Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27 (continued)

Isaiah 13:1-14:27, continued

In the previous study, we looked at Isaiah 13-14 from a historical-critical and composition-critical standpoint, within the overall context of chapters 13-27. Of particular interest are the opening chapters 13-14, since they establish the thematic setting for the collection of nation-oracles, focusing on the fall of Babylon (and the Babylonian Empire) in the 6th century B.C. By contrast, the Isaian material—that is, the oracles and traditions stemming from the time of the prophet himself (mid-late 8th century), are from the Assyrian period. I discussed the historical-critical question, regarding the relationship of chaps. 13-27 to these two different time-frames, in the previous study. In particular, I mentioned the critical theory whereby the older Isaian (nation-oracle) material, focused on the Assyrian empire, was applied to the later context of the Babylonian empire. According to this theory, the linchpin is the poem in 14:3-21, which may have referred to king Sargon II of Assyria, who also held the title “king of Babylon”. Thus, an oracle against Assyria (14:4b-21, 24-27) may have come to be reinterpreted, being applied to Babylon (chap. 13; 14:4a, 22-23), with a new message for Israelites and Judeans in the 6th century: just as God brought judgment on the Assyrians, so he will do the same to the Babylonians.

Today, I wish to focus specifically on the poem in 14:3-21, approaching it from an exegetical-critical standpoint, much in the manner that I do in the (Sunday) Studies on the Psalms, looking at each individual couplet and strophe.

Isaiah 14:3-21

The introduction in verse 3-4a identifies this as a poem against the king of Babylon. While this may be part of the editorial layer that sets the Isaian material in a 6th century Babylonian context (see above), it could also reflect a genuine historical tradition regarding the identity of the king referenced in the poem. In the previous study, I discussed the possibility that Sargon II may have been the (Assyrian) king in view. Within the poem itself there is no reference to a specific ruler or nation, and certainly no indication that it is meant to refer to a king of the Babylonian empire (in spite of the notice in v. 4a).

The poem is part of the ancient nation-oracle tradition in the Prophets, and involves a very specific sub-genre, in which the nation is represented by its king. The ruler embodies the ambition, violence, and wickedness of the nation as a whole—especially for a nation that acts as an aggressive, conquering regional empire, such as is the case of Assyria in the 8th/7th century. A comparable poem, probably similar in date, is directed against the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704-681 B.C.) in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). This prophetic denunciation (and taunt) is an the early instance of the “wicked tyrant” motif, emphasizing the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself:

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your messengers you treated the Lord with scorn,
and said: ‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 22-23)

The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28). Sargon II was the father and predecessor of Sennacherib, and, if he is indeed the king being referenced in Isa 14:3-21, then it means that this poem is an even earlier example of the “wicked tyrant” motif; indeed, there are a number of thematic similarities with the poem of 2 Kings 19:22ff par. For more on the subsequent development of the “wicked tyrant” motif, see my article on the “Antichrist Tradition”.

In verse 4a, the poem is specifically called a m¹š¹l—that is, a figurative discourse, where certain characters and situations are used in a representative, illustrative manner.

Isa 14:4b-11

The poem may be divided into two main sections, or stanzas. The first, in vv. 4b-11, addresses the tyrant in the 3rd person, before shifting to direct (2nd person) address in verse 8. The mechanism for this is a dramatic scenario, in which the trees of Lebanon speak collectively to the king. This is followed by a scene in which the shades of the dead speak similarly to him, as he arrives in the realm of the dead (Sheol). The section may thus be further divided, according to the structure of the mini-drama:

    • Opening taunt (vv. 4b-6)
    • The Trees of Lebanon (vv. 7-8)
    • The Shades of Sheol (vv. 9-11)
Verses 4b-6

“How (the one) pressing has ceased—
how (his) defiance has ceased!
YHWH has broken (the) stick of (the) wicked,
the staff of (the) rulers—
(the one) having struck (the) peoples,
striking without turning away,
having trampled (the) nations in anger,
pursuing without any (to) restrain (him).”

The taunt is directed at an especially notable “wicked tyrant” (cf. above), marked as one who oppresses other nations–i.e., pressing or exerting pressure (vb. n¹ga´) against them. He is also characterized by arrogance and defiance in his willingness to attack and conquer others. The noun in the second line of v. 4b is ma¼®h¢»â  in the Masoretic text, but the reading of the Qumran scroll 1QIsaa mar®h¢»â is likely correct, derived from the root r¹ha», with the basic meaning of “pride, arrogance, defiance”, and connoting a tendency to cause disturbance and alarm among people. With the stick/staff of his wicked rule (note the parallelism in the verse 5 couplet), he strikes others, but now has been struck (by God) in turn. Indeed, YHWH has broken the staff that symbolized the tyrant’s rule. The apparent invincibility of the tyrant, with his widespread conquests, is certainly appropriate to the Assyrian empire at its height, as well as being applicable to the later Babylonian empire (see above).

Verses 7-8

“(Now) all the earth rests and relaxes,
they break out (in) a cry (of joy);
even (the) cypress trees are joyful toward you,
(and the) cedar trees of (the) white (peaks),
(saying) ‘Since you were laid down (low),
the (one) cutting no (longer) comes up against us!'”

As in the taunt against Sennacherib in 2 Kings 19:22ff par (see above), the conquest of peoples is compared to the cutting down of trees. Indeed, both are characteristic of great nations and empires, and important to a king’s reputation and legacy. His building projects, requiring the cutting down of trees (i.e. acquisition of timber from the “snow-white peaks” [Lebanon]), and military conquests go hand in hand. The tradition of the king mounting an expedition to the Lebanon goes back to at least the ancient Gilgamesh tales of Sumer in the late-3rd millennium B.C. (see above). Now, however, with the death/defeat of the tyrant, the trees can rejoice in safety, without any worry of men coming to cut them down (at least for the time being).

Verses 9-11

Š§°ôl from below (also) stirs toward you,
to meet (you) in your coming,
rousing (the) shades (of the dead) for you;
it makes the (wild) goats of (the) earth stand from their seats,
all (the) kings of (the) nations—
all of them will answer and will say to you:
‘Even you are (as) worn (out) as we,
you have become like unto us!
Your exaltedness has been brought down to Š§°ôl,
your skin (to the) throng (of the dead);
beneath you (the) multiplying (worm) spreads out,
and (the) crimson-worm (is) your covering!'”

From the trees at the high peaks of Lebanon, representing the summit of human ambition and accomplishment, the scene shifts to the lowest point–the realm of the dead (Sheol) located far below the surface of the earth. As the trees speak (joyfully) to the fallen tyrant, so also do the shades (r®¸¹°îm) of the dead. These are specifically identified as the mighty “he-goats” (i.e. the chiefs/rulers) of the earth, who have their own kinds of ‘thrones’ in the underworld. No longer grand and exalted, in the realm of the dead it is a seat made of maggots and worms. The (Assyrian) tyrant thus joins all others like him—all other once-mighty kings who now have their seat among the throngs of the dead. Portions of this section are difficult to translate and interpret with precision; in particular, the second line of verse 11 is problematic.

Isa 14:12-21

A second taunt begins at verse 12, aimed more directly at the king. The tone follows that of the Sennacherib-taunt in 2 Kings 19:22ff, as also other examples of the genre, such as Ezekiel’s oracle against the king of Tyre (28:11-19). It emphasizes even more dramatically the contrast between the king’s grandiose ambitions and his undignified fate.

Verses 12-15

“How you have fallen from the heavens,
(you) shining (one), son of the Dawn!
You have been hacked (down) to the earth,
(the one) bringing (the same) lowness upon the nations!
Indeed, you said in your heart:
‘I will go up to the heavens!
From the place above the stars of the Mighty (One)
I will raise high my ruling-seat [i.e. throne];
and I will sit (myself) on the Mountain appointed (for the Mighty)
(there) on the sides of (its) secluded (peak) [‚¹¸ôn]!
I will go up upon the heights of (the) dark cloud(s),
(and so) will I be likened to (the) Highest (myself)!’
(But) how you were brought down to Š§°ôl (instead),
to the side [i.e. bottom] of (the deepest) pit!”

As in the Sennacherib-oracle, there is the idea of the king thinking he could ascend all the way to the Mountain where God dwells. This is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; compare 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” (mô±¢¼) for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (°E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name ‚¹¸ôn, essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). On the cutting down of trees as a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, see the discussion above. It is depicted in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb g¹¼a±) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (loav=)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak).

Thus, the declaration in verse 12, calling the king of Babylon “(the) shining (one), son of the Dawn”, plays on this tendency of identifying kings with deity—especially the celestial/heavenly manifestation of deity. The terms hêl¢l (“shining [one]”) and š¹µar (“dawn”, i.e. the rising of the sun/light) are, in essence, both attested as divine titles (or names) in Semitic/Canaanite tradition. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to a mythological religious (and/or cosmological) tradition involving the disobedience (and fall) of a heavenly being, which has been applied to an earthly ruler.

Verses 16-17

“(The one)s seeing you will stare at you,
and will give consideration to you, saying:
‘Is this the man making (the) earth quiver,
(and) making kingdoms shake (with fear)?
(who) set (the) habitable (world) as a desert,
and destroyed its cities?
(who) would not open [i.e. allow] its bound (captive)s (to go) home?'”

As in the first part of the poem, a group of people speak in response to the king’s fate. Here, the focus would seem to be on the population generally, commenting on the ultimate legacy of this tyrant. It is parallel to the declaration by the shades of the dead, emphasizing that the king’s fate is simply to join with all the (wicked) dead in the depths of Sheol. Most likely the exile of the northern territories (of Israel) is alluded to in the final line; it certainly would have had resonance for the Judeans exiled by the Babylonians as well.

Verses 18-21

“All (the) kings of (the) nations, all of them,
lie down in (great) worth, a man with his house;
but you, you are thrown out from your burial (place),
as a <stripped> (corpse), detestable,
(with) slain (bodie)s (as) a garment,
having been stabbed (with) a sword,
going down to (the) stones of (the) Pit,
as a carcass trampled under.
You will not be united with them in burial,
for you brought ruin (to) your land,
(and) slew your (own) people.
(Its name) will not be (re)called into (the) distant (future),
(it is the) seed of (one)s bringing evil.
(So then) establish slaughtering (for) his sons,
with the crookedness of their father;
they do not stand up any (more),
and will (not any longer) possess (the earth),
and (no more) fill (the) face of (the) habitable (world with) cities!”

Because of the king’s ignoble fate, involving death and defeat (in battle?), he will not receive an honorable burial with the rest of his “house” (i.e. ancestors). The claim that he “brought ruin” to his land and “slew” his (own) people, probably alludes to a military defeat. Attempts have been been made to identify this with events in the life of the Assyrian rulers Sargon II (see above) or Sennacherib, but a connection cannot be established with precision. What is clear, however, is that this king’s demise and disgrace will extend to his “sons” (i.e. descendants). This presumably refers to the eventual defeat and collapse of the Assyrian empire in the late 7th century (see below). Certainly, the wording of the last two lines suggests a nation that no longer has any empire-building power.

Isaiah 14:22-27

Most critical commentators agree that verses 22-23, with its specific reference to the fall of the Babylonian empire, are intrusive, belonging to the layer of editing that has interpreted and applied the Isaian nation-oracles to the later context of the fall of Babylon (see above, and in the previous study). This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verses 24-27, prophesying the defeat of the Assyrians. If all of 13:1-14:23 originally dealt with the fall of the Babylonian empire, then the sudden shift to Assyria would seem most out of place. However, there is strong reason to think that 14:4b-21 + 24-27 (and possibly also the opening vv. 1-2) together represent, in their original context, an oracle against Assyria. Only at a later point was the tradition regarding the Assyrian tyrant as the “king of Babylon” developed so that chapters 13-21ff applied to the message of judgment against the 6th century empire of Babylon. This composition-critical view, if correct, demonstrates the longstanding power of the Prophetic message, the inspired character of which cannot be limited to a single time or place. Certainly, Christians who accept many Isaian passages as inspired prophecies of Jesus’ Christ’s life and work—centuries later and far removed from the original context—should not be surprised if the same sort of thing were done by Israelites and Jews in earlier generations. Applying the Isaian prophecies of the Assyrian period to the time of the Babylonian empire may be considered just such an example of “inspired application”.

In next week’s study we will turn to chapters 24-27 which close this (nation-oracle) division of the book. It is a most intriguing section, sometimes referred to as the Isaian “Apocalypse”. Suddenly, the nation-oracle form is expanded to include a range of eschatological and quasi-apocalyptic elements. We will not be able to examine these chapters in detail; however, certain key representative passages will be singled out, along with an introductory survey.


Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27

Isaiah 13:1-14:27

In this current series of studies on the Book of Isaiah, we turn now to the next major division of the book—chapters 13-27. That 13:1 marks the beginning of a new division is clear from the parallels with the superscription in 2:1, and is confirmed by the formatting at this point in the Qumran manuscripts 1QIsaa and 4QIsaa. Moreover, these chapters are characterized throughout as nation-oracles, with the overall theme of God’s judgment against the nations.

Indeed, the nation-oracle is a distinct genre with a long history in the Old Testament (and elsewhere in the ancient Near East), overlapping with that of the judgment-oracle. Examples can be found in most of the Prophetic writings, spanning a period of centuries, with noteworthy sets or collections in the books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It tends to be tied to the “day of YHWH” motif—the “day” being the moment or time when YHWH acts to bring judgment against a particular nation or people (including His own people, the kingdoms of Israel/Judah). The nation-oracles typically announce or foretell the coming judgment, often in graphic (and exaggerated) visual terms, using a range of striking imagery and symbolism. Such details are not necessarily meant to be taken in a concrete, literalistic sense. The point is the judgment itself—and its certainty, as a direct response of the sovereign God (El-Yahweh) to the wickedness and violence of a nation. Sometimes the possibility of repentance is part of the oracle, though typically this is not the case—the judgment is determined, and cannot be avoided.

IsaIAH 13:1—the Historical & Literary Setting

Isaiah 13:1 reads: “(The) lifting up [ma´´¹°] (of the voice regarding) Babel [i.e. Babylon], which Yesha‘yahu {Yah-will-save} son of ’Amos beheld in a vision [µ¹zâ]”. As noted above, this is similar to the superscription at the beginning of chaps. 2-12, as well to that of the book as a whole (1:1). The idiom of seeing/vision (using the root µ¹zâ), can refer simply to the prophetic message, and need not entail an actual vision (of which there are very few in the book of Isaiah). There may be a tendency to associate these words specifically with chapter 13; however, their real significance relates to the wider context of chapters 13-27, and is two-fold:

    • It marks chs. 13-27 essentially as a collection of ma´´¹°o¾, and
    • It marks the literary setting of the Isaian material (oracles) as that of the Babylonian Empire (Babylon) in the 6th century B.C.

