The voice of the Lord, made manifest in Jesus (Matt 3; Epiphany 1A)

The readings that are collected for this coming Sunday seem to gather around the theme of “the voice of the Lord”. This is one of those Sundays when the selection of four readings clearly focusses on a topic found in each of them (in contrast to the many “ordinary” Sundays where each of the four readings follow their own independent lines).

The theme of “the voice of the Lord” is sounded clearly in the psalm (Psalm 29), with a repeated refrain, “the voice of the Lord” through verses 3 to 9. First, the psalmist announces, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders … the voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty” (29:3–4).

Then follows a repeated affirmation, “the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars … the voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire … the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness … the voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (29:5, 7–9). The message declared by the Lord God is conveyed by the natural order of things, in the elements of the creation, made by God (see Gen 1–2; Ps 104; and in this Sunday’s reading, Isaiah 42:5).

The speaking forth of God, made manifest and evident in God’s creation, is a fitting theme for the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany—a season that celebrates the shining forth, the manifestation, of God. However, this Sunday is designated, not only as the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany, but also as the day on which The Baptism of the Lord is recalled.

In the Gospel selection (Matt 3:13–17), the first evangelist reports that the Spirit of God “descended on [Jesus] like a dove” (3:16) as Jesus was baptised by John in the River Jordan. At that event, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:17). The voice of the Lord is clear and prominent in this account of what was likely to have been the commissioning event for Jesus as he started into his public activities in the region of Galilee (Matt 4:12–25, and on until 19:1).

In the reading from Acts, in place of a section of an epistle, we hear Luke’s report of a speech of Peter, given in the house of the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 1:34–43). In this speech, Peter announced how “the message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced; how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

That message was to be continued by the disciples; Peter says that God “commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). The voice of the Lord that has been heard in the early testimony (see Acts 2, 3, 7) continues through the later apostolic proclamation (see Acts 13, 17, 20).

Linked with this is the first of the four songs found in Second Isaiah (Isa 40–55) that are linked explicitly with the Servant (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). Here, the Servant is designated as the one in whom God delights (42:1); the phrase recurs in the message of the voice from the cloud which speaks at the baptism of Jesus, declaring that he is the one “with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). The Servant has God’s spirit within him (Isa 42:1), something which is directly enacted in the baptism of Jesus when he “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt 3:16).

The work of the Servant is to bring justice to the nations (Isa 42:1, 3, 4); that will be evident in the work of Jesus (Matt 12:18–21, quoting directly these verses from the first Servant Song). Through the Servant, the Lord calls people “in righteousness” (Isa 42:6); that call is echoed by Jesus as he calls his followers to demonstrate righteousness (Matt 5:20) and exhorts them to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33). Indeed, the baptism of Jesus narrated by Matthew is said to have taken place “to fulfil all righteousness” (3:15).

Through the Servant, God establishes God’s people “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6); that charge is repeated by Jesus, who came as light shining in the darkness (Matt 4:15–16) and who equips his followers to be “the light of the world” (5:14–16), whose whole body will be “full of light” (6:23).

Through the Servant, God announces that “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare” (Isa 42:9); this is exemplified, according to Jesus, by “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven [who] is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52).

The identity of the Servant was debated in Israel; was this an individual, or a symbolic representation of the whole nation? The many resonances of the Servant Song in the story of Jesus indicate why Christian interpreters have identified Jesus as this servant. The story of his baptism provides a most appropriate occasion for underlining this connection. The shapers of the lectionary have thus linked these two passages on this Sunday, and set them into the context of passages declaring how “the word of the Lord” has been made manifest. It is a compelling start to the season of Epiphany.

Joyfully hoping and waiting (Isa 35, Ps 146, and Matt 11; Advent 3C)

The readings for this coming Sunday really do go hand-in-hand. It is not always this way; for more than half the year, the First Reading, Epistle, and Gospel each go their own way, following their own independent sequential pathway of readings with little or no explicit acknowledgement of each other. Sometimes, hopefully, the Psalm will resonate with one or more of these readings. Not so, however, this Sunday—as, indeed, on each Sunday in Advent (and in Lent)—for the four readings for today were deliberately yoked together by the creators of the lectionary for this third Sunday in Advent.

