A portrait

A prophet who comforts (Isaiah 40–55)

How can we describe someone who remains completely anonymous? Chapters 40 to 55 of the Book of Isaiah constitute a short collection of prophetic texts that make up a clear literary unit, whose author has effaced himself behind his message. We know neither his name nor the place from which he speaks. All we know is that his message concerns the events which took place around 538 years before Jesus Christ, when Cyrus, king of the Persians, allowed the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland. The name “Second Isaiah” was given to the author of this collection because his thinking is inspired by a tradition that goes back to the great eighth-century prophet Isaiah.

This Second Isaiah has to announce an absolutely unthinkable event: a tiny group of people, a “remnant” that may have numbered no more than 15,000, was going to cross the desert in a kind of new Exodus (43:16-21) and come back to Jerusalem. It is hardly surprising that those who heard him remained unconvinced. A deported nation was often doomed to disappear, and the seventy years of exile must have caused deep discouragement: people assumed that the covenant which God had wished to make with his people was broken, that God had had enough of them.

By what arguments could this discouragement be overcome? If God is eternal, his wisdom must also have resources beyond anything we can imagine, and his strength must be literally inexhaustible (40:27-31). And the prophet came up with even more powerful images: can a mother forget the child she has borne (49:14-15), or a man reject the woman who was the great love of his youth (54:6-7)?

The first words of this collection are repeated insistently: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (40:1). After a time of extreme desolation, the people needs to be “comforted,” which means to be enabled to cease their lamenting, to stand up straight and acquire new courage. Though this people may well be at the end of their rope, this comfort must show that a future for them flows from the heart of God.

The image of God that believers had acquired has been purified through the extreme trial of the exile, as can also be seen by reading the Book of Job. When Second Isaiah speaks of God, there are no outbursts of anger, no threats, no authoritarian affirmations. God loves, and does so for no other reason than because of his love (43:4,25). It could be said that from now on, all God can do is love (54:7-10). If he brings his people back to their land and to their city, that restoration will have consequences for all the nations (45:22; 52:10), for God is a universal God (51:4). In the utterly free choice of one nation, in the forgiveness shown by the return from exile (in some sense even more undeserved), God goes beyond his own covenant with this people. The king of the Persians can thus receive the title of “Anointed”, Messiah (45:1), and the authentic ministry of mediation between God and human beings will be entrusted to a humble Servant.

That Servant will reflect the characteristics of his God. Not only will he not impose himself (42:1-5), but he himself will be vulnerable to the others’ discouragement (49:4-6). He will not reply with harsh words to those who mock him (50:5-6). Continuing to listen to God like the humblest of believers (50:4), he will go to the point of taking upon himself all the unbelief around him (53:12), following the example of the God who has “borne” his people throughout their entire history (46:3-4).

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