The Historical Setting

Events moved at a dizzying speed for the Jewish people between 550 and 515 b.c.e., the period of thirty-five years that produced the twenty-seven chapters treated in this commentary. The crises of those years were of the magnitude that would have tested even the most robust and secure of communities. But the Jewish community of the latter half of the sixth century b.c.e. was neither robust nor secure. As a result of the devastating attack of the Babylonian armies earlier in that century, a large segment of the population of Judah now dwelled as captives and exiles along the banks of the Euphrates, surrounded by worshipers of Marduk and Nebo and the other members of the Babylonian pantheon.

Spiritual alienation did not necessarily imply economic hardship, however. The exiles, on balance, enjoyed better chances of prospering in commerce and trade than their kinsfolk who had remained on native soil. Whereas the Babylonians granted their captive guests considerable freedom to enter into business relationships, the people dwelling in Judah occupied a land that had been left in ruins both by the original Babylonian destruction and by successive waves of marauders, such as the Edomites, who swept over crippled Judah in search of plunder. But the economic and cultural opportunities that were opened up to the Jewish exiles did not remove the odium of captivity. Indeed, in the eyes of some, it added to national shame the threat of cultural and religious assimilation. The loss of native land could come to be attibuted to the powerlessness of Israel’s God to secure the safety and security of the nation, even as the opportunities for economic prosperity within the new land could be credited to the gods of that new land. Through this process of reevaluation, the Jewish community could easily lose its religious identity. And because its identity as a people was inextricably tied to its religious roots, extinction as a family that descended from Abraham and Sarah could rapidly follow.

This was the scene entered by the prophet variously called Deutero-Isaiah, Second Isaiah, the Prophet of the Exile, or the Prophet of Consolation. We know nothing concerning the personal life of this prophet, neither name nor gender nor social class. Although it is disputed by some scholars, most assume that Second Isaiah crafted the message found in Isaiah 40–55 (as well as chaps. 34–35) while living with the exiles in Babylon. Vivid descriptions of Babylonian cultic practices as well as announcements of Yahweh’s coming to return the captives over a wilderness route to their native land argue for this setting. Beyond these bare facts, little more can be said about the prophet.

Actually, a caveat should be added. It is in relation specifically to the prophet’s external life that we can say little. But sparsity yields to immense richness when one turns to the prophet’s inner life of inspired reflection and creative imagination. On that level we find detailed commentary on the spiritual health of the Jewish community, on its relation to the customs and beliefs of the Babylonian hosts, and on the significance of the world events that were changing the face of world history.

How can we explain such a keen interest in world events and their impact on the Jewish community alongside virtual silence in the realm of biographical facts? The answer is to be found in the historical consciousness that was a central aspect of biblical prophecy that it inherited from even earlier Israelite religious sources. The prophets viewed the welfare and destiny of their people firmly within the context of world events. God’s deliverance of Hebrew slaves from Egypt was a call to historical existence as a family within the family of the nations. The covenant that God concluded with the people entailed living in accord with divine commands amidst the day-to-day business of society and affairs of state. The welfare of Israel was thus tied up with economics, law, and international relations as well as with more explicitly religious matters. It is not surprising, given this historical groundedness of the prophetic perspective, that divine sanctions imposed in response to violations of the terms of the covenant commonly involved actions by foreign nations, even as divine deliverance of a chastened and repentant people was seen as a part of the reordering of historical relationships among the nations.

As with all of the prophets, so too with Second Isaiah it is mandatory that the interpreter be well aware of the historical and, to the extent possible, the social realities that the prophet is addressing. When the prophet asks the people to consider who it was that “gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the robbers” (42:24) and then informs them that it was their own God Yahweh, it is necessary to recognize that the background is the destruction of Judah by the Babylonian armies in 586 b.c.e. Similarly, when the prophet introduces, in chapter 41:25, the theme of a conqueror stirred up by Yahweh to bring down rulers, one must understand the significance of the political revolution that was being fomented by Cyrus as he first consolidated the Medes and the Persians in 550 b.c.e., then in 546 b.c.e. moved on to defeat Croesus, the powerful king of the Lydian empire in Asia Minor, and finally brought dreaded Babylon to its knees in 539 b.c.e. It is important to be aware of the sharp contrast between the ruthless Babylonian policy of obliterating the culture of defeated peoples and Cyrus’s policy of restoring captive peoples to their homelands and granting them the financial aid required to rebuild their economic, social, and religious institutions.

