Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Consummation of Consolation: Yahweh's Sovereign Reversal of Exile in Isaiah 55


What to speak to a people in exile? What speech is left, prophetic or otherwise, that remains faithful without surrendering either to falsity or sentimentality? After Isaiah 1–39, in which the judgment spoken by the prophet against Israel in the late 7th century ultimately results in destruction, devastation, and deportation, a new voice speaks in 40:1: “Comfort, comfort my people.” So begins the surprising new word of consolation out of the chaos of exile in chapters 40–55, one of the most theologically and poetically rich sections of the entire biblical canon.1 Continuing in the prophet Isaiah’s tradition, the speaker has been given various labels, but for reasons to be explored below, we will refer to this nameless speaker as the prophet-preacher.

The message begins in words of comfort and sustains the theme throughout its 16 chapters, expounding and proclaiming the sovereignty of Yahweh the God of Israel over and above the nations and history (40:12-26; 45:1-19; 47:1-15); the time of punishment being over for God’s people Israel, and thus return from exile (40:2-5; 43:1-7; 48:14-22); the raising up of Cyrus, Yahweh’s anointed, to deliver Israel from captivity in Babylon (41:1-4; 44:21-28; 45:1-17); the radical nothingness of idols and their worthlessness before the one true God, Yahweh the creator of all (41:21-29; 44:9-20; 45:20–46:13); and the enigmatic salvific mission of the suffering servant(s) of Yahweh (42:1-9; 49:1-7; 52:13–53:12). In light of this larger context, Isaiah 55 is the rhetorical and theological climax of the comforting good news that Yahweh, the inscrutable God of Israel—next to whom there is none and whose word is creation’s command—is acting dramatically to lead his people out of exile and back into newly promised and restored life in the land.

Outline of Isaiah 55:1-13

I. Yahweh’s Providential Invitation to New Life (vv. 1-5)
a. Summons to Flourishing Life of Provision (vv. 1-3a)
i. Call to thirsty and hungry to eat and buy for free (v. 1)
ii. Rhetorical questioning about false food and labor (v. 2a)
iii. Exhortation to listen and receive abundant life (vv. 2b-3a)
b. Covenantal Act of Confirmation (vv. 3b-5)
i. Extension of Davidic covenant of hesed to all Israel (v. 3b)
ii. By Yahweh’s doing, David a witness and leader for the nations (v. 4)
iii. Yahweh’s exile-reversal: foreign nations will now run to Israel (v. 5)
II. Yahweh’s Sovereign Exile-Reversing Salvation (vv. 6-13)
a. Call to Repentance (vv.6-7)
i. Exhortations to turn from exilic alienation to God’s forgiveness (vv. 6-7)
b. Divine Warrant (vv. 8-11)
i. The ways and plans of Yahweh wholly unlike those of mortals (vv. 8-9)
ii. God’s word effectual like the life-producing rain and snow (vv. 10-11)
c. Promise of Return and Restoration (vv. 12-13)
i. Israel will return from exile in the celebration of all creation (v. 12)
ii. From hostile nature to forever flourishing, for Yahweh’s name (v. 13)

New Manna, New Covenant

Isaiah 55:1 begins explosively: “Ho!” The same word translated “woe” or “alas,” hoi here functions not as a negative reproval or cry of regret, but rather as a rhetorical call to arms: the beginning of the final surge of the prophet-preacher’s long message of comfort.2 The speech moves directly from this attention-getter into a string of twelve imperative or jussive verbs (vv. 1-7).3 The speaker is Yahweh, continuing from chapter 54,4 calling Israel out of the waste and nonexistence of exile, where on the surface needs may be met, but true fulfillment—abundant life by the hand of God—awaits elsewhere. As in Egypt long before (Exod 14:10-12), Israel may find itself content in captivity in Babylon (Isa 55:2a), yet Yahweh, as in the exodus, will richly provide all Israel’s needs and more. Specifically, just as Yahweh sent manna from heaven (Exod 16:1-16) and brought forth water from the rock (Exod 17:1-7), so in Israel’s coming departure Yahweh promises water and bread in plenty (Isa 55:1, 2b).

