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Jesaja- Bible commentary, via LAD Rosary






less otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Goldingay, John.
Isaiah for everyone / John Goldingay.
pages cm.–(Old Testament for Everyone)
ISBN 978-0-664-23386-0 (pbk.)

  1. Bible. Isaiah–Commentaries. I. Title.
    BS1515.53.G54 2015

John Goldingay





           Isaiah 1:1–20      I’m Fed Up to the Teeth with Your Worship
           Isaiah 1:21–2:5      Second-Degree Manslaughter
           Isaiah 2:6–22      The Destiny of All That Is Humanly Impressive
           Isaiah 3:1–4:6      On Dresses, Shawls, and Purses
           Isaiah 5:1–24      A Singer-Songwriter’s Strange Song
           Isaiah 5:25–6:13      How to Frighten People into Repentance
           Isaiah 7:1–17      Stand Firm, or You Won’t Stand at All
           Isaiah 7:18–9:1a      Where to Look for Guidance?
           Isaiah 9:1b–10:4      A Sign of Hope
           Isaiah 10:5–32      On Mixed Motives
           Isaiah 10:33–12:6      A Day When There Will Be a Song to Sing
           Isaiah 13:1–14:2      The Downfall of the Superpower
           Isaiah 14:3–27      So You Have Fallen from the Heavens!
           Isaiah 14:28–16:14      Compassion and Openness to Learning
           Isaiah 17:1–18:7      Who Would Want to Be a Superpower?
           Isaiah 19:1–25      Egypt My People
           Isaiah 20:1–21:17      Prophet as Crazy Man
           Isaiah 22:1–25      Meanwhile, Back in Jerusalem
           Isaiah 23:1–18      What to Do with a Whore’s Fee
           Isaiah 24:1–23      The Broken World Covenant
           Isaiah 25:1–26:6      Grief Brought to an End
           Isaiah 26:7–27:13      Wishing and Hoping and Thinking and Praying, Planning, and Dreaming (1)
           Isaiah 28:1–29      God’s Strange Work
           Isaiah 29:1–24      Worship That Issues from Human Instinct
           Isaiah 30:1–17      God Is Our Refuge and Strength, Really?
           Isaiah 30:18–33      Wishing and Hoping and Thinking and Praying, Planning, and Dreaming (2)
           Isaiah 31:1–32:20      I See Hawks in LA
           Isaiah 33:1–24      The Outrageous Hope into Which the City of God Is Invited
           Isaiah 34:1–35:10      Putting Down Edom, Giving the Mute Their Voice
           Isaiah 36:1–37:20      A Politician’s One Fatal Mistake
           Isaiah 37:21–38      Things That Shouldn’t Happen, Yet Do
           Isaiah 38:1–39:8      The Ambiguous Hezekiah
           Isaiah 40:1–11      Comfort My People
           Isaiah 40:12–31      Hope Means Energy
           Isaiah 41:1–20      Don’t Be Afraid
           Isaiah 41:21–42:17      Good News for People Who Are Broken and Flickering
           Isaiah 42:18–43:21      What Will We Do When God’s Servant Is Deaf and Blind?
           Isaiah 43:22–44:23      There Is to Be No Forgetting
           Isaiah 44:24–45:8      God the Creator of Evil
           Isaiah 45:9–25      The People Who Know What’s Best
           Isaiah 46:1–13      Gods You Have to Carry and the God Who Carries You
           Isaiah 47:1–15      The Unexpected Fall of the Superpower
           Isaiah 48:1–22      If Only …
           Isaiah 49:1–13      The Servant’s Servant
           Isaiah 49:14–50:3      Can a Mother Forget?
           Isaiah 50:4–51:11      On Following God’s Prompting
           Isaiah 51:12–52:12      Beautiful Feet
           Isaiah 52:13–53:12      The Man Who Kept His Mouth Shut
           Isaiah 54:1–17a      A Time to Cry and a Time to Whoop
           Isaiah 54:17b–55:13      Our Ideas and Plans, and God’s
           Isaiah 56:1–8      An Ambiguous “Because”
           Isaiah 56:9–57:21      High and Holy, but Present with the Crushed and Low in Spirit
           Isaiah 58:1–14      (Un)spiritual Practices
           Isaiah 59:1–21      Three Ways a Prophet Speaks
           Isaiah 60:1–22      An Invitation to Imagination and Hope
           Isaiah 61:1–9      Blown Over and Anointed
           Isaiah 61:10–63:6      People Who Won’t Let Yahweh Rest
           Isaiah 63:7–64:12      On Grieving God’s Holy Spirit, and the Consequences
           Isaiah 65:1–25      Straight-Talking Meets Straight-Talking
           Isaiah 66:1–24      Choose Your Ending



© Karla Bohmbach

© Karla Bohmbach


The translation at the beginning of each chapter (and in other biblical quotations) is my own. I have stuck closer to the Hebrew than modern translations often do when they are designed for reading in church so that you can see more precisely what the text says. Thus although I prefer to use gender-inclusive language, I have let the translation stay gendered if inclusivizing it would obscure whether the text was using singular or plural—in other words, the translation often uses “he” where in my own writing I would say “they” or “he or she.” Sometimes I have added words to make the meaning clear, and I have put these words in square brackets. At the end of the book is a glossary of some terms that recur in the text, such as geographical, historical, and theological expressions. In each chapter (though not in the introduction or in the Scripture selections) these terms are highlighted in bold the first time they occur.
The stories that follow the translation often concern my friends or my family. While none are made up, they are sometimes heavily disguised in order to be fair to people. Sometimes I have disguised them so well that when I came to read the stories again, I was not sure at first whom I was describing. My first wife, Ann, appears in a number of them. Two years before I started writing this book, she died after negotiating with multiple sclerosis for forty-three years. Our shared dealings with her illness and disability over these years contribute significantly to what I write in ways that you may be able to see in the context of my commentary and also in ways that are less obvious.
Not long before I started writing this book, I fell in love with and married Kathleen Scott, and I am grateful for my new life with her and for her insightful comments on the manuscript. Her insights have been so carefully articulated and are so illuminating that she practically deserves to be credited as coauthor. I am also grateful to Matt Sousa for reading through the manuscript and pointing out things I needed to correct or clarify, and to Tom Bennett for checking the proofs.


As far as Jesus and the New Testament writers were concerned, the Jewish Scriptures that Christians call the “Old Testament” were the Scriptures. In saying that, I cut corners a bit, as the New Testament never gives us a list of these Scriptures, but the body of writings that the Jewish people accept is as near as we can get to identifying the collection that Jesus and the New Testament writers would have worked with. The church also came to accept some extra books such as Maccabees and Ecclesiasticus that were traditionally called the “Apocrypha,” the books that were “hidden away”—a name that came to imply “spurious.” They’re now often known as the “Deuterocanonical Writings,” which is more cumbersome but less pejorative; it simply indicates that these books have less authority than the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The precise list of them varies among different churches. For the purposes of this series that seeks to expound the “Old Testament for Everyone,” by the “Old Testament” we mean the Scriptures accepted by the Jewish community, though in the Jewish Bible they come in a different order, as the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.
They were not “old” in the sense of antiquated or out-of-date; I sometimes like to refer to them as the First Testament rather than the Old Testament to make that point. For Jesus and the New Testament writers, they were a living resource for understanding God, God’s ways in the world, and God’s ways with us. They were “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person who belongs to God can be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). They were for everyone, in fact. So it’s strange that Christians don’t read them very much. My aim in these volumes is to help you do so.
My hesitation is that you may read me instead of the Scriptures. Don’t fall into that trap. I like the fact that this series includes much of the biblical text. Don’t skip over it. In the end, that’s the bit that matters.

An Outline of the Old Testament

The Christian Old Testament puts the books in the Jewish Bible in a distinctive order:

Genesis to Kings: A story that runs from the creation of the world to the exile of Judahites to Babylon
Chronicles to Esther: A second version of this story, continuing it into the years after the exile
Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs: Some poetic books
Isaiah to Malachi: The teaching of some prophets

Here is an outline of the history that lies at the books’ background. (I give no dates for events in Genesis, which involves too much guesswork.)

     1200s      Moses, the exodus, Joshua
     1100s      The “judges”
     1000s      King Saul, King David
     900s      King Solomon; the nation splits into two, Ephraim and Judah
     800s      Elijah, Elisha
     700s      Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah; Assyria the superpower; the fall of Ephraim
     600s      Jeremiah, King Josiah; Babylon the superpower
     500s      Ezekiel; the fall of Judah; Persia the superpower; Judahites free to return home
     400s      Ezra, Nehemiah
     300s      Greece the superpower
     200s      Syria and Egypt, the regional powers pulling Judah one way or the other
     100s      Judah’s rebellion against Syrian power and gain of independence
     000s      Rome the superpower


Isaiah is the first of the great prophetic books, though Isaiah was not the first of the great prophets. The first to have a book named after him was Amos. Neither did prophets such as Amos and Isaiah fulfill their ministries by writing books. Prophets fulfilled their ministry by showing up in a public place such as the temple courtyards in Jerusalem and declaiming to anyone who would listen and also to the people who didn’t wish to listen. You can get an idea from reading the book of Jeremiah, which includes a number of stories about Jeremiah doing so, or from reading the Gospels, which portray the prophet Jesus doing so. Isaiah 8 and Jeremiah 36 include accounts of how these prophets came to have some of their messages written down, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the actual books of Isaiah and Jeremiah ultimately go back to these acts of writing down.
The fact that the material in a book such as Isaiah goes back to prophetic preaching explains the way the book doesn’t unfold in a systematic way like a normal book. It’s a collection of separate messages that have been strung together. Often the same themes recur, as they do in Jesus’ parables, because the same themes recurred in the prophet’s preaching. There’s a story about a Christian preacher whose people accused him of always repeating the same message; when they took notice of that one, he responded, he would preach another.
But the fact that the book is a compilation of prophetic messages doesn’t mean it has no structure. At a macro level, it’s rather clearly arranged.

Isaiah 1–12: Messages about Judah and Jerusalem, with references to King Ahaz
Isaiah 13–23: Messages about the nations around, with a reference King Ahaz
Isaiah 24–27: Messages about the destiny of the world around, with no reference to specific kings
Isaiah 28–39: Messages about Judah and Jerusalem, with references to King Hezekiah
Isaiah 40–55: Messages about Judah and Jerusalem, with references to King Cyrus
Isaiah 56–66: Messages about Judah and Jerusalem, with no reference to specific kings

One feature emerging from this outline is that at the macro level the book is arranged chronologically. Ahaz was king of Judah about 736 to 715. Hezekiah was king about 715 to 686. The last part of Isaiah 28–39 looks forward to the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its leadership to Babylon, which happened in 587. Cyrus was the king of Persia who took over the Babylonian empire in 539 and allowed the Judahites in Babylon to go back home and rebuild the temple. The last chapters of the book make sense when understood in relation to the community in Judah after that event.
One implication of that outline is as follows. While Isaiah 39 speaks of the exile as something to happen in the future, the messages in Isaiah 40–55 speak of it as something that happened quite a while ago. The future they refer to is that promise that God is about to make it possible for people to return to Jerusalem. The implication is that the Isaiah of chapters 1–39 isn’t the prophet whose preaching appears in chapters 40–55 or chapters 56–66. The book called Isaiah is a compilation of the messages of several prophets. Something of this sort may well be true of most of the prophetic books. It doesn’t mean they’re random compilations; one can see links between chapters 40–66 and chapters 1–39. As the outline above indicates, the last part of the book concerns itself with Judah and Jerusalem as much as the first part does. The most distinctive link between the parts is the description of God as “the holy one of Israel.” That title, or a variant, comes twenty-eight times in Isaiah (only six times in the whole of the rest of the Old Testament), half in chapters 1–39 and half in chapters 40–66. The whole of the book called Isaiah is a message about the holy one of Israel.
Although the book’s macro-structure divides it up neatly, there’s also some mixing of prophecies within the major sections. For instance, the opening chapter is a compilation of prophecies that look as if they come from different contexts and have been brought together to form an introduction to the book as a whole. From time to time we will draw attention to other points where something of this kind happens, but generally it’s hard to be sure whether it is so.

ISAIAH 1:1–20

I’m Fed Up to the Teeth with Your Worship

1 The vision of Isaiah ben Amoz which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

  2       Listen, heavens, and give ear, earth,
  because Yahweh has spoken.
  I raised children and brought them up,
  but they—they rebelled against me.
  3       An ox acknowledges its owner,
  a donkey its master’s manger.
  Israel doesn’t acknowledge,
  my people doesn’t take any notice.
  4       Hey, offending nation,
  a people heavy with waywardness!
  Offspring of evil people, decadent children,
  they’ve abandoned Yahweh.
  They’ve disdained Israel’s holy one,
  they’ve become estranged, backwards.
  5       Why will you be beaten more,
  continue rebelling?
  The whole head [has come] to sickness,
  the whole heart is faint.
  6       From the sole of the foot to the head,
  there’s no soundness in it.
  Bruise, blotch, fresh wound—
  they haven’t been pressed out,
  they haven’t been bandaged,
  it hasn’t been softened with oil.
  7       Your country is a waste,
  your cities are burned with fire.
  Your land—in front of your eyes
  foreigners are consuming it,
  a desolation, quite overthrown by foreigners,
  8       and Ms. Zion is left
  like a hut in a vineyard,
  like a night shelter in a melon field,
  like a city besieged.
  9       Had Yahweh Armies not left us a survivor,
  we’d have been like Sodom,
  we’d have resembled Gomorrah.

  10       Listen to Yahweh’s word,
  rulers of Sodom!
  Give ear to our God’s teaching,
  people of Gomorrah!
  11       What use to me is the abundance of your sacrifices?
  (Yahweh says).
  I’m full of burnt offerings of rams
  and the fat of well-fed animals.
  In the blood of bulls and lambs and goats
  I do not delight.
  12       When you come to appear [before] my face,
  who sought this from your hands?
  Trampling my courtyards—
       13       you will do it no more,
  bringing a meaningless offering.
  Incense is an outrage to me, new moon and Sabbath,
  the summoning of convocation;
  I cannot bear wickedness and assembly.
  14       Your new moons and set occasions
  my whole being repudiates.
  They’ve become a burden to me
  that I’m weary of carrying.
  15       And when you spread out your hands,
  I shall lift up my eyes from you.
  Even when you offer many a prayer,
  there’ll be no listening on my part.
  Your hands are full of blood—
       16       wash, get clean.
  Put away the evil of your actions
  from in front of my eyes.
  Stop doing evil,
       17       learn doing good.
  Seek the exercise of authority,
  put the oppressor right.
  Exercise authority for the orphan,
  contend for the widow.
  18       Come on, let’s argue it out
  (Yahweh says).
  If your offenses are like scarlet,
  they are to be white like snow.
  If they are red like crimson,
  they are to be like wool.
  19       If you’re willing and you listen,
  you will consume the country’s good things.
  20       But if you refuse and rebel,
  you’ll be consumed by the sword;
  because Yahweh’s mouth has spoken.

We just came home from our Palm Sunday service at church, a great occasion. As usual we began by distributing palm crosses; I can never take for granted that in California we can make our palm crosses from palm branches on trees that grow in the church grounds. We reenacted the events of the first Palm Sunday as we processed around the church grounds and back into the street to the church’s main entrance, singing the Palm Sunday hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” Even more moving was the dramatized reading of the account in Mark’s Gospel of the last week in Jesus’ life, with members of the congregation taking different parts but all of us joining in those terrible, repeated words, “Crucify him!” More than one person commented on how this brought them near to tears, while someone who shared in the leading of the service with me said afterward, “Well, that was a well-done service.”
Then I came home and read of God asking the people of Judah what use their worship was to him. The problem was not that it was only outward sacrifices—he refers to their prayers. He doesn’t suggest that they worshiped only externally and not in their hearts. It looks as if they meant every hallelujah. The problem was the disparity between what they meant in their hearts as they worshiped and what they did in their lives outside the context of worship. He likens them to the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah, because they’re about as responsive to Yahweh as those two cities were. When they lift their hands to God in prayer, all God can see is the blood on these hands. They need to clean themselves up. The community needs to cease to be the kind of city where people can be ill-treated and oppressed and can lose their lives for reasons that are nothing to do with them.
It’s because they have failed to be that kind of community that they have experienced the chastisement from Yahweh Armies that the first paragraph describes. Isaiah 1 is a collection of Isaiah’s messages from different contexts, brought together to introduce his ministry as a whole. The trouble that the first main paragraph describes didn’t come at the beginning of this ministry but near the end; the description here serves to introduce the account of his ministry as a whole. You want to know where Isaiah’s ministry led, how the story ends? Well, here’s the answer. Then the second main paragraph takes you back to look at why it ended that way.
It ended that way because of how the Judahites had related to their heavenly Father. They’re not little children but teenage children or young adults who are part of an extended family living together in a village. Father is still the authority figure. He sets the moral standards. But they have stopped taking any notice of him. So he has disciplined them. And they have ended up like an individual son who’s been thrashed yet who is asking for more punishment. The literal picture is one that will be painted by chapters 37–38, which describe how the Assyrians invade Judah and all but crush it. They take all the cities in Judah except for Jerusalem itself, which is left like the lonely hut that sits in the middle of a vineyard or a melon field as a shelter for people keeping watch over the produce. Judah is almost as devastated as Sodom and Gomorrah, down in the Jordan valley, which is quite appropriate, given that they have behaved like Sodom and Gomorrah.
We should go back for a moment to the actual opening of the book. It describes the chapters that are to follow as a vision. They weren’t something Isaiah thought up. They are a vision “concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” That phrase usually refers to the community in Judah after the exile, and it thus invites readers in that later context to see that Isaiah’s message relates to them and not just to the people of Isaiah’s day. This introduction sets Isaiah’s own ministry in the context of four kings’ reigns. It was common for a king to nominate his successor (usually one of his sons) and make him co-king well before he died, a practice that should ensure smooth succession. Things were more complicated for Uzziah because he contracted the skin ailment commonly called leprosy, which meant he couldn’t fulfill many public functions. So quite early in his reign he made his son Jotham co-king; actually Jotham likely died before his father. Uzziah’s grandson Ahaz then succeeded Jotham as co-king. For practical purposes the kings who matter in Isaiah 1–39 are Ahaz and then Hezekiah. A key feature of their reigns is the political pressure on Judah arising from the development and aspirations of the Assyrian empire, which raise one sort of issue for Ahaz and a different sort for Hezekiah. Mentioning the kings at the beginning of the book draws our attention to the need to understand Isaiah’s message in the context of the events of the day. What God has to say to people relates to where they are in their lives. Further, it comes to a particular prophet, Isaiah ben Amoz (not the Amos who appears in the book of Amos, whose name is spelled differently). It doesn’t fall from heaven without human mediation. It comes through a human being who is himself an important part of his message. His very name makes the point: Isaiah means “Yahweh is deliverance.”

ISAIAH 1:21–2:5

Second-Degree Manslaughter

  1:21        Aagh! The trustworthy town
  has become an immoral woman.
  It was full of the exercise of authority,
  faithfulness dwelt in it, but now murderers.
  22       Your silver has become slag,
  your drink is diluted with water.
  23       Your officers are rebels, the associates of thieves;
  every one of them loves a bribe, chases gifts.
  They don’t exercise authority for the orphan;
  the widow’s cause doesn’t come to them.
  24       Therefore the declaration of the Lord Yahweh Armies,
  the mighty one of Israel, is:
  “Aah, I will get relief from my adversaries,
  take redress from my enemies,
       25       turn my hand against you.
  I will smelt your slag as with lye,
  remove all your contamination.
  26       I will restore your authorities as of old,
  your counselors as at the beginning.
  Afterward you will be called faithful city,
  trustworthy town.”
  27       Zion will find redemption through the exercise of authority,
  and the people in it who turn, through faithfulness.
  28       But [there will be] a crushing of rebels and offenders, all together,
  and the people who abandon Yahweh will be finished.
  29       Because they will be shamed on account of the oaks that you desired;
  you will be disgraced on account of the gardens that you chose.
  30       Because you will be like an oak wilting of foliage,
  like a garden for which there’s no water.
  31       The strong person will become tinder,
  his work a spark.
  The two of them will burn all together,
  and there will be no one quenching.
  2:1       The word that Isaiah ben Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

  2       It will come about at the end of the time:
  The mountain of Yahweh’s house
  will have become established,
  at the peak of the mountains,
  and it will be higher than the hills.
  All the nations will stream to it;
       3       many peoples will come and say,
  “Come on, let’s go up to Yahweh’s mountain,
  to the house of Jacob’s God,
  so he may teach us of his ways
  and we may walk in his paths.”
  Because teaching will go out from Zion,
  Yahweh’s word from Jerusalem.
  4       He will exercise authority among the nations
  and issue reproof for many peoples.
  They will beat their swords into hoes
  and their spears into pruning hooks.
  Nation will not take up sword against nation;
  they will no more learn war.
  5       Jacob’s household, come on,
  let’s walk by Yahweh’s light.

The other Sunday, halfway on our five-minute drive to church there was a huge police presence off to the left of our street, with police cars and barriers and police officers apparently searching waste land and dumpsters. Some aspects of what happened are still disputed, but the story is approximately as follows: About midnight two teenagers had broken into a car and stolen a backpack with a laptop, and a man had called the police. To encourage a quick response he told them the youths were armed. The police came, chased the youths, and shot and killed one when they thought he was reaching for the gun that he didn’t in fact have. The man who called the police has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
You can be guilty in regard to someone’s death whether or not you personally killed the person. In Jerusalem it was the position of the city as a whole, and so perhaps it is for my city. In Jerusalem it may have meant that there were people who were put to death on trumped-up charges like Naboth, whose story appears in 1 Kings 21. There will also have been widows and orphans such as are mentioned in this passage who were deprived of the land that had belonged to their families and/or not offered support by people who could have helped them. They were thus also guilty of second-degree manslaughter; failing to ensure that people such as refugees have adequate food kills them slowly, but it kills them surely.
The problem lies in whether authority is exercised in the city in a faithful way. Second Samuel 8 relates how David saw to the faithful exercise of authority in the city; those days are long gone. Zion has become like someone who is sexually unfaithful or like precious metal contaminated by slag or like watered-down liquor. Literally, the problem lies with the administration, the people who ought to see to the faithful exercise of authority but are actually a hotbed of corruption and who implement policies that will ensure they themselves can do well rather than that serve the needs of the vulnerable.
So Yahweh Armies will crack down on them. Yet the aim won’t be merely punishment but restoration, the turning of the city back into what it was supposed to be, so that authority is once again exercised with faithfulness. Admittedly this action won’t necessarily benefit the administration. As is often the case, the announcement of what Yahweh intends to do presents people with a choice. Rebels and offenders and people who abandon Yahweh will be finished. People who return to Yahweh will enjoy the restoration Yahweh brings about.
The first paragraph began by describing the city as an immoral woman, which usually suggests religious unfaithfulness. Toward its end, it returns to that theme in speaking of oaks and gardens. The language presupposes practices belonging to the traditional religion of the land, one that seeks to reach out to God by means of nature—the allusion is too brief to be sure what precise kind of religious observances they are. Whereas the earlier part of the chapter referred to proper worship of Yahweh that was not accompanied by proper community life, here the problem lies in other forms of worship, offered outside the temple. Here, such worship that ignores the specifics of how Yahweh has been involved with Israel over the centuries accompanies a style of life that also ignores how Yahweh has been involved with Israel over the centuries.
So Jerusalem will be purged and restored to what it’s supposed to be. That vision goes beyond its mere internal life, lived in isolation from the world around. It could hardly be otherwise. Israel always knew that Yahweh was not concerned only with Israel. Yahweh was, after all, the only real God, the God of the whole world. The psalms that people sang in the temple in Jerusalem frequently reminded people of that fact as they urged all the nations to acknowledge Yahweh, not least because of what he had done in Israel.
But the nations’ recognition of Yahweh was not a present reality. The vision in the second paragraph promises that the moment will come when it becomes so. It also appears in Micah 4; Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah. We don’t know which of these prophets delivered it first or whether it came from another prophet and was adapted into their books. Most prophetic books likely collect words from God that were given by prophets other than the one whose name appears at the beginning.
The vision will come about “at the end of the time,” literally “at the end of the days.” The expression makes a link with the time in which Judah lives; it doesn’t imply merely “in the future” nor “at the end of days.” The end of the epoch in which Judah is involved will see these events. The mountain where the temple sits will be exalted above the mountains around. The image is figurative; the point is that it will be exalted in the eyes of the nations and will attract them. The implication isn’t merely that it’s geographically impressive but that there’s something to be learned there. Maybe we should make a link with that earlier promise of restoration, because that was to involve the exercise of proper authority or government in Jerusalem, so that the idea is that the nations recognize their need of the proper exercise of authority and come to seek it. Specifically, it means their letting Yahweh be the one who sorts out their disputes and thus stops them warring with one another so that they gain a substantial peace dividend.
This vision has not been fulfilled yet. It gives Christians and Jews a promise on whose basis to pray. The immediate challenge to Israel was that the people itself should live in light of Yahweh’s concern for the faithful exercise of authority and let Yahweh be the one who guides it, and to prove that this commitment brings it peace. Such a commitment might even be the means of Jerusalem being exalted in the world’s eyes. But we should not turn the promise into a mere exhortation to accept a responsibility for bringing about peace. It’s a promise.

ISAIAH 2:6–22

The Destiny of All That Is Humanly Impressive

  2:6        Because you have abandoned your people,
  Jacob’s household.
  Because they are full from the east,
  yes, of diviners like the Philistines,
  and they abound in children of foreigners.
  7       Their country is full of silver and gold;
  there’s no end to their treasures.
  Their country is full of horses;
  there’s no end to their chariots.
  8       Their country is full of idols;
  they bow down to the work of their hands,
  to what their fingers made.
  9       So humanity bows down, the individual falls down
  (may you not carry them!).
  10       Go into the cleft,
  bury yourself in the dirt,
  before the fearfulness of Yahweh,
  from the dreadfulness of his majesty!
  11       Lofty human looks have fallen down,
  the exaltedness of individuals has bowed down.
  Yahweh alone will be on high
  on that day.
  12       Because Yahweh Armies has a day
  against all majesty and exaltedness,
  against all that is high—
  and it will fall down,
  13        against all the cedars of Lebanon, exalted and high,
  and all the oaks of Bashan,
  14       against all the exalted mountains,
  against all the high hills,
  15       against every lofty tower,
  against every fortified wall,
  16       against every Tarshish ship,
  against all the impressive vessels.
  17       Human loftiness will bow down,
  individuals’ exaltedness will fall down.
  Yahweh alone will be on high on that day;
       18       idols—they will completely vanish.
  19       People will go into caves in the crags,
  into holes in the dirt
  before the fearfulness of Yahweh,
  from the dreadfulness of his majesty,
  when he arises to terrify the country.
  20       On that day humanity will throw away
  its silver idols and its gold idols,
  which they made for it to bow down to,
  to the moles and bats.
  21       to go into the clefts in the crag,
  into the crevices in the rocks,
  before the fearfulness of Yahweh,
  from the dreadfulness of his majesty,
  when he arises to terrify the country.
  22       Get yourselves away from humanity,
  that has breath in its nostrils,
  because what is it to count for?

It’s Holy Week, and for more than twenty years a magnificent church not far from where we live put on a glorious Easter pageant in the weeks leading up to Easter, “the largest and most spectacular passion play” in the world. The church seats over 2,500 and has been filled several times on a Sunday. Its pipe organ is one of the five biggest in the world. But over the past decade it got into financial trouble and couldn’t pay its bills to people such as the woman who hired out camels and other animals for its pageants. It went bankrupt and a few weeks ago finalized the sale of its premises to another church. There were no sex scandals or financial scandals, though there were problems over the “succession” from its founder.
It is hard if not impossible to get big and stay big. The bigger they are the harder they fall. Isaiah implies that a theological principle underlies this fact. When you get big, you become godlike. Your success may mean you get proud or overconfident, but Isaiah’s point is that merely in your greatness, your majesty, your loftiness, your exaltation you become godlike, and it may be inappropriate for you to stay that way and obscure the truth about who is really God.
So “Yahweh Armies has a day against all majesty and exaltedness,” the Day of the Lord. It’s not merely a day when individuals will be judged. It’s a day when all human and earthly majesty will be put down. The Old Testament often uses the imagery of a violent storm with the associated quivering of the ground to picture Yahweh’s coming to act powerfully in the world. Isaiah pictures the tumultuous arrival of Yahweh’s day as a storm that fells trees, shakes mountains and hills, demolishes walls and towers, and wrecks oceangoing ships. (There are several possible identifications of Tarshish in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Carthage, and Spain, but the point is they were big ships.) All those objects are strong and impressive; they would have seemed indestructible and unassailable, like the Titanic and the twin towers once seemed.
Before speaking of the Day that is coming, Isaiah has already identified the strengths in which Judah is trusting. The country is full of horses and chariots, the ancient equivalent to tanks and Humvees. It’s also full of financial resources that can keep its army well-equipped, make it possible to fortify its cities, and enable them to last out a siege. Judah has every reason to feel safe. Interwoven with the description of its material resources is reference to its spiritual resources. There are its idols, the images of gods other than Yahweh; how foolish to be bowing down to something their own hands made! There are its means of guidance such as divination, learned from the peoples around them, to which it looks rather than to the Torah and to prophets such as Isaiah. With some poetic justice, whereas they have been bowing down to those idols, they will now find themselves bowing down in a different way and for a different reason. They will leave their idols to the moles and bats, because they will have been proved useless.
It’s not surprising that Yahweh has abandoned Judah. Isaiah opens this section with that horrifying statement addressed to Yahweh, “you have abandoned your people.” It doesn’t mean they’re simply doomed. Isaiah does have an ironic exhortation to them—go on then, try hiding from this storm. Hide in a cave. The second half of the line suggests how ironic the exhortation is, when it bids people hide in the ground. Caves and pits in the ground were burial places. Isaiah’s words recall the reminder in Amos and in Psalm 139 that there’s nowhere you can hide from Yahweh, who can reach you even in Sheol, the realm of death.
The chapter closes with another exhortation of a less ironic kind, challenging the hearers to dissociate themselves from the general run of humanity among whom they live, people who have the kind of attitude and follow the kind of practices the chapter has described. You could say that Isaiah is challenging people to become a faithful remnant. But the chapter also implicitly issues another invitation. The prophet wants Judah as a whole to heed his warning. He wants the entire community to turn from idols and from its trust in its wealth and its weaponry. He doesn’t directly tell the community as a whole that it needs to repent and that Yahweh will then cancel the coming of his Day. Prophets often omit to issue a call to repentance. They speak as if catastrophe is inevitable. It’s how they seek to break through to people. There’s another example of Isaiah’s indirect form of speech in his bidding Yahweh not to carry the people in their rebelliousness—that is, not to forgive them. He of course wants Yahweh to forgive them, but he knows they have to be brought to their senses in order for them to seek forgiveness, and expressing the desire that they may not be forgiven as long as they continue as they are is both a way of honoring God and another way of trying to break through to them.
Nor is it surprising that Yahweh is coming in that storm to show who is really God. The description of their trust in their resources (military, financial, and religious) points toward what Yahweh’s chastisement will more literally look like. It will involve military invasion and humiliation, the capture and destruction of cities. It will involve the devastation of places of worship. It will involve the loss of wealth. It will involve the imposition of another culture’s laws and policies. Subsequent chapters of Isaiah will describe how Isaiah’s warning came true; indeed, we have already seen that the opening chapter has included at least one prophecy from the time of fulfillment. It wouldn’t be surprising if one of the reasons why Isaiah’s prophecies were preserved and ended up as Scripture is the way they were fulfilled and vindicated.

ISAIAH 3:1–4:6

On Dresses, Shawls, and Purses

  3:1       Because there—
  the Lord Yahweh Armies
  is removing from Jerusalem and from Judah
  supply and support—
  all supply of bread
  and all supply of water,
  2       warrior and soldier, authority and prophet,
  diviner and elder,
  3       centurion, important person, counselor,
  the person expert in charms
  and knowledgeable in chanting.
  4       I will make youths their officials;
  infants will rule over them.
  5       The people will oppress one another,
  each his neighbor.
  The youth will be arrogant toward the elder,
  someone belittled toward someone honorable.
  6       Because a man will seize one of his brothers,
  his father’s household:
  “You have a coat, you will be our leader,
  this ruin will be under your charge.”
  7       On that day he will shout,
  “I won’t be one to bind up.
  In my house there’s no bread and no coat—
  you won’t make me leader of the people.”
  8       Because Jerusalem has collapsed,
  Judah has fallen.
  Because their tongue and their deeds were toward Yahweh,
  rebelling against his glorious eyes.
  9       The look on their faces testifies against them;
  they declare their offence like Sodom
  and don’t hide it.
  10       Aagh, for their lives,
  because they have brought about evil for themselves.
  Say of the faithful person, “It will be good,”
  because they will eat the fruit of their deeds.
  11       Aagh, for the faithless person, “It will be evil,”
  because the reward of his hands will be done to him.
  12       My people—infants are their bosses,
  women rule over them.
  My people—your guides make you wander;
  they have swallowed up the course of your paths.
  13        Yahweh is taking his stand to contend,
  he is rising to decide for peoples.
  14       Yahweh will come with authority
  to his people’s elders and their officials.
  “You—you have ravaged the vineyard,
  the lowly person’s plunder is in your houses.
  15       What do you mean that you crush my people,
  grind the faces of lowly ones?”
  (a declaration of the Lord Yahweh Armies).

  16       Yahweh has said:
  because Zion’s daughters are lofty
  and walk outstretched with their neck,
  flirting with their eyes,
  walking and mincing as they walk,
  and they jingle with their feet,
  17       my Lord will bare the crowns of Zion’s daughters,
  Yahweh will expose their forehead.

18 On that day my Lord will remove the splendor of the anklets, the bands, and the necklaces, 19 the earrings, the bracelets, and the veils, 20 the hats, the armlets, the scarves, the amulets, and the charms, 21 the rings and the nose rings, 22 the dresses, the capes, the shawls, the purses,23 the gowns, the vests, the tiaras, the veils, and the sashes.

  24       It will come about [that]:
  instead of perfume there will be a stench;
  instead of a wrap, a rope;
  instead of a hairstyle, a shorn head;
  instead of a robe, wrapping of sack;
  branding instead of beauty.
  25       Your men will fall by the sword,
  your manhood by battle.
  26       Her gates will lament and mourn;
  she will be empty, she will sit on the ground.
  4:1       Seven women will take hold of one man
  on that day, saying,
  “We will eat our food,
  we will wear our clothes,
  only may your name be pronounced over us—
  take away our shame.”

  2       On that day, Yahweh’s shoot will be
  for beauty and for honor
  and the country’s fruit [will be]
  for majesty and for splendor for Israel’s survivors.
  3       What is left in Zion,
  what remains in Jerusalem—
  “holy” will be said of it,
  everyone who has been written down for life in Jerusalem.
  4       When my Lord has washed away
  the filth of Zion’s daughters,
  and cleanses in its midst
  the blood shed in Jerusalem,
  by a spirit of authority
  and a spirit of fire,
  5       Yahweh will create over the entire site of Mount Zion
  and over its meeting place
  a cloud by day, and smoke,
  and a brightness of flaming, by night,
  because over all the splendor will be a canopy,
       6       and it will be a shelter
  for shade by day from the heat
  and for refuge and a hiding place
  from storm and from rain.

When we are going out for the evening, and if the time of year requires it, I will put a sweater on top of whatever I have been wearing all day. It’s a delight to me when, in contrast, my wife disappears into the closet and reappears in her finery for us to go out, having chosen an appropriate combination of earrings and bracelets and gowns and scarves. I don’t know why it should be that women bear chief responsibility for dressing up. In our local arboretum it’s the male peacocks that possess exotic finery and look as if they really enjoy displaying it. I’m glad I don’t have to do so, and I would be grieved if my wife couldn’t do so, because I’m proud to go out with someone who can make herself look so fine.
The middle paragraph from this section of Isaiah looks as if it presupposes the same attitude and is therefore disturbing both for men and for women. So far Isaiah’s polemic has mainly concerned the Judahite men. They’re the leaders, the warriors, the elders, the people who exercise authority who are in a position to contend for the weak, who sign the contracts for purchasing the military hardware. The women no doubt exercise some influence over their husbands behind the scenes, but their official job is to look nice, and it’s the oppression on the part of their husbands in which they collude that makes it possible for them to look nice.
So the judgment declared on them in this middle paragraph presupposes that not being directly part of the action or the decision-making doesn’t exempt us from the judgment that comes on our society. In the women’s case it corresponds to their position and role in the capital’s life. It will include the loss of their men with the indignity that will bring in a patriarchal society, which assumes that every woman needs to take the name of a man and cannot imagine women looking after the community’s affairs. The first paragraph portrays other aspects of the social disorder that will result from Yahweh’s act of judgment. The city will be run by children. Parallel to the picture of seven women seeking the protection of one surviving man is the picture of one man trying to get another to take charge of a family’s affairs on the basis of his having managed to maintain some vestige of respectable appearance. He doesn’t want to accept any leadership responsibility in the chaotic situation that is presupposed.
The prophecy again issues challenges and makes promises to individuals as well as declaring the destiny of the community as a whole. Its aim is to turn the community around. But it knows that God deals with individuals, too. Sometimes people put too much stress on the individual, but it’s also possible for individuals to evade responsibility or abandon hope because they think their own destiny is determined by the community. The prophecy reminds them of truths they know about God’s involvement with individuals. Things will go well for the faithful person and badly for the faithless person; both will eat the fruit of their deeds. It makes clear its recognition that things don’t always work out that way; it refers to the way lowly people who count as Yahweh’s people are being crushed and ground down. It’s nevertheless a generalization not to forget.
The last paragraph makes for a nice contrast with the paragraph about the trouble coming on the women. While Isaiah prophesies in order to get people to change, the arrangement of the book also envisages their failing to do so. What happens then? The picture of the city’s restoration pairs with the earlier picture of Jerusalem drawing the whole world, but this second picture focuses on the good news for the city itself. The Bible often pictures Israel as like a tree, so Israel’s judgment is like the felling of a tree. Here God promises that the felling of the tree won’t be the end. God will make new growth come from the felled tree. Indeed, this new growth will be more splendid than anything one could imagine (again there’s a parallel with that earlier vision of a new Jerusalem). The people there may be only survivors, only leftovers, but they have survived; it means they’re people who have been written down for life. They’re the nucleus of a holy people, a people whom God is marking off in connection with his purpose as the holy one. They will be a people whom God has cleansed. They will experience the kind of protection that Israel experienced on its original journey to the promised land. In due course, the fall of Jerusalem will bring the worst embodiment of Yahweh’s Day so far in Israel’s history, and after that event it’s a message that the little beleaguered community in Judah and Jerusalem will have good reason to find encouraging.

ISAIAH 5:1–24

A Singer-Songwriter’s Strange Song

  1       I’m going to sing a song for my friend,
  my love song about his vineyard.
  My friend had a vineyard
  on a fertile ridge.
  2       He dug it and stoned it,
  and planted it with choice vine.
  He built a tower in the middle of it,
  and also hewed a press in it.
  He looked for it to produce grapes,
  but it produced bad grapes.
  3       So now, population of Jerusalem, people of Judah,
  decide, will you, between me and my vineyard.
  4       What more was there to do for my vineyard
  that I did not do in it?
  Why, when I looked for it to produce grapes,
  did it produce bad grapes?
  5       So now I’m going to let you know
  what I’m doing about my vineyard:
  remove its hedge so it will be for destroying,
  demolish its wall so it will be for trampling,
       6       with the result that I will make an end of it.
  It will not be pruned and it will not be hoed;
  briar and thorn will grow.
  7       Because the household of Israel
  is the vineyard of Yahweh Armies.
  The people of Judah
  are the planting in which he delighted.
  He looked for the exercise of authority
  but there—blood pouring out;
  for faithfulness, but there—a cry.

