In Jewish tradition, there are seven women identified as prophets (Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther). Concerning Huldah, we know of only one of her prophetic acts, when she gave advice to King Josiah (2 Kings 22–23; see also 2 Chron 34).
However, this single piece of advice was extremely important; it guided Josiah to undertake the thoroughgoing reforms of religion in Judah that characterised his reign. “Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel, and made all who were in Israel worship the Lord their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors” (2 Chron 24:33).
Huldah’s husband, Shallum, had a prominent position in the royal court. He was the keeper of the king’s wardrobe (Jer 34:5); he therefore had daily access to the king and was able to meet him in relative privacy. He was better placed than most to talk with the king and advise him. Huldah was therefore among the inner circle surrounding King Josiah.
According to rabbinic tradition, Huldah was a relative of Jeremiah (Megillah 14b). The last thing said in Hebrew scripture about Rahab and Joshua is that “Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared; her family has lived in Israel ever since” (Josh 6:25). The rabbis, however, maintain that Joshua and Rahab married, and that their descendants included Hilkiah, Jeremiah, Huldah, Seraiah, Mahseiah, Baruch, and Ezekiel. That’s quite a family!
The significance of Huldah is that it was she, a woman, who was consulted by the king, and she, a female prophet, whose guidance led to a pivotal reform in Judah. Claude Mariottini writes that “Huldah’s oracle is significant because she is the only woman prophet who proclaimed a message about future events. She begins her speech, like the other male prophets, claiming that her words were the words of God: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel.’ This expression is the messenger formula that was used by the Old Testament prophets to introduce their oracles. As a prophet, Huldah saw herself as a messenger of God set apart to speak in God’s name.” (see https://claudemariottini.com/2013/09/17/huldahs-oracle/)
Josiah reigned from 640 to 609 BCE, with the reforms noted above taking place during the late 620’s. What drove the reforms was the discovery, in the midst of the restoration of the Temple, of an ancient book of the Law, at the bottom of a money chest that had recently been raided to pay for renovations to the Temple (2 Ki 22:8–10). The book set out the requirements of the Law; Josiah panics because he realises that the nation has not been faithful to the covenant, and that God will punish them.
Josiah repents in contrition, consults with Huldah, and then implements extensive reforms. Many scholars believe that the book referred to in 2 Kings 22 could well have been what we know as a Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law”. This book was supposed to have been lost during the wholesale destruction of anything to do with worship of the Lord God, from the previous two kings, who were hostile to worship of Yahweh during their reigns.
Did the fact that the consultation with Huldah is reported without any “excuses” or “explanation” mean that there were female prophets at the royal court, as a matter of regular practice? The group that came with Kimg Josiah included the priest Hilkiah, two men identified as “Shaphan the Secretary and the king’s servant Asaiah”, as well as the sons of Shaphan and Micaiah, obviously another court official. This was an impressive group of high-status people.
The excerpt from chapters 11 and 12 of the letter to the Hebrews, offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, concludes a long chapter of forty verses, providing a long list of the many witnesses who have lived their lives by faith. There was is a reference to Abraham and Sarah in the section we heard last week, but there is also mention of Abel and Enoch, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Joshua and Rahab, Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets—people who lived through many adventures, women who were faithful throughout their lives, martyrs who met an early death and rulers who bore responsibility for leading a nation.
These people are all drawn from the pages of our shared scriptures, the “heroes of the faith” from the stories of the Hebrew people. The excerpt offered this coming Sunday by the lectionary (Heb 11:29–12:2) canvasses many examples of faith, culminating in the opening verses of chapter 12, where the final example of faith which we are offered is the most familiar figure: “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).
Faith, it is stated, is about what we cannot see, and what is not immediately evident in tangible ways when we look around us. We cannot point to an object, and claim: “there it is”. We cannot hold up a particular item, and say: “look at it ..? do you see it?” Because faith, in the end, is about what we value inside ourselves; it is about the qualities we hold dear, the principles by which we live.
And yet, in the stories offered in this reading, we are invited to consider what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen”. This is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.
And in the story of Jesus, that faith becomes tangible, visible, knowable—a story filled with many details, a multitude of scenes, encounters, teachings, travels—all providing material that enable us to perceive of Jesus as a real, tangible human being, a fine example of faith.