These echoes of tradition are not foreign to Isaiah 40–55. Though the prophet-preacher says in 43:18, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” in 46:9 he says, “remember the things of old.” On the one hand, what Yahweh is doing now is a decidedly new thing—yet the nations and their gods, and even (especially!) Israel, should have known from the past what Yahweh is capable of and prepared to do.5 The central figures in Israel’s history are prominent: the “first ancestor” (43:27; Adam?); Abraham, God’s friend and original covenant-partner (41:8; 51:2); Sarah,6 Israel’s mother (51:2); Noah of the flood and second covenant-partner (54:9); Moses (though unnamed), who led Israel out of Egypt and struck the rock in the desert, and partner to the Sinai covenant (48:21); and David, anointed one, who also formed covenant with Yahweh (55:3). Alongside these famous persons, the Zion and exodus traditions suffuse Isaiah 40–55, the former representative of the strength and vitality of Jerusalem (“Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem”; 52:1), the latter a type for what Yahweh is about to do for captive Israel (“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you”; 43:2). In sum, the exilic prophet-preacher is awash in the formative stories of his people’s ancestral faith.

The style of these opening verses recalls Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 9:5, 11: “‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’ …For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life.”7 Westermann suggests also the evocation of the image of the water-seller in the market, crying aloud to any and all thirsty buyers,8 and Oswalt connects the language of water with the pouring out of Yahweh’s spirit in Isaiah 32:15 and 44:3.9 The call of 55:1-3a gathers all of these images, together with the manna echoes discussed above, to form a potent invitation to new and abundant life contra exilic survival. Captivity, whether in Babylon or in Egypt, is unacceptable for the people of the one true sovereign God of the earth; this call is therefore not merely material, nor a spiritualization of the material, but rather a confluence of the material and the spiritual together: all of Israel’s needs and longings and desires met and rescued and gratuitously exceeded by Yahweh the exodus God.

Verse 3b speaks the name of David for the first and only time, and “covenant” the third and last time, in all of Isaiah 40–55. Isaiah invokes David’s name in chapters 1–39 as mostly scattershot references to the “house of David” (7:2; 16:5; 22:22) or the “city of David” (22:9; 29:1), but in 55:3 it comes as a surprise, the exilic prophet-preacher’s purposes seemingly unfocused on issues related to the monarchy. Connected to berith olam, however, the reference resounds harmoniously. As discussed above, all of the major players in previous covenants show up (explicitly or implicitly) in Isaiah 40–55. The word berith itself is found twice: in 42:6, employing the notion that Israel’s covenant with Yahweh exists somehow for the sake of the nations (see Gen 12:1-3; Exod 19:4-6); and in 54:10, in comparison with the days of Noah, less an explicit reference than a poetically rich promise that Yahweh’s hesed will never depart from Israel.

In the case of 55:3b, the prophet-preacher takes up the singular pressing question for the Babylonian exiles: Has the Davidic covenant been abrogated in the destruction of Jerusalem? Psalm 89 reveals this question in bitter pathos:10 after praising Yahweh for his hesed and for his sovereignty over all creation (also themes of Isaiah 40–55), verses 19-37 recount the abundant promises made by Yahweh to David’s house as God’s anointed. Verse 38, however, ruptures the happy report: “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed.” Verse 39 names the horror: “You have renounced the covenant with your servant.” The rest of the psalm goes on to describe the ways in which Yahweh has acted destructively against Israel and (the house of) the anointed. The language of 2 Samuel 7:7-16 and 23:5 speaks of an everlasting (olam) covenant, the establishment of David’s kingdom forever—yet Jerusalem lies in ashes, God’s people unable to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Ps 137:4).

The prophets Haggai and Zechariah responded to this crisis with suggestive promises of a restored Davidic rule, making Zerubbabel “like a signet ring” (Hag 2:23) and including him as one of “the two anointed ones” (Zech 4:14). Even the pre-exilic Isaiah tradition speaks of “a child…born for us…and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom” (Isa 9:7). The prophet-preacher in exile, however, radically shifts the focus and meaning of the Davidic covenant. The covenant, once directed at one individual (and thence through his line), is now, in the coming reversal of Babylonian exile, spread to the entire people. Yahweh’s hesed for David (here in the intensive plural, possibly acting as a distributive) which made him God’s witness to the nations (55:4), now extends to all of Israel (vv. 3), so that Israel (spoken to in v. 5 in the first person masculine singular) functionally acts as that to which foreign nations now come running because of Yahweh and what he has done.11

Inscrutable, Sovereign Homecoming

Although Isaiah 40–55 is a kind of sustained new orientation after the disorientation of 1–39,12 the message of comfort is not devoid of language pertaining to the reason for exile—namely, Israel’s sin. Thus, while some scholars read 55:6-7 as a later pious interpolation into a prior cohesive speech,13 the call to repentance is not only coherent with Israel’s exilic mindset in general, it fits well in the prophet-preacher’s overall message in particular. “Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler? …Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned…?” (42:24). But deliverance is not conditional upon repentance; rather, repentance is a response to what Yahweh is doing and, indeed, has already done:14 “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins” (43:25). Homecoming itself is forgiveness—now is the call to turn and face Jerusalem.

