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Song of the Vineyard by B. Davie Napier


B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Song of the Vineyard was published in 1962 by Harper & Row, Publishers. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 10: The Culmination, Summary, and Projection of Prophetic Faith


COMFORT AND LIGHT:

SECOND ISAIAH1

You are my servant.
Isa. 49:3

From Nebuchadnezzar to Cyrus

Two kings span the major part of the seventy years of Neo-Babylonian ascendancy (in round numbers, 610-540 B.C.). Nebuchadnezzar (605[4]-562) is one of history’s strongest men. He was Babylon; and as long as he lived, Babylon’s power was unassailable. He administered Jerusalem’s surrender and the first deportation in 597; the city’s three-year siege, its fall and destruction, and the second deportation of 587; and a third act of aggression and deportation in 582. The number of these involuntary exiles was not large — about forty-six hundred according to Jeremiah 52:28-30; but since this is probably the number of adult males, we would not be far wrong in assuming a grand total of, say, fifteen to twenty thousand. It is clear that their lot, as exiles, was uncommonly good. This last fact, together with the dismal physical state of Judah, no doubt attracted some voluntary Jewish exiles to Babylonian settlements. Other Judeans certainly moved, out of preference, to Egypt (Jer. 42-43).

Babylon’s collapse began in the years immediately following Nebuchadnezzar’s death (562). The Babylonian demise was presided over by Nabonidus (556-539), who seized the throne after its occupancy by several other ill-fated rulers. It is possible that Nabonidus would have looked better in some other historical epoch: it was his personal misfortune to share the days of his years with Cyrus the Great, who literally took Babylon and its empire away from him.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus stands as one of history’s most powerful men. But he is also one of history’s wiser emperors. Of Persian origin, he appears as early as 559 as an administrator of promise in an Elamite province belonging to Media called Anshan. From Anshan he gained control of the empire of the Medes which had been able to maintain itself by treaty even through the years of Babylon’s strength. Having won all the Median territory, Cyrus moved west and north and with remarkable ease annexed the Lydian empire (Asia Minor). Astutely, he did not hurry to conquer Babylon. Time, Babylon’s internal confusion, and his own growing prestige all worked for him; and when at last in October, 539, he moved in battle array against the city, the populace threw open the gates and poured out of the city to welcome him.

So it was that Cyrus, this combination of Mede and Persian, became the ruler of the ancient world, the first non-Semitic occupant of the emperor’s throne in the ancient Middle East. He ruled as had none of his predecessors. It is a fundamental fact of his administration that he respected the dignity and the integrity — short of political independence, of course — of all subject peoples; and in consequence he not only permitted, but apparently on occasion encouraged and supported, the reestablishment of broken peoples and their traditional ways and institutions. It was in the first year of his assumption of Babylonian rule that he set in motion the machinery for Judah’s renewal with a favorable edict permitting and supporting the return of exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple. We say "exiles" — they were by that time for the most part second and even third generation "Babylonians":

The restoration project was placed in charge of Shesh-bazzar, prince of Judah. Presumably he set out for Jerusalem as soon as practicable, accompanied by such Jews (Ezra 1:5) as had been fired by their spiritual leaders with a desire to have a part in the new day. How large a company this was we cannot say. The list of Ezra, ch. 2, which reappears in Neh., ch. 7, belongs later. . .But it is unlikely that any major return of exiles took place at this time. After all, Palestine was a faraway land which only the oldest could remember; and the journey thither difficult and dangerous; the future of the venture was at best uncertain. Moreover, many Jews were by this time well established in Babylon. . . . It is probable that only a few of the boldest and most dedicated spirits were willing to accompany Shesh~bazzar.2

Others came back to the old "land of promise" in the years to follow, probably never in large numbers. But there is a sense in which "Israel" was gathered again. Houses and fields and vineyards were again bought and sold in the land even as Jeremiah had boldly predicted (Jer. 32: 15). The Temple and its cultus were reconstituted, the walls of Jerusalem finally rebuilt, and covenant life in covenant community was resumed — not, to be sure, in demonstrable terms of Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s new covenant, but at least so as to provide substance for the preservation of that hope and expectation.

