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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.

The Unity of the Book of Isaiah

One might not expect a book recording the prophetic deeds and utterances of three prophets and editors over two and half centuries to have much unity. The book begins when Israel and Judah were independent kingdoms; it records Assyria's destruction or partition of Israel and subjugation of Judah in the late eighth century, the effects of the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of Judahites a century later, and finally the return and initial efforts at rebuilding Zion in the sixth century. As has been shown above, despite the upheavals and discontinuities of the history, all the Isaian writers discerned a single ongoing judgment‐process aimed at renewing Zion. Zion was a symbol of the people and their sacred land. All the prophets in this tradition announced the progress of divine action and invited the people to suitable response, whether repentance, hope, return, or rebuilding.

Editorially, the unity of the book is reinforced and signaled by a number of literary devices. It is not certain who the final editors were. Were they scribes who edited and published the literary legacy of preexilic Israel for the postexilic generations? Or did the author of Second and Third Isaiah gather and edit the whole? A few scholars have suggested that Second Isaiah wrote chapters 40 through 55 and 56 through 66, and then arranged 1 through 39 so the entire scroll would form a coherent message. At any rate, it is clear that the last half of Third Isaiah (60–62; 63, 7–66, 24 ) is particularly important in the structure of the book. A good example of editing is the placement of the scenes of the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion. First Isaiah begins with a preface ( 1, 2–4 ) depicting a pilgrimage of the nations to Zion to listen to the instruction of the Lord. Chapters 60 through 66 is the other end of the great arc begun in chapter 2 . In chapter 60 , the nations stream toward a brilliantly lit Zion, and in 66, 15–24 the nations come to Zion with gifts, bringing the book to a conclusion.

Another indication of unity is the theme of the judgment and rebuilding of Zion. Chapter 1 indicted an obtuse people for not realizing that their present misery was the result of their infidelity and injustice ( 1, 2–20 ). The important poem in 1, 21–30 describes an attack on the city of Zion by the Lord himself in order to purify it from the injustice that has taken over the city. The divine attack is an act of judgment that puts down wickedness and upholds justice. The promise of such a judgment is repeated in Isaiah 4, 2–6; 28, 14–22; 33, 17–24 . The elaborate community lament in 63, 7–64, 11 is a long and urgent appeal for a transformative visitation: “Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a waste. Our holy and glorious temple in which our fathers praised you has been burned with fire; all that was dear to us is laid waste. Can you hold back, O Lord, after all this? Can you remain silent, and afflict us so severely?” Responding to that lament, Isaiah 65 describes the longed‐for judgment that transforms Jerusalem into the righteous city promised by First Isaiah. Isaiah 65, 17–19 declares, “Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.… Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create; for I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and exult in my people.” Chapter 65 seems to reverse the threat of 1, 24–27, “Now, therefore, says the Lord, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah! I will take vengeance on my foes and fully repay my enemies!.… I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as in the beginning; after that you shall be called city of justice, faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed by judgment, and her repentant ones by justice.”

Two word pairs occur throughout the scroll and play an important role in elucidating its message. The first word pair is mishpat and sedaqah in Hebrew, which are usually translated as “justice and righteousness” or, as in the NAB, “judgment and justice.” The two words convey one idea, the social and personal justice that should inform human actions. The word pair occurs only in First and Third Isaiah. Using the word pair, First Isaiah indicts Israel for its lack of judgment and justice, as in 5, 7: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!” Even the holy city Zion lacks these qualities, requiring God to restore them in the future, “Zion shall be redeemed by judgment, and her repentant ones by justice” ( 1, 27 ). The rebuilding of Zion (in the sense of city and people) must include judgment and justice, for it was the lack of these qualities that led to the destruction of Zion. It is no surprise, therefore, that when Third Isaiah speaks about the rebuilding of Zion, he insists on precisely these two qualities, for without them all rebuilding is in vain ( 56, 1; 58, 2bc; 59, 4; 59, 9.14 ).

The second important word pair in Isaiah is “salvation and justice” (yeshua« and sedaqah, with variation in the order of words). This pair occurs only in Second and Third Isaiah, as in 45, 8 : “Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice also spring up! I, the Lord, have created this,” and in 56,1, “my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed.” As the first pair expresses human response to God's initiatives, so the second word pair expresses divine action that is saving and righteous. Only the two latter prophets had the good fortune to see God's restoration and rebuilding, which they describe as “salvation.” Significantly, Third Isaiah's opening line ( 56, 1 ) brings both word pairs together in a synthesis, implying that the long‐sought justice of Isaiah of Jerusalem can at last be realized because of the turning point in history signaled by the return from exile: “Thus says the Lord: Observe judgment, do justice, for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed” (Author's translation). The first colon expresses a moral demand of humans, and the second line, the coming divine order. Now is the time for both to be realized! Renewed Zion demands conduct befitting its holiness. The use of the word pairs suggests a careful editor, who attempted to show that the indictment of First Isaiah can be overcome in the renewal of Zion, and the promises of return and renewal in Second Isaiah can be realized in Third Isaiah's day.