The noun ma´´¹° literally means a “lifting up” (that is, of the voice), used in the technical prophetic sense of an oracle uttered by the inspired spokesperson (n¹»î°, i.e. prophet) of YHWH. It occurs frequently in the Prophets, including at the beginning of the shorter books (Nah 1:1; Hab 1:1; Mal 1:1; cf. also Zech 9:1), but most often appears in the book of Isaiah—14 times, and 11 of these are found in the nation-oracle material of chapters 13-23.

The focus on the judgment against Babylon—its fall—in chapters 13-14 (and also chap. 21) needs to be discussed, both from an historical and literary standpoint. It is hard to explain these prophecies as the work of the 8th century prophet Isaiah, something that critical commentators, especially, have long noted. What meaning would the fall of Babylon (presumably that of the Babylonian Empire) have held for people of that time, when the dominating power was Assyria? By contrast, such a message would have been most important (and welcome) to Israelites and Judeans of the 6th century, especially as an announcement of Babylon’s fall would have been tied to the idea of the possible restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to their land. Prior to the Babylonian conquest and exile, would the message of chap. 13 (and 21) have made any real sense to the people? Thus, most critical commentators would hold that the prophecies on Babylon’s fall were composed at a later time, in the 6th century (prior to 539, when Babylon fell to the Persians). The similarities of wording, theme, and detail between Isa 13 and Jer 50-51 would tend to confirm this (see Blenkinsopp, p. 278).

At the same time, there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of most of the material in chapters 15-20, as representing Isaian oracles from the (late) 8th century B.C. Even the poem of 14:4b-21 itself, despite its connection to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, could easily date from this period (for more on this, see below). This suggests the following (possible) literary and historical explanation regarding the structure of chapters 13-21ff:

At some point in the 6th century (prior to 539), a collection of (earlier) Isaian nation-oracles was set within the context of the Babylonian conquest and exile. The theme of judgment in the nation-oracles was applied to Babylon (the Babylonian empire) in this transferred setting—announcing the coming judgment by God against the empire, including the fall of Babylon itself (similar to the oracle in Jeremiah 50-51). The twin oracles in chapters 13 and 21 on this theme suggest that chapters 13-21 may have formed the primary division, to which additional Isaian material (in chaps. 22-23) was added, being capped by the ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27. It has been suggested that the ‘Apocalypse’ was composed at the same time as chapter 13 (and perhaps by the same person), drawing upon authentic Isaian material and themes (see Roberts, p. 194).

A strict traditional-conservative view of the matter would tend to maintain the Isaian authorship of chapters 13, 21, etc—or, at least that they stem from authentic oracles by the prophet. My own opinion is that some measure of later (6th century) handling and editing has taken place, best explained as either: (a) adaptation of an authentic Isaian oracle, or (b) an intentional interpretation of Isaiah’s oracle(s) as applying to (and foretelling) the fall of Babylon. This will be discussed further below on chapters 13-14.

The Structure of Isaiah 13-14

Given the historical and literary questions addressed above, a proper understanding of this material must begin with a careful analysis of its form and structure. Within the overall context of chapters 13-27, it is right to consider chaps. 13-14 as a distinct unit, with the following literary outline:

    • 13:1—superscription establishing the Babylonian context of the nation-oracle(s)
    • 13:2-22—An oracle (ma´´¹°) on the Fall of Babylon
    • 14:1-2—Promise of Israel’s restoration/return (following Babylon’s fall)
    • [14:3-4a—transition to the poem in verses 4bff]
    • 14:4b-21—A dramatic representation (m¹š¹l) of the Fall of Babylon (the wicked tyrant, “king of Babylon”)
      [with an editorial comment, vv. 22-23]
    • 14:24-27—An oracular announcement of the Fall of Assyria

Each oracle-poem (13:2-22, 14:4b-21) is essentially followed by an announcement of salvation for God’s people. The sudden shift from Babylon to Assyria seems strange at first glance, but it makes good sense in light of the literary and historical explanation of this material offered above. Note the following parallelism, which strongly indicates an intentional adaptation (and interpretation) of the Isaian material:

    • Poem on the Fall of Babylon (13:2-22)
      • Babylon’s Fall = Salvation for the conquered/exiled people (14:1-2f)
    • Poem on the Fall of Assyria, whose king is the “king of Babylon” (14:4b-21)
      • Assyria’s Fall, which, by implication, means salvation for Judah and the conquered parts of Israel (14:24-27)

In other words, the overriding message is: just as God brought judgment on Assyria, with the possibility of salvation/deliverance for His people, so also He will bring judgment on Babylon, which will allow for the restoration/return of His people from exile.

The Oracle-Poem in Isaiah 14

In light of the above analysis, in the remainder of this study I wish to focus specifically on the oracle-poem in chapter 14. In the introduction (v. 4a), it is called a m¹š¹l, which is best translated as “representation”; that is to say, it is a poetic (and dramatic) representation of the nation’s fall, in the person of its king. But which nation? In spite of the references to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, there are no such indicators in the poem itself, which could apply to almost any nation and/or wicked ruler of the time. For this reason, many commentators would hold that the original (Isaian) oracle actually referred to the king of Assyria.

A strong argument can be made that the king in question is Sargon II of Assyria (r. 721-705), who did, in fact, take on the title “king of Babylon” a few years before his death (709), something that, apparently, cannot be said of other Assyrian rulers of the period (Roberts, p. 207). On Sargon’s ascending the throne of Babylon, cf. A. Kirk Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, Texts from Cuneiform Sources 5 (J. J. Augustin: 1975) 75 ii. 5-1´ (cited by Roberts, l.c.). Sargon died ignominiously, killed in battle while on military campaign. A later Assyrian text from the time of Esarhaddon makes clear that Sargon’s demise was such that his son and successor (Sennacherib) had to inquire of the gods what his father’s great sin was that led to such a fate. The comment that Sargon “was not buried in his house” could indicate that, having died on the battlefield, his body could not be recovered for a proper burial. If the oracle in chapter 14 referred to Sargon II, and was uttered during the years 709-705, then the title “king of Babylon” would have been entirely fitting, his death serving as a general fulfillment of the prophecy. At a later point, this circumstance would have allowed for the natural association between this Assyrian “king of Babylon”, and the Babylonian Empire itself (see above).

In considering the structure of the poem, it may be divided into two main parts:

    • An announcement of the tyrant’s death, which is declared by all the earth (and the underworld), verses 4b-11
    • A juxtaposition of the king’s lofty ambitions with his actual fate (vv. 12-21), presented in a dramatic dialogue-format that may be further subdivided:
      • Initial announcement of his fall (v. 12)
      • Dialogue (vv. 13-17):
        • The words ‘spoken’ by the tyrant’s heart (vv. 13-14)
        • His fate is the opposite (v. 15)
        • The words spoken by those oppressed by the tyrant (vv. 16-17)
      • The end and legacy of the tyrant (vv. 18-21)

If this is indeed a genuine Isaian oracle (from the end of the 8th century), then it represents perhaps the earliest example of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets. There is a comparable instance, applied to Sennacherib (son and successor of Sargon), in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). These occurrences in the nation-oracles, as they developed over a number of centuries, provide much of the Old Testament background for the “Antichrist” tradition in early Christianity. I discuss that subject at length in a three-part article as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Having surveyed the critical aspects of chapter 14, in next week’s study, I wish to examine the oracle-poem of vv. 4b-21 in detail, looking closely at each verse and poetic line. Such exegetical analysis, in addition to a critical analysis, will allow us to see more clearly how the ancient prophetic oracle form functioned in its original setting, and how it may have served as a source of inspiration for subsequent messages of judgment against the nations, as well as hope and deliverance for God’s people.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale: 2000).


Saturday Series: Isaiah 8:23-9:6; 11:1-10 (continued)

Having approached the oracles in Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10 from a general historical-critical standpoint (see last week’s study), we will here look at them from a literary-critical point of view. Working from the structure and form of the oracles, we will undertake a short exegetical survey, drawing out information, inductively, for each section and verse.

Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]

In terms of the form and structure of this passage, it is best understood as consisting of a prosodic introduction (v. 23 [9:1]), followed by a poem (9:1-6 [2-7]), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section). The poem proper may be divided into 6 stanzas corresponding to each numbered verse (vv. 1-6 [2-7 in English translations]):

    • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
    • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
    • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
    • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
    • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
    • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

It is a poetic oracle, the concluding piece of 6:1-9:6[7], a document consisting of unquestionably authentic Isaian material—oracles and historical-biographical traditions—from the period c. 740-701 B.C. (focusing especially on the Assyrian crisis of 735-732).

Isa 8:23 [9:1]

The context of the oracle is established in 8:23 [9:1], though it can be difficult to determine this with precision. Here a careful study of the text is important, but even then, scholars and commentators may be divided on the correct interpretation. Compare the translations in two leading critical commentaries (by J. J. M Roberts [Hermeneia, 2015, p. 144] and Joseph Blenkinsopp [Anchor Bible, 2000, p. 245-6]):


…Surely it will be without daybreak to the one distressed by it.

As at the former time he treated with contempt
<The Sharon and the land of Gilead,>
The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali,
So at the latter time he has honored the way of the sea,
Trans-jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who were walking in darkness
Have seen a great light…


There is no gloom for her who is oppressed. At that time the earlier ruler treated with contempt the territory of Zebulon and Naphthali, and the later one oppressed the way of the sea, the land across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people that walk in the dark
Have seen a great light…

These differences are based, in part, on difficulties surrounding the Hebrew. Note the following two examples:

    • Isaiah 8:23am¹±û¸ can be derived from ±ô¸ (“fly, flutter”) or ±ô¸ (“be dark”); the former would indicate a negative situation (“there will be no flying/fluttering” [that is, release/escape, or perhaps poetically as “daybreak”]), the latter a positive one (“there will be no darkness”). The referent for the feminine suffix –l¹h is unclear: it could refer to any of the feminine nouns in verse 22 (°ereƒ [“land”], µ¦š¢kâ [“darkness”], or parallel ƒ¹râ/ƒôqâ [“distress, oppression”]), or it could look forward to the “land” of 8:23b/9:1. The preposition could have the sense of “for her” or “from/by her”.
    • Isaiah 8:23b—Does h¹ri°šôn (“the head” [i.e. the first, former]) modify the prior common/feminine noun ±¢¾ (i.e. “as at the first/former time, [when] he…”), or does refer to an implied (masculine) subject (i.e. “as at the time [when] the first/former one…”); this affects the parallelism with h¹°aµ¦rôn (“the following” [i.e. the later]): is it a former/later time or former/later person? The verbs qll and kbd (in the Hiphil) mean “make light” and “make heavy” respectively; the former can either have the sense of “treat with contempt/dishonor” or “lighten, make easier”, the latter “treat with honor” or “make heavier [i.e. more difficult]”. Then, is the parallelism synonymous or antithetical? In the historical context, how do these verbs relate to the territories of Zebulon, Naphtali, the Transjordan and Galilee?

Keeping in mind the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C., if this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces. The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]).

Isa 9:1-2 [2-3]

In the first two stanzas of the poem, God promises to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity. This is expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc. The contrast of darkness and light in verse 1 brings out symbolically this distinction between the suffering experienced by the Northern kingdom, and the imminent promise of future hope. This darkness and shadow specifically alludes to the threat of death, and evokes language associated with the realm of Death and the grave (see Job 10:21-22, etc). Light (as of the sun) is a corresponding image representing (new) life and salvation. It is naturally associated with God (as a divine attribute/characteristic), but applies just as well to the king/ruler who functions under God’s authority.

The imagery in verse 2 shifts to that of the harvest. The contrast (implied) is between the pain/toil involved in planting and the joy (´imµâ) that comes with the time of reaping. This is further compared, in the last line, with the rejoicing that comes after victory in battle. A small text-critical note: by reading haggîlâ (instead of haggôy lœ°) in the first line, the wordplay and parallelism of the stanza is properly preserved:

“You have multiplied the circling (with joy),
you have made great the (feeling of) gladness—
they are glad before your face,
like the gladness at the (time of) reaping,
like those who circle (for joy) in (the) dividing of plunder.”

Isa 9:3-4 [4-5]

The allusion to battle in the final line of v. 2 becomes the main theme of the next two stanzas. The promise of hope and salvation is defined precisely in terms of the defeat of Israel’s enemies. The image in verse 3 is that of an oppressive foreign power being overthrown, leading to freedom and independence for the people. Given the apparent historical context of the oracle (see above), it suggests the possibility that the Northern territories, turned into Assyrian provinces, would regain their independence. The “day of Midian” doubtless refers to the Gideon traditions in Judges 6-8, when the Northern tribes were similarly delivered from the control of a foreign power. Verse 4 gives a vivid and graphic depiction of a military defeat.

Isa 9:5-6 [6-7]

These verses, so familiar to many Christians, are almost always read completely out of their original historical context. Again, the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 would seem to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722). In this light, the standard Messianic interpretation of the child in vv. 5-6 [EV 6-7] is out of the question (in terms of the primary meaning of the passage). Can we then identify the child with a particular historical figure? The grandeur of the titles in v. 5, and reference to the “throne of David” in v. 6, would require, at the very least, a king of Judah (that is, from the Davidic line). The only person from Isaiah’s own time (c. 735-700) who seems to fit is Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. The birth and/or accession of a new king could be a time of great hope and promise, but also of tremendous danger, as princes and vassals may see the moment as an opportune time for revolt (cf. Psalm 2). Following the reign of his father, Ahaz (who “did not do what was right in the eyes of YHWH”), Hezekiah is a positive figure, even under the withering judgment of the book of Kings (2 Kings 8:3ff: he finally removed the “high places”, which his ancestors failed to do). He will also become a central figure in the book of Isaiah, and focal point of the key historical moment: the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib in 701 B.C.

It is also possible that Hezekiah is to be associated with the title ±Immanû-°¢l (“God-with-us”) in the prophecies of 7:10-17 and 8:5-10. Certainly the name is suggestive of the words describing Hezekiah’s reign, in 2 Kings 8:7 (“and YHWH was with him…”). For a consideration of arguments against identifying Hezekiah with the child of 9:5-6, see my earlier article on the subject. In that article, you will also find a discussion of the divine titles occurring in vv. 5-6. There are four such titles: the first two have nouns in juxtaposition, the second two are effectively construct forms. They are included under the formula: “and he/they will call [or has called] his name…”.