From Isaiah to Second Isaiah

The prophet of this epoch is nameless. We call him the Second Isaiah because the substance of his prophetism — such as we have — is preserved in the book of Isaiah. Probably chapters 34-35 are his; certainly chapters 40-55; and perhaps some of the oracles in chapters 56-66. This is the extent of Second Isaiah, either as directly recorded or as "remembered" in the same prophetic circles to which he himself had belonged.

It was no accident that brought together the prophetic utterances of these two Isaiahs. Their prophetism (as well as that of "Third" Isaiah in 56-66, and "Fourth" Isaiah in 24-27) is of the same essential character. It is prophetism out of a common, enduring Yahwistic tradition; but even more, it is out of a distinctively cultivated and maintained Yahwistic prophetism. The oracles of the Isaiahs were preserved, if not all originally created, in circles of prophetism which knew a common and sustained theological discipline. This theory predicates a peculiarly "Isaianic" prophetic tradition the major record of which, created over a number of centuries, is the book of Isaiah.

The explicit and implicit theme throughout is the holiness of Yahweh which is the "God-ness" of Yahweh — his greatness, his unqualified adequacy, his absolute sufficiency. And yet at the same time holiness means above all else that Yahweh keeps close to Israel, that he could not abandon them without denying himself. The holy one dwells in the high places, yet comes down to the contrite and humble (Isa. 57:15), for although holiness is that which qualifies God as god it is also that in him which is most human. The holy one of Israel is he who gives his word (Isa. 5:24; 30:12,15), the one who is always near to help (Isa. 3 1:1; 37:23), whose blessings are so evident that the peoples will exclaim: "Yahweh is only found in thee" (Isa. 45: 14).3

The holiness of Yahweh is at once distinct and radiant.4 This quality which removes Yahweh from man as the heavens are removed from the earth conveys at the same time his immediate impingement, his "historicity," his self-disclosure in human life and human community, his "in-the-midst-ness" (notice the repeated phrase throughout the book of Isaiah, "the holy one of Israel"). This holiness of Yahweh is the explicit theme of Second Isaiah, as it is also of Isaiah of Jerusalem some two centuries earlier. There is, however, a significant difference. For the eighth-century Isaiah the understanding of Yahweh as holy devolves from history. It is history which informs the prophet of this essential quality of Yahweh. In Second Isaiah’s prophetism, demonstrably nurtured in a solidly Isaianic tradition, the holiness of Yahweh takes priority over history, that is, it is history now which devolves from Yahweh’s holiness. It is from the holiness of Yahweh that all history is informed. Yahweh’s holy nature is the prior fact which conditions history. It is in this sense and for this reason that Second Isaiah has been called "the originator of a theology of world-history."5

The common theme of Yahweh’s holiness in both Isaiahs and their common use of closely related subthemes could hardly account for the anonymity of the Second Isaiah. By any criteria — literary, poetic, theological — he can be ranked second to none of the classical prophets. The movement of classical prophetism attains its ultimate expression in him. The finest qualities of his predecessors are his, some of those qualities more intense or more subtle, or still further refined; and to an extent unmatched in any other prophet, Second Isaiah’s prophetism gives coherent unity to virtually the whole range of prophetic Yahwism, embracing at once all the centuries from the two previous "beginnings" in Moses’ and the Yahwist’s days to this new beginning in his own and Cyrus’ day. How right that one should say, "In many ways he stands closest to the writer of Israel’s most glorious epic, the Yahwist, and he grasps the distances and guises of the epic with fidelity and certitude."6

Now it is simply unthinkable that the name of this most powerful prophet should have fallen into obscurity — unless the prophet himself had regarded his work as an extension of Isaiah’s prophetism and had insisted that this name be also his own identification. Such would appear to be the case. We have already observed the apparent fact that Isaiah of Jerusalem, at some point in his career, deemed inappropriate the further proclamation of the Word of renewal beyond the coming catastrophe.

Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for Yahweh, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. (Isa. 8:16-17)

The word for disciples is limmudim. This is the first occurrence of this form from its root lmd and the first instance in the Old Testament of a word which is properly rendered "disciples." The same form of the word does not occur again until Second Isaiah, and it is subsequently found nowhere else. The original Isaiah proposed in effect that it was not yet time for the full-scale prophetic Word of redemption. Let the Word be sealed among his disciples until the hour of its fulfillment, lest its premature preaching lend itself to the increase of popular complacency and pride.