As in preceding chapters (40:12-26; 45:9-19), in 55:8-9 Yahweh is the ultimate inscrutable God, utterly beyond the minds and purposes of human beings. The ways and thoughts of Yahweh are as transcendently beyond mortals as the heavens tower over the earth (v. 8-9), and so the “wicked” and “unrighteous” ought to “forsake their way…and thoughts” (v. 7).

Verses 10-11 proclaim the sovereign God whose word is creation’s command. In this concluding section, the prophet-preacher returns again to the subject of the initial oracle: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (40:8).15 The Hebrew word dabar stands both for “word” and “deed” (cf. Deut 8:3), an inextricable connection between speech and action, and Yahweh’s speech is the supreme blending of the two, “the externalization of his person.”16 Like the rain and the snow always bring forth new life in the earth (v. 10), when Yahweh speaks things always happen—and so, just as Yahweh’s will prospers (tsalach) through his suffering servant (53:10), so Yahweh’s mission will prosper (tsalach) through his word (55:11).17 For the prophet-preacher’s audience, the word of comfort from beginning to end is categorically confirmed: God has spoken; you are going home.

The final two verses deliver the rhetorical coup de grâce: Israel will march out of Babylon, through the wilderness, in gladness (simchah) and restored wholeness (shalom), to the effusive, ecstatic celebration of all creation. These joyful themes have pervaded all of Isaiah 40–55: “Sing to the Lord a new song” (42:10); “break forth into singing, O mountains” (44:23); “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth” (49:13). Though heretofore Yahweh, as creator, is often portrayed as sovereign destroyer of nature (“I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage”; 42:15), finally nature resounds with praise to the God of exile-deliverance, transforming from hostile to hospitable before the word of Yahweh, for the sake of his people’s return.18 The text plants eschatological seeds for the next generation, finding its ultimate fruition in Isaiah 65:17: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.”

Verse 13, speaking of an everlasting sign (oth olam) never to be cut off (carath), creates an inclusio with verse 3, where Yahweh makes (literally “cuts”; carath) an everlasting covenant (berit olam) with Israel.19 The return from exile, and specifically Israel as a people, will stand time immemorial leshem (literally, “for a name”; see 2 Sam 18:18; Isa 56:5) for Yahweh, as a new and everlasting sign (oth olam), having no time for the signs and wonders (othoth umophetim; Deut 6:22) of old (Isa 43:16-21).20

So far we have yet to address the designation “prophet-preacher.” The reason is simple: beside all the other traditions that pervade and enliven its words, Isaiah 40–55 is positively bathed in the language of the Psalms.21 The larger forms of lament (49:14-26; 51:9–52:3) and praise (40:12-31; 42:10-13) are present, as well as more specific language, such as Yahweh as creator (44:24-28; cf. Pss 19; 104) or creation praising God (49:13; 55:13; cf. Pss 98; 96:12: “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”). In other words, the Isaianic prophet of the exile was formed by and spoke within the context of worship. He was not divorced from the life of his people, nor was he a lonely outsider speaking to those without ears to hear: he was a preacher with a congregation.

Memory, Despair, and New Life

Isaiah 40–55 is one of the most important, most contested, most appropriated sections in all of Scripture. Undoubtedly it was uniquely formative for both Jesus’ and Paul’s self-understanding of their mission and ministry. No less for Christians, the message of Yahweh’s faithful return to Israel in powerful deliverance from exile yet again was and is a central text and claim for the Jewish people. I want briefly, then, to address an issue of abiding theological importance that this text, Isaiah 55, speaks to us in particular.