It has been said that the weighty titles listed in Isa 9:5 are too lofty to be applied to a human king. However, similarly lofty, theologically significant names and titles were regularly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East. The most extensive evidence comes from Egypt, and the names applied to the Pharaoh during enthronement rituals (some of which are roughly parallel to those in Isa 9:5). No similar ritual is recorded as such for kings of Israel/Judah in the Old Testament, but there are a few hints in the Psalms and elsewhere; Psalm 2 is perhaps the most striking example, a setting similar to that in the Egyptian ritual, where the Deity addresses the new ruler as His “son” (Ps 2:7).

Isaiah 11:1-10

As in 8:23-9:6, a period of salvation and peace is tied to the rise of a new king from the line of David. If 11:1-10 represents an authentic Isaiah oracle (i.e. from the mid-late 8th century B.C.), then it may well refer to the same king (Hezekiah?) announced in the earlier passage. Many commentators, however, would assign the composition of chapter 11 to a later period. In the previous study, I discussed the critical theory that the document 6:1-9:6, having been included with the wider (Isaian) context of chapters 5-10, was subsequently placed in the later literary context of chapters 2-4, 11-12. Certain thematic and stylistic considerations suggest an exilic (6th century) or even post-exilic setting, though this is hardly decisive, and there are even some critical commentators (e.g., J. J. M. Roberts, cf. above) who would accept Isaian authorship, on the whole, for the oracles in chaps. 2-4, 11-12.

Isa 11:1-10 has a very precise (literary) structure, consisting of two main parts (or strophes), bracketed by references to the new Davidic king (using the idiom “root/trunk of Jesse”).

Verse 1

“And there will go forth a branch from (the) trunk of Yishay,
and a green (shoot) will bear (forth) from his roots”

The oracle opens with a simple parallel couplet, establishing the theme: the rise of a new king (over Judah) from the line of David. The similarity of language with Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15ff, suggests that a 6th-century/exilic setting is in view. On the other hand, a Davidic emphasis is present in the 8th century Isaian material (7:2, 13, and elsewhere in chaps. 2-39 [16:5; 22:22, etc]), and the Jeremiah references may have been inspired by earlier Isaian usage. An authentic Isaian oracle (from the 8th century) would only make more likely that Hezekiah is the expected king; or, in any case, that it is one who would come after (or in place of) the disappointing Ahaz.

Verses 2-5

The bulk of the poem (vv. 2-9) describes the reign of this new king as a ‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity for Israel (presumably a unified Kingdom), conveyed in ideal (and idyllic) terms. The first portion focuses on the theme of the justice that would be established throughout society during his reign. The wisdom and discernment with which he governs follows the ancient principle of Spirit-inspired leadership (v. 2, cf. my recent note on this point). It is marked by fairness and impartiality, reflecting the very character of God as Judge (v. 3). Of special importance is the way that he works on behalf of the poor and weak, protecting them from oppression and violence (v. 4). Righteousness and faithfulness (to YHWH) are the overarching attributes that explain and characterize the justice of his rule (v. 5).

Verses 6-9

The ‘golden age’ of the new king’s reign is described, in the second half of the poem (vv. 6-9), in more mythological terms, drawing upon the idea of a state of peace and harmony that may once have existed (and will once again) in the natural world. These are certainly among the most beautiful and memorable lines in the entire book. The emphasis of peace and security from wild animals, while drawing upon earlier lines of tradition (Hos 2:18 [20]), may be another indicator of a 6th-century/exilic date for the poem (compare Ezek 34:25-26).

The main point of this imagery is that it will be an ideal time of peace for God’s people. This was also the theme in 2:2-5 (discussed in an earlier study), one of several literary parallels between chaps. 2-4 and 11-12. Roberts, in his commentary (pp. 180-1, cf. above), cites examples from Egypt and Assyria, where the accession of a new king is announced as a time of peace and security; however, in some ways, a closer parallel is to found in Virgil’s famous Fourth Eclogue, however far removed it may be from the ancient Near Eastern milieu.

Verse 10

The closing lines reprise the motif of the rise of a new Davidic king (from v. 1), forming an inclusio for the poem:

“And there will be in that day a root of Yishay {Jesse},
which, standing, (will be) for a n¢s of (the) people;
to him (the) nations will go in search,
and his resting(-place) will be worth(y).”

An important aspect of this king’s rule will be the way that the surrounding nations come to him. In its earlier form, this idea simply reflected the sovereign-vassal relationship that existed between the kingdom of Israel and a number of nations in the region, during the reigns of David and Solomon. This Israelite ’empire’ was brief, and collapsed shortly after Solomon’s reign, but would remain an ideal, in terms of Israel’s restoration, for centuries to come. However, during the later Prophets of the exile and post-exilic periods, this motif of the ‘gathering of the nations’ came to be expressed in a new way, as part of a developing eschatological (and Messianic) understanding of Israel’s future restoration.

This same eschatological aspect was seen in 2:2-5 (cf. the earlier study), centered around the Jerusalem Temple, and the outreach to the surrounding (Gentile) nations. As I have noted, the theme is typical of many of the Deutero-Isaian oracles in chaps. 40-66—see, for example, 40:9; 42:6-7; 45:14-23; 49:6; 51:4; 56:7; 57:13; 60:1-18; 65:11, 26; 66:20, etc. Most critical commentators would ascribe the Deutero-Isaian material, generally, to the exile or post-exilic period. A thematic comparison with texts from this period (e.g. Zech 2:14-16 [EV 12-14]; 8:20-23; Hag 2:7-9) would tend to point in this direction (cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 191). I have already noted the idea that the framing sections in chapters 2-4, 11-12, while likely containing earlier/older material, may well have been composed somewhat later. From the standpoint of the composition of chaps. 2-12, this would mean that the (earlier) Isaian message promising deliverance (for Jerusalem and a faithful remnant) from the Assyrian invasion could well have been applied to the setting of the Babylonian exile and the promise of a future restoration/return.

The new king will stand among his people, functioning as a n¢s for them. I left this word untranslated above; it essentially refers to something that is displayed prominently, serving as a rallying point for a group of people (such as a flag or banner). It also becomes a point around which other nations will gather as well, coming to the king (and his court) in search of truth and justice, etc. The religious emphasis of 2:2-5 (i.e. the nations joining Israel in worship of YHWH) is not as definite here, but it certainly would have been implied, in light of the language used in the rest of the oracle. There is likely a bit of wordplay in the final line, which could alternately be translated something like “and honor/worth will rest (on) him”. This honor/worth (Heb. k¹»ô¼, literally “weight”), in the context of the oracle, refers to the presence of God that is around the king, and the Spirit that comes upon him, gifting him with divinely-inspired wisdom (v. 2). Thus, in coming in search of Israel’s divinely-inspired king, they nations are effecting seeking after God.


Both of these remarkable oracles, however and whenever they were composed, announce the coming of a king (from the line of David) who will usher in an ideal time of peace and prosperity, bringing salvation and renewal to the people. A working critical hypothesis, based on the results of these two studies, might be outlined as follows:

    • The Isaian document of 6:1-9:6[7], composed sometime after 732 B.C., concludes with the announcement of deliverance for the Northern territories that had been conquered and annexed by Assyria. This was associated, most likely, with the birth (and/or accession) of Hezekiah, who did indeed make overtures to the North for them to join with him in a political and religious revival.
    • This hope, never realized during Hezekiah’s reign, came to be applied to the later context of the Babylonian threat in the early 6th century. As Jerusalem was saved from Assyrian invasion during Hezekiah’s reign, so the southern kingdom might be delivered under another faithful king from the line of David.
    • Ultimately, this ideal, and promise of future salvation, was reinterpreted from the standpoint of the Exile—i.e., the restoration of Israel in a post-exilic period as a golden age of justice and righteousness.

Such an outline would provide a veritable snapshot of Israel’s Messianic hope, in its early stages of development (captured within the complex literary structures of the book of Isaiah). It can be no surprise that Isa 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10 came to viewed as Messianic prophecies subsequently in Jewish tradition, and that early Christians continued this process, applying the oracles to the person of Jesus as the Messiah. That such a Messianic interpretation is a secondary development, quite apart from the original context of the prophecy, should be clear enough. However, this does not in any way diminish or devalue the Messianic (and Christian) view. The inspiration of Scripture is wide and expansive enough to encompass all of these aspects.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 8:23-9:6; 11:1-10

Two of the most famous Messianic passages in the Old Testament occur in the portion of Isaiah we have been considering initially in these studies on the book (chaps. 2-12)—8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10. We must look at these passages from the standpoint of historical– and composition-criticism, as a way of highlighting the important principle that a proper interpretation needs to begin (and proceed) from a careful grammatical-historical approach to the text.

Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]

In the most recent studies, I discussed certain critical aspects of the composition of Isaiah 2-12. While the date and provenance of portions of these chapters may be debated, there can be no question that 6:1-9:6[7] derives from the prophet Isaiah’s own time, and contains key historical and biographical material from the prophet, covering the last 40 years of the 8th century B.C. (c. 740-701). This section centers on the Assyrian crisis (and the Syro-Ephramaite war) during the years 735-732 B.C., and provides a firm historical setting. At the same time, the situation regarding the surrounding chapters (2-5, 9:7[8]-12:6) is more complex. A plausible critical theory would involve a three-stage process of composition and editing/redaction:

    • 6:1-9:6: a core document, presumably produced by the prophet’s own disciples (see the notice in 8:16), not long after the events of 735-2; it contains authentic Isaian material—oracles, and historical-biographical traditions.
    • At some point, this document was placed within the context of chapters 5 and 9:7-10:34, which seem to represent authentic Isaiah oracles from the late 8th century (prior to 701). The emphasis is more on the theme of the impending judgment—warning Judah of the coming judgment from Assyria, and an oracle against the great nation of Assyria itself. Critical commentators are generally agreed that 5:25-30 and 10:1-4a have been misplaced, swapped from one location to the other; this may have occurred as a way of smoothing the transition when the 6:1-9:6 document was included.
    • The addition of chapters 2-4, 11-12. This material appears to stem from a later period of composition, but likely still includes authentic Isaian material (though perhaps in an adapted form). It would seem that the oracles and traditions, related to the Assyrian crisis and its effect on Judah (chaps. 5-10), have been adapted to the context of the Babylonian conquest (and exile) more than a century later. The historical parallels between the two periods are obvious, and such an adaptation by a later author/editor would have been most natural. Evidence for such a dating of chaps. 2-4 was discussed in an earlier study, and will be addressed again in the upcoming study on 11:1-10.

I discussed 9:5-6 [6-7] in some detail as part of an earlier article (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”). I will be reproducing portions of that two-part article here (and in next week’s study), and you should consult it for an in-depth examination of the text. With regard to the historical background of 6:1-9:6[7] as a whole, it may be summarized for each of the sections/components of that document as follows:

    • Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah (discussed in the prior two Saturday Series studies), accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
    • Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
    • Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has also been discussed extensively in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”. It contains a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
    • Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
    • Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
    • Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) “God-with-us”:
      • “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
        • O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
        • (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
      • For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
    • Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
    • Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
    • Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section).

Clearly, 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] functions as the conclusion of the document, and there is some evidence that it, along with portions of 8:5-22, stems from a slightly later time than the rest of 6:1-9:6. Many commentators would identify this with the accession/coronation of Hezekiah, and in this they are likely correct. The beginning of Hezekiah’s reign is typically dated to 715 B.C., though some would locate that event as early as 729, placing it closer in time to the events of 735-2 (see above). Early Christians were quick to take this passage as a Messianic prophecy (of Jesus’ coming/birth, cf. Matthew 4:12-16), and it is simply accepted in this light by many Christians today as well. However valid such an interpretation may be, it is important to keep the original historical context of the passage in mind as we study it. That is to say, how would it have been understood in the 8th century, by the people of the time, to whom the oracle was primarily addressed? The original point-of-reference is almost certainly that of Hezekiah’s reign. He was the king of Judah at the time of the Assyrian campaigns, when the kingdom (and the city of Jerusalem) was saved from destruction and conquest.

Keeping this setting in mind, we can see how, in 11:1-10, the same sort of tradition—regarding a king who would oversee a time of salvation and peace for both Israel and Judah—could be adapted to the later context of the Babylonian conquest, providing a message of hope to the people of the exilic (and post-exilic) period. It even makes possible a future/eschatological interpretation of the oracle, part of the Messianic expectation of Jews and Christians in generations to come.

In next week’s study, we will proceed with a brief, but thorough, exegesis of both 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10, touching upon important critical questions and issues, and other points of interpretation, along the way.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 6:1-13 (vv. 9-13)

Isaiah 6:1-13, continued

In the previous study, we examined verses 1-8 exegetically, deriving the critical analysis through a verse-by-verse study. This week, while continuing through the remaining verses (9-13), we will also take the additional step of considering some of the wider theological issues that arise in the interpretation of this passage, and how it has been applied subsequently by Christians within the context of their own life-setting.

Isaiah 6:9-10

“And He said, ‘Go, and your shall say to this people:
Hearing, you must hear,
and (yet) you shall not discern;
seeing, you must see,
and (yet) you shall not know!
Make fat the heart of this people,
make heavy its ears and smear over its eyes,
so that it should not see with its eyes,
and with its ears hear, and with its heart discern,
and then turn, and there be healing for it!'”

Verses 1-8 establish the setting for Isaiah’s prophetic mission, rooted in an authentic historical (and biographical) tradition, as we discussed last week. In verse 8, Isaiah dramatically volunteers for the mission, to serve as God’s spokesperson (n¹bî°, “prophet”) and deliver His message to the people. Now the nature of this mission (and message) is presented to him, in rather jarring and disturbing terms. There is a stronger poetic character to this portion of the vision, and I have rendered it (loosely) as poetry above.