  8       Hey, people adding house to house,
  people who join field to field,
  until there’s no room, and you’re made to live alone
  in the midst of the country.
  9       In my ears Yahweh Armies [has said],
  If many houses do not become for desolation,
  big and good ones without inhabitant …
  10       Because ten acres of vineyard will produce one measure,
  and a ton of seed will produce a quart.
  11       Hey, people who get up early in the morning
  so they can chase liquor,
  and stay up late in the evening
  so wine can inflame them.
  12       There’ll be guitar and harp, tambourine and pipe,
  wine at their parties.
  But they won’t look to Yahweh’s act,
  the work of his hands they do not see.
  13       Therefore my people are going into exile
  because of not acknowledging,
  its [people of] honor—hungry people,
  its multitude—parched with thirst.
  14       Therefore Sheol has widened its throat,
  opened its mouth without limit.

Its [people of] splendor and its multitude will go down,
its din and those who exult in it.
15  Humanity bows down, the individual falls down,
the look of the lofty falls down.
16  Yahweh Armies is lofty in exercising authority;
the holy God shows himself holy in faithfulness.
17  Lambs will graze as in their pasturage,
fatlings (strangers) will feed on the ruins.
18  Hey, people who haul waywardness with cords of deceit,
and offense like cart ropes,
19  who say, “He should hurry,
he should speed up his work, so that we may see.
The plan of Israel’s holy one
should draw near and come about, so we may acknowledge.”
20  Hey, people who say about evil, “Good,”
and about good, “Evil,”
who make darkness into light
and light into darkness,
who make bitter into sweet,
and sweet into bitter.
21  Hey, people who are wise in their eyes,
who are understanding in their own view.
22  Hey, warriors at drinking wine,
people who are able at mixing a drink,
23  who declare the faithless person to be faithful
in return for a bribe,
and the faithfulness of the faithful people
they remove from them.
24  Therefore:
like the consuming of straw in a tongue of fire
when hay sinks down in the flame,
their root will become pure rot
and their blossom will go up like dust,
because they have rejected the teaching of Yahweh Armies,
spurned the word of Israel’s holy one.

My wife and I often listen to songwriters performing their songs and note how much the singers tell us about how they came to write a particular song. Occasionally this is illuminating. I have a CD by a singer who tells us how a song arose out of the tension between her and her father over whether it was a good idea for her to spend her life driving around the country in a pickup singing for tips (from people like me). More often the explanations are frustrating. A good song stands on its own; knowing how it came to be written (the story usually involves a romantic breakup) doesn’t help one appreciate it. Indeed, such appreciation likely involves listeners letting the song interact with their own experience. Information on what the song meant to the singer may lessen rather than boost the listener’s appreciation.
Isaiah the songwriter cleverly introduces his song with an explanation that turns out to be devious. One can imagine him standing in the temple courtyards where he often preached and where people got used to ignoring his negative message. This time things have changed. He has written a love song for a friend who is about to get married, or who at least has his eye on a girl and hopes his family will be able to negotiate an arrangement with her family. It’s a song about a vineyard, but people would have no trouble understanding that it concerns the girl he loves; the Song of Songs shows how a vineyard is a common image for a girl. Isaiah’s friend has worked hard at “cultivating” his relationship with the girl in question. But then the song goes wrong; it becomes a song about unrequited love, like the songs of most singer-songwriters. His attentiveness didn’t work. Isaiah asks his audience what else his friend could have done. Then it somersaults into something from a horror movie as he declares his intention to destroy the vineyard.
Isaiah has been stringing his audience along and saying the same kind of thing as usual, though winning their attention with his song may still mean they take more notice than they really wanted to. (Jesus will take up Isaiah’s technique in his parables and take up the theme of the vine in a threatening way.) While a vineyard can stand for a girl, in a theological context it can also stand for Israel. Isaiah’s punchline involves a double paronomasia (a play on words, but it’s not playful). The Hebrew word for “the exercise of authority” is mishpat; the word for “blood pouring out” is mispah (actually it’s a non-word—Isaiah seems to have invented it, but people would be able to guess from similar words what he meant). Similarly “faithfulness” is tsedaqah, and “a cry” (that is, a cry of pain from suffering people) is tse‘aqah. The point about the paronomasia is that the similarity between the words belies and underlines the contrast between what God hoped for and what happened.
The rest of the section spells out what would issue from this cry of pain. Whereas every family was supposed to own a piece of land off which it could live, some people have found ways of appropriating other people’s land by semi-legal means and depriving its owners of their livelihood. They indulge themselves in drinking and music. They don’t believe talk about God intending to act against Judah. They think they have insight, but they lack it. They think they’re important, but they’re dispensable. Their homes will be devastated. Their crops will fail. They will lose their land. They will die and find themselves in Sheol.

ISAIAH 5:25–6:13

How to Frighten People into Repentance

  5:25       On account of this
  Yahweh’s anger flared against his people;
  he stretched out his hand against it and struck it.
  Mountains shook, and their corpses became
  like refuse in the middle of the streets.
  For all this his anger did not turn;
  his hand was still stretched out.
  26       He will lift a signal to the nations from afar,
  he will whistle to one from the end of the earth,
  and there—with speed, quick, it will come.
  27       There’s none weary, there’s none collapsing, in it;
  it doesn’t slumber, it doesn’t sleep.
  The belt on its thighs doesn’t come loose,
  the thong on its sandals doesn’t break.
  28       Its arrows are sharpened,
  all its bows are drawn.
  Its horses’ hooves are reckoned like flint,
  its [chariot] wheels like a whirlwind.
  29       Its roar is like a cougar’s;
  it roars like lions.
  It growls and seizes prey,
  and carries it off and there’s no one to rescue.
  30       It will growl over it on that day,
  like the growling of the sea.
  One will look to the land, and there—
  troublesome darkness;
  the light has gone dark with its thunderclouds.

6:1 In the year King Uzziah died, I saw my Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, with his train filling the palace. 2 Seraphs were standing above him; each had six wings. With two it would cover its face, with two it would cover its feet, with two it would fly. 3 One would call to another, “Holy, holy, holy, Yahweh Armies, his splendor is the filling of the entire earth.” 4 The doorposts on the sills shook at the sound of the one who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 I said, “Aagh, for me, because I’m lost, because I’m someone polluted of lips, and I live in the midst of a people polluted of lips, because my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Armies.” 6 But one of the seraphs flew to me, in his hand a coal that he had taken with tongs from on the altar. 7 He made it touch my mouth, and he said, “There: this has touched your lips, and your waywardness will go away, your offense will be expiated.” 8 Then I heard my Lord’s voice saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go out for us?” I said, “Here I am, send me.” 9 He said, “Go, and say to this people:
‘Keep on listening, but don’t understand,
keep on looking, but don’t acknowledge.’
10  Fatten this people’s mind,
make its ears heavy, smear its eyes,
so that it doesn’t see with its eyes
and listen with its ears
and its mind understands and it turns
and there is healing for it.”
11  So I said, “For how long, my Lord?” He said,
“Until cities have crashed into ruins
so that there is no inhabitant,
and houses so that there is no one,
and the country crashes into ruins, a desolation.”
12  Yahweh will send the people away;
vast will be the abandonment in the midst of the country.
13  When there is still a tenth in it,
it will again be for grazing,
like a terebinth tree or like an oak
of which there is a stump after their felling.
Its stump is the holy seed.

A little while ago I went to preach at a new church that is part of the “emerging church” movement, which started in Australasia and the UK and spread to the United States. Its background is an awareness that the traditional churches are in deep trouble, an awareness that was obvious earlier in the UK and Australasia than in the United States, and a disillusionment with the churches’ traditionalism and the distance that separated them from the wider culture. The service took place in a school hall rather than a church building and didn’t have any of the set prayers that feature in many traditional churches, though neither does it aspire to be a megachurch. The people present were nearly all young adults. Another such church where I have preached (it met in a theater) eventually failed when its members started becoming not only married but parents, and they didn’t quite know how to be an emerging church for people with young families.
I don’t know whether the emerging church is a new shoot that promises new life for the church. If it is, it will be a kind of fulfillment of the tiny promise at the end of Isaiah’s vision of the holy one, the promise expressed in those words “its stump is the holy seed.” The words are admittedly a little enigmatic, and they come as the conclusion of an enigmatic sentence or two, but the implication of the closing part of this section is clear enough in the context.
Isaiah’s account of his vision opens two or three chapters that take the form of story rather than bare reports of the content of his preaching. The book’s arrangement is thus a little like the flow of a movie that begins in the middle of things then takes you back to explain the background to what you have seen so far. What we have read so far is a summary of Isaiah’s message as a whole, with its warnings, its pointing out how warnings have been fulfilled, and its promises. The first paragraph above has itself noted how judgment has fallen but also how the judgment that has fallen won’t be the final such judgment (if people fail to heed its message). Imaginatively it then pictures an imperial army such as Assyria or Babylon, coming from away to the north and east, frightening in its ruthless efficiency and rigor.
Isaiah’s account of his vision tells how he came to be declaiming this message. His vision came in the year that King Uzziah died after his long reign, when his son Jotham or his grandson Ahaz thus became sole king after reigning alongside Uzziah. Isaiah’s failure to name the new king puts him in his place and draws attention to his focus on another King. He has a vision of the Lord on his throne. The word “Lord” comes often in English translations, but it usually represents God’s actual name, Yahweh. Here Isaiah uses the word Lord and does so three times, along with a description of him as King and as Yahweh Armies. His vision thus emphasizes who is the real Lord and King.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Isaiah had his vision in the temple, but if so, it becomes a vision of the King on his throne in his palace in the heavens. Hebrew has no special word for “temple”; it uses the regular words for “house” or “palace” (so “palace” comes in the first verse) because the temple is the heavenly King’s dwelling. The seraphs are creatures that combine some animal-like, some bird-like, and some humanlike features. They cover their eyes so as not to look directly at the holy God; the reference to their covering their feet likely suggests demureness (feet can be a euphemism for genitals). Their declaration of Yahweh’s holiness links with the distinctive importance of this theme in Isaiah. While holiness can be attributed to other heavenly beings, the threefold declaration affirms that Yahweh’s holiness is of an unequaled kind. Yahweh is holy to the power of three. The outward manifestation of that holiness is then the splendor that fills the earth as Yahweh shines out in blessing the world.
Isaiah’s problem, however, is that he is an impure human being living among an impure people. They cannot join in the seraphs’ praise. Perhaps his associating himself with his people’s defilement simply implies a recognition that as individuals we are inevitably implicated in the wrong done by the group we belong to (family, church, city, nation). Or perhaps his vision compares with Paul’s vision on the Damascus road, which revolutionizes his self-understanding; maybe up till this moment he has not realized how polluted Judah is and how polluted he is. But God cleanses his lips by a sacramental action that will enable his lips to become a means of serving Yahweh.
Whereas Yahweh specifically drafts Moses and Jeremiah, Isaiah responds to a need for volunteers. Yahweh’s asking the question (not least with its “us”) implies Yahweh is surrounded by his cabinet, with whom he consults when there are decisions to be taken. Isaiah is in a position to answer the question that Yahweh puts on the table for the cabinet.
His volunteering is regularly where Christian reading of this story ends, which isn’t surprising in light of what follows. Yahweh is looking for someone to declare judgment on this polluted people. The judgment will take the form of telling them they’re never going to understand what God is saying to them and doing with them. Indeed, the aim of Isaiah’s preaching is to bring about that incomprehension so that they won’t repent and find healing. Not surprisingly, Isaiah is appalled; he will perhaps be regretting the way he volunteered without knowing what the commission would be. His question “For how long?” is the question that recurs in the Psalms when someone protests about how long God intends to let some calamity continue. The answer makes things even worse until you reach that last phrase about the holy seed, which promises that the end won’t be the end. A holy seed will survive, as a holy seed survives of the church in Europe and Australasia, and will survive in the United States.
On the surface the story implies that judgment is inevitable. But Yahweh’s aim in telling people what he intends to do is to provoke a response. It’s always the aim of a message of judgment that it should make it possible for God not to implement it, though that aim may fail, and then the judgment will indeed happen. When Jesus quotes this passage in Mark 4 to provide the rationale for his speaking in parables, the same framework applies.

ISAIAH 7:1–17

Stand Firm, Or You Won’t Stand At All

1 In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah king of Israel went up to Jerusalem for a battle against it, but they couldn’t do battle against it.
2 So it had been reported to David’s household, “Syria has leaned on Ephraim,” and his heart and his people’s heart shook like the trees in a forest shaking before the wind. 3 Yahweh said to Isaiah, “Go out, will you, to meet Ahaz, you and Remains-Will-Return, your son, at the end of the conduit of the Upper Pool, at the Launderer’s Field road. 4 Say to him, ‘Take care and be calm; don’t be afraid, your heart is not to falter on account of these two stumps of smoking firewood, because of the angry burning of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. 5 Because Syria has planned evil against you [with] Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, saying 6 “We will go up against Judah and terrify it and break it open for ourselves and enthrone as king within it the son of Tabeel,” 7 my Lord Yahweh has said this:

  “It won’t come about,
  it won’t happen.
  8       Because the head of Syria is Damascus,
  and the head of Damascus is Rezin.
  Within yet sixty-five years
  Ephraim will shatter from being a people.
  9       The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
  and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.
  If you don’t stand firm in trust,
  you won’t stand firm at all.” ’ ”

10 Yahweh spoke further to Ahaz: 11 “Ask for yourself a sign from Yahweh your God. Make it deep, to Sheol, or make it lofty, up to the heights.” 12 Ahaz said, “I won’t ask, I won’t test Yahweh.” 13 [Isaiah] said, “Will you listen, household of David? Is it too small for you, wearying human beings, that you weary my God as well? 14 Therefore my Lord—he will give you a sign. There—a girl is pregnant and is going to give birth to a son, and she will call his name God-is-with-us. 15 He will eat yogurt and honey in knowing how to reject what is evil and choose what is good. 16 Because before the boy knows how to reject what is evil and choose what is good, the land of whose two kings you’re terrified will be abandoned. 17 Yahweh will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s household days that have not come since the day Ephraim turned away from Judah (the king of Assyria).”

I mentioned in an early volume of The Old Testament for Everyone receiving a call from a Jewish lawyer in Los Angeles who had self-published a book titled Twenty-six Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus and wanted me to make sure that his statements about Jesus and about Christian faith were accurate. A significant part of the book concerned the way Christians use texts from the Old Testament to prove that Jesus is the Messiah but introduce a new meaning into the texts in doing so. (Ironically, the way Christians so interpret Scriptures is similar to the way other Jews in New Testament times did.) I got in trouble with a number of Christians for acknowledging that he was right. The New Testament itself doesn’t address people who don’t believe in Jesus in order to prove from the Prophets that he is the Messiah. It does use the Prophets to help people understand aspects of their confession that Jesus is the Messiah. The passage about a virgin conceiving and having a son who would be called Immanuel, which Matthew takes up, is a notable example.
The story about Isaiah and Ahaz starts with something like a news headline. The first sentence summarizes the story before the main part gives the details. The detailed story refers to Syria and Ephraim, which makes clear that the headline’s reference to Israel means the northern kingdom, which can also be less confusingly referred to as Ephraim. Its geographical position made Ephraim more vulnerable to Assyrian interest in extending its control in the countries toward the Mediterranean, and Syria and Ephraim together are intent on resisting Assyria’s expansion of its empire. They want Judah to join them, but geography makes Judah less interested in taking on the superpower. So Syria and Ephraim are seeking to lean on Judah and are prepared to force a regime change there to put on the throne someone more amenable to their policies.
Isaiah doesn’t draw attention to the horrifying implication that one part of the people of God is thus allying with a foreign nation in order to invade the other part of the people of God, but the opening reference to Ephraim as Israel (the name that theologically unites Ephraim and Judah) ironically underlines the point. The same point emerges in the description of the Judahite government as “David’s household.” When Ephraim made a unilateral declaration of independence from Jerusalem two centuries ago, it cut itself off from David’s household, as well as from the temple that Yahweh had agreed should be built in Jerusalem. It’s now not merely ignoring David but attacking his dynasty.
Isaiah’s later reference to David’s household, addressed to Ahaz himself, suggests that Isaiah’s direct point lies elsewhere. It reminds Ahaz of his theological position. He isn’t merely the king of a small Middle Eastern nation who needs to think practically and politically about policies for his people. He is the current head of David’s household, the heir to God’s promises to David and his successors. He has to live in the world but to do so without implying that worldly considerations are the only ones to be taken into account. It’s always a tough aspect to a leader’s position. Isaiah underlines the point by referring to Pekah the Ephraimite king as “the son of Remaliah” and to the man they want to put on the Judahite throne as “the son of Tabeel” (we don’t know his actual name) without using their own names. They’re not sons of David, like Ahaz. Each king needs to be seen as the current representative of a dynasty.
In trying to be practical, Ahaz is out checking the city’s water supply. In a country such as theirs, people commonly built their cities on a hill, which was a good defensive position. Yet it meant water supply was a problem; a besieging army could sit tight and wait till the city ran out. So cities tried to safeguard and protect their water supply; Ahaz is out doing so. It’s the responsible thing to do. Isaiah doesn’t say it’s wrong but does warn Ahaz to avoid assuming that such action is the key to surviving the expected siege. The decisive fact is that Yahweh has made a declaration about what will happen to Syria and Ephraim, their capitals, and their kings. They’re not Israel (in the theological sense), their capitals are not Jerusalem, and their kings don’t belong to David’s household. Ephraim is on the verge of obliteration. It fell to Assyria a decade later; the “sixty-five years” looks like an allusion to an event referred to in Ezra 4. Judah’s job is to stand firm in trust in Yahweh if it wants to stand firm as a people; Isaiah uses two forms of the same verb to make the point about the connection between these two forms of standing firm.
It’s in that connection that Yahweh offers Ahaz a sign. You have to admire Ahaz for the theological correctness with which he seeks to evade receiving it. Sometimes God disapproves of people who want signs, but sometimes God grants signs. Maybe there’s a difference between people who want to believe but need help and people who don’t want to believe and want an excuse for avoiding doing so. Ahaz comes in the latter category.
The sign involves a girl having a baby. Isaiah’s words may mean “a virgin will get pregnant,” but he doesn’t imply that the birth itself is going to be a miracle. If she is at the moment a virgin, she will be an unmarried girl who is going to marry and conceive in the usual way. We don’t know who the girl is—indeed, Isaiah doesn’t need to have a particular girl in mind. The point is that by the time a few months have passed and the girl has had her baby, the crisis that preoccupies Ahaz will be over. It will have been proved that “God is with us,” and she will be able to call her baby God-is-with-us, Immanuel. The comment about him eating baby food and being able to recognize food he likes and food he doesn’t like then nuances the point. Hundreds of years later, Jesus came and was born of a girl who was a virgin when she conceived and whose baby turned out to be “God is with us” in a more personal sense, and Matthew can utilize the words in Isaiah to help his Christian readers understand something of the wonder of that event.
The sign will do Ahaz no good because of the attitude he brings to it. The Assyrians who will devastate Syria and Ephraim will also invade Judah. It’s one implication of the name of the son Isaiah takes with him when he confronts Ahaz. The name could be a promise that “[only] the remains [of Assyria] will return [home].” But it could be a warning that “[only] the remains [of Judah] will survive.” It could also imply that “[at least] some remains [of Judah] will survive.” It could be a call to people to separate themselves from the stance of the people as whole: “the remains must return [to Yahweh].” You have to work out what it signifies in light of who you are.

ISAIAH 7:18–9:1a

Where to Look for Guidance?

7:18 On that day Yahweh will whistle to the fly that is at the end of the streams of Egypt and to the bee that is in the country of Assyria. 19 They will come and settle, all of them, in the steep washes and the craggy clefts and all the thorn-bushes and all the watering holes. 20 On that day my Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the Euphrates River (with the king of Assyria) the head and the hair on the feet, and it will also sweep away the beard. 21 On that day someone will keep alive a heifer from the cattle and two [goats] from the flock, 22 but from the abundance of the milk they produce he will eat yogurt, because everyone who is left within the country will eat yogurt and honey. 23 On that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines worth a thousand sheqels of silver will be for briar and for thorn. 24 With arrows and a bow a person will come there, because the entire country will be briar and thorn. 25 But all the hills that are hoed with a hoe—the fear of briar and thorn won’t come there; it will be for the roaming of oxen and the trampling of sheep.
8:1 Yahweh said to me, “Get yourself a big panel and write on it in ordinary letters, ‘For Plunder-hurries-loot-rushes.’ ” 2 I invoked as trustworthy witnesses for me Uriah the priest and Zechariah ben Jeberechiah. 3 I had sex with the prophetess and she got pregnant and gave birth to a son. Yahweh said to me, “Call him Plunder-hurries-loot-rushes, 4 because before the boy knows how to call ‘father’ and ‘mother,’ someone will carry off Damascus’s wealth and Samaria’s plunder before the king of Assyria.”
5  Yahweh again spoke to me further:
6  Because this people has rejected
the waters of Shiloah, which go gently,
and rejoices at Rezin and the son of Remaliah,
7  Therefore, now: my Lord is bringing up against them
the waters of the Euphrates, powerful, vast
(the king of Assyria and all his splendor).
It will rise up over all its channels
and go over its banks.
8  It will sweep through Judah, flood as it passes over;
it will reach as far as its neck.
Its wings spread out will be
the filling of the breadth of your country.

  God is with us:
       9       do evil, peoples, and shatter.
  Give ear, all you distant parts of the earth;
  equip yourselves and shatter,
  Equip yourselves and shatter;
       10       make a plan, but it will be frustrated.
  Speak a word, but it won’t stand,
  because God is with us.

11 Because Yahweh said this to me as he took hold of my hand so that he might train me out from the way of this people:
12  “You shall not say ‘conspiracy’
about everything that this people calls ‘conspiracy.’
What they are in awe of, you shall not be in awe of,
and not dread.
13  Yahweh Armies—regard him as holy;
he is to be the object of your awe, your dread.
14  He is to be a holy place, but a stone to trip over,
a crag to stumble over,
for the two houses of Israel—
a trap and a snare for Jerusalem’s inhabitants.
15  Many people will stumble on them,
they will fall and break, be snared and caught.”

16 Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. 17 I will wait for Yahweh, who is hiding his face from Jacob’s household, and I will be expectant of him. 18 Here am I and the children Yahweh has given me as signs and portents in Israel from Yahweh Armies who dwells on Mount Zion. 19 So when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the experts who chirp and whisper. Is a people not to inquire of its gods, of the dead on behalf of the living, 20 for teaching and testimony?”—they will indeed speak in accordance with this word, for which there will be no dawn. 21 [The people] will pass through [the country] wretched and hungry. When it is hungry it will rage and belittle its king and its gods. It will turn upward 22 and look to the earth, but there: trouble and darkness, oppressive gloom, driven murkiness, 9:1 because there will be no dawn for [the country] that experiences oppression.

In Mexico, and in Mexican communities in places such as Los Angeles, there’s a lively movement of prayer to Santa Muerte, Saint Death. You pray to her for protection from the dangers of the night, in the conviction that she can protect you from attack, accident, and violent death. She can also bring trouble to someone who has attacked you unjustly. Prayer to Santa Muerte goes back to the religious life of people in the area before the gospel came to the Americas. Nowadays most people who pray to Santa Muerte would also view themselves as Christian, but their observance is forbidden by the church and they pray to her in secret while also maintaining their membership in the church.
The situation was similar in Israel. While the story of Yahweh’s involvement in Israel’s life and the related teaching about how to reach out to Yahweh, incorporated in the Torah, were supposed to shape Israel’s faith and life, in practice traditional religion remained alive underground and may have affected people’s lives more than the facts and instructions in the Torah. This reality is at the background of Isaiah’s depiction of people’s faith when he speaks of them inquiring of ghosts and experts who chirp and whisper. People assumed that the dead had access to information inaccessible to the living, and they would seek to make contact with dead people in Sheol, especially their relatives, to get guidance for the future or advice about coping with illnesses and other crises. The dead people aren’t gods in our sense, but Hebrew can use its word for gods to cover any beings other than live human beings.
Isaiah knows that the real God has spoken through him and that the people are taking a terrible risk in looking to such beings for “teaching and testimony.” It is he they should be looking to. At the end of the section he again speaks of the frightening consequences of ignoring Yahweh and thinking that these other resources are trustworthy. People are seeking to avoid trouble and darkness but will be walking into them, even creating them. Maybe the most solemn thing Isaiah says to them is that he has given up on them, now that God has hidden his face from them. When God’s face shines on you, you experience blessings. When God’s face turns away, blessing departs.
The people are not listening. He fears they never will. But he knows his warnings will come true. So he has his message written down and sealed so that when it comes true, there will be no doubt that he gave it. Then people will have to acknowledge that he was right. But in a strange way that acknowledgment will open up the possibility of facing the future with Yahweh. In the context of Isaiah’s ministry as he preaches in the temple courts, the warnings and the declaration about writing down his message are designed to jolt people to their senses, like the account of his commission to make them blind and deaf. In the context of the writing down of this story they’re designed to show why disaster came.
The opening verses offer four pictures of how the calamity will come about. They include hints that it will involve devastation but not simply terminate the people’s life. When it happens, such hints could give people the courage to go on. One can see the pictures becoming reality and one can imagine these dynamics operating when the Assyrians devastate Judah in the time of Hezekiah and again when the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem itself. (Lamentations describes how things were for people then.)
The second paragraph reminds people of the promise that Yahweh urges people to accept, as Syria and Ephraim are putting pressure on Judah. Isaiah has another son (presumably “the prophetess” is his wife, but she has a prophetic ministry of her own, like Huldah in Jeremiah’s day) and gives him another significant name. Writing the promise down in a way that no one can escape both puts Isaiah’s prophetic authenticity on the line and gives people no excuse for saying they didn’t know about the promise. Their unwillingness to trust it is the background to the saying about the waters of Shiloah (Siloam). The water supply Ahaz was inspecting in the previous chapter comprises a stream emerging from a spring. It provides an image for the unspectacular way Yahweh provides for Jerusalem. If they don’t trust that provision, it will be the Assyrian flood that overtakes them. The positive challenge is backed up by the further promise framed by the double declaration “God is with us.” That fact means that if peoples like Syria and Ephraim (or Assyria) threaten Judah, Judah need not be anxious.
Knowing you have such a message to deliver doesn’t necessarily make it easy to distance yourself from the way everyone else thinks. The conspiracy Isaiah describes might be a plot to replace Ahaz, the inside version of the plan by Syria and Ephraim, or it might be a plot to silence Isaiah and his supporters. It’s easy to be in awe of the wrong people; the person to be in awe of is God. It would also be easy for people who half believed Isaiah’s message to rejoice in the prospect of Ephraim getting its comeuppance. Isaiah reminds such people that Yahweh is potentially a threat to both halves of Israel, to Judah as well as Ephraim.

ISAIAH 9:1b–10:4

A Sign of Hope

  9:1b       As the earlier time has humiliated
  the country of Zebulun and the country of Naphtali,
  the later one has honored the Way of the Sea,
  the other side of the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
  2       The people walking in darkness
  has seen great light.
  Those living in deathly gloom—
  light has shone on them.
  3       You have made the nation many,
  you have given it great joy.
  They have rejoiced before you like the rejoicing at harvest,
  like people who celebrate at the dividing of plunder.
  4       Because the yoke that burdened it,
  the rod on its shoulder,
  the boss’s club over it,
  you have shattered as on the day at Midian.
  5       Because every boot of someone trampling with a roar,
  and the coat rolled in blood,
  have been for burning,
  consumed by fire.
  6       Because a child has been born to us,
  a son has been given to us,
  and government has come onto his shoulder.
  People have called him
  7       Of the growing of government and of well-being
  there will be no end, on David’s throne and on his reign,
  to establish it and support it,
  with authority and faithfulness,
  from now and forever;
  the passion of Yahweh Armies will do this.

  8       My Lord has sent out a word against Jacob,
  and it has fallen on Israel.
  9       But the people, the entirety of it, acknowledge it
  (Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria)
  with loftiness and big-headedness:
  10       “Bricks have fallen, but we will build with stone;
  sycamore-figs have been cut down,
  but we will put cedars in their place.”
  11       But Yahweh has lifted high
  the adversaries of Rezin over it,
  and spurred on its enemies,
       12       Syria from the east, the Philistines from the west,
  and they have devoured Israel with open mouth.
  For all this, his anger did not turn;
  his hand was still stretched out.

  13        The people did not turn to the one who hit it;
  it has not inquired of Yahweh Armies.
  14       So Yahweh cut off from Israel head and tail,
  palm branch and reed, in one day.
  15       The elder and the important person, he is the head,
  and the prophet who teaches falsehood, he is the tail.
  16       The guides of this people became ones who make them wander;
  the ones who were guided were people who were confounded.
  17       Therefore my Lord does not rejoice over its picked troops
  and does not show compassion for its widows and orphans,
  because the entirety of it is impious and does evil,
  and every mouth speaks mindlessness.
  For all this, his anger did not turn;
  his hand was still stretched out.

  18       Because faithlessness burned like fire,
  which consumes briar and thorn.
  It set light to the thickets of the forest,
  and they swirled as a column of smoke.
  19       By the fury of Yahweh Armies
  the country was scorched.
  The people became like a fire consuming;
  one person did not spare his neighbor.
  20       He carved to the right but was hungry,
  and ate to the left but was not full;
  one person eats the flesh of his offspring.
  21       Manasseh, Ephraim, Ephraim Manasseh;
  altogether against Judah.
  For all this, his anger did not turn;
  his hand was still stretched out.

  10:1       Hey, you who inscribe wicked statutes,
  who write oppressive decrees,
  2       to subvert the case of poor people
  and steal the rights of the lowly among my people,
  so that widows become their spoil
  and orphans their plunder.
  3       What will you do on the day when you get attention,
  when disaster comes from afar
  (to whom will you flee for help,
  and where will you abandon your splendor?),
  4       except cower beneath a captive,
  fall beneath the slain?
  For all this, his anger did not turn;
  his hand was still stretched out.

My wife’s son-in-law returned yesterday from one of his recurrent trips to meet with Darfuri refugees in Chad to encourage them, show some interest on the part of people from the United States, and look for ways of advocating for them. The focus of activity on this occasion was the hope of sending a soccer team from Darfur to the upcoming Viva World Cup, a competition for peoples such as the Iraqi Kurds who cannot take part in the regular World Cup. They took with them two soccer coaches and organized a competition for players from the different camps to identify a squad to take part in the competition if the diplomatic and practical hurdles can be overcome (and they can get the proper footware; the Darfuri usually play barefoot). It may seem an inconsequential, frivolous project; yet play can be important aid to healing, and the creation of the team and the prospect of their being able to join in the tournament is a monumental sign of hope for a people who have no hope.
For Judahites, when people have experienced darkness, defeat, and oppression, the birth of a new son in the royal household is a sign of hope. This section’s opening paragraph mostly speaks of Yahweh’s act of restoration as if it’s past, but the restoration had not happened in Isaiah’s day, so it likely speaks by faith of what Isaiah knows God is going to do. He can speak as if the events have happened because they have already begun; it’s a common feature of the way Scripture works. The event that has actually happened is the birth of a son to the king, perhaps the birth of Hezekiah to Ahaz. People would look back to his birth as a significant moment, given his greatness as a reformer and as one who saw Yahweh marvelously preserve Jerusalem from falling to Assyria.
So he has that complicated name, “An-extraordinary-counselor-is-the-warrior-God, the-everlasting-Father-is-an-officer-for-well-being.” Like earlier names in Isaiah (God-is-with-us, Remains-Will-Return, Plunder-hurries-loot-rushes), the name is a sentence. None of these names are the person’s everyday name—as when the New Testament says that Jesus will be called Immanuel, “God with us,” without meaning this expression is Jesus’ name. Rather, the person somehow stands for whatever the “name” says. God gives him as a sign of the truth of the expression attached to him. The names don’t mean that the person is God with us, or is the remains, or is the plunder, and likewise this new name doesn’t mean the child is what the name says. Rather he is a sign and guarantee of it. It’s as if he goes around bearing a billboard with that message and with the reminder that God commissioned the billboard.
The name makes some declarations about God. The warrior God is an extraordinary counselor or planner. That is, Yahweh is expert at determining what the future should bring and seeing that it does so; and Yahweh is capable of making plans that bring about events that one would never have guessed. Further, the everlasting Father is an officer who brings well-being. Isaiah 1 bemoaned how the children have disdained their father, and they have paid for it, but their father isn’t finished with them. The Hebrew word for an officer often denotes an army officer, which links with the description of Yahweh as the warrior God. In this context shalom will then include the idea of peace, but the word commonly has the broader meaning of well-being—life as a whole going well. This prospect is what the child’s name promises Judah.
The child’s birth is a sign that God will restore his people. As David exercised government with faithfulness, so will this child (unlike his father). Remarkably, Isaiah starts from the restoration of Ephraim: the far northern clans of Zebulun and Naphtali, the Mediterranean region, the northeastern areas across the Jordan, and Galilee, to which the Assyrians transported other peoples. The birth of a new son to David’s household underwrites the future of Israel as a whole. In his mind’s eye Isaiah can see light dawning over the whole land, light that contrasts with the darkness of which chapter 8 spoke. He can see the Assyrian yoke broken, its army turning tail, as chapters 36–37 will describe. Judges 6–8 recounts the deliverance from Midian. Neatly, Jesus started his preaching in the north, so Matthew 4 can look at his ministry in light of Isaiah’s vision. Jesus hasn’t brought about the fulfillment of the entire vision, not any more than Hezekiah did, but he was another sign and guarantee that God will bring about its fulfillment, and a more compelling one. He wasn’t merely wearing a billboard; he embodied its message.
Meanwhile, the book reverts to the critique and warning that characterized earlier chapters. They addressed their “Hey” to people who were using their power and resources to act oppressively, and they spoke of God’s anger not having turned away and his hand being still stretched out. That analysis, confrontation, and warning recurs, completing a frame around the account of Isaiah’s commission and ministry. People have experienced reversals but have determined to take control of the situation and have declined to recognize a need to turn to Yahweh. Yahweh has put down their misleading leaders but also holds the ordinary and vulnerable people responsible for following them. The nation has seen a total disintegration of its community ethos and its people’s mutual commitment—within the northern kingdom, and that of the northern kingdom against Judah. It’s still not over. They still need to turn.

ISAIAH 10:5–32

On Mixed Motives

  5       Hey, Assyria, my angry club—
  and the mace in their hand is my wrath.
  6       Against an impious nation I send it;
  I commission it against a people toward which I am wrathful,
  to take plunder and seize spoil,
  and make it into something trampled like mud in the streets.
  7       But it doesn’t think this way;
  its mind doesn’t reckon this way.
  Because in its mind is to destroy,
  to cut off nations not a few.
  8       Because it says,
  “Are my officers not kings, altogether?
  9       Isn’t Calno like Carchemish, or Hamath like Arpad—
  or Samaria like Damascus?
  10       As my hand reached the nonentity kingdoms
  (and their images were more than [those of] Samaria and Jerusalem)—
  11       as I did to Samaria and its nonentities,
  shall I not do the same to Jerusalem and its images?”
  12       But when my Lord finishes all his action
  against Mount Zion and against Jerusalem:
  “I will attend to the fruit of the king of Assyria’s big-headedness
  and to the lofty splendor of his look.”
  13        Because he said, “By the might of my hand I have acted,
  by my wisdom, because I have understanding.
  I have removed the borders of peoples,
  I have plundered their treasures,
  as a mighty one I have subdued inhabitants.
  14       My hand reached, as [into] a nest,
  for the wealth of peoples.
  Like one gathering abandoned eggs,
  I myself gathered the entire earth.
  There was not one flapping a wing,
  or opening its mouth and chirping.”
  15       Does the ax glorify itself over the person who chops with it,
  or the saw magnify itself over the person who wields it,
  as if the club wields the person who lifts it up,
  as if the mace raised the one who is not made of wood?
  16       Therefore the Lord Yahweh Armies will send off
  a wasting disease against his well-fed ones.
  Beneath its [people of] honor it will burn,
  with a burning like the burning of fire.
  17       The light of Israel will become fire,
  its holy one a flame.
  It will burn and consume its thorn
  and its thistle, in one day.
  18       The splendor of its forest and its farmland
  it will finish off, body and soul.
  It will be like the wasting away of a sick person;
       19       the remains of the trees in its forest will be so few
  that a boy could write them down.

  20       On that day the remains of Israel
  and the survivors of the household of Jacob
  will not again lean on the one that hit them.
  They will lean on Yahweh,
  Israel’s holy one, in truth.
  21       The remains will turn, the remains of Jacob,
  to God, the warrior God.
  22       Though your people, Israel,
  should be like the sand of the sea,
  it will be remains of it that will turn;
  a finishing is determined, overwhelming faithfulness.
  23       Because a finish, a thing determined—
  the Lord Yahweh Armies is doing it,
  in the midst of the entire country.

  24       Therefore the Lord Yahweh Armies has said this:
  “Don’t be afraid, my people
  who dwell on Zion, of Assyria,
  which hits you with a club
  and lifts its mace against you in the manner of the Egyptians.
  25       Because in a very little while more,
  my wrath will finish,
  and my anger will be toward their destruction.”
  26       Yahweh Armies is lifting up a whip against it
  like the hitting of Midian at the Oreb Crag,
  like his mace over the sea,
  and he will raise it in the manner of Egypt.
  27       On that day its burden will move away from your shoulder,
  and his yoke from upon your neck;
  the yoke will be destroyed in the face of your stoutness.

  28       He has gone against Aiat, he has passed by Migron,
  at Mikmas he stationed his equipment.
  29       They crossed at the pass;
  “Geba will be lodging for us.”
  Ramah trembles,
  Gibeah of Saul has fled.
  30       Yell aloud, Bat-gallim, pay heed, Laishah,
  answer, Anatot!
  31       Madmenah ran away,
  the inhabitants of Gebim sought refuge.
  32       Yet this day at Nob, standing,
  he will wave his hand.
  at the mount of Ms. Zion,
  the hill of Jerusalem.

