six-winged seraph with prophet Isaiah

Studying Isaiah 9 2-7

We are studying Isaiah 9:2-7 for Sunday, December 19 – a beautiful expression of the anticipation of future redemption, and the text for one of the more famous choruses from Handel’s Messiah. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Isaiah is a long, complex set of prophecies, that span three turbulent centuries in the life of ancient Israel. The oldest part, where we are reading this week, addresses the situation in Judah in the face of threatening ancient international politics in the latter part of the eighth century BCE. Scholars think the latest parts of the book were written in the context of Judah’s return from exile in Babylon, in the late sixth century BCE, by disciples of the original prophet Isaiah, and in the prophet’s expressive style. At that time, too, the earlier and later prophecies were edited to form a single, long scroll – in essence, our current book of Isaiah.

Chapters 5-12, the immediate context for our text, are the oldest part of the book. The section follows an introduction (chapters 1-4) that lays out a general pattern of warning and promise: things are bad, and worse is to come, but ultimately God will realize a vision of profound well-being. Chapter 5, the “song of the vineyard,” is an indictment of Judah’s injustice and a vision of the consequences. There follows a recap of the prophet’s career, from call through prophecies around the impending international relations disaster of making an alliance with Assyria, dramatized by assigning “sign names” to the prophet’s children.

[And as an aside: I always feel bad for these prophets’ children. Worse for Hosea’s children, admittedly, but still, imagine being saddled with the name Maher-shalal-hash-baz, “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Emotionally equivalent to “so long, suckers, it’s your funeral.” It gives a whole new connotation to “PK” – prophet’s kid.]

Then, in chapter 9, comes a promise of renewal, with the birth of a wondrous child who will restore justice, righteousness, and peace.

Followed by further warnings – not everyone will be spared. In this case probably the northern kingdom, or “Ephraim.” Also, not their attackers, the Assyrians. And then, followed by further promises – ultimately, God will realize a vision of profound well-being. In this case, arguably, this well-being will follow what looks like the end of the royal house of Judah in the cul-de-sac of the Babylonian exile, after it turns into a highway of return to Zion.

It’s helpful to remember that the prophet’s activity in his own day would have made some kind of sense to the prophet himself, and to his audience. That will curb our tendency to say things like “he was really talking about Jesus here.” He was just as really talking about Hezekiah, most likely, if “really” is even a meaningful term in this context.

That’s not to say that we can’t believe that the prophet’s words echo down through the centuries and apply even more beautifully to Jesus, too. That’s a faith claim, not a literary one, is all.

This text is one of the lectionary readings for Christmas – Day – EVERY YEAR. Which speaks volumes about the way Christians read this text. And have, for millennia.

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CLOSER READING: We could just contemplate the beautiful poetry of verse 2 for awhile, with its perfect counterpoint of darkness and light. [We could use this as the soundtrack.]

In v3, there’s a cascade of joy – the word for joy repeats three times in three lines, either as noun or verb root – and then a different word for joy-rejoice-exult when we come to the plunder. The image of “dividing plunder” as an occasion of celebration is especially evocative. It may depend for its force on having endured the experience of watching other people celebrate at dividing plunder that would have been … your own stuff, before they beat you up and took it.

Together, verses 3-5 bespeak liberation from military occupation and oppression. “The day of Midian,” may recall the victories of Gideon in Judges 6-8, over those legendary Midianite oppressors (Judges 6:1-6)

Verse 5 is another compact poetic image, of the end of war. In Hebrew, the first line is literally something like “for all the boots booting [tramping]” – the verb and the noun echo each other – and the image is of marching that shakes the earth, making a lot of noise. “and all the garments rolled in blood.” All burned. Done. [This verse makes me cry.]

In form, the joy described in verse 2 is given three causes: the liberation of verse 4, the end of war in verse 5, and the climax, the ultimate cause of it all, the new birth in verse 6. Robert Alter points out that authority rests on this child’s shoulders in v6 the way the rod of the oppressor was on people’s shoulders in v4 – an explicit reversal.

The titles work their way up to the greatest, Prince of Peace, [sar shalom]. Then, in v7, that shalom will be the result of this child’s rule. The NRSV translates “his authority shall grow continually,” King James had “of the increase of his government … there will be no end” – which may not sound that good to people who don’t like the idea of “government.” But the underlying idea might be something like abundance – it’s going to be good government.

Justice and righteousness – the kind of justice that incorporates good judgment, the kind of righteousness that incorporates sharing and caring – as the very foundation of that government.

“The zeal of the HOLY ONE of the armies of heaven will do this.” The “zeal” word is intense: passionate, even erotic. Adonai Sabaoth is the divine persona that fights on behalf of Israel (and, by extension, all the people of God). God will make this vision real, at last.

God. Will. Win.

Here’s the rest of the soundtrack:

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UN Isaiah wall with inscription "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war any more." Isaiah

Image: “Six winged Seraph,” Mikhail Vrubel, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; “Isaiah quote NYC stone,” Alex Lozupone [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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