April 28: Isaiah 53:6

Isaiah 53:6

“All of us, like a flock (of sheep), we have wandered,
a man to his (own) path, we have turned,
and (yet) YHWH has made it hit on him,
(for) the crookedness of all of us.”

Verse 6 is the climax of the description (in vv. 3-6) of the Servant’s suffering. The strands of this description are brought together here, giving us the cause of his suffering, and its effect.

The first two lines make use of traditional herding imagery, with the figures of the herd (the people) and the herdsman (the leader). This was a common and familiar motif in the ancient Near East. Kings were frequently referred to as ‘shepherd’, emphasizing two aspects of the herder’s role: (1) nurturing and guidance, leading the flock/herd to grazing land, and (2) protecting it from danger. David’s origins as a shepherd led to this line of imagery being applied to the idea of the royal (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-6). However, Moses also served as a herdsman in Midian (Exod 2:16-21; 3:1ff), before filling the same role, in a figurative sense, as leader of the Israelite people during the Exodus. The shepherd-motif thus can be applied to prophetic leadership as well (cf. Zech 10-11).

Following this traditional imagery, a people without effective leadership can be described as a flock/herd without the guidance of a herder; and, without such guidance, the animals can wander off, becoming vulnerable to various dangers. Ezekiel 34 gives us the most detailed exposition of this motif, but it can be found in numerous other passages (e.g., Psalm 119:176; Jer 50:17; Zech 13:7). The idiom ‘sheep without a shepherd’ was well-established in Old Testament tradition (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron 18:16); most notably, it features in the Moses/Exodus traditions, where Joshua is appointed to take Moses’ place as the inspired/prophetic leader over Israel, so that God’s people would not be like “sheep that have no shepherd” (Num 27:17).

Interestingly, here in verse 6, it is the behavior of the people, acting like sheep without a shepherd, that has led to the Servant’s suffering. Their ‘crooked’ and rebellious actions (and attitudes) are like those of sheep that have wandered off (vb hu*T*). Each animal (i.e., each person) turns (vb hn`P*) and follows his/her own path. As a result, the unity and identity of the flock/herd itself is broken, no longer following the common path provided by the shepherd. This concept fundamentally applies to the people of Israel/Judah violating the covenant bond with YHWH—understanding YHWH as the true Shepherd of Israel.

Even though it is the people (the sheep) who have rebelled and gone astray, the corrective punishment falls upon the Servant (the shepherd). YHWH has made this punishment hit on the Servant (vb ug~P* in the Hiphil causative stem). It is their crookedness (/ou*), a bending or twisting away from the true path of God, that brings about the Servant’s suffering. The people bear the collective responsibility for this, as indicated vividly by the occurrence of WnL*K% (“all of us”) at the beginning and end of these four lines. Taken as a whole, vv. 3-6 function as a confession of guilt, an admission of error by the people, in how they dealt with the Servant.

Following the type-pattern of Moses for the figure of the Servant, it is possible to read v. 6 in light of the scene in Numbers 27:12-14ff. The wording used in those opening verses, and the association of ideas, is significant. Because of the rebellion of the people (in the episode of the ‘waters of strife [Meribah]’, Num 20:1-13), Moses was provoked to act/speak in a way that resulted in the judgment of YHWH being brought down on him. He would suffer the same punishment as the rest of the adult population: he would die without ever entering the Promised Land. Moreover, his departure would potentially leave the people in disarray, like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (27:17).

And, indeed, in verses 7-9, the focus shifts from the Servant’s suffering to his death. We will begin to examine this in the next daily note.

April 27: Isaiah 53:5

Isaiah 53:5

“But he was pierced from our acts of breaking (faith),
crushed from our (own) crooked deeds,
(the) correction (for) our wholeness was upon him,
and with (the) binding of his (wound)s there is healing for us.”

The four lines of verse 5 build upon v. 4 (discussed in the previous note), combining together two key themes being emphasized in the description of the Servant’s suffering: (1) his suffering was the result of his bearing the burdens of the people, and (2) it was a manifestation of YHWH’s judgment. These two themes are presented most vividly here, with the idea of judgment/punishment drawing upon the motif of being wounded (as in battle).

This wounding is expressed, in the first two lines, by two verbs—ll^j* and ak^D*. The first of these literally means “dig/bore a hole,” i.e. “pierce,” presumably in the sense of being struck by a sword or spear. However, there is another semantic domain for llj, usually recognized as a separate root in the lexicons (llj, II), with the meaning “profane, defile,” etc. It has been suggested by some commentators (e.g., Baltzer, p. 410) that this second root/meaning is in view here, in which case the line would read something like:

“But he was defiled from our acts of breaking (faith)”

This could conceivably be correct, yet the parallel with the verb ak^D* (“crush”) makes the meaning “wound/pierce” of llj (I) a better fit.

As the Prophetic account of Israelite (and Old Testament) history makes clear, the judgment brought by YHWH on a people often involved military attack and conquest. In this regard, the punishment surely could be considered “crushing”, and might indeed entail people being wounded and put to death by the sword. Perhaps the terminology is being used more in a figurative sense here, but, in any case, the scenario has certainly intensified—from being “pressed down” (v. 4) to being “crushed”.

The cause of the punishment is also noted, using the preposition /m! (“from”) to indicate the source. The noun uv^P# is often translated as “sin, transgression, wickedness”, but this can be a little misleading in its generality and moral emphasis; the term properly refers to the breaking of a bond (of trust, etc), and can even indicate, more forcefully, an act of rebellion. In other words, the covenant bond, between Israel and YHWH, is primarily in view when uvp is used in the Old Testament. And, here, the plural (<yu!v*P=), specifically refers to acts (by the people) that break the bond,  that break faith with YHWH.

The term /ou*, on the other hand, is used to capture the moral and (general) religious aspect. It is best translated as “crookedness”, indicating something that has been “bent” or “twisted” (i.e., perverted). The plural tonou& is parallel with <yu!v*P=—sinful/corrupt behavior along with acts of disloyalty (and even rebellion) against YHWH.