Second Isaiah’s attentiveness to international affairs accordingly is based on the prophetic understanding of world events as the context of divine activity. World happenings are not arbitrary. Underlying the rise and fall of nations is providential direction. In fact, divine purpose is to be discerned on a cosmic scale, since humanity and creation in their entirety unfold within one drama, a drama ultimately redemptive but on the way toward that goal entailing judgment and the persistent threat of chaos.

If the description ended here, Second Isaiah could begin to look like a cosmic commentator describing world movements in cerebral detachment as deputy of a God “who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers” (40:22). But there is more to the picture of both prophet and God. For this we need to turn to the dilemma of the Jewish community in the second third of the sixth century b.c.e. and examine the evidence found in Second Isaiah’s message for the manner in which the prophet related personally to the existential concerns of the exiles.

The Personal Dimension of the Prophetic Message

An anonymous contemporary of Second Isaiah gave voice to the sadness and mental anguish of the Jewish people in the wake of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem:

Judah has gone into exile with suffering

and hard servitude;

she now lives among the nations,

and finds no resting place;

her pursuers have all overtaken her

in the midst of her distress.

(Lam. 1:3)

This was the Judah addressed by Second Isaiah, a community that saw added to its physical suffering the anguish of being caught in a crossfire of conflicting messages: Israel is a people chosen by a loving God who will care for all its needs. God’s love has turned to wrath. Israel’s God lacks the power to withstand the assaults of Babylon and its pantheon. God is punishing Israel for its sin. God no longer loves Israel. God does not care. What sort of response did this moment of crisis require? Some advised turning to other deities (cf. Jer. 44:16-18). Others thought blind fate determines the destiny of human beings, so the best course of action was to indulge in the moment, mindless of mercy or justice and free from fear of divine reprisal (Ezek. 8:7-12). Luck falls to the powerful, some seemed to be saying, so let’s live the high life (Isa. 56:12).

Second Isaiah, far from being the detached analyst, was one who strove passionately for the preservation of the community from cynicism and despair with the conviction that life is not driven by arbitrary forces but is guided by a loving God who remains true to a universal plan of justice:

I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,

“Seek me in chaos.”

I the Lord speak the truth,

I declare what is right.

(Isa. 45:19)

But the task of convincing the people was vexed by serious problems. Many were convinced that cosmic forces more powerful than Yahweh determined destinies. So the prophet mounted an offensive in the form of mock trials in which Yahweh and the gods of the nations took the stand. Others were so paralyzed by their despair that they abandoned all hope for the end of captivity. To them the prophet described a God who, like a mother, cannot forsake her young. Thus a body of literature virtually bereft of the external facts of the lives of prophet and people is steeped in the dialogues of the heart that reveal a prophet intimately involved in the struggles of the people who reveals to them a God whose compassion leads to an equally passionate engagement with their needs. Adequate understanding of those dialogues, though, requires an accurate understanding of the worldview of Second Isaiah, specifically as it describes the relational webs that connect God, Israel, the nations, and the physical universe.

The Worldview of Second Isaiah

[God] did not create it a chaos,

[God] formed it to be inhabited!

Thus we read in 45:18 of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. The prophet is addressing an audience that has experienced life as chaos. The sacred center that formerly had held together an ordered universe, the temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed. The concentric circles of institutional structure that had unified the diverse spheres of human activity into a harmonious whole, namely, royal court, priesthood, and commerce, had ruptured. Rushing in to fill the void were looters, worshipers of pagan gods, and foreign armies coming to tear the Jewish people from their homeland. Finally, one morning, the followers of Yahweh woke up to see the sun rising not on the hills of Ephraim but on a land where Marduk and Nebo were worshiped. Confusion swamped the consciousness of many. Life no longer had a center but came to resemble the chaos poignantly described by William Butler Yeats:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Amidst the confusion engulfing another civilization at a time closer to the modern world of Yeats, as pale-skinned invaders raped, pillaged, and slaughtered unsuspecting inhabitants of native villages a Cheyenne chief offered his explanation of the erratic behavior of the aliens who had disrupted a carefully ordered way of life: “They are strange and do not seem to know where the center of the world is” (Berger, p. 111). The persistent hardships of Native Americans down to the present day stand as a stern reminder of the bitter fruits sown by communities that lose a sense of center and then go on to wreak havoc among other peoples.

Second Isaiah at that earlier epoch that produced our Scripture apparently realized that much was at stake as she or he sought to renew a sense of center within the foundering Jewish community. Here was a people with a destiny intertwined with the families of the world standing at a threshold that called for rigorous scrutiny of ancestral traditions within an alien setting. The resulting deconstruction and reconstruction of the monuments of the past issued forth in spiritual renewal rather than further confusion because the prophet held before the people a compelling vision of its identity, purpose, and place in creation. It was compelling because it was held together by a clearly identified holy Center: “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (45:5).