Next week my wife and are to speak at a retreat for students aimed at helping people maintain a connection with God while they’re studying theology. I’m looking forward to this event because we have the experience of going through seminary and watching generations of students do so, so we have experiences to share, lessons we have learned, and reflections to offer. I’m pretty confident that students will appreciate at least some things we say, and I won’t object if they say so afterward. Of course I may be totally wrong, but whether I am or not, the problem is that my keenness to be useful to students and my keenness to serve God is mixed up with my enjoyment of performing in a way that people will appreciate. As a pastor I’m always faced by the question of whether I’m doing my work for God’s sake or for people’s sake or for my sake—or, rather, if these three motivations are always mixed up.
Maybe they were mixed up for Isaiah. Certainly they were mixed up for the Assyrians, if not at the level of conscious motivation. The Assyrians were serving Yahweh but didn’t realize it. They were rampaging around the Middle East carving out an empire, and their rampaging in Ephraim and Judah was the means of God acting there. They were the club or mace that God wielded in expressing anger at the people’s wrongdoing. The Bible often sees the superpowers as means whereby God’s purpose is fulfilled, for good or ill. But in neither connection are they trying to serve God. Their motivation isn’t mixed. They just want to serve their own interests (but this doesn’t stop God using them). They operate with the self-confidence that’s natural to a superpower. They know their resources are bigger than anyone else’s; they can beat anyone. They have a proven strategic track record.
The trouble is that they’re thus more impressed with themselves than they are with the God whom they’re unconsciously serving. And the basis upon which God evaluates them isn’t whether God finds them strangely useful. It’s the nature of that motivation. God doesn’t see anything unjust in utilizing people’s wrong instincts yet still evaluating them on the basis of those instincts. The Assyrians will be judged in the same way as their victims are judged. They get cut no slack because God uses them. They will find the God who is the light of Israel setting them alight.
The message concerns Assyria but it’s designed for Judah to hear. We get no indication that a prophet such as Isaiah went off to address the Assyrian king. It’s usually the case that when prophets speak as if they’re addressing other nations, it’s Israel that they’re directly addressing. Their job is to enable the people of God to understand what God is doing in the world and to live their lives in light of that understanding. The point is more explicit when Isaiah goes on to tell people not to be afraid of Assyria. You could say it’s a strange exhortation. Judah has every reason to be afraid of Assyria in the short term. The final paragraph gives a vivid imaginary description of the frightening advance on Jerusalem by the Assyrian army. But Judah continues to be “my people.” Assyria’s destructiveness won’t be the end of the story. The pattern in the putting down of Egypt at the Reed Sea at the exodus and of Midian in Gideon’s day (see Judges 6–8) will be repeated.
Thus when Isaiah goes on to speak of the people who form the leftovers in Judah when the superpower is finished with them, and of how they will behave in the future, he is again addressing Judah, and his words are again not mere predictions but challenges and promises designed to influence Judah in the present. The section keeps moving between declarations about Assyria’s and Judah’s future and warnings to Judah, and this reflects the way it sets different challenges and scenarios before Judah, designed to provoke a response. Judah has an unfortunate penchant for relying on people who will then turn on them, people such as the Assyrians themselves. Eventually they will see sense and realize whom they should rely on. A people will survive who are mere leftovers, a tiny people that Yahweh allows to survive to avoid wiping out the whole people when Yahweh’s wrath overwhelms Yahweh’s instinct to be faithful and not act in judgment. They will be a remnant, in the traditional translation. But that tiny people will turn to Yahweh and become faithful leftovers, a faithful remnant.

ISAIAH 10:33–12:6

A Day When There Will Be a Song to Sing

  10:33       There is the Lord Yahweh Armies,
  lopping off boughs with a crash.
  The loftiest in height are being felled,
  the tall ones fall down.
  34       The thickets in the forest will be struck down with an ax,
  and Lebanon will fall by the Mighty One.
  11:1       But a shoot will come out from Jesse’s stump,
  a branch will sprout from his roots.
  2       Yahweh’s breath will rest on him,
  a wise and understanding breath,
  a breath of counsel and strength,
  a breath of acknowledgment and awe for Yahweh;
       3       his delight will be awe for Yahweh.
  He will not exercise authority by the seeing of his eyes,
  or reprove by the hearing of his ears.
  4       He will exercise authority with faithfulness for the poor,
  and reprove with uprightness for the lowly people in the country.
  He will hit the country with the club in his mouth,
  with the breath from his lips.
  5       Faithfulness will be the belt around his thighs,
  truthfulness the belt around his waist.
  6       Wolf will sojourn with lamb,
  leopard will lie down with goat,
  calf, lion, and yearling together,
  with a little boy leading them.
  7       Cow and bear will graze,
  their young will lie down together.
  Cougar, like ox,
  will eat straw.
  8       A baby will play over the cobra’s burrow;
  an infant will hold its hand over the viper’s hole.
  9       People will not do evil, they will not destroy,
  in all my holy mountain.
  Because the country will be full of the acknowledgment of Yahweh
  as the waters cover the sea.
  10       On that day, Jesse’s root which will be standing
  as a signal for peoples—
  nations will inquire of him,
  and his abode will be [a place of] splendor.

  11       On that day my Lord will again apply his hand
  to get the remains of his people that remain,
  from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros,
  from Sudan, from Elam, from Shinar,
  from Hamat, and from the coasts of the [Mediterranean] Sea.
  12       He will lift up a signal to the nations,
  and gather the men of Israel who were thrown out,
  and the women of Judah who were scattered he will collect,
  from the four corners of the earth.
  13        Ephraim’s jealousy will go away,
  and harassers within Judah will be cut off.
  Ephraim won’t be jealous of Judah,
  and Judah won’t harass Ephraim.
  14       They will fly against the back of the Philistines to the west;
  together they will plunder the easterners.
  Edom and Moab will be [subject to] the extending of their hand;
  and the Ammonites will be their obedient people.
  15       Yahweh will dry up the tongue of the Egyptian sea,
  and will wave his hand over the Euphrates
  with the heat of his breath.
  He will hammer it into seven washes,
  and let people make their way in sandals.
  16       There will be a highway for the remains of his people,
  which remain from Assyria,
  as there was for Israel,
  on the day it came up from the country of Egypt.

  12:1       You will say on that day:
  I will confess you Yahweh,
  because whereas you were angry with me,
  your anger turned and you comforted me.
  2       There is God, my deliverance,
  I will trust and not be fearful,
  because Yah, Yahweh,
  is my strength and might.
  3       You will draw water with joy,
  from the fountains of deliverance.
  4       You will say on that day:
  Confess Yahweh, proclaim his name.
  Make his deeds known among the peoples,
  make mention that his name is on high.
  5       Make music for Yahweh, because he has acted in majesty;
  this is to be acknowledged in the entire earth.
  6       Yell and resound, inhabitants of Zion,
  because great in your midst is Israel’s holy one.

Our city’s annual Black History Parade this year had the theme “Looking back and remembering: we’ve come a mighty long way.” The words reminded me of the hymn, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.” But in my head I can hear some African American people rightly adding, “But we have a long way to go yet before we have a full place in our society. There are too many African Americans in prison and not enough in college. Our teenagers still get slain by police or vigilantes.” The dean of one of the schools in my seminary has been stopped by the police for driving while black. Do you stress the positive or the negative? There are people who see the glass as half full and others who see it as half empty. Both play an important role in the community.
This section of Isaiah presupposes versions of that tension. Isaiah sees the Assyrian forest being felled. He sees it only in vision; it won’t happen for another century. Maybe he was disappointed not to see it fulfilled in his lifetime. But he has the vision, and hope depends on a vision. Likewise he can see the felling of Jesse’s tree—that is, the fall of David’s dynasty. This fall he can also see only in a vision, but he can also look beyond it and see a new shoot growing from the felled tree. Earlier he applied the imagery of felled tree and new shoot to the destiny of the people as a whole; here it applies to David’s household. The new shoot will lack the weaknesses that the Davidic kings have usually shown; he will realize the Davidic ideal in showing both compassion for the weak and toughness toward the oppressor. The context thus suggests that the picture of killers in the animal world being turned into pets is another image for the same deliverance.
There’s more that Yahweh intends to achieve through this new shoot. His significance will extend beyond Israel to the entire world. The sequence here implies the idea going back to God’s promise to Abraham, that what God does in Israel will be so impressive that the world will flock to Jerusalem to seek blessing and guidance from Yahweh. Here the draw is the achievement of the Davidic shoot in bringing about a transformation of Judahite society.
The middle paragraph also talks in terms of a signal summoning the nations but does so in connection with another aspect of Israel’s own need. There’s need for social renewal; there’s also need to bring back to the country Ephraimites and Judahites who have been transported all over the known world. The Ephraimite transportation happened in Isaiah’s day, but the Judahite transportation happened over a century later, suggesting that this prophecy comes from a later prophet than Isaiah himself, like the prophecies in subsequent parts of this book. (In the event, a return of the people scattered all over the world never happens, partly because they like life where they are, then in due course their being spread over the world becomes an alternative means of God’s reaching out with his revelation to the whole world.)
The vision goes beyond the mere return of people to the land. It envisages a healing of the longstanding tension within Israel between Ephraim and Judah, a tension going back to the split within the nation two centuries before Isaiah’s day that will reappear after the exile in the story told in Ezra and Nehemiah. Both periods also saw recurrent tension between Judah and its neighbors in Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Ammon; the story in Ezra and Nehemiah makes especially clear little Judah’s vulnerability to these people after the exile.
The final paragraph gives Judah a song to sing “on that day,” a song rather like the thanksgivings or testimonies that appear in the Psalms, for singing when God has done something amazing for people. This “psalm” also assumes that God’s acts for his people are not significant just for them. Their praise deserves to be heard among other nations so that they’re drawn to acknowledge Yahweh.
The song brings the first major section of Isaiah to a close. You could say that the whole story is contained in these twelve chapters. There has been confrontation, warning, and promise, and the community is invited to live within this story, facing the challenges of the present but also (when the warnings have been fulfilled) living by the promises for the future. Providing the people with a song that they will be able to sing one day is another way of inviting them to live in hope. If they yield to the song, they’re virtually praising God for fulfilling his promises before the fulfillment happens. Wherever they are, they’re invited to see that they have come this far by faith and can continue in hope, not because their faith or hope is big but because the God they trust and hope in is big. It fits that the last clause in Isaiah 1–12 is a declaration about “Israel’s holy one.”
It’s hard to acknowledge after 2,700 years that Isaiah’s vision has been fulfilled only in little ways (the glass is only half full), though Jesus’ coming does constitute God’s “Yes” to his promises. It thus makes it the more possible to keep believing in them and to keep singing the song in anticipation.

ISAIAH 13:1–14:2

The Downfall of the Superpower

  13:1       A prophecy about Babylon, which Isaiah ben Amoz saw.

  2       On a bare mountain lift up a signal,
  raise your voice to them.
  Wave your hand,
  so that they will come through the leaders’ gates.
  3       I myself have commanded the people I have sanctified,
  I have called my warriors on behalf of my wrath,
  the people who exult in my majesty.
  4       The sound of uproar on the mountains,
  the semblance of a great company,
  the sound of the din of kingdoms, nations assembling—
  Yahweh Armies is mustering an army for war.
  5       They are coming from a distant country,
  from the end of the heavens,
  Yahweh and the instruments of his wrath,
  to devastate the entire earth.
  6       Howl, because Yahweh’s day is near;
  like destruction from the Destroyer it comes.
  7       Therefore all hands go limp,
  every human heart melts.
  8       They are terrified, spasms and throes seize them,
  they thrash about like a birthing woman.
  One person looks aghast at his neighbor;
  their faces are flaming [red] faces.

  9       There, Yahweh’s day is coming, ruthless,
  with fury and angry blazing,
  to turn the earth into a desolation,
  so that it can destroy its offenders from it.
  10       Because the stars in the heavens, and their constellations,
  will not flash their light,
  the sun will have gone dark when it comes out,
  the moon will not shine its light.
  11       I will attend to its evil upon the world,
  and to their waywardness upon the faithless.
  I will put an end to the majesty of the arrogant,
  and bring down the dignity of the violent.
  12       I will make people scarcer than pure gold,
  human beings than Ophir gold.
  13        Therefore I will make the heavens quake,
  and the earth will shake out of its place,
  at the fury of Yahweh Armies,
  on the day of his angry blazing.
  14       Like a hunted gazelle,
  like sheep with no one gathering them,
  each person will turn to his people,
  each will flee to his country.
  15       Everyone who is found will be run through,
  everyone who is swept up will fall by the sword.
  16       Their little ones will be smashed before their eyes,
  their homes will be plundered, their wives bedded.

  17       There am I, stirring up the Medes against them,
  who don’t count silver, and gold—they don’t want it.
  18       Their bows will smash the young,
  they won’t have compassion on the fruit of the womb,
  their eye won’t spare children.
  19       So Babylon, the most splendid of kingdoms,
  the majestic splendor of the Kaldeans,
  will become like God’s overturning of Sodom and Gomorrah.
  20       It will not be inhabited ever,
  it will not be dwelt in to all generations.
  Arab will not camp there,
  shepherds will not pasture there.
  21       Wild creatures will lie down there;
  their houses will be full of owls.
  Ostriches will dwell there,
  wild goats will leap about there.
  22       Hyenas will live in its strongholds,
  dragons in its luxurious palaces.
  Its time is near coming,
  its days will not drag on.

  14:1       Because Yahweh will have compassion on Jacob
  and will again choose Israel.
  He will settle them on their land and the alien will join them
  and attach themselves to the household of Jacob.
  2       Peoples will take them
  and bring them to their place.
  The household of Israel will possess them
  on Yahweh’s land as male and female servants.
  They will be captors to their captors
  and will rule over their bosses.

Last Sunday’s newspaper included three reviews of books on “the state of the union,” one by a Brit, two by Americans, all written by people who love the United States, but all concerned about its decline as the world’s one superpower. It’s often said that the United States has endless capacity to reinvent itself, and (the books and the reviewers argue) it needs to draw on that capacity not merely for its own sake but for the world’s sake, because while the country may be in a dysfunctional state, the current world order is in a more parlous one. “Given what else is out there, the world still needs America,” one of the writers affirmed. Someone has to be dominant in the world, and the United States being masters of the world is better than any plausible alternative.
I’m not sure what I think of that argument; I do think that both Testaments emphasize the down side to the idea that someone has to dominate the world, and they make clear that sooner or later the superpower does fall. Babylon is a great example—as is the tellingly-entitled Tower of Babel.
This chapter is the first of eleven chapters concerning the nations around Judah. Most of these peoples would presumably never know about the prophecies. They were meant for the Judahites to hear, to enable the people of God to look at their world in the right way. The particular significance of each prophecy would vary according to the significance of that nation for Judah’s life. Babylon was important to Judah in two ways, in different contexts. In Isaiah’s day, Babylon (modern Iraq) was a relatively unimportant nation far away to the east, but a nation with ambitions. It saw itself as making a challenge to Assyrian domination of its world, and it was interested in making allies with other nations to that end; we will come back to that dynamic in Isaiah 39.
But Babylon’s ambitions in Isaiah’s day wouldn’t make it important enough to take it as seriously as happens in the first two chapters of these prophecies about foreign nations. Its prominence here reflects the fact that it did realize its ambitions. A century after Isaiah’s day, it took Assyria’s place as the one superpower, and Judah became one of its underlings. When Judah rebelled against being in that position, the Babylonians came, destroyed Jerusalem, and took many of its people off in exile to Babylon. It’s this fact that lies behind Babylon’s prominence in these prophecies about the nations. Whatever the origin of individual prophecies in the book, it wasn’t Isaiah who organized it but people who saw the ongoing importance of his prophecies, and their work reflects the situation when Babylon is the superpower and the Judahites are in exile.
After the opening line of the section, in the first two paragraphs there’s no mention of Babylon at all. In part that functions to arouse suspense. You can imagine people listening to the prophecy and wondering who on earth it’s about. They could think that the army is the Babylonian army, and they could then wonder who are its victims. Only in the third paragraph do they discover that the army is the Medes, from further east (modern Iran) and that the Babylonians or Kaldeans are the victims.
The way the prophecy works also reflects how Babylon’s fall to the Medes is just one embodiment of a pattern—Assyria yields to Babylon, Babylon to the Medes and Persians, the Medes and Persians to the Greeks, the Greeks to the Romans. The pattern doesn’t hold independently of God’s activity. God is involved. Without realizing it, the Medes are an army dedicated to God’s service. Their rise indeed brings one embodiment of the Day of the Lord. The event has such world-shaking significance, it’s as if the whole cosmos goes dark. Isaiah pictures God sending his staff to raise an army with the gusto to join in this project that God has commissioned it for, to effect the downfall of people with whom God is wrathful, with repercussions for the whole world that it controls. The event’s connotations are frightening even for people who will benefit from it. The picture of calamity for one people melds into a picture of calamity for the world as a whole. It cannot simply point at the superpower and exult in its downfall but must see the superpower’s waywardness as an enhanced form of its own waywardness. Any downfall it experiences presages the world’s downfall.
The picture is expressed hyperbolically. When the Medes and Persians conquered Babylon, they didn’t destroy it or smash its children (this element in the prophecy is the basis for the hyperbolic prayer in Psalm 137). But they did bring it to an end. The last two verses make explicit the significance of this action for people in Judah two hundred years after Isaiah’s day. It will mean the reestablishing of the Judahite community, foreigners coming to join it, and their former masters becoming their servants.

ISAIAH 14:3–27

So You Have Fallen from the Heavens!

3 On the day Yahweh gives you rest from your suffering, from your turmoil, and from the hard service that was imposed on you, 4 you will take up this poem about the king of Babylon:

  Ah, the boss has stopped,
  the storm has stopped!
  5       Yahweh has broken the mace of the faithless,
  the rulers’ club,
  6       that hit peoples with fury,
  a hitting without breaking off,
  that subdued nations in anger,
  a persecution without holding back.
  7       The entire earth is at rest, it’s still;
  people have broken out in resounding.
  8       The juniper trees have rejoiced over you, too,
  the cedars of Lebanon:
  “Now you have lain down,
  no one will come up who will cut us down.”
  9       Sheol below has been astir regarding you,
  to meet your coming,
  rousing the ghosts regarding you,
  all earth’s big guys,
  raising from their thrones
  all the nations’ kings.
  10       All of them respond and say to you,
  “You too have been made weak as we are,
  you have become like us!”
  11       Your majesty has been brought down to Sheol,
  the sound of your harps.
  Beneath you worm is spread out,
  maggot is your covering.

  12       Ah, you have fallen from the heavens,
  bright one, son of dawn!
  You have been felled to the earth,
  enfeebler of nations!
  13        You’re the one who said within yourself,
  “I will go up to the heavens.
  Above the highest stars
  I will raise my throne.
  I will sit on the mount of assembly,
  on the extremities of Zaphon.
  14       I will go up on cloud tops,
  I will be like the One on High.”
  15       Yet you are brought down to Sheol,
  to the extremities of the Pit.
  16       The people who see you stare at you,
  they wonder about you.
  “Is this the man who shook the earth,
  who disturbed kingdoms,
  17       Who made the world an absolute wilderness
  and destroyed its cities?
  Its prisoners he did not release to [go] home,
       18       all the nations’ kings.”
  All of them lay down in honor,
  each in his “house.”
  19       But you have been thrown out away from your tomb,
  like abominable carrion,
  clothed in the slain,
  pierced by the sword,
  people who go down to the stones of the Pit
  like a trampled corpse.
  20       You won’t be one with them in burial,
  because you destroyed your country,
  you slaughtered your people;
  the offspring of evildoers will not be named forever.
  21       Prepare a place of slaughter for his children
  because of the waywardness of their ancestors.
  They are not to arise and possess the earth,
  so that cities cover the world’s surface.

  22       I will arise against them
  (a declaration of Yahweh Armies)
  and cut off for Babylon name and remains,
  offspring and descendants (Yahweh’s declaration).
  23       I will make it into the possession of the owl,
  pools of water.
  I will sweep it with a destructive sweeper
  (a declaration of Yahweh Armies).

  24       Yahweh Armies has sworn:

  Yes, as I envisaged, so it is happening;
  as I planned, it comes about:
  25       to break Assyria in my country—
  I will crush him on my mountains.
  His yoke will depart from upon them,
  his burden will depart from upon his shoulder.
  26       This is the plan that has been made for the entire earth,
  this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations.
  27       Because Yahweh Armies has made a plan,
  and who can frustrate it?
  His hand is stretched out,
  and who can turn it back?

Last night we watched a documentary about a young man on death row who was about to be executed. Ten years ago as a teenager he and a friend had murdered a woman, her son, and her son’s friend, all for the sake of stealing their fancy car. They were drunk and on drugs. The murderer’s own father was in his second life term for killing people. There seemed to be no mother around. When his penniless brother called their grandfather to ask what was going on, the grandfather refused to pay for the call. Words such as dysfunctional are insufficient to describe the family’s life. It reminded me of comments in the Gospels about Satan entering Judas and Jesus addressing Peter as Satan, as a way of explaining how people can do or say horrific things. So how did Satan become able and inclined to act that way?
John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost took Isaiah 14 to provide the answer. It describes how Satan could deceive Eve because “his pride / had cast him out from heaven, with all his host / of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring / to set himself in glory above his peers, / he trusted to have equaled the Most High, / if he opposed; and with ambitious aim / against the throne and monarchy of God / raised impious war in heaven and battle proud / with vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power / hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky / with hideous ruin and combustion down / to bottomless perdition, there to dwell / in adamantine chains and penal fire, / who durst defy the Omnipotent to Arms.”
Isaiah is indeed talking about someone trying to usurp God’s position of authority in the world, but he isn’t describing a supernatural being but talking about the Babylonian king as the head of the superpower. Our word “superpower” gives the game away. The claim to be a superpower is a claim to have usurped God’s authority. The prophecy sees the desire to control the entire world as a desire to have a godlike position over it.
Isaiah makes the point by taking up a theme people would have known (Ezekiel 28 does the same). For much of the year, Venus gets very bright just before dawn so that it can be called the son of dawn, the morning star. But for much of the year, in the morning Venus is eclipsed by the sun’s own brightness. Middle Eastern religions saw the planets and stars as representing the gods and representing things going on between the gods, and a Canaanite story saw these events in the sky as reflecting a failed attempt by Venus to become top god, to become president of the assembly of the gods.
The prophecy is using that story to describe the king of Babylon attempting to achieve a godlike position over the world, trying to become top dog or top god. It may refer to someone such as Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus, but it names no single king and it is inherently transferable to any ruler who makes the attempt it refers to. In Isaiah’s own day, it would refer to an Assyrian king such as Sennacherib, whose overreaching and downfall is the subject of Isaiah 37–38. (Assyria indeed gets a mention later in this section.) Either way, in Isaiah (and Ezekiel) it’s a prophecy about events in this world.
It’s a prophecy with a promise. When the Judahites look at the Assyrian or Babylonian king, they see someone who looks all-powerful, more powerful than God. In the vision God gives Isaiah, the king has been cast down from the godlike position over the world that he sought. He has gone from the height of heaven to the depth of Sheol. His predecessors as kings stand up to welcome him. But he doesn’t get the splendid burial that other kings got. His corpse is more like that of an ordinary person killed in battle, lying on the battlefield in a heap of corpses, a long way from the mausoleum he expected to occupy.
God hasn’t yet given Judah rest from its suffering, turmoil, and servitude to the superpower. But in his vision Isaiah has seen the superpower’s downfall, and his people are invited to live in the certainty that rest will come. They will be able to take up his poem; it will be reality, not just hope. And it happened. Assyria fell. Babylon fell. It’s not only one king who falls. Whole dynasties do so. The dictator’s sons don’t get a chance to take over from their father; they’re put down too.
In these promises there’s also comfort for the Assyrians and Babylonians themselves. It’s not only other peoples that suffer at the hand of a superpower’s king. His own people suffer.

ISAIAH 14:28–16:14

Compassion and Openness to Learning

  14:28       In the year King Ahaz died, this prophecy came:

  29       Don’t rejoice, all you Philistines,
  because the club of the one who hit you has broken.
  Because from the snake’s root a viper will come out,
  its fruit a flying seraph.
  30       The firstborn of poor people will pasture,
  the needy will lie down in safety.
  But I will kill your root with hunger,
  I will slay the remains of you.
  31       Howl, gate; cry out, city;
  melt, all you Philistines.
  Because a cloud is coming from the north;
  there’s no one going astray in its appointed ranks.
  32       What will one answer the nation’s aides?—
  that Yahweh has established Zion,
  and on it the lowly of his people will rely.

  15:1       A prophecy about Moab.

  Yes, by night Ar has been destroyed,
  Moab has been devastated.
  Yes, by night Qir has been destroyed,
  Moab has been devastated.
  2       Dibon has gone up to the house,
  to the high places, to weep.
  Over Nebo and over Medeba
  Moab howls.
  On every head in it there is shornness,
  every beard is cut off,
       3       in its streets they wear sackcloth.
  On its roofs, in its squares,
  everyone in it howls, falling down with weeping.
  4       Heshbon and Elealah cry out,
  their voice makes itself heard in Jahaz.
  Therefore the armed men of Moab shout,
  its spirit trembles within it.
  5       My heart cries out for Moab—
  its fugitives as far as So‘ar,
  as far as Eglat-shelishiyah.
  Yes, the ascent of Luhit—
  with weeping they climb it.
  Yes, the road to Horonaim—
  they raise a shattering cry.
  6       Yes, the waters of Nimrim
  become a great desolation.
  Yes, the grass is dry, the vegetation is finished,
  greenery has ceased.
  7       Therefore the abundance they’ve made and what they have in their charge—
  they carry them across the Willows Wash.
  8       Yes, the cry has surrounded Moab’s border,
  as far as Eglaim its howl,
  and in Beer-elim its howl.
  9       Yes, the waters of Dimon are full of blood,
  yet I will put more on Dimon—
  a lion for the survivors of Moab,
  for the remains of the land.

  16:1       Send a ram belonging to the country’s ruler,
  from Sela in the wilderness to the mountain of Ms. Zion.
  2       Like a bird flitting, a nest thrown out,
  are the Moabite women at the fords of the Arnon.
  3       “Bring us counsel, make a decision,
  make your shadow like night at midday.
  Shelter the banished, don’t betray the fugitive;
       4       the people banished from Moab should sojourn with you.
  Be a shelter for them
  from the face of the destroyer.”
  When the oppressor is no more, when destruction finishes,
  when the devastator has come to an end from the country,
  5       a throne will be established with commitment,
  there will sit on it in truthfulness
  in David’s tent one who exercises authority,
  inquiring after judgment, and quick in faithfulness.

  6       We have heard of Moab’s majesty,
  very majestic,
  its majesty, its loftiness, and its arrogance—
  its empty talk is not like that.
  7       Therefore Moab should howl,
  everyone in it should howl for Moab,
  for the blocks of raisins from Qir-hareset you should moan,
  utterly stricken
  8       Because the terraces of Heshbon languish,
  the vines of Sibmah.
  The nations’ lords have struck down their clusters
  that had reached as far as Jazer,
  that wandered into the wilderness;
  when their shoots spread, they crossed to the sea.
  9       Therefore I weep with Jazer’s weeping
  for Sibnah’s vines.
  I drench you with my tears,
  Heshbon and Elealeh.
  Because over your summer fruit and over your harvest
  the cheering has died.
  10       Rejoicing and gladness are gathered up from the farmland,
  in the vineyards no one resounds, no one shouts.
  Wine in the presses—the treader doesn’t tread;
  I have made the cheering stop.
  11       Therefore my heart moans for Moab like a guitar,
  my spirit for Qir-heres.
  12       When Moab appears, when it wearies itself,
  at the high place,
  when it comes to its sanctuary to pray,
  it will not avail.

13 This is the word that Yahweh spoke for Moab previously. 14 But now Yahweh has spoken: “In three years in accordance with the years of an employee, Moab’s splendor with all its great multitude will be humbled. The remains will be a small thing, tiny, not much.”

I have mentioned that my wife’s daughter and son-in-law give their lives to seeking to make known the plight and needs of the hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees who fled from genocide in Sudan ten years ago and have been living since then in camps in Chad. My wife gets discouraged because it seems impossible to get the world to take their plight seriously and do something about it. It’s as if Satan or God has blocked the world’s ears to their cry. One reason why Satan or God has been able to do so is what is often termed the world’s compassion fatigue. There’s a limit to the energy available in the world to care about the needs of desperate peoples, and the Darfuri are the victims of this dynamic.
Maybe Isaiah helps Judah in this connection in his prophecy about Moab, just east of Judah, across the Dead Sea. The Old Testament expresses two attitudes to Moab. It tells scandalous stories about Moab, for instance casting aspersions on its origins (Genesis 19). These stories reflect the tensions between neighbors who were often fighting each other; in Isaiah’s day, Moab joined the peoples rebelling against Assyria. But the Old Testament also tells a story about a Moabite woman called Ruth who came to believe in Yahweh and commit herself to a Judahite family, and in particular to her widowed mother-in-law, and about the way the Judahites of Bethlehem welcomed her into their community so that she became David’s great-grandmother.
Isaiah begins his Moab chapters with a vision of Moab’s destruction, or rather of its situation after its destruction. Like the prophecy about Babylon, it likely describes something that has happened in the prophet’s imagination, not yet in actuality. One of its functions is to get Judah to understand Moab’s potential destiny and be forewarned about the danger of allying with Moab. The closing verses of the section declare that the vision is about to find fulfillment.
The first paragraph about Moab describes cities scattered through Moab coping with the consequences of invasion, the grief that consumes people, and the places toward which people from those cities fled for refuge, carrying their possessions like those Darfuri refugees fleeing genocide in Sudan. Their cry makes itself heard throughout the country—Isaiah uses the word for the Israelites’ cry in Egypt. His own feelings are suggested by the way he himself cries out for Moab; it’s the same word. Yet he also tells us that Yahweh isn’t yet finished with bringing calamity on Moab.
The middle paragraph about Moab begins with either Isaiah or Yahweh urging Moab to send a present from its king to Jerusalem. Apparently the leadership has taken refuge at Sela in Edom, which later became the Nabataean city of Petra, while Moabite women whose men have lost their lives cross the Arnon (the Israel-Moab boundary) looking for refuge. Perhaps it’s these women in their female wisdom who utter the plea to Judah to offer Moab protection. They declare that turning to Jerusalem and to the Davidic king isn’t merely a temporary expedient to get them through a crisis. Somehow their experience has made them willing to look to the Davidic king for the truthful, committed, faithful exercise of authority. So it is in the prophet’s vision. The place where Yahweh dwells is the only place for a nation in despair to turn—and even Moab can turn there.
The last paragraph takes us back to the disaster; the section isn’t arranged chronologically. Moab’s impressiveness, its proper national pride, and its self-confidence have been extinguished. Its impressive vineyards that seemed to reach across the world, and the rest of its farmland, have been devastated. In response to his vision, once again the prophet mourns for Moab. The Moabites may turn to their gods, but it will get them nowhere. There’s no suggestion that calamity comes on Moab as an act of judgment, still less judgment for Moab’s enmity to Judah. Many events in history don’t have that kind of significance. They are just things that happen. They do open up possibilities. As Jesus puts it in Luke 13, the collapse of a tower in Siloam didn’t mean the victims were worse sinners than others. The question the story raises is what other people will learn from the event. Here, the question is whether Judah will learn from it. For Moab, the question would be whether it draws them to turn to Yahweh, preferably before disaster comes.
The opening paragraph in this section suggests that Philistia was tempted to rebel against Assyria, like Moab. An Assyrian king has died, and the Philistines think it might be a good moment for people like Philistia and Judah to assert their independence. Don’t be so silly, Isaiah says. The next king will be even worse. Once again the audience of Isaiah’s prophecy includes Judah itself; its point is to get Judah to live by trust in Yahweh, not by political calculation. People who do so will find pasture and will live in safety. If Philistia does rebel, it will pay a price. But the prophecy is sparing in the way it specifies who can be the beneficiaries of its invitations. It’s open to the Philistines to count themselves among the people who find pasture and safety, who find refuge in Zion and its God. Such is the message to the envoys from Philistia. As with Moab, it’s open to Philistia to turn to Yahweh.

ISAIAH 17:1–18:7

Who Would Want to Be a Superpower?

  17:1       A prophecy about Damascus.

  There is Damascus, removed from [being] a city;
  it will become a fallen ruin.
  2       The cities of Aroer will be abandoned,
  they will be for flocks,
  and they will lie down with no one disturbing.
  3       Fortress will cease from Ephraim,
  kingship from Damascus.
  The remains of Syria
  will become like the Israelites’ splendor
  (a declaration of Yahweh Armies).
  4       On that day Jacob’s splendor will become poor,
  the fat of his body will become thin.
  5       It will be like the gathering of the standing harvest,
  when someone’s arm harvests the ears,
  like the gleaning of ears in the Vale of Repha’im.
  6       There will remain gleanings in it,
  like the beating of an olive tree:
  two, three, berries on the top (the height);
  four, five, on a fruitful bough
  (a declaration of Yahweh, the God of Israel).
  7       On that day a person will turn to his maker,
  and his eyes will look to Israel’s holy one.
  8       He won’t turn to the altars that are the work of his hands,
  he won’t look to what his fingers made,
  both the columns and the incense stands.

  9       On that day his strong cities will be
  like the abandoned piece of woodland and height
  that people abandoned before the Israelites,
  and it will be a desolation.
  10       Yes, you have put out of mind the God who delivers you;
  your strong crag you have not kept in mind.
  Therefore you may plant the plants of the Lovely One
  and sow the cutting of an alien [god].
  11       On the day you plant, you may get them to grow,
  and in the morning you sow, get it to blossom;
  the harvest flees
  on the day of sickness and mortal pain.

  12       Aah, the uproar of many peoples,
  that roar like the seas’ roar,
  the din of nations,
  that make a din like the din of mighty waters!
  13        Nations make a din like the din of many waters,
  but he bellows at it and it flees far away,
  driven like the chaff on the mountains before the wind,
  like tumbleweed before the storm.
  14       Toward evening time there—terror;
  before morning, it is no more.
  This is the share of the people who despoil us,
  the lot of the people who plunder us.

  18:1       Hey, country of the buzzing of wings,
  that is beyond the rivers of Sudan,
  2       which sends envoys by sea
  in papyrus boats on the water’s surface.
  Go, swift aides,
  to a nation towering and smooth,
  to a people feared far and near,
  a nation characterized by gibberish and aggressiveness,
  whose country streams divide.
  3       All you inhabitants of the world,
  people who dwell in the earth!
  At the raising of a signal on the mountains, you should look,
  and at the sounding of the horn, you should listen.
  4       Because Yahweh has said this to me:
  “I will be quiet and I will look to my place,
  like glowing heat in the sunshine,
  like a dew cloud in the heat of harvest.”
  5       Because before harvest, when the blossom is done
  and the flower becomes a ripening grape,
  he will cut the shoots with pruning knives,
  and the tendrils he has removed he will have taken away.
  6       They will be abandoned, all of them,
  to the birds of prey of the mountains
  and the animals of the earth.
  The birds of prey will summer on them
  and all earth’s animals will winter on them.
  7       At that time
  tribute will be brought to Yahweh Armies,
  (a people towering and smooth,
  a people feared far and near,
  a nation characterized by gibberish and aggressiveness,
  whose country streams divide)
  to the place of the name of Yahweh Armies,
  Mount Zion.

Two days ago the news reported that for every soldier who dies on the battlefield in Afghanistan, twenty-five veterans commit suicide at home. It’s such an unbelievable statistic I have just checked it again. Yesterday the news reported that the Taliban had undertaken a concerted offensive in Kabul that suggests an increasing sophistication and discipline and has made a former White House Afghanistan director express concern at the implied intelligence failure. Today’s news includes suggestions about a similarity between the position of the United States today and that of Britain in 1945 when it could no longer afford to run an empire and had lost the willpower to do so. It’s hard being an imperial power, even a soft one.
The center of this section has something to say about an imperial power, but the outside two paragraphs concern further individual peoples. It begins with Damascus, the capital of Syria; Isaiah 7 already critiqued the alliance of Ephraim with Syria designed to resist Assyrian ambitions in their area. This new prophecy restates its declarations about calamity coming on Syria and again associates Ephraim with its fate. For Syria and Ephraim alike, there will be only remnants of their present splendor. They’ll be like an emaciated person or the leftovers of a harvest—just a few olives on a branch too high to reach. Yet that word “remnant” continues to be capable of having its meaning turned upside down. If there are only remnants left, at least there are remnants. The first “on that day” prophecy envisages them seeing the error of their ways and finding their way back to Yahweh. Even for Ephraim, the end need not be the end. Indeed, the prophecy doesn’t make explicit that it’s talking about Ephraim. If the entire prophecy is “about Damascus,” the possibility of turning to Yahweh is open to Syria too.
The last paragraph takes us in the opposite direction, turning away from the north to the south from Judah. It talks about Sudan because a Sudanese dynasty ruled Egypt in Isaiah’s day, and Egypt directly impacts Judah as the big power to the south. From their insect-ridden land, the land of the Nile with its delta, the Sudanese send their envoys to Jerusalem by sea, along the Mediterranean coast. Isaiah bids the envoys go home to their tall, smooth-skinned people, widely respected in the world of the day.
The rationale for his brisk response is the same as applies to similar overtures from Ephraim and Syria. Judah isn’t in the business of playing politics. Isaiah presents his message as one for the whole world to recognize. Decisions in politics are not made by people like Syria, Ephraim, Judah, Egypt, Sudan, or Assyria itself. They’re made by Yahweh. At the moment Yahweh is just sitting there watching. There are moments when he is active and moments when he bides his time. Our human attempts to control our destiny sometimes simply fail, because they don’t fit into the intentions he is pursuing and the timeframe he is working with. Yahweh is like a farmer sitting waiting in the heat of summer for the right moment to harvest the crops. But before the grape harvest there’s further tough pruning and discarding to be done. Yes, there’s a divine purpose at work at a quite different level from the one at which the politicians are operating.
Again the implication isn’t simply that there’s never to be a relationship between Yahweh and a far-off nation such as Sudan. A time will arrive when they will come to Jerusalem not just on a political mission. These tall, smooth-skinned, frightening, aggressive people with their strange language will come back to bring Yahweh an offering, to recognize the significance of Zion in a new way.
The paragraphs about Syria-Ephraim and Sudan-Egypt form the frame around this section. At the center stand two shorter paragraphs that don’t name their addressees but imply their identity clearly. The first begins by talking about an abandoned land; it uses a word that came in the warning to Judah in Isaiah 6 and comes nowhere else in the Bible. It addresses “you,” and “you” is feminine singular, speaking the way one speaks to Jerusalem. If Judahites and Jerusalemites were comforted by declarations about trouble coming on people such as Syria-Ephraim and Sudan-Egypt, they had better shape up. The lovely one and the stranger are the alien gods that people in Judah also prayed to. People think their harvest will then flourish, but actually it will be a disaster.
The paragraph about “the nations” has the potential for being good news, though only if its challenge is also accepted. “The nations” often means the empire as a whole—in Isaiah’s day, Assyria. The pressure of peoples such as Syria-Ephraim and Sudan-Egypt correctly presupposed that Assyria is a great threat to their area. Isaiah declares that people need not fear the roar of the Assyrian beast. When Yahweh bellows, it will run away. In the evening it may terrify you; by morning, it can be gone. The story in Isaiah 37–38 will put flesh on the bones of this declaration. Once again Isaiah challenges people to trust that Yahweh is capable of having things in hand. It would also be a means of witnessing to Yahweh’s sovereignty in the world and of embodying what it means to follow Yahweh.

