This week we’re continuing to study texts from Second Isaiah that assert God’s continuing faithfulness and devotion to the people of Israel. The text this week is Isaiah 48:3-8 and 17 (for background, Isaiah 48:1-22). Some questions on the text are here. Here are some notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are skipping ahead in Second Isaiah from last week. We’re aware that the larger text is prophecy, from shortly before the “end” of the Babylonian exile, so around 548-538 BCE. The historical background to the text is Israel’s defeat by Babylonia and loss of the city of Jerusalem and the temple in that defeat (587 BCE). The defeat was, according to the Biblical literature, a consequence of the rulers’ and leaders’ disobedience, and of the people’s embrace of injustice and idolatry. That is, well-deserved consequences.
Second Isaiah is pure prophetic poetry. The section begins with beautiful words of divine consolation, made possible by God’s identity as Creator of Everything – including the present situation. God has the authority to do what God is about to do. “New” divine activity – similar to, but different from, past divine activity – is proclaimed over and over in direct divine speech, communicated by the prophet. Our verses follow chapters that contain: God’s announcement of continuing profound love for Israel; identification of Israel as God’s servant (of which the prophet may be a special representative); announcement that Cyrus – conqueror of Babylon – will accomplish God’s purpose; a denunciation of Babylonia’s false gods – their lavish idols; and the announcement of coming woe for Babylonia.
After all that, God takes up once again the theme of an announcement, specifically of “new things,” being made to Israel. Chapter 48 makes clear that the new things are not happening because Israel merits special favor – quite the opposite.
The following chapters will continue to elaborate the coming redemption, and the role of God’s servant in that redemptive activity.
No part of Isaiah 48 is in the lectionary, so the whole chapter is one of those things we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees, take note.
CLOSER READING: Our selection skips vv1-2. Those verses seem important nevertheless, because they introduce this next section of the speech. They point up the striking contrast between the addressees – the house of Jacob, those named Israel, those who sprang from [the wellsprings of/the loins of] Judah and the HOLY GOD these people invoke. The nation is out of step with its God. They invoke God’s name but not in truth and righteousness.
This contrast will be further emphasized as we read on.
In v3, God points out: there were former things, that God announced long ago and that happened. God and the people have a history.
In v4, an explanation for why God did that announcing: I didn’t want you attribute my – God’s – actions to “my idol”. That is, your – the people’s – false gods.
Now, however, God is doing something new. Hidden things (v6); newly-created things (v7); things the people didn’t already know. Once again, the explanation for this approach, too, is given as the people’s treachery. Or maybe, the new things themselves are necessary because of the people’s past treachery, and the consequences they entailed.
God is actor, and revealer (or, concealer). Uniquely so.
We skip vv9-16, which emphasize God’s forbearance – God restrains God’s anger, on purpose, for God’s own purposes, leading to God’s glory – and God’s creative authority, once again.
We pick back up at v17: God identifies God’s self as redeemer, teacher, and guide. The next verses emphasize that “the way you should go” is about goodness, good consequences, good outcomes. In v18, if only you had been doing this from the beginning, you (singular) would have had peace like a river … none of this would ever have happened. So – take advantage of the present moment, and get out of Babylonia.
Because there is no peace for the wicked (v22). The dismal reminder/warning rounds out the concluding section, with a reference back to v18.
The implication may be: don’t respond to these new things the way you did to those former things. Learn.
Everything in the chapter has to do with the relationship between God and Israel. In light of what that relationship has been, and what it could have been, and what God continues to want it to be, what is it to be now?
Image: Valentin Bousch, “The Prophet Isaiah,” 16th century stained glass window [detail], public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.