This somewhat meditative, somewhat hermeneutic excursion is about prophecy—which is ongoing in some senses and seems to have ceased in others. This is also about interpretation which, as a human institution, doesn’t show signs of stopping! In mentioning that prophecies will stop (1Cor 13:8), Paul doesn’t give the same verdict for interpretations, and here goes another one. . . .
The opening verses of Isaiah 40 could garner many descriptions. Hope-filled. Intent. Merciful. Cognizant. Beautiful. Attention-getting. Inauguratory. Promising. Comforting. Instructive. Yet with these prophetic words comes some question, some doubt as to the references, some pondering of the possibilities.
I’ve been considering the opening of Isaiah 40, along with succeeding passages, for some time. Over a period of weeks, encouraged by the teacher in the Coffee With Paul program, I returned to 40:1-5 again and again, memorizing it in the NRSV. I knew this text to be part of Second Isaiah (roughly, chapters 40-55, also known as Deutero-Isaiah). It is not definitively known whether a second writer penned this portion, but the historical perspective changes markedly as chapter 40 begins, so it does seem logical to assume this word from the Lord was written in a later era.
Aside: these days, the phrase “word of the Lord” often follows the public reading of some portion of scripture “in church.” Long ago, the same phrase often referred to the spoken message, e.g., the message delivered orally by a prophet or perhaps the interpretation of a message. As a reader of this blogpost proceeds, though, let him/her take heed: I am not claiming to speak for God in offering interpretations of a much-sung (!) prophetic message. (See/listen here for very well-performed, corresponding excerpts from Händel’s Messiah.)
To a large extent, interpretation and understanding are the province of the individual. (We must not leave biblical interpretation entirely in the hands of any author or pastor/preacher, although we certainly ought to learn from others who have studied.) Part of my present interpretation involves noting this painful irony: that the promising prophetic word of Isaiah 40:1-5, spoken/written some 2500 years ago with hope coursing through its figurative veins, appears to have little hope to speak to today’s unbelieving Jews. Hope did appear to have been fulfilled for those trusting, delivered ones (and their progeny) who traveled from Babylon to Jerusalem, doubtless celebrating along the way. But does the message turn out to have been hopeful for Jews who were born much later—say, in the year 20CE or 200CE or in the 20th century?
Textually oriented, devoted Christian brothers of mine have lately expressed the hope that Isiaiah’s message would offer hope to us who’re living today. And the message does just that. Well, sort of. For me, the hopefulness is marred by dejection over the plight of the unbelieving Jews in the last two millennia. Plus, I’m not myself very hopeful in this life. (I’m definitely not a glass-half-full person. Just pass me another glass altogether, please.) I do maintain hope that the God who a) saw fit to bring an unmistakable punishment to His people about six centuries prior to Jesus also b) had their healing, their redemption, their deliverance in view when He oversaw the atoning crucifixion of that One. That historically based interpretation extends now to my theological “positioning” of Messiah Jesus as Ultimate Deliverer for both Jews and non-Jews. That, at least, is hope-filled.
Nevermind if any of that sounded too sure of itself. A haze of un-knowing (agnosticism, you might say) infects my reading of every last bit of Deutero-Isaiah. Tomorrow, I’ll offer two interpretations of 40:1-5 as evidence of the wonderings.
– B. Casey, 12/4-6/2015