ISAIAH 19:1–25

Egypt My People

  1       A prophecy about Egypt.
  There is Yahweh, riding on a swift cloud, coming to Egypt.
  Egypt’s nonentities will tremble before him,
  and Egypt’s heart will melt within it.
  2       I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians,
  and one will fight against his brother,
  one against his neighbor, city against city,
  kingdom against kingdom.
  3       Egypt’s spirit will drain away within it,
  and I will confound its plan.
  They will inquire of the nonentities and the ghosts,
  of the mediums and experts.
  4       But I will put Egypt
  into the hand of a hard master.
  A powerful king will rule over them
  (a declaration of the Lord Yahweh Armies).
  5       Water will dry up from the sea,
  the river will wither and parch.
  6       Rivers will stink as they get low,
  the channels of Egypt will dry up.
  Reed and rush will wither,
       7       the plants by the Nile, by the mouth of the Nile.
  Everything sown at the Nile will wither,
  blow away, be no more.
  8       The fishermen will lament and mourn,
  all those who throw a hook into the Nile.
  The people who spread a net
  on the water’s surface will have languished.
  9       The workers with combed flax will be shamed,
  and the weavers of linen.
  10       Its textile workers will become crushed,
  all the wage-earners troubled in spirit.
  11       The officials at So’an are simply dense,
  Pharaoh’s wise counselors—stupid counsel.
  How can you say to Pharaoh,
  “I am a son of wise people,
  a son of the kings of Qedem?”—
       12       where on earth are your wise people?
  May they please tell you, may they acknowledge
  what Yahweh Armies has planned against Egypt.
  13        The officials at So’an have become fools,
  the officials at Noph have deceived themselves.
  They have made Egypt wander—
  they, the cornerstone of its clans.
  14       Yahweh has mixed within it
  a spirit of distortion.
  They will make Egypt wander in all it does,
  like the wandering of a drunk in his vomit.
  15       Nothing will be done by Egypt
  that head or tail can do, palm branch or reed.

16 On that day, the Egyptians will be like women, and will be trembling and fearful before the shaking of the hand of Yahweh Armies, which he is shaking against them. 17 The land of Judah will be a terror to the Egyptians. Everyone to whom someone makes mention of it will be fearful because of the plan of Yahweh Armies, which he is formulating against them. 18 On that day, there will be five cities in the country of Egypt speaking the tongue of Canaan and taking oaths to Yahweh Armies. “Sun City,” one will be called. 19 On that day there will be an altar for Yahweh in the heart of the country of Egypt and a column for Yahweh at its border. 20 It will be a sign and testimony for Yahweh Armies in the country of Egypt; when they cry out to Yahweh before oppressors, he will send them a deliverer and contender to rescue them. 21 Yahweh will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will acknowledge Yahweh on that day. They will serve with sacrifice and offering, and make promises to Yahweh and fulfill them. 22 Yahweh will strike Egypt, striking and healing. They will turn to Yahweh and he will let himself be entreated by them and will heal them. 23 On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. Assyria will come to Egypt and Egypt to Assyria. Egypt will serve with Assyria. 24 On that day Israel will be the third for Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 because Yahweh Armies has blessed it, saying “Blessed be my people Egypt, my handiwork Assyria, and my own possession Israel.”

Yesterday I had dinner with two people home from working in the Middle East, one in a Christian university to the north of Israel, the other in a seminary to the south. In both countries the Christian community is a minority in a tough context where increasing numbers of Christians leave for places such as the United States. Yet the presence of many fewer expatriate Christian workers than were there in the past has some positive implications. The churches have more capacity for accepting responsibility for their mission than might once have seemed the case. In both countries the Christian community has known ups and downs, but it has a history that goes back to the earliest decades of the church.
You could see the existence of the church in countries either side of Israel as a fulfillment of the promises at the end of Isaiah 19. The chapter as a whole provides the most spectacular example of the way these prophecies about other nations combine warnings of calamity with declarations of the positive concern God has for them. We have to keep reminding ourselves that whether or not these nations knew of the prophecies about them, the prophecies were given to Israel—hence their being in Israel’s Scriptures. They are there to help the people of God think about the world and about God’s involvement in the lives of nations.
So the first paragraph’s warnings about disaster coming to Egypt are there to warn Judah about treating Egypt as a resource, an ally in Middle Eastern politics, as it was inclined to do (Isaiah 30–31 will make that point more explicit). When Yahweh acts, Egypt’s nonentities (its tin-pot gods) will be helpless, its people will panic and turn on each other, and a foreign power will conquer it. While Yahweh might issue such threats against any people, and there’s no necessity to look for a link with a specific context, the Assyrian king Sargon did conquer Egypt in Isaiah’s day. Two threats look more customized for Egypt. One is the failure of its great natural resource, the Nile, with consequences running through the nation’s entire life. The other is the failure of the intellectual resources upon which it based its political policies. The government thought it had the best research program in the world, and Israelites were familiar with the intellectual achievements of Egyptian scholarship. But the best planning in the world gets you nowhere if Yahweh has a plan in a different direction.
So on that day there will be disaster for Egypt; but also on that day things will be spectacularly different. Cities in Egypt will be speaking Hebrew and taking oaths in Yahweh’s name, one of them being historically a city dedicated to the sun god. There will be an altar for worship of Yahweh at the heart of the country and a border sign announcing that it belongs to Yahweh. Egypt will have the same experience that Israel itself had in Egypt, of crying out and being delivered. The Egyptians will know Yahweh, worship Yahweh, and make and keep commitments to Yahweh. They will know chastisement but they will also know healing. It’s hard to see it as pure coincidence that there later developed a flourishing Jewish community in Egypt, that the translation of the Scriptures into Greek for the sake of Gentiles as well as Jews happened there, and that Egypt became one of the most important early centers of Christian faith.
And there will be that freeway between the great imperial center north of Israel and the great imperial center to the south. Yahweh’s intention to make Abraham’s people a blessing to the world will be fulfilled. While Israel is Yahweh’s own possession, Egypt will be “my people” and Assyria “my handiwork”—terms elsewhere that apply distinctively to Israel. Judah’s thinking about nations such as Egypt and Assyria has to include both their vulnerability to Yahweh (so don’t rely on them or fear them) and their destiny as Yahweh’s people and Yahweh’s handiwork.

ISAIAH 20:1–21:17

Prophet as Crazy Man

20:1 In the year the commander-in-chief came to Ashdod when Sargon, the king of Assyria, sent him, and made war on Ashdod and took it—2 at that time Yahweh spoke by the hand of Isaiah ben Amoz. “Go, loose the sackcloth from on your thighs and take the sandal from on your feet.” He did so, going stripped and barefoot. 3 Yahweh said, “As my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot three years as a sign and portent for Egypt and Sudan, 4 so the king of Assyria will drive off the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Sudan, young and old, stripped and barefoot, bare of buttock, Egypt’s nakedness. 5 People will be shattered and shamed because of Sudan their trust and Egypt their splendor. 6 The one who lives on this foreign shore will say on that day, ‘There, such is the state of the one we trusted, where we fled for help, for rescue from the king of Assyria. How can we ourselves escape?’ ”

  21:1       The prophecy about the Sea Wilderness.

  Like storms in the Negev passing through,
  from the wilderness it comes, from a fearful country.
  2       A hard vision has been told me:
  “The betrayer is betraying, the destroyer is destroying!
  Go up, Elam, lay siege, Media—
  I have put an end to all its groaning.”
  3       Therefore my thighs are full of convulsing,
  pains have seized me, like the pains of someone giving birth.
  I’m too struck down to listen, I’m too terrified to look;
       4       my mind wanders, shuddering has overwhelmed me.
  The evening that I loved,
  he has turned to horror for me.
  5       Setting the table, spreading the rug, eating, drinking …
  “Get up, officers, oil the shield!”
  6       Because Yahweh my Lord has said to me,
  “Go, set a watch, so he may tell what he sees.
  7       He will see a rider, a pair of horsemen,
  a donkey chariot, a camel chariot.
  He is to pay attention, with attention,
  great attention.”
  8       The lookout called:
  “On the watch I have been standing, my Lord,
  continually by day,
  and on my watch I have been taking my position
  every night.
  9       And there, a chariot of men is coming,
  a pair of horsemen.”
  He testified, “Babylon has fallen, fallen,
  all its gods’ images.
  He had smashed to the ground 10 my crushed one,
  my son on the threshing floor.”
  What I heard from Yahweh Armies,
  Israel’s God, I have told you.

  11       A prophecy about Dumah.
  Someone is calling to me from Se‘ir:
  “Watchman, what is there of the night,
  what is there of the night?”
  12       The watchman said,
  “Morning came, and night, too;
  if you inquire, inquire; come back again.”

  13        A prophecy in the steppe.

  In the forest, in the steppe, you lodge,
  caravans of Dedanites.
  14       Meet the thirsty one, bring water,
  you who inhabit the country of Tema,
  present the fugitive with his food.
  15       Because they have fled before swords,
  before the drawn sword,
  before the bent bow,
  before the weight of war.
  16       Because my Lord has said this to me:
  Yet a year according to the years of an employee,
  all the splendor of Qedar will finish.
  17       The remains of the number of the bows,
  the warriors of the Qedarites, will be few,
  because Yahweh, Israel’s God, has spoken.

The installing of a professor in his or her “chair” is an occasion for making fun of the person as well as for making seriously congratulatory speeches. I was not surprised that when I was installed one of the people who had been asked to speak made fun of my clothes. Indeed, the seminary president makes fun of them on various occasions. I like T-shirts and bright colors. On the other hand, I don’t much care for my clerical collar and hardly ever wear it. While I can provide you with a theological rationale for the abolition of the collar, the truth is that I don’t care for going around as a marked man in that way, even though I also know that people can sometimes find it helpful that someone is identifiable as a priest and can feel free to approach the person as a priest.
What would I have felt if I had been asked to do what Isaiah did? Prophets were often called to embody in their lives and actions some aspect of what God intended to do. Embodying it was more than merely an illustration. Because a prophet like Isaiah is God’s representative, it suggests he is putting into effect what he says. He was already embodying his message in his person when he went around in “sackcloth.” Sackcloth isn’t uncomfortable clothing but the kind you would normally wear only at home. Wearing it in public was a sign that something was wrong, that you were too poor or too preoccupied to dress properly. Maybe it was common wear for prophets, or maybe Isaiah was symbolizing his mourning for the moral and spiritual state of the people or for the fate that threatened them. Either way, by wearing sackcloth, Isaiah was already saying something. When he took off the sackcloth, this need not mean he was naked—quite likely he still had on something like underwear, which would still mean he was cold in a Jerusalem winter. The point was to embody the fate coming on the victims of Assyria.
The story has the same background as the previous chapter. Ashdod on the Mediterranean coast led a rebellion against Sargon and tried to involve Egypt and its Sudanese dynasty, but Sargon came and destroyed Ashdod. Be careful, then, Isaiah says to Judah. Don’t get sucked in. Look at me if you want to see where it will lead. Don’t trust in these people.
When people heard the reference to the Sea Wilderness that opens the next prophecy, they might have been puzzled. What immediately follows might have made them wonder if it referred to Judah’s southern wilderness, but the prophecy turns out to be another announcement of the fall of Babylon. So “Sea Wilderness” perhaps refers to Mesopotamia, across the desert from Judah, and the area near the Persian Gulf. A frightening message comes to the prophet, one referring to action by Elam and Media, far away to the east of Babylon. It’s action that will be good news for Judah, the fall of the betrayer and destroyer, the power that will later bring Judah trouble and groaning, smashing and crushing.
Dumah is an oasis in the desert west of Babylon. The message about it pictures its people there hearing with the approach of morning that an immediate threat of attack is over, yet warned that one deliverance of that kind doesn’t mean the end of the story. Dedan and Temah are also desert oases, south of Dumah. In the vision there has been a battle and the inhabitants of these oases are bidden to show compassion to people who have escaped with their lives. These fugitives are the remains of the people of Qedar, who live in that desert area. These three prophecies have little directly to do with Judah; they remind Judah that Yahweh is Lord of their histories too and that his activity lies behind the events in their history.

ISAIAH 22:1–25

Meanwhile, Back in Jerusalem

  1       A prophecy about Vision Valley.

  What are you doing here, then,
  that you have gone up, all of you, onto the roofs,
  2       you, full of noise, tumultuous city,
  exultant town?
  Your slain were not slain by the sword,
  they were not dead in battle.
  3       All your leaders fled together,
  without the bow they were captured.
  All those of you who were found were captured together,
  they ran far away.
  4       Therefore I have said, “Look away from me,
  I will express bitterness in weeping.
  Don’t try to comfort me
  over the destruction of the daughter of my people.”
  5       Because the Lord Yahweh Armies had a day of tumult,
  trampling, and confusion,
  in Vision Valley someone tearing down the wall,
  and a cry for help to the mountain.
  6       Elam carried the quiver,
  with chariotry of men, horsemen;
  and Qir bared the shield.
  7       Your choicest vales became
  full of chariotry and horsemen.
  They took their stand at the gate
       8       and it exposed Judah’s covering.
  You had looked on that day
  to the armory in the Forest House.
  9       The breaches in David’s city—
  you had considered them, that there were many.
  You had collected the water of the Lower Pool
       10       and counted the houses in Jerusalem.
  You had torn down the houses to strengthen the wall
       11       and made a basin between the two walls
  for the water from the old pool.
  But you did not look to the one who made it,
  you did not consider the one who formed it long before.

  12       The Lord Yahweh Armies
  summoned on that day,
  to weeping and lamenting,
  shaving the head and putting on sackcloth.
  13        But there—rejoicing and celebration,
  slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep,
  eating of meat and drinking of wine:
  “Eat and drink, because tomorrow we will die!”
  14       Yahweh Armies revealed himself in my ears:
  “If this waywardness of yours is expiated before you die …”
  the Lord Yahweh Armies has said.

15 The Lord Yahweh Armies said this: “Come, go to this administrator, to Shebna, who is over the house. 16 ‘What are you doing here, and whom do you have here, that you have hewn a tomb for yourself here, one who has hewn his tomb on high, who has chiseled a dwelling for himself in the crag? 17 There: Yahweh is going to hurl you far, warrior, he is going to grasp you firmly. 18 He is going to roll you up tightly, rolling you up like a ball, to a country broad on both sides. There you will die; there will be your splendid chariots, a humiliation to your master’s house. 19 I will thrust you out from your position; you will be ousted from your office. 20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliaqim son of Hilqiah. 21 I will put your uniform on him and fasten him with your belt, and put your authority in his hand. He will be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the household of Judah. 22 I will put the key of David’s household on his shoulder; he will open and no one will shut, he will shut and no one will open. 23 I will fix him as a peg in a reliable place; he will be an honorable throne for his father’s household. 24 All the honor of his father’s household will hang on him, offspring and shoots, all the little things, from the bowls to all the jars.’ ” 25 On that day (a declaration of Yahweh Armies) the peg fixed in a reliable place will depart. It will be hacked off and it will fall, and the load that is on it will be cut down (because Yahweh has spoken).

I have just come off the phone from a conversation with a former student in England who was in tears about failing a degree program. She doesn’t claim that her exam performance was brilliant; she sees herself as a poor examinee. But she doesn’t think her work deserved to fail. The failure comes at the end of two or three years in which she has always thought that her mentor, the examiner, treated her in a mean way. On her account, he has been known to read her work and then incorporate her ideas in his own work without attributing them. She thinks part of the problem may be that he is prejudiced against her for her Christian faith. She is more sure that he is prejudiced against her because she is a woman; there are other women who have received similar treatment from him. I have only her side of the story, but I do know that such things happen and that power corrupts.
Such corruption has overcome Shebna, who is something like the White House chief of staff. Isaiah 36–37 will tell us more of him (if it’s the same Shebna) and of the responsibility he had; this chapter’s preoccupation is what he has done with his power. It involves not his relationships with people but his using his position to glorify himself. Having a splendid tomb will perpetuate his memory, but even now it will draw attention to his importance.” “That Shebna must be very important, look at the tomb that awaits him!” God takes extraordinarily seriously his pretensions to high honor. Perhaps the warning about dying in exile is a metaphor and the warning about losing his position is the more literal picture of what will happen.
The earlier part of the chapter (like the previous chapter) starts in a way that will have puzzled its hearers and made them think. As they wondered what “Vision Valley” was, the immediately following lines might not help them. The prophecy addresses people who are celebrating something; they are having parties on the flat roofs of their houses. They have had a narrow escape, something like the relief of a siege. But should they really be partying when many of their leaders have been killed—not heroically in battle but having turned tail and run? In light of the suffering of the city, tenderly described as “the daughter of my people,” lamenting would be more appropriate than partying.
It’s actually the Day of the Lord that has come upon this people in Vision Valley. It has involved the breaching of the city’s walls and a cry to the sanctuary at the city’s height. Eventually the prophecy makes explicit that it’s referring to Judah and to David’s city. Vision Valley is a term for the slope outside the city. The mountain toward which the cry goes up is Mount Zion where the temple sits. Troops from Elam and Qir will have been an element in the Assyrian army that attacked Jerusalem in 701, when the city almost fell; Isaiah 36–37 again gives a fuller account. As the crisis approached, the city had looked hard at its defenses (the Forest House in Jerusalem had cedar columns, making it look a little like a forest), at its water supply. But people hadn’t turned to Yahweh, who lay behind the Assyrian invasion. They had missed the point.
Jerusalem’s miraculous escape was now a moment when Yahweh gave the city another chance to turn to weeping and lamenting. Instead they’re giving themselves to those parties. The proverbial saying “Eat and drink, because tomorrow we will die” occurs in many cultures. Here it’s not the people’s words but Isaiah’s typically ironic comment. “Go on, enjoy yourselves, because your refusal to learn from the way Yahweh acts toward you means your troubles are by no means over.” His explicit word from Yahweh underscores the point. There’s no way their waywardness can be expiated if they won’t turn to Yahweh. As usual, the critique, the irony, and the warning are all designed to drive the people into changing, but by the time the book comes together the warning has been fulfilled and they function to urge future generations to learn the lesson from these events.
The prophet’s ministry to Judah reflects the fact that they’re special in Yahweh’s sight. The location of this chapter about Jerusalem among the chapters about all the other nations reflects the fact that they behave no better than other people, and experience Yahweh relating to them in the same way as other people. As the other nations hear Yahweh’s invitations and promises in these chapters, so Judah hears Yahweh’s critique and warning. Sometimes the people of God behave more like the world than the world does.

ISAIAH 23:1–18

What to Do with a Whore’s Fee

  1       A prophecy about Tyre.
  Howl, Tarshish ships,
  because it has been destroyed from [there being] a house.
  After they came from the country of Cyprus,
  it was revealed to them.
  2       Be still, inhabitants of the coast,
  merchants of Sidon.
  Seafarers filled you,
       3       by many waters the seed of Shihor.
  The harvest of the Nile was its revenue,
  and it became the marketplace of the nations.
  4       Be shamed, Sidon, because the sea has said,
  “The stronghold of the sea!”
  “I have not labored, I have not given birth,
  I have not brought up young men or raised girls.”
  5       When the news [came] to Egypt, they were in anguish,
  when the news [came] about Tyre.
  6       Pass over to Tarshish;
  howl, you inhabitants of the coast.
  7       Is this your exultant one,
  whose antiquity is from ancient days,
  whose feet carried it
  to a nation far away?
  8       Who planned this for Tyre,
  the bestower of crowns,
  whose merchants were leaders,
  its traders the most honored in the earth?
  9       Yahweh Armies planned it,
  to defile all its splendid majesty,
  to humiliate all the most honored in the earth.
  10       Pass through your country like the Nile,
  Ms. Tarshish; there is a harbor no more.
  11       Someone stretched out his arm over the sea,
  shook kingdoms.
  It was Yahweh gave a command regarding Canaan,
  to destroy its fortresses.
  12       He said, “You will no more exult,
  oppressed maiden, Ms. Sidon.
  Get up, cross over to Cyprus;
  even there will be no rest for you.”
  13        There, the country of the Kaldeans—
  this is the people that exists no longer.
  Assyria founded it for ships;
  they set up its watchtowers.
  They stripped its fortresses,
  they made it into a ruin.

  14       Howl, ships of Tarshish,
  because your stronghold has been destroyed.
  15       On that day, Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years,
  like the days of one king.
  At the end of seventy years
  it will be for Tyre like the song about the whore:
  16       “Take the guitar, go about the city,
  forgotten whore.
  Be nice, play, sing many a song,
  so that you may be remembered.”
  17       Because at the end of seventy years
  Yahweh will attend to Tyre.
  It will return to its charge and its whoring
  with all the world’s kingdoms on the earth’s surface.
  18       But its profit and its charge will be holy to Yahweh;
  it won’t be treasured, it won’t be stored,
  because its profit will be
  for the people who live before Yahweh,
  for eating until they are full and for fine clothes.

Education and health have been realms where Christians get involved both to benefit people in other cultures and to draw people to Christ. I recently heard about an Indian with the same vision for his software company. He runs a commercial enterprise but runs it as a kingdom business. A big business has to focus on maximizing shareholder wealth; any business needs to be making a profit in order to function. In this man’s business, the main purpose is “to provide human, technological, and financial resources to grow God’s kingdom in India and worldwide.” He recognizes the built-in conflict between kingdom interests and business interests in our imperfect world. It’s hard for a business to survive without serving unethical market demands. He implies that he just has to live with that fact.
Isaiah’s prophecy about Tyre recognizes that conflict by comparing Tyre’s trading business with the sex trade. Who would have thought God would declare that a prostitute’s fees would go to the maintenance of the temple, even as a metaphor? Yet God does so. In a strange way God honors, while also judging, the trading activity of Tyre.
Tyre, south of modern Beirut, was one of the premier trading cities of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world, superbly located on the eastern Mediterranean coast, north of Egypt, west of Assyria, south of Turkey and east of Greece, Rome, and Spain. It had a magnificent natural harbor from which ships could thus ply in three directions, and it was engaged in bringing grain from Egypt from the Nile Delta; Shihor is one of the branches of the Nile. It’s “the stronghold of the sea.”
The trouble is that any sort of greatness makes a people rival God in its own eyes or in other people’s. Thus Tyre is bound to be put down. The theme recurs from Isaiah 2, which also refers to Tarshish ships. Here, that term refers to Tartessus in Spain, with which Tyre had a trading relationship. The vision pictures events from the perspective of the ships from Tarshish, which are appalled to discover as they come from Cyprus (the big island 150 miles from Tyre) that the port they were bound for has been destroyed. The vision imagines the response of other cities on the coast of Lebanon, which Isaiah refers to as Canaan, such as Sidon, a sister city twenty miles north of Tyre. They are evidently affected by the disaster and share the shame. They might as well seek refuge in Cyprus, even in Tarshish itself. Tyre’s southern trading partner, Egypt, is likewise appalled. Even the sea joins in the grief, being so familiar with Tyre and its ships. It’s like a woman who has lost her children.
Who brought about this disaster? It is Yahweh, the one who makes things happen in the world. Yahweh’s power isn’t confined to Israel. As usual, the prophecy doesn’t assume the disaster it announces is bound to happen; it urges Tyre to note the fate of Babylon and learn the lesson. Once again the prophecy’s point as a message addressed to Judah may be to warn Judah about either its inclination to have too high an estimate of its own importance or about its inclination to resist Assyrian authority. While Tyre did pay a price for its resistance, it was not destroyed, at least until the time of Alexander the Great, though that event would be irrelevant to people in Isaiah’s day. Literal fulfillment was evidently not necessary in order for the message to make its point.
Isaiah’s reference to prostitution suggests an evaluation of the city’s focus on trade. By implication, economics is designed to be an activity within a community, within something like a family. I have more grain than I need, you have more olives, so we trade some. Nobody is concerned to make a profit. Instead, trade becomes a means of me increasing my resources, having a bigger share to enjoy for myself. Making money by means of trade is like prostitution. Tyre’s destruction would therefore mean the whore unable to continue to ply her trade. But for Tyre as for the other nations there is hope, in its case the hope of being free to resume its trade. And for Tyre as for other peoples, its destiny is to acknowledge Yahweh, acknowledge Israel as Yahweh’s people, and acknowledge Jerusalem as the place where Yahweh dwells. Its trade will enable it to make substantial subventions of the service of Yahweh for which Israel is especially responsible. It won’t simply put its profits into the bank. Even the profits of its unholy trade will become holy.

ISAIAH 24:1–23

The Broken World Covenant

  1       There: Yahweh is laying waste to the earth and making it desolate,
  twisting its surface and scattering its inhabitants.
  2       It will be: as people, so priest;
  as servant, so his master;
  as female servant, so her mistress;
  as buyer, so seller;
  as creditor, so borrower;
  as lender, so the one to whom he lends.
  3       The earth will be totally laid waste,
  it will be totally plundered,
  because it is Yahweh who has spoken this word.
  4       The earth dries up, withers;
  the world languishes, withers;
  the height languishes with the earth.
  5       The earth was profane under its inhabitants,
  because they transgressed the teachings.
  They violated the statute,
  broke the age-old covenant.
  6       Therefore a curse has consumed the earth;
  the people who live in it have paid the penalty.
  Therefore earth’s inhabitants have burned up;
  few people remain.
  7       The wine has failed, the vine has languished,
  all the people who were joyful in heart groan.
  8       The rejoicing of tambourines has stopped,
  the noise of the exultant has ceased,
  the rejoicing of the harp has stopped.
  9       They do not drink wine with a song,
  liquor tastes bitter to the drinker.
  10       The empty town has broken up,
  every house is shut up against entering.
  11       There is a cry over wine in the streets,
  all celebration has reached evening,
  earth’s rejoicing has gone into exile.
  12       Desolation remains in the city;
  the gate is battered, a ruin.
  13        Because thus it will be in the midst of the earth,
  among the peoples,
  like the beating of an olive tree,
  like gleanings when the harvest finishes.

  14       Those people lift their voice, resound,
  because of Yahweh’s majesty they have shouted from the west.
  15       Therefore honor Yahweh in the east,
  in shores across the sea,


the name of Yahweh, Israel’s God. 16  From the end of the earth we have heard music, “Glory belongs to the Faithful One.” But I said, I waste away, I waste away! Oh, me! Traitors have betrayed, traitors have betrayed—betrayal. 17  Terror and pit and trap for you who inhabit the earth! 18  The one who flees at the sound of terror will fall into the pit. The one who climbs out of the pit will be caught in the trap. Because sluices have opened on high, and earth’s foundations have shaken. 19  The earth has quite broken up; earth has quite split up; earth has quite tottered down. 20  The earth has quite reeled like a drunk, swayed about like a lodge. Its rebellion weighs heavy upon it; it will fall, and not rise again. 21  On that day Yahweh will attend to the army of the height, in the height, and to the kings of the earth, on the earth. 22  They will be gathered as a gathering, a captive in a pit. They will be imprisoned in a prison, and after many days will receive attention. 23  The moon will feel shamed, the sun will feel disgrace. Because Yahweh Armies will have begun to reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his splendor [will be] before his elders.

The media have been showing scary pictures of places affected by the hundred tornadoes that have struck the central plains in the United States. The one that most horrified me pictured a man standing in the midst of his father’s house in Oklahoma. It was simply a mess of broken timber. His mother had miraculously survived, as she had survived the much more devastating tornado that hit her town in 1947, because she had heeded warnings on the radio. The event recalled the severe tornadoes last year when (for instance) the college town of Tuscaloosa in Alabama was “in some places torn to the slab.” As rescuers worked away the evening after the tornadoes, “cries could be heard into the night” from people buried in the debris.
Such experiences and images enable us to picture the scene Isaiah 24 portrays. Whereas Isaiah 1–12 focused on events in Judah and Isaiah 13–23 broadened the horizon to speak of the nations around Judah that affected its life, Isaiah 24–27 broadens the horizon still further, making hardly any references to particular peoples. The nightmare picture concerns the earth, the world. Once again the prophet sees a devastating event happening before his eyes. It affects all sorts of people; status or wealth doesn’t save you.
Why does Yahweh intend to bring this calamity? The prophecy presupposes that the world knows teachings, statutes, the terms of a covenant. These are expressions usually applied to Israel, but the Bible assumes that the world as a whole knows the basic facts about God and about God’s expectations of humanity. It doesn’t need a special revelation to be told that murder, adultery, and theft are wrong; God made us with that awareness. If we’ve lost that awareness, it’s because we have turned our backs on it. Genesis 9 uses the expression “age-old covenant” or “eternal covenant” to refer to God’s covenant with Noah and with all humanity after him, and that reference makes sense here. The Noah covenant involved nothing you could precisely call conditions, but it presupposed some expectations about matters such as shedding blood. Notwithstanding God’s covenant commitment, a humanity that behaved as if God and God’s expectations didn’t exist could hardly expect to get away with this lifestyle forever. In the vision, then, God’s curse has consumed the earth again (as in Genesis).
The prophet hears voices that respond with satisfaction to this scene of devastation. The voices are anonymous; the point is the proclamation, not the proclaimers. Yahweh’s majesty is honored by the devastation of the world that has ignored his teaching, his statutes, his covenant. But the prophet finds it impossible to join in the rejoicing. The vision was too horrifying for it to generate a sense of satisfaction. Yes, the world is characterized by unfaithfulness between peoples, but that fact doesn’t make him able to look forward to the destruction for which it’s destined, which he goes on to describe with some further concrete images.
It’s not only earth that is the object of God’s judgment. In passing, the first paragraph spoke of “the height” languishing, as well as the earth, and the last paragraph takes up that note. It’s not only the earth that is the scene of rebellion against God; the heavens are also. The morally appalling nature of life on earth doesn’t derive from mere human rebellion but from heavenly rebellion. The Bible never tells us how this rebellion happened; it does assume it to be a reality. It’s more interested in how the rebellion will be stopped. Yahweh intends to terminate it. The reference to sun and moon being shamed links with the way people turn these into deities that rule the earth: the reference isn’t to the sun and moon as parts of God’s creation with a proper role to fulfill but to the sun and moon as objects of inappropriate trust and reverence.
One significance of the chapter as a whole for the people with whom the vision is shared comes in the last line. Even if we hesitate to rejoice in the idea of judgment, like the prophet, we can rejoice in the fact that it will mean Yahweh has begun to reign. The book of Isaiah is realistic about the fact that Yahweh’s reign is often not a reality on earth or in the heavens. Jesus will make the same assumption as he declares that the reign of God is now coming. Naturally, Jerusalem is the place where Yahweh will locate his throne over the world, and the elders will be there, as they were at Sinai and as they are in John’s vision in Revelation. There is a sense in which God reigns now, but much of what happens in the world does not reflect his will. From time to time he asserts that will.

ISAIAH 25:1–26:6

Grief Brought to an End

  25:1       Yahweh, you are my God, I will exalt you,
  I will confess your name,
  because you have done something extraordinary,
  plans from a distant time, truthfulness, truth.
  2       Because you have made out of a city a heap,
  a fortified town into a ruin.
  The citadel of foreigners is no longer a city;
  it won’t be built up ever.
  3       Therefore a strong people will honor you,
  a town of violent nations will revere you.
  4       Because you have been a refuge for the poor person,
  a refuge for the needy person in his trouble,
  a shelter from rain,
  a shade from heat,
  when the spirit of the violent was like winter rain,
       5       the din of aliens like heat in the desert.
  You subdue the heat with a cloud shade;
  the music of the violent fades away.
  6       And Yahweh Armies will make
  for all peoples on this mountain
  a party with rich foods, a party with aged wines,
  juicy rich foods, refined aged wines.
  7       He will destroy on this mountain the layer of wrapping,
  the wrapping over all the peoples,
  the covering that is spread out over all the nations;
       8       he will have destroyed death forever.
  My Lord Yahweh will wipe the tears
  from on all faces.
  The disgrace of his people
  he will take away from all the earth;
  because Yahweh is the one who has spoken.

  9       On that day one will say:
  There, this is our God,
  we waited for him and he delivered us.
  This is Yahweh, we waited for him;
  let’s celebrate and rejoice in his deliverance.
  10       Because Yahweh’s hand will rest
  on this mountain.
  Moab will be trodden down in its place
  like the treading of straw at Madmenah.
  11       It will spread out its hands in its midst
  as a swimmer spreads his hands to swim.
  [Yahweh] will bring down its majesty
  with the spoils of its hands.
  12       The towering fortification of its walls
  he will have laid low, brought down,
  knocked down to the earth, right to the dirt.

  26:1       On that day this song will be sung in the country of Judah:
  We have a strong city;
  he makes walls and rampart into deliverance.
  2       Open the gates so that the faithful nation may come in,
  one that keeps truthfulness.
  3       A mind that is sustained, you keep in well-being,
  in well-being because it is filled with trust in you.
  4       Trust in Yahweh forever, because in Yah—
  Yahweh is a lasting crag.
  5       Because he has laid low the people who live in the height;
  the towering town he brings down.
  He brings it down right to the earth,
  knocks it down right to the dirt.
  6       The foot treads it down, the feet of the lowly person,
  the soles of the poor.

In a movie called Grace Is Gone, Grace is a sergeant in the army on active service. Her husband, Stan, looks after a supply store back home. One morning the feared and terrifying visit comes from army representatives with the task of telling Stan that Grace has been killed in action. Without explaining why he is doing so, he takes his two daughters on a car ride that turns into a spontaneous trip to the eight-year-old’s favorite place, a Florida amusement park. On the way, they stop at his mother’s house, where his brother is staying. Stan’s twelve-year-old is old enough to realize there’s something mysterious about the strange journey and her father’s uncharacteristic behavior. It’s only at the end of the entire trip that Stan can face telling his daughters the news. Doing so of course involves facing it himself.
How we long for the day when God will destroy “the face of wrapping,” the shroud that people put over their faces as a sign of mourning, when God has destroyed dying forever and wiped away the tears of people like Stan and his daughters. Israel was only too familiar with invasion and defeat, with the experience of losing people in war. One of the most horrifying of its stories concerns an event a century after Isaiah’s day, when the Babylonians capture the last king of Jerusalem, Zedekiah, and blind him; but first, they kill his sons before his eyes, so that the sight of their death is the last thing he ever sees. The prophecy knows that other peoples go through the same pain. People in the United States and Europe know at the time I write that Iraqis and Afghanis and members of the Taliban go through the same pain as they do. The prophecy promises that God won’t merely destroy the wrapping over Israelite faces but “the wrapping over all the peoples, the covering that is spread out over all the nations.” He will wipe the tears from all faces.
Chapters 24–27 continue to maintain the dynamic of chapters 13–23 as they interweave warnings about judgment on the world with promises of restoration for the world, as chapters 13–23 interwove warnings about disaster for individual nations with invitations to those nations to seek Yahweh. At the same time, the section begins from the fact that ending grief will issue from God’s taking action to put down the oppressors who generate war and cause the grief. It presupposes God’s fulfilling the promise to destroy the great imperial capital. It will be this act that shows Yahweh to be a refuge for the needy and a shade from the heat. The middle paragraph also affirms that individual nations choose their destiny. Maybe the reason for singling out Moab for mention is the temptation offered by the place name Madmenah. There are places with a name of this kind in Judah and in Moab, but it’s also the Hebrew word for a cesspit. It thus gives the prophet the chance to indulge in a wondrously scatological image for Moab’s fate. Any people will be wise to substitute its name for Moab and to make sure it qualifies as a people that is looking to Yahweh rather than one that ends up with the fate described here.
The positive aspect to God’s promise is the vision of the party to end all parties on Mount Zion. That element is one feature suggesting that this vision restates the earlier one of nations flocking to Jerusalem, in Isaiah 2. It also implies the reversing of Israel’s humiliation. People who have seen Israel defeated and exiled will see Israel honored as the banquet happens on Mount Zion.
It’s not surprising that the visions in chapters 24–27 interweave promises with acts of praise; this section begins and ends that way. The third paragraph notes that it’s the faithful nation that can come into the strong city that Yahweh makes a safe place for people. That qualification points once more to the way a nation has to make its decision to be a people that turns to Yahweh if it’s to avoid Moab’s fate. Israel itself has to make sure it’s a people of that kind.
Where does one look for the fulfillment of these great promises? We still live in a world characterized by oppression, arrogance, hatred, conflict, death, and mourning. Thus the last chapters of the Bible (Rev. 19–22) take up these words from Isaiah in promising a day when God will finally judge the imperial powers, wipe away tears, and invite people to his banquet. Yet Israel also knew times when it saw some fulfillment of the vision, as God put down Assyria or Babylon, delivered Jerusalem, and comforted his people, while Revelation assumes that Jesus brings some anticipation of the vision’s fulfillment, as well as confirming that its final fulfillment will arrive.

ISAIAH 26:7–27:13

Wishing and Hoping and Thinking and Praying, Planning, and Dreaming (1)

  26:7       The path is clear for the faithful person;
  you level a clear track for someone who is faithful.
  8       Yes, on the path determined by your decisions,
  Yahweh, we have waited for you.
  The longing of our entire being
  has been for your name and your renown.
  9       With my entire being I have longed for you by night;
  yes, my spirit within me seeks urgently for you.
  Because when your decisions are in the earth,
  the inhabitants of the world learn faithfulness.
  10       If the faithless person is shown favor,
  he doesn’t learn faithfulness.
  In a country characterized by uprightness he does wrong,
  and doesn’t regard Yahweh’s majesty.
  11       Yahweh, they don’t see your hand raised;
  they should see and be shamed.
  Your passion for the people,
  yes, your fire for your adversaries should consume them.
  12       Yahweh, may you institute well-being for us,
  because you accomplished for us all the things we have done.
  13        Yahweh our God, lords apart from you have controlled us,
  but of you alone we will make mention—of your name.
  14       Dead people don’t live,
  ghosts don’t rise.
  Therefore you attended to them and destroyed them
  and put an end to any mention of them.
  15       You added to the nation, Yahweh;
  when you added to the nation you were honored,
  you extended all the country’s borders.
  16       Yahweh, during trouble they attended to you,
  a whispered prayer during your correction of them.

  17       Like a pregnant woman who draws near to giving birth,
  who writhes, cries out in her pain,
  so have we become because of you, Yahweh.
  18       We were pregnant, we writhed,
  it is as if we gave birth to wind.
  We don’t achieve deliverance in the earth;
  the inhabitants of the world don’t fall.

  19       Your dead will live, my corpse will rise;
  wake up and resound, you who dwell in the dirt!
  Because your dew is the dew of the lights,
  and you make the country of ghosts fall.
  20       Go, my people, enter your rooms,
  and lock your door after you.
  Hide for a little moment,
  until wrath passes.
  21       Because there—
  Yahweh is going to come out from his place
  to attend to the waywardness of the earth’s inhabitants upon them.
  The earth will uncover its shed blood
  and will no more cover its slain.
  27:1       On that day Yahweh will attend with his sword,
  hard and great and strong,
  upon Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
  upon Leviathan the twisting serpent,
  and will slay the dragon that is in the sea.

  2       On that day,
  a delightful vineyard, sing of it!
  3       I Yahweh am going to watch over it;
  every moment I will water it.
  Lest someone attend to it,
  night and day I will watch over it.
  4       I have no fury;
  if anyone produces for me briar and thorn,
  in battle I will march against it
  and set fire to them altogether.
  5       Or he can take hold of my refuge,
  he can make peace with me,
  peace he can make with me.
  6       Coming days:
  Jacob will root, Israel will bud and blossom,
  and the world’s surface will be full of produce.

  7       Did he hit it like the hitting of the one who hit it,
  was it slain like the slaying of the ones slain by him?
  8       By driving away, by sending off, you contend with it;
  he removed it by a hard blast on a day of east wind.
  9       Therefore by this Jacob’s waywardness will be expiated;
  this is the entire fruit of the removing of its offense.
  Through his making all the altar stones
  like shattered blocks of limestone,
  sacred columns and incense altars won’t stand.
  10       Because the fortified city is desolate,
  the habitation rejected and abandoned like the wilderness.
  There a calf grazes,
  there it lies down and consumes its boughs.
  11       When its branches wither, they break;
  women come, set light to them.
  Because it is not a people of understanding;
  therefore its maker will not have compassion on it,
  its former will not be gracious to it.

  12       On that day
  Yahweh will thresh from the Euphrates channel
  to the Wash of Egypt,
  and you will be gleaned
  one by one, Israelites.
  13        On that day
  there will be a sound on a great horn.
  The people who are perishing
  will come from the country of Assyria,
  and the ones who are scattered in the country of Egypt.
  They will bow down to Yahweh
  on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem.