Three images of Jesus dominate the extended sermon which we know as the epistle to the Hebrews: Jesus as the pioneer of salvation, the great high priest, and the perfecter of faith.
These images are combined at key points (2:8b–11a; 5:7–10; 12:1–2), as they are developed in an interconnected fashion throughout the book. Their common point is the author’s focus on the death of Jesus on the cross (2:9; 5:7–8; 12:2). It is this “suffering of death” which transforms Jesus from his state of being “lower than the angels” to being “crowned with glory and honour” (2:9).
In his death, Jesus is the “pioneer of salvation” (2:10) who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). Through his death, Jesus “brings many children to glory” and is made “perfect through sufferings” (2:10). This image recurs in the claim that Jesus was made perfect after “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8–9; see also 7:28; 12:2). It is this claim which undergirds the call for believers to “go on toward perfection” (6:1; see also 10:14; 11:40; 12:23).
The image of Jesus as the perfecter of faith is also related to the third image, of Jesus as the great high priest (4:14; 7:11). This image is firmly grounded in his humanity. Jesus shares “flesh and blood” with God’s children (2:14) and became like these humans “in every respect” (2:17). He has been “tested as we are” (4:15) and is chosen to be priest from among mortals (5:1, 5).
Yet this image also allows a place for the transcendent nature of Jesus. When he is designated high priest according to “the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20), Jesus is understood to be the high priest who has “passed through the heavens” (4:14) and is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26).
As Jesus is seated at God’s right hand (8:1), he is able to enter into the holy place of “the greater and perfect tent” (9:11–12) to offer the sacrifice which “makes perfect those who approach” (10:1, 14). This sacrifice brings the process of sanctification to a head (13:12; see also 2:11; 9:13–14; 10:10, 14, 29) and enables believers to “approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22).
Paradoxically, Jesus both stands in the place of the priest slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously lies on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). Although the details of the imagery are confused, there is a consistently firm assertion developed through this image: Jesus is the assurance of salvation (2:10; 5:9; 10:22).
A sense of hope thus permeates the sermon, with references to “the full assurance of hope” (6:11), the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” (6:19), “the confession of our hope” (10:23) which is undergirded with the assurance that it is offered by God, for “he who has promised is faithful”. (See other references to hope at 3:6; 6:18; 11:1.) It is the work of the high priest which brings believers “a better hope” (7:19) and assures them of their salvation—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).
Throughout the sermon, the author of Hebrews presses his audience to live a moral life in response to this message, beginning with an opening exhortation which warns of penalties if the message is not heeded (2:1– 4). This warning is intensified by references to God’s anger in response to “an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:7–12), leading to the directive to “exhort one another every day” (3:13). In his capacity as high priest, Jesus has “passed through the heavens”, resulting in a further encouragement, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:14–16).
More practical guidance regarding the behaviour which is expected of believers is set out in succinct commands: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another’ (10:24–25); “pursue peace with everyone…see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (12:14–17). A more extensive list of instructions appears in the final series of exhortations which close the sermon (13:1–19). These exhortations are delivered in a sharp, staccato style, one after the other, in short, sharp bursts.
By contrast, a distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews is the lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each attest to a vibrant faith in God. The poem, as we have noted, offers many examples of faith from amongst this cloud of witnesses, culminating in
Jesus, through whom “God provided something better” (11:40).
By his entrance into the heavenly realm, Jesus has been proven “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2), an exalted status similar to earlier descriptions of him as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1), “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14), “the mediator of a new covenant” which offers “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15).
The hope of these witnesses points to the deeds of Jesus, which provide the motivation for the lyrical exhortation which draws this section to a close: “therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (12:12–13).
As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people; as Moses and the people escaped slavery and trod the long wilderness path to Canaan; as people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, quenched raging fire, endured so, so many battles; as people were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, were stoned to death and were killed by the sword; as others were persecuted and tormented; and as Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame”, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.
Continuing my series of blogs on the prophets: today, Jeremiah, who was called to be a prophet at an early age (Jer 1:4–10). Some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, while others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. When he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6).
Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means “alas” or “woe is me” (see also 4:10; 14:13: 32:17; and also Joel 1:15). Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all. See my sermon on this passage at
Yet Jeremiah faithfully carried out the task committed to him; it is thought that he was active from the mid-620s in Judah, through into the time of exile in Babylon, from 587 BCE onwards—that is, over four decades—although Jeremiah himself was exiled, not into Babylon, but into Egypt (Jer 43:1–7).
