March 21: Isaiah 61:3-7

Isaiah 61:3c-7

Today’s note brings to a conclusion our supplemental study on Isa 61:1-3, in connection with the article in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Verses 3c-7 comprise the second part of the poem in vv. 1-7. The first part (vv. 1-3ab) describes the mission of the Spirit-anointed herald, while the second gives us what may be described as the substance of the herald’s message. It is a message of the future glory and blessing that will come to God’s people in the New Age. The focus, of course, in the context of the post-exilic period, is on Judah and the city of Jerusalem.

The message (in vv. 3c-7) itself can be divided into three parts, as follows:

    • Vv. 3c-4 (“They”)—Blessing for the People: Restoration of the Land
    • Vv. 5-6 (“You”)—The Nations will serve the People
    • V. 7 (“They”)—Blessing for the People: Inheritance in the Land

As indicated in the outline, the address shifts from the 3rd person plural to the 2nd, and then back to the 3rd.

Verses 3c-4

“And it will be called (out) to them ‘strong (oak)s of justice’,
(the) planting of YHWH for making (Himself) beautiful;
and they will build (the) dry (place)s of (the) distant (past),
and will make stand (the) destroyed (place)s of (times) before,
and will make new (the) cities of dry (dust),
(the) destroyed (citie)s (from) cycle to cycle.”

The message begins with a promise that the people—those poor and oppressed (vv. 1-3)—will have their fortunes change: they will be turned into strong and sturdy trees (<yl!ya@). YHWH calls out this identity for them (the divine passive ar*q), “it will be called”), and then will make it come about in reality, by “planting” (vb uf^n`) them in the Land. This imagery goes back to the ancient covenant promise regarding Israel’s inheritance of the (promised) Land (cf. Exod 15:17; Num 24:6; 2 Sam 7:10, etc).

In verse 4, the motif shifts from planting trees to building cities—both lines of imagery being related to the idea of the restoration of Israel/Judah in the New Age. The repeated emphasis (in four lines) on the rebuilding of ruins clearly indicates a post-exilic setting, and presumably a good number of years since the conquest and destruction had occurred. A setting in the mid-5th century B.C., prior to the building work of Nehemiah, seems likely. It has been long enough that only dried out ruins are left; the destruction took place in the “distant (past)” (<l*ou), and generations have come and gone since (rodw` roD, “cycle and cycle”, i.e., generation to generation).

Verses 5-6

“And (those who) turn aside [i.e. strangers] will stand and pasture your herds,
and sons of a foreigner (will be) your diggers and vine-workers;
but you will be called ‘priests of YHWH,’
and ‘(people) serving our Mighty (One)’ it will be said to you;
you shall eat the strength [i.e. riches/wealth] of (the) nations,
and you shall show yourselves in their weight [i.e. worth/glory/splendor].”

The shift from 3rd person plural to 2nd gives a more personal focus to the message. One may also explain the shift because of the mention of other peoples—i.e., from the surrounding nations (<y]oG), foreign (rk*n@) people, and strangers who “turn aside” (rWz) to reside among God’s people. Addressing Israel/Judah as “you” highlights the distinction with the other people (“they”). In the New Age, it is these other people who will do the manual work and labor in the Land—viz., herding, digging/farming, vine-working, etc. This frees up the people of Israel/Judah to serve as priests of YHWH, devoting themselves exclusively to religious service. Again, this line of imagery draws upon early traditions regarding the covenant role of Israel as God’s chosen people (Exod 19:6, etc).

Admittedly, this theme of the servile submission of the nations may not be particularly appealing to us as Christians today, but it is well-rooted in the ancient Near Eastern worldview. It also represents an important aspect of God’s judgment against the nations. The judgment against Israel and Judah has already been fulfilled (through the conquest and exile), and now, in these Deutero- and Trito-Isaian poems, the focus of judgment shifts to the surrounding nations. Their punishment involves a reversal—in the exile (and its aftermath), Israel/Judah served the nations, but now, in the New Age, it is the nations who will serve God’s people.

Not only do the nations serve God’s people, but they also bring homage and tribute from their lands; as a result, the wealth of the nations flows into Jerusalem. This is a particularly prominent theme in chapters 56-66 (cf. especially the prior chapter 60). The motif is hinted at here in the last two lines as well: the people will “eat” the riches (lit. strength, ly]j^) of the nations, and will exult in their “weight” (dobK*, i.e., worth, honor, glory, splendor). The precise meaning and derivation of the Hithpael form WrM*y~t=T! is uncertain. Some would derive it from the root rWm (“change, exchange”), others from the common verb rm^a* (“show, say”), or from a separate root rma (II) that specifically means “boast, pride oneself”. That posited second rma root is questionable, and is largely based on this one reference here. For the sake of simplicity, I have translated the form above as a reflexive (Hithpael) of the common verb rm^a*, in its fundamental meaning of “make visible, show”. The people will “show (off) themselves” in the wealth and splendor of the nations. This plays on the garment-motif in v. 3ab, which, it seems, continues in verse 7a.

Verse 7

“Under [i.e. in place of] your shame, a two-fold (blessing),
and (instead of) disgrace, they will cry (for joy in) their portion;
for so (it is that) in their land they will possess two-fold,
and there will be joy (into the) distant (future) for them.”

The two aspects of the restoration emphasized in vv. 3c-6—(1) a renewed strength and splendor for the people, and (2) a renewal of the richness of the land—are combined here in the final verse. This renewal/restoration will be double, or two-fold (hn#v=m!), likely corresponding to the idea that Israel/Judah suffered a double punishment in the conquest and exile (as mentioned in the Deutero-Isaian poems, e.g., 40:2; 51:19). At the same time, the concept of a double-reward for the losses suffered is traditional, and is reflected, for example, in the conclusion to the story of Job (42:10). The term <l*ou (“distant [past/future]”) emphasizes the New Age for Israel/Judah. In verse 4, it was used in reference to the distant past (and the destruction of the land); here, it refers to the distant future, and the glorious New Age in the restored Land. It also alludes to the new covenant (lit. binding agreement, tyr!B=) that YHWH will make with His people (v. 8; cf. also 59:21, etc): it will be an everlasting covenant—that is to say, it will last into the far distant future (<l*ou). This “new covenant” theme—which can be found in other Prophet writings of the exilic and post-exilic period—is one of many Isaian motifs (drawn from these Deutero- and Trito-Isaian poems) that early Christians adopted as part of their eschatological and Messianic worldview, and which became an expression of their (and our) religious identity as believers in Christ.

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