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The Missing Comfort

The beginning of the Book of Isaiah identifies the period covered by the prophet: “The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” This would place the ministry of Isaiah roughly in the period 750-700 BC, during the latter days of the Assyrian Empire. An inkling of what’s to come, however, is proclaimed at the end of chapter 39: Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord

Assyrian horse and archer (Click to enlarge)

Assyrian horse and archer (Click to enlarge)

As Chapter 40 begins, the Jews are indeed captives in Babylon. This was the age of superpowers, something we children of the 20th century can easily relate to. Assyria had already fallen to the Babylonians about 70 years earlier; the city of Jerusalem had been devastated by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the Jews were carried off to Babylon as captives. There they wept, longing for Jerusalem (Psalm 137):

Medieval Greek manuscript of Psalm 137 (136 in Septuagint)

Medieval Greek manuscript of Psalm 137 (Click to enlarge)

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

So, much has happened between Chapters 39 and 40. Chapter 40 introduces a completely new situation – and a new author.

There is almost universal scholarly consensus that there are three distinct authors in the Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 being the writing of the 8th-century prophet called “Isaiah”; Chapters 40-55 are the work of an anonymous author who has been called “Deutero-Isaiah” (Second Isaiah); and finally, Chapters 56-66 are by “Trito-Isaiah” (Third Isaiah). Scholars have concluded that “Deutero-Isaiah” wrote around 540 BC, and “Trito-Isaiah” a little later still, around the year 520 BC.

Click on map to enlarge

Click on map to enlarge

There are about 160 years separating the end of Chapter 39 and the beginning of Chapter 40. The Jews are in Babylon, but Babylon is already facing its own demise due to the rise of the Persian Empire, the same Persian Empire that will threaten Greece in days to come. Chapter 40 begins with words of comfort to the Jews in Babylon. The time of their exile is coming to an end and Babylon will receive retribution at the hands of the Persians. Indeed, “Deutero-Isaiah” has been nicknamed the Book of Comfort.

Unfortunately, our lectionary reading today, Isaiah 40:18-31, bypasses the words of comfort that grace the beginning of this Second Isaiah. These are the same words that Handel set to indescribably beautiful music for tenor soloist in his oratorio, Messiah:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplish’d, that her iniquity is pardon’d. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

These are amazing words, whether sung or read. But the entire chapter 40 is one of the monumental high points of the entire Bible and should be read in its entirety. You can read it here, in the New Revised Standard Version – not as poetic as the old King James translation that Handel used three centuries ago, but still resonating with the powerful messages of comfort. Too bad our lectionary chose to omit ‘comfort’ from our Lenten reading, for we all need comfort.

Isaiah has been valued in Christian tradition primarily for its ‘prophecies’ of Jesus – ‘prophecies’ of the birth of Christ in Chapters 7, 9 and 11; and the profound ‘prophecy’ of the passion of Christ in Chapter 53. But this is a very limited way to read this most extraordinary of biblical books.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the most remarkable students and preachers of the Bible, and has published dozens of books filled with wisdom and contemporary relevance. He published a two-volume ‘companion’ to Isaiah and I’d like to quote something he wrote:

It is a matter of considerable importance, in my judgment, that Christians should not preempt the book of Isaiah. It is legitimate to see how the book of Isaiah fed, nurtured, and evoked Christian imagination with reference to Jesus. But that is very different from any claim that the book of Isaiah predicts or specifically anticipates Jesus. Such a preemption, as has often occurred in the reading of the church, constitutes not only a failure to respect Jewish readers, but is a distortion of the book itself. It is strongly preferable, I suggest, that Jews and Christians together recognize that the book of Isaiah is enormously and generatively open in more than one direction. No interpretive tradition is able to monopolize and close interpretation. This is a difficult and important question to which respectful attention must be paid.

What an honest and generous outlook, so different from the totalitarian tendencies of many who claim to read and understand the Bible. What a fantastic word he uses: ‘generatively’! He is telling us to approach the Scriptures with anticipation of what the text will generate in us who read. This is why the word of God is always new and can generate new insights every time we come to it. I love Brueggemann; you can’t go wrong with any of his books.

Here’s more of what he wrote as I conclude my post for today:

Believing people (Jews and Christians), moreover, dare to imagine that the same Holy One who acted in that time and place in disruptive and embracing way still continues to disrupt and embrace even now. Thus the relevance of the text is evident. It cannot be arrived at too easily, but it is an insistent relevance that cannot be put off for too long either….The gospel to be received in faith is an offer of comfort in the midst of every crisis. (Isaiah 40-66, pages 6-7)


A Vocabulary for the Journey

Today’s reading from Isaiah 11:10-12:2 skips the first half of chapter 11, which is rather strange. Perhaps because it’s one of the readings of the Christmas Vespers? While the Flood narrative continues in Genesis, I’d like to focus on the whole of chapter 11 of Isaiah. The shoot from the root of Jesse has always been interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus Christ and has provided much imagery for the Advent season. Indeed, the first ten verses of chapter 11 of Isaiah present a vision of peace and righteousness. Christians have no difficulty associating these images with the coming of Jesus Christ and the message he brought to the world.