The task he was given when called to be a prophet was to declare the coming judgment of God on the people of Israel, for continuing to ignore their covenant commitments. The Lord tells him, “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands” (1:16). As encouragement, he urges the young man to “gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you” (1:17).
Jeremiah proclaims both God’s judgement and God’s hope for repentance by the people. This dual focus appears in God’s instructions to Jeremiah “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow” but also “to build and to plant” (1:10). In his later years, in solidarity with the people who have been “plucked up” into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah urges his people to make the best of their time in exile: “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city” (29:5, 7). Many centuries later, a clear allusion to that same oracle is made by Simeon as he meets the infant Jesus: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).
The overall progression of the book is chronological, as it begins with the call of Jeremiah (ch.1) and ends with an account of the destruction of Jerusalem (ch.52). Nevertheless, the arrangement of the book is more topical overall, rather than chronological, since oracles on the same topic are grouped together even though they may have been delivered at different times. There are various theories as to how the book was put together; most scholars believe that someone after the lifetime of Jeremiah has brought together material from collections that were originally separate.
Indeed, A.R. Pete Diamond concludes that “like it or not, we have no direct access to the historical figure of Jeremiah or his cultural matrix”; we have “interpretative representations rather than raw cultural transcripts”, and thus he argues that the way we read this book should be informed by insights from contemporary literary theory, and especially by reading this book alongside the book of Deuteronomy, as it offers a counterpoint to the Deuteronomic view of “the myth of Israel and its patron deity, Yahweh” (Jeremiah, pp. 544–545 in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003). Whereas Deuteronomy advocates a nationalistic God, Jeremiah conceives of an international involvement of Israel’s God.
The chronological disjunctures can be seen when we trace the references to various kings of Judah: in order, we have Josiah in 627 BCE (Jer 1:2), jumping later to Zedekiah in 587 BCE (21:1), then back earlier to Shallum (i.e. Jehoahaz) in 609 BCE (22:11), Jehoiakim from 609 to 598 BCE (22:18), and Jeconiah in 597 BCE (22:24), before returning to Zedekiah in 597 BCE (24:8) then back even earlier to Jehoiakim in April 604 BCE, “the first year of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (25:1)—and then further haphazard leaps between Zedekiah (chs. 27, 32-34, 37–38, and 51:59) and Jehoiakim (chs. 26, 35, 45) as well as the period in 587 after the fall of Jerusalem when Gedaliah was Governor (chs. 40–44). It is certainly an erratic trajectory if we plot the historical landmarks!
The topical arrangement is easier to trace: 25 chapters of prophecies in poetic form about Israel, 20 chapters of narrative prose, and six chapters of prophecies against foreign nations. Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.
“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.
Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). As Jeremiah denounces their worship of idols (10:1–16) and breaches of the covenant (11:1–17), his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20).
Others prophesying are condemned by God; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18). The prophet dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).
The punishment that is coming to Israel is a cause of great grief for Jeremiah, and so he is sometimes known as “the weeping prophet” (see 9:1; 13:17; 22:10). He doesn’t sit easy with the terrors associated with the execution of God’s justice in the nation—perhaps we can resonate with the angst of this ancient figure?
The most common criticism that I hear of Old Testament passages is about the terrible violence of the vengeful God—an element of Israelite religion that seems quite at odds with so much of modern sensibilities. Jeremiah gives a clear and potent expression to this image, when he has Jeremiah report that God says, “I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence” (21:5–6).
A number of passages in the first main section of this book are seen to reflect this angst about a powerful, vengeful God—they are often called “Jeremiah’s confessions”, as he confesses his pain and grief to God, and prays for a release from his condition (see 11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–14; 15:15–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–12; 20:14–18). These “confessions” share stylistic and thematic similarities with the “psalms of lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90 (psalms of communal lament), and Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142 (psalms of individual lament).
“Woe is me”, or “woe to us”, is a common phrase in Jeremiah’s oracles (4:13; 4:31; 6:4; 10:19; 13:27; 15:10; 22:13; 23:1; 45:3; 48:46). It is the same term that we found in Isaiah’s call (Isa 6:5) and oracles (Isa 24:16), Hosea’s declarations (7:13; 9:12), Micah’s prophecies (Mic 7:1), and Ezekiel’s utterances (Ezek 13:18; 16:23; 24:6, 9). All lament the imposition of divine justice in ways that wreak havoc amongst the people.