What is especially emphasized here, however, is that the Servant is the one punished for the people’s deeds. This striking contrast is established by setting the pronoun aWh (“he”) in emphatic position—i.e., he was punished for our deeds.

The last two lines shift the focus slightly, from the punishment itself to the purpose for the punishment, and what results from it. The penalty inflicted by YHWH in judgment is not merely punitive; especially in the case of His people (Israel/Judah), there is also a corrective purpose. This is indicated in the third line by the (verbal) noun rs^Wm, from the root rsy, which captures the fundamental idea of “discipline, instruction, correction”. Thus, the punishment, however severe it may be, is intended also to provide instruction for the people, correcting their behavior, and as an example for future generations.

Here, the intercessory role of the Servant works in the opposite direction: he receives the correction (rs^Wm), but the corrective effect is realized by the people. In the wording of the third line, the correction was for “our wholeness” (Wnm@olv=), i.e., to make us whole. The noun <olv* is often translated flatly as “peace”, but the fundamental meaning has to do with being full, complete, whole.

The fourth line is parallel to the third, and so the terms used must be understood in this light:

    • “(the) correction…upon him” //  “(the) binding of his (wound)s
    • “our wholeness” // “healing for us”

The precise meaning and force of the noun hr*b%j^ (plur. torb%j^) requires comment. The basic meaning of the root rbj is “join, bind, unite”; however, the rather wide semantic range suggests that the Hebrew root, as it occurs in the Old Testament, may represent a convergence of several different Semitic roots. The noun hr*b%j^ seems to isolate one particular idea, that of a visible wound, parallel in meaning to ux^P* (which more properly means “wound”); it may be related to Arabic µbr (distinct from —br), indicating a bright color (like the shining red of a fresh wound).

In this regard, hrb%j^ is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring just 7 times. One important occurrence (and the only other instance in the Prophets) is in Isaiah 1:6, also in the context of YHWH’s judgment on Israel/Judah. Much of the terminology in vv. 3-5 here can be found in 1:5-6. The people’s sinfulness and breaking of the covenant bond with YHWH has led to their being struck and wounded, and their continuing rebellion means that their wounds continue to get worse. The message is that, if they were to repent, their wounds would be treated and bound up—that is, there would be healing for them. There is likely a basic cognate relationship between the roots rbj and vbj—both sharing a common meaning of “bind”. In Isa 1:6, the wound is the hrbj, while the binding of the wound is hvbj. I believe that the fourth line of verse 5 here alludes to the same dual-concept: both the wounds of the Servant, and the binding of them, and I have tried to capture both aspects in my translation above.

Again, the most important point is that the binding of the Servant’s wounds brings healing for the people, not for himself. In this regard, the effect of the suffering is akin to its purpose—it applies, vicariously, to the people, rather than to the Servant himself. The vicarious aspect of his suffering will be discussed further, in the next note on verse 6.

At this point in the description of the Servant, the parallels with the Moses type-pattern seem to break down. Even if we interpret the wounding and “crushing” here in a figurative sense, it is hard to find any clear parallels in the  Moses traditions. While Moses, on at least one occasion, in his intercession for the people, does ask God to punish him on their behalf (Exod 32:32), there is only one instance when the punishment for the people actually falls upon him as well. This is the episode of the “waters of strife [Meribah]” in Numbers 20:2-13. The rebelliousness and lack of trust among the people provokes Moses to act (and speak) in an impetuous way that does not give full and proper honor to YHWH; as a result, Moses meets with the same punishment as the rest of the adult generation of the Exodus—he would die without being able to enter the Promised Land.

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

April 26: Isaiah 53:4

Isaiah 53:4

“Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses,
and our sorrows, he has carried them;
but we considered him (to) be touched,
struck by (the) Mightiest and oppressed.”

Verse 4 continues the description from v. 3 (cf. the previous note), emphasizing the reason for the Servant’s sorrow and suffering—it is primarily due to his empathic and intercessory role in relation to the Israelite/Jewish people. He identifies with their suffering and takes it upon himself, carrying/bearing it on their behalf. In the previous note, I mentioned the importance of Exod 3:7 and the related Moses traditions. Indeed, Moses’ role as YHWH’s servant was closely tied to the suffering of the people, as well as to their deliverance from suffering.

The same words—yl!j( (“weakness, sickness”) and ba)k=m^ (“sorrow”)—from verse 3 are repeated here in the first two lines. This makes clear that the “sorrows” and the apparent “weakness” of the Servant, mentioned in v. 3, are those of the people themselves. The Servant has taken their weakness upon himself.

Two verbs are used to express this: ac^n` (“lift [up]”) and lb^s* (“carry, bear”). The latter verb is relatively rare in the Old Testament, while the former is the common verb used for lifting/carrying something. It can also be used in a figurative sense for the burden of leadership, etc. Following along with the Moses-pattern for the figure of the Servant, the episode in Numbers 11 should given special consideration. Moses feels the weight of his special role of leadership over the people, which puts him in the middle of any conflict between them and YHWH. The wording of his complaint in vv. 11ff would seem to be relevant to the portrait of the Servant here:

“And Moshe said to YHWH, ‘For what [i.e. why] have you caused evil [i.e. hurt, trouble] for your servant? And (why) have I not found favor in your eyes, for (you) to put upon me (the) burden [aC*m^] of all this people?'”

The noun aC*m^ is derived from the root acn, and literally means “lifting, (something) being lifted”. Moses, in his beleaguered state, views this burden (of leadership) as a kind of affliction by God. In the narrative, YHWH responds to Moses’ complaint and relieves some of the burden by having it be shared by other leaders among the people.

