Thomas Merton on Isaiah

Day Fifteen of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

Thomas Merton wrote in The Waters of Siloe, pp. 295-296:

The whole harmonious structure of the simple observances, the monastic life we have been discussing, the simple round of prayer and labor and reading, the life of the cloisered cenobite, far from the activities of the world, close to nature and with God in solitude — all this was saturated in Scripture and the liturgy.  . . .

In other words, the Cistercian really worked his way through the liturgy of the fundamental seasons — Advent, Christmas, Septuagesima, Lent, Easter, and post-Pentecostal — in all their fulness. The mighty lessons taught by the Church in every Nocturn and every Mass had a chance to work themselves right into the blood and marrow of the monk’s existence. In Advent he virtually lived and breathed Isaias. The words, which he knew by heart, sang themselves over and over in his mind and soaked themselves into the landscape of the season and its weather and its every aspect, so that when December came around, the very fields and bare woods began to sing the Conditor alme siderum and the great responsories of the night offices.

Waters of Siloe

An aged dust cover on the hardcover printing of “The Waters of Siloe” by Thomas Merton (Garden City, NJ: Garden City Books, 1951). The book was originally published two years earlier by Harcourt, Brace & Company. It is a history of the Trappists (the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) – the monastic order that Merton had joined in 1941 – that he was commanded to write by his superiors at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.

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Justice in III Isaiah

Day Fourteen of “Through Advent with Isaiah”


Prophet Isaiah 1968 By Marc Chagall

Whereas justice in II Isaiah deals with the cost of being faithful to Yahweh and ministering to the poor, the widowed, the orphan, and the powerless, justice in III Isaiah seems to be concerned with expanding who forms part of the people of God -an inssue of inclusion and exclusion.

Thus we find in Isaiah 56:

1 Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.

2 Happy is the mortal who does this,
the one who holds it fast,
who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,
and refrains from doing any evil.

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.               – Isaiah 66.1-8

This is a striking passage because we see two previously excluded classes of peoples – foreigners and eunuchs – now admitted to the Temple. As Andreas Schuele suggests in his article “Who is the True Israel? Community, Identity, and Religious Commitment in Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56–66)” (Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 2019, Vol. 73 (2) 174–184), part of the justice to be maintained by Israel is the inclusion of these peoples into Temple worship. This is different from Ezra-Nehemiah, where membership is determined by ethnicity, and foreigners are to be avoided. Schuele sees III Isaiah and Ezra-Nehemiah being part of a longer conversation around whether Judaism could become a missionary religion, and not just the faith of a group of people descended from a common ancestor. This builds on the vision of Isaiah 2.1-5 in a practical way:

2 In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3   Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’     – Isaiah 2.1-3

As well, in chapters 65-66, Schuele believes that despite the presence of

. . . a clear sense of “us” versus “them,” of true allegiance and loyalty to God versus infidelity and moral depravity . . . this is not Israel versus other nations; rather, the focus seems to have shifted, since this dichotomy applies to “all flesh,” meaning all of humankind.

Right at the second to last verse of the book we read:

23 From new moon to new moon,
and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
says the Lord.                             – Isaiah 66.23

The theme of justice, then, is central in Isaiah, but develops through the book. And it has continued to develop in the interpretation of the book.


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Justice in II Isaiah

Day Thirteen of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

I found the reference to the development of the idea of justice in Isaiah. It was in a review by Eryl W. Davies in The Journal of Theological Studies (59:1, April 2008, p. 230) of the book Rhetoric and Social Justice in Isaiah by Mark Gray (London and New York: T & T Clark International, 2006). Davies writes that

Mark Gray

This guy: The Rev Dr Mark Gray, the Minister at Bannside Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland.

Gray argues that scholars who have rather blandly asserted that the establishment of justice was Isaiah’s mission to the world have been too naively idealistic and have failed to pay sufficient attention to the nuances of the text. While it is true that passages such as Isa. 1:16–17 may imply that the prophet was a great advocate of justice, Gray argues that he was able only to ‘discern and denounce what was wrong in society’ but, due to the ‘under-development of the concept of social justice in the traditions on which he was drawing’ (p. 49), he did not come close to proposing measures that would rectify the situation of the poor. Turning to Isaiah 58, on the other hand, Gray is struck by the way in which this chapter develops and deepens the concept of social justice presupposed in Isaiah 1, for in the former passage there is a pronounced emphasis on the importance of solidarity with the poor, the significance of suffering on behalf of others, and the imperative to give generously to those in need.