And so, a year or two before the fall of Babylon, with Cyrus long in the public eve and his administrative policies long known and admired, this prophet from among Isaiah’s continuing circle of disciple-prophets breaks the living seal. The message of redemption from this second Egypt, of a second exodus and a second entrance into the land of promise, is brought forth from its place of living seclusion in the hearts of Isaiah’s disciples.

The Lord Yahweh has given me
the tongue of limmudim [disciples: RSV, "those who are taught"]
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him that is weary.
Morning by morning he wakens,
he wakens my ear to hear as limmudim. (Isa. 50:4)

The term is used once more by Second Isaiah, this time to express the expectation in faith that as he is among Isaiah’s limmudim, so Israel shall be limmudim of Yahweh: "A11 your sons shall be limmudim of Yahweh!" (54:13).7

From Cyrus to Servant

The main body of Second Isaiah’s oracles, chapters 40-55, is perhaps intentionally divided into two sections. In chapters 40-48 the subject is almost exclusively the deliverance of the captive people — their physical, political release from "captivity" in the very near future. Chapters 49-55 differ from this first section in two more or less subtle regards. The sense of immediate deliverance is heightened: one wonders if these oracles may not have been created in the very year of the first return, although still before the actual fact. And the quality of deliverance takes on a more pronounced spiritualization: much more prominently now, the expectation of Jacob/Israel’s reconstitution is charged with meaning and consequences more theological than political, although that quality is not wanting in the first section. The hope, rapturously articulated throughout, is in the second section much more conspicuously a sweeping, profound interpretation of the sharply anticipated event. It is an interpretation which gathers up in essence and projects in essence the substance of Israelite Yahwism, daringly embracing again the whole world, and with the consummate audacity of bold faith, bringing into single focus all generations in all time. What does this event of redemption mean, together with all that was Israel before? Altogether it means nothing less than light to the nations of the world and salvation to the end of the earth" (see 49:6). Now certainly this is an expectation — a projection of faith — never literally realized; and it may well be that it remains ultimately beyond historical realization. And yet, in the last analysis, it is this essential interpretation which nurtures and motivates the faith of Judaism and Christianity. Second Isaiah’s phenomenal articulation of faith, hope. and love has known this kind of reality through a long past, and will surely continue to know it into an indefinite future in the biblical religions.

This movement from 40-48 to 49-55 is most sharply pointed up in the shift of emphasis from the political figure of Cyrus to the theological figure of the Servant. On the eve of Cyrus’ elevation to the pinnacle of world power, this prophet of the Isaiah name speaks of Cyrus in terms that sound in the Old Testament almost — but certainly not — sacrilegious. >From chapter 40 to chapter 45 the word is one of comfort and high expectation. The creator of these soaring lines lyrically enunciates the single dominant theme: It’s over! The anguish and the sorrow, the bitterness and the loneliness are behind us now. Israel will be Israel again. Our chaos is about to be transformed into joyful order, our previous bleak, unloved existence into loving security. Yahweh himself is about to

. . .feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young. (40:11)

The creation faith is articulated and emphasized as it has not been since the Yahwist’s day, but in no sense as abstract support for a proposition of "theoretical monotheism." Second Isaiah remains a prophet, not a philosopher or even a theologian. This faith in creation is nowhere abstracted; it is nowhere propositional. It is always enunciated specifically for "existential" reasons — to support, undergird, substantiate the prophetic Word of impending release. This message seems incredible — but it is Yahweh who will do this! And who is Yahweh?

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
..............................
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain (40:21 f.)

The power of the Creator in the first exodus is recalled, not now for itself, but in support of the prophetic Word of the imminent second exodus front the second Egypt, as a historical witness to the creation faith:
I am Yahweh, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
..............................
Who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
.............................
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert
..............................
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise. (see 43:15-21)
And the instrument by which this event of Israel’s re-creation will be effected?
Thus says Yahweh, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb,
. . .who made all things
. . .who confirms the word of his servant
. . .who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited’
. . .who says of the deep, ‘Be dry’
. . .who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd. . ."