In verse 9, YHWH gives to Isaiah the message that he is to give to the people. However, this does not represent the content (or words) of the message per se, but rather illustrates the intended effect of his prophetic speaking. It makes use of a peculiar Semitic idiom, in which the verb is doubled for effect, with an infinitive together with an indicative (or imperative) form. Here the syntactical pattern involves an imperative; we can see the dramatic, staccato effect of this syntax, by displaying the Hebrew in transliteration:

šim±û š¹môa±
ûr°û r¹°ô

In translating this syntax, I find it is easier in English to give the infinitive first: “hearing, you must hear…seeing, you must see…”. The thrust is emphatic—that is, to give special emphasis to the verbal action. Here the sense is perhaps best understood as a prolonging of the effect of Isaiah’s preaching, and/or that the effect will be thorough and complete. In conventional translation, this is commonly rendered, in corresponding English idiom, as “keep on hearing…keep on seeing…”. In general, this is correct. The people will keep hearing Isaiah’s message, and yet will not understand or discern the truth; they will keep seeing the signs around them, and yet will not know or be aware of what is happening (until it is too late).

Even more striking is the way that this is described in verse 10, where YHWH commands the prophet to dull the senses of the people, so that they will not turn and repent. The theological difficulties with this idea were recognized at an early point, as indicating by the softening and rephrasing of the language in the Greek version, changing the infinitives to finite verbs, and making the people the subject of the action (i.e., “the mind of this people was made fat…”); cf. Roberts, p. 90. This will be discussed further below. For the moment, it is necessary to render the Hebrew as literally as possible, as I have done above.

The two-fold image of eyes/ears (seeing/hearing) has been turned into a three-fold image (eyes/ears/heart), folding in the separate idea of discernment/knowledge (= heart) from verse 9. For each sense-faculty, the prophet’s message involves the verbal action of covering it over. The three verbs are all imperatives in the (Hiphil) causative stem, clearly indicating that God, through the prophet, is causing this to happen:

    • “make fat” (hašm¢n) the heart, i.e. cover it over with a layer of oil or fat
    • “make heavy” (ha½b¢¼) the ears, i.e. weigh them down with a coating or covering
    • “smear over” (h¹ša±) the eyes, i.e. with a coating so that the person cannot see clearly

The purpose of this is stated in the second half of verse 10, marked by the adverbial conjunction pen (/P#). Its use negates a situation, often in the sense of something that is to be avoided, removing it from consideration. In English, such phrases are customarily translated as “lest…”, but this wording is rather archaic, and it is probably better to preserve more clearly the negative sense, which I do above (“so that…not…”):

“so that it [i.e. the people] should not see with its eyes,” etc.

What a strange mission for the prophet—to ensure that God’s people do not see or understand the truth! However, YHWH clearly tells Isaiah this is so that the people will not turn and receive healing (“and there will be healing for it”). The verb šû» literally means “turn”, often in the sense of “turn back, return”, used frequently in a moral-religious context, of people “turning back” to God. This wider application, especially when extended to include the idea of eternal salvation, makes the Christian use of vv. 9-10 genuinely problematic (see below). Here it must be understood in the more limited (historical) context of the impending Assyrian invasion(s) of Israel and Judah.

Isaiah 6:11-12

“And I said, ‘Until what (time), my Lord?’ And He said, ‘Until such (time) when cities have crashed (into ruins) with no one sitting [i.e. dwelling] (in them), and houses with no man (in them), and the ground [i.e. land] is left a (complete) devastation—and (until) YHWH (remove)s the men far away, and th(is) abandonment increases in the midst of the land!'”

Understandably disturbed by the mission God has given him, Isaiah wants to know how long (“until what [time]”) his speaking will have this negative effect. YHWH’s response (“until such [time] when…”) could not be more bleak, indicating that the prophet must continue his mission until cites have been destroyed, houses abandoned, and the land throughout has been completely devastated. This properly describes the effect of military conquest, and refers specifically to the invasion of Israel and Judah by the powerful Assyrian Empire (multiple campaigns between 733 and 701 B.C.). The northern Israelite kingdom (centered at Samaria) was conquered by Shalmaneser V in 722, and the southern Judean kingdom was devastated (and very nearly conquered) by Sennacherib some 20 years later. The exile of the people is prophesied in verse 12, emphasizing the extent of it in two ways:

    • wideness/distance from the land—i.e. the people being removed far away
    • and increase of abandonment within the land—i.e. there will hardly be anyone left in it (v. 11)

Though the Assyrians are the proximate cause of this devastation, it is YHWH who brings it about (and is the ultimate cause), as v. 12 clearly indicates.

Isaiah 6:13

“‘And (if) there is yet in it a tenth, it shall even turn (back) and shall be for (the) consuming (of it). Like the elah-tree and like the oak tree, which, in (its) being sent [i.e. cut] (down), (there is a portion) in them (that remains) standing, (and) its (portion that remains) standing (is the) holy seed.'”

The textual difficulties in this concluding verse are considerable, and cannot be dealt with in detail here. Many commentators feel that the text is corrupt, and, if so, it is practically impossible to retrieve/restore the original. The Qumran manuscripts and the versions offer little help, except to confirm the difficulty of the verse. The problems may have arisen from early scribal attempts to cast the verse in a more positive light, emphasizing an ultimate promise of hope in the midst of the devastation that was prophesied. For the purposes of this study, I have worked from the Masoretic text, without emendation.

With regard to the tree-illustration, the key term is maƒƒe»e¾, which refers to something that “remains standing (in place)” (vb n¹ƒa»). The idea is that nearly the entire tree has been “sent (down)”, i.e. cut down, felled; and yet there is the stump, a small portion that remains standing. This portion is called “the holy seed” (the Qumran Isaiah scroll [1QIsaa] includes the definite article), by which is probably meant the basis, or foundation, from which the restoration of the land (and its people) can begin. In the context of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, this may refer specifically to the city of Jerusalem, which survived a siege and was not conquered, while many of the surrounding cities were. To the extent that the Isaian context was applied to the later situation of the Babylonian invasion (and exile), this promise of restoration, centered at Jerusalem, would have taken on special significance, eventually carrying Messianic and eschatological overtones (cf. chapters 2-4, 11-12).

Christian Application of Isa 6:9-13

For many Christians, and readers of the New Testament, verses 9-13 (esp. vv. 9-10) are familiar from their use in the Gospels and by the early Christian missionaries (such as Paul). This provides an interesting example of how Old Testament passages can be taken out of their original context, and applied to a new setting and situation. For commentators who wish to affirm both a single (primarily/original) meaning to the Old Testament prophecies, and the inspiration of the New Testament authors/speakers, it is necessary to posit something like an “inspired application”, which, though secondary, carries its own inspired meaning and truth.

Jesus himself made use of vv. 9-10, citing them, according to the Synoptic tradition, as part of an explanation for why he taught and preached using parables. We tend to think of the parables as illustrations which help the average person to understand what Jesus is saying; however, according to Mark 4:10-12 par, Jesus’ intention is the opposite. He is communicating the “secret” of the Kingdom of God, but this “secret” is being revealed only to his close followers. For others, the truth of the Kingdom remains hidden, and parables serve to conceal the truth from the people at large. It is in this context that Isa 6:9-10 is cited. The Greek wording (in Mark) differs from both the Hebrew MT and the Greek LXX, especially in its use of the verb aphí¢mi (“release, let [go] from”), with its connotation of forgiveness from sin: “…so they should not (at any time) turn back and it be released for them” (the parallel in Matt 13:14-15 is closer to the LXX). If forgiveness from sin is meant here, then it gives to vv. 9-10 an application toward the idea of eternal salvation that is rather troubling, in light of God’s active role (in the original prophetic message) in keeping people from recognizing the truth.

The Gospel of John does seem to take things a step further, in this direction, when the author (and/or his underlying tradition) cites vv. 9-10 in 12:39-41, using the prophecy as a way of explaining why many Jews at the time were not able to trust in Jesus. In the Johannine writings, the verb pisteúœ (“trust”) tends to be used in the specific sense of the trust in Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God) that marks the true believer, and one who possesses eternal life. Thus, to say that these people were not able to trust means that they were not (and could not be) true believers destined for salvation and eternal life.

In the closing scene in the book of Acts (28:23-28), as Paul speaks with Jews in Rome, he also cites Isa 6:9-10 (vv. 26-27), similarly, as an explanation for why many of these Jews were unable/unwilling to believe (lit. were “without trust”, v. 24f). The closing words in v. 28, pitting the trusting Gentiles against unbelieving Jews, may seem disturbing to our modern-day sensibilities, but they reflect the historical situation faced by Paul and other missionaries at the time. He deals with the Jew/Gentile problem—i.e. why many Gentiles trust in Jesus while many Jews do not—more comprehensively in his letter to the Romans (esp. chapters 9-11).

What is common in all these passages, in relation to Isa 6:9-13, is the idea that God is specifically acting so that many people do not (and cannot) see or recognize the truth. This seems to go squarely against how we tend to think about God—that he wants everyone to understand and accept the truth, and any failure to do so is our responsibility, not God’s. In balancing the sense of the control human beings have over their own destinies, with the extent to which they are controlled by God (or the deities, in a polytheistic setting), the ancient peoples tended to emphasize God’s ultimate (and sovereign) control, whereas modern (Western) society, by contrast, stresses individual human control and responsibility.

Why does God not want His people to see/understand the truth and turn back to Him (in repentance, etc)? To answer this, we must keep close to the original historical context of Isa 6:9-13. Isaiah’s mission in chap. 6ff is to announce the judgment that is coming on the people of Israel and Judah, in the form, primarily, of the Assyrian military invasion(s). If the people realized the nature of this judgment, and its imminence, they might well repent, and this would prompt YHWH to curtail the just punishment that the people deserved for their sins and crimes. Instead, in order for the full punishment to be meted out, and for the judgment to be realized in full, the people are prevented from realizing (or accepting) what is happening to them, until it is too late.

This is comparable in some ways to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Exodus narratives. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Exod 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17), God brings about the full punishment upon Egypt, the completion of all the “plagues”, including the last and greatest (death of the firstborn). This, of course, does not remove the guilt or responsibility of Pharaoh—there is a sense in which he hardens his own heart (Exod 8:11, 28; 9:34; cf. also 7:13-14; 8:15; 9:7, 35; Roberts, p. 102 note)—but ultimately it is God (YHWH) who brings this about. The point is that God’s action (here through the prophet Isaiah) allows for the full judgment/punishment of the people to be realized. Only after this punishment has taken effect—through conquest, destruction, and exile—can the restoration of the people occur (v. 13).

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 6:1-13

Isaiah 6:1-13

After a hiatus for Holy Week, we pick up our Saturday Series studies, currently working in the Book of Isaiah. The past few studies were divided according to the specific areas of Biblical Criticism—textual criticism, historical criticism, source criticism, literary criticism. Here, in this study on Isa 6:1-13, we will be using an inductive, exegetical approach, touching upon the various areas of criticism as they are relevant in the context of each verse.

Isaiah 6:1

“In (the) year of (the) death of the king Yah-is-my-strength {Uzziyahu}, and (it was then) I saw the Lord sitting upon (His) seat (of honor), being high and lifted (up), and His (garment)s hanging (down) were filling (His) palace.” (v. 1)

This majestic statement establishes the vision-scene recorded in chapter 6. It is significant that, though the introduction to the book as a whole (1:1) refers to it as a µ¹zôn (literally something one looks/gazes at), actual visions in the book are quite rare. This is one of the few, and it is significant since it marks the beginning of the historical-biographical strand (involving the person and times of Isaiah himself) that runs through the first half of the book (chaps. 2-39).

Textually, this establishing verse is straightforward enough. The only significant variation is found in the Greek version (LXX), where the anthropomorphic detail of YHWH’s hanging garments (Heb. šûl, plur.) is translated more abstractly as dóxa (“honor, splendor”). It is, however, an essential detail, since it relates to the overall vision of God (YHWH) on his throne. The prophet sees Him sitting on his seat of honor (kiss¢°, i.e. throne), raised high above the floor. The locale is further identified as the palace (hêk¹l) of YHWH—that is, the Temple in Jerusalem. In the ancient world, palace and temple were closely connected; indeed, the royal palace and the deity’s temple were often part of the same building complex. Moreover, the temple itself was envisioned as a divine palace, with the deity dwelling in it as a king or ruler. The sanctuary was the “throne room” for the deity, and people would approach God in the sanctuary just as one would the king on his throne. For a similar throne-vision of YHWH, see the vision of Micaiah in 2 Kings 22:19-23; it is a type of visionary genre that would last for centuries, down through generations of Jewish and Christian tradition.

From a form-critical standpoint, this is a vision-narrative (in prose), set within a biographical and historical context—that of the life and career of the prophet Isaiah. It marks the beginning of his prophetic career (cp. the “call-narratives” of Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and certainly that which is central to chaps. 2-39, i.e. the Assyrian crises in the second half of the 8th century B.C. In the previous study, mention was made of the critical theory that the opening and closing sections of chapters 2-12 (chs. 2-4, 11-12) may have been composed at a later time (perhaps in the exilic or post-exilic periods), while including earlier (and authentic) material. There is no doubt, however, that the central chapters 6-8 belong to the time of Isaiah himself. This is clear from the opening words here in verse 1, where the vision is said to have occurred the year of Uzziah’s death (c. 740 B.C.). There is no reason, on objective grounds, to doubt the accuracy of this detail. Indeed, the prophetic narrative in chapters 6-8, in particular, derives from authentic historical tradition regarding the prophet Isaiah. Viewed source-critically, the detail in 8:1-2, 16ff allows for the (strong) possibility that these chapters have essentially been preserved from the circle (of disciples) around Isaiah.

Isaiah 6:2

“Burning (creature)s were standing from (the place) above Him, (with) six pairs of wings, six pairs of wings for each—(with) two it covered its face, and (with) two it covered its feet, and (with) two it soared (aloft).”

The main textual difficulty in verse 2 involves the precise meaning of the noun ´¹r¹¸ (here plural ´®r¹¸îm). The verbal root ´¹ra¸ means “burn” (as with fire); however, elsewhere in the Old Testament, the noun refers to a (venomous) snake, presumably with an ancient allusion to the burning/fiery effect of its poison (see Num 21:6-8; Deut 8:15). In Isa 14:29 and 30:6, the noun is parallel with other words used for a deadly snake (n¹µ¹š, ƒe¸a±, °e¸±eh), and clearly refers to a flying snake. Almost certainly that is the same image intended here in 6:2—a winged, flying serpentine figure. However offensive this might be to our modern sensibilities, especially with the traditional negative connotations of the serpent/snake motif, it would not have been nearly so problematic in Isaiah’s time. Hybrid creatures (with animal and human attributes) were frequently used in religious art and royal iconography throughout the ancient Near East, including Palestine and Syria, among the Israelites and related peoples.