Jeremiah conveys the specific timetable of God’s judgement in explicit announcements: first, “the whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (25:11); then, “after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, making the land an everlasting waste” (25:12).
The result of this is conveyed in another oracle, when God declares, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (23:3). The end result, it seems, will be positive; but the process of journeying to that desired end will be difficult, to say the least.
The seventy years noted in these prophecies (25:11–12) has occasioned some debate amongst the scholars: was this a prediction of exact years, an approximation of the length of time of the exile, or a symbolic statement, typical of biblical numbers, which should not be taken literally? (such as, 40 years means “a long time”, 1,000 means “very many”, seven means “complete” or “fulfilled”, and so on).
Many conservative commentators (and especially Seven Day Adventists) who take biblical texts literally, spend much time and ink in wrestling with this issue! One such commentary or, for instance, notes that, if this is an exact period of 70 years, it could be: (a) from the initial attack of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon against Jerusalem in 605 BCE, to the return of the Jews under Cyrus of Persia in 536 BCE; or (b) from the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE to the completion of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BCE.
He continues by noting that some scholars claim that “these years were in actuality shortened by God’s mercy, since when one works backwards from 539 B.C. (the occasion of the capture of Babylon), it is obvious that none of the traditional starting dates—605 B.C., 597 B.C., or 587/86 B.C.—provides a time period of exactly seventy years”. Some other suggestions include that “these years represent a lifetime, since Ps 90:10 presents seventy years as a normal human lifespan”, or that “the expression [is] simply a term that referred to the period of desolation for a nation”, as it is used in that way in an Esarhaddon inscription concerning Babylon. (Ross E. Winkle, in an article in Andrews University Seminary Studies, 1987, vol. 25 no. 2, pp. 201–202)
Jeremiah invites our consideration in a number of ways. He continues the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. He begins a development which sees the role of Israel’s God as stretching beyond the bounds of Israel. He expresses personal emotional angst with regard to the aggressive, power-based actions of God. And, as we shall see next week,
This week and next, the lectionary leads us into distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews: a lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each witness attests to a vibrant faith in God.
The author begins this paean (a song of praise) with a tightly-worded definition of faith, using complex technical terms which were used in philosophical discussions: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (11:1–3); after the consideration of numerous instances of such faith, the section moves to a climactic vision of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–2).
The language of 11:1–3 is most unlike Paul’s usual terminology—one of the clear clues that undermine the claim that Paul wrote this letter. That claim, made by some patristic writers, debunked by others, cannot be substantiated. This is an anonymous work by an unknown writer. See
Whoever wrote this letter—described at the end as a word of exhortation (13:22)—accorded great value to scripture (the works that we have collected as the Old Testament in our Bibles). In arguing the case for Jesus to be seen “as much superior to the angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs [the prophets]” (1:3), the author initially draws from a number of psalms to make the point (1:5–13).
In subsequent sections, we find that the author discusses Ps 8 (Heb 2:5–18); compares Jesus with Moses using Num 12 and Ps 95 (Heb 3:1–19); combines two psalms (Ps 2:7 and 110:4) to identify Jesus as “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 4:14–5:10); and then returns to the story of Melchizedek from Gen 14, linked with Ps 110 (Heb 6:13–7:28).
In a lengthy discussion of the priestly role of Jesus (Heb 8:1–9:28), Lev 26 and Jer 31 are considered; in a further discussion (Heb 10:1–39), Ps 40 is canvassed, along with Jer 31 once again, and the famous prophetic assertion, “my righteous one will live by faith” (Hab 2:3–4, cited at Heb 10:37–38; we find it also at Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11). See emails at
Such faith is expounded with a series of lyrical descriptions of the faith of numerous scriptural figures—Abel, Enoch and Noah (11:4–7), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (11:8–12, 17–21), Moses, the people at the Red Sea, and Rahab (11:22–31), judges, prophets and kings (11:32–34), and many others (11:35–38). Each of these figures shared the same fate: “they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one”, and yet they each “died in faith without having received the promises” (11:13–16; see also 11:39).
Faith is described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen” (11:1). Such faith is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.