The lines of connection are clear. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing”, declares the prophet (Isa 35:1–2). “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient”, advises the letter-writer (James 5:7–8). And Jesus hears the question of the disciples sent by John, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:1–2). Waiting, with patience, for the long-desired coming.

The revolutionary impact of what is being waited for is also evident. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”, the prophet sings exultantly (Isa 35:5–6). The Psalmist sounds, too, this song of sheer joy, praising “the God of Jacob … who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry … [who] sets the prisoners free, [who] opens the eyes of the blind, [who] lifts up those who are bowed down [and] loves the righteous, [who] watches over the strangers [and] upholds the orphan and the widow” (Ps 146:5, 7–9).

And Jesus himself informs the messengers sent by John that, yes, indeed, in what he is doing “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). In the alternate psalm offered by the lectionary, the young, pregnant, trusting Mary sings out loud that “the Mighty One … has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts [and] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:49, 51–53).

Indeed, this recitation of how God acts for the good in the lives of God’s people forms the foundational claim and then a recurring leitmotif in the Lukan account of the activities of Jesus throughout Galilee (Luke 4:18–19; 6:20–26; 7:22; 9:1–2; 10:8–9; 13:30; 14:11, 13–14, 21–24; 18:14, 22–25). An exact parallel to the declaration made by Jesus at Luke 7:22 forms the central claim in the passage from Matthew (11:2–11) that the lectionary offers us this coming Sunday. This upside-down kingdom, to be brought about by the righteous-justice of God (Matt 6:33), is at the heart of what we wait for, what we hope for, what we work towards.

So the prophetic word this Sunday looks to a time when “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; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes” (Isa 35:6–7). This is possible because it is the Lord “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever” (Ps 146:6).

The prophet envisages a highway, to be called “the Holy Way”, on which God’s people shall travel and not go astray, for all the familiar elements of danger will be absent. Safety is assured, for “no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there” (Isa 35:8–9). Joy and gladness will replace sorrow and sighing (Isa 35:10). An attitude of confident hope is called for as such a time is awaited, for “as an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5:10).

There is a parallel to this eruption of joy during Lent, when in traditional practice the fourth Sunday in Lent was known as Laetere Sunday—from another Latin word meaning “rejoice”, which forms the opening of the introit for that day in the Latin Mass: Laetare Jerusalem et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam (“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you that delight in her”, Isa 66:10).

These readings are intentionally clustered together for this coming Sunday, since it is, by tradition, known as Gaudate Sunday—from the Latin word meaning “rejoice”, the opening word of the introit to the Latin Mass for this day: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete (“rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice”, Phil 4:4). It is also known as Rose Sunday, and a rose colour can replace the purple of Advent for this day.

The note of rejoicing is clear in the Psalm, as “those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God” celebrate that “the Lord will reign forever” (Ps 146:5, 10). There is rejoicing envisaged by the prophet, as “the ransomed of the Lord return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” (Isa 35:10).

It is rejoicing which permeates every phrase of the young Mary’s insightful song, as her “soul magnifies the Lord” and her “spirit rejoices in God [her] Saviour” (Luke 1:46–47). And there was joy, surely, amongst the disciples of Jesus, as they heard the powerful words that he speaks in response to the request of John’s disciples, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3). They had been privileged to be there, alongside him, as these events transpired.

In Advent, our waiting with patient hope for the coming of Jesus transforms into proleptic joy—that is, joy which is expressed in advance of the actual event, in firm confidence that what is anticipated will, indeed, come to pass. In that sense, then, this coming Sunday is already a celebration-in-advance of the joy that overcame the wise ones (Matt 2:10) and, in another account, the shepherds (Luke 2:10, 20). It is a prefiguring of the joyous celebrations of the season Christmas. Enjoy!

