Interpretations and ironies (A)

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

3 thoughts on “Interpretations and ironies (A)

  1. John Eoff 12/07/2015 / 7:46 pm

    Brian, God assured Isaiah that he would put His own words into the prophet’s mouth. If Chapters 40ff are written by a different person (prophet?) he gives us no such assurance as to the source of his words. It seems more probable to me that there is one author for the whole book of Isaiah; God. How can there be any hope or encouragement for us, today, in these words written to a people living two and a half millennia before us. Their problem was (1) specific—being captives in a foreign land; (2) self determined—-Idolatry + failing to rest crop lands on Sabbath years + ?; (3) to be solved by means outside of their control (God’s election); (4) at an end—-their sentence was served in full; (5) they had not done anything and would do nothing to effect their release; (6) God’ glory and faithfulness (not Israel’s) was to be demonstrated; etc..

    The Jew’s problem then is in no way related to us today, nor even to those living only two millennia ago. They would read the words only in the light of those word’s relation to themselves specifically. On the other hand obvious parallels can be drawn between their plight and the plight of every individual living today, and were not these things written to be an example to us, and for our admonition? I think every individual who perceives of God’s grace can draw parallels between the Jew’s rescue from Babylon, and our own rescue from the death we have brought upon ourselves through our own sins.

    What many (most?) people today, who have any interest in God’s salvation, probably need understanding (which is lacking) concerning the source of their redemption is: none are redeemed because of their own glory, nor to be glorified as deserving of any such redemption. All redemption, salvation (eternal life), justification, etc., is of God’s accomplishment and for His own glory. Those in God’s Eternal Kingdom are there because of God’s choice to reward those who believe His own words, and not because of any degree of worthiness in their own lives. Fulfilled prophecy is the proof to us of the authenticity of the holy writings in our possession.


    • Brian Casey 12/07/2015 / 8:47 pm

      I think the prophecy scenario is less nail-down-able than you think it is. Basically, I back-step every time I read a statement that draws a solid line from a prophetic utterance to a precise event in time. I’ve seen more mistakes in interpreting prophecy than accuracies, so I’m so reluctant these days that I can hardly see anything clearly.

      My understanding is that there’s really no way the two (or three) Isaiah sections could have been written in the same time. If they were written by the same person, I take it that that writing would have been _after_ the return to Jerusalem — which would in turn make the first 40 chapters somewhat strange (if they were written after the captivity was over). But that’s more than I should be speculating, probably.

      The “obvious parallels” you refer to (not the disconnects between Jewish situation then and our own now) are the things I tend to gravitate to, but I’m not always sure that’s the best reading.

      Your last paragraph seems to be talking about something else — a theology area that I’m not dealing with here — but I’d mostly agree with how you put all that.

      On another, but related, matter, I was reading your two most recent “Eternal Kingdom” lessons today and finding about a 3-head-nod, 2-head-shake ratio. 🙂

      You may not like tomorrow’s post that follows up on this one and gives two interpretations. (I thought of you while writing it and winced a little–ha.) These interps are nothing groundbreaking; they just show the dual possibilities, the parallels between Jewish-centered, physically based interpretation on the one hand and spiritually, post-Jesus centered interp on the other. I’ll be interested to see what you think.



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