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Isaiah 61:1-11

Isaiah 61:1-11

Background to the Book of Isaiah

The last eleven chapters of the book of Isaiah, after a period of neglect by scholars, are now the focus of renewed interest. B.Duhm in 1892 first focused attention of Old Testament commentators on Isa 56-66 when he proposed that these chapters were written by a different hand and at a different time from the material in Isaiah 40-55. Duhm believed that the author of Isa 56-66 had two emphases which were very important: Sabbath worship and fasting.

Isa 56-66 contains radical proposals for an inclusive community based on faithfulness rather than on blood line. The composition of the community described in Isa 56-66 has changed from that previously accepted in the Hebrew Scriptures. We note two important differences: foreigners and eunuchs are included in the worshipping community; and the nation of Israel no longer can regard itself automatically as the ' chosen people'. Instead, inclusion as part of God's chosen people is dependent on a person's faithfulness and response to Yahweh rather than on biological descent.

Isa 56-66 has been used as the basis for a number of discussions on the genesis of certain groups within Judaism: for example, Pharisees, Samaritans, a Levitical Prophetic group and others. One notable scholar who explores the issue of diverse groups/parties within post-exilic Judah is Hanson. However, a secondary issue evolved in which Hanson uses Isa 56-66 to prove a conflict between two parties, one of which is epitomised in chapters 56-66. This proclamation may confront the exclusive theology expounded in Ezek 40-48 and Nehemiah. Whether this is the precise historical setting of the reader or not, Isa 56-66 is constructed to defend an inclusive group against the actions of those who want a 'pure' Israelite community. This does not necessarily imply that there is a cohesive unity in Isa 56-66, but that the author has used different genres from various periods and allowed them to stand side by side. We take seriously the final literary form, without denying that the material may have come from many different sources and historical situations.

The creation of the book probably took place around the time of Ezra/Nehemiah (400 BCE).

Literary Comments: xThe whole book of Isaiah has been divided up into three main sections which appear to reflect preaching from different historical periods. Chapters 1-39 are often referred to as the prophecies from Isaiah of Jerusalem and cover the periods shown in the table in last week's background Section. Chapters 40-55 speak to the exiles, offering forgiveness and a strong encouragement to move back to Jerusalem. It contains some of the most beautiful language and a comprehensive theology of God as creator and redeemer. The remaining chapters 56-66 speak to a later post-exilic situation addressing quite different concerns to those expressed in Isa 40-55.

A literary Structure which is quite helpful is that first proposed by N.K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Litery Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

56:1-8 - Proclamation of salvation for foreigners
       56:9-57:13 - Indictment of wicked leaders
                  57:14-21 - Salvation for the people
                      58:1-4 - Indictment of corrupt  worship
                             58:1-15a - Lament/confession over sins
                                    59:15b-20 - Theophany judge/redemption

                                                                       60-62  - Fully redeemed people

                                    63:1-6 - Theophany judge/redemption
                              63:7-64:12 - Lament/confession over sins
                        65:1-16 - Indictment of corrupt worship
                 65:17-25 - Salvation for the people
           66:1-6 - Indictment of wicked leaders
66:7-24 - Proclamation of salvation for foreigners

Context of Isa 61:1-11
The lectionary verses for Old Testament come in the middle of the section Isa 60-62. Note above that this is the centre of Isa 56-66 and speaks of a fully redeemed people back in Jerusalem. Surrounding these central chapters are verses describing appearances of God proclaiming judgement, however Isa 59:21 is a transition verse in which "my Spirit" and "my covenant" are pointers to what will be spoken of in Isa 60-62. The emphasis in these chapters is on the consequences of God choosing to let his glory rest on Jerusalem. The images of light and radiance permeate these chapters which combined with the descriptions of wealth leave us in no doubt about the restored splendour of Jerusalem. Even foreigners will come, bring their wealth and be subjugated to the Israelites. God is the provider in control of creation, history and their redemption. The relationship is described "as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." The shock as one moves into Isa 63 is quite profound because here we have another strong statement of judgement because there was no-one to help; the people had all abandoned their God. Isa 63:7ff reminds the people of how Yahweh had redeemed them and cared for them but the people had rebelled. The people even want to blame God for their apostasy.

