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).

The second half of Isaiah speaks to a people despairing at the “loss” of their God, since their relationship with the deity had always presumed an intimate relationship with the land. These chapters, a lifeline to the exiles, are crucial in the development of Jewish theology, and most of the haftarot (synagogue prophetic readings) from Isaiah are drawn from them.

This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Commentators’ Puzzle

The Book of Isaiah as a whole (chapters 1‑66) constitutes the first of the three large collections of prophetic books in the received Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The opening superscription to the book dates the Prophetic mission of Isaiah ben Amoz from the reigns of Kings Uzziah and Ahaz, in the mid‑eighth century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1:1). Since Isaiah 40‑66 does not begin with any new chronological reference, the prophecies in the last half of the book were presumably understood by the ancients as part of the predictions of Isaiah ben Amoz.

The abrupt shift in the Isaianic corpus from oracles of doom to themes of consolation (beginning with Isaiah 40) has long drawn the attention of commentators –particularly since the prophecies of exile announced to King Hezekiah (in the first part) refer to the eighth century B.C.E., while the prophecies of return from exile (in the second part) refer to a historical reality two centuries later.

Splitting the Collection

Isaiah 40‑66 is an ensemble of several units that have been variously subdivided over the centuries.A broad consensus of scholarly opinion distinguishes three parts:

Part I, chapters 40‑48, is a collection of prophecies of comfort emphasizing an imminent redemption; these oracles arc addressed to the Babylonian exiles (called Jacob or Israel) and highlight the power of God as the creator of the universe and the fulfiller of prophecies.

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.

In this regard, we may observe that the most repeated epithets of God are those that proclaim His majesty as the one and only creator, the one and only God. He says, “I am the LORD and there is none else; beside Me, there is no god…. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe-‑I the LORD do all these things (Isaiah 45:5‑7). As “the LORD, who made everything,” He “annul[s] the omens of diviners and fulfill[s] the prediction of [His] messengers” (44:24‑26).

This emphasis recurs in the contentions addressed to the nations and their prophetic predictions (41:22‑23; 47:10‑15), and it is repeatedly found in polemics addressed to the people of Israel. Significantly, the power of God as Lord of all is juxtaposed to polemics against the people’s idolatry. He alone is the redeemer, and not the idols (42:15‑17; 45:15‑25); and He is the one who “foretold things that happened” (the present redemption) long beforehand (before the exile), so “that you might not say, ‘My idol caused them, my carved and molten images ordained them'” (48:3, 5). “For thus said the LORD, the Creator of heaven who alone is God …Who announced this aforetime? … Was it not I the LORD? … By Myself have I sworn … a word that shall not turn back: To Me every knee shall bend, every tongue swear loyalty” (45:18, 21, 23).

The proclamation of redemption may be trusted because the exile has come to pass. The only and unique Creator guides Israel’s national destiny–this is the prophet’s challenge to all disbelievers.

Monotheism Open to the World

In Isaiah 40‑66, then, monotheism is portrayed as a total and absolute phenomenon. But this does not lead to exclusiveness or intolerance. The foreigners are repeatedly promised access to the Temple and the divine service performed there–both as pilgrims and as practitioners (56:1‑8; 66:18‑21). The strident nature of these passages, with their bold assertion of priestly service by non‑Israelites, strikes one as a polemical stance in the postexilic community. ‘As for the foreigners … who hold fast to My covenant–I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:6‑7).

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