Fascinatingly, Gray

argues that the text of the later chapters of Isaiah is more pondering and questioning than has often been allowed, and he suggests that the justice of the divine punishment announced in Isaiah 1–39 is subtly called in question in the rest of the book as doubts are raised about the benevolent nature and character of God. In this regard, Gray succeeds in bringing to the fore dimensions of the text that are often overlooked and in doing so he demonstrates that the text of Isaiah 40–66 is more nuanced and subversive than is usually supposed.

This sounds like a book I should order, eh? Let’s have a look at Isaiah 58. It starts with a condemnation:

1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.      – Isaiah 58.1

But then it notes that it is not the case that they do not care about God or righteousness.

2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’    – Isaiah 58.2-3a

The issue of fasting, in response to having committed sin, is raised, but it is not enough. Why does not God honour their humility? Yahweh responds:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?    – Isaiah 58.3b-5

Screenshot 2019-12-13 at 17.29.22This type of fasting and humility is manipulative and fruitless. Instead, Yahweh requires true fasting:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Isaiah 58.6-7

This action, which we anachronistically but correctly label “social justice”, results in action from God.

8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.     – Isaiah 58.8-9a

You will recall in chapter 6 God calls to Isaiah and he replies in Hebrew: הִנְנִ֥י “Hi-nen-ni”, which I always want to translate as “Yo!”, but is more conventionally “Here I am.” Now Yahweh says, “Here I am” and acts to restore the people of Israel.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.                – Isaiah 58.9b-12

The benefit of social justice is light, guidance through the wilderness, and the restoration of Jerusalem and Judah. This is not a libertarian view, but communal. It is the responsibility of the whole people of God to satisfy the needs of the afflicted and feed the hungry.

The chapter concludes with a passage about the Sabbath.

13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;*
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.           – Isaiah 58.13-14

This might strike us as curious, except that the commandment about the sabbath is to do no work, which means it is a day of rest not only for the wealthy, but everybody in the household, even the animals:

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.         – Deuteronomy 5.12-15

Thus, the words about the Sabbath in Isaiah 58 continue the theme of justice.

How is this a development from what we saw yesterday in chapter 1 of the Book of Isaiah? From a close reading of the text Gray (channelled through Davies) concludes that

Previous commentators have not adequately captured ‘the depth of pain that will be involved in enacting the prophetic message, the sense that embarking on a course of behavior characterized by generosity towards the poor (58:7, 9b– 10a) will not result in the warm glow of self-satisfaction or the commendation of wider society for performing good deeds, but the deep cry of anguish’ (p. 100). In this way Isaiah 58 challenges the conventional wisdom of the Hebrew Bible, for it refuses to accept wealth and poverty as inevitable phenomena in the natural order, and rejects the Wisdom notion of prudence as the best guide to human behaviour. True justice can only be established at a cost, and that cost involves a feeling of solidarity with the poor and a readiness to embrace their pain.

Justice in II Isaiah is probably connected with the idea of Israel as the suffering servant of God (we will get to the theme of the Suffering Servant next week). Commitment to God involves a commitment to justice on a communal and individual level, and this can be expensive. Gray emphasises that this is a kind of fast, which is costly.

Christians, of course, see Jesus as the Suffering Servant, and Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that in the century or two before Jesus the Book of Isaiah was being read messianically. The theme of justice, then, developed in Isaiah and continued to influence varieties of First Century Judaism. When Jesus talks about social justice in Matthew he is continuing the prophetic message of  Isaiah:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  – Matthew  25 .35-40

Homeless Jesus

The dedication of “Homeless Jesus” by Canadian artist Tim Schmaltz, at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

If anyone is a follower of Jesus, social justice is not an option, but a necessity. And if any nation claims to embody values influenced by Jesus and Isaiah, then care for the most vulnerable is a political imperative. Good news for dark days.

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The Idea of Justice in First Isaiah

Day Twelve of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

So far I have really been looking at the possible historical origins of the Book of Isaiah, but today I want to look at a basic theme in the book and how it develops, namely, justice.

Isaiah Doré

“Isaiah”, wood engraving by Gustave Doré (1832–1883) from “La Grande Bible de Tours“, 1843.