Thus says Yahweh to his anointed [meshiah= messiah], to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped,


...........................
"I will go before you and level mountains,
............................
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name. . ." (see 44:24-45:4)
Thus says Yahweh,
the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker:
.............................

I made the earth,
and created man upon it;
It was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host.

I have aroused him (Cyrus) in righteousness,
and I will make straight all his ways;
he shall build my city
and set my exiles free (see 45:11-13)

Cyrus does not appear again. The figure which takes his place is the figure of the Servant. It is not impossible (we do not and cannot know) that the prophet has Cyrus in mind in the first of the four Servant Songs (42:1-4). Compared to his predecessors on the throne of the Middle East, this man Cyrus was indeed gentle and just and faithful. His own words on the Cyrus Cylinder (inscribed on a clay barrel) support this characterization:

(Marduk, God of Babylon) scanned and looked through all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler. . . . He beheld with pleasure Cyrus’ good deeds and his upright heart (and therefore) ordered him to march against his city Babylon. . . . going at his side like a real friend. His widespread troops — their number, like that of the water of a river, could not be established — strolled along, their weapons packed away. Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon and calamity. . .Happily [the inhabitants] greeted him as a master through whose help they had come (again) to life from death (and) had all been spared damage and disaster, and they worshiped his (very) name.8

But in three subsequent poems dealing with the person of the Servant, his function and mission, all in the second division of chapters (49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12), the Servant clearly cannot be Cyrus, and the Servant’s mission has gone quite beyond any historical accomplishment of Cyrus.

Can the Servant in the four Songs be Israel? In a number of other contexts, all but one in the first division, Israel is collectively identified as a servant:

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen (41:8)

You are my witnesses and my servant (43:10)

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen (44:1)

Remember these things. O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant (44:21)

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen (45:4)

Declare this with a shout of joy Yahweh has redeemed his servant Jacob!" (48:20)

Yet the specific identification of Servant and Israel appears only once (49:3) in the four Songs, and in a line suspected of having been tampered with (but suspected chiefly for this reason, that it alone of the Servant Songs expressly equates Servant and Israel).

The identity of the Servant will remain indefinitely a matter of debate. You draw your own conclusions on the strength of a fresh, contemplative reading of the four Songs in immediate sequence. There can be absolutely no doubt that collective Israel — judged, smitten by Yahweh, disfigured, uprooted — has at least influenced the understanding of the meaning and mission of the Servant. Even if the Servant figure is consistently or only at times conceived as an individual (on the pattern of a Jeremiah, or perhaps the prophet himself, or a contemporary, or someone yet to appear), the very individualization is obviously shaped in the prophet’s mind, consciously or unconsciously, by his people’s corporate experience in the days from Nebuchadnezzar to Cyrus. The rule holds: the great affirmations of the Old Testament people are all historically conditioned; and it is again the major events of exodus, David-Zion, destruction, and now reconstitution which most radically determine the structure of their faith. To be sure Second Isaiah is able to begin with the holiness of Yahweh; and he does indeed see all history devolving in meaning therefrom. But the precise form of this "theology" is as powerfully influenced by the events of his own century as the prophetism of Isaiah by events of the eighth, or Jeremiah by those of the seventh and sixth centuries.

PROPHETIC UNDERSTANDING

I am God and not Man.
Hos. 11:9

If we essay a single broad look at classical prophetism as a whole, a number of concepts emerge as most crucial and characteristic. The essence of prophetism is embraced in the prophets’ understanding of (1) Word and symbol, (2) election and covenant, (3) rebellion and judgment, (4) compassion and redemption, and (5) consummation.

Thus Says Yahweh: Word and Symbol

As we have seen, the Word was regarded as an entity containing and releasing divine power to accomplish itself, that is, to perform or bring to pass its content. In relationship to the prophet himself and his call, we witness the phenomenon of the psychology of captivity — a self-consciousness in vocation characterized by feelings of having been overpowered by the Word of Yahweh. This is evident in the three remarkable call-narratives of Isaiah 6, Jeremiah I, and Ezekiel I; pointedly in Amos 3:8, 7:15; and in Jeremiah 20:8b f.

