March 15: Isaiah 61:1 (continued)

Isaiah 61:1, continued

The remainder of verse 1 introduces the series of infinitives that further summarizes and describes the mission of the Anointed Herald (cf. the discussion in the previous note):

“He (has) sent me
to bind (up wounds) for (the) broken of heart,
to call (out) freedom for (the one)s taken captive…”

It is possible to take the suffixed verb yn]j^l*v= (“he has sent me”) with the previous line; indeed, it is much preferable to do so, as it results in a series of six (instead of five) infinitives, which can be grouped into three pairs that are each related conceptually. Following this way of dividing the verse, we render it thus:

“(The) Spirit of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me,
because YHWH has anointed me;
He (has) sent me
to bring (good) news (for the) oppressed,
to bind (up wounds) for (the) broken of heart,
to call (out) freedom for (the one)s taken captive…”

Let us consider the first pair of infinitives (with prefixed preposition l): rC@b^l= and vb)j&l^. The verbal phrases are:

    • “to bring (good) news (for the) oppressed”
      <yw]n`u& rC@b^l=
    • “to bind (up wounds) for (the one)s broken of heart”
      bl@-yr@B=v=n]l= vb)j&l^

These are clearly related conceptually, forming a pair. The adjective wn`u* (= yn]u*) is often translated “poor”, emphasizing a condition of poverty; however, here it is much better to preserve the fundamental meaning of “pressed down, oppressed”, forming a parallel with the expression “broken of heart”. It is not merely a question of poverty, but of a despairing condition resulting from the experience of suffering and oppression. The Matthean version of Jesus’ Beatitudes (5:3) captures this same aspect with the phrase “the (one)s poor in spirit” (oi( ptwxoi\ tw=| pneu/mati)—an expression which transcends the socio-economic condition of poverty (compare the Lukan version, 6:20).

Indeed “the (one)s poor in spirit” is close in meaning to the Hebrew verbal expression bl@ yr@B=v=, “(the one)s being broken of heart” (cp. the English idiom “broken-hearted”). The experience of suffering and oppression has broken/shattered (vb rb^v*) their heart. However, it is not merely the experience of suffering that is in view; like the adjective wn`u*, the expression bl@ yr@B=v= is meant to characterize the righteous, specifically. The righteous are often referred to as “oppressed” (wn`u* / yn]u*) or “poor/needy” (/oyb=a#) in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and Prophets. The sense in the Psalms, in particular, is that it is their very upright conduct, their faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, that leads to the righteous being attacked and oppressed by the wicked.

Here in our passage, two definite aspects are in view: (1) a real socio-economic situation in which segments of the society experience suffering and oppression, and (2) the traditional characterization of the faithful/righteous as poor and oppressed. The socio-economic situation of the post-exilic period (i.e., mid-5th century) is the result of several factors:

    • The relative poverty of Judah as a minor province of the Persian empire
    • The fact that much of the region was still recovering from the conquest and exile, and needed to be rebuilt
    • Economic conditions hit the lower classes (peasant farmers, etc) especially hard; taxation added to increased debt, which, in turn, led to foreclosures and confiscation of peasant holding, making it that much more difficult to pay off debt (cf. the vivid description of conditions in Nehemiah 5:1-5).

Injustice and oppression within Judean society was brought about by the wicked. A fundamental principle was that the wicked tended to be the oppressors, rather than the oppressed; similarly, it was much more likely that the righteous would be among the oppressed. Along these lines, it is also worth pointing out the passages where the idea of a ‘broken’ heart implies repentance and a renewed turning to YHWH in trust and obedience (Psalm 51:17; Jer 23:9.

In any event, the Anointed Herald’s mission is to deliver a message of good news (vb rc^B*) to those who are oppressed. Though not stated here in verse 1, the essence of the ‘good news’ is that the current time of suffering is about to come to an end, and conditions are about to be reversed, when the glorious New Age for Judah and Jerusalem is finally realized. This message provides aid and comfort to the people, symbolically “binding up” (vb vb^j*) the wounds of those who are oppressed—wounds that are located in the heart, i.e., the suffering and despair of a heart that has been “broken” by injustice, oppression, and poverty (cf. Psalm 147:3).

In the next note, we will turn to the next pair of infinitives, covering the remainder of verse 1 and the first part of verse 2. This will isolate a different aspect of the Herald’s mission.

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