In the final two lines of verse 4, the focus shifts back to the how the people have viewed the Servant. It demonstrates how the people have misjudged the Servant, considering the burden of his mission as a personal weakness. Here, this misunderstanding is taken a step further: his weakness and suffering is (erroneously) viewed as a punishment by YHWH. Three verbs, all in passive participle form, are used to express this:

    • ug~n`, “touch” —u^Wgn` (“being touched,” i.e., “he was touched”)
    • hk*n`, “strike” —hK@m% (Hophal participle), “being struck, having been struck”
    • hn`u*, “press down, oppress” —hN#u%m= (Pual participle), “being pressed down, oppressed”

The passive form in these cases is clearly an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied actor. In the Old Testament idiom, to be “touched” by God often has a negative implication—i.e., experiencing some evil or misfortune. To be “struck” by God is even more forceful, indicating a plague or other serious (or disastrous) situation. Being “pressed down” indicates the result or effect of the Divine action, and the punishment that YHWH brings down upon a person.

At the time, the people (apparently) did not realize the nature of the Servant’s suffering (his weakness and sorrow)—that it was the result of his intercessory role. The wording and context of the description indicates that now they do understand this, and recognize their error; indeed, it is part of their testimony now on the Servant’s behalf.

Between verses 3 and 4, there is a dramatic progression in this description of the tension (and conflict) between the Servant and the people. As it turns out, the Servant’s suffering is brought out by YHWH’s judgment—only it is judgment that was intended for the people, but which instead fell upon the Servant, who intercedes for them. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on verse 5).

April 25: Isaiah 53:3

Isaiah 53:3

“He was disregarded and forsaken by men,
a man of sorrows, being known by weakness,
and we hid our faces (away) from him,
he was disregarded, and we did not think (anything of) him.”

This verse builds on the last lines of verse 2 (cf. the previous note), with the basic sense that the people did not think much of the Servant; certainly he did not have a particularly impressive or attractive physical appearance. In the ancient world, such physical characteristics were often thought to mark a person as a gifted leader (cf. the notice regarding Saul in 1 Sam 9:2). However, as verse 3 indicates, this general disregard of the Servant (his appearance) touches upon a deeper conflict with the people.

The verb translated above as “disregard” is hz`B*, which fundamentally signifies considering something (or someone) to be of little worth. We might translate the verb here more forcefully as “despise”, though in some ways “disregard” provides a better transition from verse 2. In any case, the verb is repeated in the fourth line, and so brackets the entire quatrain. Parallel with hzb is the root ldj (“leave, forsake, reject”), here as an adjective (“forsaken”); the two terms indicate the attitude of the people (“men”) toward him. The parallel verb in the last line is bv^j*, which fundamentally indicates what one thinks (about something).

Between the first and fourth line, the focus shifts from the general view of people toward the Servant to the specific view of those who are providing the description (“we”). The people—some of them, at any rate—appear to be giving testimony on behalf of the Servant in the heavenly court. They admit that they did not think much of the Servant—they disregarded (or even despised) him. Central to this rejection is the characterization we find in the second and third lines:

“a man of sorrows, being known by weakness,
and we hid our faces (away) from him”

The expression “man of sorrows” (toba)k=m^ vya!) indicates that the Servant is characterized by sorrow. We do not know the reason for this. It is unlikely that it is to be considered the result of physical suffering (as from an illness). Given the influence of the Moses traditions upon the portrait of the Servant-figure, it is possible that Exod 3:7 is in view here:

“And YHWH said: ‘Seeing (it), (yes,) I have seen (the) oppression of my people that are in Egypt, and their cry I have heard from (the) mouth of (the one)s (op)pressing him, for I know their sorrows.'”

The sorrow here relates to the experience of the Israelite people (in Egypt). And this is the context of Moses’ particular role as the servant of YHWH—a role that began when Moses saw the suffering of his people (Exod 2:11). The idea seems to be that the Servant, like Moses, takes on the burden of the people, and so suffers (and experiences sorrow) in a sympathetic (or empathic) way. In other words, he identifies with the suffering of the people. This theme will be developed in the following verses, and it must be considered an important aspect of the “sorrows” that characterize the Servant.

Ironically, while the Servant identifies with the suffering of the people, the people, for their part, turn away from him. Literally they “hide” (vb rt^s*) their faces from him. It is the very suffering/sorrow of the Servant that prompts them to turn away. This suffering is defined here by the word yl!j(, which fundamentally means “weakness”, but can also denote “sickness, illness, disease”. It is often translated here as “sickness”, but in my view “weakness” is more accurate and appropriate. The Servant’s role in carrying the burden of the people’s suffering/sorrow takes a profound a toll on him, both physically and emotionally, and this can appear to the casual (and callous) observer as an unattractive weakness.

Indeed, the Servant is known by this weakness, meaning that it is a primary characteristic and a principal way by which people think about him—i.e., a man of sorrows and weakness. A passive participle of the common verb ud^y` is used here (u^Wdy+, “being known”). Again, this may reflect the commission of Moses at the burning bush, with the wording in Exod 3:7 (above): “…I know their sorrows”. It follows that Moses, as the servant of YHWH, in identifying with his people’s sorrows, would himself come to be known by that very suffering. This empathic character of the Servant’s mission will be discussed further in the next daily note, on verse 4.

April 24: Isaiah 53:2

Isaiah 53:2

“But he came up as a suckling (plant) (be)fore His face,
and as a root from (out of the) parched earth;
(there was) no (fine) shape to him,
and no adornment that we should look (at) him,
and no sight (for us) that we should delight (in) him.”

This verse begins the description of the Servant (vv. 2-10). The description focuses on the Servant’s suffering, the seeds of which are given here.

The first two lines depict the Servant’s entry into the world—his birth, presumably, but also the beginning of his public life among the Israelite/Jewish people. The imagery is drawn from nature, the idea of a plant’s stem/shoot (qn@oy) rising up out of the ground, along with its root (vr#v#). The verbal noun qn@oy literally means “sucking”, i.e., something that sucks/suckles, and can also refer to an infant child (i.e., alluding to the Servant’s birth and childhood).

