Isaiah 40-49

Sorry for the dearth of posts recently — the semester at St Andrews has now started up and I have found myself overwhelmed trying to set a new schedule and routine for myself.  Among the various things I’m doing this semester, I am very excited about sitting in on Jim Davila’s Book of Daniel course, which has been highly stimulating so far, and we haven’t really gotten into the good stuff yet!  I hope to post my notes from the class (what notes I take) here on the blog, perhaps closer to the time we are to be looking at Daniel in the Sunday School curriculum.

As I’ve been unusually busy for the past week or two (listening to General Conference was a nice change of pace), I haven’t been able to do as much as I’ve wanted with this SS lesson from Isaiah. I hope to share some few thoughts that are of some use.

Isaiah 40

Chapter 40 of Isaiah begins a section of the book (chapters 40-55) labeled by scholars as “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah” because, according to popular theory, this section was not written by the original prophet Isaiah, but by an author that wrote during the Babylonian captivity.  Although there are a number of reasonable arguments for this perspective (see some of them here on Wikipedia), we can perhaps assume that one of the main reasons behind this designation is the fact that so many modern biblical scholars do not accept a traditional faith-based view of prophecy — that prophets could accurately predict (see in vision) future events.  Of course this point of view does not sit well with most Latter-day Saints, whose theology takes this traditional view for granted.  Furthermore, the Book of Mormon cites chapters from “Deutero-Isaiah” with the assumption that this were written by the original Isaiah, or at least that they were written before the time Lehi left Jerusalem, which was before the Babylonian Exile.  I’m afraid I’m not going to have time to go into this topic further, but I encourage you to look at the following articles, both of which give possible solutions to this apparent discrepancy.

Marc Schindler, “Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon”:

Keven Christensen, “Open Questions and Suggestions Regarding Isaiah in the Book of Mormon”:

On to the content of the Ch. 40…

As inferred by the title of this lesson, we can expect to see in these chapters many passages that can be interpreted as being Messianic — descriptive of the expected  life and mission of Jesus Christ. They also emphasize the idea that Israel saw Yahweh as their Redeemer and incomparable Savior.

If you are a fan of Handel’s timeless work, The Messiah, several of the verses here will be familiar to you. I have taken the liberty of posting a YouTube video here of Jerry Hadley singing “Comfort Ye My People” and “Every Valley” — it is very inspiring.

I would also mention, on this aesthetical note, that many verses from this chapter are quoted by Eric Liddell in the film Chariots of Fire. I post a video from that film as well.  Liddell teaches a great lesson here about keeping the Sabbath Day holy and the film clip shows Liddell preaching in church on Sunday while his teammates in the Olympics are out competing (and largely failing) in their Sunday races. The verses he quotes from Isaiah 40 emphasize God’s power over all mankind and the fact that he will support those who are faithful to him.

31 But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Chapter 41

This chapter starts off with a description that has always given scholars problems.

2 Who raised up the righteous man from the east, called him to his foot, gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings? he gave them as the dust to his sword, and as driven stubble to his bow.

3 He pursued them, and passed safely; even by the way that he had not gone with his feet.

The question is: who is this passage talking about? There has been much debate over this, and the usual candidates are Abraham, Cyrus of Persia, and Christ. Let’s look at these three possibilities.

  • Abraham — Many ancient and early modern commentators saw the “righteous man from the east” as Abraham. The verses do seem to be referring to a historical character.  The idea is that Abraham could be seen as being called from the east and led by God to the land of Canaan and that he was given power to conquer foes (he defeated the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah to save Lot — Gen. 14).  Furthermore, starting in verse 8, the Lord mentions specifically Abraham and his chosen descendants in Israel. The problems commonly cited with this interpretation are that Abraham didn’t really come from the “east” of Canaan (he came more from the north-east); it is a bit of a stretch to consider Abraham’s military victories a fulfillment of v. 2′s “gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings.”
  • Cyrus — By far the most popular modern scholarly opinion is that this verse refers to the Persian king Cyrus who conquered Babylon and freed the Jews.  Cyrus certainly came from the east (see Isa. 46:11, which is understood to refer to Cyrus); the Jews saw him as being called of God — a messianic (anointed of God) figure; Isaiah mentions Cyrus by name only a few chapters later (see Isa. 44:28; 45:1). In my opinion, Cyrus fits the bill very well, being a righteous man (he must have been — he freed God’s people!) from the east who was brought by God to Palestine, conquering nations and ruling kings.
  • Christ — There are some who see this passage as a messianic prophecy of Christ. The passage does have messianic overtones in line with what many Jews may have expected in a Messiah-Savior.  Parry, Parry, and Peterson argue for this view, noting: “Jesus Christ, who is righteous, will come from the east at his second coming and will rule over kings and nations.”1 Although not necessarily, the term “raised up” in v. 2 can be interpreted as a reference to resurrection.  Many early Christian thinkers, such as Jerome, Eusebius, and Theodoret believed that this passage referred to Christ. However, many modern critics have argued that the description doesn’t fit Jesus of Nazareth well — he was born in Bethlehem, not the East; he was a pacifist, not a great warrior; the prophecy expected an imminent savior, not a future one.
  • I tend to agree with the authors of Understanding Isaiah on this — that the verse can be interpreted as referring to both Cyrus and to Jesus Christ.  We can see this as an example of the frequently observed “dual” or “multiple” fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies.  It seems quite clear that Cyrus could be the realization of the given description, but I think we can just as easily see a “type” or “expectation” of Christ here, when his Second Coming instead of his First is considered — He will come from the East with great power and glory to subdue the nations and rule over the earth’s kings.

Moving on through the chapter, you may note that verse 10 is used in a verse of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” In keeping with the media-friendly tone of this post, I wanted to put up another video. This is the choir and congregation at LDS General Conference singing.

From verse 10 through the rest of the chapter, we see themes from the ancient Israelite New Year Festival pop up again.  The idea that God would come to save Israel from their powerful enemies at the last moment when hope is waning; the idea of God saving by his right hand or taking the redeemed by the right hand (Isa. 41:13) comes up a number of times in the psalms, some of which may have been part of the festival (see Pss. 17:7; 18:35; 20:6; 48:10; 60:5; 63:8; 73:23; 108:6; 138:7; 139:10); also the motif of water/fertility (Isa. 41:17–20) is important, as the festival took place at the end of the dry season when all were anxiously awaiting the coming of rain from the Lord; we also see the common festival elements of the care of the poor and needy and judgment of the wicked nations — all of these themes were well known to the Judahite people through the rituals and traditions of the New Year/Harvest Festival. These ideas were repeated annually representing not only God’s salvific acts of the past, but also what He would do for his people in the future.  The prophet and people knew that Yahweh would come to save them after this miraculous fashion described in these verses — even if they didn’t know when it would finally occur.

In verse 25 we have a prophecy that is similar to that in verse 2. The main difference is that this deliverer is described as coming from the North. Again, we should probably see a reference here to Cyrus, who although he was from the East, came conquering from Media, which was to the North of Babylon. The “rising of the sun” is probably a reference to his coming from the East. Some have argued that Cyrus was pagan and therefore doesn’t meet the description “shall he call upon my name”, but in Ezra 1:2 Cyrus does express the idea that he was called by the God of Israel to liberate the Jews.

To Be Continued…

  1. Understanding Isaiah, 352

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