Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 52’

The famous Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52.13-53.12) is peppered with three rhetorical questions. In combination, they forcefully present the entirely unanticipated phenomenon that is the ‘Servant of YHWH’. Because the Song insistently personifies and individualizes the Servant figure, which has up to this point been clearly identified as Jacob/Israel, I will use the pronoun ‘he’ to represent the Servant in this context.

Although it is not the initial verse of the Song per se, the first verse of chapter 53 looses two of the three rhetorical questions to which I have referred.

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

Isaiah 53:1 (NRSV)

This reflective duo accomplishes two objectives. First, it establishes the unanticipated nature of the Servant’s person and/or project. Curiously, the Servant’s identify is not the only conundrum presented in this song. That noteworthy ambiguity is complemented by the identity of the first-person plural protagonists represented here by we?

And then, the second of the two questions launched here appears to identify the Servant and/or his career with ‘the arm of the Lord’. There are other ways of reading the relationship between YHWH’s arm and the Servant himself, but this one is in my judgement the most coherent of the available options.

Somehow, the awful, YHWH-imposed suffering of the Servant seems to represent YHWH’s own powerful engagement with Jacob/Israel and perhaps even of the startled ‘kings’ and ‘nations’ of 52.15. This is perhaps paradox in its deepest form.

Verse 8 then serves up the third of the aforementioned rhetorical questions:

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.

Isaiah 53:8 (NRSV, emphasis added)

NRSV’s reference to ‘his future’ is rather speculative. The Hebrew text does not specify an object for the verb to imagine/consider (Hebrew polel, שיח), leaving the particle כי that follows immediately to be rendered either as providing the content of the referenced ‘imagining’ or as the beginning of an explanation of the strangeness of the Servant’s circumstances. The English Standard Version provides an example of the former approach:

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?

Isaiah 53:8 (ESV, emphasis added)

The New King James Bible exemplifies the latter interpretation:

He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.

Isaiah 53:8 (NKJV, emphasis added)

By any reconfiguration of the syntax, the Fourth Servant Song affirms that YHWH accomplishes in the Servant a forceful and even militant achievement. At the same time, the Song suggests that the Servant embodies no foreseeable tactic on the part of YHWH himself. He is a complete and total, indeed a jaw-dropping surprise.

No one saw this coming, this battered and crushed survivor. This bearer of others’ guilt. This puzzling, redeeming Servant. This victim and accomplisher of YHWH’s purpose.


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One of the dominant motifs for Israel’s judgement in the book called Isaiah is the felling of the mighty tree that is Jacob/Israel. In fact, this notion occurs in the prophet’s Generative Encounter at Isaiah 6.13. There, restoration is hinted at—arguably—by the final clause, where ‘the holy seed’ and ‘its stump’ appear to refer to a remnant of the people that is eventually to be restored.

Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:13 (NRSV, quotation marks removed)

The stirring oracle of regeneration that appears in the book’s fourth chapter does something quite similar.

On that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 NRSV)

In a manner that anticipates several restoration motifs in this book, the ‘fruit of the land’ and quite possibly ‘the branch of the Lord … and the fruit of the land’ stand over against ‘the survivors of Israel’. The images are not, by appearances, coequal.

There exists a different interpretation of the syntax and the vocabulary that removes this ambiguity, reflected as early as the Septuagint and as recently as the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible:

Τῇ δὲ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ ἐπιλάμψει ὁ θεὸς ἐν βουλῇ μετὰ δόξης ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς τοῦ ὑψῶσαι καὶ δοξάσαι τὸ καταλειφθὲν τοῦ Ισραηλ…

Isaiah 4:2 (LXX)

But on that day God will gloriously shine on the earth with counsel, to uplift and glorify what remains of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (NETS = New English Translation of the Septuagint)

In that day, The radiance of the LORD Will lend beauty and glory, And the splendor of the land [Will give] dignity and majesty, To the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:1 (JPS)

It would probably be inaccurate to render this interpretive tradition as anti-messianic. Rather, it represents a non-messianic reading of a text that jostles uneasily with the Masoretic tradition. Targum Jonathan is an early voice that reads the text messianically in a way that reflects the path taken by most translation of Isaiah into modern languages, including English.

In that time the Messiah of the Lord will be for joy and for glory, and those who perform the Law for pride and for praise to the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (The Aramaic Bible)

For our purposes, it is important to note that the Masoretic presentation of 4.2 envisages a dual presence in the land inhabited by restored Israel, one that perhaps foreshadows the presence of the intensely personified servant over against a restored remnant population in the fourth servant song at 52.13-53.12. In each case, the people are there, alongside another presence that remains enigmatic that is at points a collective and at others a singular entity, yet always profoundly conjoined to the people.

