December 16, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: Exhorting the Jews to return

John F. FinkFrom Dec. 17 through Dec. 24, the biblical readings in the Office of Readings are taken from Chapters 45 to 52 of the Book of Isaiah, excluding the three “Servant Songs” in those chapters. A fourth “Servant Song” is in Chapter 42. Those readings are more appropriate for Holy Week than for the week leading to Christmas.

These chapters were likely written in Babylon by an unknown prophet toward the end of the Babylonian Exile, about 150 years after Isaiah prophesied in Jerusalem. While Isaiah advised Judah’s kings about protecting Jerusalem, this prophet knows that Jerusalem has been destroyed and looks forward to its reconstruction.

As we saw last week, Jerusalem was spared from destruction by the Assyrians in 701 B.C., as Isaiah predicted it would be. But it was destroyed by the Babylon King Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. and the Judeans taken prisoner to Babylon. Then, in 539 B.C., the Persian Empire under King Cyrus conquered Babylon.

In the passages read next week, written after Cyrus told the Jews that they could return to their homeland, the prophet exhorts the Judeans to do so—return to Jerusalem and begin the task of rebuilding their lives.

We can understand their reluctance to do that, so they need some prodding. They have been in Babylon for almost 50 years and they know that Jerusalem was destroyed. Most of them were born in Babylon. Besides, they believe that God has forgotten them. Why would they want to pack up and move back to that land that they consider, literally, God-forsaken?

The prophet acknowledges all that, but begs to disagree: “Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:14-15).

He has to convince the people that God is redeeming them, using Cyrus as his instrument. Therefore, he proclaims that the Jewish God is beyond comparison with any other gods, such as the Babylonian’s Marduk. “I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me” (Is 46:9).

The Jewish God is the Creator and lord of history. “It was I who made the Earth and created mankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens; I gave the order to all their host” (Is 45:12).

He is the Creator and redeemer of Israel. “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, his maker” (Is 45:11), and “Thus says the Lord, your redeemer” (Is 48:17).

He promised that those who return will “enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee” (Is 51:11).

Therefore, he implores, “Break out together in song, O ruins of Jerusalem! For the Lord comforts his people, he redeems Jerusalem” (Is 52:9)

Finally, the prophet proclaims that God is sovereign over all nations. “The Lord has bared his arm in the sight of all the nations; all the ends of the Earth will behold the salvation of our God” (Is 52:10). †

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