On Thursday I took part in interviewing a prospective new faculty member and on Friday my wife and I took part in a student retreat, and I now see a feature these events had in common. The interviewee referred to forwarding God’s kingdom, and it reminded me that the Bible never talks about our having that responsibility. One reason we take it on is that we can’t see God doing so. The theme of the retreat was maintaining connection with God, and one presupposition is that it’s our responsibility to do so. One reason people think they have to do so is that God doesn’t seem to. God has withdrawn.
That awareness underlies this section. Maybe it’s appropriate that as a whole it’s jumbled and unclear. Its starting point is clear enough, making the kind of statement of faith that Israel was committed to. The prayer that follows expresses the awareness that life isn’t working out the way the statement of faith says. Thus the prayer is like a psalm. Like much of Isaiah 24–27, it presupposes a time in Israel’s life in or after the exile where people have been waiting for God to act but can’t see God’s activity either in restoring them or in putting down the superpower. They have sat waiting for Yahweh to make the kind of decisions that are needed in the world and to implement them, but God isn’t doing so. Previous sections have described the nations as due to be objects of Yahweh’s grace, in that they will have opportunity to recognize Yahweh, but at the moment Yahweh is letting them carry on in their faithlessness and disregard for Yahweh. What good is that kind of mercy?
The converse need is that Yahweh should do something about instituting Israel’s well-being, about which the chapter’s opening made a statement of confidence. They can look back on their story as a people and see Yahweh’s past activity, when Yahweh delivered them from overlords who ruled over them (who are now dead and won’t come back to life) and extended Israel’s own territory. When trouble came, they looked to Yahweh, and Yahweh responded. Yet Yahweh is no longer operating that way, and they cannot bring about their deliverance.
The third paragraph constitutes Yahweh’s and the prophet’s response. Sometimes the prophet speaks for Yahweh (so Yahweh speaks directly as “I”), sometimes the prophet reports what Yahweh has to say (referring to Yahweh as “he”). Whereas those other overlords are dead and gone, Yahweh intends to bring Israel back to life as a people, and they can start believing and behaving as a people Yahweh is bringing back to life. The picture of a people brought back to life from the death of exile parallels Ezekiel’s vision of the valley full of bones. Way back, Isaiah 5 sang a frightening song about God’s vineyard; Isaiah 27 has a more encouraging one. No one is going to spoil or attack the vineyard now; its potential spoilers will have a chance to make Yahweh their refuge instead. Yahweh now feels no wrath toward it. While Israel has been devastated by Yahweh and taken off into exile, it has not been annihilated, as its overlords have been or will have been. By its chastisement, its faithlessness has been dealt with. Its false forms of worship have been destroyed. Its scattered people will be brought home.
Associated with its renewal and gathering is the postponed judgment on Israel’s present overlords, the occupants of the fortified city (unnamed, so it can apply to the capital of any oppressor) and on the supernatural power of evil (in a context such as this, Leviathan is an Old Testament equivalent of Satan). So like the Israelites in Egypt when Yahweh acts against the Egyptian firstborn, they need to take shelter until the moment of wrath is passed, lest they get affected by the fallout.
The people’s prayer assumes that you can have absolute boldness in telling God what is wrong with a situation and what he should do about it (at worst, God will answer back and explain why he isn’t doing as you suggest). It also assumes that Israel is in no position to do what needs doing; it’s just a little people under the control of a big power. Unlike us, it cannot kid itself about its capacity to further God’s kingdom. All it can do is cast itself on God. But helplessness is a wonderful aid to prayer and may even drive God to respond to prayer. As with the promises in the previous section, one can see moments in Israel’s experience when God did what the answer promises, moments such as the deliverance from the Babylonians and the much later deliverance from the Seleucids. Thus the section encourages subsequent readers to pray the way it does.

ISAIAH 28:1–29

God’s Strange Work

  1       Hey, the majestic crown of Ephraim’s drunks,
  whose glorious beauty is a fading flower,
  which is on the head of a fertile valley—
  people struck down by wine.
  2       There, my Lord has someone strong and powerful,
  like a hail storm, a destructive hurricane.
  Like a storm of water, forceful, rushing,
  he has brought it down to the earth with power.
  3       The majestic crown of Ephraim’s drunks
  will be trampled underfoot.
  4       The fading flower, the glorious beauty,
  which is on the head of a fertile valley,
  will be like a fig before harvest,
  which someone sees,
  and the one who sees it—
  while it’s still in his palm, he eats it.
  5       On that day
  Yahweh Armies will become
  a beautiful crown and a glorious diadem
  for the remains of his people,
  6       an authoritative spirit
  for the one who presides over the exercise of authority,
  and the strength of the people who turn back the battle at the gate.

  7       But these also wander because of wine,
  stagger because of liquor:
  priest and prophet wander because of liquor,
  they’re confused because of wine,
  they stagger because of liquor.
  They wander about in seeing,
  they go astray in giving judgment.
  8       Because all the tables are full of vomit, filth—
  there is no place.
  9       “To whom does he teach knowledge,
  to whom does he explain a message?
  People weaned from milk,
  moving on from the breast?
  10       Because command upon command,
  command upon command,
  rule upon rule, rule upon rule,
  a little here, a little there.
  11       Because with mockings of lip and with an alien tongue
  does he speak to this people,
  12       the one who said to them,
  ‘This is the resting place, rest,
  for the weary person, yes this is the place of repose.’ ”
  They were not willing to listen,
       13       and to them Yahweh’s word
  will be command upon command,
  command upon command,
  rule upon rule, rule upon rule,
  a little here, a little there,
  so that they may go, but fall back,
  and be broken and snared and captured.

  14       Therefore listen to Yahweh’s word,
  you scorners,
  who rule this people,
  which is in Jerusalem.
  15       Because you have said,
  “We have sealed a covenant with death,
  with Sheol we have made a pact.
  The sweeping flood, when it passes,
  won’t come to us,
  because we have made a lie our refuge,
  we have hidden in falsehood.”
  16       Therefore my Lord Yahweh has said this:
  “Here am I founding in Zion a stone,
  a testing stone, a valuable corner stone,
  a well-founded foundation;
  the one who stands firm in faith will not be hasty.
  17       I will make authority the measuring line,
  faithfulness the weight.
  Hail will sweep away the lying refuge;
  water will flood the hiding place.
  18       Your covenant with death will be covered over,
  your pact with Sheol won’t stand.
  The sweeping flood, when it passes—
  you will be for trampling it.
  19       The times when it passes, it will get you,
  because it will pass morning by morning,
  by day and by night.”
  It will be simply a horror,
  understanding the message.
  20       Because the bed will be too short for stretching out,
  the blanket too narrow for gathering around oneself.
  21       Because Yahweh will arise as on Mount Perizim,
  he will be astir as in the Vale of Gibeon,
  to do his work—strange is his work,
  to perform his service—foreign is his service.
  22       So now, don’t be scornful,
  or your chains will strengthen.
  Because I have heard of a finish, a thing determined,
  by the Lord Yahweh Armies,
  against the entire country.

  23       Give ear, listen to my voice,
  attend, listen to what I say.
  24       Is it every day that the plowman plows to sow,
  breaks up and harrows his ground?
  25       When he has leveled its surface,
  does he not scatter caraway and sprinkle cumin,
  set wheat (millet), barley in its place,
  and spelt in its border?
  26       He disciplines it with judgment;
  his God teaches him.
  27       Because caraway isn’t threshed with a sled,
  and the wheel of a cart isn’t rolled over cumin.
  Because caraway is beaten with a rod,
  and cumin with a club.
  28       Cereal is crushed,
  yet the thresher doesn’t thresh forever.
  The wheel of his cart may rumble,
  but he doesn’t crush it with his horses.
  29       This too comes from Yahweh Armies;
  he formulates extraordinary plans,
  he shows great skill.

The other Sunday we were singing the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and I was reflecting wryly that it’s a shame nobody realizes where its basic ideas come from, as is the case with the related chorus “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” They come from Lamentations, which follows the book of Jeremiah, and the context adds depth to that declaration of faith, because Lamentations is a series of poems expressing people’s feelings and prayers after Jerusalem was destroyed, as Isaiah warns that it will be if people are not careful. It’s quite something that the declaration comes in that context. But the same prayer poem also declares the related conviction that God doesn’t act in a destructive way willingly—it doesn’t come from God’s heart.
Isaiah makes the same point when he describes the coming destruction of the city as something that is God’s “strange” work. It’s “foreign” to Yahweh to act in this way. Sometimes people can get the impression that Yahweh is basically a God of wrath who likes acting in judgment, or at least that love and wrath are equally balanced within Yahweh. Like other parts of the Old Testament, Isaiah knows that on the contrary, Yahweh’s basic inclination is to be gracious and merciful. Yahweh is capable of making himself act in judgment, but it’s his “strange” work; it’s a bit alien to him. Maybe it links with that fact that Isaiah strangely describes Yahweh’s action as a piece of service, like the work of a servant. Who is the master if Yahweh is the servant? I guess Yahweh is serving himself and serving what is right, but it’s not the kind of action a person would freely choose.
But Judah needs to recognize that Yahweh is prepared to make himself do it. After the widening of the horizon in chapters 24–27 to consider the destiny of the world as a whole, chapters 28–33 focus down on Judah again. Their drift thus returns to that of chapters 1–12, but some of their allusions show that the situation has moved on and the setting is now the reign of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. Yet initially this focus isn’t explicit because he begins by talking about the Ephraimites and about the judgment coming on them at the hand of Assyria, with them too busy drinking to think about it. He speaks in disrespectful and flippant fashion, and one can imagine some of the Judahites sniggering and others appalled at what is going to happen. For the latter the closing words of the first paragraph offer the consoling reassurance that even for Ephraim devastation won’t be the last word. The remnant of Ephraim that survives will come to recognize where their real splendor lies and will have the leadership and strength that they currently lack.
But the talk about Ephraim is mostly lead-in to a declaration to Judah: “but you lot are no better!” As usual there were other prophets than Isaiah as well as priests who were giving Judah a very different message and were dismissive of the naïve simplicity of Isaiah’s message just to do what Yahweh said and trust him to make everything work out.
In the third paragraph he points out the implication of their attitude. He of course doesn’t mean they think they have made an agreement with death whereby death is going to let them off (as we might think with our means for prolonging life; it’s said that Californians like to feel that death is voluntary). They think they have made some politically wise plans that will protect them from being overwhelmed by the Assyrians. But they’re deceiving themselves. That simple message that they dismiss, the message about standing firm in faith which is unchanged since he gave it to Hezekiah’s father, is the key to security. Alongside that is the expectation that authority will be exercised with faithfulness in the city. Trust in Yahweh and the faithful exercise of authority are the key to survival and flourishing. The Judahite leadership is interested in neither. But it will find that actually its attitude will lead to Judah being overwhelmed. Its policy will offer it scant protection, like a bed that is too short or a blanket that is too skimpy. Yahweh will act as he did in David’s day (see 2 Samuel 5). But the strange thing will be that he will now be acting against Jerusalem, not for it. So the people had better listen to his simple advice if they want to avoid his warning coming true.
But the book of Isaiah doesn’t like to end a chapter on a totally bleak note, and the parable about the farmer offers a modest hint that a determination to finish Judah off cannot be the end of the story. A farmer knows that there’s a time for sowing and a time for planting, that threshing doesn’t go on forever, that crushing is subject to limitations. He knows, because God teaches him. So God is wise enough to apply the same principles to the way he goes about “farming” and making plans for the achievement of his purpose in the world by means of his people.

ISAIAH 29:1–24

Worship That Issues from Human Instinct

  1       Hey, God’s Hearth, God’s Hearth,
  town where David camped!
  Add year to year;
  the festivals may come around.
  2       But I will oppress God’s Hearth,
  and there will be sorrow and sighing.
  It will be to me God’s real hearth;
       3       I will camp against you with a real encircling.
  I will lay siege against you with a rampart,
  set up siege works against you.
  4       When you’re lower than the ground you will speak,
  your words will be lower than the dirt.
  Your voice will be like a ghost from the earth,
  your words will chirp from the dirt.
  5       But like fine dust will be the multitude of your adversaries,
  like passing chaff the multitude of the violent.
  In an instant, suddenly,
       6       by Yahweh Armies you will be attended,
  with thunder, shaking, and a loud voice,
  storm and hurricane and a flame of consuming fire.
  7       It will be like a dream, a vision in the night—
  the multitude of all the nations,
  which are making war against God’s Hearth,
  and all its besiegers and its stronghold and its oppressors.
  8       Like someone hungry who dreams
  and there—he is eating,
  but he wakes up and his mouth is empty,
  or like someone thirsty who dreams
  and there—he is drinking,
  but he wakes up and there—
  he is faint and his throat is craving.
  So will the multitude of nations be
  that are making war against Mount Zion.

  9       Wait about and be stupefied,
  blind yourselves and be blind!
  They are drunk but not from wine,
  they totter but not from liquor.
  10       Because Yahweh has poured over you
  a spirit of coma.
  He has closed your eyes, the prophets,
  and covered your heads, the seers.
  11       The vision of everything has become for you
  like the words of a sealed scroll,
  which they give to someone who knows how to read,
  saying “Read this out, will you,”
  but he says, “I can’t,
  because it’s sealed.”
  12       So the scroll is given to someone who doesn’t know how to read,
  saying “Read this out, will you,”
  but he says, “I don’t know how to read.”
  13        My Lord has said,
  “Because this people has drawn near with its mouth,
  and with its lips has honored me,
  but has kept its mind far from me,
  and their awe for me has been a learned human command:
  14       therefore here I am,
  once more doing something extraordinary with this people,
  acting in an extraordinary way, something extraordinary.
  The wisdom of its wise will perish,
  the understanding of its people of understanding will disappear.”
  15       Hey, you who go deeper than Yahweh
  to hide a plan,
  whose act is in the dark and who say,
  “Who sees us, who knows about us?”
  16       Your overturning [of things]!—should the potter be reckoned as like the clay,
  or should the thing made say of its maker,
  “He didn’t make me”?
  Or should the pot say of its potter,
  “He didn’t understand”?

  17       In yet a little while, won’t Lebanon turn into farmland,
  and the farmland be reckoned as forest?
  18       On that day,
  deaf people will listen to the words of a scroll,
  and out of murk and darkness
  the eyes of blind people will see.
  19       The lowly will regain joy in Yahweh,
  and the neediest of people will rejoice in Israel’s holy one.
  20       Because the violent will not exist,
  the arrogant person will be finished,
  and all the people who are keen about wickedness will be cut off,
  21       the people who turn someone into an offender by means of the statement they make,
  who trap the judge at the gate,
  and who turn aside the faithful person by means of empty words.
  22       Therefore, Yahweh has said this to Jacob’s household,
  the one who redeemed Abraham:
  “Jacob won’t now be shamed;
  his face won’t now be pale.
  23       Because when he (his descendants) sees the work of my hands in his midst,
  he will sanctify my name.”
  People will sanctify Jacob’s holy one
  and stand in awe of Israel’s God.
  24       The people who wander in spirit will acknowledge understanding,
  and the people who complain will accept learning.

The most disappointing and frustrating church service I have attended in California took place one Mother’s Day, when I played hooky from our church because I wanted to avoid a service preoccupied by the topic of mothers and went to another church where it was even more preoccupied by mothers. It seemed to have nothing much to do with worship of God and listening to God. It just reflected our culture. I had the same thought this morning as I took part in worship in seminary chapel. In its own way it also reflected our culture and the life and practice of the church in our time. Then I thought again about the regular worship of my own Episcopal congregation, dominated by set prayers (and I love it that way), which thus contrasts with anything clearly present in Scripture. It’s tradition.
The third paragraph in this section suggests that Isaiah sees something similar in Judah. His people have drawn near to Yahweh with their mouth, have honored Yahweh with their lips, but have kept their mind far away from Yahweh. Their awe for God (their worship of God, some translations say, quite appropriately) is something they have learned from human teaching, human tradition, human culture. But it looks as if the problem Isaiah sees isn’t merely that their worship followed humanly devised forms. It’s that their minds are miles away from Yahweh. Many translations speak of their heart being far away from Yahweh, but to us that suggests a problem about their feelings. When the Bible speaks of the heart it’s usually speaking about what we would call the mind—about our thinking, our attitudes, our way of making decisions (to refer to emotions, the Bible more often uses words referring to the guts or the soul). From his first chapter, Isaiah has been concerned about the way Israel could be enthusiastic in its worship, but there’s a disjunction between this enthusiasm and the life it lives outside the temple. When Britain was engaged in the slave trade, the slavers were in church on Sunday. During the big financial scandals in the United States early in the present century, the swindlers were in church on Sunday.
The slavers and swindlers in church were clever people, and the people in the temple for the great festivals were clever too. Yet in another sense they’re totally stupid—or as Isaiah puts it in the second paragraph, they’re like people who are blind or drunk. They have no clue what is happening. Tell them where their policies will lead, and they have no idea what you’re talking about. They think they can hide their plans—once more Isaiah speaks not in terms of what they would admit but of the implications of their attitude. They behave as if they’re the potter instead of the clay that the potter shapes. Their incomprehension is actually God’s will. It’s an aspect of God’s judgment on them. They decline to understand, so God makes it impossible for them to understand. Of course, telling them so reflects the assumption that it might still be possible to shake them to their senses. It’s never over until it’s over.
The problem God has in relating to them is that there’s a compelling case for casting them off because of their wrongdoing but also a compelling case for staying with them because of the commitment he has already made. God has various ways of squaring this circle. The one Isaiah speaks of in the first paragraph involves making use of the instinct of Israel’s enemies to attack Jerusalem and letting them very nearly take it, then turning around at the last minute and crushing the attackers instead. In addressing Jerusalem, God gives it a new name, “Altar Hearth.” In ordinary usage the term refers to the hearth around the temple altar where animals were burned in sacrifice. Jerusalem as a whole had a position of this kind around the temple. Isaiah’s point is that fire is now going to consume the altar and the hearth itself. It’s a metaphor for destruction by enemies. But miraculously, the destruction will be called off at the last minute. Judah will be delivered and its attackers unbelievably disappointed. Isaiah 36–37 relates how this came about.
Like other sections in this part of Isaiah, the chapter cannot end before giving people something more encouraging to think about. The cedar forests of Lebanon will become farmland; the farmland of Carmel will become forest—in the context, the term suggests a forest of fruit trees. The leaders who are morally deaf and blind at the moment will see and hear and ordinary people will have reason to rejoice in Yahweh, because the factors that cause oppression for them will be resolved. The community’s relationship to God will be sorted out—which means not so much feelings (our preoccupation) as living the right way.

ISAIAH 30:1–17

God Is Our Refuge and Strength, Really?

  1       Hey, rebellious sons (Yahweh’s declaration),
  in making a plan but not from me,
  in pouring a drink offering but not from my spirit,
  so as to heap offence on offence:
  2       you who set off to go down to Egypt,
  but have not asked what I say,
  in protecting yourselves by Pharaoh’s protection
  and in relying on Egypt’s shade.
  3       Pharaoh’s protection will become shame for you,
  and reliance on Egypt’s shade disgrace.
  4       Because his officials have been at So‘an,
  his aides reach Hanes:
  5       everyone will have come to shame
  because of a people that is no use to them,
  no help and no use,
  but shame and yes, disgrace.

  6       The prophecy about the beasts of the Negev.

  In a country of trouble and distress,
  lion and cougar, viper and flying serpent,
  they carry their wealth on the back of donkeys,
  their treasures on the hump of camels,
  to a people that is no use,
       7       Egypt whose help is a breath, empty.
  Therefore I call this
  8       Now, go, write it on a tablet with them,
  inscribe it on a scroll,
  so that it may be for future days,
  a witness forever.
  9       Because it is a rebellious people,
  deceitful children,
  children who didn’t wish to listen
  to Yahweh’s teaching,
  10       people who have said to seers,
  “Don’t see”
  and to visionaries,
  “Don’t give us visions of uprightness.
  Speak nice things to us,
  give us visions that are deceptions.
  11       Get out of the way, turn from the path,
  terminate Israel’s holy one from before us.”
  12       Therefore Israel’s holy one has said this:
  “Because you have rejected this word,
  and trusted in oppression and crookedness,
  and relied on it,
  13        therefore this waywardness will be for you
  like a breach falling,
  swelling out in a high wall,
  whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant.
  14       Its breaking is like the breaking of a potters’ jug,
  smashed—he doesn’t spare [it].
  Through its smashing there cannot be found a fragment
  for picking up fire from a hearth
  or for skimming water from a pool.”

  15       Because my Lord Yahweh, Israel’s holy one, has said this.
  “By turning and resting you will find deliverance;
  in quiet and trust will be your strength,”
  but you were unwilling.
  16       You said, “No, we will flee on a horse”—
  therefore you will flee.
  “We will ride on a swift one”—
  therefore your pursuers will be swift.
  17       One thousand before the blast of one,
  before the blast of five you will flee,
  until you’re left like a beacon on the top of a mountain,
  like a banner on a hill.

I have just read a message from an Indian Christian couple who expect tomorrow to go to another village for a day of teaching for which they expect Christians to gather from many villages in the area. They’re thirsty to hear the Word of God. My friends love to go to teach there, but it’s an area with much tension where there have been killings and abductions by Maoists. The number reached a peak last year, but the number of incidents in the first third of this year suggests it may top last year’s figure. So they wrote asking for us to pray for them in light of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, where he expresses the conviction that God would deliver him and his associates as God had done in the past “because you’re helping by praying for us.”
Isaiah would approve of their message. In speaking of protection and shade and reliance, he uses the kind of terms that Psalm 91 uses in speaking of God looking after people. The scandal of what he sees in Judah is that people are applying these words to the king of Egypt. They have turned back on the very basics of their relationship with God. It would be bad if they looked to anyone for refuge, but there’s an extra level of irony in their looking to Egypt—have they forgotten their own story?
The reference to Egypt makes more explicit that the context of these chapters is Hezekiah’s reign rather than that of Ahaz. In Ahaz’s day the threat was Ephraim and Syria, the potential protection Assyria. By Hezekiah’s day, the Assyrians have dealt with Ephraim and Syria as Isaiah said would happen, and Assyria has become the threat to Judah as he also said. So Judah assumes it had better make some plans to protect itself. It’s surely the responsible thing to do. The drink offering will be part of the religious ceremony involved in making a covenant with Egypt. But Isaiah has referred many times to Yahweh’s being the great planner in Judah’s world. Making plans without consulting Yahweh is surely stupid, offensive, and irresponsible.
So‘an and Hanes are Egyptian cities to which Judahite envoys have journeyed in this connection; the second paragraph begins with an imaginative description of their journey through the desert with the sweeteners they need. Isaiah has a nice way of ridiculing them. Rahab isn’t the Rahab in Joshua (whose name is spelled differently in Hebrew) but another term for the dynamic embodiment of wild power that Isaiah earlier referred to as Leviathan. It’s a poetic term for Egypt in Psalm 87. Judah hopes that Egypt will assert some feral and fierce power on Judah’s behalf; Isaiah declares that Judah is in for disappointment. Rahab is just going to sit there sleepy and unroused.
Indeed, the situation is going to get catastrophically worse rather than better. Isaiah offers two frightening images. It will be like the collapse of a high wall. Or it will be like someone smashing a pot because they’re annoyed, smashing it so violently that there’s nothing left. People want to be told things they will like. Paradoxically, they don’t want to be told to do nothing. They want to be in control of their destiny. But the only security lies in surrendering such control to Yahweh—or rather in recognizing that the control lies with Yahweh, so they might as well face facts.

ISAIAH 30:18–33

Wishing and Hoping and Thinking and Praying, Planning, and Dreaming (2)

  18       Therefore Yahweh waits to be gracious to you;
  but therefore he will arise to show compassion to you.
  Because Yahweh is a God with authority—
  the blessings of all who wait for him!
  19       Because, people in Zion, which dwells in Jerusalem,
  you really will not weep.
  He really will be gracious to you at the sound of your cry;
  as he hears it, he will have answered.
  20       My Lord will give you trouble bread
  and affliction water.
  But your teacher will no more turn aside;
  your eyes will be seeing your teacher.
  21       Your ears will listen to a word from behind you,
  saying, “This is the way, walk in it,”
  when you turn to the right
  and when you turn to the left.
  22       You will defile the plating of your silver images
  and the sheath of your gold idol.
  You will scatter them like something sick;
  “Get out,” you will say to it.
  23       And he will give the rain for your seed
  with which you sow your ground,
  and the bread that is the produce of your ground,
  and it will be rich and fat.
  Your cattle will graze on that day
  in a broad pasture.
  24       The oxen and donkeys that serve the ground
  will eat seasoned fodder
  that has been winnowed with shovel and fork.
  25       There will be, on every high mountain
  and on every lofty hill,
  streams running with water,
  on the day of great slaughter,
  when towers fall.
  26       The moon’s light will be like the sun’s light,
  and the sun’s light will be sevenfold,
  like the light of seven days,
  on the day when Yahweh bandages his people’s wound
  and heals the wound from his blow.

  27       There, Yahweh’s name is coming from afar,
  his anger is burning, his load is a weight.
  His lips are full of wrath,
  his tongue is like a devouring fire.
  28       His breath is like a rushing wash
  that comes half way to the neck,
  to shake the nations in a deceptive shaker,
  with a halter that makes them wander
  on the peoples’ jaws.
  29       The song will be for you,
  like the night when a festival gets itself sanctified.
  The rejoicing of heart

[will be as]

when someone goes with a pipe to come on Yahweh’s mountain, to Israel’s crag. 30  Yahweh will make the majesty of his voice heard, and show the descent of his arm, in angry wrath and devouring fiery flame, cloudburst, storm, and hailstone. 31  Because at Yahweh’s voice Assyria that beats with a club will be shattered. 32  Every passing of the appointed mace, which Yahweh causes to descend on him, will be with tambourines and guitars, and with battles involving shaking [his arm], which he wages against them. 33  Because Tophet is prepared of old; it too is prepared for the King. He has made its fire pit deep and wide, fire and wood a-plenty, Yahweh’s breath like a wash of sulfur burning in it.

When I was about eight, we went for a family holiday to stay with some friends. One morning as breakfast was about to begin I went back to our bedroom to get a sweater or something (it was an English summer) and had to climb into a wardrobe to reach it. Unbeknown to me, the top part of the wardrobe wasn’t fastened to the bottom part. As I climbed inside, I caused the top half to fall off its base, door downwards, with me inside. It was too heavy for me to lift so as to crawl out, but I could just lift it an inch or two off the ground to call for help. They heard me downstairs, but they decided not to respond because I had apparently done something else stupid more than once and they thought it would be good for me to wait. I waited, and they waited, for what seemed to me a very long time.
God waits to be gracious to Israel. In a sense God doesn’t have to wait. God isn’t constrained by time lines in the way human beings are. Yet God waits. Sometimes parents know they should make their children wait even though they could do what the children want right now. Sometimes God submits himself to human constraints and waits rather than zap people with a miracle, which would be too easy. If God shows grace to Israel instantly every time it gets itself into a mess, God encourages Israel and us to think that our actions don’t matter and have no consequences. God is one who has compassion—it’s the Hebrew word for the womb, so it points to the motherly feelings of one who won’t forever sit there eating her breakfast while her child cries out. God is one who has authority, the power to take action to rescue us. So it’s worth waiting for him. But we may have to wait. The church in the West is at a point in its history when it needs to start waiting (and wishing and hoping and thinking and praying) for God to return to it and restore it rather than accepting things as they are or thinking that it can and should fix things.
There are some striking features about the normality that will then return. One is that it doesn’t mean an end to all problems. There will still be situations in which the people need to cry out to God. The difference will be that they will indeed cry out and God will immediately respond, rather than making them wait. Like other parts of Old and New Testaments, Isaiah doesn’t assume that being God’s people means a trouble-free life. Rather it means that in trouble you have someone to turn to, someone who responds.
There’s an irony about the lines that follow, when the prophecy describes how things will be when God stops waiting and starts guiding his people, because it’s not as if God has been failing to guide them over the centuries. They have always had God’s guidance. Like us, their problem was not that they didn’t know what to do but that they didn’t want to do it. So there’s also a kind of wistfulness about the promise: if only they would listen to the voice that seeks to guide them. (Whereas Christian talk of guidance or leading often refers to knowing whether to go to this church or that, take this job or that, date this person or that, talk about guidance or leading in the Bible characteristically refers to worshiping God in a way that fits who God is and living with other people in a way that fits who God is.)
The account of Israel’s restoration also assumes that there is still a Day of the Lord to come. The backcloth to Israel’s restoration is a day of slaughter, when towers fall. Israel will always have to recall that it can be the victim of the Day of the Lord, not its beneficiary. That is so when Isaiah’s opening chapters speak of towers falling; they’re towers in places like Jerusalem. But when Israel is living by the guidance of that voice and is nevertheless subordinate to superpowers with lofty towers, it can know that God puts down superpowers.
In the first paragraph the restoring of Israel’s blessing lies in the foreground, the day of wrath in the background. In the second paragraph the ratio reverses. The nations (the plural term often refers to the superpower of the day) will think they have a plan to take over the world but will discover they’re deceived. They will expect to be singing, but Judah will be the one singing as it gathers to pray for God to act and deliver and/or to praise God for doing so. Tophet is a place in one of the canyons just outside Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to “the King”—in this context, the title of a traditional god of the country. This disgusting place would be an appropriate destiny for the Assyrian king after he fails to conquer Jerusalem.

ISAIAH 31:1–32:20

I See Hawks in L.A.

  31:1       Hey, people who go down to Egypt for help,
  and lean on horses,
  who have trusted in chariotry because it’s big,
  and in horsemen because they’re very strong,
  and not turned to Israel’s holy one,
  not inquired of Yahweh.
  2       But he too is wise, and he has brought evil,
  and not made his words turn away.
  He will arise against the household of evildoers,
  and against the help of people who do wickedness.
  3       Egypt is human not God,
  their horses are flesh not spirit.
  When Yahweh stretches out his hand,
  helper will collapse,
  the one who is helped will fall,
  all of them will come to an end together.
  4       Because Yahweh has said this to me:
  “As a lion murmurs,
  or a cougar over its prey,
  (when a whole group of shepherds
  is summoned against it—
  at their voice it isn’t shattered,
  at their uproar it doesn’t succumb),
  so Yahweh Armies will come down,
  to take up arms on Mount Zion and on its hill.
  5       Like birds flying,
  so Yahweh Armies will shield Jerusalem,
  shielding and saving,
  passing over and rescuing.
  6       Turn to the one you have deeply departed from,
  7       Because on that day they will reject, each one
  his silver nonentities and his gold nonentities,
  which your hands made for you, an offense.
  8       Assyria will fall by a sword not human;
  a sword that does not belong to a human being will devour it.
  It will flee for its life before the sword,
  and its young men will be for conscript labor.
  9       Its crag will pass away because of the terror,
  its officers will be shattered because of the ensign”
  (a declaration of Yahweh, whose fire is in Zion,
  whose furnace is in Jerusalem).

  32:1       There, a king will reign to promote faithfulness;
  as for officials, they will govern to promote the exercise of authority.
  2       Each will be a true hiding place from wind,
  a place of concealment from rain,
  like channels of water in the desert,
  like the shade of a heavy crag, in a weary country.
  3       The eyes of people who see will not be blind,
  the ears of people who listen will give heed.
  4       The mind of the quick will understand knowledge,
  the tongue of the hesitant will be quick
  to speak dazzling words.
  5       No more will a mindless person be called a leader,
  or a villain called a savior.
  6       Because a mindless person speaks mindlessness,
  and his mind effects wickedness,
  acting impiously,
  and speaking of wandering from Yahweh,
  leaving the hungry person empty,
  and letting the drink of the thirsty fail.
  7       The villain: his tools are evil,
  he is one who plans schemes,
  to destroy the lowly by falsehoods,
  and the needy person by the way he speaks in exercising authority.
  8       But a leader will plan acts of leadership,
  and that man will stand through acts of leadership.

  9       Carefree women, arise, listen to my voice!
  secure daughters, give ear to what I say!
  10       In [a few] days over a year
  you secure ones will shake,
  because the harvest will be finished,
  the ingathering won’t come.
  11       Tremble, you carefree; shake, you who are secure,
  strip, be bare, a skirt around your waist,
  12       lamenting upon the breasts for the lovely fields,
  for the fruitful vine,
  13        for my people’s soil,
  which will produce thorn and briar,
  yes, for all the joyful households,
  the exultant town.
  14       Because the fortress will have been abandoned,
  the uproar of the city will have been forsaken.
  Citadel and tower will have become
  empty spaces forever,
  the enjoyment of donkeys,
  pasture for flocks.

  15       Until the spirit empties itself on us from on high,
  and wilderness becomes farmland,
  and farmland counts as forest.
  16       Authority will dwell in the wilderness,
  faithfulness will live in the farmland.
  17       The effect of faithfulness will be well-being,
  the service of faithfulness will be quiet
  and security forever.
  18       My people will live in an abode characterized by well-being,
  in secure dwellings, in carefree places of rest.
  19       Though it hails when the forest falls,
  and the city utterly collapses:
  20       the blessings you will have, sowing by all waters,
  letting the feet of cattle and donkeys roam free!

One of my favorite bands is called I See Hawks in L.A., which is also the title of one of their early songs. In the song the hawks hover over the city as if they sense it’s about to be destroyed and there will be plenty of provender for them to enjoy. “What if this place got buried alive?” What if “the big one” that Californians speak of happens? “Let the snakes take over again.” It’s an image from a disaster movie.
Isaiah sees hawks hovering over Jerusalem. They too sense that the city is about to be destroyed. They too look forward to the provender they will then enjoy. They’re not the kind of birds that let their prey be taken by any other creature. They’re like lions. Yet suddenly the picture turns upside down, as happened in chapter 29. It transpires that being in the oversight of hawks or in the lion’s maw is a safe place—no one else (specifically, the Assyrians) can get you.
How stupid is Judah not to treat Yahweh as its protector, then! Instead it trusts the Egyptians, even though they’re human not God, their horses flesh not spirit. Humanity and the animal world are characterized by flesh. Isaiah doesn’t use the word for flesh to denote the lower or sinful nature. Flesh is our created being in its relative weakness, fragility, and vulnerability. How stupid is Judah, then, to be relying on human, creaturely resources for its protection! With some sarcasm Isaiah points out that whereas Egypt has a reputation for philosophical acumen as well as military ability, Yahweh has a touch of wisdom, too, and has also shown himself capable of making plans and implementing them (for instance, in the recent frightening fall of Ephraim to Assyria). So how stupid Judah is in not turning to Yahweh. It needs to do so.
As I write, there is a widespread disillusionment with governments around much of the world, in the United States, in Europe, in Africa, and in the Middle East. The reasons and factors in different countries vary; the disillusionment is common. It wouldn’t be surprising if people in Judah had similar feelings about their government, but the paragraph about a coming king and his government promises them that things will not always be as they are. Typically, it assumes that the priority for a government is the exercise of authority in accordance with faithfulness so that it acts as a secure hiding place for the vulnerable. That is where real leadership lies. In true Isaianic fashion, the prophet includes the promise that people who won’t look or listen for truth at the moment will now do so.
The paragraph addressing the women constitutes another repetition of the sequence whereby warning leads into promise. Formally, Isaiah addresses the leading women of Judah. Usually it’s the men he confronts, but here it’s their wives and daughters, who will have some influence over husbands and sons and some responsibility for conserving the household resources in a crisis. Isaiah isn’t critiquing them but giving them something to think and worry about. At the moment they’re secure and can be carefree, but in just over a year things will look very different. The scene is the harvest celebration, one September–October. The prophecy says, “Make the most of it; this time next year there won’t be a harvest.” It would be appropriate for them to start mourning now for the catastrophe that is coming. The reference to the city’s devastation shows that the prophecy isn’t speaking of a natural disaster that ruins the harvest but of invasion and defeat that devastates the entire land, as happens when an army rampages over it and appropriates everything within sight. Of course the warning doesn’t affect the women alone. Formally they’re the people who are bidden to listen, but no doubt the prophecy is just as much intended for their husbands and fathers and sons.
Once again you might have thought that the vision was so terminal that it must presage an actual End, but again warning yields to promise by way of the unexpected “until” that would have seemed excluded by the preceding “forever.” The country is restored. Again it will be characterized by faithfulness in the exercise of authority, and again some of Isaiah’s characteristic notes appear—there will be security and quiet, and women and man can be truly carefree.
The section began with that reminder that human resources are flesh not spirit. Spirit in its dynamism and power is what distinguishes God from humanity. The section closes with the vision of God’s spirit or wind sweeping over the earth, emptying itself out there so as to bring about a transformation of nature and a transformation of the human community.

ISAIAH 33:1–24

The Outrageous Hope into Which the City of God Is Invited

  1       Hey, destroyer who has not been destroyed,
  betrayer who has not been betrayed!
  When you finish destroying you will be destroyed,
  when you stop betraying, they will betray you.
  2       Yahweh, be gracious to us,
  we have looked for you.
  Be people’s arm every morning,
  yes, our deliverance in time of trouble.
  3       Before the sound of uproar peoples fled,
  before your rising nations scattered.
  4       Your spoil was gathered like the gathering of locusts;
  like the rushing of grasshoppers someone rushes on it.
  5       Yahweh is lofty, because he dwells on high;
  he filled Zion with authority and faithfulness.
  6       He will become the steadfastness of your times;
  wisdom and knowledge are the wealth that brings deliverance,
  awe for Yahweh—that is its treasure.

  7       There—the people in God’s Hearth have cried out aloud in the streets,
  the aides of Salem weep bitterly.
  8       Highways have become desolate,
  the traveler on the road has ceased.
  He has broken the covenant, rejected the cities,
  not taken account of anyone.
  9       The country has withered, wasted away;
  Lebanon is shamed, it has shriveled.
  Sharon has become like the steppe,
  Bashan and Carmel are shaking off [their growth].
  10       “Now I will arise,” Yahweh says,
  “now I will exalt myself, now I will raise myself high.
  11       You will conceive hay, give birth to straw;
  your breath is a fire that consumes you.
  12       Peoples will be burnings of lime,
  thorns cut off that are set on fire.
  13        Listen, you far off, to what I have done;
  acknowledge, you that are near, my might.”

  14       Offenders in Zion are afraid,
  trembling seizes the impious.
  Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire,
  who of us can dwell with the everlasting blaze?
  15       One who walks in faithfulness,
  who speaks uprightly,
  who rejects profit from extortion,
  who waves his hands rather than grasping a bribe,
  who stops his ear rather than listening to [talk of] bloodshed,
  who closes his eyes rather than look at evil—
  16       that person can dwell on the heights,
  with cliff fortresses as his high tower.
  His food will be given,
  his water reliable.

  17       Your eyes will see the King in his glory,
  they will look at the country stretching afar.
  18       Your mind will murmur about the dread—
  where’s the person counting, where’s the person weighing?
  Where’s the person counting the towers?—
       19       you won’t see the arrogant people,
  the people too way-out of speech to hear,
  so stammering of tongue that there’s no understanding.
  20       Look at Zion, our festival town;
  your eyes will see Jerusalem,
  a carefree abode,
  a tent that will not move about,
  whose pegs one will never pull up,
  none of whose ropes will break.
  21       Rather, there the majestic one, Yahweh, will be for us
  a place of rivers, streams, broad on both sides.
  No rowing vessel can go in it,
  no majestic ship can pass through it.
  22       Because Yahweh is the one exercising authority for us,
  Yahweh is our lawgiver,
  Yahweh is our King,
  he is the one who will deliver us.
  23       Your ropes are loose,
  they cannot hold secure the base of their mast,
  they cannot spread a sail.
  Then abundance of plunder is divided,
  lame people take spoil.
  24       No inhabitant will say, “I’m sick”;
  the people that lives in it—
  its waywardness is carried.

