Signpost for Sunday 28 February, 2016: Isaiah 55: 1-9. Psalm 63: 1-8. 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13. Luke 13: 1-9.
A scroll like those on which the Law or one of the major the Prophets was written tended to be of a standard size. So the Scroll whose first content was from the Prophet Isaiah was presumed to be all from the same prophet. This presumption of unity existed from pre-Christian times right up to the eighteenth century. But, in fact, because of the difference in size between Isaiah’s book and the standard scroll, it was actually used for other writings as well. No wastage!
So nowadays we speak of First, Second and Third Isaiah. There are not three prophets of that name; it is just that the first is named while the others are anonymous. Second Isaiah is chapters 40 to 55.
The original Isaiah worked about 750-700 BC. This was before the Exile of Judah in 597 and 586. The events behind the second part of the scroll refer to two centuries later than the first. It refers to the time of Cyrus and the weakening of the Babylonian Empire. “Second Isaiah” is looking forward to the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. The return followed the storming of Babylon by Cyrus about 538. “Third Isaiah” reflects a time a little later when the return has been begun.
In the intense crucible of over fifty years of Jewish life in Exile, their thinking (as well as their institutions) has developed a long way. Second Isaiah reflects this. For example, many writers today identify four passages in Second Isaiah as “The Servant Songs”. These are ch. 42; 1-4, ch. 49: 1-6, ch. 50: 4-9 and ch. 52:12 to 53: 12. These are probably the best known parts of the prophetic writings in the awareness of Christians.
Some writers say that these prefigure Christian understanding. Another way of putting this would be that Jesus and the early Christian leaders were all devout Jews steeped in such writings as Second Isaiah.
We often make too sharp a break between our understanding of Judaism and Christianity. They are certainly very closely related. They are like siblings or cousins forced apart by catastrophic history, by Roman brutality and domination, and by their differing reactions to these things. The intolerance that grew up between the two faiths is foolish. They are much more closely related than is commonly thought.
Second Isaiah is full of hope. The nation is still in exile, but a shrewd eye on the changing politics of the region can see that a return is possible in the near future. A growing understand of what it means to be a chosen people gives another dimension to the hope. Their pre-exilic hopes of being a regional political power are now becoming an ambition to be a light to the nations around them.
The vision of the nation as the suffering servant of YHWH is for many of us a peak of the prophetic tide. And the impact of this servant nation, as our current selection tells us, will be far beyond anything they can imagine.