My thoughts (John Seksay):
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”
Thus begins one of the earliest passages that, for many Jews, and later, Christians, foreshadowed the coming of a Messiah who would bind up the spiritual wounds of a shattered community of faith. The time period is that surrounding the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile, almost 600 years before the appearance of Jesus.
Isaiah lived during the wars with Assyria and Egypt, and supposedly he lived long enough to see the early days of Babylonian expansion. But he died before the zenith of Babylonian power over Judah – the destruction of the Temple and the forced exile of large numbers of Jews to Babylon. Indeed, scholars tend to agree that the historic account of his prophesies end with the 39th chapter. Yet some 26 chapters of the earliest messianic literature are assigned to him, seemingly posthumously.
The latter part of Isaiah is the litany of hope in the midst of trial, the promise of restoration in the midst of disaster. It lifts its voice in the face of despair and summons all who will to come and abide in the ancient covenant. It is given to a people who will experience a severe transformation. Their faith would need to endure without the presence of the institutions that they had relied on to sustain it.
They had become rooted to their great Temple and their seat of kings. But from 587 to 516 B.C., there would be no temple and Jerusalem would sit a devastated remnant of a city. Now, like the Exodus story, they would find themselves uprooted, and their faith would have to be one that could endure under trying circumstances, often in strange lands. From the start of the troubles with Assyria until the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple by permission of the Persian kings, it is estimated that the population of Judah dropped by 50%. The urban centers were destroyed or pillaged, and many Israelites were carried off into slavery or fled into voluntary exile to Egypt or other lands where life might prove less dangerous.
For me, the key to understanding the merging of the Isaiah books lies with Isaiah’s children. Isaiah assigned his children names according to the influence of God’s voice speaking to him. His oldest son he named Shear Jashub, or “A remnant shall return.” Isaiah did indeed prophesy to the kings of his day of the coming destruction. But he also saw beyond it, to a time when those who endured in faith would return to restore the legacy of their forefathers. But their faith would need to be a portable faith, a living thing whose foundation was in faithful hearts rather than in complex hierarchies and grand institutions. In this, it even foreshadowed that seemingly distant future when, once again, the Temple would disappear and its people be dispersed to the ends of the Earth.
Thought for the day: How would our faith stand up to such a journey? Do we carry our faith with us everywhere we go? How do we ensure its survival over time?
We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the suggestions on the How to Pray page.