This past Sunday we prayed for the peace of the world, for a spirit of respect and forbearance to grow among its peoples, for people in positions of public trust to serve justice and promote the dignity and freedom of every person, for the world to be freed from poverty, famine, and disaster, and for the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer, for refugees, prisoners, and all who are in danger, that they may be relieved and protected. We pray prayers along those lines every week, and the more we pray them, the more outrageous they seem, and perhaps the more depressing.
It would be tempting to give up were it not for promises such as Isaiah’s that God is committed to those ends. Whereas much in previous chapters of Isaiah starts from the concrete situation of the Judahites threatened by Assyria and inclined to try to solve their problems by seeking help from Egypt, this chapter contains no such concrete references. It could reflect many historical situations, all variants on the same sort of experience such as the opening line announces. Israel is the victim of a destroyer: Assyria was one, Babylon another, Persia another, Seleucid Greece another. Sometimes these superpowers acted in beneficent ways and life would be tolerable, though people would still long to determine their own affairs. Sometimes the superpower would be more directly oppressive. Indeed, referring to the superpower as a destroyer need not imply that Judah was its victim. Sometimes a prophet such as Isaiah is putting the superpower on notice because of the wrong it’s doing to other people.
The chapter’s lack of concrete references makes its promises significant for any of the historical contexts just noted. It also makes clearer that God’s fulfilling a vision is never a random event. It means God’s ultimate purpose is receiving one of its periodic partial fulfillments. When God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, or brought them back to Judah after the exile, or freed them from the Seleucids in the 160s, or sent Jesus to declare that God’s reign was here—all these events formed a partial fulfillment of God’s ultimate vision. This chapter offers an expression of that final vision by taking up motifs and phrases from previous chapters in Isaiah and using them to draw a new picture of that final fulfillment. It’s a montage of images, jumping from one image to another.
It begins from a bold declaration to the superpower that it will fall, though the immediate audience for the declaration will be Judah itself, to whom it comes as a promise. Its context in their life is indicated by the appeal for God to show grace to them. Like many Old Testament prayers, the prophecy goes on to describe how God has acted in the past, putting a superpower down, appropriating its plunder, and acting with authority and faithfulness toward Zion. Such recollections function as reminders to God to act that way again and to the people concerning God’s capacity to do so.
The middle paragraph focuses on the present, which forms a contrast with what God has done in the past. The people of Jerusalem (God’s Hearth, Salem) grieve over the state of things in the country, given the way the destroyer has acted, ignoring his commitments to the people and despoiling the country as superpowers do. The prayer, the recollection, and the protest drive Yahweh into a response, a promise to act that takes the form of a warning to the superpower that Yahweh will frustrate its expectations.
It’s pretty scary for the people of God itself when Yahweh takes action. The third paragraph recognizes that they may be caught by the heat when God acts in wrath. Oppression by outside powers can drag a people down to the level of their oppressors (one expression of which is the way the oppressed can behave like their oppressors when they get into power themselves). The prophecy reminds them of some basic expectations God has of them. If Yahweh is coming, they need to look at their own lives.
The section closes with a majestic portrayal of the promising side to this coming. At present people can look back on the past only wistfully. When God acts, they will be able to look back with a different kind of disbelief. Do you remember the dread we felt? Do you remember when the imperial tax collectors were going around counting everything? Do you remember how they spoke an odd language and made us feel stupid because we couldn’t understand it? Now we can encourage each other to look at Zion where we celebrate the festivals, which have even more meaning than before, and where we know we are safe forever. We are never going into exile again. It’s as if Yahweh is a quiet stretch of water, broad but not accessible to dangerous warships. We will be the ones profiting from the resources of the empire now, instead of being raided by it. There’ll be no more sickness and no more unforgiven sin that would take us into exile. (One reason the remembering will be important is that it may hold people back from adopting their oppressors’ style.)
We can pray with confidence for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purpose for the world.

ISAIAH 34:1–35:10

Putting Down Edom, Giving the Mute Their Voice

  34:1       Come near to listen, nations;
  pay attention, peoples.
  The earth and what fills it should listen,
  the world and all who come out from it.
  2       Because Yahweh has anger for all the nations,
  wrath for all their army.
  He has devoted them, given them to slaughter,
       3       and their slain will be thrown out.
  Their corpses—their stench will go up,
  and the mountains will dissolve with their blood.
  4       All the army of the heavens will rot
  and the heavens will roll up like a scroll.
  All their army will fall
  as the foliage of the vine falls
  and as that of the fig tree falls,
       5       because my sword will have drunk its fill in the heavens.

  There, on Edom it descends,
  and on a people I have devoted, in exercising authority.
  6       Yahweh’s sword is full of blood,
  soaked in fat,
  in the blood of lambs and goats,
  in fat from the kidneys of rams.
  Because Yahweh has a sacrifice in Bosrah,
  a great slaughter in the country of Edom.
  7       Wild oxen will fall with them,
  bullocks with mighty steers.
  Their country will be full of blood,
  their dirt be soaked in fat.
  8       Because it is Yahweh’s day of redress,
  a year of recompense for Zion’s cause.
  9       Its washes will turn to pitch,
  its dirt to sulfur.
  Its country will become burning pitch;
       10       day and night it won’t go out.
  Its smoke will go up forever;
  from generation to generation it will lie waste.
  For ever and forever
  there will be no one passing through it.
  11       Hawk and hedgehog will possess it,
  owl and raven will dwell in it.
  He will stretch out over it the measuring line of emptiness,
  and the weights of the void 12 over its nobles.
  People will call it “There’s no kingship there”;
  all its officials will be nothing.
  13        Thorns will grow up in its citadels,
  briar and thistle in its stronghold.
  It will become the abode of jackals,
  the dwelling of ostriches.
  14       Wildcats will meet hyenas,
  a wild goat will call to its neighbor.
  Indeed, the night creature has rested there,
  has found herself a place of repose.
  15       There the snake has nested and laid eggs,
  sat and hatched in its shade.
  Indeed, there vultures have gathered,
  each with her mate.
  16       Inquire from Yahweh’s scroll, and read out:
  “Not one of these will be missing,
  none will look for its mate,
  because with my mouth” he commanded,
  with his spirit he assembled them.
  17       He is the one who made the share fall to them,
  his hand divided it up for them with the line.
  They will possess it for all time,
  to all generations they will dwell there.

  35:1       The wilderness and the dry land will rejoice,
  the steppe will celebrate and bloom like a crocus.
  2       It will bloom abundantly and celebrate,
  indeed with celebration and resounding.
  Lebanon’s splendor will be given it,
  Carmel and Sharon’s glory.
  Those people will see Yahweh’s splendor,
  our God’s glory.
  3       Strengthen weak hands,
  firm up collapsing knees.
  4       Say to the hesitant of mind,
  “Be strong, don’t be afraid, there is your God.
  Redress will come, God’s recompense,
  he will come and deliver you.”
  5       Then the eyes of the blind will open,
  the ears of the deaf will unfasten.
  6       Then the handicapped person will jump like a deer,
  the mute’s tongue will resound.
  Because waters will burst out in the wilderness,
  washes in the steppe.
  7       The burning sand will become a pool,
  the thirsty ground fountains of water.
  In the abode of jackals, its resting place,
  the dwelling will be reed and rush.
  8       There will be a highway there, a way,
  and the holy way it will be called;
  an unclean person won’t pass along it.
  It will be for them—the one who walks the way;
  stupid people won’t wander there.
  9       There will be no lion there;
  violent beast won’t go up on it.
  It won’t be found there;
  the restored people will go.
  10       The people redeemed by Yahweh will return,
  will come to Zion with resounding,
  with eternal gladness on their head.
  Joy and gladness will overtake them;
  sorrow and sighing will flee.

As a result of multiple sclerosis, my first wife, Ann, indeed had collapsing knees, as well as weak hands. When we were relocating to the United States, as we arrived at Heathrow, I was helping her transfer into her wheelchair by using a technique her nurses had taught me, bracing her knees against mine, but in swiveling from the car seat to the ground on the way to the wheelchair our knees lost contact, her knees folded, and I dropped her. In subsequent years she became mute, too. It wasn’t that she knew what to say but had lost the ability to use her voice; the disease’s effect on her mental workings meant she could no longer think out what she wanted to say. Maybe being unable to speak was tougher than being unable to walk.
My heart therefore thrills at the image of the handicapped person jumping like a deer. It would be a sight to behold! What a further image, that a mute person’s tongue can resound! The promises’ logic is that seeing God’s great act of restoration will be so astonishing, it will compel such responses from limbs and mouths that lack the ability to move. The sight is a shock that electrifies them back to life, an extreme version of the way the whisper of a loved one may be able to arouse a response from someone in a coma. Perhaps it will be hearing God’s voice calling or singing or whispering that will bring to birth the new life the vision portrays.
The prophecy doesn’t directly portray Yahweh’s act of restoration. It portrays its reverberations in nature. It’s like a poem in the way it teases the reader. Who are the “those people” to whom it points as the beneficiaries of God’s act? Only in the last verses are they identified. Even there, it first rules out some people—the unclean (for instance, people stained by the worship of other gods) and the stupid (people who haven’t recognized that submission to Yahweh is the first principle of wisdom). As in English, in Hebrew the word “violent” usually applies to human beings not animals, so the lions and violent beasts may stand for another group of people who are excluded from the picture. The beneficiaries are the people redeemed and restored by Yahweh and brought back to Zion from the exile of which Isaiah warns.
The other animal reference, to jackals, draws attention to the way these two chapters form a diptych, a balancing pair. Like Jesus and Paul, the prophecy assumes that redress on the wayward and restoration for the committed go together, as two sides of a coin. It’s as if God can’t just focus on the nice idea of restoring his people but also has to face the less pleasant task of bringing punishment to the rebellious. The collocation also recognizes how the restoration of God’s people commonly requires the putting down of their oppressors as its precondition. When Judah is in exile, being brought back to Zion will require putting down the power of the superpower that took them there. The first paragraph, then, speaks of judgment on the superpower.
The superpower isn’t named, which makes it noteworthy that Edom comes into focus in the middle paragraph. For much of Old Testament times Edom did nothing more worthy of special judgment than other peoples such Moab or Ammon. But Edom later took over large amounts of Judahite territory, as far as Hebron. This might be a reason for speaking of the need for Yahweh to “take recompense for Zion’s cause.” Further, Edom later became the Jews’ code term for Rome (like Babylon in the New Testament). Maybe in the Old Testament it’s already a symbol for a power asserting itself against Yahweh and his people. Originally Edom (=Esau) was the brother of Israel (=Jacob), which could encourage this antithesis. Jacob stands for the chosen, Edom for the not-chosen. Ironically, Edom was never destroyed in the way the prophecy warns; indeed, the Idumeans (the term for the people who later lived in the area) were converted to Judaism. Perhaps you could call it a neat kind of destruction.

ISAIAH 36:1–37:20

A Politician’s One Fatal Mistake

36:1 In King Hezekiah’s fourth year, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. 2 The king of Assyria sent the Rabshaqeh from Lachish to Jerusalem to King Hezekiah with a heavy force, and he took a stand at the conduit of the Upper Pool at the Launderer’s Field road. 3 Eliaqim son of Hilqiah who was over the house, Shebna the scribe, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder, went out to meet him. 4 The Rabshaqeh said to them, “Will you say to Hezekiah: ‘The Great King, the king of Assyria has said this: “What is this trust that you have? 5 I have said [to myself], ‘Yes, the word on the lips [equals] a plan and might for battle!’ Now, on whom have you trusted, that you have rebelled against me? 6 There, you have trusted in this broken reed of a staff, in Egypt, which goes into the palm of the person who leans on it, and pierces it. Such is Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to all who trust in him. 7 But if you say to me, ‘Yahweh our God—we have trusted in him’: is it not he whose high place and altars Hezekiah removed, and said to Judah and Jerusalem, ‘Before this altar you are to bow down’? 8 Now, do make a bargain with my lord the king of Assyria. I will provide you with two thousand horses if you can provide yourself riders for them. 9 How could you turn away a single governor among my lord’s least servants? But you trust for yourself in Egypt for chariotry and horsemen. 10 And now, is it without Yahweh that I have come up to this country to destroy it? Yahweh himself said to me, ‘Go up to this country and destroy it.’ ” ’ ”
11 Eliaqim, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshaqeh, “Do speak to your servants in Aramaic, because we are listening. Don’t speak to us in Judahite in the ears of the people that is on the wall.” 12 The Rabshaqeh said, “Was it to your lord and to you that my lord sent me to speak these words? Was it not to the individuals sitting on the wall, about [their] eating their excrement and drinking the water they have passed, along with you?” 13 The Rabshaqeh stood and said and called in a loud voice in Judahite and said, “Listen to the words of the Great King, the king of Assyria. 14 The king has said this: ‘Hezekiah must not deceive you, because he won’t be able to save you. 15 Hezekiah must not make you trust in Yahweh, saying, “Yahweh will definitely save us; this city won’t be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” ’ 16 Don’t listen to Hezekiah. Because the king of Assyria has said this: ‘Make a [treaty of] blessing with me. Come out to me, and eat each his vine and each his fig tree, and drink each the water from his cistern, 17 until I come and take you to a country like your country, a country of grain and new wine, of bread and vineyards. 18 Don’t let Hezekiah mislead you, saying “Yahweh will save us.” Have the gods of the nations, any of them, saved his country from the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 Where were the gods of Hamat and Arpad? Where were the gods of Sepharvaim? And [is it the case] that they saved Samaria from my hand? 20 Who was it among all the gods of these countries that saved their country from my hand?” ’ ” 21 They were silent and didn’t answer him a word, because it had been the king’s command, “Don’t answer him.”
22 Eliaqim son of Hilqiah who was over the house, Shebna the scribe, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn and told him the Rabshaqeh’s words.
37:1 When King Hezekiah heard, he tore his clothes and covered himself in sackcloth. He came into Yahweh’s house, 2 and sent Eliaqim, who was over the house, Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priests, covered in sackcloth, to Isaiah son of Amoz. 3 They said to him, “Hezekiah has said this: ‘This day is a day of trouble, reproof, and disgrace, when children come to birth but there’s no strength for giving birth. 4 Perhaps Yahweh your God will listen to the words of the Rabshaqeh, whom the king of Assyria, his lord, sent to revile the living God, and will reprove the words that Yahweh your God has heard. So lift up a plea on behalf of the remains that are here.’ ” 5 When King Hezekiah’s servants came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Say this to your lord: ‘Yahweh has said this: “Don’t be afraid before the words you have heard with which the king of Assyria’s young men have blasphemed me. 7 Here—I am putting a spirit in him. He will hear a report and will return to his country, and I will make him fall by the sword in his country.” ’ ” 8 The Rabshaqeh returned and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah, because [the Rabshaqeh] had heard that he had moved on from Lachish.
9 The king of Assyria had heard concerning Tirhaqah the king of Sudan, “He has come out to fight with you.” When he heard, he sent aides to Hezekiah, saying, 10 “You are to say this to Hezekiah, king of Judah: ‘Your God whom you are trusting, saying “Jerusalem won’t be given into the hand of the king of Assyria,” must not mislead you. 11 There—you yourself have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, by devoting them. And you will be saved? 12 Did the gods of the nations that my ancestors destroyed save them—Gozan, Haran, Reseph, the Edenites who are in Telassar? 13 Where is the king of Hamat, the king of Arpad, the king of Lair, Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah?’ ”
14 Hezekiah received the letter from the aides’ hand, read it out, and went up to Yahweh’s house. Hezekiah spread it out before Yahweh. 15 And Hezekiah pleaded with Yahweh: 16 “Yahweh Armies, Israel’s God, you who sit over the cherubs: you are God alone, in relation to all the kingdoms of the earth. You are the one who made the heavens and the earth. 17 Yahweh, bend your ear and listen, open your eye and see, listen to all the words of Sennacherib that he sent to blaspheme the living God. 18 Of a truth, Yahweh, the kings of Assyria have devoted all the countries, and their country, 19 giving their gods to the fire, because they were not gods but the work of human hands, wood and stone, and they have destroyed them. 20 But now, Yahweh our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may acknowledge that you alone are Yahweh.”

When I was the principal of a seminary, I would get lots of mail. Usually my assistant would open it, but on Saturday I would do so, and thus would get first sight of the tricky pieces of correspondence, ones that raised worrying issues or asked questions to which I didn’t know the answer or apprised me of an unwelcome decision. Maybe a ministerial selection board had not recommended a student who I thought was a fine candidate; or maybe they had recommended one who seemed to me to be implausible. I would stand in my office puzzling over such a letter.
I came to love the picture of Hezekiah taking his much trickier letter into the temple and standing in front of God as I would in my office, holding it out to God—“Have you seen this? It’s monstrous! What shall I do?”
The situation really is tricky. The story avoids drawing our attention to the way Hezekiah is at least partly responsible for the mess he’s in. His underlings’ amusing plea to the Rabshaqeh (one of Sennacherib’s senior aides) that he avoid speaking in a way that ordinary people can understand hints at their embarrassment. There are no untarnished heroes in the story. Many of the peoples on the Assyrian empire’s western edge have rebelled against Assyrian authority, and Hezekiah seems to have joined in. Chapters 29–31 have related how Judah sought to get Egypt’s support in resisting Assyria, how this wouldn’t work because it ignored Yahweh’s involvement in affairs, and how Yahweh threatened to go as near as it’s possible to go in letting Jerusalem fall, short of actually doing so. In keeping with this threat, Sennacherib has devastated Judah’s cities and looks about to devastate Jerusalem. In his own subsequent account of events in an inscription he declares, “because Hezekiah, king of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took forty-six of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns that were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number.… Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers around the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates, so as to prevent escape.”
This sequence of events is nearing its climax. Jerusalem is in the mountains and Sennacherib has initially focused on the cities in the lower land nearer the Mediterranean, whose capture is an easier task. He sends the Rabshaqeh to try to negotiate Jerusalem’s surrender, so the king doesn’t have to undertake a tricky and potentially lengthy siege. His speech on the king’s behalf brings up just the right questions.
One theme is planning. Talk is one thing, but planning and executing an operation is another. If Hezekiah had the military hardware, does he have the personnel to operate it? Isaiah would agree that the question of planning is important, but the deeper reason is that Yahweh is the one who knows about planning and executing operations. Sennacherib almost makes that point, too, with his audacious claim to be coming as Yahweh’s agent—which is truer than he means. Yahweh’s being the one who plans and executes operations is a fact that is going to rebound on Sennacherib.
Another theme is trust, the issue Isaiah keeps raising. Is Hezekiah really so stupid as to trust in the Egyptians? Alternatively, is he in a position to trust in Yahweh, when he has been involved in destroying Yahweh’s sanctuaries in Judah? The longer version of this story in 2 Kings confirms Sennacherib’s words. It’s a clever argument, though Isaiah would have approved of Hezekiah’s action (the sanctuaries were inclined to unorthodox worship). But in speaking of trust, the Rabshaqeh later makes one mistake. It’s a fatal one. He ends up questioning whether Yahweh can deliver Jerusalem, any more than other gods have delivered their cities (the observation that it didn’t work with Samaria would be especially painful). Perhaps Hezekiah’s aides are devastated out of fear, but Hezekiah is devastated because of the blasphemy. He knows there’s a good chance that Sennacherib has tied a noose around his own neck. He knows it’s a prophet’s job to speak to God on the people’s behalf as well as to speak to the people on God’s behalf, and bids him do so. The same action will be good for God’s name as well as for the “remains” of Judah, for the one city that is left.
The last two paragraphs repeat many of the story’s themes. They may be an alternative version of it rather than a continuation. The new thing they add is the prayer, which models the way the most powerful prayer is one prayed “for your name’s sake.” They imply the awareness that God may indeed act to reclaim his holy name when it has been disparaged.

ISAIAH 37:21–38

Things That Shouldn’t Happen, Yet Do

21 Isaiah son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah saying, “Yahweh, Israel’s God, with whom you pleaded concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, has said this. 22 This is the word that Yahweh has spoken about him.

  She has despised you,
  maiden Ms. Zion has mocked you.
  Behind you Ms. Jerusalem
  has shaken her head.
  23       Whom have you blasphemed and reviled,
  against whom have you lifted your voice?
  You have raised your eyes on high
  to Israel’s holy one.
  24       By the hand of your servants
  you have blasphemed my Lord, and said,
  ‘With the abundance of my chariotry
  I am the one who has gone up to the mountains’ height,
  Lebanon’s furthest parts.
  I have cut down the tallest of its cedars,
  the choicest of its cypresses.
  I have come to its ultimate height,
  its richest forest.
  25       I am the one who has dug and drunk water,
  and dried with the sole of my feet
  all Egypt’s streams.’

  26       Have you not heard?—
  long ago I did it,
  from days of old I formed it,
  now I have made it come about.
  It has happened, causing fortified cities
  to crash into ruined heaps.
  27       Their inhabitants have been sapped of power,
  shattered and shamed.
  They have become vegetation of the countryside,
  green herbage,
  grass on the roof,
  something blasted before it grows up.
  28       Your staying, going out, and coming I know,
  and how you raged at me.
  29       Because you raged at me,
  and your confidence came up into my ears,
  I will put my hook in your nose,
  my bit in your mouth,
  and make you return by the way you came.

  30       This will be the sign for you [Hezekiah]:
  This year, eat the natural growth;
  in the second year, the secondary growth.
  In the third year you can sew and reap,
  and plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
  31       The survivors of Judah’s household that remain
  will add root downwards and produce fruit above.
  32       Because the remains will come out from Jerusalem,
  and survivors from Mount Zion.
  The passion of Yahweh Armies
  will do this.
  33       Therefore this is what Yahweh has said concerning the king of Assyria:
  “He will not come into this city;
  he will not shoot an arrow there.
  He will not draw near to it with a shield;
  he will not construct a ramp against it.
  34       By the way that he came he will return;
  into this city he will not come
  (Yahweh’s declaration).
  35       I will shield this city in order to deliver it,
  for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.”

36 Yahweh’s aide went out and struck 185,000 in the Assyrian camp. People got up in the morning—there, all of them were dead corpses. 37 Sennacherib the king of Assyria broke camp and went. He returned and lived in Nineveh. 38 He was bowing down in the house of Nisrok his god when Adrammelek and Sarezer his sons struck him with the sword. They escaped to the country of Ararat, and his son Esarhaddon became king instead of him.

As we woke this morning, the man in the apartment above had already set his washing machine going, and it was making a clunkier noise than usual. Indeed, at first I thought there was a helicopter hovering above the building. Was it about to crash into us? Was the washing machine about to crash through our ceiling? Then I heard a news item about a disc jockey from Brooklyn who was lying in bed in a hotel in Portland when a taxi crashed through the wall and pinned him under its wheels. “It’s a random, absurd thing that shouldn’t happen, but happened,” he said.
I can imagine a commander-in-chief such as Sennacherib reacting in that way to the slaughter in his army that this story tells and reacting that way again if he had chance to do so when his sons raised their swords against him. Assyrian sources tell of Sennacherib’s assassination by his sons. They don’t tell of an army massacre. You may think the story is a legend. You may think there was a natural disaster—one or two later sources suggest there might have been an epidemic in the camp. You may think there was simply a supernatural event exactly as the story describes. Your view will probably be decided by the assumptions you bring to the story. I think there are lots of stories in Scripture where something happened but the story is told larger than life and that this is an example. So I find it easiest to believe that something like an epidemic happened in the camp and that it was indeed God’s way of bringing judgment on the Assyrians—as indeed was the king’s murder by his sons.
If this is so, it would help to explain Israel’s concluding that Isaiah was a true prophet and thus keeping his prophecies in a book, when there were other prophets whose words were not preserved. Maybe the words of a true prophet have the ring of truth and we know they are true, though we might prefer not to acknowledge it because we don’t like them. But two or three factors may have objectively distinguished Isaiah from other prophets and pushed Israel in that direction. His prophecies often came true, so that the ones that had not come true were worth holding onto against the day when they would. But false prophets can utter prophecies that come true; you can’t believe every prophet. So another factor is the theological and moral integrity about Isaiah’s words. He talked about God in a believable way and one that you could live with. His God was not involved only with people’s inner spiritual life and worship but also with the outside world. He was active in a way that combined commitment to Israel, David, and Jerusalem, and commitment to keeping his promises, with concern for the whole world to come to acknowledge Yahweh. Isaiah also insisted that Israel and the world had a responsibility to Yahweh and to justice and did not get away with it if they ignored such obligations. So in Sennacherib’s case, the events that Isaiah describes are ones that shouldn’t happen but do, yet they’re not random. Another factor, I suspect, was that Isaiah was interesting, made you think, haunted you.
The prophecy he gives Hezekiah provides examples. He begins with Jerusalem mocking Sennacherib, a neat and bold picture. At the moment Jerusalem is doing nothing of the sort, but in his God-inspired imagination Isaiah has seen Jerusalem doing so, and he invites the city to start doing so even at the moment when it has no visible basis for it. Isaiah knows Sennacherib has signed his own and his army’s death warrant by its scorn for the real God and its assumption about itself and its achievements.
The second paragraph in the message with its opening question about whether people have heard about these things provides another sort of example. It sounds as if it continues Sennacherib’s self-account, but eventually it becomes clear that these are God’s questions. You think you did these things Sennacherib? Think again. I was the one whose plans were being implemented. You were just a pawn in my hand. And you’re going to pay for your arrogance.
The third paragraph makes outrageous promises to Hezekiah, further examples of the promises whose fulfillment will have led to Isaiah’s words being held onto and preserved.

ISAIAH 38:1–39:8

The Ambiguous Hezekiah

38:1 In those days Hezekiah was deathly sick. Isaiah the son of Amoz, the prophet, came to him and said to him, “Yahweh has said this: ‘Give orders to your household, because you’re dying; you won’t come back to life.’ ” 2 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and pleaded with Yahweh. 3 He said, “Oh, Yahweh, do be mindful of how I have walked before you in truth and with a whole mind, and have done what was good in your eyes.” Hezekiah wept much. 4 Yahweh’s word came to Isaiah: 5 “Go and say to Hezekiah: ‘Yahweh, the God of your ancestor David, has said this: “I have listened to your plea, I have seen your tears. Now: I am adding to your lifespan fifteen years. 6 From the hand of the king of Assyria I will rescue you and this city, and I will shield this city.” 7 This will be the sign for you from Yahweh that Yahweh will do this thing that he has spoken. 8 “Here, I am going to reverse the shadow on the steps that has gone down on the steps of Ahaz because of the sun, back ten steps.” ’ ” And the sun reversed ten steps by the steps that it had gone down.
9 A composition for Hezekiah, king of Judah, when he was sick and came back to life from his sickness.

  10       I myself said,
  “In the midst of my days I shall go.
  I have been appointed to Sheol’s gates
  for the rest of my years.”
  11       I said, “I shall not see Yah;
  Yah is in the land of the living.
  I shall not look to humanity again,
  with the inhabitants of the world.
  12       My dwelling has pulled up and gone away from me
  like a shepherd’s tent.
  I have rolled up my life like a weaver
  as he cuts me from the loom.
  While from day until night you requite me,
       13       I have composed [myself] until morning.
  Like a lion, so he breaks all my bones,
  while from day until night you requite me.
  14       Like a swift, a swallow, so I chirp;
  I murmur like a dove.
  My eyes have looked to the height, my Lord,
  it is oppression to me, make a pledge to me.
  15       What shall I speak?—
  he said [this] about me, and he himself acted.
  I will walk all my years
  in the pain of my heart.
  16       My Lord, in all [such pains] people will live,
  and in all [the years] will be the life of my spirit;
  may you restore me and bring me back to life.”

  17       There—as regards well-being,
  it was tough for me, tough.
  But you yourself loved [and took] me
  out of the pit of nothingness,
  because you threw all my offenses
  behind your back.
  18       Because Sheol does not confess you


death praise you. People who go down to the Pit don’t expect your truthfulness. 19  The living person, the living person, he confesses you this very day. A father makes known to his children your truthfulness. 20  Yahweh was here to save me, and we will make our music, all the days of our lives at Yahweh’s house.

(21 Isaiah had said, “They are to take a block of figs and apply it to the infection, and he will come back to life,” and Hezekiah had said, “What will be the sign that I will go up to Yahweh’s house?”)

39:1 At that time, Merodak-baladan son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a gift to Hezekiah; he had heard that he had been ill and had regained strength. 2 Hezekiah celebrated with them and showed them all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, and the fine oil, and his entire armory and all that was to be found in his storehouses. There was not a thing that Hezekiah did not show them in his house and his entire realm. 3 But Isaiah the prophet came to King Hezekiah and said to him, “What have these men said, and from where do they come to you?” Hezekiah said, “It’s from a far country that they have come to me, from Babylon.” 4 He said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah said, “They have seen everything in my house. There was not a thing that I didn’t show them in my storehouses.” 5 Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Listen to the word of Yahweh Armies. 6 ‘There: days are coming when everything in your house, and what your ancestors have stored up until this day, will be carried to Babylon. Not a thing will be left,’ Yahweh says. 7 ‘Some of your descendants who will have issued from you, whom you will father, will be taken and will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’ ” 8 Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word from Yahweh that you have spoken is good.” He said, “Because there will be well-being and truth in my days.”

The other week we heard a Los Angeles priest who works with ex-gang members tell of going to a university to talk about his work. He took with him an ex-gang member called Juan. During the day they went to classes and spoke to students and in the evening addressed a meeting of a thousand members of the student body. In the subsequent discussion, someone asked Juan what were his hopes or his advice for his son, who was about to enter his teens. Fighting back tears, Juan said he hoped his son wouldn’t be like him. The questioner, who had heard Juan during the day, stood up again. “You’re a gentle, caring, wise person. You should want your son to be like you.” Our perceptions of ourselves are often skewed; we may be more honorable than we think, or less so. It’s so partly because we ourselves are probably complicated; we have honorable and dishonorable features. We may not be able to make up our minds about ourselves or about other people.
The book of Isaiah can’t quite make up its mind about Hezekiah, and neither can Hezekiah make up his mind about himself. He can appeal to God as one who has walked before God in truth and with a whole mind, and the story about him and Sennacherib has portrayed him in this way. On the other hand, his prayer made no claim to be undeserving of his illness (unlike most such prayers in the Psalms) and he recognizes that God had to throw a load of offenses behind his back in answering his prayer, which fits with its repeated reference to God’s requiting him—presumably in making him sick. Further, Isaiah has implicitly critiqued him in his earlier attacks on Judahite political policies. There’s then an ambiguity in the story about the Babylonian envoys. What is the significance of his reaction to Isaiah’s message about the coming exile? Is it a cynical contentment—though disaster is coming, it won’t affect him personally? Or is it a proper appreciation of the fact that disaster can be postponed, with the implication that it’s not inevitable?
Many biblical characters are described in ambiguous ways—it’s true of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David. The stories recognize the complexity of people and the complexity of evaluating people. The point for readers isn’t to try to make up our mind whether they’re good guys. It’s to let the ambiguity in their stories help us reflect on the ambiguity of our own.
It seems unlikely that God would have reworked the intricate movements of the planets to give Hezekiah his sign, and the account of the sign is also somewhat ambiguous. I assume it’s likely to have been an unusual natural event. But maybe that conclusion shows I’m too rationalist. The expression of thanksgiving and testimony to Yahweh’s act of deliverance is apparently composed for him by people such as the Levites, as one would expect—it’s their job to compose such prayers. It parallels prayers in the Psalms in spending much time recalling the trouble he had been in. It had seemed inevitable that he would end up in Sheol (in the absence of antibiotics, an infected sore or wound could easily lead to septicemia). He had tried to submit himself to Yahweh, but it seemed that Yahweh had laid down what was to happen and that it was inevitable. But that fact doesn’t mean you just have to accept what God says, and Hezekiah recalls how he had prayed for God to restore him. He then testifies to how God had delivered him. The footnote about the fig compress presumably indicates that Isaiah combined regular medical treatment with prayer.
The story about the Babylonian envoys conveys the usual double significance of references to Babylon in Isaiah’s ministry. In Hezekiah’s day Babylon was part of the Assyrian empire, interested in peoples such as Judah because it wants them to join in rebellion against their shared overlord. But a century later Babylon will realize its ambitions to take over Assyria’s position as superpower. It thus also becomes the superpower against whom Judah rebels, and whereas Yahweh prevented Assyria from taking Jerusalem, a century later Yahweh finally says “That’s it!” and lets Babylon finish the job that Assyria started. So in 597 and again in 587 the Babylonians attacked and captured Jerusalem and took off to Babylon key Judahite leaders, including people such as priests, prophets, and members of the administration such as kings and their families. There they languished for fifty years. The story appositely closes off Isaiah 1–39, because Isaiah 40 takes up the story from there.

ISAIAH 40:1–11

Comfort My People

  1       “Comfort, comfort my people,”
  says your God.
  2       “Speak to Jerusalem’s heart,
  proclaim to it,
  that its tour of duty is fulfilled,
  that its waywardness is paid for,
  that it has received from Yahweh’s hand
  double for all its offenses.”

  3       A voice is proclaiming,
  “In the wilderness clear Yahweh’s way,
  make straight in the steppe a highway for our God.
  4       Every valley is to rise up,
  every mountain and hill is to sink.
  The ridge is to become level,
  the cliffs a vale.
  5       Yahweh’s splendor will appear,
  and all flesh will see it together,
  because Yahweh’s mouth has spoken.”

  6       A voice is saying, “Proclaim,”
  but someone says, “Proclaim what?
  All flesh is grass,
  and all its commitment is like a wild flower’s.
  7       Grass withers, a flower fades,
  when Yahweh’s wind blows on it.”
  “Yes, the people are grass;
       8       grass withers, a flower fades—
  but our God’s word stands forever.”

  9       Get yourself up onto a high mountain
  as a bringer of news to Zion.
  Raise your voice with power
  as a bringer of news to Jerusalem.
  Raise it, don’t be afraid,
  say to Judah’s cities,
  “There is your God,
       10       there is the Lord Yahweh!”
  He comes as the strong one,
  his arm is going to rule for him.
  There, his reward is with him,
  his earnings before him.
  11       Like a shepherd who pastures his flock,
  he gathers lambs in his arm.
  He carries them in his embrace,
  guides the nursing ones.

A week ago we had dinner with two clergy friends from England, one of whom commented in passing that on present trends the Church of England would be functionally nonexistent in twenty years. I discovered that the comment was echoing speeches at the Church of England’s general synod, where it has been reported that the average age of people in its congregation is now sixty-one. Different people have varying explanations of the situation, regarding whose fault it is and regarding what needs to be done. Does doing something about it rest on us?
It’s easy to imagine people in Judah asking similar questions in the situation that is the background to this section. It presupposes that Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians happened some time ago. The five poems or prayers that comprise the book of Lamentations tell us what people were thinking in the aftermath of that event. They end with the thought, “unless you have utterly rejected us; you’re so very wrathful with us …” They begin with a repeated lament about Jerusalem, the abandoned woman who “has none to comfort her,” a lament repeated five times.
God now responds to that wondering and that lament, first with the commission to “comfort, comfort my people.” The prophet doesn’t say who the comforters are. They might include the prophet, but the verb is plural; it doesn’t just refer to him. Perhaps he doesn’t know who they are; he simply hears God commissioning them. The point lies in the fact that some comforting is commissioned. The first element in the message of comfort lies in the words that follow, “my people” and “your God.” Another bit of background to the prophecy is the way Hosea had long ago reported God’s words to Israel, “You are no longer my people and I am no longer your God.” These words were a death knell. But God had also promised through Hosea that the moment would come when God would again say “my people” and “your God.” The moment has arrived.
The reason is that God knows when enough is enough. The people resemble an army unit who have been on a demanding tour of duty; the tour is over. They needed to pay for their waywardness, and they have done so. “Double for all your offenses” underlines the adequacy of the payment; the Babylonians have been tougher with Judah than was needed (the prophecy will later critique them for their heartlessness). Yet another bit of background is Ezekiel’s description of God’s splendor leaving Jerusalem on the eve of its fall to Babylon in 587. If God leaves the city, its protection is gone. But now God intends to return to the city, and in the second paragraph a voice thus commissions freeway contractors to carve out a highway to take God back.
The third paragraph relates the commission of another voice; the prophecy continues to be all voices, without our knowing who speaks or who is addressed. Someone is commissioned to preach. This time the verb is singular; it addresses one potential preacher. Maybe it’s the prophet himself. But the preacher can’t imagine preaching. How can he preach to people who are like plants withered by the hot desert wind? The commissioning voice reminds him of a factor he has left out of consideration. He is of course right that the people are like plants withered by the desert wind. But he has forgotten about the difference it makes when God declares the intention to do something. When God speaks, things happen. God had said way back that he would not simply abandon Israel as “not-my-people.” Earlier chapters of Isaiah have declared that God won’t finally abandon Jerusalem. God is saying now that the moment of comfort has come. When God says things, they happen.
The last paragraph reports another commissioning voice, restating the commission to preach. It’s as if the preacher is to soar to the top of a mountain higher than Zion itself, higher than the Judahite mountains, a perspective from which he can see God coming along that highway. God isn’t on his own. He has a flock of sheep, the flock of Israel, for whom he is caring with power and compassion as he brings them with him. The prophecy turns out to have in its mind not only Jerusalem and Judah and the people living there, praying those desperate prayers in Lamentations. It has in mind the people who were taken off to Babylon decades ago. They’re coming back.
The prophet who speaks this prophecy evidently lives at the time when these events are about to take place and ministers his message of comfort to his contemporaries. It’s not Isaiah the son of Amoz talking about something that will happen 150 years after his time—the prophecy doesn’t say that “in that day” God will send a message along these lines. God is speaking to his people in the present. This is someone to whom God gives the mantle of Isaiah, who is called to say the kind of thing Isaiah would say if he were here now. He is a kind of Second Isaiah.

ISAIAH 40:12–31

Hope Means Energy

  12       Who has gauged the waters in his palm,
  surveyed the heavens with his span,
  measured earth’s dirt by the gallon,
  weighed the mountains with a balance,
  the hills with scales?
  13       Who has directed Yahweh’s spirit,
  or as the person to give him counsel made it known to him?
  14       With whom did he take counsel, so that he helped him understand,
  taught him the way to make decisions,
  taught him knowledge,
  made known to him the way of understanding?
  15       There, nations count like a drop from a pan,
  like a cloud on scales;
  there, foreign shores are like a fine cloud rising.
  16       Lebanon—there’s not enough to burn,
  its animals—there aren’t enough for a burnt offering.
  17       All the nations are like nothing over against him;
  they count as less than naught, emptiness, to him.

  18       So to whom would you compare God,
  or what comparison would you put forward for him?
  19       The image, which a craftworker casts?—
  a smith beats it out with gold,
  and a smith with silver chains.
  20       Is it sissoo fit for tribute,
  wood that doesn’t rot, that someone chooses?
  He seeks for himself a clever craftworker
  to set up an image so it doesn’t wobble.