Reading the prophetic texts during Advent (Isaiah 11; Advent 2A)

For much of the year, the lectionary presents us with a First Reading taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. (The exception is during Easter, when a reading from Acts stands as the First Reading.) I am regularly asked, “why has this reading been chosen?” In Epiphany and the “ordinary” season of the Sundays Epiphany after Pentecost, the reading is consecutive—or almost consecutive—following the narrative of a designated book, or set of books, in order. So there is not necessarily any obvious, or intentional, link between the Hebrew Scripture, Epistle, and Gospel readings.

For the seasons of Lent and Advent, however, the selection of each Sunday’s First Reading and Epistle is made with a deliberate intention to connect with the Gospel for that Sunday. So the way the lectionary is built itself includes a bias towards seeing the Gospel reading as the primary focus, and the other readings as feeding into that focus. Nevertheless, the immediate connection with the Gospel for this Sunday—an account of the fiery apocalyptic preaching of John the baptiser (Matt 3:1–12)—is not immediately evident.

The First Reading offered for this coming Sunday is an oracle from Isaiah (Isa 11:1–10, Advent 2A) in which a vision of universal harmony is expressed: “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid … the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (Isa 11:6–8).. It follows from the earlier reading last Sunday (Isa 2:1–5, Advent 1A) in which a similar vision is expressed: the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isa 2:4).

In last week’s passage, the peoples of the nations stream in to Jerusalem, where they ascend to “the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob”. There, in the Temple, they will receive instruction in “the ways of the Lord” so that they will “walk in his paths” (2:3). Presumably this instruction will come from the priests of the Temple, for they were the authority figures who would “teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek 44:23; see also Mal 2:7). In disputes between people where the understanding of the law is at stake, “they shall act as judges, and they shall decide it according to my judgments” (Ezek 44:24).

In this week’s passage, we are told of a promised figure, who will arise to lead the nations into that time of peace: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (11:1). That figure will exude “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (11:2); he will judge with tsedeqah, righteous-justice, and mishor, equity (11:4). The proposing of this promised figure is a significant development from the prophetic word we heard last week.

This “shoot” from Jesse will advocate for “the poor” and “the meek”, and stand firmly against “the wicked” (11:4). This is precisely the stance that the prophets had previously advocated (Amos 27; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4–6; Isa 3:14–15; 10:2; 25:4; 26:6; 29:19) and would subsequently express (Isa 41:17: 58:7; Jer 22:16; Ezek 18:11–13; 22:29–31; Zech 7:9–10). It is consistent with teachings in The Law about justice for the poor and punishment for the wicked.

This “shoot” will be girded with righteous-justice, for which the prophets have consistently advocated (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4). The “shoot” will also exhibit faithfulness, a quality that the prophets have valued (Hos 2:20; 4:1; 14:8; Isa 16:5), because its presence amongst the people reflects its centrality in God’s own nature (Isa 38:19; 65:16; Jer 31:3; 32:41; Zech 8:8).

Thus the “shoot from Jesse” will demonstrate two qualities that feature strongly in Hebrew Scriptures: fidelity to “the fear of the Lord” (11:3; see Job 28:28; Ps 19:9; 34:11; 111:10; Prov 1:7, 29; 9:10; 14:27; 15:33; 19:23; 23:17; Isa 33:6) and the “knowledge of the Lord” (11:9; see Gen 2:9, 17; Exod 31:3; 35:31; Num 24:16; Ps 94:10; 119:66; Prov 1:7; 2:5; 5:2; 8:10; 9:10; 10:14; Hos 6:6; Hab 2:14; Mal 2:7).

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This oracle thus sits firmly within the stream of prophetic speech about what God desires amongst the people of Israel, calling them to be faithful to the Law and walk in its oaths. Yet its presence in the Christian lectionary at this time of the year directs our attention to a way of reading it as a prophecy that foretells the coming of Jesus. Indeed, each of the Hebrew Scripture readings during Advent and at Christmas offer us a similar invitation to understand them as saying, “this is what the prophet of old said, and we can see that these words are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus”.