The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” is how Isaiah 11:2 describes the one who comes from the root of Jesse. This is a Davidic prophecy. Jesse was the father of David, so clearly the one who comes from the root of Jesse is from the house of David. Every prophecy of the Messiah insists that the Messiah will be from the house of David. This permeates the entire Old Testament, and informed the New Testament understanding of Jesus in a big way. Jesus himself, when he began his public ministry (Luke 4:16-19) quoted from Isaiah – not this passage, but from chapter 61 of Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”



The spirit of the Lord rests upon the Messiah, just as it rested on (or hovered above) Jesus at his baptism. The Messiah is anointed – the word Messiah means “the anointed one” – to bring good news (remember, “gospel” means “good news”!) and freedom for all who are oppressed. The focus of Jesus’ ministry was always the poor, the outcasts, and those oppressed by illness, demon possession and religious and ethnic prejudice. “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4). Jesus spoke blessings: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20) and “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). There is no doubt that Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s expectation of the Messiah.

The kingdom of the Messiah is a kingdom of righteousness, faithfulness and peace: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” This is a universal vision of peace. But it is also a vision that excludes different conceptions of God. The knowledge of the Lord means knowing and acknowledging only one God, the God of Israel. 

It is very important to remember that when the Old Testament speaks of peace it’s always on God’s terms. Peace indeed – but also war and destruction. The one anointed by the spirit of the Lord will nevertheless strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4). Peace for Israel (11:12-13); for all other nations, war, destruction and subjugation (11:14-15). And this is mild, much milder than the language of destruction elsewhere in the writings of Isaiah and the other prophets – not to mention the narratives of Israel’s conquest of the “promised land.” 

War and peace are two sides of the same coin in the language of the prophets, including this Isaiah, the most elevated of the prophets! And because war and peace were both associated with the identity of the Messiah, it is no wonder that there was so much confusion concerning the ministry of Jesus Christ. “Christ” is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Messiah” – so when we say Jesus Christ we mean Jesus the Christ (Jesus the Messiah). Χριστός in Greek means the same as מָשִׁ֫יחַ (mashiach) in Hebrew: the anointed one.

Jesus himself and the early Christian tradition preferred to see the Christ in the image of the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53 rather than the military leader of popular expectations. For me, a follower of Jesus, the message of Isaiah chapter 11 is to provide a vocabulary for my journey through Lent, a vocabulary of powerful words of spiritual transformation: spirit, wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fear of the Lord, delight, righteousness, poor, equity, meek,  faithfulness, dwelling, glorious, gather, highway, remnant. No better group of meaningful words to describe what the Lenten journey is all about in all its aspects.

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The Word and my words

And so we begin. During the weekdays of Lent, the Orthodox Church reads from the Old Testament instead of the Gospels and the Letters of Paul. And three books of the Old Testament in particular are read on a daily basis: Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs. Today, it’s the beginning of each of those three books: Genesis 1:1-13; Isaiah 1:1-20; and Proverbs 1:1-20.

CreationOfLight%28008236%29__25713.1409569925.1280.1280How extraordinary those opening sentences of Genesis, they never grow old. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light….” 


CreationSeriesGroup__50522.1405401018.900.900And so it continues. God speaks and things come into being; and things order themselves according to God’s wishes – and God sees it all, and it’s all good.

Or, is it? Isaiah paints a bleaker picture. Here, too, God speaks. But God speaks to lament:I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” A new “word” is now spoken – not a word that creates, but a word that judges: “Hear the word of the Lord… What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

Prophet_Isaias__20333.1409482756.490.588Have you ever read such words before in any holy book of any religion? This is why I love the Old Testament. There is nothing “old” about it; that’s a terrible misnomer that Christians use to devalue words of God that are just as contemporary today as they were three thousand years ago! What is “old” about what we read in this opening of Isaiah? Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” It just doesn’t sound like the god of many of today’s Christians, does it?

But this is a god who is open to dialogue: Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord…” That’s why this is no ordinary god, but God! This is why the Bible is no ordinary human document. It is a human document permeated by an experience of the living God. Too bad we look at Isaiah as primarily a prophet of the coming of Christ. We end up missing 95% of his message.

And what about the third book that the Orthodox Church uses during this Lenten season, the Book of Proverbs? Let’s be honest; most of this biblical book is full of antiquated moralistic teaching, much of it patriarchal and misogynistic. And yet, scattered here and there, in this book also, there are extraordinary insights into the same truths that Genesis and Isaiah reveal more frequently. And so we read in this opening chapter of Proverbs words that sound remarkably like those in Isaiah: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction… If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent… do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood… they lie in wait—to kill themselves! and set an ambush—for their own lives! Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”

The language in Proverbs is less cosmic, less awe-inspiring than what we read in Isaiah, but the message is the same: Flee from evil, flee from greed – it will take possession of you and drive you away from God, the living God. The “fear” of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: not so much fear of punishment, but fear of losing the intimate reverence and fellowship that was meant to be ours from those first words spoken at the very beginning: “Let there be light…” Not only the light of cosmic creation, but light in our lives and in our relationship with others.

