Day Two of “Through Advent With Isaiah”
Some Throat Clearing About Daily Office Lectionaries
In the Church of England we have two sets of lectionaries for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. One is that found in the Book of Common Prayer, and which is, despite many changes, more or less the one set up by Thomas Cranmer back in 1549. In the official BCP there is also an alternative daily office lectionary from 1922. I don’t use either.
Instead I use the resources of Common Worship, which came out shortly after the turn of the century after decades of innovation and cautious experimentation. These are several books (all available online), and one of the books is specifically The Daily Prayer – and it has its own lectionary. This is the one I use. It is supposed to be related to the one I’ve used in the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church, but it feels somewhat different.
Anyway, for the next three weeks solid it uses Isaiah in both the morning and evening. That’s a lot of Isaiah.
The Book and the Person
Yesterday I said that there was a person born in the mid-seventh century BCE named Isaiah. There is also a book named Isaiah. Do not confuse the two. The person may have written or dictated a large portion of the text we have in our Bibles, but there are undoubtedly large portions of it that he did not. How do we know this?
Well, to begin with, there are four chapters, 36 through 39, mostly prose, which are lifted right out of the Second Book of Kings 18.13-20.11 (there are some differences, but there is a clear written dependence). As the Second Book of Kings continues its narrative far past the time of Isaiah, so we may conclude that this section was not by him.
Second, once we start up in chapter 40 the tone is quite different.
- The chapters from 1 to 39 address situations in and around the time of King Hezekiah (c. 739 BCE – c. 687 BCE).
- Chapters from 40 on seem to address the exiles of Judah and tells them that their time of suffering in Babylon is over. This is a significantly later period. There were two deportations of Judeans from Jerusalem and Judah, one in 597 BCE, and a second in 587 BCE. As well, in 587 BCE Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. The exile “by the waters of Babylon”, in what is now southern Iraq, lasted until 538 BCE, when King Cyrus of Persia, who had conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire, encouraged the Judeans – the Jews – to return and rebuild. As Isaiah 45.1 refers to Cyrus as an anointed one of God, it seems reasonable to think that this latter part of the book dates from that time or later. The section from chapter 40 on is often called Second Isaiah.
- Some scholars believe that chapters 55-66 is even later than 40-54, and relates to the situation of the Jews who have returned to Judea.
All of this suggests that the final form of the book we know as Isaiah was achieved well after the time of the return – perhaps in the 4th century BCE, or 3rd century BCE. The process of composition is not clear, and neither is the editorial process. I will address different methods of interpreting the meaning in later posts.
The Feast of God
Meanwhile, here is the text for this morning:
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. — Isaiah 25.1-9
This is another positive text, and one that is inspiring even today. It’s speaks to what Liberation theologians call “the preferential option for the poor” in that God is concerned with all peoples, but especially the poor and needy. There is an apocalyptic tone here – God acts to destroy the ruthless aliens and put fear into the nations. Cities are destroyed and palaces pulled down – the powerful and rich who are indifferent to the Lord are no more. Death itself is destroyed, and we have a vision of a feast on the holy mountain. It is one image of justice, which echoes down to the Song of Mary in Luke 1. This imagery is picked up in the New Testament in general whenever the Lord’s Supper is mentioned or a banquet is described. It is especially present in Revelation 21 and 22:
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ — Revelation 21.2-4
The passage from Isaiah also looks back to Exodus and the meal the Israelites had on Mount Sinai when Moses receives the Torah. All of which indicates what French literary theorists called “intertextuality” – this prophecy interacts with other texts. Part of the reason it continues to be relevant today is because it is pregnant with meaning, relating to past and future texts that are important to us, and which inform us in our present circumstances. So that is why we read this ancient text.