How are we to deal with this hermeneutical invitation, guiding us to interpret words spoken 800 years before Jesus as clear and direct statements about what Jesus himself will be like, and what he will do? I started pondering this question in my blog on last week’s passage from Isaiah; see https://johntsquires.com/2022/11/22/on-reading-scripture-during-advent-drawing-from-the-ancient-prophecies-isaiah-2-advent-1a/

After reading this blog, one person responded to me by quoting scripture and posing a rhetorical question that appears to resolve the matter. “‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, (Jesus) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ — Luke 24:27 As followers of Jesus, is this not our interpretation of the Bible?”

Well, yes. And, no. So, let me explain.

I think that we need to be careful in the way that we say that “this passage is about Jesus”. There is one way of saying this that drives us towards claiming that “when the prophet said these words, he was looking forward in the future to the coming of Jesus and predicting him”. That is to say, prophecy is understood as foretelling; looking into the distant future and predicting what God will be doing at that time. And so, these words are about Jesus.

I think that this way of reading texts actually does violence to them. It runs roughshod over the original context in which the words were spoken. It ignores, and perhaps even obliterates, the original context (in the time of Israel) for the sake of highlighting the later context (in the time of Jesus). And in the course of doing this, it actually wrenches the passage out of its earlier Israelite context—within the society that developed into Judaism—and forces it into a later Christian context.

This can actually lead to a form of supercessionism; a way of claiming that the Jewish texts, and the Jewish way of life and faith, are superceded by Christian faith and understanding; that Judaism is “old” and no longer relevant, because Christianity is “new” and now the way that God relates to us.

I don’t subscribe to this interpretive approach; Judaism is a living faith in its own right, with its own sacred texts. Those texts maintain an integrity in their own right, within that faith context, and should not be forced into a different, dogmatic Christian framework. My church does not hold to this way of reading things, either. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/

Nor do I subscribe to the notion that prophecy is always and only about foretelling. The ancient prophets were not just fixated on “what would happen with Jesus”. Prophecy may be about foretelling—and not always centuries into the future, but also about the time soon to come as the prophet spoke. But prophecy is also (and perhaps primarily) about forthtelling; speaking the word of God into the immediate context, addressing issues of concern in the political and social life of the people.

That is to say, prophecy is multilayered, multivalent, open to a range of interpretative options. It is not to be reduced to one line of sight, but should remain open to the richness of interpretive possibilities it offers.

Another person who respond to my blog said, “God can accomplish two things at once. He can send a prophet that speaks words that the people in a specific time and place need to hear, while at the same time those words can speak to us now.” Not exactly how I would say it; but I agree that any passage in scripture, and any communication from God, can indeed convey meanings at different levels of understanding.

(And one thing I have learnt from my years in dialogue with the Jewish community, representing my church in that dialogue, is that Jewish interpreters are open to a wide range of meanings, and the process of exploring those meanings raises questions and possibilities that invite even wider understandings!)

So I would say that Isaiah 11:1–10, and the other Hebrew Scripture texts offered during Advent, need, firstly, to be understood in their own right, in their original historical and religious context; but secondly, are able to be understood as setting out features which we find, much later, with the benefit of hindsight, are manifested by Jesus. In that sense, the ancient forthtelling for the society of the day also is capable of being understood as foretelling into the time of Jesus.

The prophet of old was looking for someone to act in ways that would be faithful to God’s way and helpful for society of the day, holding to the standard of righteous-justice that God desired. That way of acting is indeed the way that Jesus behaved; he was faithful to God’s way, demonstrating righteous-justice in his own actions, and calling his followers to live in accordance with that same righteous-justice. The words of the prophet tell us significant things about Jesus. But let’s not make it “all about Jesus”. It’s not.

Comfort and hope: return from Exile (Isaiah 40–55)

“Comfort, comfort all my people”, sings the prophetic voice which opens the second major section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40—55). Widely considered to be written in a period later than the time when the earlier sections are located, this section of Isaiah is called Deutero—Isaiah, signalling that it is the second main section of the book. (The third main section, chapters 56—66, is called Trito—Isaiah.)