God’s own people (properly oriented) were defeated and deported, drowning in the despair of exile, all hope seemingly lost (disoriented)—and yet… God showed up! The God of Israel, the one who parted the seas and delivered the law and covenanted with a people, even the one who came in wrath and destruction, that very same God of life appeared when it seemed apparent to all that death had finally had its say. Yahweh graciously delivered Israel into a new orientation of liberation, freedom, abundance, and life. And this same God is the one Christians believe submitted to the triumph of death on the cross only to burst forth into new and unbelievable life in the resurrection. This God—the God of Israel, the God of Jesus of Nazareth—is the God of the ekklesia, the God of the church, who has the power to liberate and to free and to enliven even today.

Believers in this God often fall into the trap of supposing that the absence of dramatic miracles, or the presence of suffering, exposes the truth that the God who “once” did x or y in “Bible times” is unable to work similarly today. Isaiah 55, as the crowning climax of its preceding chapters, speaks a different word: remember the things of old, because today’s God is yesterday’s God; yet do not remember the things of old, because today God is doing a new and different thing than yesterday. Just as Yahweh brought up Israel out of Egypt through the parting of the waters yet brought home the exiles from Babylon through his non-Israelite messiah Cyrus, so too God can and will come near and save us today in fresh, unexpected ways.


Isaiah 55 is the climax of the exilic prophet-preacher’s message of consolation, beginning in chapter 40, that Yahweh, the sovereign and inscrutable God of all the earth, is acting profoundly and unexpectedly to redeem and rescue Israel from exile in Babylon. Rhetorically, chapter 55 rehearses (not regurgitates) themes prevalent throughout the preceding chapters, such as new exodus, reversal of exile, new covenant, Israel’s history, Yahweh as transcendent, inscrutable, creator, and deliverer, the effectual word of God, and the doxological participation of all creation. It provides a fitting conclusion to one of the most important and influential portions of all of Scripture, and stands as the rhetorical peak of the good news for Israel that Yahweh is bringing the exiles home. As the prophet-preacher makes abundantly clear, there is only one proper response: worship.

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[1] Broadly speaking, chapters 56-66 step ahead in time again, into post-exilic life in the land. For a helpful discussion, see David Petersen, The Prophetic Literature (Louisville: Westminster, 2002), 47-63.
[2] See John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 435.
[3] Ibid., 433.
[4] See Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 280-81.
[5] See Westermann, Isaiah, 21-27; Paul Del Brassey, Metaphor and the Incomparable God in Isaiah 40-55 (North Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 1997, 2001), 131-32.
[6] Incidentally, this is the only place outside of Genesis where Sarah is named in the Hebrew Bible.
[7] Westermann, Isaiah, 281. For a historically later sapiential example, see Ecclesiasticus 24:19.
[8] Ibid., 282.
[9] Oswalt, Isaiah, 435. Andrew Wilson, The Nations in Deutero-Isaiah (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1986), 222-23, compares the call to Cyrus’ free liberation of peoples back to their homelands, and references Clifford’s envisaging a grand cultic feast. Brassey, Metaphor, 130, contrasts the lack of cost to the cost of building idols, as well as to the tribute due suzerainty.
[10] See John McKenzie, Second Isaiah (AB 20; Garden City: Doubleday, 1967), 142; Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Interp; Louisville: John Knox, 1995), 178-80; Westermann, Isaiah, 283-83.
[11] See George Knight, Servant Theology: A Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 40-55 (ITC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 193-94. It is interesting to wonder if David is left unmentioned until this point precisely because Yahweh’s newly anointed one, Cyrus, is so central to the overarching message. However, see Walter Kaiser, Jr., “The Unfailing Kindnesses Promised to David: Isaiah 55.3,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45 (1989): 97, who posits that the “promise given to David is not transferred to Israel in Isa. 55.3-6; it is shared with Israel in the inception of the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7.”
[12] See Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 9-23. See also Donald Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Louisville: Westminster, 1998), 1-21, 146-162.
[13] Westermann, Isaiah, 288. Wilson, Nations, 278, finds in verses 6-11 a structural parallel to verses 1-5.
[14] Knight, Servant, 195-96.
[15] See Westermann, Isaiah, 289-90.
[16] McKenzie, Second Isaiah, 144.
[17] See Hanson, Isaiah, 182.
[18] For further exploration of Yahweh and nature imagery, see Brassey, Metaphor, 78-81.
[19] Wilson, Nations, 231.
[20] Ibid., 230.
[21] Here I follow the expert analysis in Westermann, Isaiah, 27-30.

1 comment:

  1. I google searched some of these key words, as I am preparing to teach a class in a few weeks on Isaiah. Your post was really valuable. Thank you for sharing your work!