As always, there’s a lot going on in these chapters. I’m a bit thin on these chapters (and I’ve also spent the last two weeks packing up our apartment, moving anything we didn’t sell into storage, writing several secondaries and a tertiary medical application, relocating to a different city, AND getting a nose-dripping cold.) So I’m going to do little more than skim over the top and hit on a few themes.
First, and majorly, is the issue of Second Isaiah. Much scholarship, dating back a few hundred years, recognizes that Isaiah 39 onwards differs markedly from the preceding chapters. It differs in terms of setting (Babylon instead of Assyria, which means a jump of 150 years), assumptions, theme, tone, and vocabulary. They’re not a complete break, but it’s significant enough that scholars have concluded what scholars tend to conclude; When there’s a sharp sustained change, break, or a contradiction of some kind in the text, it likely indicates a different source or author. Hence, we have Isaiah and Second Isaiah, writing after the time of the Babylonian destruction. Obviously, there are some assumptions at play here, which I find to be mostly reasonable, most of the time.
Moreover, at times in this history of interpretation, another assumption has been at play, expressed in the extreme as “prophecy doesn’t really exist, so obviously the author who talks about Cyrus must be contemporary with Cyrus.” That’s not really a major point of most scholarly arguments, but it’s sometimes there in the background.
A different version of this, which nevertheless has the same result, is an idea which I fully subscribe to, and is strongly supported by scripture and current experience.
It is evident that a prophet, contrary to the common meaning of the term today, was very little preoccupied with the future, concentrating his message on the present and on the interpretation of the past.- Alberto Soggin, Israel in the Biblical Period
After all, when’s the last time President Monson, Hinckley, Benson, etc. made a lengthy, detailed-by-name prophecy of specific events to occur 150 years from now? That’s simply not what prophets do, at least, not primarily. So from my perspective, although I firmly believe in prophecy, I also take seriously the evidence indicating a very different author. But don’t take that as a firm conclusion.
Isaiah and the Messiah
First, a reminder the the English messiah is an anglicized transliteration of Hebrew mashEEach (that’s a hard -ch like loch or Bach), which is an adjective from the verb mashach, “to anoint, smear” usually with oil. Oil had many functions, some of them ritual (anointing of prophets, priests, and kings) and some not, like smearing yourself with oil for skin care in the hot dry weather. Greek christos is simply a translation of mashEEach.
Isaiah does talk about a Messiah, even naming him. And his name is Cyrus the Persian. Wait, what?
Thus saith the Lord to his Messiah, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped Indeed, Cyrus is my shepherd, and shall carry out all my purpose. (Isa. 45:1 and 44:28)
After the temple is destroyed in 586, the two southern tribes (remember, the northern 10 were destroyed/relocated 150 years earlier by the Assyrians, contemporary with Isaiah)… as I was saying, the two southern tribes are carried off to Babylon. Roughly 50 years later, Babylon falls to Cyrus, king of a Persian/Mede alliance. He has a very different policy than the Assyrians or Babylonians for maintaining an empire- appeasement. He acknowledges the Israelite God, and sends the Israelites home with Persian funding to rebuild the temple. (More will be said about this in later lessons.) You can see why he might be lionized by Jews, and also used as a type of Christ. If Jesus’ purpose as Messiah was to gather home to Zion, that is quite literally what Cyrus does.
As a sidenote, a Cyrus plays into a recent American scandal of sorts. The Hebrew pronunciation of Cyrus is koresh, and the leader of the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas had taken his name from the two great pre-Messianic figures: King David, and Cyrus the Persian, thereby becoming David Koresh.
Second Isaiah, Handel, and the Divine Council
Handel’s Messiah draws heavily on Isaiah, sometimes changing the wording slightly. (More on Handel’s Messiah when we get close to Christmas.) Many know the tune and words of Isaiah 40:1 from the KJV, “comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” We tend to misread this, thanks to the archaic English. This isn’t saying, “hey people, take comfort!” No, it’s a plural command to unnamed third-parties to go comfort God’s people. Just who is being addressed here?
The verbs (comfort, speak, declare) are in the plural, indicating that God addresses not only Deutero-Isaiah but other messengers as well, probably angelic messengers in the heavenly court. As in ch 6 and 2 Kings ch 22, the prophet overhears and to some extent participates in the deliberations of God’s angelic staff.- Jewish Study Bible
Continuing what happened in Isaiah 6, Isaiah remains among the recipients of divine instruction and command, the other recipients being members of the heavenly council. Isaiah is in several ways like an angel. In the general sense, both Gr. angelos and Hebrew mal’ach (neither used in this passage) simply mean “messenger,” regardless of divine status. But Isaiah is also literally among the divine beings who receive God’s commands, known in the OT variously as the benei ‘elim/‘el/’elohim or sons of (the) God(s). Later on (such as in the NT), “angel” starts to refer primarily to this class of beings.
- A short old post of mine on Isaiah and Paul, Missing the Forest