As we draw closer to the end of Ordinary Time, there are some really profound lessons in our First Readings. And the First Reading [see Isaiah 53:10-11] for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, from the Book of Isaiah, is a good example. That reading begins with the words: “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity” [Isaiah 53:10].
There’s a lesson in it, just waiting to be uncovered.
Wow, that doesn’t sound much like a loving God, does it? So, how are we to understand this reading? Yet there’s a lesson in it, just waiting to be uncovered. Well unless someone explains this reading, that lesson is going to be lost on us. So, let me take a few moments to address who this text was written to, what was going on in their lives, and how they would have interpreted this passage.
What we call today, the Book of Isaiah is actually the combination of three books, written at very different times. This passage comes from Second Isaiah. It was written around the year 550 BC, near the end of the period known as the Babylonian Captivity.
The Captivity began when an estimated 70,000 people in Israel were rounded up by the Babylonians and force-marched 800 miles to a spot on the Euphrates River in the kingdom of Babylon. The Euphrates is much like the Mississippi in that each spring it carries millions of tons of silt and mud downstream depositing it in places along the way. At a place just south of the great city of Babylon, the river silt had piled up to form a very large island in the middle of the river. The Babylonians imprisoned the Israelites on that island. They called the island, Tel Aviv, (1) which is Hebrew for: “mound of the deluge.”
In time, there was a very active trade with the passing caravans.
At first there was nothing there except what the Babylonians provided. But in time, the captives built houses and shops, planted farms, and started fisheries along the riverbank. Since there was no Temple, synagogues began there. The great Trade Route that connected Persia in the east with Egypt in the west went right along the southern bank of the Euphrates River. In time, there was a very active trade with the passing caravans.
Some captives became quite wealthy, (2) and even began providing insurance coverage against caravan loses from bandits and severe storms. The start of commercial banking was in Tel Aviv. (3) So you see, the captives were quite well off, yet they were captives, prevented from leaving Tel Aviv by the Babylonians.
By the time Second Isaiah was written, two full generations had passed. There was essentially no one left who remembered Jerusalem and worshiping in the Temple. You’ve heard the phrase: “God has no grandchildren.” Well, the grandchildren of the original captives were moving more and more away from God and looking more and more to themselves in matters of dignity and purpose. Their prosperity and self-reliance were working against them. And soon, the wealthy few directed the lives of the many, even though they themselves were captives.
They expected that, in his sufferings, this heroic person would make
things right with their captors through offering himself in their place.
They were all very much aware that they were captives; and an expectation grew over time that some heroic person would sacrifice himself for the people that they might go free. In the early years, this person was known as the “son of man.” (4) By the time of Second Isaiah, he was known as “the suffering servant.” They had little expectation that God would be saving them, but that it would be one of their own number. Indeed, they saw God as having abandoned them, even to the point of afflicting the “suffering servant.” Recall the opening words from the First Reading: “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.” They expected that, in his sufferings, this heroic person would make things right with their captors through offering himself in their place. So, this was the mindset among the first listeners to this passage from Second Isaiah.
Are you not making the same mistake these people did centuries ago?
I’m confident that, if the writer of Second Isaiah could speak to us today, he would say, “Pay attention to the lessons of the past. Are you not also letting prosperity and self-reliance work against you? Are you not also captives; captives of your own interests, yet captives of the interests of the few who see themselves as appointed “rulers?” Are you not also turning away from God and looking to human efforts in matters of dignity and purpose? Are you not hoping that someone, or some group, will come along and 'make things right?' Are you not making the same mistake these people did centuries ago?”
It was only in the Christian era that we realized that the writer of Second Isaiah was actually speaking of the Son of God who would sacrifice Himself that His people might be free. Free not from captors but from the consequences of sin.
We must pay attention to the lessons of the past.
The people of that time lived the circumstances behind the words of this passage in Second Isaiah. Now that we know what’s behind the words, the lesson should be clear for us. Yes, we are making the same mistakes they did. We must pay attention to the lessons of the past. We must “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near’” [Isaiah 55:6]. For it is Christ, and Christ alone, who can save.
“Till next time,
Dcn Bob Evans
Isaiah 53:10-11, Isaiah 55:6
1. Niels P. Lemche, Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society. 1988.
2. David F. Hinson, Old Testament Introduction: History of Israel, 1973.
3. Benjamin Bromberg, “The Origins of Banking: Religious Finance in Babylon,”: in The Journal of Economic History, 1942.
4. The title, “son of man,” is mentioned 93 times in the Book of Ezekiel