The root of the plant is said to come up from the dry/parched earth. This implies that, from the very beginning of the Servant’s career (if not his life), there was a measure of suffering involved. The use of the term “root” (vr#v#), along with the idea of a fresh green branch/shoot coming out of the ground, may be intended as an echo of the Isaian oracle in 11:1-10. The “root of Jesse” clearly reflects the expectation of a future king from the line of David, and this oracle came to be regarded as a key Messianic prophecy. However, the Messianic/Davidic connection, if it is present at all here in vv. 2ff, is relatively slight.

A connection with the life of Moses is more plausible, given the other evidence for the Servant-figure being patterned after Moses (cf. the discussion by Baltzer, pp. 404-6). In particular, verse 2 would refer to the birth of Moses (the root qny, “suck, suckle” occurs 4 times in Exod 2:5-10).

As for the root that comes up from the dry/parched (hY`x!) land, this could refer generally to the desert landscape of Egypt and its environs, though more probably, to the beginning of Moses’ career (as YHWH’s servant) across the desert in Midian. And, of course, Moses functioned as God’s servant in leading the people through the desert (the dry and desolate land) after their Exodus from Egypt; on this, compare the wording in Psalm 78:17; 105:37ff; 107:35; Jer 2:6 (cf. Baltzer, p. 405). The Exodus can be described with the same verb hl*u* (“go up,” i.e., go up from Egypt), which would support a collective interpretation of the Servant—as the people of Israel, or as the righteous, collectively.

The last three lines of verse 2 emphasize how the Servant lacked the sort of impressive physical appearance one would typically associate with a great leader in the ancient world (cf. 1 Sam 9:2). This aspect of the Servant tends to contradict the description of Moses, at least as it developed in Jewish tradition; Josephus’ wording in Antiquities 2.230-32, for example (cp. Acts 7:20-22), is almost the opposite of what we find here in v. 2 (on the general idea of Moses’ beauty, cf. Exod 2:2). The lack of physical beauty and an impressive appearance plays a role in the Servant’s suffering; it predisposes people to regard him as someone of little account. This is the theme that will be developed in verse 3 (to be discussed in the next note).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 2)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 7-12 [6-11]

Verse 7 [6]

“My soul upon me is bent down low,
(yet) upon this will I remember you,
from (the) land of (the river) going down,
and the sacred (mountain)s from (the) miƒar hill.”

The initial verse of this section picks up from the refrain in v. 6 [5] (cf. the previous study), emphasizing the suffering and sorrow of the Psalmist’s soul. Both rhythmically, and in terms of its imagery, these lines are difficult. The meter is irregular—a 3+2+2+3 quatrain, or, possibly, a pair of 3+2 couplets (depending on how one divides the last two lines).

The main idea is that the Psalmist’s soul has “bent down low” (vb jj^v*), in his sorrow and suffering. The sense of the second line seems to be that, even in the midst of his suffering, the Psalmist will continue to remember YHWH. He imagines a scenario where he is approaching death, as the imagery in the last two lines strongly suggests. To render /D@r=y~ and /omr=j# as simple geographical terms (i.e., the Jordan river and Mt. Hermon) is to miss the point; it is, rather, a symbolic landscape, which requires a literal translation of the terms (in their fundamental meaning) in order to bring the symbolism across properly.

The /D#r=y~ is literally the “(place of) going down [dry]”, i.e., the river that leads to the underworld, while the <yn]omr=j# means something like “(the) sacred (mountain)s”. The significance of ru*x=m! is uncertain; derived from root ru^x* I, it would mean something like “place of littleness, (the) little place”. It seems to indicate a particular location in the “sacred mountains” (the Hermon range, in Canaanite geography), which, we must assume, also leads to the underworld.

In the ancient Near East, both rivers and mountains were viewed as mythical/spiritual conduits (points of entry) to the otherworld—in this case, it leads down into the watery depths below the earth, from which one reaches the realm of the dead (netherworld). The context here makes this set of associations abundantly clear (cp. Jonah 2:7[6]); on the same line of traditional imagery in Canaanite sources, cf. Dahood, pp. 258-9.

Verse 8 [7]

“Deep to deep is calling,
at (the) voice of your shafts
all your breaking (wave)s and heaps (of water)
pass over upon me.”

Following the line of imagery in v. 7 [6], the Psalmist feels that he is entering the dark watery depths that lead to the netherworld, the realm of the dead (i.e., he is in danger of death). The idea of being threatened by powerful engulfing waves of water is a frequent motif in Old Testament poetry; in addition to the famous poem in Jonah 2:2-10 [1-9], cf. Psalm 32:6; 69:1-2; 88:4-7; 130:1; Job 22:11, etc.

The expression “deep to deep” reflects the ancient bi-partite view of the universe, in which the cosmos can be divided into two halves (hemispheres, generally speaking) that are surrounded by waters above, and waters below, respectively. From the waters above come the rains (and rainstorms); YHWH tends to be associated with the waters above, but He ultimately has control over all the waters. Indeed, his command (and control) reaches from the heavens (the upper waters, and above) all the way down to the watery depths below the earth. On this control over the waters, as expressed through the ancient cosmological myth of the Deity’s ‘defeat’ of the Sea, cf. my earlier article.

The word roNx! (“shaft”), occurring elsewhere only in 2 Sam 5:8, suggests a conduit by which YHWH extends His command (over the waters) to the depths below. Dahood, p. 259, would identify it with the storm (and lighting/thunder bolts) that stirs and roils up the sea. Given that thunder, in the ancient Near Eastern mindset, is typically referred to as the “voice” (loq) of God, this seems most likely.

Verse 9 [8] ab

“By day YHWH commands His goodness,
by night His hry?[?] (is) with me”

This couplet seems to parallel the idea in v. 8 [7] of YHWH commanding the waters—both above and below. While those waters threaten to engulf the Psalmist, and thus reflect a very real danger of death to him, here in v. 9 the emphasis is on God’s goodness. YHWH commands his goodness (ds#j#), which can also connote faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., loyalty to the covenant). Typically in the Psalms, the covenant aspect is in view, whereby the term ds#j# refers specifically to the care and protection that YHWH gives to the righteous (like the Psalmist), i.e., those who are loyal to the covenant.

