Background to the Book of Isaiah 40 - 55
In 598 BCE, 587 BCE, 582 BCE (Jeremiah 52:28-30), the Babylonians deported significant numbers of Israelites to Babylon, especially the leaders and highly educated people. It appears that the Babylonians allowed the exiles to own land (Jeremiah 29:5) and gave them much freedom. They could continue to worship (Ezekiel 8:1, 14:1,3, 20:1,29, Jeremiah 29:1), to participate in trade (Marashu business texts), to remain in tribal groups with their leaders (Jeremiah 29:5-7) and to serve on royal projects and in the military forces. The evidence of the Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Ezekiel and Priestly material shows that writing continued in the exile. An awareness of both the written and oral traditions of the past is seen in these books. While some writings (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deuteronomic History) probably received their final form in exile, other writings (Priestly, Psalms, Ezekiel) did not achieve their final form until much later. The people were aware of the Torah requirements (see Leviticus 26:14-45, an exilic sermon) and Ezekiel drew upon the laws in the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-25. The later writings confirmed that the people in Babylon knew the requirements of the law (Ezra 7:11-20: Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law, the one sent by the God of heaven to Jerusalem with treasures for the temple and a commission to undertake teaching of the law and moral reform). We assume that if Ezra was going to Jerusalem as a teacher of the law he would also have been teaching the law to those in Babylon.
In summary, the exilic community appears to have been well organised, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life and free to maintain its own religious life and worship. Although the people were not able to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices, they learnt about their past traditions (Isaiah 40-55) and the requirements of the law (Deuteronomic History, Ezekiel, Leviticus).
Purpose of Isaiah 40-55:
These chapters in the scroll of Isaiah appear to address a situation later in the exile (circa 540 BCE) when the prophet proclaims that God wants them to return to Jerusalem. Most of the older generation would have died, those who remained would have heard the stories of Jerusalem, but this generation would be very comfortable, settled, well off, living in a fertile and cultured country. They were safe, had freedom and many obtained wealth.
The question is how do you get a group of people to move who are comfortable, settled, whose children are born in this new country, to move back to a wreck of a city taken over by people from the surrounding countries, Edom, Moab ,Transjordan etc. You want to transport them back to a rocky and barren landscape, where there was no immediate opportunities for making a living. We have the experience of Kosovar refugees who were only in Australia a few months not 40 plus years and some of them had no desire to return to probable hardship and possible death. I have no desire to return to a ‘but and ben' in the Highlands of Scotland on a permanent basis. A holiday is wonderful.
This is the task of the writer of Isaiah 40-55 - to convince the people to return to Jerusalem and build the temple and city again. The experience of the exile has made them realise that they have to rely on the grace of God alone and that it is only by God's loving kindness they can know forgiveness.
Isaiah 40-55 begins with a prologue in Isaiah 40-11 which sets out the message of the following sixteen chapters. The first verse declares that the people of Israel are forgiven and she has suffered enough for all her rebellion and unfaithfulness. Now God will lead them back to Jerusalem. The poetry is quite different to that used in Isaiah 1-39 and is regarded as some of the most beautiful in the Old Testament. Isaiah 40-55 proclaims God as creator and develops the explanation God as creator of the world first stated in Genesis 1. Not only is Yahweh creator of the world, but also redeemer of people within history. It is Isaiah 40-55 who has a fully monotheistic presentation of God. Up to this point there has been an acknowledgement and acceptance of other gods by the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. These can be seen in many of the psalms we read.
The comments I have made about poetry, prophetic oracles and God speaking are applicable here.
Context of Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Prior to the third servant song in Isaiah 50:4-9, Isaiah 49:14-50:3 speaks about Jerusalem. Indeed, Zion herself begins the conversation in v.14 suggesting that God has forgotten her. God answers in vv.15-50:3 by saying that Zion could never be forgotten because a parent can never forget a suckling babe. Other images are used to give further reassurance, finishing with a number of questions by God for which there is only one answer- none of which impugn God.
The verses following call on the people to hear God's voice and be obedient to the servant. Zion will be comforted and all her waste places will become like Eden. This constant reassurance that God will rule and make all things come right is the focus of Isaiah 51. God is creator and the one who comforts and rescues humans. A further address to Zion of redemption in which Jerusalem's freedom is announced and that as they were sold for nothing so they will be redeemed for nothing. Pure grace. The response to this action of God for Jerusalem is an outbreak of joy and the action of the exiles is to leave Babylon and return to their homeland.
After the servant song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Isaiah 54 continues the positive picture of redemption taking the negative aspects and turning them into positive images, for example, their widowhood is now marriage with God as husband (Isaiah 54:5). The Lord's speech in Isaiah 54:7-8 is quite beautiful and the promise made to Noah after the flood is reconfirmed.