Insights/Message of Isa 61:1-11

Literary: The structure generally proposed for Isa 61 is: vv.1-3 = the mission of the servant, vv.4-7 = description of the siutation in Jerusalem, vv.8-11 = God's actions in first person together with a first person response acknowledging God's redemptive purposes. One of the literary difficulties in this chapter is the change of person speaking and the following suggestions may help to make sense of these changes. Vv.1-3a are in the first person which then changes to the third person in vv.3b-4. The authority of God is given in v.1a, which then moves to the prophet's commision in vv.1b-3a and the people's response in vv.3b-4. Vv.5-7 become a direct address to the people telling them what the situation will be in this restored Jersusalem. V.8 is the Lord speaking in the first person followed by another statement in the third person before moving to a first person response which reads as though it is the prophet but in the context could be Jerusalem in response to what God has bestowed in Isa 60 (Oswalt: 574). We need to note that although many Christians automatically assume Isa 61 refers to a person it can be for the Jews a reference to the nation as in Isa 49:3. Indeed as Hanson suggests the "servant" is both an individual and a "community" and this ambiguity is intentional (Hanson: 223). The causal clause in v.1a (because) extends to all the infinitives in vv.1b-3 and is a very unusual construction. The spirit of God enables the prophet to do all the function mentioned in the infinitives (Seitz: 514). This form of call is unlike the classic examples in Isaiah 1-39, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but may be a modified form. There are many references in Isa 61 both, to the earlier chapters in Isa 40-59 (eg., 49:1-6, 59:20), and within the section 60-62 (60:21). Furthermore, vv.8-9 pick up the two motifs of "covenant" and "descendants" from the bridge verse Isa 59:21, all of which serve the purpose of seeing Isa 56-66 as a literary unity.
Message:  The implied audience in Isa 60-62 is the returned exiles in Jerusalem who have become despondent at the sad picture of Jerusalem. The prophet is presenting a picture of hope and encouragement in order that they will rebuild Jerusalem (v.4) in response to the glad tidings which the prophet is proclaiming. Westermann suggests that Isa 40-55 has a focus on the people returning to Jerusalem, while Isa 56-66 has a focus on the people rebuilding Jerusalem (Westermann: 370). In response to the rebuilding of Jerusalem he promises the people that foreigners and aliens will come and be servants bringing their wealth to help to restore the city to its previous splendour. The promise to the servant in Isa 52:13 becomes a reality in Isa 61. Isa 61:8 brings to mind the message in Mic 6:8 combined with the unconditional promises so familiar from Isa 40-55 and later in the book of Ezekiel. The emphasis on righteousness is one that is present consistently throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. While the people are not required to keep justice before God grants the everlasting covenant, God makes it abundantly clear that a high priority is given to justice - "For I the Lord love justice". It is a pity that in our Christian communities we separate out mission and justice when instead they are all part of the response to God's love and compassion. God makes promises and expects the people to remain faithful in response not as a condition. The promises to Abraham about descendants and as a blessing to all peoples can be identified in v.9. As part of their restored glory the nations will be subordinate unlike the role of the nations in Isa 56:1-8 in which the foreigners are equalit with the Israelites.

At this time of Advent when Christians celebrate the coming of the Christ child it is very easy to see the attributes named here as taken on by Christ when the Spirit of God rested on him at his baptism and the tasks of Isa 61:1-3 become part of the new salvation. We respond this season for what God has promised to us, however while we are not required to rebuild the city of Jerusalem we are required to build the Kingdom of God. If the Lord loves justice and hates robbery and wrong we are challenged to think what that means for our time and mission.
Resources/Worship Isaiah 61:1-11

Worship: This passage works well with different voices for First voice = vv.1-3a, 2nd voice = vv. 3b-4 & v.9, 3rd voice = 5-7, 4th voice = v.8, 5th voice = vv.10-11. Again the order of service can reflect some of the elements of the Isa 61: call by God can be portrayed in the opening call to worship and hymn (vv.1a), the description of salvation can be taken up in the prayers of adoration and the scripture reading(1b-3), sermon can suggest ways in whichthe people will respond (v.4-9), the response of the people can be reflected in prayers of intercession and hymns (vv.10-11).

Resources: Commentaries

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster BC. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, c1998.
Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Emmerson,Grace I. Isaiah 56-66. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995.
Muilenburg, James, and Henry Sloan Coffin. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 5:381-773. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Scullion, John J. Isaiah 40-66. OTM. Wilmington, Del. Michael Glazier, 1982.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2001.
Tucker, Gene. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Watts, John. Isaiah 34-66. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Book, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1966.b
Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, c1975.
Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. NICOT. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1972.

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: 

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