The k§rû» (plural k®rû»îm) was a similar divine/heavenly being, which likely possessed both human and animal characteristics. Parallels in ancient Near Eastern iconography suggest a winged lion or bull with a human head. Such sphinx-like figures regularly flanked the throne, and the golden box (or ‘ark’) that served as the throne of YHWH, and placed in the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Jerusalem Temple, also had a pair of winged kerubs surrounding it. As for the image of a winged snake, it is well known from Egyptian royal and religious art (as on the throne of Tutankhamun, see below), and is also attested, for example, on a number of stamp-seals in Palestine, dating from the 8th and early 7th century (the very time of Isaiah). On this, see N. Avigad and B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; Israel Exploration Society; Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997), nos. 11, 104, 127, 194, 206, 284, 381, 385; Roberts, p. 97. This detail would tend to confirm the historical authenticity of chapter 6. Mention could also be made of the tradition reflected in Num 21:6-9; 2 Kings 18:4, of a pole-mounted snake that served as a religious/cult object.

I have translated ´®r¹¸îm literally as “burning (creature)s”, though, as noted above, it is likely that winged serpentine figures (with human attributes) are being envisioned. They represent divine/heavenly beings who stand in the presence of YHWH and attend to him on His throne. The covering of their faces and “feet” (which can be a euphemism for the male genitals) indicates the awe and reverence they display before God, and anticipates Isaiah’s own response. In Egyptian iconography the (winged) snake or cobra serves a protective, guardian role; here, the sense is rather different, emphasizing instead the splendor and holiness of YHWH Himself.

Isaiah 6:3

“And this (one) called to that (one) and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy (is) YHWH of the (heavenly) armies! His weight/worth (is beyond the) fullness of all (the) earth!'”

Probably there are two flanking seraphs overhead, matching the two kerubs of YHWH’s throne, and they call out to each other. It is an overwhelmingly massive and majestic scene, the words uttered by the seraphs matching the visual in verse 1, of YHWH towering high, with his outhanging garments filling the entire Temple sanctuary. The adjective q¹¼ôš and noun k¹»ô¼ each reflect the attempt to express, however inadequately, the nature and character of YHWH. The root qdš fundamentally refers to the idea of purity, especially in the religious context of something that is consecrated or set apart. By contrast kbd carries the basic meaning of weight, with the religious and ethical connotation of the worth and value of something (as the weight of a precious metal, etc). The three-fold exclamation of God’s purity (the Qumran Isaiah scroll [1QIsaa] has only a two-fold exclamation) indicates how different He is from the ordinary world of human life and existence. Similarly his “weight” far surpasses and transcends the full measure (“fullness”) of the entire world.

Isaiah 6:4

“And the ‘elbows’ of the (door)posts wavered from the voice of the (one) calling, and the (entire) house was filled with smoke.”

The imagery from the prior verses continues, blending theophany (manifestation of God) with the sacred space and ritual of the Temple sanctuary. In a sense, we are moving backward—from the throne of YHWH in the innermost shrine, out to the threshhold, and across into the outer sanctuary where the altar for burning incense stood. These last two details are reflected here in verse 4. The technical language can be difficult to render clearly in translation, with the expression “‘elbows’ [i.e. hinges, pivots] of the doorposts” referring to the threshhold of the inner shrine, and the “smoke” a reference to the burning of incense. The “house”, of course, is figurative for the Temple, either the entire building or the sanctuary specifically (here the latter is intended). On the image of the entire house being filled, one is reminded of the scene of the anointing of Jesus, in the Gospel of John: “and the house was filled out of the fragrance of the myrrh-ointment” (12:3). From an historical standpoint, this detailed use of Temple-imagery is interesting, since it is unlikely that Isaiah himself would have ever seen inside the sanctuary (on Hezekiah’s presence in the sanctuary, cf. 2 Kings 19:14-15ff).

Isaiah 6:5

“And I said: ‘Oh, (what this does) to me! For I have ceased (to be)! For I (am) a man of polluted lips, and I (am) sitting [i.e. dwelling] in the middle of a people of polluted lips! For my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of the (heavenly) armies!'”

This verse indicates Isaiah’s response to his great vision. He apparently sees himself positioned in the Temple, probably at the threshhold of the inner shrine. His initial exclamation may be rendered more concisely as “Woe to me!” or “Oh, for me!”, however in my expanded translation above I have sought to capture the proper sense of the effect this vision has on the prophet. From a literary-critical standpoint, it is worth considering the kind of wordplay (and play on images) that is being utilized in the narrative here, something that tends to be lost or obscured in most English translations.

For one thing, we have the contrast between YHWH sitting (yœš¢») on His throne (v. 1), with Isaiah who recognizes that he has been “sitting” (yôš¢», i.e. ‘dwelling’) in the midst of an unclean people. Here the uncleanness (‰m°) of the human condition is contrasted with the purity (qdš) of YHWH. The effect of this realization is expressed by another bit of wordplay (dual meaning) involving the verb d¹mâ. This root fundamentally refers to something ceasing or coming to an end; it can be understood either in an existential sense (i.e. ceasing to exist, being destroyed), or in terms of an action or ability that ceases. The latter sense can specifically refer to the action/ability of speaking—to cease speaking, i.e. be silent. For a prophet (n¹»î°), a spokesperson for God, who speaks on His behalf, the effect on one’s ability to speak is most significant. I have rendered d¹mâ rather literally above, more or less assuming that the existential sense is primary. This follows the basic religious-theological idea that a human being is unable to see God and still live (Exod 33:20, etc). At the same time, it expresses the awe the prophet feels, and so he is unable to speak; this is similar to the reaction of the seraphim in YHWH’s presence (covering their faces).

There is a similar play on the motif of one’s lips (š®¸¹¾ayim). It again relates to the idea of a person speaking, but it also serves as the focal point for the pollution that characterizes the populace. Here the ritual aspect (unclean food, etc, touching the lips) is used to express a religious and ethical point, well expressed, for example, in 29:13: “this people comes near with its mouth, and with its lips it gives weight [i.e. honor] to me, but its heart is wide (apart) [i.e. far away] from me”. The pollution of the people (their lips) has more to do with a false/corrupt religion and ethic, than it does with their ritual behavior, in spite of the cultic (Temple) setting of the vision.

Isaiah 6:6-7

“And he soared to me, one from (among) the burning (creature)s, and in his hand (was) a glowing (stone) (that) he took with a pair of (tool)s for taking (stones) from upon the place of sacrifice. And he touched (it) upon my mouth, and said, ‘See, this has touched upon your lips, and your crookedness is turned (aside), and your sin is wiped (away)’.”

The word mizb¢aµ literally means the place of ritual slaughter (i.e. the altar for sacrificial offerings); however, it came to be used regularly for other kinds of altars, such as those for offering incense. That is the altar referenced here—the incense altar located in the outer sanctuary. The smoke filling the room comes from the offerings of incense, and the hot (glowing rƒ¸) stones are the coals from the altar. Here again is another play on the seraphs as “burning” creatures; one of them picks up a burning/fiery coal from the altar. Now, however, the fire from the altar serves a different ritual purpose—namely, to purify the prophet, specifically his mouth (and lips). For the human prophet to survive in the presence of YHWH’s purity and holiness, his impurity has to be removed. From a ritual standpoint, this may be referred to as expiation. The danger of contact between human and deity is “turned aside” (vb sûr); sometimes this entails a turning away of the deity’s anger and intent to punish, etc, but it can also involve the removal of any possible evil or offense from the human participant. In the case of the prophet Isaiah, it also involves a specific kind of consecration—for a particular prophetic mission.

Isaiah 6:8

“And (then) I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘See, I (am here)! Send me!'”

YHWH’s throne room is the location of His royal court, such as in the pattern of human palaces. This court-setting is only faintly indicated here; a more detailed example is found in the earlier throne-vision of Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19-22, mentioned above). In that vision, YHWH asks of his servants and messengers, “Who will open (up) to Ahab, and (then) [i.e. so that] he will go up and will fall on the heights of Gil’ad?” (v. 20). One particular divine/heavenly being (“spirit”) comes forward and volunteers for the assignment (v. 21), much as Isaiah does here. The purpose of the mission in the Micaiah vision is to entice Ahab so that he will end up facing judgment (by military defeat) for his wickedness. Isaiah’s prophetic mission has a similar purpose. It is likely that the burning coal that touches Isaiah’s lips contains an allusion to the message of (fiery) judgment that the prophet must bring to the people of Judah (see a similar use of fire from the altar in Rev 8:3-5). This represents the dual-aspect of the burning/fire motif in the vision: the purity of YHWH effectively burns away (and destroys) all impurity—for the wicked this means destruction from God’s Judgment, while for the righteous, their sins (1QIsaa reads plur. “sins” in v. 7) are wiped away. This is part of the powerful imagery depicting YHWH as a “devouring fire” (33:14; cf. 10:17; 30:27-33; 31:9; Roberts, p. 100).

The nature and significance of the message of Judgment given to Isaiah is expressed in verses 9-13. While part of the same vision scene, these verses (esp. 9-10) are better known to many readers, from their use (generally out of context) in several key passages of the New Testament. This secondary application, along with certain theological questions that tend to be raised, makes a more detailed study of vv. 9-13 useful here. In next week’s study, we will focus both on the text itself, and on some of the wider issues of interpretation/application, as a way of demonstrating how a sound critical approach can help greatly in addressing such issues.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 2:1-5

Isaiah 2:1-5

“The word which Yesha’yahu son of Amos saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim” (v. 1)

This superscription mirrors that of 1:1, and should be taken as the opening of the book proper, that is, of chapters 2-39. Another similar superscription follows at 13:1, which indicates that chapters 2-12 form a distinct division, though whether or not they reflect a specific source document or stage of composition for chaps. 2-39, is difficult to say. In any case, it is important to view a passage (such as Isa 2:1-5) within its wider Scriptural context–which here involves the division comprised of chapters 2-12. Thematically, chaps. 2-4 form a smaller unit, with a parallel section (11:1-12:6) at the end of this division. They share the (eschatological) theme of the restoration of Israel, alternating with oracles of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem. The eschatological aspect of these chapters, with its theme of restoration, is more typical of so-called Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-66), which critical commentators believe was composed later on, reflecting an exilic or post-exilic setting. This would be contrasted with the core section 6:1-9:6, which clearly is set in Isaiah’s own time, dealing with the 8th century Assyrian crises. The surrounding judgment poems and oracles of chapters 5 and 10 also appear more closely related to the late-8th century Assyrian setting.

Before looking at the individual verses and lines of 2:2-5, it may be worth considering the passage briefly in terms of the various areas of Biblical Criticism (see the introductory study).

Textual Criticism

This passage is, of course, contained in the great Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa), as well as (partially) in manuscripts 4QIsab,e,f. There are several interesting variants between 1QIsaa (the Isaiah Scroll) and the Masoretic Text (MT); most notably, the text of 1QIsaa is shorter in verse 3 (absent the portion in italics):

“(Let us) go, and we shall go up to (the) mountain of YHWH,
to (the) house of the Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob”

The other main difference is the reading of the plural verb form “and they will instruct us” (w®yœrûnû) instead of the MT singular “and He will instruct us” (w®yœr¢nû). There are a few smaller, minor variants, as well as some orthographic differences; but, otherwise the Masoretic Text is relatively secure, and we can work from it without undue complications.

Source Criticism

A textual point of note is that the text of Isa 2:2-5 has a parallel version (with some key differences, noted below) in Micah 4:1-5. This raises a number of source- and composition-critical questions. The relationship between the two versions has been explained in various ways:

    • The book of Isaiah derives it from Micah
    • The book of Micah derives it from Isaiah
    • Both versions are derived from a common earlier source

I am inclined to the latter view, which would tend to support the idea that the opening and closing portions of this division—i.e. chapters 2-4 and 11-12—date from a later period than the material in the central chapters 5-10, but that they still contain old prophetic material (even from Isaiah himself), united by certain key thematic and literary points. Our passage 2:2-5, in particular, seems to have much in common with the Deutero-Isaian oracles in the second half of the book.

Historical Criticism

The eschatological aspect of 2:2-5, with its theme of the restoration of Israel, centered around the Jerusalem Temple, and the outreach to the surrounding (Gentile) nations, is certainly typical of many of the Deutero-Isaian oracles in chaps. 40-66—see, for example, 40:9; 42:6-7; 45:14-23; 49:6; 51:4; 56:7; 57:13; 60:1-18; 65:11, 26; 66:20, etc. Most critical commentators would ascribe the Deutero-Isaian material, generally, to the exile or post-exilic period. A thematic comparison with texts from this period (e.g. Zech 2:14-16 [EV 12-14]; 8:20-23; Hag 2:7-9) would tend to point in this direction (cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 191). I have already noted (above) the idea that the framing sections in chapters 2-4, 11-12, while likely containing earlier/older material, may well have been composed somewhat later. If this is correct, it would tell us something significant about how the book of Isaiah was composed, with the message of the historical Prophet being applied to the situation of Judah/Jerusalem in a later time. In this case, according to this theory, the promise of deliverance (for Jerusalem and a faithful remnant) from the Assyrian invasion would have been applied to the Babylonian exile and the promise of a future restoration/return.

Literary Criticism

Isa 2:2-5 is short oracle, written in a highly poetic prose style; it may be called a poem, though with a loose metrical and verse structure. It would be characterized as a salvation- or restoration-oracle, rather typical, as I have noted, of the oracles in chapters 40-66 (so-called Deutero-Isaiah). The thematic structure of the poem can be outlined as follows:

    • Opening stanza on the Jerusalem Temple (v. 2, lines 1-4)
    • Visionary scene regarding the Nations (v. 2, line 5; v. 3)
    • Closing stanza on the New Age for humankind (v. 4)
    • Concluding exhortation (v. 5)

Thematically, the central scene has a chiastic structure:

    • The Nations come to the Temple to hear God’s word
      • Declaration of the Nations
    • God’s word goes out from the Temple to the Nations

Now, let us briefly examine each of these portions.


Verse 2a-d

“And it shall be, in the days (coming) after (this),
(the) mountain of the house of YHWH shall be set (up),
on the head [i.e. top] of (all) the mountains,
and lifted up from [i.e. over] (the) high (hill)s.”

This opening stanza, as such, establishes the central theme of the Jerusalem Temple, referred to traditionally as the “house” (bê¾) of YHWH, but also as a mountain (har). The mountain motif relates to the ancient fortified hill-top location of the Temple, the Canaanite site taken over by Israel to form the core of the future Jerusalem (the “city of David”, also known as Mount Zion). However, the mountain has an even more archetypal (mythic-religious) association with the Temple. The mountain was a figure-type for the meeting place between heaven and earth, i.e. the place where human beings could come into contact with the divine. A temple building served much the same symbolic purpose, and temples frequently were constructed on mountain or hilltop locations. Ancient Mesopotamian tradition, beginning with the Sumerians, constructed their great city-state temples to resemble a mountain (i.e. the ziggurat form).