Isaiah 55 ends Isaiah 40-55 with the strong statement that when God's word goes out it will achieve its purpose. A statement of hope. As Isaiah 40 began with the call for the exiles to return to Jerusalem so the book ends with the statement that it will happen.
Insights/Message of Isaiah 52:13-53:12
The concept of servant has been used frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures. A few examples are: Moses suffered and died on behalf of the new generation of people, Deuteronomy 4:21-24 (Seitz:459), servants can be foreigners who do the work of the Lord (Isaiah 56:6), the nation Israel is referred to as servant through whom Yahweh will be glorified (Isaiah 49:3) and many others. What is clear is that the work and identity of the servant changes in different situations. Baltzer is convinced the servant is modelled on the figure of Moses and becomes a 'type' which represents the servant who is a model for an individual or nation (Baltzer:428f.).
The servant poems fit into the larger context of Isaiah 40-55 and as we noted on Palm Sunday the third servant poem (Isaiah 50:4-9) already suggests that the servant is suffering for his work as a messenger of God.
The structure of this poem begins with God's proclamation about the suffering of his servant and the response of kings (Isaiah 52:13-15). The voice changes to a group of people who appear to know the servant and what has befallen him and ends in v.12 with the reversal back to the first person speech. Isaiah 53 spells out in detail what is proclaimed in Isaiah 52:13-15. Overall there are 5 stanzas of which first and last are the commendation of God in the first person and the middle three stanzas are the voices of those who caused the suffering (Oswalt: 376).
Message / Theology
So often this poem has been read through the eyes of Christians to refer to Christ, that it is difficult to read it within its Hebrew tradition. Because of this bias we find it hard to move from seeing the poem as only referring to a single person rather than the nation Israel. It is reasonable to suggest that it may have begun as a description of the suffering of one person, but it can also refer to the nation's suffering on behalf of the nations.
It is an extraordinary theology in light of the Jewish views on purity and against those who suffer blemishes. The idea that a disfigured and despised entity could be the vehicle for salvation is beyond comprehension. The idea of atonement is present in Leviticus 16:22 whereby a goat becomes the means for bearing away the sins. The idea of a person/nation suffering undeservedly on behalf of others has to be acknowledged as unique.
Suggestions for the identity of the servant have been Elijah and Jeremiah among others, but with no ultimate consensus. I find it difficult to think that the person when writing had some abstract idea in mind. It could be as Hanson suggests that the author wrote with an awareness of the servant motifs in Isaiah 40-55 and of the long history of suffering among the prophets (Hanson: 154). Most, if not all theology is a reflection of experience inspired by the Holy Spirit and there must have been some exceptional experience of either the author or acquaintance to come to this unique view of suffering. Take the first line which says, Behold, my servant shall prosper, a prosperity which comes through undeserved suffering and with God's approval. The idea of a disfigured person, put to death dishonourably becoming the means for salvation is almost beyond belief in Jewish thought.
Some of the language in the poem reflects the sacrificial system of Leviticus 16:15ff. And the fact that the sins will be borne by a human now is a shocking move, especially onto a person/nation that is disfigured. The nation of Israel continued to be disobedient and since the sacrifice of animals has not proved capable of atoning for their sin it has fallen upon a person (Hanson:158). This would have indeed startled and shocked the nation. This servant was so devoted to God that they were willing to suffer in this way. An incredible message for people who are asked to return and rebuild Jerusalem with all the hardship and suffering that could accompany such a journey. Indeed, it is a message of encouragement to any people who are in crisis of faith and have this model of faithful servanthood in front of them.
For Christians this poem is a witness to the suffering of Jesus, on behalf of all people, who becomes both the lamb who is sacrificed and the great High priest who intercedes. We don't often take in on board for ourselves as part of discipleship, but for many Christians in the world the suffering unto death on behalf of others is a reality.
There has been vast amounts of literature on the interpretation of this poem. I wasn't sure how much exegetical detail people would find helpful and there is so much in commentaries that I have left it up to people to follow through any particular issues.
Resources/Worship for Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Often Good Friday services use the readings which lead up to and include the resurrection. I was wondering if an order of service could reflect the structure of this poem. Begin with Isaiah 52:12-15 as God's voice and then take 2, 3 & 4 as the descriptions which happen to Jesus and weave the readings in with God speaking in the final stanza.
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Isaiah (Whybray, R. N. The Second Isaiah).
The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.
Baltzer, Klaus. Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55. Herm. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001.
Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster BC. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, c1998.
Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995.
Muilenburg, James, and Henry Sloan Coffin. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 5:381-773. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Scullion, John J. Isaiah 40-66. OTM. Wilmington, Del. Michael Glazier, 1982.
Seotz, Christopher. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2001.
Watts, John. Isaiah 34-66. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Book, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1966.b
Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, c1975.
Whybray, R. N. The Second Isaiah, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.
Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. NICOT. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1972.
The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989
Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: These links were updated 30/12/11