The comfort sung about by the prophet signifies the situation of the people: their forebears had been taken into exile by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and now a new generation (perhaps four to five decades later) yearns to return to the land of Israel, given to the people in ancient times, as recounted in the foundational myth—story of the Exodus. Other parts of the Hebrew Bible reflect the anguish of the people during their time of Exile (Ps 137 is the most famous instance). Deutero-Isaiah, however, focuses consistently on the hope of return to the land of Israel.

Looking to the new power of Persia to permit this return, the prophet of this later period speaks with hope and joy, to the people living in exile, using vivid imagery and dramatic scenes of promise and confidence. A joyous, positive tone runs right through the oracles in this section of Isaiah. “I am about to do a new thing”, says the Lord; “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (43:19). “I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground”, the Lord continues; “I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring” (44:3).

The return to Israel is depicted in vivid scenes: “I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff” (41:15). It is especially envisaged as a re-enacting of the Exodus through the Red Sea; “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert” (43:19–20); “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (43:2).

The imagery reaches back to the start of Genesis; “the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord” (51:3). Indeed, the Lord as creator is emphasised a number of times (40:28; 43:7, 15; 44:2, 24; 45:12, 18; 48:1).

Key to this promised return to the land of Israel is Cyrus, the Persian ruler, who lived from about 600 to 530 BCE. Cyrus led the Persians to dominance in the region from around 550 BCE onwards. The Persian Empire stretched around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) in the west to the Indus River in the east.

A defining feature of Cyrus is that he respected the religious practices and cultural customs of the lands he conquered. The evidence for this,policy comes from an artefact known as the Cyrus Cylinder, made of clay (and now broken into a number of pieces). The Cylinder was found in modernity in 1879 during an expedition under the auspices of the British Museum, near a large shrine to the chief Babylonian god Marduk.

The Cylinder articulates the policy which undergirded the decision of Cyrus to allow the exiles in Babylon to return to the land of Judah (2 Chron 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–10). The Cylinder does not refer directly to Judah or Israel, but it does include the line, “the gods, who resided in them [a list of cities across the Tigris], I brought back to their places, and caused them to dwell in a residence for all time, and the gods of Sumer and Akkad … I caused them to take up their dwelling in residences that gladdened the heart”.

Because of this policy, Cyrus is most strikingly described by Deutero-Isaiah as the Lord’s anointed one (45:1), the one of whom the Lord says, “he is my shepherd and he shall carry out all my purpose” (45:28). The prophet affirms that the Lord says, “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward” (45:13). (The Hebrew word used, mashiach, is the same used to refer to the one anointed as Messiah at Dan 9:25–26; it is translated into Greek as Christos, from which Jesus is known as the Christ.)

Choosing a foreigner, the ruler of the dominant empire of the time, to carry out the will of the God of Israel, is a bold claim indeed. It is a striking development in Israel’s theology, especially since an intensified nationalism—indeed, xenophobia—is evidenced in literature from the time when people have returned (Ezra and Nehemiah, in particular).

After the return to the land under Cyrus (2 Chron 36:22–23), the narrative books which follow immediately, Ezra and Nehemiah, recount the details of this return as the walls around the city of Jerusalem are rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), the Temple is rebuilt and rededicated (Ez 3, 5–6), the Law is read in the city and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 8—10).

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Because of this word of good news about the fate of the exiles, God is regularly described as Redeemer (Isa 41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 47:4; 48:1, 17; 49:7, 26; 54:5, 8). God is also regularly named as “the Holy One” (Isa 40:25; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3, 14, 15; 45:11; 47:4; 49:17; 49:7; 54:5; 55:5), picking up a title found already in other texts (1 Sam 2:2; 2 Ki 19:22; Job 6:10; Ps 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Prov 9:10; Isa 1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:17, 20; Ezek 39:7; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3).

Later, Jesus is described in ways that use both terms: as “the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21; see also Rom 3:24; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:7, 14; Col 1:14; Tit 2:14; Heb 9:11–12), and as the “Holy One” (Acts 3:14; 1 John 2:20).

Within these oracles of promise and hope, the theological understanding of monotheism is clearly articulated for the first time in the history of Israel. “Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one” (44:8). The phrase, “there is no other (god)”, recurs a number of times in this section (42:8; 45:5, 14, 21, 22; 46:9).