The expression b®°aµ¦rî¾ hayy¹mîm, translated “in the days (coming) after (this)”, gradually came to have a specific eschatological connotation—i.e. in the “last days”, or “latter days”, the days to come in the future, at the end of the current Age. Though not as precise here, perhaps, it certainly still carries an eschatological significance. Thus, it is a prophecy of the role the Temple will play in the end-time—marking the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the New Age to come.

Verse 2e-3a

“And all the nations will stream to it,
and many peoples will go and say:”
“And peoples shall stream upon it,
and many nations will go and say:”

This couplet opens the central visionary scene of the oracle and introduces the declaration of the Nations in verse 3. The verb n¹har creates the image of people “streaming” to the Temple like rivers, all flowing into a central location, a great reservoir or sea.

Verse 3b-e

“(Let us) walk, and we shall go up to (the) mountain of YHWH,
to (the) house of the Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm] of Ya’aqob;
and He will instruct us from His ways,
and we will walk in His (well-)traveled (path)s.”

This statement, introduced in 3a, is essentially a declaration of faithfulness by the nations, collectively. The idiom of “walking” (verb h¹lak) is used here specifically for the idea of obeying and worshiping God. Even as the nations walk (travel) to the Temple in Jerusalem, they are demonstrating their loyalty and obedience to YHWH, the God of Israel, walking in His “ways” and “paths”. Again, traveling a path is figurative for following instruction, in a religious or ethical/moral sense. The verb y¹râ is related to the Hebrew noun transliterated as Torah (tôrâ); it literally signifies aiming or pointing in a particular direction (as when one shoots an arrow, etc), thus blending effectively the motifs of travel and instruction.

The idea that the surrounding nations, the non-Israelite peoples, might be converted, coming to worship YHWH—and even joining with Israel as the people of God—is a notable theme in Deutero-Isaiah (as indicated above), but is less prominent in chapters 2-39. It came to be part of the Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation, and, as such, was inherited by early Christians who gave to it a unique interpretation. Naturally, it was applied to the early mission to the Gentiles, and was a key theme in the book of Acts (being foreshadowed also in the Lukan Gospel), as also by Paul in his letters.

On the mountain-motif, see the discussion above. The idea of the Temple as the “house” of God is traditional; here, the expression is “house of the Mighty One [i.e. God] of Jacob [i.e. Israel]”, referring to YHWH specifically as the God of Israel. The Temple is the place where Israel interacts with God, thus it is, in a sense, also Israel’s house (cf. verse 5 below). The expression is typical of the Deutero-Isaian oracles (e.g. 46:3; 48:1; 58:1), but also occurs a number of times in the Psalms.

Verse 3f-g

“For from ‚iyyôn (the) instruction goes forth,
and the word of YHWH from Yerushalaim.”

The couplet is parallel to that of 2e-3a (see above). Just as the nations come to the Temple to hear the God’s instruction (torah), so also God’s word goes out from the Temple, radiating outward to reach the nations. The narrative in the early chapters of Acts plays on both these ideas, both ‘directions’ —people from the surrounding nations come to Jerusalem to hear the Gospel proclamation (chap. 2), and then those who believe go out from Jerusalem to proclaim the same message into the nations (from chap. 8 onward, see 1:8, etc).

Verse 4

“And He shall judge between the nations,
and bring decision for many (people)s;
and they will beat their swords (in)to digging (tool)s,
and their thrusting (weapon)s (in)to trimming (kniv)es.
A nation will not lift a sword to a(nother) nation,
and they shall not learn again to make war.”

Micah 4:3-4:
“And He shall judge between many peoples,
and bring decision for mighty nations,
(even) unto (those) far away;
and they will beat their swords (in)to digging (tool)s,
and their thrusting (weapon)s (in)to trimming (kniv)es.
A nation will not lift a sword to a(nother) nation,
and they shall not learn again to make war.
And they shall sit (together)—
a man under his vine, and under his fig-tree,
and no one will bring fear (to them)—
for (the) mouth of YHWH of the (heavenly) armies utters it.

This three-couplet stanza is parallel to the opening stanza of verse 2; in both, the eschatological context is primary. Here it is defined qualitatively, describing the New Age to come—a ‘Golden Age’ of peace and righteousness. Because the nations now follow YHWH, obeying His instruction, their wicked and violent impulses, i.e. to attack one another, have been curbed and transformed. This ideal hope and promise of peace remains one of the most beloved of all Old Testament passages.

The Mican version is notably different, with additional lines in bold (above), and another minor difference in word order in italics.

Verse 5

“House of Ya’aqob, walk—we shall walk (together) in the light of YHWH!”

Micah 4:5:
“For all the peoples will walk—
a man in (the) name of his Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm]—
but we will walk in (the) name of YHWH our Mighty (One),
(in)to the distant (future) and unto (the end).”

This final exhortation also summarizes the eschatological promise of the oracle—that the nations will join with Israel (“the house of Jacob”) as the people of God. The version in Micah again differs noticeably, patterned after the prior verse 4; it also establishes a contrast between Israel and the nations—i.e. “our God” (YHWH) vs. the deit(ies) of the surrounding peoples. The emphasis in Isaiah 2 appears to be more inclusive.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (2000).



Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:2-31

Isaiah 1:2-31

In the Saturday Series studies this March and April, we will be exploring the rich trove of prophetic and historical material in the book of Isaiah. The critical areas, as they relate to the book, were discussed in last week’s introductory study. This week we will begin turning our eye to the text of the book, in practical terms, looking at a number of key passages and portions. Our analysis opens with the opening oracle in chapter 1. As the superscription in 2:1 serves just as well for the introduction to Isaiah (and certainly to chapters 2-39), many commentators feel that chapter 1 was added at a later point in the formation and redaction of the book, serving as a summary of various elements and themes that would be found throughout—both in chapters 2-39, and the so-called “deutero”- and “trito”-Isaian portions (chaps. 40-66). And, just as the book itself is composite, so the introductory chapter has a composite character, apparently including pieces of various genres, and areas of emphasis, with indications of different time-periods (perhaps) being referenced. A careful study of the chapter will bear out this evaluation, to some extent.

Isaiah 1:2-3

“Hear, (you) heavens, and give ear, (you) earth!
for YHWH opens (His mouth) to speak:
Sons have I helped grow (strong) and raised (them high),
and (yet) they have broken (trust) with me!
An ox knows (the one) purchasing [i.e. who purchases] it
and a donkey (knows) the trough of its master,
(but yet) Yisrael does not know—
my people do not recognize (this) themselves!”

The opening call to heaven and earth resembles the beginning of the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 (discussed in earlier studies):

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” (v. 1)

Indeed, there would seem to be a number of Deuteronomic themes and points of emphasis here in chapter 1, include several that relate specifically to the Song of Moses and its context. The background involves the idea of the binding agreement (or ‘covenant’, Heb. b®rî¾) in the ancient Near East, the religious setting of which entailed calling on various deities as witnesses to the agreement—and to bring divine judgment if either party violates its terms. Since in Deuteronomy, et al, the binding agreement is between Israel and God (YHWH), there is no need to call on the Deity as a witness; instead, all of creation is called—i.e. heaven and earth, which were often considered to be primary deities in the ancient world.

Generally speaking, chapter 1 functions as a judgment-oracle, declaring the judgment that would come upon Israel—specifically Judah and Jerusalem—for violating the covenant with YHWH. Within the confines of the agreement, the Israelite people are recognized, symbolically, as God’s children (“sons”), His own people. This makes their violation, literally a breaking of trust (vb p¹ša±), a breaking away from God, all the more tragic; it is like a son betraying his own father. This motif, too, is part of the Deuteronomic language expressed in the Song of Moses (vv. 5-6, 11ff, 19-20), and is something of a common-place in the Prophets.

A bit of irony is made use of in verse 3, to emphasize the point. Even an animal (ox or donkey) knows enough to be faithful to the one who owns it (and feeds it), and yet Israel, God’s own children and people, do not seem to know or recognize their relationship to Him!

Isaiah 1:4

“Oh, (you) sinning nation,
people heavy (with) crooked(ness)!
Seed of (those) doing evil,
sons of (those) bringing ruin!
They have abandoned YHWH,
despised the Holy (One) of Yisrael!
They have turned aside, back(ward)!”

Verse 4 is a woe-oracle in miniature, beginning with a striking alliterative declaration, the effect of which is almost impossible to capture in translation:

Hôy gôy µœ‰¢°
“Oh, sinning nation…”

The final line of v. 4 is absent from the old Greek (Septuagint/LXX), but exists in the great Isaiah scroll from Qumran (and other MSS). While perfunctory in context, these two words (n¹zœrû °¹µôr) help to establish the theme of Israel’s wickedness (and corrupt religious practice) as defined in terms of false religion and idolatry—i.e., turning away from God to follow after other deities. In the 8th-7th century Prophets, judgment comes to Israel as a result of their adopting false religious practices; however, the emphasis here in chapter 1, as in many of the later (exilic and post-exilic) Prophetic oracles, is on the corruption of religion because of the wider evils tolerated in society (i.e., injustice, mistreatment of the poor, etc). Thus there is here an interesting juxtaposition of earlier and later themes, very much typical of the book of Isaiah as a whole.

The title “the Holy One of Israel” (q®dôš yi´r¹°¢l) is distinctive to Isaiah, occurring repeatedly throughout the book, though some commentators believe that it tends to belong to a later stage/period of authorship. It may derive from the Temple liturgy (cf. Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:19; and note the context of Isa 6:1ff; Blenkinsopp, p. 183).

Isaiah 1:7-9

“Your land (is) a desolation—
your cities burned (with) fire,
your soil, (there) in front of you,
(those) turning aside are devouring it—
and a desolation like the overthrow of <Sodom>!
And Daughter ‚iyyôn is left (after it)
like a covered (shelter) in a vineyard,
like a lodging-place in a cucumber-patch,
like a city watched (by those surrounding it)!
(If it) were not that YHWH of the Armies (of Heaven)
had left (behind) for us (just) a few survivor(s),
we would have been (just) like Sodom,
(and) bear a resemblance to ‘Amorah!”

This again is an oracle in miniature—a judgment-oracle, declaring the judgment that will come upon Judah (and Jerusalem), in the form of a military attack, along with the devastation that comes in the aftermath of invasion. This aspect touches upon the area of historical criticism. If this is an authentic Isaian oracle (or at least from the late-8th century B.C.), then there are two possibilities for a military invasion of Judah that could fit this prophecy: (1) the invasion by the Northern Israelite kingdom and Aram-Syria (734-733), or (2) the Assyrian attack under Sennacherib (701), in which Jerusalem survived the devastation, but only barely so. The latter option is preferable, and well fits the historical scenario, of Isaiah’s own time, emphasized throughout much of chapters 2-39. Moreover, the imagery in verse 8, of Zion (Jerusalem) completely surrounded, certainly fits the circumstances of the Assyrian siege.

Rhetorically, this Judgment is framed by the ancient tradition of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). Judah/Jerusalem barely avoids the fate of their complete devastation. The use of the noun mahp¢kâ (from the verb h¹pak) in the last line of verse 7, suggests the following word in the Masoretic text (also in the Qumran MSS), z¹rîm (“[those] turning aside”, i.e. foreigners, strangers, passers-by), repeated from the previous line, may be an error. Elsewhere the noun mahp¢kâ is always used in the context of the “overthrow” of Sodom; the motif of Sodom/Gomorrah here raises the strong possibility that the text originally read s§dœm (<d)s=) instead of z¹rîm (<yr!z`). Textual emendation should be done with extreme caution, and as rarely as possible, especially when the manuscript support for it is slight (or otherwise non-existent). However, here I do tentatively emend the final word of verse 7, indicated by the angle brackets in the translation above.

Isaiah 1:10-17

“Hear the speech [i.e. word] of YHWH,
(you) leaders of Sodom!
Give ear to the instruction of our Mightiest [Elohim],
(you) people of ‘Amorah!
For what (purpose) to me (are) your many slaughtered (offering)s?
(So) says YHWH—
I have had (my) fill of (the) rising (smoke) of strong (ram)s,
and (the burning) fat of well-fed (cattle),
and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats
I take no delight (in them)!
For you come to be seen (by) my Face—
(but) who seeks this from your hand,
(the) trampling of my enclosures?
You must not continue bringing (these) empty offerings

This exposition of Israel’s sin lies at the heart of the chapter 1 oracle. That it effectively represents the covenant-violation is clearly indicated by the repetition of the call to the divine witness (heaven and earth) in the opening lines of verse 10 (see verse 2 above, and compare Deut 32:1). However, there is no suggestion here of the traditional violation of the covenant, i.e. of abandoning YHWH to worship other (Canaanite) deities, despite the use of this language in verse 4 (see above). Instead, the people continue to worship YHWH dutifully, at least in terms of coming to the Jerusalem Temple and presenting the sacrificial offerings, etc, required by the Torah. However, these offerings have been rendered “empty” (š¹w°) and detestable to God because of the evil and injustice that exists throughout society (vv. 16-17ff). This is a very different sense of the corruption of religion, and one that is more in keeping with the later Prophetic tradition, though it can be found prominently in the 8th-7th century Prophets as well (see, for example, Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

From a form- and genre-critical standpoint, verses 10-17 are in some ways the most consistently poetic of the chapter. Throughout, the section utilizes a 3+2 bicolon format, with synonymous (and synthetic) parallelism, disrupted occasionally by emphatic points of tension. The 3+2 meter (a 3-beat line followed by a 2-beat line) is referred to as the “limping” or qînâ meter, often characteristic of a lament (also in vv. 21-23).

Isaiah 1:18ff

It may worth here considering the structure of the oracle, from a form- and literary-critical standpoint. In verses 10-31, judgment-oracles (vv. 10-17, 21-26) alternate with prophecies of salvation/restoration (vv. 18-20, 27-31) for the people. As a rhetorical (and poetic) device, a judicial setting is indicated in vv. 18-20, tied to the ancient context of adjudicating the binding agreement of the covenant—i.e. whether or not it has been violated. Only here this imagery has been turned into an exhortation for the people, indicating that it is still possible to re-establish their relationship in the binding agreement with God. The basic terms of the covenant are stated clearly in verses 19-20:

“If you are willing, and would hear [i.e. are obedient],
you shall eat (the) good of the land;
but if you refuse and resist/rebel [i.e. be disobedient],
you shall be eaten by the sword!”

