Month: March 2016

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant

Dear S,

This week in my Intro to Old Testament course, I was given the assignment to write a letter to tell you a bit about “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.” I’ve always been drawn to the beautiful poetry of Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and intrigued with the Christian interpretation of these ancient Hebrew writings. And now, as life has been turned upside down over the past few weeks, I’m searching for comfort and hope in the experience of YHWH’s Suffering Servant.

Second Isaiah was most likely not written by the prophet Isaiah, but by a representative of the “school of Isaiah,” during the exilic period. (Stanley, p. 461) This assumption can be made because the words spoken by this prophet supports the notion that the Israelites are already living in exile in Babylonia. The people of YHWH had been warned by earlier prophets that because of their disobedience, God’s judgment would bring the destruction of life as they knew it. The deportation of Israelites and cruel oppression experienced at the hand of the Babylonians, were the fulfillment of God’s wrath and punishment to a people who had been defiant.

Exile was a confusing and hopeless time for God’s people, even though earlier prophets had forewarned them that they were headed in this direction. YHWH, who had protected them in the past and who had not abandoned them before, seemed distant – literally. Could YHWH even hear their cries and laments?

In exile, Second Isaiah brings a message of hope and “debt paid to YHWH.” In fact, he assures them that YHWH hasn’t forgotten them and, although YHWH was very angry with them, they would soon be blessed and would return to their homeland. “24 Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the robbers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey? 25 So he poured upon him the heat of his anger and the fury of war; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him, but he did not take it to heart.” (Isaiah 43:24-25) This reminder of the punishment they brought on themselves, was followed by God’s enduring promise, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 44:1-3). The people of Judah in Babylon had paid their debt, and in Second Isaiah’s opinion, “over paid.” (Lester, Responses to Exile Part B on YouTube) The prophet (Second Isaiah) delivered this message to YHWH’s people as one who was specifically called by YHWH. (Bandstra) This authority must have given the people confidence and hope for a new direction.

But resolution and freedom does not come quickly to the Israelites. In fact, they continued to experience oppression and suffering during the exile. They searched for understanding in suffering of a community of people that considered themselves to have paid their debt to YHWH in full. It is in this identity of “Suffering Servant,” that God’s people find a deeper and redemptive meaning to their experience.

The “Servant Poems,” found within the writings of Second Isaiah, lend explanation and purpose for the continued suffering. It is through the suffering of YHWH’s people that the world will learn about the nature of YHWH and YHWH’s redemptive nature. The Israelites will be finally vindicated after their suffering and exile, and will bear witness to those who oppressed them as well as other nations who do not yet worship YHWH. (Singer)

The figure of the Suffering Servant has often been confusing to me. In the Christian tradition, the Suffering Servant connects Jesus’ role with the prophet’s words from Isaiah, lending truth and purpose to the crucifixion. But I now understand this text as it brought hope and purpose to a people who had been brutally and systematically oppressed. At a time when it appeared all hope was lost, a voice calling out reminded the Israelites that God would bring them through their suffering. And through their suffering and redemption, nations would be changed.

I don’t believe for a minute, that the loss and disorientation I’ve felt these past weeks is the result of disobedience or angering God. I do believe that God shows us a way through our suffering, and into comfort and reorientation. And maybe if we allow the truth of our trust in a loving, healing God, others, who do not know the nature of God, will be changed.

With much, much love, and until I see you again,

Jenny

 

Resources:
Stanley, Christopher, “The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach,” (Fort Press: MN, 2010)

“Who is God’s Suffering Servant? The Rabbinic Interpretation of Isaiah 53,” by Tovia Singer, https://outreachjudaism.org/gods-suffering-servant-isaiah-53/

Bandstra,  Postmonarchy Prophets: Exile and Restoration, Chapter 12

 

The Scales of Hope and Doom

Jeremiah, the “Weeping Prophet,” balanced his messages from God. His experience with the Israelites occurred during the optimistic times of King Josiah, but ended as Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. His prophecies mirrored these historical events, providing motivation or correction according to the “norm of appropriateness.” When the people were feeling optimistic and comfortable in their successes and innovations, Jeremiah’s prophesies were reminders of doom, providing critique and correction to those in power, lest they become lazy in their practices and goals. Conversely, during the most horrific atrocities against the Israelites, Jeremiah’s prophesies brought visions of hope and a reminder that God has come through in the past, and will again.

The following examples demonstrate Jeremiah’s balance of prophesies:

Prophesies of Doom

Jer. 2:1-13 God is reminding the Israelites that their ancestors were faithful in following God, who then sustained them into the wilderness. But the people didn’t follow through with their promise, and defiled the land and did not stay true to God’s laws and practices. They are doomed because they have forsaken God and have built a future based on empty beliefs.

Jer. 5:1-5 There are no second chances even for the rich. Not one single person seems to understand they need to turn from their wicked ways. No one is left to set an example of faithful living.

Jer. 7:1-34 This isn’t the first time God has brought wrath and consequence to God’s people. And yet it doesn’t appear they are considering the ramifications of their ancestors to keep them from the doom of destruction.

Jer. 8:18–9:3 The prophet recognizes that the people are destined for disaster – yet he is sad because they didn’t heed God’s warnings – it could have all turned out differently.

Jer.18:1-12 There WAS hope, in that God was willing to give a second chance, but the people chose to carry on and ignore God’s warning. They are doomed.

Jer. 23:9-32 False prophets cause God’s people to go astray. Because of their false visions and message, disaster will befall the people.

 

Prophesies of Hope

Jer. 1:1-19; This prophecy punctuates God’s love and encouragement. Jeremiah has been called and God has equipped him for this mission. He may feel inadequate, but God has chosen him for such a time as this – God will make him victorious if he complies.

Jer. 4:23-28 Even though devastation has occurred, God promises to relent and will continue to further God’s purpose on earth. It’s a reality check that things are going very wrong, but God has spoken and is faithful.

Jer. 18:1-12 Because the prophet did not succumb to the temptation to turn from God, there is hope in saving him from destruction.

Jer. 20:7-13 The prophet is lamenting that he is damned if he does…damned if he doesn’t. He is being persecuted for telling the people to turn from their wicked ways, but if he keeps himself from telling them (to save himself from their anger), God brings about internal angst such that the prophet can’t be at peace. In the end, the prophet remembers the hope found in righteous living and a fair God.

Jer. 31 The prophet brings hope in the way of a God who historically has delivered God’s people. Recalling the deliverance and freedom provided from past oppression give hope and assurance that one day God will again repeat this action.

Jer. 32:1-15 The prophet offers hope in the midst of a seemingly impossible situation. Hope lies in property purchased as a way to see that the future holds freedom and prosperity.

(Addition/Preaching connection)
Jeremiah’s model of preaching a balance of both hope and doom has modern day application. For example, if I were preparing a sermon to a congregation who had overlooked Jesus’ central message of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” I might introduce examples of past circumstances where children of God were excluded and oppressed. Where individuals were seeking a better life for themselves at the expense and detriment of others. These examples would also include the ultimate character deterioration of the individual who had been seeking success above everyone else. On the other hand, messages of hope, within a sermon, would balance those times when a congregation felt they had to take matters into their own hands because it seemed God was absent. When events in the community or world seemed to be out of control – messages of hope bring God’s faithfulness through past difficulties into the present and future.