Second Isaiah presented God as a dynamic, destiny-shaping presence in the midst of human history. All that exists, from the heavenly bodies to the sphere inhabited by human beings, finds its being and purpose in relation to that Center. Because of the clarity with which Second Isaiah understood this cardinal fact of the ancestral faith, his message on its most fundamental level presents a comprehensive vision of the entire creation restored to its divinely intended wholeness accompanied by ongoing comment regarding the role that Israel was to play in the fulfillment of that vision. Elements that detract from and threaten the vision are also present in that message: godless tyrants, cowering disciples, rival deities. But from the clarity of the prophet’s faith perspective, all of these are seen for what they ultimately are—nothingness, stuff destined to disappear before the eternal word of God.

At times our own perception of the prophet’s central vision in Isaiah 40–55 becomes blurred amidst arguments between God and human beings, trials summoning gods, nations, and Israel, indictments and threats and complaints. But these are interpreted by Second Isaiah as the inevitable labor pains of the birth of the new creation. And that explains the connection between the prophet as visionary and the prophet as sober realist and keen observer of human affairs. Second Isaiah presents the vision of divine purpose not as an avenue of escape from the nitty-gritty of the world but as an invitation to join in the restoration of that world to a realm of universal justice and shalom.

This explains why we shall observe in Isaiah 40–55 a constant fluctuation between bold envisioning of God’s order of righteous compassion and pragmatic description of the real-life situations of the people. Vision and realism create the bipolar field on which a lively dialectic is played out as the prophet struggles to break a people from bondage by shocking them out of deceptive and sterile ways of thinking. The rich repertoire of images and metaphors that the prophet brings into this struggle serves well the consciousness-raising intention that underlies the entire composition.

In a chaotic situation in which people were tempted either to throw out all forms of the past or to cling mindlessly to tradition out of fear of change, it was terribly important to maintain a comprehensive vision of reality ordered around one life-giving Center. A criterion for discerning truth and falsehood was sorely needed. In order for the community to survive the crosscurrents of inner questioning and external pressure, it needed to be able to distinguish between essential aspects of the faith that could revitalize the community, adiaphora that would prove useless against the forces of chaos on all sides, and discredited elements that undermined the spiritual health of the people. How did the prophet apply the God-centered vision to concrete problems?

As Second Isaiah sought to direct the attention of the community beyond tragedy to the restoration of a vital faith community, what was there to say about the institutions of kingship and temple? The answer could be discovered only in relation to the Center, that is, the God who was present with the people before the introduction of either temple or kingship and by whose assent both had entered into Israel’s history. The covenant relationship had been cultivated for a time within the structures of those two institutions but was not dependent on them. Hence in 45:1–6 Second Isaiah, doubtless to the dismay of many contemporaries, could ascribe to a foreign ruler the titles and offices associated in Israel with Davidic kingship. What had been assigned to the Davidides were tasks and funtions, and tasks and functions under changed circumstances could be reassigned.

In a similar manner, the tabernacle, and somewhat later the temple, had served as a place chosen by God for rituals through which God could be present with the people. But God’s presence, the exiles learned, could continue without a central sanctuary. As with the earliest Passover celebrations, so contemporary gatherings for worship and study could occur in homes, around common meals, and, finally, in synagogues scattered in different parts of the world.

“Do not remember the former things” (43:18). “Remember the former things” (46:9). The prophet could say both, because a living Center guided the people as they located themselves in relation to past and in anticipation of the future. Sometimes this dialectical response to tradition involved a simultaneous remembering and not remembering, as when the covenant promises made by God to David in an earlier era were expanded to apply to the entire community (55:3). For traditions were drawn not blindly or slavishly from the past but critically within the context of a living relationship that enabled the community to discern the God preserved in memory as living presence in bold new initiatives and forms not yet imagined.

It is Second Isaiah’s dialectical relation to tradition that explains the juxtaposition of admonitions “to remember” and “not to remember” as well as allusions to the major Hebrew epic traditions found alongside audacious innovations. The effect of such dialectical interplays is to break people from their complacency and to heighten their awareness of God’s presence in their present situation, an awareness, to be sure, guided and enriched by the memory embedded in the epic. What preserves this dialectic from lapsing into sheer contradiction is Second Isaiah’s lucid attribution of all of life to the one divine source, that is, his recognition of life’s living Center. The audacity that characterizes this prophecy can thus be traced to the profundity of the confession that lies at its heart: Once faith is sure of its grounding in the one true God, it is able to address every aspect of life boldly, freshly, and courageously.