The portrayal of the figures of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob in this reading is striking: “they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth … they made it clear that they were seeking a homeland” (11:13–14).
In other words, as they looked at the people and the places where they were living, these ancient people of faith held out a firm hope for the ultimate goal that lay beyond where they found themselves at that time. In the end, they were not going to be bound by the restraints and demands of the immediate, observable present. They had a faith which swept beyond the immediate; for their faith was in the promise that God had extended to them.
Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham: each could look at their neighbours, and see the dislocation, hurts, and needs of their society. But as they looked at their neighbours, they were able to grasp the ways in which they might change those situations; they sensed the ways in which they might offer compassionate hope, and begin to transform their companions.
In other words, they looked with the eyes of faith; what they saw was far more than the flesh and bones, the tents and animals, in front of their eyes. They were able to see what might be; they were able to live in faith because of their belief in what was to be. They held fast to the belief that there was “a heavenly country”, and that God had “prepared a city for them” (11:16). It was this faith, in what God was calling them to do, and to be, which motivated and sustained them in their journeys through life. They were future-oriented people, partifipating in a pilgrimage towards a future goal.
Indeed, this view of things has been at the heart of the identity of the Uniting Church, over the four decades since it was formed. In the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church is described as “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.” This attitude of openness and expectation towards the future is one that runs throughout many of the paragraphs of the Basis of Union. It is at the heart of who were are as a church; it is the essence of our DNA as a community of faith.
The same attitude of openness towards the future is also articulated at the very end of the Basis of Union, in the final paragraph: “The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”
This positive and hopeful orientation towards the future resonates with what we read in the word of exhortation of Hebrews, concerning the people of faith from past eras. To return to Sarah and Abraham: “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return” (11:15), the writer warns. But they were not fixated onto the past; rather, they were oriented towards the future. It was not the land they had left, which motivated them; it was the promise of what was to come, that guided them. That was the essence of their faith.
As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.
In the lectionary, the next two Sundays include passages from the prophet Isaiah—namely, the opening oracle (1:1, 10–20) this Sunday, and the story of the vineyard and its failure to produce good fruit (5:1–7). So, in the course on The Prophets that Elizabeth and I are teaching, we come to Isaiah.
We are considering the book of Isaiah in three parts, as most scholars believe that these three sections originate from three different periods during the history of Israel. The first section (chs. 1–39) is located in Judah in the eighth century BCE, as the final decades of the northern kingdom of Israel play out. Two decades after conquering the north, the Assyrians attempted to gain control of the southern kingdom, but that effort failed. These events provide the context for the activity of Isaiah and the oracles include in chapters 1–39.
The second section of Isaiah (chs. 40–55) dates from the time of exile for the southern kingdom, after the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; it offers words of hope as the people look to a return to the land. Then, the third section (chs. 56–66) is dated to a time when the exiles had returned to Judah, sometime after 520 BCE. By convention, the three parts are known as Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah.
The opening verse of the book of Isaiah says that Isaiah son of Amoz saw a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1). That places his prophetic activity over a period of some decades in the latter part of the 8th century BCE. Amos and Hosea had been active a little before Isaiah, but in the northern kingdom. Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah in the southern kingdom; both prophets would have known about the attacks on towns in Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16; Isa 7:17; 8:1–4, 5–8).
Isaiah was based in the southern kingdom, and the account of his call (6:1–13) takes place in the temple in Jerusalem, for Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). This location, as well as a number of subsequent passages, suggest that Isaiah served as a “court prophet” to various southern kings; we see Isaiah providing prophetic advice to Ahaz (7:1–17) and Hezekiah (37:1–38; 39:1–8; 39:3–8).
The call narrative is dated quite specifically (“in the year that King Uzziah died”, 6:1), suggesting that Isaiah began his activity right at the end of Uzziah’s reign, around 740 BCE. The prophet, initially reluctant (6:5), eventually accepts the call (“here I am; send me!”, 6:8), and hears the difficult charge given to him: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (6:9–10). It’s a charge that we hear at a number of places in the New Testament: beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:10) and in a house in Rome (Acts 28:26–27).
In the opening oracle (1:1–31), the prophet berates Judah as a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4). Justice and righteousness have disappeared (1:21–22); the rulers “do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:23). The covenant with the Lord has been seriously damaged.