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The splendid redemption oracle that is the book’s fifty-second chapter begins with a series of imperatives to Zion/Jerusalem. Together form a comprehensive picture of her erstwhile degradation as well as of a glorious new identity. They restore agency to the downtrodden personified city. Zion becomes an actor rather than merely acted upon.

Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for the uncircumcised and the unclean shall enter you no more.

Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, O captive Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter Zion!

Isaiah 52:1-2 (NRSV)

The exhortation’s rhetoric is worthy of careful attention.

First, it initiates with the double-cognate-imperative that is a signature of the book’s second half from the moment it announces itself in the very first words of Isaiah 40.1:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

נחמו נחמו עמי, יאמר אלהיכם

Isaiah 40.1 (NRSV)

Then the passage draws the reader’s intention to its intensely vocative address to the recipient of its imperatives:

O Zion … O Jerusalem, the holy city … O captive Jerusalem … O captive daughter Zion!

ציון … ירושלים עיר הקדש … שבי ירושלם … שביה בת ציון

Arguably, however, the most striking feature of summons is the manner in which it returns agency to the community of the exiles in the figure of the personified city. There is no mention of anyone doing anything for her. Rather, she is exhorted to rouse herself in a way that embodies a new reality, indeed a new identity. The imperatives, six of them if double imperatives are counted as one, flow as follows:

Awake, awake! עורי עורי

Put on your strength! לבשי עזך

Put on your beautiful garments! לבשי בגדי תפארתך

Shake yourself from the dust! התנערי מעפר

Rise up! קומי

Loose the bonds from your neck! התפתחי מוסרי צוארך

Zion is addressed as able, as capable, as possessing the resources utterly to change her lot.

Where she has lain sleeping, she is urged to wake up. Where she has been weak, she is summoned to strength. Where she has been disheveled and unkempt, she is is ordered to put on the garments of her glory. Where she has crouched in the dust, she is commanded to shake herself clean. Where she has crouched passively, the imperative is to rise up. Where she has been enchained, she herself—as though her captors were no more—now removes the iron restraints from about her own neck.

The Vision of Isaiah will eventually assign to Zion a series of new and empowering names. In the light of this astonishing oracle, they seem almost an afterthought. Zion is here summoned to become already what those new names will signify.

The city hitherto acted upon with barbaric cruelty becomes in the prophetic imagination the actor. Even YHWH stands aside, as it were, before the stunning protagonist of a new reality impregnated with strength, dignity, beauty, and freedom.

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The reversal of Zion’s fortunes is a theme so intensely passionate in the book called Isaiah that the prophet ransacks the full range of metaphor to make his case. Zion, the personification of a city that incarnates both the city’s deported-and-now-returned citizens and its own restored metropolitan glories, is about to learn that her God reigns.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

Isaiah 52:7 (ESV)

The issue in play is not so much theology proper or divine ontology. YHWH’s announced reign is not here a theoretical experience but rather an intensively lived experience. Zion is about to taste the power of her God in the form of restoration from the cataclysm that has leveled her walls, emptied her of her people, and snatched away her future. ‘Your God reigns’ must refer to the evidence that YHWH is not inert, but rather decisively present and active in the imminent turning of tables to Zion’s benefit.

The book’s fifty-second chapter presents the striking metaphor of the watchmen on the city’s walls breaking into song—or at the very least into noisy and joyous exclamation—as they leverage their privileged altitude to see the return of YHWH to Zion before their less elevated neighbors are so fortunate.

The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion.

 Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.

Isaiah 52:8–9 (ESV)

It is impossible to know whether the author intends actually singing. There is the lifting up of their collective voice, the double deployment of verb that can represent song but might also be a less melodic shout for joy (רנן), and a breaking forth into whatever that exuberant sound actually is. The Septuagint, in a show of translational modesty, underscores the joyousness of the sound and leaves its substance to the imagination. Translations ever since opt in roughly equal measure either for song or for joyful shouting.

Regardless, we have a somewhat odd image that nearly refuses to sound strange precisely because it is part of a metaphorical narrative where larger impossibilities are taking place within the ordinary space and time. We almost fail to register the entertaining spectacle of night watchmen giddy with shouted delight or bursting into manly song from atop their walled perches.

The smaller strangeness of the image fades before the brilliant impossibility of YHWH striding across Judah’s desolate terrain towards Zion with his rescued captives following just behind.

If YHWH has done all this, why strain at a cadre of watchmen who can’t stop laughing–or singing—as they take it all in?

It is tempting to see here a narrative playing-out of the new song that becomes the people’s boisterous response to YHWH’s improbable redemption in Isaiah and in several psalms.

Soon the whole city will be loud with grateful sound, redemptive surprise powering its decibels, raised above normal volume as watchmen stand atop high walls.

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