This is in contrast to the way that the God of Israel had previously been portrayed, as “among the gods” (Exod 15:11; Judg 2:12; Ps 86:8), with the commandment to have “no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7) distinguishing this God from those other gods whom Israel was clearly forbidden to worship (Deut 6:14; 7:4; 8:19; 11:16; 13:1–18; 17:2–5; 18:20).

Time after time, the straying of Israel to worship these ”other gods” resulted in punishment sent by the Lord (Josh 23:16; Judg 2:11–23; 10:13; 1 Sam 8:8; 1 Ki 9:6–9; 11:9–13; 14:6–14; 2 Ki 17:7–8, 35–40; 22:14–17; 2 Chron 7:19–22; 28:25; 34:24–25; Jer 1:16; 7:16–20; 11:9–13; 16:10–13; 19:4–9; 22:6–9; 32:29; 35:15–17; 44:1–19; Hos 3:1—4:11). Monotheism was not in view in earlier, pre-exilic literature.

As a consequence of this development, if the Lord God is the only god, then the Lord must take responsibility for all that takes place: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (45:7). This affirmation creates problems; if God causes both good and bad things to happen, he is accountable for all that takes place.

Over time, this theological development would lead to the development of another theological milestone: the creation of an opposing force who would be held responsible for all evil. The accuser from the heavenly court, delegated by God to prosecute cases (Job 1:6–12; 2:2–8; 1 Chron 21:1; Zech 3:1–10) would become Satan, tester of Jesus (Mark 1:13), fallen heavenly being (Luke 10:18), and “deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9; 20:2–3).

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Deutero-Isaiah is fundamental, in other ways, for the theological developments that we find in the New Testament. Scattered through this section, we find four Songs of the Servant—three relatively brief (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11); and the fourth, best-known within Christian circles, a longer description of the servant who “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isa 52:13–53:12).

The resonances that this longer song has with the passion narrative of Jesus are crystal clear. The song is explicitly linked with Jesus six times in the New Testament (Matt 8:14–17; Luke 22:35–38; John 12:37–41; Acts 8:26–35; Romans 10:11–21; 1 Pet 2:19–25); furthermore, so many of the details of the passion narrative are shaped in the light of this song, along with a number of psalms of the righteous sufferer. (See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/22/3-mark-placing-suffering-and-death-at-the-heart-of-the-gospel/)

The list of connections with details in the passion narrative is impressive. The prophet describes the marred appearance of the Servant (52:14); he is despised, rejected, and suffering (53:3), bearing our infirmities (53:4), and wounded for our transgressions (53:5). The Servant is led like a lamb to the slaughter (53:7), suffering “a perversion of justice” (53:8), not practising violence or speaking deceit (53:9), and is buried with the rich (53:9).

The Servant gives his life as “an offering for sin” (53:10), carrying the iniquities of many (53:11), making them righteous (53:11), bearing the sin of many (53:12), making “intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). The role that the Servant plays in relation to sin, for the sake of the many, shapes the important saying of Jesus, that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Deutero-Isaiah as a whole is the most-quoted part of Hebrew Scripture in New Testament texts. Another element in the Servant songs shapes the way that Luke envisages the story of Jesus and his followers. The Servant is given “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6), as “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

The phrase is cited at critical moments by Simeon (Luke 2:32), Paul and Barnabas in Antioch (Acts 13:46–47), and Paul alone when on trial in Caesarea (Acts 26:23). Jesus foresees that witness to the good news will take place “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Further, the Servant is given as “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:6–7), words which resonate with the later scriptural citation spoken by Jesus in Nazareth: “the Spirit … has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).

The author of the fourth Gospel also made much of what was spoken to the Servant, “you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isa 49:6), a description of what happens to Jesus which recurs regularly in this book, when “the Son of Man has been glorified” (John 13:31; see also 7:39; 11:4; 12:16, 23, 28; 13:32; 17:10).

The prophet reports the decision of the Lord: “I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; you shall drink no more from the bowl of my wrath, and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors” (51:22). Accordingly, any oracles of judgement and threat of punishment are directed squarely towards Babylon, (43:14; 45:20-47:15), not Israel (54:9).