  21       Do you not acknowledge,
  do you not listen?
  Has it not been told you from the beginning,
  have you not understood earth’s foundations?
  22       There is one who sits above earth’s horizon,
  its inhabitants like grasshoppers,
  one who stretches out the heavens like net,
  spreads them like a tent for sitting in,
  23       one who makes sovereigns nothing,
  makes earth’s authorities pure emptiness.
  24       They’re really not planted, really not sown,
  their stem is really not rooting in the earth,
  then he blows on them and they shrivel,
  and the whirlwind carries them off like straw.

  25       So to whom would you compare me,
  so I could be similar (says the holy one)?
  26       Lift your eyes on high and look—
  who created these?
  The one who brings out their army in full number
  summons all of them by name.
  Because of the abundance of his power,
  and as one mighty in strength, not one lags behind.

  27       Why do you say, Jacob,
  why speak, Israel,
  “My way has hidden from Yahweh,
  a decision about me passes away from my God”?
  28       Have you not acknowledged,
  or not listened?
  Yahweh is God of the ages,
  creator of earth’s ends.
  He doesn’t get faint or weary;
  there’s no fathoming of his understanding.
  29       He gives strength to the faint,
  and to the one who has no resources he gives much energy.
  30       Youths may get faint and weary,
  young men may totally collapse.
  31       But people who look for Yahweh get new energy,
  they grow pinions like eagles.
  They run and don’t get weary,
  they walk on and don’t faint.

Yesterday in church we were visited by the choir from a shelter for women who have been finding their way out of involvement with alcohol, drugs, and prostitution. Their first song was about the hope they have found in Christ, and that theme ran through the testimonies three of them gave as they told their overwhelmingly moving stories about experiences that lay behind the trouble they had got into, such as abandonment by a mother or abuse by a husband. I found it impossible to look at the choir as it sang, because of the overpowering way in which joy shone out of these faces that were lined by past troubles.
They were people who had surely cried out about how their way had been hidden from God and how God was not making any decisions about what happened to them. It was as if their lives had ceased to be lived within the purview of God’s area of concern. It was as if there was an area of light over there, but where they lived was darkness outside that light; it’s an image one of them used. But then they had found their way into the area of light, through the people at the shelter, and had begun to imagine that they could have a future.
Given how God had abandoned the Judahites when commissioning the Babylonians to destroy their capital city and had let them take many into exile and then let the people mark time at best in Judah or in Babylon for half a century, you couldn’t blame the Judahites for crying out the same way. Yet the prophet does rebuke them for doing so, or at least wants them to see that the moment has arrived to stop.
He begins by bringing out into the open four other realities they are tempted to trust in or be overwhelmed by. The first is the empire itself, “the nations.” You couldn’t blame the Judahites for being impressed. The empire had, after all, defeated them, destroyed their capital, and exiled many of them. So the prophet begins with an outrageous assertion of how unimpressive the empire is. But everything depends on what you compare it with. Suppose you compare it with God, the God whose power is expressed in the world that he created and whose history he controls? The implication isn’t that he doesn’t care about the nations and Lebanon or its forests and animals. It’s that they aren’t a threat to him.
To whom else could you compare Yahweh? What about the images of gods that the Babylonians had, which would impress the exiles as they were carried about in procession in Babylon? Compare them with that pathetic destroyed temple in Jerusalem. Excuse me, says the prophet, have you thought about how images get made? They’re made by human craftworkers, overlaid with gold and provided with silver chains so no one can steal them. It’s embarrassing if someone steals your god. They start off as a piece of sissoo wood, a hard wood that’s valuable enough for using to pay tribute to the king, wood that doesn’t rot. It’s embarrassing if your god rots. Their work complete, the craftworkers set up the image carefully to make sure it doesn’t fall over. It’s embarrassing if your god falls over.
What about the empire’s rulers, the great succession of kings, and the rulers of the nations within the empire? Think again about the world Yahweh created, the prophet says. These sovereigns are no more impressive than the rest of the grasshopper-like creatures that God looks down on from the heavens. Again the prophet doesn’t imply that God doesn’t care about human beings. The point is that God doesn’t have to be impressed by them. God can put them down in a moment if he chooses.
Fourth, what about the heavenly beings of whom the Babylonians took so much notice, the planets and stars that they saw as ruling what happens on earth. But who is in charge of them, the prophet asks. It’s Israel’s holy one. The planets and stars are the army of which he is the commander-in-chief. They obey his orders (for instance, in the way they bring day and night, and changes in seasons).
In light of all those considerations, it’s foolish to entertain the idea that the people’s destiny could have escaped God’s purview and that they need to be afraid of or impressed by Babylon and its spiritual resources. Yahweh is about to act to put down the empire, restore Jerusalem, and bring the exiles home. Events you could watch unfolding on the television news were the ones in which Yahweh was involved in order to fulfill these intentions. If you know who God is and what God is going to do, so that you can look to those events that are coming, then it energizes you in the present.

ISAIAH 41:1–20

Don’t Be Afraid

  1       Be silent for me, foreign shores;
  peoples must renew their strength.
  They must draw near, then speak;
  together let us come forward for the making of a decision.
  2       Who aroused someone from the east
  whom faithfulness summons to its heel?
  He gives up nations before him,
  enables him to put down kings.
  He makes them like dirt with his sword,
  like driven straw with his bow.
  3       As he pursues them, he passes on in peace
  by a path on which he doesn’t go straight.
  4       Who acted and did it,
  summoning the generations from the beginning?
  I am Yahweh, the first,
  and I myself am with the last.
  5       Foreign shores have seen and become afraid,
  earth’s ends tremble,
  they have drawn near and come.
  6       One person helps his neighbor,
  and says to his brother, “Hold firm!”
  7       Craftworker bids smith hold firm,
  one who flattens with a hammer [bids] one who strikes with a mallet.
  One who says of the joint, “It’s good,”
  holds it firm with fastenings so it doesn’t wobble.

  8       But you as Israel are my servant,
  as Jacob you are the one that I chose.
  As the offspring of Abraham you are my friend,
       9       the one of whom I took hold from earth’s ends,
  summoned from its corners, and said to you,
  “You are my servant, I chose you, and did not spurn you.”
  10       Don’t be afraid, because I am with you;
  don’t be frightened, because I am your God.
  I am strengthening you, yes, helping you,
  yes, supporting you with my faithful right hand.
  11       There—they will be shamed and disgraced,
  all who rage at you.
  They will become absolutely nothing, they will perish,
  the people who contend with you.
  12       You will seek them and not find them,
  the people who attack you.
  They will become absolutely nothing, zero,
  the people who do battle against you.
  13       Because I am Yahweh your God,
  who takes hold of your right hand,
  who says to you, “Don’t be afraid,
  I myself am helping you.”
  14       Don’t be afraid, worm Jacob,
  relics Israel.
  I am helping you (Yahweh’s declaration),
  Israel’s holy one is your restorer.
  15       There—I am making you into a harrow,
  a new thresher fitted with points.
  You will trample mountains and crush them,
  and make hills like chaff.
  16       You will winnow them and the wind will carry them,
  the storm will scatter them.
  And you yourselves will rejoice in Yahweh;
  in Israel’s holy one you will exult.

  17       The lowly and needy are seeking water and there is none,
  and their tongue is parched with thirst.
  I Yahweh will answer them;
  the God of Israel will not abandon them.
  18       I will open up streams on the bare places,
  springs in the midst of the vales.
  I will make the wilderness into a pool of water,
  dry land into water courses.
  19       In the wilderness I will put cedar,
  acacia and myrtle and oil tree.
  In the steppe I will set juniper,
  maple, and cypress, together,
  20       so that people will see and acknowledge,
  consider and understand together,
  that Yahweh’s hand did this,
  Israel’s holy one created it.

My wife’s degree program requires her to take part this week in a day’s silent retreat. Students are not allowed to bring their computers or other communication devices. Kathleen is looking forward to the event, but some of her classmates are freaking out about it. They don’t think they can survive that many hours in silence without any electronic contact with the outside world. One guy is especially insistent that he has to bring his music resources and his earphones. Now if I were the student in question, I would be arguing that the Bible has no spirituality of silence. It pretty universally assumes that a relationship with God is noisy.
Isaiah 41 does assume a spirituality of silence, yet of a different kind from the one that is rightly advocated in the West where we are always surrounded by noise in a way that may not have been the case in the contexts out of which the Bible comes. When the Bible advocates silence, it’s a silence before God that expresses submission to God, not a silence that amounts to listening to ourselves. In Isaiah 41 God both urges silence and urges nations to speak, but both exhortations make the same point. The silence will acknowledge that Yahweh is God. The exhortation to speak is ironic, because the prophecy presupposes that they will have nothing to say by way of response to the question Yahweh is asking.
The question concerns a conqueror who came from the east. Not naming him means he can be identified in two ways. He is both Abraham, whose military activity features in the story of his rescue of Lot in Genesis 14, and Cyrus, the Medo-Persian king who is rampaging through the Middle East to the north and across to Turkey before turning his attention to Babylon itself. Whose initiative lies behind the activity of both Abraham and Cyrus? Mine, says Yahweh. Do you have any other suggestions? Shut up then. Each of these conquerors was the agent of Yahweh’s faithful purpose in the world.
The peoples of the Middle East, and even of the Mediterranean, are understandably panicking as they watch these events unfold on the television news. But what can they do? They can only think of making another image of a god to whom they can appeal. We know from the previous chapter how sensible is this ploy.
You couldn’t blame the Judahites for reacting with the same anxiety as everyone else. But you could, because they should be able to look at things differently. You’re my servant, my chosen, the offspring of the aforementioned Abraham, God reminds them. They could be forgiven for thinking God had abandoned them, but it’s not so. They are, after all, God’s servant. It’s maybe the first time someone has described Israel as God’s servant; certainly Isaiah 40–49 uses that description more often than anywhere else in Scripture. Many individuals have previously been described as God’s servant—people such as Moses and David; it meant God was committed to them and had a purpose to achieve through them. It’s a big privilege and security to be God’s servant. It means your master is committed to you. Now that position is extended to the people as a whole. Their being God’s servant means they don’t have to fear what God is doing politically, as other peoples do. They don’t have to fear other peoples attacking them—God will see they are protected. They may feel like a worm (speaking of them thus isn’t God putting them down, but God’s picking up their self-perception), but God can turn them into a more impressive earth mover that can deal with whatever mountains they have to face.
The last paragraph again picks up the way they speak of themselves; this imagery also comes from the Psalms. They are like thirsty people with nothing to drink. But God has the capacity to transform desert into flourishing, fertile land. Indeed, God intends to do so. They’re going to come to life again as a people. People will see it and recognize that Yahweh is God and has done something amazing. The people are not limited to Israel, but what the prophet has to say will be amazing to Israel. The point finds expression in the twofold recurrence of the description of Yahweh as the holy one. Earlier in Isaiah, Yahweh’s being Israel’s holy one was worrisome—it meant Yahweh intended to chastise Israel for its waywardness. In Isaiah 40–55 that logic is turned on its head. Because Yahweh is the holy one of Israel, he is bound to act in a way that recognizes the demands placed upon him by that relationship.
He will do so by acting as Israel’s restorer. This further image maybe comes here for the first time in the Bible and certainly appears much oftener in these chapters than anywhere else. A restorer is someone within your family who has resources that you don’t have and who accepts an obligation to use those resources on your behalf when you get into trouble: for instance, if your harvest fails, you get into debt, and you are in danger of losing your livelihood and/or your land. This person enables you to be restored to a viable life. The story of Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth provides an example. The Old Testament then portrays God as treating Israel as a member of his family to whom he works out a commitment of that kind.

ISAIAH 41:21–42:17

Good News for People Who Are Broken and Flickering

  41:21       “Bring your case forward,”
  Yahweh says.
  “Bring near your strong points,”
  says Jacob’s King.
  22       They should bring them near
  and tell us what will happen.
  The previous events—tell us what they were,
  so we may apply our mind and recognize their outcome.
  Or inform us of the coming events,
       23       tell us things that will arrive after,
  so we may acknowledge that you are gods.
  Yes, do good or do evil,
  so we may bow low and see together.
  24       There, you’re less than nothing,
  your action is less than a sigh;
  it’s an outrage that someone chooses in you.
  25       I aroused one from the north and he arrived,
  from the rising of the sun one who was to call on my name.
  He came on viceroys as if they were mire,
  as if he was a potter who treads clay.
  26       Who told of it from the beginning so we might acknowledge him,
  beforehand so we might say “He was right”?
  No, there was no one telling of it;
  no, there was no one informing about it;
  no, there was no one hearing your words.
  27       The first for Zion (there, there they are),
  for Jerusalem, I give a bringer of news.
  28       Were I to look, there was no one;
  of them, there was no consultant,
  who could respond with a word if I asked them.
  29       There, they are all a bane, their acts are zero,
  their images are a breath, emptiness.

  42:1       There is my servant whom I support,
  my chosen whom I myself favor.
  I am putting my breath on him;
  he will issue my decision to the nations.
  2       He won’t cry out and he won’t raise
  or make his voice heard in the streets.
  3       A broken cane he won’t snap,
  a flickering lamp he won’t snuff.
  For the sake of truthfulness he will issue the decision;
       4       he won’t flicker or break,
  until he sets the decision in the earth,
  as foreign shores wait for his teaching.

  5       The God Yahweh has said this,
  the one who created the heavens and stretched them out,
  the one who beat out the earth and its produce,
  the one who gave air to the people on it,
  breath to those who walk on it:
  6       I am Yahweh, I summoned you in faithfulness,
  took hold of your hand.
  I formed you and gave you as a covenant for the people,
  a light for the nations,
  7       by opening blind eyes,
  by bringing out the captive from the dungeon,
  from the prison house people who live in the dark.
  8       I am Yahweh, that is my name;
  my splendor I do not give to another,
  nor my praise to images.
  9       The previous events—there, they came about;
  and I am telling of new events—
  before they grow, I inform you.
  10       Sing Yahweh a new song,
  his praise from the end of the earth,
  you who go down to the sea, and its throng,
  foreign shores and those who live in them.
  11       The wilderness and its cities are to shout,
  the villages where Qedar lives.
  The people who live in Sela are to resound,
  to yell from the top of the mountains.
  12       They are to give glory to Yahweh,
  to tell of his praise on foreign shores.

  13       Yahweh goes out like a warrior,
  like a man of battle he arouses his passion.
  He shouts, yes roars,
  acts as a warrior against his enemies.
  14       “I have been quiet from of old;
  I have been being still and restraining myself.
  Like a woman giving birth I will shriek,
  I will devastate and crush together.
  15       I will waste mountains and hills,
  wither all their growth.
  I will turn streams into shores,
  wither wetland.
  16       I will enable blind people to go by a way they have not known,
  lead them on paths they have not known.
  I will make the darkness in front of them into light,
  rough places into level ground
  These are the words that I am performing for them,
  and I will not abandon them.
  17       They are turning back, they are utterly shamed,
  the people who trust in an image,
  who say to an idol,
  “You are our God.”

In a movie we recently watched called Stuck between Stations, the protagonists, a man and a woman, tell each other stories that explicate something of who they are. The man is a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan who has watched one of the men in his unit blown up trying to help another man who has been shot. Such experiences had a devastating effect on other members of his unit, but somehow (in the movie at least) he survived in one piece as a person; in a way he feels guilty that he has done so. The woman had been with a friend when they accepted a lift from two men who announced the intention to rape them. The woman knew her friend wouldn’t survive this experience without its having a devastating effect and destroying her life, so she told both the men to rape her instead of her friend. She knew she would survive, and (in the movie at least) she did.
There are people who flicker and break and people who don’t. The servant whom this section describes is the latter kind, someone commissioned to minister to people who are flickering and breaking but someone who won’t be overwhelmed by their weaknesses. The fact that God has breathed on him makes all the difference.
His ministry is to tell them about a decision God has made. The first paragraph indicates the nature of that decision, continuing the declarations in the previous section. God is involved in freeing the world from Babylonian domination, and resumes the questioning from that previous section. There the question was, whose decision-making lies behind the rise of the conqueror from the east? Here the related question is, who can give a plausible explanation of this event and tell people what else is going to happen? Yahweh can do so because he is the one who makes these things happen. He brought both Abraham and Cyrus from the east (or from the north, the direction from which Abraham actually arrived in Canaan and from which Cyrus will arrive in Babylon). He can show how they’re part of his plans for the world. Yahweh’s capacity to explain events to people in Jerusalem and declare the events that are going to happen is further evidence that he is God. The Babylonian gods can’t make sense of these events, partly because they can’t do anything (anything good or bad).
So the decision Yahweh’s servant will speak of is the plan Yahweh has been implementing by means of Abraham and Cyrus. It will be good news for peoples that are as depressed as the Israelites about the way things are in the world (not least under Babylon’s authority). Now we know from the previous section that it’s Israel who is Yahweh’s servant. The way this prophecy speaks fits. Yahweh is giving his servant to the nations as a covenant or a light. In other words, Yahweh’s servant embodies what it means to have Yahweh in covenant relationship with you, embodies what it means to have Yahweh’s light (that is, Yahweh’s blessing) shine in your life. That covenant and light are not designed just for Israel but for the nations; Yahweh’s plan was to embody them in Israel as something also available to the nations. Thus the nations that were blind and captives would find illumination and freedom. No wonder the new song they can join in! (Passages such as 42:1–4 have been called “servant songs,” but it’s a misleading description, and 42:10–12 is the song here.)
So whereas that previous section focused on the master’s commitment to the servant, this section focuses on the other side of the coin, the servant’s commitment to the master, in announcing what Yahweh is doing. It’s Israel’s vocation as Yahweh’s servant. But one can see this is a hopeless project. Yahweh’s servant has a ministry to the blind and captives, the broken and the flickering. But Israel is itself blind and in captivity, broken and flickering, worried about Yahweh’s decision-making in the world as it affects its own destiny. It’s in no position to give a confident announcement about Yahweh’s decision-making. It’s thus significant that the prophet’s description of Yahweh’s servant doesn’t repeat the designation of Israel as Yahweh’s servant, as the one to fulfill the servant’s task. It’s not realistic. The section sets up a problem that the prophecy is going to have to solve.
Meanwhile, the last paragraph announces the good news for Israel. With justification Israel can lament that Yahweh has been so inactive for the past fifty years, but that time is now over. Yahweh is going to assert himself in political events and put the empire down and thus lead the blind and the people in darkness into light and freedom. It won’t just be good news for Israel.

ISAIAH 42:18–43:21

What Will We Do When God’s Servant Is Deaf and Blind?

  42:18       Listen, you deaf people;
  you blind people, look and see!
  19       Who is blind except my servant,
  as deaf as my aide that I send?
  Who is as blind as the one in a covenant of well-being,
  as blind as Yahweh’s servant?
  20       While seeing many things, you don’t pay heed;
  while opening ears, he doesn’t listen.
  21       Yahweh wishes, for the sake of his faithfulness,
  that he should magnify the teaching, glorify it.
  22       But that is a people plundered and spoiled,
  trapped in holes all of them,
  and they are confined in prisons.
  They have become plunder with no rescuer,
  spoil with no one saying, “Give it back!”
  23       Who among you will give ear to this,
  will attend and listen for the future?
  24       Who gave Jacob as spoil, Israel to plunderers?—
  was it not Yahweh, against whom we had committed offense?
  They were not willing to walk in his ways,
  they didn’t listen to his teaching.
  25       So he poured wrath upon it,
  his anger and warring power.
  It blazed upon it all around, but it didn’t acknowledge;
  it burned it, but it doesn’t take it into its thinking.

  43:1       But now Yahweh has said this,
  your creator, Jacob, your former, Israel:
  “Don’t be afraid, because I am restoring you;
  I summon you by name, you are mine.
  2       When you pass through water I will be with you,
  and through rivers they will not overwhelm you.
  When you go in the middle of fire you will not burn,
  and into flames, they will not consume you.
  3       Because I am Yahweh your God,
  Israel’s holy one, your deliverer.
  I gave Egypt as your ransom,
  Sudan and Seba in place of you.
  4       Because you were valuable in my eyes;
  you were honorable and I myself loved you,
  so that I would give people in place of you,
  nations in place of your life.
  5       Don’t be afraid,
  because I will be with you.
  From the east I will bring your offspring,
  from the west I will gather you.
  6       I will say to the north, ‘Give,’
  and to the south, ‘Don’t restrain.
  Bring my sons from far away,
  my daughters from the end of the earth,
  7       everyone called in my name and for my honor,
  whom I created, formed, yes made.’ ”

  8       Bring out the people that is blind though it has eyes,
  those who are deaf though they have ears.
  9       All the nations must assemble together,
  the peoples must gather.
  Who among them could tell of this,
  inform us of the earlier events?
  They must provide their witnesses so that they may prove right,
  so that people may listen and say, “It’s true.”
  10       You are my witnesses (Yahweh’s declaration),
  and my servant whom I chose,
  so that you may acknowledge and believe in me,
  and understand that I am the one.
  Before me no god was formed,
  and after me there will be none.
  11       I myself, I am Yahweh,
  and apart from me there is no deliverer.
  12       I am the one who announced and delivered;
  I informed, and there was no stranger among you.
  You are my witnesses (Yahweh’s declaration);
  I am God.
  13       Yes, from this day I am the one,
  and there is no one rescues from my hand;
  I act, and who can reverse it?

  14       Yahweh has said this,
  your restorer, Israel’s holy one.
  “For your sake I am sending to Babylon,
  and I will bring down all of them as fugitives,
  the Kaldeans into their boats with a shout.
  15       I am Yahweh, your holy one,
  Israel’s creator, your King.”
  16       Yahweh has said this,
  the one who made a way in the sea,
  a path in powerful waters,
  17       who brought out chariot and horse,
  army and powerful one, altogether.
  (they lie down, they don’t get up;
  they were extinguished, they went out like a wick):
  18       “Don’t be mindful of the earlier events,
  don’t think about previous events.
  19       Here am I, doing something new;
  now it is to grow—do you not acknowledge it?
  Yes, I will make a way in the wilderness,
  streams in the desert.
  20       The wild animals will honor me,
  jackals and ostriches,
  because I am giving water in the wilderness,
  streams in the desert,
  to give drink to my people, my chosen,
       21       the people that I formed for myself;
  they will declare my praise.”

One of our bishops came to visit our church last Sunday. She recently moved to California from Maryland, and I asked her whether she missed the East Coast. Basically, she said, she was too busy enjoying the new things here, but there were a few things she missed, such as red crabs. It reminded me of my feelings on first visiting England after some years and being entranced by green meadows and villages snuggling in dales with their spired churches pointing heavenward. Coming to the United States meant giving up England and giving up proximity to my mother and my newly married sons, not to say easy access to Indian food, British candies, British tea, and Cornish Cream. To gain one thing, you give up other things.
“I gave up Egypt for you,” God says to Israel, “along with Sudan and Seba, because you were valuable to me.” It’s as if the exodus involved God in a choice: either Egypt along with its neighbors or Israel. It’s the language of love and commitment. Isaiah 19 has made clear that God cares about Egypt and intends it to come to worship him; his reminder about his love for Israel at the exodus is designed to encourage Israel when it has understandable reason for wondering whether it really is the object of God’s love. It’s reminiscent of the way we may tell another person that he or she has “all our love” when we also have other love commitments. As God once made a priority of bringing Israel out of Egypt into Canaan, so God is making a priority in the present of bringing back to Canaan the Israelites now scattered around the Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean world. It’s as if they have gone through fire and water, and God doesn’t promise that fire and water won’t threaten them again (on the journey home or afterwards), but does promise they won’t be consumed by the fire or overwhelmed by the water. Fire and water have been images for God’s judgment in earlier chapters, which adds an extra level of reassurance to the promise, though also an implicit element of threat. Calamity may come again, but God will never let his people be consumed or overwhelmed. Both elements of this prospect have been realities in the Jewish people’s subsequent history, not least in the twentieth century.
There’s extra significance in this promise in light of what precedes it in the opening paragraph about blindness and deafness. The two preceding sections of Isaiah (chapters 41–42) have implicitly raised a question. Israel is God’s servant; God’s servant has a role to play; but what we know of Israel makes it an implausible candidate for the fulfilling of that role. The paragraph about blindness and deafness makes the question explicit. God’s servant is to be the means of blind people coming to see the truth about God and deaf people coming to hear what God has to say, coming to hear God’s teaching about the way current events are an expression of God’s faithfulness. But God’s servant is himself deaf and blind. Only ironically can he be urged to look to what God is doing in the world. He can see many things, events such as the fall of Jerusalem and the rise of Cyrus, but he can’t really “see” them. He doesn’t understand their significance. Once again one can hear the protests of Israel’s prayers behind the prophet’s words—“you have let us be plundered by the nations and taken into captivity by them.” “Yes, I have,” says Yahweh, “and still you don’t understand why!”
Obviously what Yahweh will do is give this servant the sack and employ another. But the trouble with being a master like Yahweh is you can’t work by the rules of the market place. Israel’s not having kept its side of the master-servant relationship doesn’t mean Yahweh can abandon his side—hence the reminder about Yahweh’s love and commitment that go back to the exodus. Instead, Yahweh intends to bring the servant out of his prison and thus provide the nations with another embodiment of what God’s power and faithfulness look like. Yahweh’s servant will be in a position to give an even more spectacular testimony to that power and faithfulness. The closing paragraph thus speaks for the first time concretely about the deliverance Yahweh intends to perform. Forget about the Reed Sea deliverance and the journey through the wilderness to Canaan (what an extraordinary exhortation!). I’m doing something equivalent in the present for you!
A further result will be to give Israel itself an even more spectacular experience of Yahweh’s faithfulness and power, with the capacity to bring Israel itself to a renewed acknowledgment of Yahweh. There’s no guarantee that Yahweh’s plan will work. Yahweh intends Cyrus to come to acknowledge him, but Cyrus will do so only in a formal way. Yahweh intends Israel to come to acknowledge him, but Israel will do so only in a partial way.

ISAIAH 43:22–44:23

There Is to Be No Forgetting

  43:22       Now it’s not me you have called on, Jacob,
  because you have been weary of me, Israel.
  23       You have not brought me sheep as your whole offerings,
  nor honored me with your sacrifices.
  I have not made you serve me with an offering,
  nor made you weary with incense.
  24       You have not gained me cane with silver,
  nor soaked me with the fat of your sacrifices.
  Actually you have made me serve with your offenses,
  wearied me with your wayward acts.
  25       I, I am the one,
  who wipes away your acts of rebellion for my sake,
  and your offenses I will not keep in mind.
  26       Remind me; let’s decide together—
  you give an account, so you may prove to be in the right.
  27       Your first ancestor—he offended,
  and your interpreters—they rebelled against me.
  28       So I profane the holy officials,
  give Jacob to being “devoted,” Israel to taunts.

  44:1       But now listen, Jacob my servant,
  Israel whom I chose.
  2       Yahweh your maker has said this,
  your former from the womb who will help you:
  Don’t be afraid, my servant Jacob,
  Jeshurun whom I chose.
  3       Because I will pour water on the thirsty,
  streams on the dry ground.
  I will pour my spirit on your offspring,
  my blessing on those who issue from you.
  4       They will grow like a grassy tamarisk,
  like willows by water channels.
  5       One will say, “I am Yahweh’s,”
  one will proclaim in Yahweh’s name.
  One will write on his hand “Yahweh’s,”
  take as his name “Israel.”

  6       Yahweh, Israel’s King, has said this,
  your restorer, Yahweh Armies:
  “I am first and I am last;
  apart from me there is no God.
  7       Who is like me?—he must proclaim it,
  announce and lay it out for me.
  Who has made known coming events from of old?—
  they must announce for us what will happen.
  8       Don’t fear or take fright,
  didn’t I make it known to you in time past, and announce it?
  And you are my witnesses:
  is there a God apart from me?—
  but there is no crag, I do not acknowledge one.

  9       People who form an image—
  all of them are emptiness,
  and the objects of their delight are no use.
  They are their witnesses—
  they don’t see and they don’t acknowledge,
  so that they may be shamed.
  10       Who forms a god or casts an image
  so that it may be of no use?
  11       There, all his associates will be shamed;
  craftworkers are but human.
  If all of them gather and stand up,
  they will be afraid, shamed, together.
  12       A craftworker in metal with a cutter
  works in the fire.
  He shapes it with hammers,
  works it with his strong arm.
  Should he get hungry, he would have no strength;
  should he not drink water, he would be faint.
  13       A craftworker in wood stretches a line,
  outlines it with a chalk.
  He makes it with squares,
  outlines it with a compass.
  He makes it in the image of a person,
  with the majesty of a human being, to live at home.
  14       In cutting himself cedars,
  getting ilex or oak,
  he secures it for himself among the trees of the forest,
  plants a pine so that the rain may make it grow,
  15       so it may be fuel for someone,
  and he takes some of them and gets warm.
  He both lights it and bakes bread,
  and also makes a god and bows down to it,
  He makes an image and prostrates himself to it
       16       while half of it he burns in the midst of the fire.
  Over the half of it he eats meat,
  he makes a roast and is full.
  He also gets warm and says,
  “Ah, I’m warm, I see a flame.”
  17       The rest of it he makes into a god, into his image,
  to which he will bow down and prostrate himself.
  He will plead with it and say,
  “Rescue me, because you are my god.”
  18       They don’t acknowledge,
  they don’t understand,
  because their eyes are smeared so that they don’t see,
  their minds so that they don’t discern.
  19       He doesn’t bring back to his mind,
  there’s no knowledge nor understanding to say,
  “Half of it I burned in the midst of the fire,
  also I baked bread on the coals.
  I roasted meat and ate,
  and the rest of it I will make into an outrage.

I will bow down to a lump of wood”—
20  feeder on dirt!
A deluded mind has directed him,
and he cannot rescue himself.
He cannot say,
“Isn’t it a falsehood in my hand?”

  21       Be mindful of these things, Jacob,
  Israel, that you are my servant.
  I formed you as a servant, you are mine;
  Israel, there is to be no forgetting.
  22       I am wiping away your rebellions like a cloud,
  your offenses like thundercloud.
  Return to me,
  because I am restoring you.
  23       Resound, heavens, because Yahweh has acted;
  shout, depths of the earth.
  Break out in sound, mountains,
  forest and every tree in it.
  Because Yahweh has restored Jacob,
  and shown his majesty in Israel.

Yesterday we dropped by a bakery and coffee shop because we were early for a meeting. I was confused by there being two counters and lines, one for coffee and one for pastries, and asked one of the servers what the system was. Kathleen thought my tone was brusque (I know I can sound brusque when I don’t mean to be), and she apologized to the server on my behalf. It was a reasonable action, but I didn’t like it, so we got into an argument. We sorted the matter out over coffee (I never got the pastry, though), and Kathleen soon put the spat out of mind, but I have a hard time doing so. I keep going over the incident in my mind for twenty-four hours, as if it has generated something like adrenalin, and I have to wait till it has drained away.
God is keen on Israel forgetting certain things, letting go of them, and remembering other things, keeping them in mind, holding onto them. He has already urged Israel not to be mindful of previous events, which might mean the exodus, or Israel’s own waywardness and the fall of Jerusalem in which it issued or the things that Cyrus has done so far. Whatever the reference, it’s quite an exhortation. In the first paragraph here, he declares the intention not to keep in mind Israel’s offenses, which is quite a commitment. God has more control of his memory than me. In the last paragraph he urges Israel to keep in mind its own position. Of that fact there’s to be no forgetting. Yet that last expression is ambiguous. It suggests no forgetting of Israel on God’s part as well as no forgetting of God on Israel’s part.
Linked with God’s commitment to keeping Israel in mind is God’s wiping away Israel’s wrongdoings like a cloud. This May morning we had cloud cover for some hours, but a few minutes ago it disappeared; the sun had melted it away. It’s a feature of the May weather pattern in our area. The prophecy uses such a phenomenon as an image for the ease with which God can wipe away wrongdoing, so that his sun shines directly onto his people. It provides half of the basis for the appeal to Israel that follows. There’s the fact that Israel is God’s servant—it’s Israel’s raison d’être; and there’s the fact that God wipes away wrongdoing. Both facts are the basis for the appeal, “return to me, because I am restoring you.” The logic isn’t, “Return to me and then you will be my servant and I will forgive you and restore you.” It’s “You’re my servant and I am forgiving you and restoring you—so return to me.” Israel doesn’t have to worry about whether God will have it back. God is already taking it back.
The last paragraph thus repeats one aspect of the first paragraph. Initially that first paragraph reworks the theme of the earlier berating of Israel for its blindness and deafness. During the exile Israel didn’t have to bring God costly offerings. Either people were in Babylon, where was no temple, or they were in Jerusalem, where the temple had been destroyed. Instead of serving God in that way, they’ve been making God serve them, making him carry their wrongdoings. They’ve been complaining at God’s treating people such as their priests as if there was nothing sacred about them and about God’s “devoting” the people themselves. It’s quite a verb, the one used in the Old Testament to describe what Israel was supposed to do to the Canaanites—annihilating as a way of giving them to God. Israel didn’t actually annihilate them, which may indicate they knew God didn’t mean it literally; here, too, the expression isn’t meant literally. Nevertheless, using it involves some chutzpah. God reminds them that they have no basis for complaining at how they’ve been treated. Yet in the midst of this frank exchange (“You’ve ill-treated us”—“Yes, and you deserved it”) is the declaration about God’s wiping away waywardness. In the context of this argument, even that declaration has an edge to it. “It’s for my sake that I am wiping away your waywardness.” It’s because of who I am, and because of what I want you to be for me. Yahweh’s action (the second paragraph then declares) will result in God’s blessing and increasing Israel, and drawing Israel into acknowledging once more the God to whom it belongs.
The long paragraph about making images is the longest lampoon on images in Isaiah. At great length it simply says, “Just think about what is involved in making an image. Can’t you see that it’s ridiculous to be impressed by the images made by the people among whom you live? Are you really tempted to follow their example rather than committing yourself to the God who speaks and acts?”

ISAIAH 44:24–45:8

God the Creator of Evil

  44:24       Yahweh, your restorer, has said this—
  your former from the womb:
  “I am Yahweh,
  maker of everything,
  who stretched out the heavens on my own,
  who spread out the earth by myself,
  25       frustrates the signs of soothsayers,
  makes fools of diviners,
  turns the wise back,
  makes nonsense of their knowledge,
  26       establishes his servant’s word,
  fulfills his aides’ plan—
  who says to Jerusalem, ‘It will be inhabited,’
  and to Judah’s cities, ‘They will be built up,’
  and ‘I will raise its wastes,’
  27       who said to the deep,
  ‘Be wasted—I will dry up your streams,’
  28       who says to Cyrus, ‘My shepherd,
  he will fulfill my every wish,’
  by saying of Jerusalem, ‘It will be built up,’
  and to the palace, ‘Be founded.’ ”

  45:1       Yahweh has said this:
  to his anointed, to Cyrus,
  “the one whom I took by the right hand,
  putting down nations before him,
  undoing the belt of kings,
  opening doors before him,
  so that gates might not shut:
  2       I will go before you and level walls;
  I will break up bronze doors, cut up iron bars.
  3       I will give you dark treasuries
  and hidden hordes,
  so you may acknowledge that I am Yahweh;
  Israel’s God is the one who summons you by your name.
  4       For the sake of my servant Jacob,
  Israel my chosen,
  I summoned you by your name,
  I designate you though you have not acknowledged me.
  5       I am Yahweh and there is no other;
  apart from me there is no God.
  I gird you, though you have not acknowledged me,
       6       so that people may acknowledge
  from the rise of the sun and from the setting
  that there is none apart from me;
  I am Yahweh and there is no other,
  7       forming light and creating dark,
  making well-being and creating evil.
  I am Yahweh,
  doing all these things.”

  8       Rain, heavens above;
  skies are to pour down faithfulness.
  Earth is to open so that deliverance may fruit,
  faithfulness is to burst out all at once;
  I Yahweh have created it.

My wife used to lead a women’s Bible Study where some women who came for a while would commonly give the existence of evil as their reason or excuse for not believing in God and not staying. Her comment is that the existence of evil surely makes it more important that God is real and is there to be turned to. Who created evil? Where does it come from? Was it under God’s control, so that God is responsible for it? Or was it not under God’s control, so that God is not really sovereign? What about the disasters that happen in the world—the wars and tsunamis and earthquakes? Is God in control of them, so is he responsible? Or does he just let them happen—in which case is he still responsible? Or do they happen against his will, so he isn’t really sovereign?
God here declares himself to be the one who makes well-being and creates evil. He doesn’t thereby provide a complete answer to those questions (the Bible never does so) but does provide a partial answer. The Hebrew word for “evil” or “bad” is ambiguous, like those English words. We can say “I did a bad thing” or “I did an evil thing,” meaning I did something morally wrong. We can also say “Something bad happened to me” or “This tastes evil,” and denoting something painful or unpleasant but not morally wrong. When Yahweh challenged the other so-called gods to “do good or do evil” (41:23) he meant “Do anything”—do something nice or something nasty, show you’re capable of doing something. Here Yahweh affirms that he is able to act. He is alive. He is the one who can bring about well-being, blessing, good things for people. He is about to do so in freeing Judah and other peoples from Babylonian domination. He is also one who can bring about trouble, calamity, bad things for people. Letting the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem meant people died. Yahweh’s act of liberation will mean calamity for Babylon; it will mean people die. Yes, Yahweh makes bad things happen and makes good things happen. Yahweh makes this affirmation in articulating the claim to be the only God. If there’s more than one God, then there can be a good cop and a bad cop among the gods. In reality Yahweh is the only God, and as the one God accepts responsibility (indeed claims responsibility) for acts of judgment and of blessing. (The claim doesn’t in itself solve all the questions with which we started. Yahweh isn’t here talking about responsibility for disasters that don’t count as acts of judgment. That’s another story.)
The prophet’s point isn’t merely that there’s only one God as opposed to there being many gods. It’s that Yahweh is the one God and that the other so-called gods don’t deserve to be taken seriously as gods. The evidence is that Yahweh is one who can declare an intention and then put it into effect. It’s not merely that Yahweh can prophesy the future, having superior knowledge. It’s that Yahweh can announce the future, being the one who decides it. The Babylonians had their experts who would say what was going to happen; they had vast data collections on the basis of which to make their scientific predictions. But Yahweh can frustrate their predictions, because he is the one who decides what happens.
It’s in that capacity that he is announcing that Cyrus will indeed take control of the Babylonian empire and then let the Judahites go home and rebuild their cities and their temple. He acted in that way at the Reed Sea and will act that way again. In this connection he can call Cyrus “my shepherd.” The term was a common one in the Middle East to describe the king as the one exercising authority over and caring for his people, his “sheep” (Westerners might find it demeaning to be called sheep, but people in traditional societies wouldn’t take this view). Yahweh declares that Cyrus is “my shepherd,” one acting in his capacity under a higher sovereignty. More astonishingly, Yahweh describes Cyrus as his “anointed.” It is the word transliterated as “Messiah.” In light of what the word came to mean, it’s extraordinary that Yahweh uses it to describe the pagan king. It’s never used in the Old Testament to describe a coming king, only the present king (or priest). A person such as Saul or David is “my anointed.” Yet in its own way, applying to a pagan king this term for Israel’s king is just as extraordinary. It indicates in the strongest way that God intends to use Cyrus to fulfill his purpose for Israel. It’s no obstacle that the leader of the superpower doesn’t acknowledge Yahweh.

