November 25, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: Beginning the Book of Isaiah

John F. FinkThe Book of Isaiah is read as part of the Office of Readings throughout Advent and again between the feasts of Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus. This emphasizes both the book’s importance and its length. It is considered the most valuable Old Testament book for the New Testament, and it is also the second longest book in the Bible after Psalms.

The Book of Isaiah is an anthology of poems, beautifully written by the greatest of the prophets and by his disciples. It is really three books spanning three centuries up to about 500 B.C. The first 39 chapters were likely written by the prophet Isaiah, who lived in Jerusalem from about 765 B.C. until sometime after 701 B.C., although there are additions by his disciples even here.

Chapters 40-55, known as Second Isaiah, were written near the end of the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C., and Chapters 56-66, Third Isaiah, were composed sometime after the exile.

Next week’s readings in the Office of Readings are taken from the first 21 chapters—Chapters 1 and 2 and parts of 5, 16, 19 and 21. They skip Chapters 6 to 12. That is surprising because those are known as the Immanuel Prophecies, predicting the coming of a Savior, which you would expect to read during Advent. They undoubtedly are skipped because passages from them are read during some of the Masses in Advent, and it didn’t seem necessary to duplicate them in the Office of Readings.

The book begins with an indictment of Israel and Judah for being a “sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the Lord and spurned the Holy One of Israel” (Is 1:4).

Isaiah takes the people to task for not caring for the needy. He quotes God as saying that he has had enough of their sacrifices of lambs and goats. He will not listen to their prayers because their hands are full of blood.

Instead of all their festivals, God says, “Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow” (Is 1:16-17).

Because of their sins, God will take vengeance on his foes, but then, “Zion shall be redeemed by judgment, and her repentant ones by justice” (Is 1:27). This verse is the key to the whole Book of Isaiah. After God’s judgment, Zion’s survivors will return to God.

Then, Isaiah says, “The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it” (Is 2:2). From Zion, God “shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4).

Chapter 19 is a prediction of the conversion of Egypt and Assyria, when “Israel shall be a third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land” (Is 19:24). †

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