These chapters of Isaiah further develop the theme of God’s judgment upon the nations, their short lives and their sudden ends, as hard as that might be to believe from the vantage point of little Judah and the city-state of Jerusalem, surrounded by hostile neighbors like Moab and Aram, and by bigger empires, like Assyria, Egypt and, soon to come, Babylon. But in chapter 35, Isaiah foretells the survival and renewal of Judah, which would have been equally hard to believe at the time. Yet history’s verdict, and that of God, are in, to Isaiah’s vindication.
Chapters 36-39 cover territory already covered in II Kings 18 and beyond, about Isaiah’s ministry in the time of Hezekiah and the Assyrian invasion. Isaiah’s account does not mention the tribute that Hezekiah gave to Sennacherib in penitence for his participation in a wider regional revolt against their Assyrian overlords, however.
The relationship between Hezekiah and Isaiah demonstrates how different Hebrew prophecy was from that of prophecy in the neighboring imperial and idolatrous states and empires. In the latter, prophecy usually served as imperial propaganda in the service of a divine or semi-divine royal elite, through an elite priesthood with political support, like Pharoah’s magicians.
Hebrew prophecy, by contrast, issued directly from God, through divinely-chosen commoners, independent of the rulers, often at odds with them and their projects. Because of Hezekiah’s faith and integrity, Isaiah was much more of a partner and friend to him than the prophets usually were with Israel’s rulers. Yet Hezekiah’s prideful blunder in chapter 39, of showing off all his treasures to Babylonian emissaries, sets the stage for the disaster that is to come several generations later: the Babylonian Exile.
Which may be the back drop to Isaiah 40 and following. Many scholars note a change in voice, style and perspective from the previous 39 chapters, with the last four serving as an historical bridge from the first part of Isaiah. The promises of return from exile, even to the point of naming the Medo-Persian king who encouraged it, Cyrus (chapters 44 & 45), presuppose, some say, that Judah was already in exile. Isaiah could not conceivably have lived long enough to see and hear of King Cyrus.
If so, the connection with Isaiah, and the inclusion of chapters 40-66 in this book, may be explained by the existence of a school of prophets/disciples in Isaiah’s name, carrying forward his legacy, perspective and ministry in the Exile. Or it could simply be a matter of Isaiah, before the Exile, preaching and prophesying for a time and a people well ahead of his own. For other concerns unite these last chapters with the first 36, such as God’s majesty and sovereign power over the nations, the vanity and unreality of idols, and the glorious destiny and deliverance of his people. You decide, after reading the next two sections of Isaiah.
In Chapter 41 we encounter the first reference to “my servant,” a figure whose sufferings, testimony and triumph will emerge several times in this last third of Isaiah, sometimes spoken of by God, sometimes by the prophet, sometimes by the servant himself. He has been identified as Israel, the prophet Isaiah, or Jesus. In the first servant song, in 41:8 he is identified as “Jacob, my elect,” or Israel. So whenever you encounter the “servant songs,” in Isaiah, read them as the vocation of God’s people, including ourselves. But the New Testament also applies these songs to Jesus (Acts 8:30-35,”Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”), and logically so, because he encapsulates and fulfills the calling, sufferings, trials and triumphs of Israel. To a lesser extent, so did the prophet. So there is truth to all three interpretations. Read them also as Jesus’ script, as well as something of the prophet’s experience.
In 41:21-29, God sets up court and brings the gods and idols (of Babylon? Assyria?) to trial. While, to the exiles or to the tiny remnant of Judah it may appear that the imperial pagan gods are more powerful, by virtue of their political and military might, God cross-examines them and asks, “Who announced this beforehand, that we might know?” Who foresaw and foretold the rise of Assyria and Babylon, the defeat and exile of Israel, and her coming return the way YHWH God and his prophets did? Let not then the people of God be swayed by the allure of idolatrous might and wealth. May we hold firm to the One who has revealed his redemptive purposes and who is accomplishing them through (what appears) the weakness and foolishness of the cross and an empty tomb.
…is a wisdom psalm that also contains what sounds like a repeated liturgical response: verses 13 and 21: “…the wealthy man……is like the dumb animals.” Thus wisdom and worship are linked. Wisdom often involves comparing and contrasting. In this case, the contrast is between trusting in wealth and trusting in God. The first involves injustice and oppression (v. 6), arrogance and vain boasting (v. 14), vain because it all ends in death anyway, while the second leads to peace and the promise of redemption.
While ancient Israel, in the time of this psalm’s composition, had no firm hope of life after death, there is yet a hint and glimmer of such redemption in verse 16. Verses 8 and 9, about the price of redemption for a human soul [from death? From judgment?] is one of those hanging questions or ideas in the Old Testament that awaits the answer that is Jesus.