The beginning on Isaiah in chapter 1 is one of condemnation:

2 Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
4 Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!             – Isaiah 1.2-4

It is clear that this is not a problem of the wrong sacrifices being offered in the Temple:

12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.     – Isaiah 1.12-15

So what is the problem? The problem is with the people and their leaders. The prophet, speaking the word of God to Jerusalem and Judah, says:

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17   learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.                   – Isaiah 1.16-17


23 Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.     – Isaiah 1.23

Described here, justice is “doing good”, imagined in negative terms, such as not taking bribes, not committing murder. It concerns the marginalized – the oppressed, and the orphan and widow. When the princes ally themselves with thieves, nothing can redeem the worship of the Temple.

The failure of leadership also is noted in chapter 10:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!   – Isaiah 10.1-2

Chapter 2 describes other problems:

For you have forsaken the ways of your people,
O house of Jacob.
Indeed they are full of diviners from the east
and of soothsayers like the Philistines,
and they clasp hands with foreigners.
7 Their land is filled with silver and gold,
and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
and there is no end to their chariots.
8 Their land is filled with idols;
they bow down to the work of their hands,
to what their own fingers have made.        – Isaiah 2.6-8

There is idolatry, there is the arrogance of wealth and military power, there is the use of soothsayers, and they rely on alliances with foreigners.

The injustice of certain property owners is delineated in chapter 5:

8 Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!           – Isaiah 5.8

Those who eat, drink, and are merry also are identified as subject to God’s wrath:

11 Ah, you who rise early in the morning
in pursuit of strong drink,
who linger in the evening
to be inflamed by wine,
12 whose feasts consist of lyre and harp,
tambourine and flute and wine,
but who do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
or see the work of his hands!           – Isaiah 5.11-12

And those who identify their practices with those of Yahweh, seeing themselves as the favoured ones, are also condemned:

18 Ah, you who drag iniquity along with cords of falsehood,
who drag sin along as with cart-ropes,
19 who say, ‘Let him make haste,
let him speed his work
that we may see it;
let the plan of the Holy One of Israel hasten to fulfilment,
   that we may know it!’
20 Ah, you who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
21 Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes,
and shrewd in your own sight!
22 Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine
and valiant at mixing drink,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of their rights!    – Isaiah 5.18-23

And so what will God do? In chapters 1 and 2-12 Isaiah proclaims judgement on Judah and Israel. Israel ultimately is destroyed by the Assyrians, and its people taken into exile. The same might happen to Judah. And, in fact, it does come to pass, only the identity of the conquerors is different – the Babylonians in this case. Isaiah then foretells that a remnant will be gathered up and return, and the anointed one of God – the Messiah – will rule over them with righteousness.

2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.    – Isaiah 9.2-7

As noted in other posts, scholars have posited this anointed one as Hezekiah or Josiah, and there may be good reasons for doing so. However, after the destruction of the Temple and the double exile of Judah in the early 6th century BCE, these passages came to read in a different way.

We live in a very different world from that of Isaiah, his disciples, and the immediate generations following.  Of course we see injustice in accepting bribes, judging unfairly, failing to protect the most vulnerable, and in the arrogance of exploitative wealth and power. Indeed, we might even read it into the politics of our present situation. The condemnation of divination and idols seems less important, but only because we are products of a secular society where religion is seen as private and possibly frivolous. However, we live in a very different situation.

  • We do not believe in the divine right of kings, of the right of a particular family to rule (pace the House of Windsor, which as a monarchist I see as a useful constitutional device, not something God given) – yet the ideology of Isaiah is that it is precisely from the House of David that rule and salvation will come.
  • We have the right to engage in political processes – but only a small minority of Judah could do so.
  • We assume that government is there for the benefit of the people, but, as absolute monarchies, the realms of the ancient Near East were very much about “might is right”. Benevolence was a part of propaganda, to keep the peasants from revolting too often.
  • The understanding of suffering in Isaiah is very simple: “Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.” If you are suffering, you must have done something bad to deserve it. This is also the theology in the Deutronomic History, and only gets challenged in some of the wisdom literature of the Bible, such as Ecclesiastes and especially the Book of Job. As well, apocalyptic literature called into question this theology, and developed the idea of the coming of the Son of Man and the General Resurrection of the Dead as ways of redeeming those righteous individuals who undeservedly suffered.
  • We do not normally see the hand of God in political events, but Isaiah sees everything in the control of God. Indeed, as II Isaiah says,

I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.  – Isaiah 45.5-7

There is no sense here that God is opposed by evil powers or Satan – that is a later development in Jewish theology which Isaiah did not understand. Here, God is absolutely in charge. There is no sense of justice apart from God’s will.

