Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 63’

The stirring presentation of the Servant of YHWH (עבד יהוה) in the famous Fourth Servant Song (52.13-53.12) comprises the most intense and personified individualization of the Servant motif that is to be encountered in this long book. It is not difficult to see why messianic interpretation of the passage has been considered such a natural interpretation and has persisted among Christian readings of the book of Isaiah since earliest times.

What is less obvious in the book’s stewardship of the servant motif is the immediate pluralization of the metaphor that ensues. Already, 54.17 can claim the following on behalf of plural servants of YHWH (עבדי יהוה), naming it ‘their vindication from me (YHWH)’ in a manner that may well link the passage to the famous Servant’s experience in the Fourth Song:

No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, says the LORD.

Isaiah 54:17 (NRSV)

Isaiah 56:6 offers a passing glance, though no less poignant for its brevity, at ‘foreigners’ whose love for YHWH’s name makes them welcomed servants of his alongside ‘eunuchs’ who in return for similar fealty will be granted ‘a monument and a name better than sons and daughters’ (56:5). In 63.17, a plea that the heat of divine judgment might soon cool begs YHWH to ‘(t)urn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage’.

Each of these pluralizes the servant in a manner that hearkens back to the collective singular represented by ‘my servant Jacob’ prior to the Fourth Song’s intense individualization of the servant metaphor.

Now, in chapter 65, we encounter a new development. In the face of persistent idolatry on the part of practitioners of aberrant cult who appear to be members of the Community of the Return, YHWH laments the agile love that he has extended to them, unrequited. The result is a division of YHWH’s erstwhile people into a population whose unrelenting provocation of him will finally exhaust his patience, on the one hand, and a population of ‘servants’ who now become the recipients of his restorative mercies, on the other.

The chapter’s first seven verses profile the first of these two increasingly differentiated populations:

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.

I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks; who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels; who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’ These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.

 See, it is written before me: I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their laps their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together, says the LORD; because they offered incense on the mountains and reviled me on the hills, I will measure into their laps full payment for their actions.

Isaiah 65:1-7 (NRSV)

It is important to observe that such a denunciation might well lead into the narrative of a failed restoration project and a severe judgement of the people in toto. Yet this is manifestly not what follows. Instead the passage pivots resolutely towards the existence of an obedient population of ‘servants’ in a fashion that binds the servant motif to the erstwhile theme of a remnant.

A subsequent oracle beginning at verse 8 drives the contrast between this freshly recruited band of ‘my servants’ and the doomed population from which they have been brought forth (‘from Jacob … from Judah’, v. 9) as deeply as can be imagined.

Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all. I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains; my chosen shall inherit it, and my servants shall settle there.

Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me.

But you who forsake the LORD, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny;

 I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter; because, when I called, you did not answer, when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my sight, and chose what I did not delight in.

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart, and shall wail for anguish of spirit.

You shall leave your name to my chosen to use as a curse, and the Lord GOD will put you to death; but to his servants he will give a different name.

Then whoever invokes a blessing in the land shall bless by the God of faithfulness, and whoever takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of faithfulness; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my sight.

Isaiah 65:8-16 (NRSV)

It is rather arbitrary to pause consideration of this motif without venturing into the explanatory (כי־הנני בורא…) oracle that begins at verse 17. Yet its entirely new cluster of creational imagery perhaps justifies one in doing so here, if momentarily.

If we take stock of how this chapter and its suggestive precursors (54.17, 56.6, 63.17) have begun to develop the Servant motif after its white-hot personalization and individualization in the Fourth Song, we will observe the return—if this is not too tendentious a term—to a collective identity. However, this newly named community of servants is no longer merely ‘Jacob’ or ‘Israel’. Rather, these servants comprise an obedient population within a divinely threatened nation, now become a kind of stay on YHWH’s hand, which might otherwise have struck the nation hard in response to its provocative defiance.

In the unfolding Isaianic drama of YHWH’s servant(s), the future now lies with this new collective, bearers of a new and genuine penchant for both obedience and gratitude. The former troubles forgotten to both YHWH and humankind, this community that bears an as yet unrevealed ‘different name’.

One senses that the Isaianic trajectory one struggles to follow, though not without steadily crystallizing instruction, has still more to declare.


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There is drama enough in YHWH’s role as Israel’s father, sufficient for the angst that is seen both in children and in their father when passages like Isaiah’s sixty-second chapter come under our study.

Indeed, the book’s earliest translator has been joined by commentators ever since in airbrushing or arm-twisting divine pathos out of this passage and its similars in favor of an impassive deity who metes out justice serenely, untroubled. But this is not Isaiah’s YHWH, if one may use the possessive in that way.

The chapter is anguished almost to the point of over-wrought. An awful something hangs in the air. It is not the moment for this prophet’s customary and ironic light brush.

The chapter’s beginning is blood-spattered. YHWH, the warrior, strides into view with the stains of battle defiling his robes. To modern sensibilities, the scene does not make for pleasant reading and we ought not too quickly suppose that ancient preferences were very different. YHWH was found no one to join him in his execution of justice. The reiterated claims to that effect make this text the closest exposition of divine loneliness that we find in this book and perhaps in the Hebrew Bible itself.

I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come.  I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me. I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.

Isaiah 63:3-6 ESV, emphasis added

But the divine suffering—again, I am aware that I am following Isaiah into language to which most theologizing is unreceptive—does not end with the solitude of heroic battle. It moves forward into the almost deranged disillusionment of a father to which the children have proven traitorous.

For he said, ‘Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.’ And he became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.

Isaiah 63:8-10 ESV

The chapter pivots immediately after this extract, no longer profiling a jilted father but occupying itself with the children’s accusation against a now passive father.

Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.  For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.

 O LORD, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Your holy people held possession for a little while; our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.

 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled, like those who are not called by your name.

Isaiah 63:15-19 ESV

Saccharine emotivity about ‘life with God’ knows nothing of such family drama and withers when brought near to its heat. Or should do.

A Christian reader like this one finds that it is not his compeers among followers of Jesus who wrestle best with such texts, but rather Jewish interpreters whose long journey with YHWH carves out a space for, may one say it, Shoah.

Estrangement between a divine father and the human children whom he longs to gather happily around the family hearth finds too large a space in the Bible’s witness to be easily dismissed. Creation itself aches in its light. We are rightly undone.

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