February 9: Isaiah 40:1

Isaiah 40:1-8

These notes on Isaiah 40:1-8 are supplemental to the recent article (on Isa 40:3) in the series “The Old Testament and the Gospel Tradition”. Chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah are often referred to as “Deutero-Isaiah”, and thought to represent a distinct literary work, separate from chapters 2-39, which was (eventually) included as part of the larger collection. Even traditional-critical commentators, who would emphasize the book’s unity and Isaian origins, recognize that 40:1 marks the beginning of a new division. Most critical scholars feel that, on the whole, the Deutero-Isaian poems were composed in the early-mid 6th century. The reason for this view has to do with the apparent Exilic setting that runs through this material, with the strong themes of restoration and return, focused on Judah and Jerusalem. This repeated message simply makes more sense if the (Babylonian) exile had already occurred.

Isaiah 40:1

“Bring relief, relief (for) my people!—(so) says your Mighty (One)”
<k#yh@ýa$ rm^ay) yM!a^ Wmj&n~ Wmj&n~

The Deutero-Isaian oracles and poems begin with a double imperative of the verb <j^n` (Wmj&n~ Wmj&n~), in the Piel stem, which is rather difficult to translate in English. The root <jn has the fundamental meaning of “breathe deep, sigh”, often connoting a sense of relief; in English idiom, the expression “sigh of relief” would be fitting. In an active, causative sense, as here, the essential meaning would have to be “bring relief”.

YHWH the true God (lit. the “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”, Elohim) is the speaker in this verse. He does not address His people (Israel), but others—the ones who are to bring the relief to Israel. It is possible that a heavenly setting is envisioned here, and that God is addressing His heavenly Messengers (Angels), who will then enact His orders on behalf of Israel. On the other hand, the generalized command, with the addressees unspecified, might better be understood as encompassing the entirety of the prophetic message, from its divine/heavenly origin to the proclamation by God’s chosen prophet(s).

Indeed, it is a message that will bring relief—an announcement, as the context of the poem makes clear, that time of Exile for Israel (spec. Judah/Jerusalem) will soon come to an end. Along with this is the effective promise of restoration and a return of the people to their Promised Land (represented primarily by the Judean capital of Jerusalem, v. 2).

The theme of restoration/return, with the specific territorial aspect of an inherited land, relates to the ancient covenant idea—that is, the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people Israel. The very identity of Israel as God’s own people (<u^) is rooted in this ancient covenant tradition. The traditional background is reflected in passages throughout the Old Testament; of the many key references, one may note the formulation of the binding principle in Exod 6:7; Lev 26:12; Deut 27:9; 29:12-13; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 13:11; 24:7, etc; Ezek 14:11, etc (cf. Baltzer, p. 49f). The references in Jeremiah and Ezekiel are especially significant in terms of the Exile as punishment for violating the covenant bond, and of the restoration/return as essentially marking the start of a new (or renewed) covenant. With the violation of the covenant, Israel ceased to be God’s people, a point made clear by a number of passages in the Prophets, such as Hos 1:9-2:1, where the symbolic name “Not My People” is introduced by God to indicate to Israel that “you are not my people, and I am not your God”.

This follows the pattern of the famous Golden Calf episode in Exodus 32-34, when the people violated the terms of covenant in the most blatant and egregious way (transgressing the first command, 20:2-4). As a result, the covenant bond was abrogated (symbolized by the breaking of the tablets, 20:19f), and the Israelites ceased to be the people of YHWH. Through Moses’ intervention, this status was restored, but only in a qualified sense, with Moses functioning as the required intermediary between Israel and YHWH. The covenant was thus renewed, at least in a partial sense, and the shadow of Moses’ intercession would continue over the covenant bond for generations to come (cf. Paul’s discussion in 2 Corinthians 3), with the Torah, as the terms of the covenant, conventionally referred to as the “Law of Moses.”

Even more serious, and with devastating consequence, was the repeated violation of the covenant that led to the Exile of Israel and Judah, when, once again, they ceased to be God’s people. However, due to the Lord’s mercy, this breach was not made permanent; with the completion of an allotted time of exile (to be discussed in the next note on verse 2), YHWH announces that once again Israel/Judah are considered to be His people (“my people,” yM!u^). With the restoration/return, a new covenant will be established to this effect (Jer 31:33, etc)—an idea, of course, that would be dramatically (re)interpreted by early Christians, in relation to the person and work of Jesus. This “new covenant” theme is especially prominent in the exilic prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (note esp. Jer 31:31-34; 32:36-44; Ezek 36:26ff; 37:15-27)—oracles with which the Deutero-Isaian poems have a good deal in common.

The idea of being the people (<u^) of God also implies a measure of kinship (cf. Baltzer, pp. 50-51). It is worth noting that the concept of “redemption”, as expressed especially by the Hebrew root lag, derives from the specific background of delivering/freeing a family member (or relative) from danger or bondage, etc. This takes the imagery a step beyond the Near Eastern covenant-idiom; however, there are many passages in the Old Testament where YHWH is referred to as the “father” of Israel, and the people his children (“sons”)—e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Hos 1:10ff; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 64:8; Jer 31:9, etc. The concept of family relations is certainly part of the theme of Israel as the people of God.

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

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