We have seen that this sense of the entity and power of the Word explains in great part the concentrated emotional character of the prophets and their deep anguish in proclaiming the negative message. To announce catastrophe under the formula "Thus says Yahweh" is in the prophetic psychology to take a direct hand in the destructive event. The very proclamation of doom releases the power to produce the debacle.

What is true of the Word is also true of the prophets’ symbolic acts. The devices of symbolism (e.g., the use of names, Hos. 1 and Isa. 7 and 8, and the singular, sometimes weird dramatizations of Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are simply graphic extensions of the Word which possess for both the prophet and his people a quality of realism ultimately unfathomable to the Western mind. The dramatized Word, like the uttered Word, is deemed by the prophet to be charged with the power of performance.

Now, if we recall another psychological phenomenon in ancient Israel, the normative sense of corporate personality, the identity of the one in the many and the many in the one, we are able to understand that in their application of Word and Symbol the prophets became not only executioners of Israel, but at once also their own executioners. In the destructive Word and Symbol directed at the people they are themselves destroyed in profoundly realistic psychological meaning.

All of this may be (and probably is) a survival out of primitive, mimetic magic. But the transformation is striking. Magic coerces the unseen powers. But the prophet is overwhelmed by the sense of Yahweh’s coerciveness. Rather than aiming at control of the deity, the prophetic symbol is inspired, performed, and interpreted at the behest of the Word of Yahweh, to bring to pass the judgment and will of Yahweh in Israel and the world.9

Election and Covenant

Out of Egypt I called my son.
Hos. 11:1

The sense of election, of having been specially chosen for a special function, is not limited to the prophets; and the actual term for covenant, in Hebrew berith appears rarely if at all in the classical, pre-exilic prophets. But in prophetism election takes on a prophetically refined meaning; and covenant is a concept everywhere assumed, despite the striking absence of the term itself. The prophets may have deliberately avoided using the term because of the widespread popular misunderstanding which made the idea of covenant the food for a narrow, prideful, exclusive nationalism.

Covenant is the working extension of election, the implementation of election. In the Old Testament, covenant is the working contract between unequal parties, initiated by the senior party in the act of election.10 And in prophetism, the concept of election covenant is basic to the interpretation of Israel’s existence. If the prophets speak on behalf of social and economic justice, they do not preach a general abstract morality, but pointedly and specifically proclaim an election/covenant ethic, the sense of which is something like this: You shall refrain from this practice, or you shall do thus-and-so, because I am Yahweh who brought you up out of Egypt (election) and you are a people voluntarily committed in return to the performance of my righteous will (covenant). The motivation of the prophetic ethic is election. The nature of that ethic is determined by the covenant. And so it is that we speak of the theological ethic of the prophets.

Rebellion and Judgment

They went from me . . . they shall return to Egypt.
Hos. 11:2,5

The prophetic indictment is not merely of Israel (see Isa. 10:5 ff.; Amos 1-2; and the blocks of oracles against the nations in Isa. 13-23, Jer. 46-51, and Ezek. 25-32). It is the rebelliousness of man against God that is ultimately indicted. But for the prophet, Israel nevertheless stands at the very hub of existence as the nucleus of the vast area of God’s concern. She is peculiarly electee and covenanter. In her relationship to Yahweh there is a special intensity and intimacy, a more specific and immediate purpose and mission. Therefore, the judgment of her rebelliousness is unique.

Israel’s alienation from Yahweh is willful and complete, the shocking betrayal of her pride and arrogance which appear all the more reprehensible against the background of such relationships as father-son (Isa. 1:2 ff., for example), or owner-vineyard (Isa. 5), or even husband-wife (Jer. 2:2-7; Ezek. 16:8-15; and of course Hosea). Israel’s rebelliousness is infidelity; her infidelity, pride. Prophetism is persuaded that this is the sickness-unto-death not only of Israel but of all men. It is the condition which brings Israel, and ultimately the world, under judgment.

The Hebrew root shaphat, "to judge," conveys an act by which wrong is righted by punishment of the aggressor, by restitution to the victim, or by both. Offenders of all sorts are to be judged, but so are the victims of abuse and misfortune (e.g., Isa. 1:17). Thus, judgment is the realization of justice.