Zion is made holy by divine judgment (65). Being righteous, it becomes a magnet to the nations ( 66, 15–24 ), a role that fulfills the promise of 2, 1–5. Third Isaiah redefines Zion: it is no longer simply a place of assured blessings and safety, but the goal of pilgrimage for the nations and site of a teaching that is authoritative for the nations.

Conclusions

The unity of Isaiah does not come from the traditions used by the three prophets, for each used different ones. Still less does its unity come from an ongoing “school of Isaiah” postulated by an earlier generation of scholars; there is no evidence for such a school. Isaian unity comes from the unified plan or work of the Lord, which all three sections of the book announce and promote. It had been revealed to Isaiah of Jerusalem that the Lord had begun a process (judgment) to rectify the pervasive injustice marring Zion, and that the process would ultimately bring about a renewed people and land. Second and Third Isaiah were convinced that God had revealed to them a new stage in the divinely led process or judgment initially revealed to First Isaiah. The progress of the judgment was not determined in advance, but, like other important divine responses, changed according to the behavior of Israel and circumstances of history. Second Isaiah discerned a turn in world history that permitted the exiles to return to Zion and gave them the opportunity to be witnesses to the nations that the Lord is supreme. Following in his footsteps, Third Isaiah discerned a further stage, the rebuilding of Zion in accord with divine righteousness. All three prophets entrusted the completion of the plan to God and thus left the future open.

A special contribution of First Isaiah is his view that divine judgment is realized in human history. God uses human agencies, even the enemies of Israel, and guides them to bring about a righteous world. The judgment can involve destruction as well as salvation. What is rebellious will be destroyed; what is righteous will be upheld. In every one of its phases, the Lord's plan calls for human response and participation. Isaiah's view of history proved to be invaluable for Israelite thinkers of the exilic period trying to make sense of Israel when the monarchy collapsed and the Temple and the city were destroyed. The old traditions celebrating the Lord in the midst of a people living happily and safely in the land had lost all credibility. One cannot help wondering what exilic thinkers would have done if Isaiah had not earlier taught that the most sacred institutions do not offer protection on their own, but only because the Holy One is graciously present in them. Times change, and God is present to his people in new ways.

The Influence of Isaiah on Biblical Books

Isaiah's view of history—that the great empire was the Lord's means of “judging” or making Zion just—deeply influenced the prophet Jeremiah a century and a half later. Though for Jeremiah the great empire was not Assyria but Babylon, he taught that it was the Lord who brought “the enemy from the north” (i.e., Babylon; Jer 4–10 ) as an instrument of judgment. Judeans should submit to this chosen instrument with the hope that the Lord would renew them and ultimately bring them home (e.g., Jer 20, 4–6; 25, 9–12; 29, 1–24 ). Isaiah's view of history also influenced the author of Daniel in the second century. According to chapters 2 and 7 , the Lord controlled the succession of four world empires, the last of which would be punished as Israel rose to supremacy.

In the second and first centuries BC, Jewish sectarians at Qumran on the Dead Sea believed that Isaiah 40, 1–11 was about to come true: “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!.… Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Is 40, 3.5 ). Therefore, they waited on the edge of the desert for the Lord to enter the land and inaugurate a new age. Jesus shared some of this lively expectation of the return of the Lord to Zion and an outpouring of the holy Spirit, as is evidenced by the preachment “Repent, for the Kingdom (rule) of God is at hand!” and the outpouring of the Spirit (Mk 1, 12–13; Lk 4, 16–30; Rom 8 ). The Gospel of Mark interprets Isaiah 40, 1–5 : “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.' John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The exegesis of the time referred these verses to the return of the exiles at the end of days, accompanied by spiritual renewal and indeed renewal of the cosmos itself. Isaiah's proclamation of the birth of a son of David in Isaiah 7, 14 (“Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel”) was of enormous significance in the gospels (Mt 1, 22–23; Lk 1, 31). Matthew 1, 22–23 is explicit: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means ‘God is with us.'‐” The spiritual endowments of the king in Isaiah 11, 1–9 provided images for Christian writers in Matthew 2, 23; 1 Peter 4, 14; Revelation 1, 4; and Ephesians 6, 14 . Isaian words and images were taken up by Christian writers. The Christian liturgical season of Advent draws heavily on the texts of Isaiah. The intellectual and spiritual achievement of Isaiah of Jerusalem turned out to be exceptionally long‐lived and productive.

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