  • For Isaiah the people and the king are one, and so they all suffer together. We would see this as unfair.
  • There is no sophisticated process of justice as would be  developed by the Rabbi’s in the Talmud, or in the civil law and common law traditions of Europe.

So, this is not exactly our understanding of justice today. Isaiah, speaking for God, is pretty clear on what he does not like. As a scholar (whose name I cannot remember) said, he is less clear on how to fix it. However, II Isaiah does develop the notion of justice a bit, and we’ll look at that tomorrow.


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Isaiah and His Kings (V): Hezekiah in 2 Kings, Isaiah, and 2 Chronicles

Day Eleven of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

I have gone down the rabbit hole of Isaiah. It is a very confusing Wonderland.

Rbbit Hole

Because I am still a PhD student I have access to the academic databases with all their academic journals and peer reviewed e-books. Right now I am skimming through Robb Andrew Young’s 2012 Hezekiah in History and Tradition. This is a monograph that was originally his PhD dissertation at Yale, and is Volume 155 in the distinguished Supplements to Vetus Testamentum. A monograph is just a book written by one person, but it sounds more academic to call it a monograph (which is really a Greek word that means something like “I wrote it”). Calling it a monograph also explains why Brill thinks it can charge US$ 189.00 for the hardcover version.

Anyways, Young has seemingly read all the material on everything to do with Hezekiah in biblical studies and in Near Eastern archaeology. And there is a lot. We are talking several bookcases worth of stuff in multiple languages, much of it in technical language. And nothing seems settled. For example:

  • Did Hezekiah actually reform the worship of Yahweh, or is that a retroprojection of a later author? Young says he did the reforms, but others disagree.
  • Is 2 Kings 18-20 the source of Isaiah 36-39, or is it the other way around? (Young, on the basis of grammar and syntax in the texts, comes up with a complicated process in which two narratives telling the story of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem are combined and out in Isaiah. This was then copied into some older version of II Kings, which already had the usual chronological note, as well as the story of the King’s illness. This then was copied back into Isaiah, and the story of the visitor from Babylon was added. Thus it went back and forth, until the two books were more or less the same. At least, that’s what I get from my quick skim.
  • Was Isaiah 1-39 edited in the reign of King Josiah to suggest that he was the Messiah? Some have suggested yes, others no.
  • Why does 2 Chronicles 29-32 say so much more about the reforms of Hezekiah, and why is it so much more positive about him than 2 Kings or Isaiah?
  • Is Hezekiah the promised Messiah? Is he Immanuel? Young thinks that at one time he was seen as such, and that Immanuel actually was his name at birth, and Hezekiah was the name he used as king. However, in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple less than a hundred years later, he believes that this understanding of Hezekiah was ignored. Isaiah 36-39, then, is a part of Isaiah that received its final form after the exile, and the passages that originally referred to Hezekiah were now being read in a new way.

Today Hezekiah is best remembered by tourists in Jerusalem as the king who built a tunnel between the Spring of Gihon to the Pool of Siloam. Having the water source on the inside of the walls of Jerusalem meant that the city would be able to withstand a siege.

The four chapters of 2 Chronicles is interesting because it is so different from that of 2 Kings/Isaiah, although it probably used one or both of them as source materials. The anonymous author of Chronicles was probably a priest or Levite of the 5th or 4th century. The Chronicler suggests that the first thing Hezekiah did as king was to cleanse the Temple of any idols or “unclean” thing. 2 Kings 18 says this as well, and Isaiah 36/2 Kings 18 has the emissary of the Assyrian King note that he has done this, but 2 Chronicles spends three chapters on the various reforms, including a major celebration of Passover (which 2 Kings expressly says was not done until Josiah, many decades later), and the reorganization of the Levites and priests, about which neither 2 Kings or Isaiah refer. The invasion of the King of Assyria and the illness of Hezekiah are summarised, and no mention is made of the visitor from Babylon.

Young is careful in his analysis of 2 Chronicles to note that the author is using various sources, including 2 Kings, but that it is not just a mere retroprojection back three centuries of what the Chronicler desired for his time. As the article in Britannica states,

. . . the Chronicler traced the reformed liturgy of his day back to David and laid a solid foundation for the acceptance and conservation of the religious community that he envisioned—a devout community that worshipped joyfully in the Temple with sacrifice and praise and obeyed the Law of Moses.

The Chronicler lived under Persian or Greek rule, but so long as the proper worship in Jerusalem was permitted he was not adamant that the city and Judea needed to be ruled by a Davidic king. Hezekiah is an ideal, but by the Chronicler’s time the Jews had learned to live without a king; the Messiah was an expectation, perhaps, but not one that needed to be pushed.