We have already marked classical prophetism’s orientation in catastrophe, either the fall of North or South Israel. This is divine judgment, the establishment of justice, the re-balancing of the scales between Yahweh and Israel. It means political death for Israel, a figurative return to Egypt. But at the same time it rights the wrong, and more than this, it provides — it is intended by Yahweh himself to provide — the context for the resumption of a productive, meaningful relationship between Yahweh and Israel.

We have seen the staggering power and stunning language of the proclamation of judgment. If the prophets entertain personal hopes that it may be averted (as they surely do) or that it will work for good in an Israel that loves God (as emphatically they do), the character of the proclamation remains nevertheless uncompromised. The force of the judgment is appropriate to the force of Israel’s rejection of Yahweh:

Thou hast smitten them,
but they felt no anguish;
thou hast consumed them,
but they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
they have refused to repent. . .
They have spoken falsely of Yahweh,
and have said, "He will do nothing" [lit., "He is not"]
..................................
Therefore thus says Yahweh, the God of hosts:
"Because they have spoken this word,
behold I am making my words in your mouth a fire,
and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them." (Jer. 5:3,12,14; but see also vv. 1-17)

At the same time, prophetism always intends to and wants to proclaim judgment in the full sense of justice — the setting right of the woefully wrong, the re-ordering of that which is tragically awry — so that the very objects of judgment are restored. It does this in part by setting the issue between Yahweh and Israel in terms of current judicial practice (cf., e.g., Amos 3:1; Hos. 4:1; Isa. 1:2,18 ff.; 3:13; Mic. 6:1 ff.). It is the just and righteous Yahweh who accuses. He renders the verdict. And it is he who is responsible for the execution of the judgment.

The positive quality of judgment becomes clearer in the brief discussions that follow.

Compassion and Redemption

How can 1 give you up, O Ephraim. . . . 1 will return them to their homes.
Hos. 11:8,11

As a whole, the prophets give passionate testimony to their faith that in the context of Israel’s life under election/covenant, her rebellion and judgment call forth at once Yahweh’s compassion and redemption.

The term hesed best conveys the unique quality of Yahweh’s compassion. It is variously rendered mercy, kindness (or loving-kindness), devotion, faithfulness, or even grace. In the RSV it is most commonly "steadfast love." The root sense in Hebrew conveys the quality of sustaining strength. Hesed is often an attribute of covenant, either the Yahweh-Israel covenant or a family covenantal relationship such as husband-wife or father-son. But as the prophets use the term (notably Hosea, Jeremiah, and II Isaiah), hesed is no longer dependent upon Covenant or one of a number of covenant’s attributes; but covenant becomes subordinate to hesed. Covenant is subject to control and transformation by compassion that is hesed (see, for example, Hos. 2:16 ff. and 11:8 ff.; Jer. 3:12; Isa. 54:7 f.). If hesed begins in the structure of covenant, it ends with covenant as its own renewed creation:

For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
But my hesed shall not depart from you
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says Yahweh, who has compassion on you. (Isa. 54:10)
Compassion of the hesed quality is compounded of grace and is, of course, rooted and sustained in the love of God:
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
this is why I have maintained my hesed toward you. (Jer. 31:3)

Out of Egypt, into this land, back to Egypt again. But "I am God and not man" (Hos. 11:9). Prophetism, in the knowledge of Yahweh’s compassion, sees a second act of Yahweh’s redemption of Israel from chaos — a redemption to be effected by Israel’s return to the land, redemption by the reconstitution of Israel. And this insight, this faith, this expectation was already a part of prophetism in the eighth century. If the first Isaiah was convinced of Israel’s doom, he was also persuaded of Yahweh’s compassionate purpose in judgment-justice; he was persuaded of a judgment-justice never primarily punitive in intention but redemptive in Yahweh’s conception. If judgment is wrath at all, it is purposive wrath, not vindictive wrath. Yahweh’s judgment is not an end itself, but the necessary measure to make redemption possible:

I will turn my hand against you
and will smelt away your dross. . .
and remove all your alloy. (Isa. 1:25)

The remnant that will survive the catastrophe (Isa. 7:1 ff.) is in the same way at once negative but also predominantly positive in its import.

