December 2, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: More from the Book of Isaiah

John F. FinkFor the Second Week of Advent, next week, the Office of Readings includes passages from Chapter 22 through the first eight verses of Chapter 29 of the Book of Isaiah.

Last week, I explained that the entire book spans three centuries and likely only the first 39 chapters were written by Isaiah and his disciples. Perhaps, though, I should say more about the prophet himself.

Isaiah’s ministry covered the reigns of three kings of Judah—Jotham

(742-735 B.C.), Ahaz (735-715 B.C.) and Hezekiah (715-687 B.C.). It would be helpful if you read about them in the Second Book of Kings, from Chapter 15, verse 32, through Chapter 20. Isaiah is prominent in Chapters 19 and 20.

This was a time of almost constant warfare. Four kings of Assyria (in modern Iraq) each invaded the southern kingdom of Judah at least once. At one point, Ahaz refused to join Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel against Assyria, which prompted those countries to attack Judah. Ahaz appealed to Assyria for help. Assyria responded and that resulted in the destruction of Israel in 721 B.C. Assyria then exacted tribute from Judah.

Isaiah was born in Jerusalem and apparently trained in a school for scribes. He married a prophetess and they had at least two sons. He was an adviser to both Ahaz and Hezekiah, but neither took his advice to rely on God rather than make alliances with other countries. That’s when he began to make his predictions of dire things to come to the citizens of Jerusalem.

The chapters in next week’s Office of Readings include passages from what is known as the “Apocalypse of Isaiah” (Chapters 24-27). As I said in my column about the Book of Daniel, apocalyptic literature uses symbols to present God’s design for the world. The name means “draws aside the veil.”

Compared with the apocalyptic language in Ezekiel and Daniel, Isaiah’s is rather subdued, but we might look at some of it in Chapter 25: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure choice wines” (Is 25:6).

Some biblical commentators see this as adding a model to the sacred meals of the Old Testament that became absorbed into the New Testament’s theology of the Eucharist. Just as God provided manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, so the Eucharist imparts spiritual help for those who receive it.

There is also Isaiah’s statement that the Lord of hosts “will destroy death forever” (Is 25:8). Although somewhat implicit, up to this point the Old Testament seldom said much about what happens after a person dies.

Chapter 29 begins with, “Woe to Ariel, Ariel, the city where David encamped!” (Is 29:1). Ariel is either a poetic name for Jerusalem or an archaic name when it was a Jebusite city before David conquered it. This is a prediction that the city will come under siege. That happened when Assyria turned against Judah. But that’s the story for readings during the Third Week of Advent, next week. †

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