Let us consider a few more examples of the way in which tradition is reshaped and brought to new life as Second Isaiah seeks to bring God’s word to bear on contemporary realities. Themes from the Genesis creation story become the vehicles for describing the imminent renewal of Zion’s “waste places” (51:3). Just the naming of Abraham, God’s “friend” whom God led forth from a distant land, adds credibility to the divine announcement that God is gathering the scattered children of Israel from the far corners of the earth (41:8–10). So too the assurance of blessing to the exilic generation is placed upon solid rock by directing its attention “to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (51:2). The exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt itself becomes more than a memory of past deliverance; it becomes the description of deliverance lying just ahead (43:2). Even the combat with the dragon Rahab through which Yahweh established creation out of chaos, after modulating into the deliverance of the Hebrew slaves at the sea, leads to a picture of the present generation of exiles ransomed from their captivity and returning in joy to Zion (51:9–11). Perhaps no passage demonstrates more clearly the dynamism that arises out of the prophet’s grasp of the interconnectedness of all of reality grounded in its one source and Center than this last mentioned as it draws together into one redemptive movement the primordial, the historical, and the eschatological. All time and space finds its unity in the sole reality capable of holding together the whole.

All parts of Isaiah 40–55 can be viewed as aspects of the prophet’s effort to call the people back to recognition of their Center. The plaguing doubt and despair generated by the Babylonian destruction of Judah in 586 b.c.e. are addressed head-on first by identifying Yahweh as the one who commissioned this terrible event and then by probing deeper to its underlying roots in Israel’s rejection of God’s just order. This courageous move maintains the moral grounding of all of life and directs Israel’s attention to the covenant relation as that alone which can reestablish Israel’s life upon a reliable foundation. The fierce attacks waged by Second Isaiah against the gods of the nations, especially the Babylonian gods, are likewise motivated by the purity of the prophet’s focus on the Center. By turning attention to other forces, whether out of fear or in worship, Israel clouds its consciousness with lies. Second Isaiah is tireless in naming all such forces “nothingness.”

The same courage that enables the prophet to deny any power to Bel (that is, Marduk) leads to frank recognition of the resounding success of Cyrus and a bold integration of that Persian’s conquests into the universal plan of Yahweh. What Cyrus is accomplishing is God’s purpose (46:8–11), including both his conquest of Babylon (48:14) and his repatriation of the Jews and other captive peoples (44:24–45:7).

What directs all of world history is captured succinctly in the divine word in 46:10: “My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention.” Similarly, the first words of Second Isaiah, words directed by the universal Lord to divine messengers, announced that God’s purpose had turned toward the ending of Israel’s bondage. The message at the end is the same, describing the word that “shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:11). Beginning, middle, and end, Second Isaiah’s message consistently describes how God was about to heal a torn creation and restore a broken community. The extent of the salvation that Second Isaiah saw radiating from the center of all reality is manifested in the role that redeemed Israel would play in the future era, the role of mediating God’s order of compassionate justice (mišpāṭ) to the ends of the earth (42:1–4; 49:6). Nothing less than a universe restored to God’s “covenant of peace” is what the prophet announces (54:10).

I have used the phrase “compassionate justice” to express Second Isaiah’s dialectical understanding of God’s nature, as manifested in Israel’s experience. “Justice” (mišpāṭ) is associated in Second Isaiah with (1) the courtroom and (2) Yahweh as sovereign and the Servant as God’s agent. While the courtroom revolves around disputation, Yahweh and the Servant do and bring justice in a matter that commends use of this phrase.

Although the picture of a cosmos restored to its divinely intended wholeness is lofty in concept, it does not slip into ethereal abstractions but is grounded always in the intimacy of a personal relationship. The Creator of the heavens and the earth who is the sovereign of all nations reveals the source of the divine initiative:

Because you are precious in my sight,

and honored, and I love you.

(Isa. 43:4)

The majestic center of all creation is moved simultaneously by justice that cannot ignore evil and by love that cannot abandon the lost, even those lost in their own sin. The importance of Second Isaiah’s choice of metaphors is seen once again in a passage that describes the limitless extent of God’s compassion:

Can a woman forget her nursing child,

or show no compassion for the child of her womb?

Even these may forget,

yet I will not forget you.

(Isa. 49:15)

It is after such a profound sense of justice and love that Israel is to pattern its life as a people. The Servant of the Lord stands out as the most arresting metaphor of all for the individual and the community drawn into partnership with God in restoring all of creation to health through reconciliation with its Center.

