The Adoration of the Magi, Pieter Fransz De Grebber, 1638, Musée des Beaux-Arts (Caen)
January 5, 2020
It is fitting that our final reading from Isaiah this Advent/Christmas season be from the third person to choose the name. Third Isaiah lived in Jerusalem around 500 BC and witnessed first-hand the attempts to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. Second Isaiah, who flourished 40 years before, promised that those Jews exiled in Babylon who accepted the call to return to their ancestral home would have God’s full support. Some interpreted this that the rebuilding would occur as if by magic. Things not unsurprisingly did not go as well as they hoped as Third Isaiah exhaustively reports.
He did however take the name Isaiah for a reason. Although the rebuilding has been much slower than expected, Third Isaiah still believed the LORD is the Master of History. The LORD would never abandon his people but must chasten them when they act unjustly. We will find throughout his writings the insights of both his predecessors.
This section begins with chapter 56 and he spends both that chapter and chapters 57 and 58 excoriating the people for their lack of faith and the leadership for its incompetence. Like First Isaiah, he sees injustice as the root of their problem:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
In Chapter 59, the section immediately before ours, Isaiah lists their sins:
For your hands are stained with blood,
your fingers with guilt;
Your lips speak falsehood,
and your tongue utters deceit.
No one brings suit justly,
no one pleads truthfully;
They trust in emptiness and tell lies;
they conceive mischief and bring forth malice
(Is 59:34 and compare with Is. 1:1-8)
The people speaking through the prophet acknowledge their sinfulness and its effects:
That is why right is far from us
and justice does not reach us.
We look for light, and lo, darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in gloom!
Like blind men we grope along the wall,
like people without eyes we feel our way
The LORD does not expect them to be perfect but does expect, indeed requires, contrition:
Rise up in splendor! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
But upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.
Isaiah, especially Second and Third, revel in light. But it is the light which comes from God not from themselves. This light will be seen by all:
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance
The effect of this will be the return of all the Jews to Jerusalem. We need to remember that most of the Jews who were taken from Jerusalem—the Judeans from the southern kingdom—stayed in Babylon and the Israelites—members of the northern Kingdom—were dispersed by the Assyrians centuries before (721 BC):
Your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.
Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
The idea of a Messiah was just forming at this time and the task of bringing the people back to Jerusalem, the ingathering, would become a principal sign of the true anointed one. Also, there will be respect and veneration by other nations:
For the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
All from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
We remember the vision of the first Isaiah:
This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come,
The mountain of the LORD’S house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’S mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
This as we have seen is his vision of peace:
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
But if we read further in chapter 60, we see that servile labor is to be offered to the Jews from the world:
Foreigners shall rebuild your walls,
and their kings shall be your attendants
The Jews shall not be the teachers of the world but their masters:
For the people or kingdom shall perish
that does not serve you;
those nations shall be utterly destroyed.
The children of your oppressors shall come,
bowing low before you;
All those who despised you
shall fall prostrate at your feet.
(Is. 60:12 and 14).
This is not the world of Second Isaiah who wrote:
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Third Isaiah is considered by some the last and least of the Isaiahs. He may justly be included in the book, because of his clear statement of common concerns, most particularly the connection of injustice to the poor and divine retribution and that the God of Abraham and Moses is the Lord of history. He also shares their poetic gifts.
This may be the most instructive element for us. A poet, like artists of all kinds, if not purely formal or decorative, is connected to the life of his or her time and expresses the concerns and feelings of it. The pioneers who returned to Jerusalem were disappointed and felt abandoned and oppressed. Is a desire for revenge so unlikely?
We see this throughout the Psalms. Most famously:
Happy those who seize your children
and smash them against a rock.
These are obviously ideas which Jews and Christians came to reject. It is important to remember how we did it. There is an old adage: “The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture.” However helpful schools of secular learning may be, nothing from the outside is ultimately determining. A great joy in reading the Hebrew Scriptures is that we see a people develop from seeing imposing the “ban” on a conquered city, killing everyone, and burning it as a moral act to seeing themselves as a means to universal holiness. (Zechariah 8:23)
The Psalmist also sings:
The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin
Also let us remember that the “corrective” to the overidentification of Third Isaiah to his particular, and we must admit, difficult circumstance is found in his great forebearers.
We have much to learn from this journey. Presidential candidates have collected astronomical amounts of money. It will be directed at us. As we live in a state which is not in play, we will be spared the worst of it, but it will nonetheless be ugly and potentially soul numbing.
We can sort this out and keep ourselves as peaceful as possible by listening to the prophets in the Bible not the pundits on TV. They have a far better track record. The best interpreter of not only of Scripture but life is Scripture.