuffed out and quenched like a wick. Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, For I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, The people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.

The old exodus is depicted both as the conquest of Sea and the military defeat of Pharaoh, and the new exodus is depicted both as the conquest of desert and a journey through the wilderness to Palestine.

Though the above paragraphs have stressed continuity between the programs of First and Second Isaiah, there were discontinuities as well. One of the most striking was the role of the Davidic king who was the delegate of the divine king ( 6, 5 ). In the time of Second Isaiah, there was no reigning Davidic king. What did Second Isaiah do with this central tradition that no longer had meaning? He mentioned the Davidic king in only one verse, and that verse transferred the representative role of the king to the people.

Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you (plural) the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David. As I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of nations, So shall you summon a nation you knew not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, Because of the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you” (Is 55, 3–5 ).

The verses have sometimes been interpreted as a wholesale democratizing of kingship, a transfer from individual kingship to a kind of corporate kingship; they are, however, much more limited in scope. They transfer only the Davidic king's witnessing of his patron deity's glory to the nations as in Ps 18, 44–45 , “You rescued me from the strife of peoples; you made me head over nations. A people I had not known became my slaves; as soon as they heard of me they obeyed. Foreigners cringed before me.” The people's embarking on a new exodus made them witnesses of their patron deity's power to determine the course of world history.

In summary, Second Isaiah freely selected omitted, or developed earlier, Isaian traditions because he saw himself as an inspired proclaimer continuing the divine plan first discerned by his predecessor. The plan has its times and seasons, and God propels it through different situations as a farmer nurtures and processes different crops with different means (cf. 28, 23–29 ). Second Isaiah focused on the Exodus traditions, rather than on the Zion and David traditions, because this tradition best served his strategy of moving the people from Babylon to Zion in a new exodus—land taking. Using historical and mythical language, he showed the urgency and significance of the great project. Engaging in the new exodus will bring Israel back into existence and show the nations that the Lord is supreme by reason of this act.

The Servant of the Lord in Second Isaiah

Among the most important and much discussed features of Second Isaiah is the servant of the Lord. The word servant occurs twenty‐one times in chapters 40 through 55 . In all but eight instances, servant refers to the people Israel. At the end of the eighteenth century, with the advent of modern biblical scholarship, many scholars singled out four passages about the servant ( 42, 1–9; 49, 1–7; 50, 4–11; 52, 13–53, 12 ) and claimed that these passages refer, not to the nation, but to an individual. (Many scholars still identify the servant as Israel in ideal form.) They differ on the identity of this individual; among the proposals are Moses as an ideal figure, Cyrus the Persian king (cf. 44, 28; 45, 1.13 ), and the prophet himself. The first two suggestions are unlikely. It is hard to imagine what meaning an abstract figure would have for an exiled population undergoing suffering and deprivation. Cyrus is virtually excluded because his role in the book is as antitype to the Assyrian king, not as servant, as explained in the section above. A substantial minority of scholars have always believed that the servant in these passages is the people Israel, but personified with traits of Moses and the prophets. A mediating position is suggested here: the servant is the prophet in a dialectic relationship to the people, like that of Moses or the prophets to Israel. Moses and the prophets stood between the Lord and the people. They were “out front,” often undergoing in advance those events that would later happen to the people. In Exodus, Moses fled Egypt pursued by Pharaoh and met the Lord at Sinai; later, the people fled Egypt and met the Lord at Sinai. Moses' example showed them how to do it. Isaiah and Jeremiah also offered examples of obedience and patient suffering to the people, for they too underwent in advance what the people would later undergo. One can interpret the four servant songs in a similar fashion. The prophet is fulfilling the vocation of the people Israel, offering them an example and a warning. His songs evoke the great servant of the Lord, Moses, as well as Jeremiah and, of course, his great predecessor, Isaiah of Jerusalem.

Though scholars continue to discuss the identity of the servant, there is no doubt about the purpose of the servant songs. They proclaim to the nations that Israel's exile and great sufferings do not mean that the Lord is ineffectual, but that he is just and compassionate in a new way. He continues to reign. Israel's sufferings show God's justice and compassion.

The servant songs were influential on later biblical literature. Several verses from the fourth servant song were particularly influential: “See, my servant shall prosper (Hebrew yaskil), he shall be raised high and greatly exalted” ( 52, 13 ); “If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him”; “Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear”( 53, 10–11 ). The influence of these verses can be seen in Dn 11, 33–35 (italics show the borrowing from Is 52–53 : “The nation's wise men (maskilim) shall instruct the many; though for a time they will become victims of the sword, of flames, exile, and plunder.… Of the wise men, some shall fall, so that the rest may be tested, refined, and purified, until the end time which is still appointed to come.” The group who sponsored the book of Daniel saw themselves as “the wise” who instructed “the many” in Israel, even to the point of dying for them.

The fourth servant song influenced the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament. When Jesus rebukes the apostles' unseemly striving for honor in Mark 10, 35–45 , he concludes his criticism with a borrowing from Isaiah 52, 13–53, 12 : “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The most explicit New Testament text on the suffering servant is Acts 8, 26–40 , the encounter of Philip, the deacon, with the Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch, an official in the kingdom of Meroe, was reading Isaiah 53, 7–8 . He asked Philip, “‐‘I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?' Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.” Philip's response is not preserved, but one can infer from the eunuch's request for baptism that the text was very important in early Christian instruction, providing a way of understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus.

An important question is whether Jesus historically saw himself as the servant whose sufferings redeemed Israel. Scholars are divided on the issue. Some believe that the early church interpreted Jesus as the suffering servant subsequently, in the light of further reflection on the Scriptures. Even though the question cannot be definitively answered, it would be exceedingly strange if Jesus, so in tune with the Hebrew Scriptures, had not profoundly reflected on such a key Old Testament text and applied it to himself as he faced his death.

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