February 10: Isaiah 40:2

Isaiah 40:2

“Speak (this) upon (the) heart of Yerushalaim, and call (out) to her:
For (truly) her military (service) has been filled,
for (indeed) her crookedness has been made favorable (again),
for (it is that) she has received from (the) hand of YHWH double on all her sins!”

The message that will bring relief to the people of Israel (cf. the previous note on verse 1), is now directed to the southern kingdom of Judah and her capital city Jerusalem. The idiom of “speaking upon the heart” implies a message that is given with love and friendship (cp. Gen 34:3; Judg 19:3; Hos 2:14; Baltzer, p. 51). While Jerusalem represents the Judean people, the focus is also upon the city itself, personified as a woman. It is not only the people who have suffered during the exile, but also the city, bereft as it has been of both its citizenry, and of its active relationship with YHWH.

In this three fold announcement, each line begins with the particle yK! used in an assertive, affirmative sense—something like “for truly…,” “for indeed…” Three distinct, but related, declarations are made. Let us consider each of these in turn.

“her military (service) has been filled”
Ha*b*x= ha*l=m*

The noun ab*x* essentially refers to an army of people, usually in a military context, and, by extension, of the time of one’s service in the army. It is possible that the word could be used here in a more generic sense, for a period of hardship and hard labor (that is, compulsory labor). However, the military aspect would be fitting in light of the conquest and exile of Judah (spec. Jerusalem). The time of exile is conceived as being part of a time of military service, laboring under the command of a foreign power. Now, the announcement is that this period of hardship and servitude has come to an end: it has been “(ful)filled” (vb al*m*). Pointing halm as a Piel form (ha*L=m!) would convey the more active sense that Jerusalem (= Judah) has fulfilled her time of service (cf. Baltzer, p. 49).

“her crookedness has been made favorable”
Hn`ou& hx*r=n]

The Hebrew of this line is a bit difficult to capture in English, and my translation (above) could be quite misleading if taken out of context. The noun /ou* fundamentally means something that is “bent, twisted, crooked,” often in a moral/ethical sense (in English we might say “perversion”). Here it clearly relates to Judah’s sin (cf. the third line, below), her violation(s) of the covenant with YHWH that brought about the punishment of destruction and exile. The verb hx*r* may thus seem a bit odd in context, since it basically means being pleased with something, or responding in a favorable way to it—and, certainly, YHWH cannot be pleased with Judah’s “crookedness”. However, here the verb must be understood within the ancient covenant-setting, and the idea of making things favorable (again) between two parties. It can also connote the specific idea of fulfilling or satisfying an obligation (or debt), and so is partly synonymous, as a covenant term, with the root <lv (“complete, fulfill, make whole,” also spec. “make peace”). Through her hardship and suffering (in exile), Jerusalem/Judah has fulfilled her obligation, and she now is on favorable terms with YHWH. Once again God is “pleased” with her, and regards her as His people (and His city).

“she has received from (the) hand of YHWH double on all her sins”
h*yt#aF)j^-lk*B= <y]l^p=K! hw`hy+ dY~m! hj*q=l*

The idiom of receiving something “from the hand of YHWH” simply acknowledges that YHWH is the ultimate cause of it—in this case, of the punishment that came upon Jerusalem (i.e., the Babylonian conquest, destruction and exile). God as the true source of all things is an admission that any devout Israelite monotheist would make. The idea that Jerusalem receives this terrible punishment from YHWH Himself is striking and vivid, and Jews and Christians today are far less likely to draw such a connection (to Divine action) in the face of extreme suffering.

The word <y]l^p=K! is a dual noun that literally means “double, two-fold”. It is hard to know exactly in what sense the term is used here. How is Jerusalem’s punishment “double”? There are a number of possible explanations. It could mean that the punishment is commensurate—that is, it matches the crime, so that debt and payment are of equal value. Some commentators have thought that it may signify an extended length of time—i.e., an exile lasting approx. 70 years, which would be about twice as long as the time-span (30+ years) associated with a single generation. Baltzer (p. 53) suggests that the “double” motif should be understood in light of the “two things” mentioned in 47:8-9 (cf. also 51:17-20; 54:1ff): specified as widowhood and the loss of children. According to this explanation, Jerusalem lost both her husband (YHWH) and her children (the people), and so truly did suffer two-fold.

I am inclined to view the “double” aspect as related specifically to the Exile. Jerusalem’s punishment was great in that she suffered conquest and destruction by the Babylonians, but it was doubly terrible in that her population was also exiled, carried away into a distant foreign land. Since it is specifically the promise of a return from exile that is in view here in the poem, it would be best to maintain the emphasis on the Exile in these lines.

In any case, the reason for the severity of the punishment is due to the multitude of Judah/Jerusalem’s sins (“all of her sins”). It is not a question of a single violation of the covenant (as in the case of the Golden Calf episode, discussed in the previous note), but of repeated transgressions.

References above marked “Baltzer” are to Klaus Baltzer, A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, transl. by Margaret Kohl, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2001)

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