March 14: Isaiah 61:1

Isaiah 61:1-7

These notes on Isaiah 61:1ff are supplemental to the article in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. They provide a more detailed exegetical analysis of the passage than is possible in the space of that article.

ISAIAH 61:1-3

Verse 1a

“(The) Spirit of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me,
because YHWH has anointed me
to bring (good) news (to the) oppressed”

Verses 1-3 describe the mission of a specially appointed messenger of YHWH. The principal statement of the mission is found here in the first three lines of verse 1. Let us examine each line in turn.

yl*u* hw]hy+ yn`d)a& j^Wr
“(The) Spirit of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me”

The great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran (1QIsaa) omits yn`d)a& (“my Lord”), but the double-name (with YHWH) occurs relatively frequently in the book of Isaiah (elsewhere in chaps. 56-66, cf. 56:8; 61:11; 65:13, 15). The literal rendering of yn`d)a& is “my Lord”, but the suffixed form came to be used virtually as a proper name for God (as a pious substitution for hwhy [YHWH]). Cf. my earlier article on the title /oda* (“Lord”).

The Spirit (or “breath, wind” [j^Wr]) of YHWH is mentioned in a number of key passages in the Old Testament, most frequently in the context of prophetic inspiration. The ayb!n` was a spokesperson for YHWH, a person specially appointed to communicate the word and will of God to the people. It was an important leadership position in the ancient Near East, and had roots in common with the charismatic nature of ancient kingship. The leader was touched by God and empowered by the divine Spirit to lead. For more on this subject, see my earlier notes on the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, covering traditions related to Moses (esp. Num 11:10-30), the Judges, and the first Israelite kings (Saul and David, 1 Sam 10:6ff; 16:13-15, etc).

By the time the poems in Isa 56-66 (so-called Trito-Isaiah) were written, the idea of prophetic inspiration had undergone a considerable development. Especially in the exilic and post-exilic Prophetic writings, the presence of God’s Spirit was associated with the people as a whole, rather than being reserved for special individuals. The New Age of Israel’s restoration (and return from exile) would be marked by the presence of the Spirit of YHWH, which would be ‘poured out’ upon the entire people. Indeed, this is a theme that was developed throughout the Isaian Tradition (cf. my earlier notes on 32:15 and 44:3).

However, there are also Isaian passages which continue the ancient concept of specific individuals who are gifted (empowered) by the Spirit of YHWH. In addition to our passage here, the two main instances are 11:1-2 and 42:1. The latter was discussed in the most recent article in this series, and the initial verses are worth citing again:

“See, my servant, on (who)m I grab hold,
my chosen (one whom) my soul favors;
I have given my Spirit upon him…”

The identity of the “servant” in Isa 42:1 has been much debated, but, as in the case of 61:1ff, it is clear that the person is an inspired prophet—one who is to play a special role in relation to the ‘new covenant’ established between God and His people. In the supplemental note on Isa 42:1-4, I discuss the likelihood that a prophetic figure patterned after Moses is intended, an inspired prophet and leader who would function as a ‘new Moses’ (cf. Deut 18:15-19), leading the people out of exile and acting (like Moses) as a mediator of the new covenant (cf. 42:6 and 59:21). A strong argument can be made that a “prophet like Moses” is also in view here in 61:1ff. This point will be discussed further in these notes, and in the main article.

yt!a) hw`hy+ jv^m* /u^y~
“because YHWH has anointed me”

The verbal particle /u^y~, from the root hn`u*, indicates a response to something—i.e., the reason why something happened, or how it came to be. The Spirit of YHWH has come upon (lu^) the person because YHWH has chosen to appoint him as such. This appointment is described using the ancient ritual motif of anointing (with oil). Traditionally, kings and priests were anointed, but not prophets. It is the association with the Spirit that leads to the figurative application of the anointing image. The Spirit of God comes upon the chosen prophet, even as it did upon the charismatic (anointed) ruler (cf. above). Moreover, the motif of the Spirit being ‘poured out’ like water (or oil) upon the people made the anointing-motif appropriate to the Prophetic context here. It was, of course, the use of the verb jv^m* (m¹šaµ, “anoint”) that made Isa 61:1ff especially suitable to a Messianic interpretation.

<yw]n`u& rC@b^l=
“to bring (good) news (to the) oppressed”

The verb rc^B* has the fundamental meaning “bring (good) news”, as in the case of news of military victory, rescue, etc. It is generally the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek eu)agge/llw, and similarly the noun hr*c)B= = Greek eu)agge/lion (“good message, good news”), For more on the background and use of eu)agge/lion (and the Gospel concept in the NT), cf. my earlier Word Study series.

The Spirit-inspired messenger is to give this ‘good news’ specifically to those who are oppressed (<yw]n`u&). The adjective wn`u* is essentially equivalent to yn]a*, with both terms referring to people who are “pressed down” or “oppressed”, resulting in a situation of suffering, poverty and need. The poverty of the people relates, generally, to the early post-exilic situation (i.e., in the mid-5th century B.C.), when much of Jerusalem, for example, still lay in ruins. At the same time, much of the population was subject to real socio-economic injustice and oppression, as vividly described in Nehemiah 5:1-5.

The “good news” is that such an oppressed condition is only temporary; it will soon be relieved and rectified. A glorious New Age is on the horizon for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. This is the fundamental message of chapters 60-62, and 61:1-3ff lies at the heart of it.

In the next note, we will turn to verse 1b and following, where the prophet’s mission is spelled out in more detail, through a series of verbal infinitives.

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