In verses 21-23ff, we find another judgment-oracle, this time emphasizing more clearly the injustice in society, a wickedness that turns the once-loyal city of Jerusalem into a prostitute. The closing lines of this oracle (vv. 24b-26), like those earlier (vv. 16-17), leave open the way to avoid the coming Judgment, and from a literary standpoint, function as a transition point into the prophecies of salvation (vv. 27-31 and 18-20). The opening lines of the final section make clear that the city of Jerusalem will be saved in the judgment, but only those in her who repent:

‚iyyôn will be ransomed in (the) judgment,
and (the one)s in her (who) turn back [i.e. repent], in justice;
but destruction together (for those) breaking away and sinning,
and (the one)s abandoning YHWH will be completely (destroy)ed!”

In the closing lines of the chapter, the traditional imagery of abandoning God to follow after other deities, embracing false religious practices, etc, comes back into view. The motif of pagan cultic garden-sites functions as a kind of antithesis to the true religion centered at the Temple sanctuary of Zion, but also, perhaps, to the tradition of the Garden of God accessible to humankind at the beginning of creation. Indeed, the language and symbolism in these verses seems to parallel the final chapters of the book (Trito-Isaiah) with their eschatological emphasis, both in terms of salvation and judgment (e.g. 56:1; 57:1ff; 59:9, 16-17; 61:3, 10-11; 63:1; 65:3, 11-13; 66:3-5, 17, 24).

Thus, we can see rather clearly, I think, how the complexity of the book of Isaiah is reflected in this opening chapter. A wide range of themes, genres, sets of symbols, and literary-rhetorical devices can be discerned, which, in a very real sense, mirrors those of the book as a whole. It is certainly possible that the chapter represents an authentic 8th-7th century oracle; however, it seems more likely that it is an assemblage of different oracle-forms and pieces, which an author (or editor) has combined to form a powerful, though composite, piece of prophetic poetry. In terms of the final book of Isaiah, its primary purpose is literary—introducing the many themes and motifs which will be developed throughout the oracles, etc, that follow.

Next week, we will turn to the second chapter, which may be considered as the beginning of the book proper (esp. of chapters 2-39). This time, we will focus on a shorter passage—verses 1-5—devoting our study to a more detailed exegesis. I hope that you will join me, next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:1 and Overview

After a brief hiatus these past two months, the Saturday Series feature on this site is picking up again. In the upcoming weeks, this series will focus on the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. Due to its size, complexity, and diversity of content, the Book of Isaiah provides a rich ground for demonstrating and applying the techniques and methods of Biblical Criticism—which is the primary purpose of this running series. My goal in these studies is to help readers understand what is involved in an objective, critical analysis of Scripture, and to illustrate how this can be done, using specific portions of the Scriptures—from the Old and New Testament alike. The most recent studies dealt with the Letters of John (New Testament Criticism); now we shall turn to Old Testament Criticism, working from the Prophetic book of Isaiah.

In each passage that we examine, we will be considering it through the lens of the different areas of Biblical Criticism; in the case of the book of Isaiah, there are four main areas: (1) textual criticism, (2) historical criticism, (3) source criticism, and (4) literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

This involves a careful examination of the Hebrew text, as it has come down to us. A primary objective (though not the only one) is to establish, as far as possible, the most likely form of the original text. How the text was shaped and developed over time is also an important consideration, though this can touch upon other areas of criticism related to the composition of the text.

One problem in text-critical study of the Old Testament is that there are so few surviving manuscripts, especially of manuscripts produced prior to the middle Ages (i.e. before the 9th/10th century A.D.). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been a great boost to Old Testament textual criticism, but even with these documents, the number of extant manuscripts is scant indeed. Fortunately, for the book of Isaiah, the Dead Sea material is especially rich, including two extensive manuscripts (1QIsaa and 1QIsab). The first of these is the great Isaiah Scroll, an essentially complete manuscript (and thus unique among the Scripture MSS at Qumran), likely dating from the mid-2nd century B.C. (c. 150-120). Its text confirms the general reliability of the Masoretic tradition, however there are also a number of significant variants; the text of the second MS (1QIsab) is even closer to the Masoretic Text (MT). In addition, there are the remains of eighteen other fragmentary manuscripts from Qumran, as well a fragment from the Dead Sea site of Wadi Murabba’at. Thus, we are able to do a reasonably thorough textual comparison between the MT (and the Greek LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, much more so than for other books of the Old Testament.

Historical Criticism

The term historical criticism covers two areas:

    1. The historical background of the text—where, when and how it came to be written, the circumstances of its composition, and
    2. The historicity of the text, which includes both (a) the historical reliability of the text, and (b) the history that is contained and preserved in it.

A Prophetic book as large and diverse as Isaiah poses considerable challenges for a sound and objective application of historical criticism. Much of the difficulty (and controversy) has surrounded the ascription of the book to the prophet Isaiah (cf. below on 1:1), and thus involves the question of authorship. Scholars had long noted that many of the oracles in the book seem to relate to the situation of Israelites and Jews living long after the prophet Isaiah’s own time—i.e. in the Exile and post-exilic periods. This especially seemed to be true in chapters 40-66, but similar passages can be found within chaps. 1-39 as well. Various theories have been developed to explain these apparent differences, ranging from the traditional-conservative to the skeptical-critical. I would outline four general approaches to the book as we have it:

    • It was largely, if not entirely, written by the prophet Isaiah himself
    • It substantially contains authentic Isaian oracles throughout, but was actually composed—written and edited—by later scribes (possibly including Isaiah’s own disciples)
    • It contains an authentic core of Isaian oracles (and historical tradition), around which a range of material was added, over a considerable period of time, and, most likely, by a number of different authors
    • While containing some authentic historical tradition (both of Isaiah and others), the various portions of the book were largely composed by later authors (and prophets), down into the exilic and post-exilic periods; the unifying theme of all this prophetic material was the fate of Judah and Jerusalem.

The first two approaches may be characterized as traditional-conservative, while the last two generally reflect the view of most critical scholars. I would tend to rule out the first option, as being rather difficult to maintain objectively, but strong arguments can be made in support of the last three views, and we will be considering these different approaches (or some variation of them) throughout our studies on Isaiah.

Source Criticism

Again, this can be understood two ways: (1) sources used in the composition of the text, and (2) sources used in the editing and redaction of the final book. These “sources” can range considerably, in size and complexity, from snippets of oral tradition to full-fledged written documents. Typically, within the context of Biblical Criticism, such sources must remain hypothetical, since only rarely will external evidence exist, or survive, in support of them. The evidence cited by scholars is almost entirely internal—that is, based on a study of factors within the text itself. These factors include things like differences in style and language, historical-critical details (see above), the specific form or genre of a passage, and so forth.

Critical scholars have tended to divide the canonical book of Isaiah into two portions (chaps. 1-39 and 40-66), often thought to reflect two distinct books which were combined together (as sources) at some point in the process of editing and redaction. The first ‘book’ (1-39) was generally thought to relate more directly to the prophet Isaiah himself (his life and times, and actual sayings), while the second (40-66, typically called Deutero-Isaiah), was from a much later time, reflecting the concerns of Israelites and Jews in the exile and post-exilic periods. Some would isolate a third ‘book’ (Trito-Isaiah, covering chapters 56-66 [or 55-66]). Most critical commentators today hold to some form of this basic approach, though realizing that the situation is much more complex, in terms of how the material developed—that is, at the level of composition. Here the idea of sources carries a slightly different meaning. As an example, we might consider the “source” of an individual oracle or historical tradition—where did it come from, how and when was it composed, and how did it come to be included in the text?

All of these questions and issues will be considered in these studies, without prejudice or presupposition regarding theories of authorship.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is a wide-ranging term that covers a number of more specialized sub-categories of criticism. It generally refers to an analysis of the literary features and characteristics of a passage (or book)—its language, style, structure, symbolism, use of literary/figurative devices, etc. These, in turn, touch upon how a text was composed (composition criticism), and relate to matters of historical and source criticism (see above). Two key areas of literary criticism are form and genre criticism. In some ways genre criticism is an expansion of form criticism—an analysis of the structure of a passage, in terms of identifying it as a distinctive textual and literary unit, such as, for example, a proverb-collection, parable, or poem (oracle). Determining the genre of a passage involves more attention being paid to questions of style, content, and function. As an example, for a prophetic Scripture such as the book of Isaiah, many of the poetic forms relate to the genre of oracle, for which certain types or categories can be discerned (nation-, judgment-, woe-, etc). These will be discussed frequently in our studies.

Also under the banner of literary criticism is the area of rhetorical criticism—a study of the message of the passage, according to the author’s purpose, and the means and methods by which it is communicated to the audience. The term ‘rhetorical criticism’ is often understood in terms of classical (Greco-Roman) rhetoric, and, as such, is more applicable to the New Testament writings (especially the letters); however, viewed more broadly, it very much applies to the Old Testament Prophets as well, the writings of which are certainly intended to convince and exhort, etc, their audience.

Isaiah 1:1

To launch this series of studies on the book of Isaiah, I include here a brief examination of the opening verse of the book:

“The vision of Yesha’yahu son of Amos which he saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim, in the days of ‘Uzziyyahu, Yotam, ‘Ahaz, (and) Yehizqiyyahu, kings of Yehudah.”

The name of the prophet, typically given in anglicized transliteration as “Isaiah”, is actually a YHWH (Yahweh) sentence- or phrase-name, meaning something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “May Yah(weh) save!”, in Hebrew Why`u=v^y+ (Y®ša±y¹hû). The four Judean kings mentioned are similarly Yah-names—three certainly, but ‘Ahaz (zj*a*, °A~µ¹z) is probably a shortened form of a Yah-name (Y®hô°¹µ¹z, zj*a*ohy+) as well. This alone tells something significant about the religious culture in Judah in the 8th century B.C., with the well-established worship of God (the one true God) under the name YHWH (hwhy, on this divine name, see my earlier article).

This statement, which reflects the span of Isaiah’s career as a prophet (see the historical references in 2 Kings 19:2-7, 20; 20:1-19; 2 Chron 26:22; 32:20, and the traditions within the book itself), establishes the historical setting for the book as a whole. In all likelihood, verse 1 stems from an editorial layer, as do the notices in 2:1 and 13:1; these contextual statements are separate from the oracles that follow, in which Isaiah’s name does not appear. His name is otherwise mentioned only within historical narrative portions (7:3; 20:2-3, and in chaps. 37-39). Technically, the oracles themselves are anonymous, and their Isaian authorship must be determined from other factors, including the traditional/editorial superscriptions in 2:1; 13:1. Those notices function like the superscriptions in the Psalms, attributing the (anonymous) poems to specific figures (David, etc).

Thus, even a simple statement like that of 1:1 can be considered in terms of the different areas of criticism:

    • Historical—questions of authorship: where, when, and by whom, the book (or portions of it) was composed; but also related to the composition, editing and redaction of the book as a whole
    • Source—the origin and attribution of specific oracles, as well as more substantial portions of the book
    • Literary (Form/Genre)—the role of superscriptions in introducing, and thus demarcating the start of, a particular poetic/prophetic form; from a rhetorical standpoint, the ascription establishes the prophetic authority for the oracle (and the book as a whole).

According to the view of many commentators, the first chapter was prefixed to the opening oracle of chapter 2, which has its own notable superscription, itself fitting as an introduction to the book. At the time that all of the material had been brought together, the chapter 1 oracle was included, as a summary introduction for the many themes that would be found (and developed) in the book. The superscription in verse 1 was then added, effectively as a title for the book. This is a reasonable theory, though it says nothing definitive about the overall authorship of the book. However, even as a traditional ascription, the association with Isaiah must be quite ancient, and thus objectively reliable to some degree. The notice in 2 Chronicles 32:32 suggests that the book of Isaiah was in existence (some form of it, at least) by that time; the author there refers to it as a “vision” (/ozj*), just as in Isa 1:1, even though there are few visions, as such, recorded in the book. It is possible the Chronicler’s statement corresponds generally to the time that the book of Isaiah reached something like its final form.

In next week’s study, we will focus on the introductory poem in chapter 1, focusing in detail on several representative passages.

Saturday Series: 2 & 3 John

This is the final study in this Series focusing on the Letters of John. In exploring these writings, I have approached the studies variously from the standpoint of the different areas of Biblical Criticism. One particularly important aspect is that of historical criticism, since a proper understanding of the Johannine Letters requires that, as far as possible, the historical setting and background is analyzed carefully. The theological (and Christological) arguments in 1 and 2 John, as we have seen, are closely tied to the views of a specific group of Christians (whom the author regards as false believers), who have, in some sense, separated from the Johannine Community, espousing a view of Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), which, according to the author, contradicts the truth of the Johannine Gospel and the witness of the Spirit. It is possible to reconstruct this historical scenario, at least to some extent. This was part of the previous study, on 2 John, where the Christological dispute in vv. 7-11 was compared with similar statements made in 1 John. Clearly we are dealing with the same situation in both letters.

2 and 3 John: Historical Criticism

Is it possible to bring the matter into more precise detail? Let us here consider the nature of 2 and 3 John, letters written to different parts of the Johannine Community. When speaking of this “Community”, it is best to understand it in terms of a group of congregations (house-churches) located throughout a relatively wide region. Tradition has identified this as the region of Asia Minor, centered around the site of Ephesus; it is as good a surmise as any, though there is no direct evidence for a specific geographic location in the letters themselves. Scholars recognize at least a general relationship between the book of Revelation and the Johannine Letters (and Gospel); and, if these writings stem from the same “Community”, then it certainly would be located in Asia Minor, as 1:4 and the letters to the Churches in chapters 2-3 demonstrate.

The Setting of 2 John

The Address: Verse 1 (also vv. 4-5, 13)

“The Elder, to the (noble) Lady gathered out [eklektós, i.e. chosen] (by God), and to her offspring [i.e. children], whom I love in (the) truth—and not only I, but also all the (one)s having known [i.e. who have known] (the) truth…”

1. The Author of 2 (and 3) John: “the Elder”

New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in the opinion that 2 and 3 John were written by the same person. The author does not identify himself by name, but instead refers to himself as “the Elder” (ho presbýteros, v. 1). Opinion is divided as to whether this same person wrote 1 John as well. This would seem to be the best (and simplest) explanation; certainly, all three letters stem from the same Community, Tradition, and religious-theological outlook, and utilize a common style and vocabulary. According to tradition, the author of all three Letters (and the Gospel) was John the Apostle; however, there is no evidence for this in the Letters, nor there any real indication that the author was an apostle (let alone one of the Twelve).

