29 May 2019Isaiah 52:7-15
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people ... (v. 9)
Psalm: Psalm 110
It is widely accepted among scholars that more than one author was involved in the writing of the book of Isaiah. The questions of who, when and where are complicated by the nature of prophecy; in passages such as this, it can be unclear whether the author is reflecting on the past, commenting on the present, or predicting the future. However, it is broadly agreed that this passage falls within ‘Second Isaiah,’ some 200 years after the events of chapters 1-39. While these earlier chapters carry warnings that God will punish Judah for its unfaithfulness, the prophet is now speaking into a historical context in which the city of Jerusalem and the Temple have been razed to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar (in 587 BC) and the religious leaders taken into exile. Into this world of pain, dislocation and confusion, the prophet offers a message of hope, restoration and salvation.
The promised restoration would take place through the fall of the Babylonian Empire and the rise of the Persians, whose king (Cyrus) would allow the first returnees from exile in 537 BC and the rebuilding of the Temple in 520-516 BC. The author(s) of Isaiah understood the Israelites’ experience of exile and restoration in profoundly theological terms, as punishment and salvation at the hands of an all-powerful God. Interestingly, this meant that both Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus (who worshipped other gods) were seen as instruments of God’s divine purposes – as God’s ‘servant’ (eg Jeremiah 25:9) and ‘messiah’ (eg Isaiah 45:1) respectively.
There is much debate as to the identity of the ‘Suffering Servant’ who becomes a key figure in Second Isaiah. Many New Testament writers saw the ‘Suffering Servant’ passages as prophecies fulfilled in the person of Jesus, who was "wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities … by his bruises we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). Paul also saw in them the suffering and martyrdom of the early Christians. In its original context, the Suffering Servant might be understood as representing Israel itself – and yet Isaiah speaks on occasion about the mission of the servant to Israel, suggesting a richer, more complex meaning.
- Second Isaiah, as well as offering the promise of restoration, acknowledges the pain and grief of the communities living in exile. In pastoral situations (such as funerals) how do we find the appropriate balance between offering the hope of the gospel and recognising the depth of someone’s pain?
- How do you feel about the suggestion that Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were ‘unwitting’ instruments of God’s plan?
- Who do you think the author had in mind when writing about the ‘Suffering Servant’? How important are the author’s intentions in conversations about the servant’s ‘true’ identity?