The closing oracles of this section of Isaiah promise abundance and peace to the exiles, looking towards their return to the land. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out … you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns” (Isa 54:2–3). Israel is invited to “come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1), with the assurance that “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty” (55:10–11).

Deutero-Isaiah ends with a portrayal of cosmic joy as the exiles prepare to return to Israel: “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55:12). All will be well.

*****

See also

A new thing, springing forth (Isaiah 43; Lent 5C)

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:18–19).

These words are attributed to the prophet Isaiah, who lived in the southern kingdom of Judea eight centuries before Jesus, serving as a “court prophet” during times of abundance. Isaiah was active a time when the southern kingdom of Judah was flourishing. He became active in the last years of the reign of Uzziah, who, it was said, ruled as king for fifty-two years (788–736). He lived through the reigns of Jotham and Ahaz (16 years each), and died towards the end of the reign of Hezekiah, who himself enjoyed 29 years on the throne.

The year of Isaiah’s death is uncertain; he may well have been alive, still, when the Assyrian army of Sennacherib laid waste to the northern kingdom (722–721) and deported the northerners to clear the land. In such a context of stability, however, the promise that God would do “a new thing” sits somewhat uneasily in the situation we can reconstruct.

This is one reason why many scholars maintain that the section of the book of Isaiah where we find this passage (Isaiah 40–55) is set some centuries later, after the southern kingdom itself had been conquered by the Babylonians (587–586), and the people taken into exile in Babylon. This became the pivotal event in the history of Israel, the people as a whole—at least in terms of the stories that we have gathered in the scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah focus on Jerusalem and Judah (2:1; 3:1; 5:3; 11:12-16; 22:5-8, 20-25; 26:1) and Assyria (7:10–25; 8:1–10; 10:5–12; 14:24–27); 19:23–25; 20:1–6; 30:29–33). The final section of the book (chs. 36—39) is clearly the describing events of the 720s which led to the Assyrian invasion and conquest of the northern kingdom, Israel.

By contrast, second section of the book of Isaiah has a primary concern for the power which had taken the people of Judah into exile—Babylon (43:14–21; 47:1–15; 48:14, 20–21). The prophet promises a return to Jerusalem (40:1–2), but it is identified as Zion (40:9; 41:27; 46:13; 49:14; 51:3, 11, 16; 52:1-2, 7-8).

There are many stories in Isa 1—39 relating to the personal life of the prophet, but no such personal connections in Isa 40—55. By contrast, a very direct historical reference, in a section referring to Cyrus, King of Persia (44:24–45:19), indicates a later setting. Cyrus ruled the Achaemenid Empire from 559 to 530 BCE and, after defeating the Babylonians in 539, issued a decree permitting the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland.

We have already reflected on one passage from this section of Isaiah (55:1–12, Lent 3), noting how it differs from the worldview and understanding of God from earlier periods in the life of Israel.

This passage thus comes from a time when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. It was not a happy time for many of the people of Israel. (Psalm 137 is the classic expression of this; note especially the anger expressed in verses 8–9.) The people of Israel yearned to return home (Jer 29:10–14; 30:1–31:26). They looked back on the past with longing eyes. They remembered their years in the land which God had given to them. Now, they were living among Babylonians—foreigners, conquerors.

Soon, they would leave behind these memories, and grasp hold of the future that God has for them. God would “send to Babylon and break down all the bars” (43:14). God, the prophet declares, is doing a new thing! (43:19).

And yet, that “new thing” is informed by the past. The people once travelled out of slavery in Egypt, into freedom in Canaan, leaving behind the Egyptian “chariot and horse, army and warrior”, stuck in the waters of the sea that suddenly swamped them—“extinguished, quenched like a wick” (43:17; cf. Exod 14:26–31, 15:4–12, 19, 21). In the time of the prophet, “the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation” as the people depart (43:14).