The parallelism of the lines would require a corresponding term in the second line to match this goodness (ds#j#) of YHWH in the first. The term in the MT here is Hr*yv! (Qere oryv!), “his song”, which makes little sense in context, and many commentators feel that here the text likely is corrupt. It is not at all clear, however, in what way the text can, or should, be emended. The context indicates that the word in this position must signify something sent by YHWH (at His command) to the Psalmist, and which the protagonist now has with him, serving as hope and comfort for him in his time of distress. The reception by the Psalmist (at night) matches the active sending by YHWH (in the daytime).

One very much wishes that the text of this verse had survived among the Qumran Psalm scrolls, as it might well solve the textual problem noted above; but, alas, this is not the case. The LXX translates according to the MT, although the B text here has the verb dhlo/w (“make visible, make manifest, show”), which certainly would form a fitting parallel with Hebrew hw`x* (“command, charge,” Grk e)nte/llomai). Dahood (p. 259), following the suggestion by T. Gaster (Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL], vol. 73 [1954], pp. 237-8), identifies hryv here with Akkadian š£ru and Ugaritic ´rt, “vision” (par. to µlm, “dream”). The sense of v. 9 then, might run as follows:

“By day YHWH sends his goodness (to me) by command,
(and) by night makes it known to me in a vision.”

This is an appealing solution, though not entirely convincing.

Verse 9c-11a [8c-10a]

“My prayer (is) to (the) Mighty (One) of my life:
I will say, ‘(O) Mighty (One), my Rock,
for what [i.e. why] have you forgotten me,
for what should I walk covered in darkness,
in (the) squeeze of (the one) hostile (to me),
with murdering (power) on my limbs?'”

The Psalmist’s prayer, to the effect that YHWH has forgotten him, makes the preceding verse 9ab seem out of place, and tends to confirm the theory that those lines may be corrupt (cf. the discussion above). This prayer is typical of many of the lament-Psalms, and the thought expressed here echoes that found, for example, in the famous opening of Psalm 22. The idea of the Psalmist going about “being covered in darkness” (rd@q)) could be understood in terms of a person clothed in mourning garb, but it also reflects the earlier image of the protagonist being covered over by the dark and tumultuous waters of the deep. In any case, the association with death is very much at the fore.

While enemies are frequently mentioned in the Psalms, they are often indistinct from the suffering experienced by the Psalmist. Here the singular by@oa (“hostile [one],” i.e., enemy) should probably be understood as a personification of Death itself. The “squeeze” (Jj^l^) that this enemy puts on the Psalmist is so deadly that it puts his once-strong limbs (<x#u#, plur.) in a murderous grip (the noun jx^r# indicates an act of killing). Clearly, only YHWH can deliver the Psalmist from this mortal danger; often in the Psalms, this danger is expressed in terms of illness or disease, and this may well be in view here.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The one)s opposed to me cast blame (on) me,
in their saying to me all the day (long):
‘Where (is) your Mighty (One)?'”

The remainder of verse 11 [10] consists of a dramatic tricolon, with the mocking taunts of the wicked being added to the Psalmist’s suffering and distress. Here the plural noun (verbal participle, <yr!r=ox) unquestionably refers to human enemies. The root rrx II is similar in meaning to by~a*, and the participle here (with the 1st person suffix) could likewise be translated “one[s] hostile to me” (i.e., “my enemies, my adversaries”). I have opted to denote rrx with the specific idea of opposition—i.e., “(one)s being opposed to me” —to keep it distinct from bya.

Such taunts by the protagonist’s wicked enemies are a frequent feature in the Psalms, and can be seen in a number of the compositions that we have examined thus far. The motif plays on two important ideas: (1) the hostility of the wicked toward the righteous, and (2) as an expression of the doubt experienced by the righteous, in the face of severe suffering and misfortune, regarding their loyalty to YHWH. The climactic question posed by the wicked in their taunt is pointed: “Where is your Mighty One?” (i.e., God, Elohim, lit. “Mightiest [One]”). In other words, if this “Mightiest One” truly exists, and rewards the righteous for their faithfulness and loyalty to Him, then why are you (a righteous one, presumably) suffering so badly? This is another way of framing the common Wisdom-theme regarding the suffering of the righteous. It is a theme that is quite frequent in the Psalms, as we have seen.

Refrain: Verse 12 [11]

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on v. 6 [5]). Given the sense of mortal danger and suffering that pervades this section, the call to wait on YHWH, and to trust in Him for deliverance, is particularly significant—a sign of faith and trust that can encourage the righteous in their own time of distress.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).


April 23: Isaiah 53:1

Isaiah 53:1

“Who has been firm (in trust) to (what) we have caused to be heard,
and (of the) arm of YHWH, upon whom has it been uncovered?”

A different voice appears to be speaking here in 53:1. The scene, by all accounts, is still the heavenly court/council of YHWH, but there has been a shift in the action. In vv. 13-15 the Servant was being addressed, though gradually the focus shifted to the ‘many peoples’ (and their rulers) who react to the Servant. The scenario seems to depict these peoples as present in the heavenly court, but the change to the future tense (“he will sprinkle… they will see…they will discern”) indicates that the Servant’s future role,  in relation to the nations, is being described.

The sense in 53:1 is that of a legal case being established, as with an attorney’s opening arguments in the courtroom. A question is raised, marked by the interrogative particle (ym!, “who…?”). It is possible to read the two lines of v. 1 as parallel questions; but, in my view, it is better to treat them as a single compound question. The primary question occurs in the first line (v. 1a):

“Who has been firm (in trust) to (what) we have caused to be heard…?”

This literal translation is quite cumbersome, as it is difficult to render with precision the Hiphil (causative) form of the verb /m^a* (“be firm, sure”) when followed by a predicate with the preposition –l. This idiom would be rendered literally as “be/make firm (in trust) to”, which in simple and conventional English would best be translated as “trust in”. Equally difficult to translate is the noun hu*Wmv=, a verbal noun derived from um^v* (“hear”), and meaning “something heard”, or “something (made to be) heard”, i.e., a message, report, etc. In conventional English, the question would be translated something like: “Who has trusted in our report…?”