Now, it might be that one thinks that the proper interpretation of Isaiah depends of understanding the history behind it and the process of its writing. My own thought is that as fascinating as Young’s reconstructions are, as well as that of dozens of others, certainty is not attainable. The interpretation of Isaiah 1) on the basis of a reconstructed history alone and/or 2) the process of the creation of the text is problematic and perhaps impossible. However, we do have the finished text in a variety of manuscripts with some minor differences between them. I think we can say with some certainty that:

a) Isaiah underwent a complex process of writing, assembling, and editing;
b) that while some of it undoubtedly goes back to the prophet Isaiah and his disciples, there were undoubtedly later authors;
c) the textual unity of the identity of the author as Isaiah despite the manifest multiple authors strongly suggests that the final form was meant to be read as a unity, and in a context different from the original person named Isaiah; and
d) therefore the meaning of the text is not to be found in an elucidation of history , editing, or fragmentation into sources, but in the interrelation and development of the text itself.

This takes us to the themes of the book, which we’ll start on tomorrow.

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Isaiah and His Kings (IV): Isaiah 36-39

Day Ten of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

Chapters 36 through 39 of the Book of Isaiah stand out because they are the longest section of prose is what is otherwise mostly a book of poetry. As well, the four chapters are more or less identical with II Kings 18-20, with the exception of Isaiah 38.9-20, which is thought to be a poetic addition by an editor, although the poem may go back to Hezekiah or someone contemporary with him.

The four chapters breaks down into three episodes, with some subsections:

Episode 1: The Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem     36.1-37.38 (= II Kings 18.9 – 19.35)
Episode 2: Hezekiah’s Illness                               38.1-22      (= II Kings 20.1-11)
Episode 3: A Visitor from Babylon                      39.1-8        (= II Kings 20.12-19)


Merodach-Baladan, King of Babylon, enfeoffs (makes a legal agreement with) a vassal. From the original in the Altes Museum, Berlin

The third episode is the most striking to me.

1At that time King Merodach-baladan son of Baladan of Babylon sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. 2Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them his treasure-house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armoury, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. 3Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, ‘What did these men say? From where did they come to you?’ Hezekiah answered, ‘They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.’ 4He said, ‘What have they seen in your house?’ Hezekiah answered, ‘They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.’

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: 6Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. 7Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’ 8Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’   – Isaiah 39.1-8

There is a prophecy here of what would happen in the next century. Everything in the Temple would be taken away, and some of Hezekiah’s descendants would become castrated slaves in Babylon. And yet the King is happy, because this will not happen in his lifetime; “Après nous, le déluge.” Hezekiah’s disregard for the future is callous, and stands in contrast to the trauma experienced by the people of Judah, as expressed in Psalm 89. In it God promises:

35 “Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
36 His line shall continue for ever,
and his throne endure before me like the sun.
37 It shall be established for ever like the moon,
an enduring witness in the skies.”                    – Psalm 89.35-37

But then the psalmist responds:

38 But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
40 You have broken through all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
41 All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbours.
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.
43 Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword,
and you have not supported him in battle.
44 You have removed the sceptre from his hand,
and hurled his throne to the ground.
45 You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with shame.       – Psalm 89.38-45

This is probably the angriest psalm in the whole book. Then there is the sadness of Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.    – Psalm 137.1-6

It is in the context of the anger and sadness caused by the trauma of the Babylonian Exile that we hear the words of Chapter 40 as such a contrast to the callous words of Hezekiah:

1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.  -Isaiah 40.1-2

So what is going on here? Is this just a foreshadowing?

One of the things that occurs to me is that the only other significant passage of prose is the parallel encounters of Isaiah and Ahaz in Chapter 7. You will recall that Stan Walters saw Chapters 2-12 as a unit, with the call of Isaiah in the centre in Chapter 6. Then follows the prose and poetry of chapter 7 and the fear of the alliance between Israel and Damascus. Chapters 36 to 39 function a bit like that in the Book of Isaiah as well – an echo and expansion of the older unit of 2-12. The rest of the second half of 2-12, namely 8 to 12, describes as ideal king, a Messiah. Perhaps the hope was that Hezekiah would be that king – but he was not. He was in distress about the assault of Assyria, and was callous about the fate of his heirs. We do not hear about King Josiah, his grandson, but I suspect there was a hope that he would be the one to restore Israel – but he died suddenly and young, and everything went downhill after that.