Hosea warmly expounds the same theme (2: 14-23; 5:15; 7:13,15; 11:11). It is pervasive if sometimes implicit in Jeremiah, as witness for example, the familiar lines on the new covenant (Jer. 31:33 f.). In Ezekiel this conviction that Yahweh’s judgment is ultimately positive is given singularly moving expression in the prophet’s vision of the valley of death, that vast, open grave exposing the skeletons of all the house of Israel (Ezek. 37).

So, deep in the sixth century, on the very eve of the second exodus, the voice of prophetism, summoning into a single moment of time the act of creation and the first exodus, proclaims the now old prophetic faith in the redemptive purpose of Yahweh’s judgment:

Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of Yahweh;
awake, as in the days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces,
that didst pierce the dragon? [a reference to the destruction of chaos at creation]
Was it not thou that didst dry up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
that didst make the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over? [the exodus from Egypt, of course] (Isa. 51:9-10)

And now, having brought into the same moment of time the creation of the world and the creation of Israel, the prophet proclaims a third comparable event which is about to be the end and purpose of judgment — a new creation, a new people, a new world!

And the ransomed of Yahweh shall return,
and come with singing to Zion;
Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 51:11)

Faith in such measure, proclaimed with such rapture, cannot be and is not contained in any concept of one people’s redemption, of Israel’s redemption alone.

A Light to the Nations: Consummation

In its ultimate projection, prophetic faith points, if not beyond history, at least to a history radically transformed. In the face of an existence which appeared to be as hard and as featureless as a rock, this faith, grounded in the conviction that existence is nevertheless Yahweh-given and Yahweh-ruled, came to insist finally that such an existence would have only limited duration. The totality of existence is Yahweh’s, and his countenance is neither hard nor featureless:

he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
and abounding in hesed. (Joel 2:13)11

Moreover, Yahweh has spoken the Word that in Abraham/ Israel all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12: 3), and his Word cannot but accomplish that purpose to which he sends it (Isa. 55:11).

The notion of the historical redemption of Israel alone was never able to contain the prophetic faith or answer prophetism’s pressing questions about the meaning of Israel’s existence. Even, sometimes, where the terms are of Israel’s redemption, the prophetic intensity of feeling and pressure of conviction mark the intent to be universal. This is true of Isaiah 51:9-11 which we have just quoted above. It is also true of such passages as Hosea 2:18-23, Jeremiah 23:5 f., and especially Isaiah 9:2-7. In all these the prophetic disposition and intention embraces all men.

It is appropriate to any summary such as this that prophetism speak its own concluding lines to express its faith in consummation; and it is perhaps inevitable that these lines should most naturally be drawn from the tradition of the Isaiahs. Whatever the identity of the Servant, one thinks at once of Yahweh’s word to him:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Isa. 49:6)

Whatever the identity of Servant and speaker in the next lines, the sense of the redemption of corporate man is unambiguous:

Surely he [the Servant] has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole
and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa. 53:4-5)

From the line of David, out of the stuff and substance of history, "a shoot from the stump of Jesse" (David’s father) will be endowed with the spirit of Yahweh:

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (Isa. 11:3 f.)

The vision moves now tenderly to the lower orders of creation to make the consummation complete and concludes with reference to all things under creation:

They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Yahweh
as the waters cover the sea. (Isa. 11:9)

 

NOTES:

1. Isa. 34-35; 40-55.

2. John Bright, A History of Israel, Philadelphia, 1959, p. 344.

3. E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, New York, 1958, p. 90.

4. Cf. M. Buber, The Prophetic Faith, New York, 1949, pp. 128f.

5. Ibid., p. 208.

6. J. Muilenberg. "Introduction, Isaiah 40-66," The Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville, 1956, vol. V. p. 397. See the whole of his superb essay, pp. 381-414.

7. Cf. Buber, op. cit., pp. 201-205.

8. For the full text of the cylinder, see James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 2nd ed., Princeton, 1955, pp. 315f.

9. For a fuller discussion of this idea, see B. D. Napier, "Prophets, Prophetism," Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Nashville, 1962.

10. Cf. G. E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel, Pittsburgh, 1955.

11. Cf Jon. 4:2.

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