The second line (1b), I believe, explains just what this report involves, defined by two components: (a) the arm of YHWH, and (b) to whom this arm has been revealed. The expression “(the) arm of YHWH” is used in reference to the mighty and miraculous signs by which YHWH acted to deliver His people; the reference is especially to the events surrounding the Exodus of Israel from Egypt (Exod 6:6; 15:16; Deut 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 11:2; 26:8, etc). I have already noted on several occasions the important Deutero-Isaian theme of the restoration/return from Exile as a “new Exodus”, with the Servant functioning as a “new Moses”.

This “arm” was revealed principally to the people of Israel. In spite of all that was done for them by YHWH, the people still came to be unfaithful/disloyal, violating the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. Thus, it is legitimate to ask, “who has trusted in this message of the mighty deeds of YHWH?” There were also at least some among the nations who had heard reports of what YHWH had done in delivering Israel (cf. Exod 15:14-16, etc), and the same question could apply to them: “who has trusted in this…?”

The exact force (and purpose) of this question in the context of 52:13-53:12 is difficult to determine. Does it assume a negative answer, in a rhetorical sense, reflecting accusation, skepticism, etc: “who has trusted this message? has anyone?” Perhaps the question relates to how the nations (and their rulers) can be instructed in the ways of YHWH, when even God’s own people (Israel) have failed to hold to this instruction throughout their history. The traditions surrounding Moses and the Exodus reflect this conflict, the origins of which are rooted in the very beginning of the covenant and the Torah (cf. Exod 19-34, centered on the episode of the Golden Calf). If the Servant is to purify and instruct the nations, how will this be possible, given the evidence from Israel’s own history?

What follows in verses 2-10 is a description of the Servant and his relation to the people of Israel. As I have discussed, this Servant figure appears to have been largely patterned after Moses, and there are certainly many details and points of reference in vv. 2-10 that fit this pattern. Even so, the portrait of the Servant is more complicated than a facile identification with Moses would suggest; however, I do not wish to enter a discussion regarding the best way to interpret the Servant-figure of 52:13-53:12 until we have completed the exegesis of the passage.

In the next daily note, we will begin our analysis of the description in vv. 2-10, which, as we shall see, relates primarily to the suffering of the Servant. This was established already in 52:14-15, but it will be expounded in considerably more detail. The initial description of his suffering comes in vv. 2-3, which we will examine in the next note.

April 22: Isaiah 52:14-15 (continued)

Isaiah 52:15b-d

“Over him kings will close their mouth(s):
for that which is not recounted to them they will see,
and that which they have not heard they will discern.”

These three lines continue the scenario depicted in the first four lines of vv. 14-15 (cf. the previous note). For those commentators who would explain the verb hz`n` in v. 15a as having the meaning “spring/leap up,” which is questionable, it is possible to read v. 15ab as a parallel couplet:

“So he will cause (the) nations to leap (in amazement),
and over him (the) kings will close their mouth(s).”

However, in my view, it is better to view the first four lines of vv. 14-15 as a distinct poetic unit, followed the three lines here. These units do, indeed, have a parallel conceptual structure; note how the first line begins in each:

“…many were devastated over you [;yl#u*]
over him [wyl*u*] kings will shut their mouth”

In each case, there is a comparable reaction by the ‘many’ (i.e., the peoples/nations and their leaders), and it is “over” (lu^) the Servant. The sequence (reaction / result) may be outlined as follows:

    • The peoples devastated by the appearance of the Servant
      • He will sprinkle (i.e. purify) the nations
    • The kings shut their mouths in the presence of the Servant
      • (He will instruct the rulers), spec. they will see and understand

The act of purifying the nations is thus parallel with instructing their kings. The specific idea of instruction in v. 15cd has to inferred from the twin declaration that the kings will “see” (vb ha*r*) and “understand” (/yB!). In the prior note on v. 13, I mentioned how the verb lk^c*, in the Hiphil (causative) stem, can indicate that a person makes others to be wise and understanding, by instructing them (in the Torah of YHWH, etc). Here, the verb /yB!, which properly denotes discernment (i.e., separating/distinguishing), captures a similar idea—viz., the Servant gives wisdom and understanding to the rulers of the nations.

And it is Divine wisdom/understanding that is communicated, and which the Servant possesses. This is the significance of the negative phrases used here in v. 15cd:

    • “that which is not recounted to them”
    • “that which they have not heard”

In the Deutero-Isaian poems, the verb /yB! is used of understanding in the sense of the knowledge of God, both in a subjective (i.e., the knowledge God possesses) and objective sense (i.e., knowledge about God)—cf. 40:14, 21; 43:10. The lack of such knowledge is attributed to the nations—that is, to all who worship false deities (and idols) rather than YHWH (44:18-19). The Servant, it seems, will be instrumental in imparting this knowledge to the nations—to those who have never heard the truth of YHWH, His Torah, and His covenant with Israel.

It may also be that the negative phrases in v. 15cd relate specifically to the person of the Servant—his suffering and his role as YHWH’s chosen servant. His suffering, in particular, has struck the nations (and their rulers), and forms the basis of their initial instruction. This message of the Servant’s suffering, established in vv. 14-15a, will be presented in some detail in 53:2-10.

In the heavenly scene, this role of the Servant, with regard to the nations, is being set. Having been raised to an exalted position, the Servant is, in a sense, commissioned with this role; but it has to be authorized within the context of the heavenly Court/Council. It is thus a courtroom scene, of sorts, that is depicted here. Evidence is presented, regarding the nature and character of the Servant, and his worthiness to function as YHWH’s Servant, not to Israel alone, but to all the peoples.

