Three Isaiah’s? The Suffering Servant in Context

I wrote a book called Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain. It includes four principles for recovery from depression or mental illness. There are four passages in Isaiah called the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” I used these in two of my principles. When it comes to texts for recovery, I’ve found the Suffering Servant to be a great source of comfort.

But Isaiah is a long, complicated text, written over a period of over two hundred years. So first, you should have a good overview of when, how, why, and to whom it was written. This is called context, by the way.

Experts generally divide Isaiah into three sections.

· First Isaiah: Chapters 1–39. Before and after the fall of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) to Assyria, ca. 738–687 BC

· Second Isaiah: Chapters 40–55. Near the end of Exile of the Jews, ca. 545–539 BC.

· Third Isaiah: Chapters 56–66. After the return to Jerusalem, ca. 520–515 BC.

You won’t see these divisions in the Bible text itself. However, differences in tone, language, and references indicate each of these sections was written in different historical circumstances. If you are used to just reading the Bible without referring to the historical background, this may sound confusing, or you might think we are making it unnecessarily complicated. “The Bible doesn’t mention First, Second, and Third Isaiah. It’s just the book of Isaiah.”

I understand why you might object to this. But I’ll say there are very good reasons for this “three Isaiahs” theory that come from the text of Isaiah, along with just basic knowledge of what was happening in Israel and Judah between the eighth and sixth centuries BC. Hopefully, that will become clearer as I walk you through it.

And yes, while this is fun for me, I know I’m in the minority. So believe me when I say I wouldn’t drag you through this kind of ancient history and advanced textual analysis if I didn’t really believe it was necessary to understand not only the message but the comfort the Songs of the Suffering Servant can offer. So, I’ll try to make it as interesting as I can. And I promise, it will not be a waste of time. So if you’re ready, let’s dive in.

The songs of the Suffering Servant all come from Second Isaiah, but I think it’s important to understand First Isaiah to get the full impact of it.

First Isaiah: What You Need to Know

Assyria was the hyperpower of its day. They built a juggernaut of an army that no one could stand against. They conquered all the land of Mesopotamia, then turned their attention toward the land of Canaan. The nation of Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC. After this, Isaiah’s warnings to the nation of Judah became more urgent. Repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or you will be next on Assyria’s list of conquered cities and nations. The people didn’t listen until Hezekiah took the throne. He was considered a righteous king.

Still, Assyria wreaked havoc through Judah. Isaiah warned them they would, but with one caveat: Because of God’s covenant with David, they would not take the city of Jerusalem (2 Sam 7). Isaiah proved right on both counts. Assyrian records said they took forty-six cities from Judah. When they got to Jerusalem, they laid siege like they had to hundreds of cities before. Until then, the result was always the same. The city fell, its treasures were plundered and sent back to the capital city, Nineveh, and the people were either slaughtered, tortured, enslaved, and/or exiled. The people in the walls of Jerusalem thought the same would happen to them, but Isaiah’s word proved true. The Assyrian army left with the city of Jerusalem still fully intact.

After First Isaiah

Even the righteous king Hezekiah became so arrogant he foolishly showed all the treasures of the city, the palace, and the Temple to the king of Babylon. Chances are, he recorded them in the archives, so about 150 years later, king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon knew exactly where to find all the riches when he took the city.

In the mean time, people all over the Assyrian empire got sick of living under their iron boot. Assyria constantly had to put down rebellions throughout their territory like Whack-a-Mole. No matter how brutal they were in crushing rebellions, they could not stop people from rising up to throw off their yoke. Finally, in 612 BC, an alliance of Medes and Babylonians overthrew the capital of Nineveh, and with it, the territory of the Assyrian empire became ripe pickings for the neo-Babylonian empire. No Jew shed any tears over Nineveh, that’s for sure. That is, except for the prophets who knew what would follow.

Fallen, Fallen, Is Jerusalem

If Isaiah had been alive at this time, the people probably would have said, “WTF, Isaiah? How did this happen?” But Isaiah’s word concerning Jerusalem was for Isaiah’s time. The prophets of their time, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, warned them in stark terms, “Do NOT think God will save you this time. You have not repented of your unjust and unrighteous ways. Do not think the Temple of the LORD will save you. God has removed his glory from that place.” Even with his high view of Zionist theology, Isaiah probably would have said the same thing.

Second Isaiah

Around 545 BC, there was a new major player on the world scene. Cyrus, king of Persia, looked like someone who could challenge the might of Babylon. As he racked up victories on the battlefield, a new hope arose for the Jews in Exile, because unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians before, he acted with justice and righteousness.

In about 539/8 BC, he conquered the city of Babylon, and all of Babylon’s territory became part of the Persian empire. Two things are remarkable about Cyrus’s victory. One, the people of Babylon opened the gates for him, so he took the city without bloodshed. Two, one of the students of Isaiah’s school predicted his rise to power.

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him — and the gates shall not be closed:

I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. (Isa 45:1–6 NRS)

This is Second Isaiah, responsible for chapters 40–55 of the book of Isaiah. He appears to have written between 545–539 BC, before Cyrus’s ultimate victory over Babylon but when he had caught the attention of the Jews there. Second Isaiah predicted Cyrus would succeed in taking over the Babylonian empire, because the LORD had chosen him to rule and to free Israel, God’s chosen. He also predicted Cyrus would allow the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem. And so his chapters are filled with hope and anticipation. “It won’t be long now. We will go home, thanks to our God and his chosen one, Cyrus.”

When the LORD Restored the Fortunes of Zion

Now, God is promising deliverance through a foreigner named Cyrus, and they are seeing it come true. City after city either falls or surrenders to him. They hear strange things God says about him. God calls him his “anointed,” like David. God calls him by name, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are not used to hearing God talk like this about a Gentile king. And yet, if this was how God chose to deliver them from Exile, I don’t think any of them would have complained.

Comparing First and Second Isaiah

Right from the beginning, he says,

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! (Isa 1:2–4 NRS)

What is the result?

Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. (Isa 1:7 NRS)

Why has judgment come?

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her — but now murderers! … Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them. (Isa 1:21, 23 NRS)

That’s a small sampling, but it tells you mostly what you need to know about why God is angry, and why judgment has come for Israel and is coming for Judah.

… he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry [of distress]! (Isa 5:7 NRS)

But later, when you turn the page to chapter 40, suddenly the tone is entirely different.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isa 40:1–2 NRS)

That is the tone through most of Second Isaiah. The thrust of First Isaiah was judgment is coming. The thrust of Second Isaiah was judgment is over. First Isaiah makes sense when there is an enemy like Assyria, looking at them like a wolf licking its chops. Second Isaiah makes sense only after they have received their punishment. Now, God says Jerusalem has received double for all her sins. Their debt is paid in full. There is nothing to prevent them from returning home to Zion. He goes on to say,

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 40:4–5 NRS)

God will clear the way home for them. They had just been through the longest, darkest night in their history since the period of slavery in Egypt, and they were about to come out of it.

Sunrise over the ocean
Sunrise over the ocean

The Coming Dawn

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” (Psa 126:1–2 NRS)

David Anderson is a multi-passionate author of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book is Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

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