In like manner, now, the people will take the journey back home, pass through the desert, and return to their land. The one who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (43:16) during the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15), will now “make a way in the wilderness” (43:19) for the people to follow, leading them right back to the land from which they had been forcibly removed decades earlier (2 Kings 25:1–21; 2 Chron 35:15–21).

As they were sustained in that desert journey long ago, so God now will give “rivers in the desert” (43:19) which will provide “water in the wilderness … to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) as they travel on that way. That caled for shouts of praise to God! (43:21).

The Exodus imagery was potent for Israel; not only was the story developed over centuries to provide a story of origins for Israel, but it was also co-opted into the prophecies predicting the return to the land, providing those oracles with greater strength and rigour. (And, of course, the story continued on into the feast of Passover, the annual celebrations which continue amongst Jews right through until the present day.)

The Exodus imagery also undergirds the Christian story. Jesus, declared by John the Baptist to be the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), affirmed by Paul as the new Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7), envisaged by the ageing prophet on Patmos to be the slaughtered lamb (Rev 5:6–14), is believed to enact a new Passover for his followers, according to the developing Christian tradition.

Just as the shedding of the blood smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites was their salvation (Exod 12:7, 13, 22–23), so the shedding of Christ’s blood is understood to effect salvation (Rom 5:8–10; 1 Pet 1:18–21). So the age-old imagery and symbolism is reworked by the early Christian writers, continuing the process seen in the words of the prophet speaking during the return from Exile (Isa 43:16–21).

See also

For our instruction … that we might have hope (Rom 15, Isa 11, Matt 3; Advent 2A)

As Paul comes to the end of his letter to the Romans—a letter in which he quotes, time and time again, from the scriptures of his people, the Hebrew people, the books we know as the Old Testament—he makes a passing comment which, in my mind, is a penetrating insight into how he operates.

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,

so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures

we might have hope, he writes (Rom 15:4).

We have that section of the letter included in our readings this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent. I suspect that the reason that this section is included is because Paul here goes on to quote from a collection of scriptures, each of which, in his mind, justifies what he is doing as he writes to the Romans.

My understanding of this letter is that Paul writes to persuade the Jewish Christians that they are to be welcoming, hospitable, and inclusive of the Gentile Christians who are part of the various house churches in Rome; as he says,

by grace, through faith, all are saved; there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Rom 3)

And so, the letter moves towards its close with this quotation:

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” (Rom 15)

This passage grounds the reality of the church in the gathering of disparates, Jews and Gentiles; it also grounds our faith in the advent of Jesus, the one who draws Jews and Gentiles together; and it provides us with this seasonal word, during the season of Advent, as it points us to hope.

In the prophetic oracle set in the lectionary alongside the apostolic letter, Isaiah offers a wonderful vision of cosmic peace and universal co-operation:

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.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)

However, this vision of peace appears in our lectionary alongside some harsh striking words, about the judgement that is associated with this vision. As the evangelist writes about the coming of the promised one—the one who will,presumably bring about this era of peace—he reports words spoken by John the Baptiser, which offer this sense of judgement:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matt 3)

And again, in the Gospel for today, this message of judgement and punishment is vividly conveyed:

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3)

This is a stern word. It seems strange for us, during Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, to be hearing such clanging, jarring sounds. Although, as one of my colleagues said to me earlier this week, as we talked about the offerings on hand in the lectionary during this season:

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

For the incessant message of the prophets is one which calls us to account. The hammer strikes the anvil, once, twice, repeatedly, marking the surface, forging the shape, creating the essence of the person. And the message of the prophets places before us an insistence that we need to act ethically, live responsibly, with justice and equity, as we wait with hope for the coming of the one who will bring in the promised time of peace.

Indeed the prophet, as he envisages the presence of this one, so long hoped for, as he considers how “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”, describes him in this way:

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins. (Isaiah 11)

The one to come will exemplify righteousness, and will assess the fruit produced by those he encounters. He will execute judgement by swinging the axe, cutting down the tree, and burning the branches in the fire; and, as the prophet declares,

He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

As we reflect on these words during this season, we do so with prayerful anticipation, with resolute hopefulness, with persistence and openness to God’s way in our midst, for we yearn to encounter afresh this chosen one:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.