Isaiah 40-66: Return and Restoration

In Isaiah 40-66, the prophet(s) built on the theological paradigms of Isaiah ben Amoz (Isaiah 1-39).

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Part 2, chapters 40‑55, is a group of prophecies directed toward Zion (called a bride or woman); these materials emphasize her reconciliation with God and physical restoration.

Part 3, chapters 56‑66, is a diverse group of prophecies of social and religious rebuke and of hope; these are apparently directed to the Judean community restored to its homeland.

A Theological Motherlode

Isaiah 40‑66 constitutes one of the richest theological collections in the Hebrew Bible. These chapters compose a virtual handbook of theological arguments and doctrines. As a collection of revelations on such themes as God's uniqueness, Israel's unique status, and the suffering of exile, chapters 40‑55 are beyond compare in postexilic literature. And as a series of universalist teachings on the participation of foreigners in the new Zion, the prophetic teachings in this collection stand in stark contrast to more exclusivist outlooks. It was presumably the exilic condition of the nation that elicited the polemical tone of the discourses--a tone that variously proclaims the good tidings of God's advent and exhorts the people from their exilic ennui and despair.

Comforting the Exiles

The dominant concern of the collection is clear from the start. Isaiah 40 begins with a proclamation of hope and reconciliation. "Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated" (Isaiah 40:1‑2). In this call of comfort (nahamu), the despair of destruction and emptiness of exile is reversed.

Earlier, the ancient lament over Zion had proclaimed, "Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! ... Zion spreads out her hands, she has no one to comfort [menahem] her" (Lamentations 1:1, 17); while now the prophet proclaims, "Truly the LORD has comforted [niham] Zion, comforted all her ruins" (Isaiah 51:3) and "Raise a shout together, O ruins of Jerusalem! For the LORD will comfort [niham] His people" (52:9).

The news of God's advent is announced, then, as a time when sorrows will be assuaged and divine forgiveness freely given. The very God who punished Israel in the past (42:24‑25) now proclaims His redemptive deeds on behalf of the exiles and Zion.

The Creator's Power Survives the Exile

But the call falls on deaf and despairing ears. "Why do you say, O Jacob, ...'My way is hid from the LORD, my cause is ignored by my God'?" (40:27). The exile had clearly induced a sense of divine distance and spiritual weariness (40:31). In order to counter this mood, the power of God (as creator and redeemer) is repeatedly stressed. "The LORD is God from of old, Creator of the earth from end to end, He never grows faint or weary, His wisdom cannot be fathomed" (40:28). The many references to God as the transcendent creator and as wise beyond measure are thus teachings designed to support the prophet's claim that the prophecies of divine restoration will be fulfilled.

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Michael Fishbane

Michael Fishbane is the Nathan Cummings professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. His research spans the spectrum of biblical and Jewish studies and he has written numerous books in Jewish Studies.