Isaiah 55:1-9

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                                                                                     Isaiah 55:1-9
Background to the Book of Isaiah 40 - 55

Historical Situation:

In 598 BCE, 587 BCE, 582 BCE (Jeremiah 52:28-30), the Babylonians deported significant numbers of Israelites to Babylon, especially the leaders and highly educated people. It appears that the Babylonians allowed the exiles to own land (Jeremiah 29:5) and gave them much freedom. They could continue to worship (Ezekiel 8:1, 14:1,3, 20:1,29, Jeremiah 29:1), to participate in trade (Marashu business texts), to remain in tribal groups with their leaders (Jeremiah 29:5-7) and to serve on royal projects and in the military forces. The evidence of the Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Ezekiel and Priestly material shows that writing continued in the exile. An awareness of both the written and oral traditions of the past is seen in these books. While some writings (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deuteronomic History) probably received their final form in exile, other writings (Priestly, Psalms, Ezekiel) did not achieve their final form until much later. The people were aware of the Torah requirements (see Leviticus 26:14-45, an exilic sermon) and Ezekiel drew upon the laws in the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-25. The later writings confirmed that the people in Babylon knew the requirements of the law (Ezra 7:11-20: Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law, the one sent by the God of heaven to Jerusalem with treasures for the temple and a commission to undertake teaching of the law and moral reform). We assume that if Ezra was going to Jerusalem as a teacher of the law he would also have been teaching the law to those in Babylon.

In summary, the exilic community appears to have been well organised, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life and free to maintain its own religious life and worship. Although the people were not able to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices, they learnt about their past traditions (Isaiah 40-55) and the requirements of the law (Deuteronomic History, Ezekiel, Leviticus).

PURPOSE of Isaiah 40-55:

These chapters in the scroll of Isaiah appear to address a situation later in the exile (circa 540 BCE) when the prophet proclaims that God wants them to return to Jerusalem. Most of the older generation would have died, those who remained would have heard the stories of Jerusalem, but this generation would be very comfortable, settled, well off, living in a fertile and cultured country. They were safe, had freedom and many obtained wealth.

The question is how do you get a group of people to move who are comfortable, settled, whose children are born in this new country, to move back to a wreck of a city taken over by people from the surrounding countries, Edom, Moab ,Transjordan etc. You want to transport them back to a rocky and barren landscape, where there was no immediate opportunities for making a living. We have the experience of Kosovar refugees who were only in Australia a few months not 40 plus years and some of them had no desire to return to probable hardship and possible death. I have no desire to return to a ‘but and ben' in the Highlands of Scotland on a permanent basis. A holiday is wonderful.

This is the task of the writer of Isaiah 40 - 55 to convince the people to return to Jerusalem and build the temple and city again. The experience of the exile has made them realise that they have to rely on the grace of God alone and that it is only by God's loving kindness they can know forgiveness.

Literary Comments

Isaiah 40-55 begins with a prologue in Isaiah 40-11 which sets out the message of the following sixteen chapters. The first verse declares that the people of Israel are forgiven and she has suffered enough for all her rebellion and unfaithfulness. Now God will lead them back to Jerusalem. The poetry is quite different to that used in Isaiah 1-39 and is regarded as some of the most beautiful in the Old Testament. Isaiah 40-55 proclaims God as creator and develops the explanation God as creator of the world first stated in Genesis 1. Not only is Yahweh creator of the world, but also redeemer of people within history. It is Isaiah 40-55 who has a fully monotheistic presentation of God. Up to this point there has been an acknowledgement and acceptance of other gods by the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. These can be seen in many of the psalms we read.

The comments I have made about poetry, prophetic oracles and God speaking are applicable here.

Context of Isaiah 55:1-9

So much of Isaiah 40-55 addresses Zion in personal terms and this is the case in Isaiah 52 in which Jerusalem's freedom is announced and that as they were sold for nothing so they will be redeemed for nothing. Pure grace. The response to this action of God for Jerusalem is an outbreak of joy and the action of the exiles is to leave Babylon and return to their homeland.

Following this is the last of the Servant Songs in Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12. This so called 'song' gives the extraordinary picture of the suffering of a person who will be vicarious on behalf of others. We are not told the identity of the servant and because it has become so identified with Christ we may not even consider that it referred to a person from olden times. One wonders why it comes after such a positive picture of redemption in Isaiah 52.