The title presbýteros (“elder”), based on comparable evidence elsewhere in the New Testament (in the period c. 60 A.D. and later), signifies a minister with a leading role and authoritative position in a congregation (or group of congregations)—Acts 20:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5; 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17-19; Titus 1:5. Certain “elders” (presbýteroi), especially those with close ties to the founding missionaries (apostles) in a region, could be expected to oversee multiple congregations (see the role of Timothy and Titus in the Pauline Pastoral Letters). The information in 2 and 3 John suggests that the author functions as a regional overseer. Certainly, 1 John (if written by the same author) appears to have been intended for believers (i.e. groups of congregations) over a relatively wide area.

2. The Addressee of 2 John: “the chosen Lady”

2 John is addressed “to the gathered out [i.e. chosen] Lady” (eklekt¢¡ kyría). Commentators have debated how this title should be understood, with two main options for interpreting it:

    • It refers to an individual, well-known to the author, but otherwise unnamed (presumably), given the honorific title (“[noble] Lady”). She clearly would have been a prominent person in the Community—a minister and/or host of a house-church, such as Prisc(ill)a, Phoebe, and Chloe in Paul’s circle (Rom 6:1-3; 1 Cor 1:11; 16:19).
    • It is figurative, referring to a particular group of believers (congregation), to a house-church or group of churches (community).

Arguments can be made in favor of each, but it would seem that the second option is to be preferred. The context suggests that the author is writing to a congregation. He refers to adult believers as her “offspring/children” (tékna, vv. 1, 4, 13). Elsewhere in the New Testament, the adjective eklektós (“gathered out, chosen”) typically occurs in the plural, being used of believers generally (Rom 8:33; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; 1 Pet 1:1; Rev 17:14, etc), though occasionally a specific individual is in view (Rom 16:13). The noun used for a congregation, ekkl¢sía (a group “called out” to assemble together), is feminine, and so it is natural to personify it as a woman; in English, the feminine personification here might be translated loosely as “sister-Church”. I am inclined to view the “Lady” of 2 John as a separate presbyterial community (i.e. group of congregations), distinct from the author’s own, but part of the same wider Johannine Community. The author may still exert some influence over it, but it is not the congregation/community with which he most directly belongs. Note how in verse 4 he speaks of “your children”, while in 3 John 4, in a comparable statement, he says “my children”.

Verses 9-11

In this conclusion to the body of the letter, the author gives specific advice regarding the Christological error held by the ‘false’ believers (vv. 7ff, and throughout 1 John [see above]). The seriousness of this “antichrist” belief is emphasized again in verse 9:

“Every one leading (the way) forward [proágœn], and not remaining [ménœn] in the teaching of (the) Anointed, does not hold God; (while) the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son.”

To “lead (the way) forward” (verb proágœ) may sound like a good thing, but here the sense of the verb is decidedly negative—it means that these ‘false’ believers have left behind the true teaching of the Johannine Gospel (which ultimately derives from Jesus’ own words about himself, i.e. the Discourses). This is not simply a matter of affirming a particular doctrine—to “remain” (the key Johannine verb ménœ) fundamentally refers to the believer’s union with Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father) through the Spirit. In other words, those who espouse a false teaching about Jesus (as understood by the author and his Community) cannot be true believers, nor can they speak and teach from the Spirit.

What are the practical implications of this division within the Community? In verses 10-11 the author gives instruction for all who are true believers, who would remain rooted in the truth:

“If any (one would himself) come toward you and not bear this teaching, you must not take [i.e. receive] him into (the) house and you must not say to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’, for the (one) saying to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’ has a common (share) in his evil works.”

Much was said in 1 and 2 John regarding these false “antichrist” believers, but only here do we find any instruction as to what other Christians should do about them. The implication is that they should be avoided completely, along the lines of “excommunication” or “shunning” in later traditions (see Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:9ff). Most Christians who read this today understand the instruction in general terms, of providing hospitality in one’s own home; however, given the house-church setting of these early congregations, it is possible to understand “(the) house” (oikía) here as referring to house where the congregation met for worship. If the “Lady” of the letter is an individual, who hosted a house church (see above), then this is all the more likely in context. In other words, it is a special warning not to allow such persons to have a place within the congregational meeting.

Even so, the author undoubtedly would have extended this instruction to the private home as well (see below on the setting of 3 John), given his prohibition against even greeting one of these false “antichrist” believers. I have translated the verbal infinitive chaírein rather literally, as “(May there) be joy (to you)”; however, this essentially served as an ordinary greeting, without necessarily connoting anything deeper. Thus, even the simple conventions of polite society are to be avoided; the “antichrists” truly are to be shunned. The dangers and pitfalls in attempting to apply this instruction today are discussed below, at the end of this study.

The Setting of 3 John

In contrast with 2 John, the Third Letter is written to a person that, it would seem, is part of the author’s own presbyterial community (compare the wording of v. 4 with 2 John 4, as noted above). This would entail a number of individual congregations (house-churches), each with its own ministers and/or elders; presumably, the author, as an overseeing Elder, holds a position of influence and authority. There are two main characters in the letter, the first of which is Gaius, a common Latin name; he is the person the author is addressing in verse 1:

“The Elder, to the (be)loved Gaius, whom I love in (the) truth.”

This is essentially the same form of address as in 2 John; on the question of whether “the Lady” is an individual or represents a congregation/community (“sister-church”), see above. The wording the author uses in verses 3-4 suggests that, while Gaius may not belong to the same immediate congregation as the author, he is still part of the same ‘presbyterial community’, i.e. the congregations over which the author considered himself to have presbyterial oversight and influence:

“For I had great delight (in the) coming of brothers and (their) giving witness of you in the truth, even as you walk about in (the) truth. I do not hold (any) delight greater than this, that I should hear (of) my offspring [i.e. children] walking about in the truth.”

It was necessary for the author to hear reports from other messengers in order for him to be aware of how Gaius was conducting himself; and yet, he still considers Gaius to be one of his “children” (compare 2 John 4). This reference to the “coming of brothers and (their) giving witness” is vitally important to any proper understanding of the historical background and setting of the Johannine letters. In a Community built up of small house-churches, over a relatively large territory, it could be quite difficult to maintain communication and, with it, the community organization essential to the life and function of the Church. Nearly all such work required personal visits from messengers and other traveling Christians; even communication through written letters entailed a personal visit, sometimes over fairly long distances. As a result, it was a common and frequent occurrence for a local congregation to receive traveling ministers and other Christians into the “house” (see above on 2 John 10-11).

Central to the message of 3 John is the praise and exhortation the author gives to Gaius, in regard to his showing hospitality and support to believers in their travels:

“(My be)loved, you do (the) trust(worthy thing in) whatever you would (do as) work unto the brothers, and this (even for) strangers—(and) the(se persons) gave witness of your love in the sight of the congregation [ekkl¢sía]—(for) whom you will do well, (hav)ing sent them forward (as) brought up (according to the way) of God; for (it was) over the name (that) they went out, taking not one (thing) from the nations. Therefore, we ought to take these (sorts of people) under (our care), (so) that we might come to be workers together with (them) in the truth.” (vv. 5-8)

I have translated these verses quite literally, and there are some syntactical difficulties in rendering from the Greek; however, the basic idea is clear enough. The author has heard from certain traveling Christians (publicly, in the congregation) how they had received hospitality and support from Gaius. Along with this, Gaius is encouraged to continue such support in the future. It is clear that these persons Gaius took in were traveling ministers or missionaries, as it is said that they “went out over the name“, that is, on behalf of the name of Jesus Christ.

Here we have one of the only examples in the Johannine letters of how believers demonstrate the love that is required by the great command, the one true duty of the Christian (1 John 3:23-24, etc). In practical terms, this is done by showing care, support, and hospitality to other believers, even to those who are strangers, especially when they are traveling (and thus in a vulnerable position). We may rightly say that the Johannine Community, with its network of house-churches, was bound together (or, should be) through this sort of love, reflecting the very unity we share in Christ (John 13:20, 34-35; 17:20-25, etc). These traveling ministers/missionaries depended entirely on support from other believers, since they took “not one thing from the nations” (i.e. from non-believers).

The opposite—a failure to provide hospitality to traveling ministers, etc—is demonstrated by the example of Diotrephes in verse 9:

“I wrote some(thing of this) to the congregation [ekkl¢sía], but the (one who is) fond of being first (among) them, Diotrephes, will not receive us upon (himself).”

Unfortunately, this notice is brief and enigmatic enough (from our vantage point today) as to leave us almost entirely in the dark about the exact situation. It has also produced no end of speculation. What was the position of Diotrephes? Did he belong to the same congregation/community as Gaius? as the author? A plausible reconstruction, based on a careful analysis of the wording in verses 9-10, may be offered here as follows:

Diotrephes is in a position of some prominence in a local congregation, presumably as a minister/elder, and/or as the host of a house-church. The author’s disparaging characterization of him as one who “is fond of being first” (verb philoprœteúœ) should perhaps be understood in light of the New Testament evidence that first-century congregations, in their ideal form, would have been relatively egalitarian. By this is meant that the leading/gifted ministers served more or less as equals, and that the elders of particular congregations were all on an equal footing with each other. Diotrephes may have violated such principles in seeking to exercise greater (individual) control over his congregation. A bit more is said regarding Diotrephes’ conduct in verse 10:

“Through this [i.e. for this reason], if I should come, I will keep under memory (all) his works that he does—babbling evil accounts (about) us, and, not containing himself about these (thing)s, he does not receive the brothers upon himself, and the (one)s being willing (to do so) he cuts off and throws (them) out of the congregation.”

One senses here, not merely a partisan divide, but a measure of personal animosity between the author and Diotrephes. Does this relate to the situation involving the false “antichrist” believers who had ‘separated’ from the Community? Many commentators believe so; however, the author is so vocal about the matter in 2 John (and throughout 1 John), it is hard to imagine that he would not mention it again here if the Christological issue were at the root of the division. In all likelihood, the situation has more to do with general considerations regarding how to handle traveling ministers and missionaries, especially those who may not be particularly well-known by a local congregation.

Establishing the reliability—pedigree and qualifications, etc—of traveling ministers was a serious matter in early Christianity and created many challenges for local congregations. Especially within a charismatic, egalitarian setting, which seem to have characterized both the Pauline and Johannine congregations, the giftedness of the minister was of great importance. However, it could be difficult to know for certain if such talented and influential ministers were genuinely inspired by God’s Spirit. Almost certainly, many of the ‘false’ believers—those who espoused the view of Jesus attacked so severely by the author of these letters—claimed to speak as prophets. Yet the author unequivocally calls them false prophets, who speak from an evil spirit that is opposed to Christ (“antichrist”). He offers his readers tests and instruction on how to recognize such false teaching, but it would not be easy to put them into practice to any extent.

Diotrephes appears to be doing precisely what the author himself advocates in 2 John 10-11—refusing welcome and support to traveling ministers he deems false or unreliable. The difference is that, from the author’s standpoint, his refusal is based on opposition to teaching that contradicts the Gospel message of Christ, while Diotrephes acts out of personal ambition and animosity. Almost certainly Diotrephes would describe the situation quite differently, if we had his own testimony preserved for us. Perhaps he felt threatened by the presence of traveling ministers, over whom he and his congregation did not have any direct control. His actions could even have been reasonable, in terms of the goal of protecting his congregation. Given the strong emphasis on the role of the Spirit as the primary guide and authority in the Johannine Community, with the egalitarianism suggested at many points in the letters (and the Gospel), perhaps the best explanation is that Diotrephes was violating these fundamental principles by attempting to exert more personal control over the congregation, to the point of excluding outsiders and traveling ministers/missionaries.

It would seem that Gaius and Diotrephes were in relatively close proximity, either part of the same congregation, or belonging to neighboring congregations. It is possible that Gaius is one of those who has been “thrown out” by Diotrephes, and that he continues to provide support to ministers aligned with the author. In any case, the context strongly indicates that the author is appealing to Gaius (vv. 6, 8, 11) as a local avenue for support to his ministers/missionaries since they have been excluded from Diotrephes’ congregation. Demetrius, mentioned in verse 12, is presumably one of these missionaries; the author is writing to introduce him to Gaius, in hopes that he will be received in a similar manner.


While it may be possible to reconstruct the historical situation and context of the 2 and 3 John, at least in part, applying the instruction in the letters to the life-setting of individual Christians and congregations today is more problematic. Certainly the exhortation associated with the two-fold command—trust in Jesus and love for our fellow believers—is just as relevant (and applicable) for us today. In particular, to demonstrate love through showing care, and offering hospitality and support, to other believers—including ministers and missionaries who need our assistance—remains central to Christianity, and can be expressed today many different ways. Also the emphasis on a careful (and correct) understanding of the Gospel Tradition regarding the person and work of Jesus continues to be of the greatest importance, and, sadly, is rather lacking in much of modern Christianity. Special care in regard to Christological statements and definitions is much needed, especially when so many of the traditional statements from the past are now so poorly understood.

How, then, should we respond when we encounter or experience differences in understanding on key theological or Christological questions? Should we adopt the advice given in 2 John—and, if so, how is this to be done? Doubtless, many believers today would continue to uphold the famous maxim: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty…”; but therein lies the difficulty—how do we determine what the “essentials” are, and how should they be treated in comparison with “non-essentials”. Are Christological differences enough to bar communication and association between believers? Certainly, this has proven to be so at times in the past, often with unfortunate and even tragic results. And yet, to act as though such differences do not matter is equally perilous, and can quickly lead to the negation of any meaningful sense of Christian identity.

I would maintain that, for believers in Christ, it is not any Christological definition or understanding as such, but the abiding presence of the Spirit, that must serve as the unifying force. Yet, to judge from the Gospel and the Letters, this was clearly a central point and fundamental emphasis for the Johannine Community as well, and it did not prevent painful and disruptive divisions, with the author’s community banning believers considered to be false, and finding themselves being banned by others in turn. Is it possible to maintain the spirit of the instruction in 2 and 3 John while finding new ways and methods for achieving the author’s goals? I leave that to the consideration of each believer and community. Bridging the divide between ancient and modern times, between the thought-world of first-century Christianity and of the Church today, remains of the most challenging and thought-provoking aspects of Biblical interpretation.