The main substance of this oracle involves a criticism of the worship practices in the Temple (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me; new moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity; your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates”, 1:10–15). Instead of these rituals, God demands that the people “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16–17).
The prophet indicates that God will countenance repentance and a return to the covenant: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (1:27); but if there is no repentance, the familiar prophetic indication of divine punishment is heard: “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (1:28). Thus, the dual themes of punishment and forgiveness are sounded early; they recur throughout the rest of this section of the book.
There are many well-known oracles in the ensuing chapters. First comes the vision of when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:1–4; the same oracle appears in Micah 4:1–4). Next, the concept of the faithful remnant is introduced (4:2–6; see also 10:19–23; 11:10–11, 16; 28:5).
Isaiah tells the story of the nation in God’s “love-song concerning his vineyard” (5:1–7); after “my beloved” undertakes all the activity required to establish and nurture the vineyard, only wild grapes were produced; and so, “he expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (tsedakah) but heard a cry (seakah)” (5:7). What follows is a searing denunciation of the ills of society: the excesses of a debaucherous elite, the oppressive state of the lowly (5:8–23). As a result, the Lord threatens invasion of the land (5:24–30); “he will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; here they come, swiftly, speedily!” (5:26). The threat from Assyria looms large in this oracle.
There is mention made of a group of disciples of the prophet (8:16–22), as well as the children of the prophet, who serve as “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (8:18). These children are named as Shear-jashub, meaning “a remnant shall return” (7:3), and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (8:3).
Both names provide testimony to the fate that lies in store for Judah: the planned attack by Assyria will fail (7:4–9), and “the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (8:4). The mother of these two sons, unnamed, is simply “the prophetess”, who “conceived and bore a song for Isaiah (8:3)—although married to the prophet Isaiah, might she have been a prophet in her own right?
Chapters 7–11 deal with the Assyrian threat; we know about the Assyrian interest in Israel and Judah from 2 Kings 15—20 and 2 Chronicles 28—33. These chapters of Isaiah include oracles that are well known in the church because of their Advent connection, when the lectionary offers them, inferring that they are “predictions of the coming Messiah”. Isaiah speaks of “the young woman [who] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14); in context, this is a promise to king Ahaz, that God will not desert him and his people, even as they experience “such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (7:17). What lies in store for Judah (7:18–25) will need this assurance to help them survive it.
Then comes reference to “the “child [who] has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6), and the “shoot [which] shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (11:1–2). This will lead to the promised time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (11:6)—a wonderful Messianic prophecy.
However, in reading Isaiah, we need to banish thoughts of a Messiah to come centuries later; in each case, Isaiah was not foretelling a far-distant event, but forthtelling to the king and the people of his time. In the midst of injustice and aggression, the prophet assures Judah that, in their own time,j “the root of Jesse … will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:10–16).
Chapters 14 to 21 contain a string of oracles against other nations (Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, and Egypt). The destruction of Jerusalem is foreseen (22:1–25) before resuming further oracles, against Tyre (ch.23) and against the whole earth (ch.24). God’s wrath is cosmic in scope: “on that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth” (24:21). Anticipatory celebrations are reported (chs.25 to 27) before further oracles of judgement erupt, against corrupt judges, priests, and prophets (28:1–29), who have entered into a “covenant with death … [an] agreement with Sheol” (28:18).
The siege of Jerusalem is graphically described by the prophet (29:1–24) and further oracles reinforce his message: both judgement, “they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord” (30:9); and compassionate mercy, “the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you; for the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (30:18).
Foreign alliances are futile (chs. 30–31), for “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (32:1). Under this king, justice will prevail (chs. 33–34) and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (35:1–10).
In the wonderful vision of chapter 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (35:5–7). One commentator calls this “a majestic poem on God’s final salvation of his people” which goes “beyond restoration to the land … it speaks of a restoration of all creation” (McConville, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 4, The Prophets; SPCK, 2002, p.21).
The final scenes of the first section of the book involve Isaiah and Hezekiah, who was king from 716 to 687 BCE. Whilst most of the book comprises oracles in poetic form, chapters 36–39 are prose narratives concerning the events of around 701 BCE, when the Assyrians pressed into Judah. Isaiah provides Hezekiah with a prediction of the failure of the Assyrian assault, saying that the Lord had told him, “I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (Isa 37:7). And so it comes to pass; Judah is saved, the future looks positive—for the moment.