February 13: Isaiah 40:6-8

Isaiah 40:6-8

The poem in verses 1-8 may be divided according to a three-part dramatic framework. In verse 1-2, God (YHWH) is speaking. Then in verses 3-5 we have the voice of another, acting in the role of a royal herald, “calling out” the King’s edict, commanding a great building project (road construction) to commence. Now, in verses 6-8, there is yet another “voice”, similar to the one prior—that is to say, it is another herald/messenger of God—and yet there are subtle (but significant) differences in how these two heralds are characterized:

    • Vv. 3-5—ar@q) loq: “A voice (is) calling”, or “(the) voice (of one) calling”
    • Vv. 6ff—ar*q= rm@a) loq: “A voice (is) saying, ‘Call (out)…’

In the first instance, it is the heavenly voice that is “calling”; now, in the second instance, the voice is telling a third messenger that he must do the calling out. It is probably best to understand the messengers of vv. 3-5 and 6 as heavenly beings (Angels). The one who is commanded in vv. 6ff, by contrast, is a human messenger—a prophet who is to announce the same message of good news to the people of Judah. Both Angel and prophet function is a similar manner: as royal heralds who announce the word of the King (YHWH) to the people.

The mini-drama continues, as the human herald, the one commanded by the heavenly herald, responds to this command by asking “What shall I call (out)?” The message that he is to announce takes the form of a beautiful proverb-poem:

“All flesh (is like the) green (grass),
and all its goodness like (the) sparkle of (the) field;
(the) green (grass) shall dry up,
and (the) sparkle shall wither,
(in) that (the) breath of YHWH blows on it.
Surely, the people are (the) green (grass):
(the) green (grass) has dried up,
(the) sparkle has withered,
and (so the) word of our Mighty (One) [Elohim]
shall stand (in)to (the) distant (future).”

A simple bit of nature-imagery has been transformed into a powerful statement on the sovereignty of God as Ruler over all the world. With the passing of the seasons, in the heat of summer (and the dead period of autumn/winter) the lush green grass of springtime dries out (vb vb^y`), and the beautiful flowering (lit. “sparkle”, Jyx!) of the fields withers (vb lb^n`). This may be part of the natural order of things, but it is ultimately governed by the word and power of YHWH. The word (rb*D*) of God accomplishes all things, and his breath (j^Wr) both gives life and takes it away. All of this comes from the mouth (hP#) of God.

This little vignette illustrates the punishment that God brought upon the people (of Judah). The people are the grass (and flower), and they withered when God breathed (judgment) upon them. The illustration thus goes beyond the obvious proverbial emphasis—viz., the transitory nature of human existence—and relates specifically to the fate of God’s people.

What is implicit in the nature-illustration, but not directly stated, is that the lush green grass and flowers of the field return again in the spring-time. This, too, is brought about through the mouth of God (His word and breath); and YHWH has now declared the restoration of His people to new life. Like the spring grass, they also will return, giving the land of Judah back its true beauty once again. While this is not declared, as such, here in vv. 1-8, it is the subject of the poem that follows (verses 9-11ff).

When one reads the two poems together, it is possible to view them as part of a single narrative. The herald who is commissioned in vv. 6-8 effectively gives the good news (of restoration/return) to Jerusalem, and then the capital city (personified as a woman, note the feminine syntax) functions a messenger herself (vv. 9-11)—announcing the joyful message to all the other cities of Judah.

Parallel with the proverb-poem in vv. 6-8, are the grand lines in vv. 12-17. In both instances God’s sovereign power over the universe is emphasized. In vv. 6-8, it is the people of Judah who are in view, in vv. 12-17, it is all of other peoples (of the Nations). This is another example of how the Deutero-Isaian theme of the restoration of Israel/Judah blends in with a wider (eschatological) background theme of God’s Judgment on the Nations. The Exile was His judgment on Israel/Judah, and has now passed, while His judgment on the remaining Nations still awaits (and is soon to commence).

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In conclusion, I would be remiss if I did not mention a  small text-critical point on verse 6. The Masoretic text of the opening words reads (in translation):

“A voice (is) saying: ‘Call (out)!’ And he said [rm^a*w+]: ‘What shall I call (out)?'”

However, the LXX has kai\ ei@pa (“and I said”), and there is Hebrew support for a first-person singular form in the great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran (1QIsaa), where the reading is, apparently (and somewhat curiously), a cohortative (hr*m=oaw+), “and I shall say,” “and let me say”. The main question is whether a third-person or first-person form is correct (“he said” vs. “I said”). If the latter, then the person who is commissioned by the (Angelic) herald, is the Deutero-Isaian poet/prophet himself, and the scene may be viewed as comparable to the commission of Isaiah in chapter 6.

There could, indeed, be an intentional parallel. In that earlier passage, Isaiah was divinely commanded with a message of judgment to give to Judah. It related to the devastation that would come from the Assyrian invasion, an invasion that foreshadowed the more complete destruction of Judah (including Jerusalem) by the Babylonians. Now the prophet has been given a message that the judgment for Judah is ended—there will be restoration both for the people and for the city of Jerusalem herself.

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