The Literary Qualities of Second Isaiah

As already seen, the verve and audacity of Second Isaiah’s visionary, God-centered worldview is enhanced by literary dimensions such as genre, poetic style, symbolism, and compositional structure.

What we have described as the dialectical relationship between old and new in the prophet’s treatment of epic traditions finds its counterpart in the way in which poetic style and genres are developed. The poetic style is definitely archaizing. Frequently one finds a prosody characterized by parallelism and regularity of metric structure that resembles the earliest poetry of the Bible. The hymnic style of creating elaborate divine epithets through a string of participial clauses recalls a feature commonly found in the psalms. At the same time, however, the syntax has become more complex than in earlier poetry, and many stylistic features are novel. Old and new thus interact to create a sense of bold freshness that nevertheless preserves contact with antecedents.

The prophet’s relation to the genres, or speech forms, utilized by earlier prophecy is also complex. The traditional elements of disputation, lament, judgment, and promise are all there, but they are often combined and transformed in daring new ways. The Servant of the Lord passages perhaps illustrate this point most vividly, for, while drawing on prophetic call narratives, laments, and assurances of salvation, they represent a new form that defies precise classification. Even on the formal level of literary genres one can thus hear the Lord’s announcement, “I am about to do a new thing” (43:19).

So too with the overall compositional structure of Isaiah 40–55; attempts to analyze it by applying the templates of earlier genres, such as one finds in the important commentary of Claus Westermann, often end up being forced. The categories that may be helpful in studying Hosea and Amos do not always fit the material in these chapters. This is due in part to the new situation in which Israel finds itself. The settings in which the earlier prophets proclaimed their messages, such as temple and trial in the gates, disappeared with the institutions that hosted them. The new settings are in large part produced within the imagination of the prophet. They are not divorced from antecedents; witness the divine assembly background of 40:1–11. But they take flight in new directions on the wings of a prophet who dares to imagine the unprecedented, a community reconciled to its God and living in the world as agents of God’s salvation. The old wineskins no longer were adequate, abetting the productions of new containers.

The other extreme, though, is correspondingly inappropriate. James Muilenburg, in a commentary that, again, is valuable for its insight, tears Second Isaiah from important roots when he describes a poet working with the complicated structures of a modern composer. Second Isaiah fits, rather, the description in Matthew 13:52 of the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, who, like the master of a household, “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Perhaps we can invoke the dialectical spirit of Second Isaiah in claiming that the contest between the atomizing form-critical approach of Westermann and the modernizing literary analysis of Muilenburg ends in a draw. Second Isaiah the poet, like Second Isaiah the thinker, draws on the old to create the new. The resulting literary product cannot be reduced to stanzas and movements any more than it can be boxed in trials, disputations, promises, threats, and exhortations. This behooves us to remain attentive to ways in which the prophet draws on older genres as well as ways in which she or he reshapes them to address a rapidly changing world.

On the level of overall structure, critics have long noted a seam between chapters 48 and 49. In 40–48, Jacob/Israel is addressed, replaced in 49–55 by Zion/Jerusalem (exceptions are found; e.g., 40:9). Subtle reasons exist for viewing the former half as the product of an earlier period in the prophet’s career than the latter. For example, the sense of urgency and of imminent expectation seems to be heightened in chapters 49–55. At any rate, it is naive to expect that a prophet, one with as rich an imagination as Second Isaiah, will not have experienced development in outlook over a period of years.

What is more surprising than certain minor differences is the high degree of consistency in overall style and theme throughout the entire sixteen chapters. Few prophets, if any, have produced as homogeneous a composition. One can only admire the gifts of someone who can embrace the entire civilized world plus the vast reaches of the cosmos in one sublime poetic picture of divine majesty. Equally impressive is the power and integrity of the invitation conveyed by the prophet: Denounce self-deception, repudiate false gods, return to truth, face the facts of life openly, embrace justice, be moved by compassion, find the roots of all of life in the Center of all of life, the One who, though sitting above the circle of the earth and viewing its inhabitants like grasshoppers, nevertheless loves each of them as a mother loves the child of her womb! In a modern world in which persons often search in vain as they long for the insights of persons who possess both the inspired poetic imagination and the intellectual honesty to project reliable maps for life’s journey, Second Isaiah arrives as a welcome pioneer. As one who has breathed deeply from the inspiration of this faithful prophet of God in the course of preparing this commentary, I can only plead that, whatever help my words may offer, they always be placed at a very lowly position on a desk or lap beneath a message beginning with the joyous words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”