Isaiah prophesies that the descendants of Hezekiah would be eunuchs in the palace of the Babylonian kings. I do not recall any other reference to the royal kings and princes being made eunuchs – blinded and executed, yes, but not castrated. So what might be being said here? Perhaps the prophet is suggesting that the House of David reaches a kind of dead end with the Babylonian Exile. The Messiah will have to be understood differently. And that is precisely what seems to happen in II Isaiah – the people become the servant of Yahweh in place of the monarch.



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Isaiah and His Kings (III)

Day Nine of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

A fairly constant refrain in Isaiah and the Deuteronomic History is calling Israel back to the worship of Yahweh alone. In Isaiah 2 we read

12 For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up and high;
13 against all the cedars of Lebanon,
lofty and lifted up;
and against all the oaks of Bashan;
14 against all the high mountains,
and against all the lofty hills;
15 against every high tower,
and against every fortified wall;
16 against all the ships of Tarshish,
and against all the beautiful craft.
17 The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.
18 The idols shall utterly pass away.      – Isaiah 2.12-18

The haughtiness of the people is reflected in their wealth and in their idols. The books of Samuel and Kings rate kings according to three criteria – their being part of the House of David (which every ruler of the secessionist northern Kingdom of Israel fails, of course), whether or not they suppressed the worship of other gods and the idols representing them, and whether they centralized the worship of Yahweh alone in Jersualem.

Book of Isaiah says more about Hezekiah, King of Judah, than any other historical figure. II Kings says this about him:

1 In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign. 2He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned for twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi daughter of Zechariah. 3He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. 4He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the Asherah (the sacred pole). He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. 5He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. 6For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. 7The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him. 8He attacked the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from watch-tower to fortified city.


This four-tiered cult stand found at Tanaach is thought to represent Yahweh and Asherah, with each deity being depicted on alternating tiers. Note that on tier two, which is dedicated to Asherah, is the image of a living tree, often thought to be how the asherim as a cult symbol was expressed. Photo: © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem/Israel Antiquities Authority (photograph by Avraham Hay). From here.

Hezekiah is one of the few “good” kings of Judah, according to the author of Samuel & Kings. Hezekiah is the first king after Solomon of which it is said “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.” The only other king who gets this high honour is Josiah. 2 Chronicles 17.3 does describe the earlier King Jehoshaphat this way, but 1 Kings 22 does not do so because, “the high places were not taken away, and the people still sacrificed and offered incense on the high places. Jehoshaphat also made peace with the king of Israel.” Hezekiah is better than his forebear because he “removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the Asherah/sacred pole.” He also destroyed a bronze serpent in the Temple because people were apparently worshiping it. Because of this, the author says, “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him.”

The high places were undoubtedly places of the worship of Yahweh and probably other gods. Indeed, it appears that in some parts of Israel and Judah Yahweh was worshiped with the female God Asherah. The inscription and imagery from Kuntillet Ajrud in Sinai suggests as much.


A reproduction of a drawing on a large water jar dated to circa 925 BCE to 875 BCE, found in Kuntillet Ajrud, a site in northeast Sinai not far from the modern border of Israel and Egypt. It is immediately below an inscription in archaic Hebrew stating, “”I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and [his] Asherah”).

Many scholars suppose that the worship of Yahweh as the one and only God was actually a development in Israelite religion, one that for most of the monarchy was contested by some form of polytheism in which Yahweh was one god among others – perhaps the supreme one, but still one of several. While we cannot discount the idea that David and some of his forebears were monotheistic, the reality is that Solomon set up altars for the gods of his wives, and the northern Kingdom of Israel felt justified in setting up a centre in Samaria in which Yahweh was worshiped along with Canaanite gods such as Ba’al. From the perspective of the Deuteronomic History in the late 7th century BCE ,and the final editors of the Hebrew Bible in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, this was regarded as violations of the first two of the Ten Commandments. In historical reality it may have actually been a process in which the true nature of Yahweh was perceived. As archaeologist William Dever in 1984 noted,

Screenshot 2019-12-09 at 10.27.14

Trees and sacred poles were associated with Asherah; libations may have been poured on it. We are told that Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, set up a pole and an image for her in the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 21: 3, 7). His grandson, King Josiah, cleansed the Temple of the idols and Asherah pole.

Hezekiah comes across in 2 Kings as an ideal king. However, the Book of Isaiah is more ambivalent. We’ll get to this, chapters 36 to 39, tomorrow.



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