April 21: Isaiah 52:14-15

Isaiah 52:14-15a

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you—
so destroyed from (that of) a man (was the) sight of him,
and (the) appearance of him from (that of the) sons of man
—so will he sprinkle many nations.”

There are four lines here in vv. 14-15a, the second and third of which represent a parenthetical descriptive statement. It is the first and fourth lines that provide the principal declaration:

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you,
so will he sprinkle many nations.”

The shift from 2nd person to 3rd may seem awkward or confusing to us, but it is not at all uncommon in Hebrew poetry (including the Prophetic poems). In the initial line, the Servant is being addressed. Based on the context of verse 13 (discussed in the previous note), the scene of vv. 14-15ff would appear to be the heavenly court of YHWH, the Servant having been exalted and elevated to a heavenly position. If so, then it is the court/council of YHWH—if not YHWH Himself—who addresses the Servant.

The verb <mv* denotes “devastation, desolation,” etc. The seeming obscurity of why “many (people)” would be “devastated” by the sight of the Servant helps to explain the parenthetic lines 2-3, which serve to clarify the situation. The “devastation” is a reaction to the “destruction” (tj^v=m!, from the root tjv) of the Servant. It is specifically his visible appearance that has been destroyed (i.e., marred, disfigured); the two nouns used to express this are ha#r=m^ (“seeing, something seen, sight of [something]”) and ra^T) (“shape, form, outline”). The latter word implies that his physical form has, in some way, been destroyed.

The extent of the physical/visible destruction is defined by the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) in a comparative sense (i.e., more than). His appearance/form has been destroyed more than that of an ordinary human being—parallel terms “man” [vya!] and “sons of man” [<d*a* yn@B=]). The parallelism here is both synonymous and emphatic, with the double-reference used for dramatic emphasis.

Clearly, the Servant has endured considerable suffering (which may have led to his death, cf. the discussion in the previous note), though no indication is given here of the exact nature of this suffering, nor the reasons for it. However, it establishes the important theme, of the Servant’s suffering, that will be developed in the remainder of the poem.

The most difficult part of vv. 14-15a is the use of the verb hz`n` (“sprinkle”) in the final line. It is said that the Servant (“he”) will “sprinkle many nations”. This provides a comparative parallel with the first line (cf. above):

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you
|| so will he sprinkle many nations.”

This suggests that the “sprinkling” is related in some way to the devastated reaction over the Servant’s appearance. But what, precisely, is the significance of this “sprinkling”?

[It should be noted that some commentators, following the LXX translation qauma/sontai (“they will wonder [at]”), would explain the verb hz`n` in the sense of “spring/leap up”, possibly to be identified with a separate root hzn (II) with this meaning, posited on the basis of evidence in Arabic. This seems to me quite tenuous, being introduced by commentators almost entirely for the purpose of explaining the odd mention of “sprinkling” here in v. 15. However, if valid, the lines above would need to be translated as:

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you
|| so will he cause many nations to leap [i.e., with amazement].”

This supposed use of hz`n` is unattested anywhere else in the Old Testament, compared with the regular use of the verb in the sense of “sprinkle, spurt”; this, combined with the introduction of the theme of purification (cf. below) in the prior vv. 11-12, strongly argues for retaining the meaning of “sprinkle” here.]

The verb hz`n` occurs 24 times in the Old Testament, almost always in connection with purification rituals, sometimes associated specifically with the consecration and service of the priesthood. 15 of the 24 occurrences are in the book of Leviticus; cf. also Exod 29:21; Num 8:7; 19:4, 18ff. The verb is used once more in the book of Isaiah (63:3), but that is the only other reference in Prophets. The usage in Isa 63:3 is significant in that it departs from the traditional association with purification; instead, it is serves as a powerful image of judgment—the end-time judgment by God against the nations. In this case, the sprinkling (or better, splattering) of blood is compared with the image of the ‘blood’ of grapes that is pressed/poured out in the harvesting and production of wine. This harvest imagery, used as a motif of the end-time Judgment, is also found in Joel 3:13ff, and was picked up also in the Last Judgment visions of the book of Revelation (14:8-10ff, 17-20; 19:15, etc).

However, the context here in our passage suggests rather that the more common, positive sense of purification is in view (cf. on the initial verses 11-12, in the previous note). While it is not possible to make a definite assessment at this point in our study, the reference here seems to evoke an important Deutero-Isaian theme—namely, that the new covenant established with Israel will, in the New Age, ultimately be extended to the other nations as well. The Servant and “Anointed One[s]” of YHWH will play a key role in this eschatological ‘mission’ to the surrounding nations. This is a point that was discussed in the earlier article on Isa 42:1ff, and will be elaborated further as we continue in our analysis of 52:13-53:12. Based on the immediate context of verses 14-15, it is not at all clear just what the Servant’s role will be, or what is involved in his “sprinkling” the nations, beyond the general association with purification (cf. above). Again, we should be able to gain greater clarity on this point as we proceed through the passage.

In terms of an early Christian application of vv. 14-15 to the person of Jesus, one can easily see how it would have been applied to his suffering and death. The severe marring of his physical appearance would have fit in quite well with the historical reality of the crucifixion (including the whipping/scourging that preceded it). Even though the visible, physical affects of this punishment are barely mentioned at all in the Gospel narratives (being treated with considerable reserve), many Christians at the time would have been aware of it. Another Deutero-Isaian reference, which would have been more applicable to the (physical) mistreatment/abuse of Jesus, prior to (and apart from) the scourging, is 50:6 (cp. Mark 14:65; 15:19 pars; John 18:22-23).

April 20: Isaiah 52:13

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

These daily notes on Isa 52:13-53:12 will comprise the remainder of the article in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Because of the importance of this passage, I have felt it necessary to discuss it within the framework of a set of detailed critical and exegetical notes.

We begin with the preceding two verses (vv. 11-12). Isa 52:11-12 marks the beginning of significant division in the Deutero-Isaian corpus (spanning 52:11-54:17). These opening verses introduce the important Deutero-Isaian theme of the Exodus. In the exilic setting of these poems, the restoration of the Judean people, their return from exile, is defined in terms of a new Exodus. Related to this are the strong indications that the “Servant (of YHWH)” is, in large part, patterned after the figure of Moses—i.e., a new Moses, who will lead God’s people (back) into their Promised Land.

