A Story of Loss and Hope

The book of Isaiah is like a great fugue, always advancing to fresh statements, at the same time continually returning to pick up and restate themes already sounded. The book is a longitudinal study of the destiny of the city of Jerusalem, for the book believes that all the purposes of God and all the claims of Israel are concentrated in that old and troubled city. Over the centuries, the city of Jerusalem was buffeted about in turn by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. The book of Isaiah asserts that all the vagaries of international history and geopolitics are to be understood in and through the hidden, resolved working of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

The pivot point of the book of Isaiah is in the unwritten, unspoken silence between verses 39:8 and 40:1. It is commonly thought that chapters 1-39 come from an older prophetic source in the Assyrian period (between 740 and 700 B.C.E.) and chapter 40 begins a new theme in the Babylonian period, two centuries later (540 B.C.E.). In that textual gap the book of Isaiah encompasses the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and the deportation of the people from Jerusalem into Babylonian exile. Chapters 1-39, with insistent warning, move toward that destruction and deportation; chapter 40 in turn begins a hope-filled move out of exile into a new historical possibility of homecoming for deportees, a homecoming willed by Yahweh. In its two parts, the book of Isaiah is about deportation and homecoming, about loss and hope. But in terms of Yahweh's intention, it is about the judgment of God upon Jerusalem and the deliverance of God for a new Jerusalem.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
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