This week, we’re looking at promises and words of encouragement from shortly before the end of the Babylonian exile: Isaiah 43, focusing on verses 1-4 and 10-12 (but we can’t go wrong reading verses 1-21). Lots of people will know this one – parts of it, anyway – from memes and choir anthems (like “Be Not Afraid” and “Be Not Afraid”.) Some questions on the text are here. Here a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is a reading from what scholars and most of our study Bibles identify as “second Isaiah,” a portion of the long book of Isaiah that seems to have been composed around the time of the end of the Babylonian exile (maybe 548-538 BCE). [See this nice summary at Bible Odyssey on multiple Isaiahs.]
The first part of the book of Isaiah is full of denunciations of the people’s injustice and idolatry [“Cease to do evil, learn to do good!”] as well as promises of the ultimate triumph of God’s shalom [“The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Holy One as the waters cover the sea.” “He will swallow up death forever …”]. But chapters 40-55 emphasize restoration, God’s continuing love and care for Israel, and underwrite God’s promises with recurrent references to God’s sovereignty [“I make weal and create woe”] and God’s creative authority [“who stretches out the heavens like a curtain”]. Second Isaiah is also the setting for the familiar “servant songs,” which emphasize God’s long-standing covenant with and formation of Israel.
Our text is near the beginning of this section of the book, and incorporates all of these themes.
If we think of these chapters as a unified composition, which is not too farfetched, chapter 43 seems to follow directly from chapter 42. Chapter 42 begins with one of the servant songs, moves into a command to “sing a new song” because of the new things God is doing, points out the way the servant doesn’t seem to understand what is going on, and then describes God’s punishment of Israel. Chapter 43 begins with “but now …” – God is turning to the work of redemption. The people “blind and deaf” come up again. The contrasts between the former (punishment) and the current (redemption) continue into chapter 44. If we read it this way, the emphatic identification of “the servant” as Israel seems hard to dispute.
Isaiah 43:1-7 is the Revised Common Lectionary’s Old Testament selection for Baptism of the Lord (C). Verses 16-21 and 18-25 show up a couple of additional times in the lectionary. Verses 8-15, however, would be verses we would not know were in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. These verses explicitly focus on Israel’s role among the nations as the unique witness to the one true God. That may just be a coincidence.
CLOSER READING: Verse 1 seems to pick up where Isaiah 42:25 left off, contrasting “then” with “but now.”
God created and formed Israel. These verbs echo Genesis 1 – where God creates the heavens and the earth and humankind (adam) in God’s image – and Genesis 2 – where God forms humanity from the dust of the earth.
These creative verbs repeat throughout the text. In v7, God created and formed Israel for God’s glory. In v15, God – Holy One and king – is the creator of Israel. In vv20-21, Israel is God’s chosen people, formed to praise God. We get the vivid impression that God’s choosing is a kind of creation.
The text reminds us of God’s holiness – mentioned in verses 3, 14, and 15. Also of God’s glory, mentioned in verses 7, 14, 15, and 20 – where the beasts of the wilderness will glorify this God.
God is the savior of Israel (verses 3 and 11). The word for “savior,” and particularly “your savior,” sounds uncannily similar to the Hebrew word for “anointed.” It’s the word “anointed” that has given us our terms “Messiah” and “Christ.” It’s a suggestive similarity.
Verse 8 seems to refer back to Isaiah 42:16-20, so then verses 10-12 describe the special mission of these people – now, hopefully, cured of their blindness and deafness – to witness to God’s reality and power to redeem, in the assembly of the nations. God, unlike idols, is real and can make things happen.
The instruction in v18, not to recall the former things, seems to contrast God’s making a way through the sea (v15) – once before – with God’s making a way through the wilderness now. Then, making dry land out of water was the ticket to salvation. This time, creating water – to drink, in a really dry place, precisely the opposite miracle – will be the thing.
So – back to v2 – whether Israel is facing flood waters, or scorching flame (of the desert sun?) – God is the savior, redeemer, the presence that will neutralize the danger.
By the way: We’ve taken up issues of Second Isaiah, and some of the issues with the servant songs, before. So, there’s some more on all that here on the site. If you’re interested, feel free to check out:
- Notes on Isaiah 42:1-9 (which includes some notes on Second Isaiah, and the problem of “Christian reading” in this context);
- Notes on Isaiah 49:1-13 (which include some longer discussion of 2nd Isaiah and of the “servant songs”);
- Thoughts on reading Brevard Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture and John F.A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the history of Christianity (which amounts to more notes on the problem of “Christian reading” in this context).
And Dear Reader, if you are getting the impression that I think “how we read this” really matters, and that some ways are more defensible than others, and that some ways frankly ought to be given up, you are interpreting me correctly.
Images: Image of the Prophet Isaiah, Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0; Screenshot of a Google search, “Isaiah 43 – images,” conducted 01-03-2023, own work – so, it won’t bother me if you re-use it for whatever, but on the other hand, you could just go do your own Google search …