However, in these verses, the Exodus-theme has taken on a strong ethical-religious dimension. This is made clear by the opening words in verse 11:

“Turn (away), turn (away)! Go out from there!
You must not touch (any) unclean (thing)!
Go out from the midst of her (and) be clear,
(you who are) carrying (the) vessels of YHWH!”

The idea of ritual purity is emphasized here, the people being identified with the priestly servants who carry the holy things of YHWH. The consecrated status of the priests, and their involvement with the sacred space and sacred objects (of the Temple, etc), signifies the importance of keeping oneself pure, of not touching anything unclean (am@f*). In the context of the return from exile, the meaning presumably is that the Judean people should not take with them anything from the idolatrous atmosphere of the Babylonian empire (cf. the oracles in chapters 46-47). Upon their restoration/return, the binding agreement (covenant) will also be restored—a new agreement between God and His people. The emphasis on purity is reflective of this new covenant that will be established for Israel/Judah, and of the New Age that is to begin.

The Exodus-imagery continues in verse 12, evoking the ancient Passover scene—i.e., Israel’s departure from Egypt—and the movement of the Israelite encampment across the desert. While the initial Exodus was to be made in a hurried manner, fleeing out of Egypt (cf. Exod 12:11; Deut 16:3), this “new Exodus” is to proceed without such haste. The same expression /ozP*j!b= (“in a hurry”) is used, connoting a measure of fearfulness. Verse 12 here emphasizes that no hurried flight is needed:

“(It is) that you will not go out in a hurry and in flight,
for YHWH is going (be)fore your face,
and being gathered (behind is the) Mightiest of Yisrael.”

YHWH goes in front of the people, but also brings up the rear, echoing the protection given by YHWH during the Exodus, the journeying of Israel out of Egypt (and across the desert). This motif is introduced in Exod 14:19, and continues throughout the Exodus narratives; in particular, the presence of YHWH is marked by the imagery of the cloud and (pillar of) fire (Deut 1:33, et al).

Isaiah 52:13

“See, my servant will show (his) understanding,
he will rise high and be carried up, and be very high [up].”

The opening couplet of the poem proper introduces (again) the figure of the Servant (db#u#) of YHWH. This same figure featured in the three prior “Servant Songs”, and reflects a theme that runs throughout chapters 40-55 (cf. the brief discussion in the main article). Given the context of the Exodus in vv. 11-12, as also throughout many of the Deutero-Isaian poems, there are strong reasons to think that this “Servant” figure is patterned after Moses—i.e., a new Moses to lead God’s people in a “new Exodus”. As I mentioned previously (cf. the earlier article and supplemental note on Isa 42:1ff), Moses is specifically referred to as God’s “servant” on a number of occasions in Old Testament tradition: Exod 4:10; 14:31; Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:2, 7; 18:7; 1 Kings 8:53, 56; Psalm 105:26; Isa 63:11; Dan 9:11; Mal 4:4 [3:22]; Bar 2:28; cf. also Heb 3:5; Rev 15:3.

The verb here in the first line, lk^c*, has a relatively wide semantic range that can be difficult to translate with precision, in certain contexts. The fundamental meaning has to do with being knowledgeable, wise, understanding, etc. A person who is characterized by lkc is able to think things through, demonstrate understanding and skill, act wisely and with discernment. Sometimes the root also relates to the end result of this understanding—achieving success in a certain task or endeavor, the ability to teach and communicate this understanding to others, and so forth.

The precise way that the Hiphil (causative) stem of lkc is being used here is difficult to determine. It is probably best to keep to the fundamental meaning, in the sense of “show understanding, act with understanding, act wisely,” etc. The causative aspect here implies that the Servant is also able to make others wise and discerning.

This certain fits the pattern of Moses (cf. above), the great Prophet and Lawgiver (i.e., communicator of YHWH’s Instruction [Torah]) for Israel. There are two key occurrences of the verb lk^c* associated with Moses—in Deut 29:9[8] and 32:29, the first of which relates specifically to Moses communicating the Torah to Israel. The people are exhorted to observe all the commands and regulations of the Torah, and, if they do so faithfully, they will prove to be wise and discerning, and will then be successful (and will prosper) in all that they do.

The context here suggests that the Servant has been successful in instructing the people to be wise and discerning. This success results in his being exalted to a heavenly position. His exaltation is expressed by a sequence of three verbs: <Wr (“be high”), ac^n` (“carry, lift [up]”), and Hb^G` (“be high [up]”). The distinction between <Wr and Hb^G` is that the former indicates motion, i.e., getting/going up (standing, rising, ascending) high, while the latter indicates a high position. The Servant ascends (<Wr), and then is carried/lifted up (ac^n`), presumably by divine/heavenly beings, so that he reaches an especially high position (vb Hb^G`). The following verses suggest that this position is in heaven, in the presence of YHWH.

It is possible that this scenario assumes the death of the Servant, or that he ascended to heaven without dying, like the tradition related to Enoch. Moses, too, in certain lines of Israelite/Jewish tradition was taken up into heaven (cf. the pseudepigraphic Assumption/Testament of Moses). In Deuteronomy 34, Moses does ascend a high mountain (Mt. Nebo, to the peak of Pisgah) where he can see the extent of the Promised  Land. It is after reaching this exalted position that Moses dies; and, quite possibly, the scenario here in verses 13ff draws upon the idea of Moses’ further exaltation to heaven after death.

It is easy to see how early Christians would have applied this to the exaltation of Jesus, following his death and resurrection. Curiously, however, Isa 52:13ff seems to have had little discernible influence on the New Testament descriptions and discussions of Jesus’ exaltation. Still, we should keep this important association in mind as we continue our study of the passage. In the next daily note, we will proceed to verses 14-15.