Isaiah 54 continues the positive picture of redemption taking the negative aspects and turning them into positive images, for example, their widowhood is now marriage with God as husband (Isaiah 54:5). The Lord's speech in Isaiah 54:7-8 is quite beautiful and the promise made to Noah after the flood is reconfirmed.

Our lectionary reading is in the last chapter of this block of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) and ends with the strong statement that when God's word goes out it will achieve its purpose. A statement of hope. As Isaiah 40 began with the call for the exiles to return to Jerusalem so the book ends with the statement that it will happen.

Insights/Message of Isaiah 55:9-12

Literary Insights:

In looking at the structure of this chapter we find a pattern in which there is invitation (Isaiah 55:1-3a), and promise (Isaiah 55:3b-5).This pattern with some expansions is repeated in the second half of the chapter which suggests the chapter needs to be read as a whole. Verses, 8,9 and 10 all begin with the word 'for' which connects us back to vv.6-7; the imperative to 'seek' and the jussive to 'return' are supported by vv.8-10 because the qualities of God which are listed make it a must. Another promise encloses this invitation (v.11) and the connecting 'for' gives the rational for them to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem.

The imperatives in vv1-7 give a sense of urgency and the unconditional promises are all seeking a response which is spelled out in vv.12-13. They are to leave and return to Jerusalem. As the focus in the prologue was a call to return so what may be classified as the epilogue (Isaiah 55) ends with the same focus.

In v.4 and 5 the there is a twofold 'Behold' in which the the first looks back to the old covenant with David and 'Behold' in 5a looks forward to a new covenant. The 'you' who is addressed in v.5 is not named and various suggestions have been made for the recipients of the message. The most likely people are those in exile who were the original hearers of the message. The theology expressed in it is similar to that in other places in Isaiah 40-55, that is, nations will come to Israel/Jerusalem because of what God is doing through Israel.

Message / Theology

It is an open invitation to anyone who is hungry or thirsty. It brings reminders of the invitation in Proverbs 9:5 or even of the market place call to buy. However, the last line of v.1 is a total contradiction because you can buy without paying. What is offered is free. The Old Testament contains some of the most amazing offers of God's love which are parallel to that in the New Testament.

Following the invitation to come to eat and drink is the renewal of the covenant promise which had been made with David. This promise which looks as though it has finished with the end of the Davidic line in exile, is in fact being expanded beyond the elite Davidic line to include the whole of Israel. The everlasting covenant is with the whole people of God. It is worth reminding ourselves that 'soul' in the Hebrew world refers to the whole being and not some separate part within the human being. Through relationship with God one finds the fullness of life.

However, they have to seek the Lord: we have to turn to God to find the life that is offered. A reminder follows that God is indeed larger than we can ever imagine (vv.7-8). This is quite consistent with the writer of Isaiah 40-55 who uses the theological point of God as creator to remind us that we are not God, but the creation of God. Verses 10-11 use the imagery of creation to tell us how God is consistent and faithful as is the rain and snow. Verse 11 again takes us back to Isaiah 40:8 in which the word of God is powerful and will always accomplish its purpose. It is this assurance that God will be with them and that God will abundantly pardon, which is used as the basis for the message calling them to return to Jerusalem. The whole of Isaiah 40-55 is a profound statement of the power and majesty, compassion and forgiveness offered as a foundation for them to trust in the call of the prophet.

As Shirley Edgerton suggested, this reading is guidance for repentance based on the assurance that God is waiting for us to turn and find the life that is offered through Jesus Christ

Resources/Worship for Isaiah 55:9-12


I think two voices could help to bring this message clearer. One voice read the invitations in vv.1-3a and vv.6-10. Another voice read the promises in vv.3b-5 and vv.11-13.

It would be helpful to remind people that this reading comes as the final chapter in Isaiah 40-55, which has had as a focus the call for the exiles to return to Jerusalem which is in a very poor state. The prophet has proclaimed the power and forgiveness of God in order to encourage the people to return. The invitation in Isaiah 55 and the theology present is very similar to the message of Jesus Christ. Only in relationship with God do people find true food and drink



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 of Isaiah (Whybray, R. N. The Second Isaiah).

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.

Baltzer, Klaus. Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55. Herm. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001.
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.
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.
Seotz, Christopher. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth 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.

Whybray, R. N. The Second Isaiah, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.
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.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: These links were updated 30/12/11