Yesterday, the Matins service included the following Kontakion: Τῆς σοφίας ὁδηγέ, φρονήσεως χορηγέ, τῶν ἀφρόνων παιδευτά, καὶ πτωχῶν ὑπερασπιστά, στήριξον, συνέτισον τὴν καρδίαν μου Δέσποτα. Σὺ δίδου μοι λόγον, ὁ τοῦ Πατρός Λόγος· ἰδοὺ γὰρ τὰ χείλη μου, οὐ μὴ κωλύσω ἐν τῷ κράζειν σοι· Ἐλεῆμον, ἐλέησόν με τὸν παραπεσόντα.

Beautiful prayer for the last day before Lent: O Master, Guide to wisdom, Giver of good counsel, Instructor of the unknowing and Champion of the poor: Make my heart firm and understanding. O Word of the Father, give me word: so that my lips will not stop crying out to you: Merciful One, have mercy on me the fallen. And here, of course, Word (Logos) is the name that the Gospel of John (1:1-18, especially verses 1 & 14) designates for the eternal existence of Jesus.

It’s too bad that monastic self-absorption crept in at the end of this kontakion. How much more meaningful if the writer of this kontakion had been inspired by Isaiah instead of the morbid theology that has poisoned many lives with self-loathing. Here is what we read in Isaiah 50:4 – The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.” (Most modern translations have really messed up this verse and taken away its poetry, which is why I prefer the Revised Standard Version which I have quoted here.)

How much even more meaningful this kontakion would be if we took our lead from Isaiah and today’s Bible readings – and from the first half of this same kontakion! – to say something like this: “O Word of the Father, give me word, so that I may comfort the weary, instruct the unknowing and defend the poor.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of myself as “fallen”! I know I sin and I need forgiveness, but to call myself “fallen” seems to deny everything that Orthodox theology has taught me. If the monks want to consider themselves fallen, that’s their privilege, but don’t put words in my mouth to speak their sentiments. I’d rather the Word put words in my mouth so that I can speak comfort – to myself and to others – and speak wisdom – again, to myself and to others – and to speak up for the poor and the oppressed.

That’s what Lent means to me. It’s a season that tells me to listen as one who is taught, so that the Word might to speak through my words. The Bible speaks to us today and every day with words of creation (Genesis), words of challenge and correction (Isaiah), and words that instruct and alert us (Proverbs). How the Word relates to my words is the essential lesson I need to learn during Lent. Everything else follows from this.

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When did the good news become a gospel?





Today’s Gospel reading is the first eight verses of the Gospel written by Mark. Here’s how it begins: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…

The Greek word translated as “gospel” is evangelion = “good news.” So how did “good news” become “gospel”? Or, to put it more pointedly, how did the good news become a gospel – in this instance, the gospel written by Mark? And to take things further along in history, how did the good news of Jesus Christ become a Gospel book? A book kept on the altar table? A book with fancy covers and padlocks on the side? How indeed did the good news become a padlocked book? Can you see the development? Good news = gospel = Gospel book.


Here’s a story that will help us understand: The children were lined up in a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nuns had made a note and posted it on the apple tray: “Take only ONE, God is watching.” Moving further along the lunch line at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. A child had written a note, “take all you want. . . God is watching the apples.”

That is the difference between good news and religion! Religion tries to limit God and God’s goodness. The good news knows no limits!

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet… You’d say, appropriate words at the beginning of a book. Right? No.

Let’s try this instead: The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with something Isaiah the prophet wrote….

The word “Christ” comes from Χριστός, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah.” Both the Greek and the Hebrew mean the same thing: “the anointed one.” We should also note that “Son of God” is missing from most of the best early manuscripts, and some modern translations omit the phrase altogether. Perhaps the words were added by a later scribe, when evangelion had ceased to be good news and had become a book; perhaps with the good intention of making the opening sentence a true introduction of a book.

Consider what Luke wrote near the beginning of his book. And again a quote from Isaiah is involved:

Luke 4:16-21 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Verse 19 could be translated more meaningfully as “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s amnesty.” That’s not a literal translation, but that’s what it means. Clearly Isaiah’s reference is to the Old Testament practice of the Jubilee year, when debts were forgiven and all prisoners and slaves were set free. It was a general amnesty. Isaiah was proclaiming such a year. And Jesus came as the fulfillment of the promise.

And here is something else that’s interesting. In reading from Isaiah, Jesus stopped at a key moment. Here is what Isaiah (61:1-2) wrote:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God… 

Did you see that? Jesus left out the day of vengeance! Clearly, vengeance did not fit the good news.

So the bigger question today is: When did good news become good news for some and bad news for everyone else? When did the message of liberty become a message of fear-mongering and threats of eternal punishment? Don’t settle for ONE apple; go for the chocolate chip cookies, and take all you want!