ISAIAH 45:9–25

The People Who Know What’s Best

  9       Hey, one who contends with his shaper,
  a pot with earthen pots!
  Can clay say to its shaper, “What do you do,”
  or can your work say, “It has no handles”?
  10       Hey, one who says to a father, “What do you beget?”
  or to a woman, “What do you give birth to?”
  11       Yahweh has said this—
  Israel’s holy one and its shaper:
  “Ask me about things to come for my children—
  you can give me commands about the work of my hands!
  12       I’m the one who made the earth
  and created humanity upon it.
  I—my hands stretched out the heavens,
  I commanded their entire army.
  13       I’m the one who aroused him in faithfulness
  and level all his ways.
  He is the one who will build up my city
  and send off my exiles,
  not for payment, not for inducement,”
  Yahweh Armies has said.

  14       Yahweh has said this:
  “Egypt’s toil, Sudan’s profit,
  the Ethiopians, people of stature,
  will pass over to you and will be yours,
  they will follow behind you.
  They will pass over in fetters and will bow low to you,
  to you they will make their plea:
  ‘God is in you only,
  and there is no other, no God.
  15       Certainly you are the God who hides,
  God of Israel who delivers.’
  16       They are shamed, yes, they are humiliated, all of them at once,
  they have gone in humiliation, the people who craft forms.
  17       Israel has found deliverance in Yahweh,
  everlasting deliverance.
  You will not be shamed or humiliated
  to everlasting ages.”

  18       Because Yahweh has said this,
  the creator of the heavens, he is God,
  the former of the earth and its maker—
  he established it, he did not create it an emptiness,
  he formed it for inhabiting:
  “I am Yahweh
  and there is no other.
  19       It was not in hiddenness that I spoke,
  in a place in a dark country.
  I did not say to Jacob’s offspring,
  ‘Inquire of me in emptiness.’
  I am Yahweh, speaking of faithfulness,
  announcing what is right.
  20       Gather, come, draw near together,
  survivors of the nations.
  Those who carry their wooden images have not acknowledged,
  the people who plead with a god who does not deliver.
  21       Announce, bring near,
  yes, consult together.
  Who informed of this beforehand,
  announced it of old?
  Was it not I, Yahweh?—
  and there was no other God apart from me,
  the faithful God and deliverer;
  there is none except me.
  22       Turn to me and find deliverance, all the ends of the earth,
  because I am God and there is no other.
  23       By myself I have sworn,
  faithfulness has gone out from my mouth,
  a word that will not turn back:
  to me every knee will bend,
  every tongue swear.
  24       ‘Only in Yahweh (of me it is said)
  are faithful acts and strength.’ ”
  To him they will come and be shamed,
  all who rage at him.
  25       In Yahweh all Israel’s offspring
  will be faithful and will exult.

I have been a student or a professor in four seminaries. One thing that students and faculty have in common is that they often think they know more about how to run the seminary than its head or the board of governors. For most of this time I was either student or faculty, and therefore I knew that we were right. Why were the people in power making such stupid decisions about degree programs, appointments, finance, building plans, or other policy questions? Of course I felt different when I was the head of the seminary, but then I would say that if the seminary wasn’t attracting students and faculty who thought they could run it better than me, we weren’t attracting the really able people. Now I’m back in the blessed position of not being in charge, I just roll my eyes when I hear people talking as if the people running the seminary are idiots.
God is often on the receiving end of such attitudes on our part. I expect sometimes he rolls his eyes, but on this occasion he gets steamed up about it. The Judahites are evidently appalled at the idea of Yahweh designating Cyrus as his anointed, as if he were someone who could stand in David’s line. If God had made a commitment to David and his line, how could God do such a thing? What about descendants of David such as Jehoiachin (who had been king but had been deposed by the Babylonians), or his son Shealtiel, or Shealtiel’s son Zerubbabel (who did later become governor of Jerusalem)?
Who do you think you are (Yahweh asks) to tell me what to do with the pots I make, when you yourselves are just pots? Or to behave like someone confronting parents about their children (“Your baby’s not very pretty, is it”)? Remember something I’ve been emphasizing: I’m the creator of the world. I do what I like, even if it makes no sense to you. So I reaffirm that I have summoned Cyrus as my agent in fulfilling my faithful purpose for Israel.
In the middle paragraph Yahweh addresses Jerusalem and restates points he has been making. When he acts in this way, peoples like the Egyptians, Sudanese, and Ethiopians, on the edge of the Babylonian empire, will heave a sigh of relief when the empire collapses, so they will come to acknowledge Yahweh as the one who has brought them freedom and/or security. They will be only too glad to bow down to the Judahites in Jerusalem as people who belong to Yahweh and to bring their offerings to Jerusalem as Yahweh’s city. They acknowledge the truth about Yahweh that Israel is also challenged to acknowledge—it’s almost as if the Egyptians are preaching a sermon to Jerusalem. Yahweh is one who sometimes hides—the Israelites have complained about that characteristic of Yahweh, though they have themselves to blame because Yahweh’s hiding is a response to their waywardness. But Yahweh is also the God who delivers. This moment is the one when Yahweh is turning from hiding to delivering. It means shame for people who make images to worship but an end to shame for the people Yahweh delivers.
The last paragraph pushes the point further. Yahweh isn’t by nature one who hides. He’s been living in an open relationship with Israel over the centuries and has not hidden from them even when they were in Babylon. He’s been speaking to them, telling them what he intended to do in his faithfulness to them. Further, the response of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia is but one example of a response Yahweh looks for. “The survivors of the nations” are invited, or rather challenged, to acknowledge Yahweh. The reference to “the nations” and their useless images suggests the Babylonians themselves. The fact that God is bringing calamity upon them doesn’t mean he has written them off. They will need to be ashamed of their trust in their images, but they will now be able to find deliverance in Yahweh, like the Egyptians and the Israelites themselves. Because every knee is destined to bow to Yahweh, the only real God, and it will not be a humiliation or a drag but a relief and joy.
The Judahite people who held onto the promises in these paragraphs knew well that they hadn’t been fulfilled. It’s not that they hadn’t been fulfilled at all; aspects of them came true. The fact that there was much else to be fulfilled was not reason to abandon them but reason to hold onto them.

ISAIAH 46:1–13

Gods You Have to Carry and the God Who Carries You

  1       Bel has bowed down, Nebo is stooping;
  their images have become for animals, cattle.
  The things carried by you are loaded as a burden for weary ones;
       2       they have stooped, they have bowed down together.
  They could not rescue the burden;
  they themselves have gone into captivity.
  3       Listen to me, Jacob’s household,
  all the remains of Israel’s household,
  who have been loaded from birth,
  who have been carried from the womb.
  4       Even until old age I will be the one;
  even until gray-headedness I will be the one who will bear.
  I am the one who made, I am the one who carries;
  I am the one who bears, and I will rescue.
  5       To whom can you compare me so that I should be similar,
  or liken me so that we are comparable?
  6       People who lavish gold from a purse,
  or weigh out silver by the rod,
  hire a smith so that he may make it into a god
  to which they may fall down, bow low.
  7       They carry it on their shoulder, bear it,
  so they can settle it in its position and it can stand;
  from its place it won’t move.
  And someone can cry out to it, but it doesn’t answer;
  it doesn’t deliver him from his trouble.

  8       Keep this in mind, be strong,
  bring it back to mind, you rebels,
  9       keep in mind earlier events of old,
  because I am God and there is no other.
  I am God and there is none like me,
       10       announcing the outcome from the beginning,
  and from beforehand things that have not been done,
  saying “My plan will arise, all I wish I will do,
  11       summoning from the east a shriek,
  from a far country the person in my plan.
  I both spoke and will also bring it about;
  I formed and will also do it.”
  12       Listen to me, you strong of mind,
  you who are far away from faithfulness.
  13       I have brought faithfulness near; it’s not far away,
  and my deliverance won’t delay.
  I will put deliverance in Zion,
  my magnificence for Israel.

We had Mother’s Day dinner yesterday with some Jews and some Roman Catholics and some agnostics. The agnostics thought that if you need the prop of faith in something in order to keep you going, fine, but if you can live your life without that prop, why bother with religion? My answer was that I wasn’t involved with God because I needed it but because God is there; one can hardly ignore God if he is there. I was a bit offended at the idea that I need God as a prop, as if I would otherwise collapse, but I didn’t say so. Maybe the Fatherless agnostics fear that if they let God prop them up, they will be disappointed as they are in their absent fathers.
Maybe the prophet would say there’s nothing wrong with needing God as a kind of prop. The logic of his sarcastic prophecy is that either you stop God collapsing or God stops you collapsing, and he knows which faith is more impressive. He has a vision of Babylon about to fall to the Persians. When a city falls, its conquerors may destroy its divine images or may appropriate them and take them back to their own capital as a sign of their defeat by the conquerors’ gods. In the vision the Babylonians are hastily removing the images from the city to forestall that possibility. Here is a moment of crisis in Babylon’s life, a moment when it needs a deity that can stop it collapsing, but instead of its gods carrying and protecting their people, the people are having to carry and protect their gods. What’s the use of a God you have to carry, instead of the God carrying you, Yahweh asks. I’ve carried you since the beginning of your life and I’ll carry you until you’re old, Yahweh promises, with another sarcastic dig at the process whereby the images that represent the gods come into being. These images correspond to no reality; the sad implication is that when you cry out to them in a crisis like the one coming to Babylon, you get no answer.
The second paragraph resumes the exhortation to keep in mind how Yahweh has shown he is the only real God also by declaring what was going to happen and then doing it. It was he who summoned the screaming Cyrus from the east, and it’s he who will see that Cyrus completes Yahweh’s work. The trouble is that the Judahites are strong-minded—they know what they think and it’s hard to change their mind. They are thus “far away from faithfulness”—far away from being ready to profit from Yahweh’s intention to show his faithfulness to them by what he does though Cyrus. They’re in danger of never being able to recognize Yahweh’s act when it happens. This act of faithfulness and deliverance is near, but they could fail to see it. Yahweh’s glorious, magnificent presence is returning to Zion, but they could miss it.

ISAIAH 47:1–15

The Unexpected Fall of the Superpower

  1       Get down, sit in the dirt, young Ms. Babylon,
  sit on the ground without a throne, Ms. Kaldea.
  Because you will not again have people call you
  sensitive and delightful.
  2       Get the millstones and grind meal,
  expose your hair.
  Uncover your tresses, expose your leg,
  cross streams.
  3       Your nakedness will be exposed,
  yes, your disgrace will be visible.
  I will take redress,
  no one will intervene.
  4       (Our restorer: Yahweh Armies is his name,
  Israel’s holy one.)
  5       Sit in silence, enter into darkness,
  Ms. Kaldea.
  Because you will not again have them call you
  mistress of kingdoms.
  6       I was angry with my people, I profaned my own,
  I gave them into your hand.
  You did not show compassion to them;
  upon the aged you made your yoke very heavy.
  7       You said, “I will be here forever,
  mistress always.”
  You did not bring these things to mind;
  you were not mindful of its outcome.
  8       So now listen to this, charming one,
  who sits in confidence,
  who says to herself,
  “I and none else am still here,
  I will not sit as a widow,
  I will not know the loss of children.”
  9       The two of these will come to you,
  in a moment, on one day.
  The loss of children and widowhood
  in full measure will have come upon you.
  In the multiplying of your chants
  and in the great abounding of your charms,
  10       you have been confident in your evildoing;
  you said, “There’s no one looking at me.”
  Your wisdom, your knowledge,
  it turned you.
  You said to yourself,
  “I and none else am still here.”
  11       But evil is going to come upon you
  whose countercharm you won’t know.
  Disaster will fall upon you
  that you won’t be able to expiate.
  There will come upon you suddenly
  desolation that you won’t know about.
  12       Do stand in your charms and in the multiplying of your chants,
  in which you have labored from your youth.
  Perhaps you will be able to succeed,
  perhaps you will terrify.
  13       You’re collapsing in the multiplying of your plans;
  they should indeed stand up and deliver you,
  the people who observe the heavens,
  who look at the stars,
  who make known for the months
  some of what will come upon you.
  14       There, they have become like straw
  that fire burns up.
  They cannot rescue themselves
  from the power of the blaze.
  It’s not a coal for warming,
  a flame for sitting before.
  15       Such have they been for you,
  those with which you have labored,
  your charmers from your youth.
  They have wandered, each of them his own way;
  there is no one delivering you.

I was born when the British Empire was about to fold. The tide was turning in the Second World War as Britain and its allies were about to defeat Nazi Germany and its allies. Yet in another sense Nazi Germany won, because war left Britain and the other European powers exhausted, never to recover in a way that could hold onto imperial power in the world. The British Empire was over. Now I live at a time that some people in the United States see as an equivalent moment in its history as a superpower, a moment when it’s exhausted and in the midst of being defeated, not merely by the effort involved in exercising power abroad but by collapse from within through the commercialization of everything. Maybe that gloomy view is wrong; we shall see.
Babylon is at the point Britain reached after the Second World War. Hardly anyone would have realized Britain had reached this point, and it took a prophet in Babylon to perceive it about Babylon. Like any prophet, he finds it hard to get anyone to believe him. Here, he continues trying to get people to see that Babylon is about to fall, and that this event is good news. As he tried to do in portraying the Babylonian gods being taken out of the city, so he does by imagining and portraying the event actually taking place, addressing Ms. Babylon as if she is a queen who has been deposed. A city such as Los Angeles, New York, or London is somehow larger than the sum total of its inhabitants, with a personality of its own. The same was true of Jerusalem or Babylon. So the prophet can picture Babylon as a young queen in the midst of being overthrown.
Instead of being someone with a staff to see to all the palace’s needs, she has become an ordinary woman fulfilling ordinary tasks, no longer able to maintain the dignified dress of a queen (nakedness doesn’t imply she has no clothes at all, but that she no longer wears the impressive garb of a woman at court). There are two telling reasons for her losing her throne. One is that she lacked compassion. It’s a telling accusation against someone who is imagined as a woman, because the Hebrew word for compassion is related to the word for a womb. A woman instinctively has womb-like feelings. But Ms. Babylon has lacked these. She has been heartless in her treatment of her own people and of other nations (such as Judah). You would have expected her to care about older people, but she didn’t do so. Like Assyria in earlier chapters of Isaiah, she has been Yahweh’s agent in bringing calamity on Judah, but she has treated Judah far more heartlessly than Yahweh needed. God’s expectation is that a superpower operates with compassion in relation to its own people and in relation to other peoples.
The other reason for her losing her throne is that she thought it would never happen. She thought she was like a god. Babylon would rule the Middle East forever. Superpowers can never imagine they will be overthrown; Babylon had vast resources to enable it to formulate policies to ensure it stayed as top dog forever. The prophet stops speaking as if the dethronement has actually taken place and moves to speaking of it as future: she is about to find that her resources will be useless when Yahweh brings about the catastrophe he intends.

ISAIAH 48:1–22

If Only …

  1       Listen to this, Jacob’s household,
  you who call yourselves by Israel’s name,
  you who came out of Judah’s waters,
  who swear by Yahweh’s name,
  who invoke Israel’s God—
  not in truthfulness, not in faithfulness—
  2       because they call themselves by the holy city,
  lean on Israel’s God,
  whose name is Yahweh Armies.

  3       The earlier events I announced of old,
  from my mouth they came out so I could make them heard.
  Suddenly I acted and they came about,
       4       because of my knowing that you’re hard.
  Your neck is an iron sinew,
  your forehead bronze.
  5       I announced them to you of old,
  before they came about I let you hear,
  so you could not say, “My icon did them;
  my image, my idol commanded them.”

  6       You’ve heard—look at all of it;
  will you yourselves not announce it?
  I’m letting you hear of new events right now,
  secrets that you didn’t know.
  7       Now they are created, not of old,
  or before today, and you have not heard of them,
  so you could say, “There, I knew about them.”
  8       No, you haven’t heard; no, you haven’t known;
  no, of old your ear did not open up.
  Because I knew you would be utterly treacherous;
  rebel from birth, you were called.

  9       For the sake of my name I delay my anger,
  for the sake of my praise I muzzle it for you
  so that I don’t cut you off.
  10       There, I smelted you, and not in the silver [furnace];
  I chose you in the affliction furnace.
  11       For my sake, for my sake, I act,
  because how can my splendor be profaned?—
  I will not give it to someone else.

  12       Listen to me, Jacob,
  Israel whom I called.
  I am the one, I am the first,
  yes, I am the last.
  13       Yes, it was my hand formed earth;
  my right hand spanned the heavens.
  I am going to summon them
  so that they stand together.
  14       Gather, all of you, and listen—
  who among them announced these things?
  One whom Yahweh loves will effect his wish on Babylon,
  and his arm [on] the Kaldeans.
  15       I, I am the one who spoke,
  yes, I summoned him,
  I brought him and he will succeed in his journey.
  16       Draw near to me,
  listen to this.
  Not from the first did I speak in hiddenness;
  from the time it came to be, I was there.

  Now Lord Yahweh
  has sent me, with his spirit.
  17       Yahweh has said this, your restorer,
  Israel’s holy one.
  “I am Yahweh your God,
  the one who teaches you to succeed,
  who directs you in the way you should go—
       18       if only you had paid heed to my commands.
  Your well-being would have been like a river,
  your faithfulness like the waves of the sea.
  19       Your offspring would have been like the sand,
  the people who came out from you like its grains.
  Your name would not be cut off,
  not be destroyed, from before me.”

  20       Go out from Babylon,
  flee from Kaldea.
  Announce with resounding voice,
  make it heard.
  Send it out to the end of the earth,
  say, “Yahweh is restoring his servant Israel.”
  21       They were not thirsty
  as he made them go through wastes.
  He made water flow from the crag for them,
  he split the crag and water gushed out.

  22       There is no well-being
  (Yahweh has said) for faithless people.

I was talking this week to a student who told me that his wife had left him. They had been married for five years and she had discovered he was addicted to porn; I don’t know how he had kept it secret for so long. I don’t know, and he doesn’t know, if this is the end of the line for their marriage or whether they may be able to find a new start as he faces up to the issues and changes and as she finds healing. At the moment it’s just a situation filled with “If only you hadn’t …” and “You shouldn’t have …” A friend of mine says that “You shouldn’t have …” is the most destructive expression in the English language. “You shouldn’t …” is okay—you can do something about the yet-to-be-committed act in question. “You should …” is even better. “You shouldn’t have …” is simply negative in its implications. You can’t undo what you did. And there may be no way of undoing the results of what you did.
God lives with a huge “if only” in his relationship with Israel. Maybe at some level God knew whether there was going to be a change in Israel’s longstanding inclination to ignore his expectations, but if so, he hasn’t told the prophet, and this address to Israel resonates with an agonized poignancy and uncertainty about what stance Israel will take in the future. It’s both the most agonized and the most confrontational of the addresses, and it brings a major section of the book of Isaiah to a close.
The first paragraph gives a quite straightforward and uncontroversial description of what Israel is and how it sees itself—except for that shocking, upsetting phrase “not in truthfulness, not in faithfulness,” which sabotages the positive significance of the rest of the description. The second paragraph manifests a similar dynamic as it includes several further descriptions of how Yahweh has often told Israel beforehand about actions he intended to take, which is evidence for the fact that he is God—but here he adds a different reason for doing so, that it meant Israel could not attribute events to the other gods that Israel often worshiped. The third paragraph speaks again of how Yahweh is now revealing new things—but here with the disdainful explanation that Israel always needs to hear new things, otherwise it gets bored.
It’s enough to make you wonder why Yahweh doesn’t abandon Israel. The fourth paragraph notes that it’s not as if Yahweh gained much from his involvement with Israel. Israel had not turned out to be valuable silver when it emerged from the furnace from which Yahweh had extracted it. The reason he doesn’t abandon his people is that he would look stupid—it’s the argument Moses used to keep God committed to Israel.
It’s a noteworthy aspect of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel that each party feels free to speak so straight with the other. Yahweh’s stance here matches Israel’s stance in the Psalms. It’s quite clear that there’s a real relationship between these two parties. They can sure fight. It’s a sign of how deep the relationship is. The paragraphs that follow reflect how the tough stance that Yahweh takes in those opening paragraphs is not all there is to his attitude to them. Having tried to whack them to their senses, Yahweh once again reverts to appeal. The appeal becomes most explicit when the prophet speaks about Yahweh’s sending him with his spirit to reach out to them, speaks again of how Yahweh is the restorer, and comes to his “If only …” If only they had lived lives committed to Yahweh. Then they would have known well-being. Then they would have experienced Yahweh’s faithfulness in a more unadulterated form instead of a form necessarily mixed with chastisement.
In the closing lines the prophet again speaks as if Babylon’s fall is happening before people’s eyes. They have to be ready to leave when the moment comes, to seize their opportunity, encouraged by the memory of God’s looking after their ancestors when they “got out” and “fled” from another place that was not really their home. They also have to bear in mind the implications of that “if only.” It’s not the gloomy kind of “if only” that accompanies “you should have,” the kind that indicates there’s no hope. There is hope. But there does have to be a change from faithlessness to obedience if Israel is to experience the well-being it has missed.
When my sister and I pestered my mother about something, she would say, “There’s no peace for the wicked.” I don’t think she realized she was quoting the book of Isaiah.

ISAIAH 49:1–13

The Servant’s Servant

  1       Listen, foreign shores, to me;
  give heed, peoples far away.
  Yahweh summoned me from the womb,
  from my mother’s insides he made mention of my name.
  2       He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
  in the shadow of his hand he hid me.
  He made me into a burnished arrow,
  in his quiver he concealed me.
  3       He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel;
  in you I will show my majesty.”
  4       But I myself said, “It was to no end that I toiled,
  to emptiness and purposelessness that I used up my strength.”
  Yet a decision for me is with Yahweh,
  my earnings are with my God.
  5       Now Yahweh has said—
  the one who formed me from the womb as a servant for him,
  by bringing Jacob back to him,
  so that Israel might not withdraw;
  and I have found honor in Yahweh’s eyes,
  and my God has become my strength—
  6       he has said, “It’s slight, your being a servant for me
  to raise Jacob’s clans and bring back Israel’s shoots.
  I will make you into a light of nations,
  to be my deliverance to the end of the earth.”

  7       Yahweh has said this—
  Israel’s restorer, its holy one—
  to one despised in spirit, loathed by nations,
  to a servant of rulers.
  “Kings will see and rise,
  leaders, and they will fall prostrate,
  for the sake of Yahweh, who is trustworthy,
  Israel’s holy one—he chose you.”
  8       Yahweh has said this:
  “In a time of favor I’m answering you,
  on a day of deliverance I’m helping you.
  I will guard you and make you
  into a covenant for people,
  by raising up the country,
  by sharing out the desolate shares,
  9       by saying to captives, ‘Go out,’
  to people in darkness, ‘Appear.’
  Along the roads they will pasture,
  on all the bare places will be their pasture.
  10       They will not hunger and not thirst;
  khamsin and sun won’t strike them down.
  Because the one who has compassion on them will lead them,
  and guide them by springs of water.
  11       I will make all my mountains into a road;
  my highways will rise up.
  12       There—these will come from afar;
  there—these from the north and the west,
  and these from the country of Sinim.”
  13       Resound, heavens, and rejoice, earth;
  mountains, break into sound.
  Because Yahweh is comforting his people;
  he will have compassion on his lowly ones.

A few weeks ago I had to preach at the ordination of a friend. She asked me to choose a passage as a Scripture reading from which I would preach. She laughed when I told her it would be the first of these two paragraphs, because (she commented) everyone knew that her mouth was a sharp sword; but that was not what drew me to the passage. I believe that God called her from before she was born and had been involved with her through the thirty years that had passed, including the tough times, which had been tough indeed. God had given her the sharp sword of a tongue that pastors need if they are to confront as well as comfort. God calls her to be a servant, with the protection as well as the subservience that means. God calls her to embody what it means to be the people of God. He calls her to hang on in hope when things are discouraging. God calls her not to be surprised if she ends up with a vocation that is even bigger than anything we could imagine on the day of her ordination.
So it was for the Second Isaiah. The ministry he has been exercising to people in the context of the exile has brought him and God to an impasse. Israel is God’s servant, God’s servant has a role to fulfill, but Israel seems incapable of fulfilling it; yet God cannot simply give Israel the sack. I wonder if the prophet has been wrestling with the question of what God can possibly do now, as Paul will later wrestle with the implication of his people’s refusal to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Whether the prophet has been doing so or not, he becomes aware that God does have a Plan C (Plan A was Adam and Eve, plan B was Abraham and Israel).
His description of his call before he was born reminds us of Jeremiah’s (whereas the original Isaiah lived before Jeremiah, this “Second Isaiah” lived after Jeremiah); Paul will take up the language again in Galatians 1, to describe his call. As Jeremiah’s call designated him a prophet in relation to the nations, so this prophet addresses foreign shores and speaks of having a ministry that involves attack, presumably on the imperial power of Babylon. By declaring that Babylon is about to fall, he implements God’s aggressive word, which will free the Judahites and thus manifest Yahweh’s power, though the Judahites have to be wary about the possibility that resisting Yahweh’s message could mean the sword recoiling on them.
His call also promised him protection, which links with his being designated Yahweh’s servant. There’s nothing so surprising about this designation; Yahweh had designated the original Isaiah “my servant.” But the previous chapters’ emphasis on Israel’s being Yahweh’s servant gives the designation new significance. It’s in light of Israel’s inability to function as Yahweh’s servant that the prophet hears Yahweh saying to him, “You’re my servant.” Yahweh elaborates the point by adding that as servant he is the Israel in whom Yahweh will show his majesty. In a context in which Israel cannot function as Israel, he is called to do so, to be Israel’s stand-in.
His problem is the related fact, implicit in preceding chapters, that he is a failure as a prophet; no one takes any notice of him. Yet he has summoned up the trust in Yahweh to believe that this won’t be the end of the story. Indeed, he has received a more shattering revelation. He had seen that he had a role in relation to Israel, to seek to get them to turn back to Yahweh. He has not had much success with that commission. He now senses Yahweh giving him a bigger one. He is to be a light to nations, to bring Yahweh’s deliverance to the end of the earth—hence (in part) his addressing foreign shores and peoples far away. Through proclaiming what Yahweh will do in putting Babylon down and freeing the Judahites to go home, the prophet will bring light and deliverance to the nations. Part of the evidence that he was not deluding himself in giving this account of his calling is the fact that we are reading his message now and being enlightened by it. (Paul also takes up this aspect of his account of his vocation in describing his own ministry in Acts 13.)
The promise to Israel that follows in the second paragraph again confirms that God hasn’t finished with his original servant—the prophet’s servanthood in this connection is a temporary expedient. At the moment Israel is the servant of rulers instead of the servant of Yahweh, but Israel is still destined to be a covenant for people, an embodiment of what it means to be in covenant with Yahweh that will draw people to acknowledge Yahweh and seek that relationship for themselves. It’s the restoring of the Judahite community that will demonstrate that Yahweh is the God of compassion and comfort, which is good news for members of Israel scattered all over the world.

ISAIAH 49:14–50:3

Can a Mother Forget?

  49:14       But Zion says, “Yahweh has abandoned me,
  my Lord has put me out of mind.”
  15       Can a woman put her baby out of mind
  so as not to have compassion on the child of her womb?
  Yes, these may put out of mind,
  but I—I cannot put you out of mind.
  16       There—on my palms I engraved you;
  your walls are in front of me continually.
  17       Your children are hurrying your destroyers,
  your devastators will go out from you.
  18       Lift your eyes around and look,
  they’re all gathering, they’re coming to you.
  As I am alive (Yahweh’s declaration),
  you will indeed put on all of them like jewelry,
  bind them on like a bride.
  19       Because your wastes, your devastations,
  your country that was destroyed—
  because now you will be too confined for your population,
  while the people who consumed you go away.
  20       The children of your bereavement
  will yet say in your ears,
  “The place is too confined for me,
  move over for me so I can settle.”
  21       You will say to yourself,
  “Who fathered these for me?
  When I was bereaved and barren,
  gone into exile and passing away—
  these, who reared them?
  There, when I remained alone,
  these—where were they?”

  22       My Lord Yahweh said this:
  “There, I will raise my hand to the nations,
  to the peoples I will lift up my signal.
  They will bring your sons in their embrace,
  carry your daughters on their shoulder.
  23       Kings will be your foster fathers,
  their queens your nursing mothers.
  Face to the ground they will bow low to you,
  they will lick up the dirt under your feet.
  You will acknowledge that I am Yahweh;
  those who wait for me will not be shamed.”

  24       Can prey be taken from a warrior
  or the captives of a faithful one escape?
  25       Because Yahweh has said this:
  “Yes, the warrior’s captives may be taken,
  the prey of the violent may escape.
  I myself will contend with the one contending with you,
  and your children I will deliver.
  26       I will feed your oppressors with their own flesh;
  they will be drunk on their own blood as on grape juice.
  All flesh will acknowledge
  that I am Yahweh your deliverer,
  Jacob’s strong one, your restorer.”
  50:1       Yahweh has said this:
  “Where’s the divorce paper belonging to your mother,
  whom I sent off?
  Or who among my creditors was it
  to whom I sold you?
  There—you were sold for your wayward acts,
  and for your rebellions your mother was sent off.
  2       Why did I come and there was no one there,
  did I summon and there was no one answering?
  Has my hand become far too short for redeeming,
  or is there no strength in me to rescue?
  There, with my blast I can dry up the sea,
  I can make rivers into wilderness.
  Their fish will smell because there’s no water;
  they will die of thirst.
  3       I can clothe the heavens in black,
  make sackcloth their covering.”

At a party, I overheard a mother talking to her daughter who is soon to have a baby, about how it would be to look after the baby, and about how it had been for the mother herself in relation to her daughter. The mother had gone back to work soon after her daughter’s birth but had continued to feed her baby, pressing her milk at midday and keeping it until she got home. You have to do it, because the accumulation of the milk becomes a physically painful reality for the mother. She can go to work but she can never forget she has a baby. Her body won’t allow her to do so. It’s a pain that’s not letting her forget, as Israel would be a pain to Yahweh.
That experience lies behind Yahweh’s response to Ms. Zion’s protest that Yahweh has forgotten her. The personified city speaks like a woman who has been abandoned by her husband, reversing the way Yahweh uses this image elsewhere in the Prophets. There Yahweh pictures Zion as an unfaithful wife. Here with a further expression of the chutzpah that featured in chapter 44, Ms. Zion speaks as if the breakdown in the relationship issued from her husband’s wanton abandonment, not her unfaithfulness.
Yahweh has several things to say in reply. Initially he holds back from the snorting reply that one might expect, by drawing that analogy with a mother. As a mother, Ms. Zion herself knows what it’s like to be unable to put her baby out of mind. Maybe she could imagine a woman desperate enough to do so. If there is such a person, Yahweh says, then it’s not me. It’s said that Mary I, the queen of England before Elizabeth I, told people that when she died, they would find Calais—which the English had lost to the French—inscribed on her heart (it was not entirely a metaphor; the heart was sometimes removed after someone died, and buried separately, and this happened to Mary). Yahweh declares that he has Jerusalem engraved on his hands. Every time he looks at them, he sees its demolished walls. No, he cannot forget Zion.
He thus invites the city to picture its inhabitants encouraging its devastators out of the city and to imagine its former inhabitants, Zion’s lost children, returning in such numbers that the city won’t be big enough for them and that their mother won’t be able to work out where they have all come from. The very imperial powers that lorded it over her and took them off into exile will bring them back and become her domestic servants (the description of their physical self-lowering could seem to imply a more abject humiliation than it actually indicates—it’s not so different from actions attributed to people such as Abraham, Joseph, and Ruth on various occasions). If it seems implausible to imagine the empire surrendering its captives, then Ms. Zion needs to remember who its God is. Nothing is impossible for Yahweh. Yahweh can turn them into people fighting and killing each other. The result of it all will be the recognition of the real truth about Yahweh by Ms. Zion herself and by the world as a whole that looks on in amazement at Yahweh’s capacity to put down the superpower and rescue Judah.
Yahweh’s final response to Ms. Zion’s complaint about being abandoned is much more confrontational or is confrontational in a different way. Yahweh now speaks to the children rather than their mother, in the way a couple who are in conflict may start trying to communicate through their children. It transpires that Yahweh does so because in reality it’s Zion’s “children”—the city’s people—whom he needs to confront. Yahweh asks about his “wife’s” divorce certificate, which relates to her protests about her abandonment. He wants to draw attention to the reasons it gives for the divorce. The subsequent question about the children will likewise take up her and their protests, to which Yahweh then gives his snorting reply. She and they speak as if Yahweh did the abandoning, when he has been seeking reconciliation and getting no response. Their stance again implies they have forgotten how Yahweh acted at the exodus.

ISAIAH 50:4–51:11

On Following God’s Prompting

  50:4       My Lord Yahweh gave me the tongue of disciples,
  so as to know how to aid someone who is faint.
  With a word he wakens, morning by morning,
  wakens my ear so as to hear like the disciples.
  5       My Lord Yahweh opened my ear,
  and I did not rebel, I did not turn away.
  6       I gave my back to people striking me,
  my cheeks to people pulling out my beard.
  I did not hide my face
  from deep disgrace and spit.
  7       My Lord Yahweh helps me;
  therefore I have not been disgraced.
  Therefore I set my face like flint,
  and knew I would not be shamed.
  8       The one who shows that I am faithful is near;
  who will contend with me?—let us stand up together.
  Who is the person with a case against me?—
  he should come forward to me.
  9       There, my Lord Yahweh will help me—
  who is the one who will show that I am faithless?
  There, all of them will wear out like clothing;
  moth will consume them.
  10       Who among you is in awe of Yahweh,
  listens to his servant’s voice?
  One who has walked in darkness
  and has no illumination
  must trust in Yahweh’s name
  and lean on his God.
  11       There, all of you who kindle fire,
  who gird on firebrands:
  walk into your fiery flame,
  into the firebrands you have lit.
  This is coming about from my hand for you;
  you will lie down in pain.

  51:1       Listen to me, you who pursue faithfulness,
  who seek help from Yahweh.
  Look to the crag from which you were hewn,
  to the cavity, the hole, from which you were dug.
  2       Look to Abraham your ancestor
  and Sarah who was laboring with you.
  Because he was one when I summoned him
  so I might bless him and make him many.
  3       Because Yahweh is comforting Zion,
  he is comforting all its wastes.
  He is making its wilderness like Eden,
  its steppe like Yahweh’s garden.
  Gladness and joy will be found there,
  thanksgiving and the sound of music.
  4       Pay heed to me, my people;
  give ear to me, my nation.
  Because teaching goes out from me,
  my decision for the light of peoples.
  In a flash 5 my faithfulness is near,
  my deliverance is going out,
  my arm will decide for peoples.
  Foreign shores will look for me,
  they will wait for my arm.
  6       Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
  look to the earth below.
  Because the heavens are shredding like smoke,
  the earth will wear out like clothing,
  its inhabitants will die in like manner.
  But my deliverance will be forever,
  my faithfulness will not shatter.
  7       Listen to me, you who acknowledge my faithfulness,
  a people with my teaching in its mind.
  Don’t be afraid of human reproach,
  don’t shatter at their taunting.
  8       Because moth will consume them like clothing,
  grub will consume them like wool.
  But my faithfulness will be forever,
  my deliverance to all generations.

  9       Wake up, wake up, put on strength,
  Yahweh’s arm.
  Wake up as in days of old,
  generations long ago.
  Are you not the one who split Rahab,
  pierced the dragon?
  10       Are you not the one who dried up the sea,
  the water of the great deep,
  who made the depths of the sea
  a way for the restored people to pass?
  11       The people redeemed by Yahweh will return,
  they will come to Zion with resounding,
  with eternal gladness on their head.
  Joy and gladness will overtake them;
  sorrow and sighing will flee.

We were at a singer-songwriter venue and the singer’s last song was about her mother’s death two or three years ago. The song title referred to the year of her mother’s birth, which was the same birth year of someone who was with us. She later told us that she had felt prompted to go and give the singer a hug afterward on her mother’s behalf but had resisted the prompting—what if the act was unwelcome? It reminded me of a story someone had told us. Her college professor was sitting in an airport and felt God telling her to go and talk about Jesus to a disheveled-looking fellow passenger. She, too, resisted the prompting, but then felt a crazier prompting, that she should go and comb his hair. She did, and he burst into tears and explained he was going to see his wife in a nursing home in another city; he was so grateful to be spruced up.
The prophet knows what it’s like to be prompted by God and to be tempted to resist because he fears rebuff. His fear is justified but he has followed the prompting. He has the tongue of the disciples—it’s the word that designated Isaiah’s disciples in chapter 8 and points to the fact that Second Isaiah is a disciple of Isaiah ben Amoz (in a later century) and also a disciple of Yahweh, like them. He listens and can therefore speak. His rebuff means he experiences shame, but only in the short term; he knows he will be shown to be one who belongs to the faithful not the faithless, who will find themselves caught up in the fire they ignite for him. But for the time being he walks in darkness, without the brightness of life experience that people who belong to God expect; he has to live in trust in God.
He goes on once more to resume the message he has been prompted to give his people. They’re people who pursue faithfulness, though not in the same sense as he does. They long for some expression of God’s faithfulness to them—in this sense they’re seeking help from Yahweh. But they can’t see the signs of it that the prophet points them to. They can’t believe that Yahweh can or will reverse their fortunes. Earlier the prophet has pointed them to Yahweh’s power as creator, as evidence to build up their faith, and pointed them to Yahweh’s act at the Reed Sea. Here he points them to what God did with Abraham and Sarah, that hopeless childless couple. Once again he asserts that through Yahweh’s decision about what to do with them he will bring teaching and illumination to the entire world. It will be a decision that is good news for them as well as for Judah. It will be the deliverance they’re looking for. The world is collapsing, but Judah and other peoples can come through the other side of these events because Yahweh will be faithful to his purpose in delivering them.
With some irony the prophet goes on to describe Judah as people who acknowledge Yahweh’s faithfulness, who have Yahweh’s teaching inscribed on their mind. There’s some sense in which it’s true; they acknowledge Yahweh and they’re aware of Yahweh’s teaching. Yet they’re also people who are scared and torn. In a sense you can’t blame them. The prophet continues to seek to buttress up this faint people to whom he has been prompted to minister by continuing to remind them of Yahweh’s profile as the faithful God who does deliver.
The last words have the same aim but seek to achieve it in a different way by allowing the people to overhear words addressed to Yahweh’s arm. It was Yahweh’s arm that had been raised at the Reed Sea to deliver the Israelites from the Egyptians (Rahab is a mythic character that appeared as a figure for Egypt in Isaiah 30, and the dragon is another term for the same power asserted against God and his people.) Here it’s commissioned to lift itself up again. To underline the commission, it repeats the last verse of Isaiah 35, as if to underline the challenge and thus underline the good news it constitutes.

ISAIAH 51:12–52:12

Beautiful Feet

  51:12       I, I am the one who is comforting you—
  who are you to be afraid,
  of a mortal who dies,
  of a human being who is treated like grass?
  13       You have put Yahweh your maker out of mind,
  the one who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth.
  You are fearful constantly, all day,
  of the fury of the oppressor,
  as he is applying his mind to destroying.
  But where is the fury of the oppressor?—
       14       the one stooping is hastening to be released.
  He won’t die in the pit,
  he won’t lack his bread.
  15       I am Yahweh your God,
  one who stills the sea when its waves roar—
  Yahweh Armies is his name.
  16       I have put my words in your mouth,
  and covered you with the shade of my hand,
  in planting the heavens and founding the earth,
  in saying to Zion “You are my people.”

  17       Wake yourself up, wake yourself up,
  get up, Jerusalem,
  you who drank from Yahweh’s hand
  his fury cup.
  The chalice, the shaking cup,
  you drank, you drained.
  18       There was no one guiding her,
  of all the children she bore.
  There was no one taking her by the hand,
  of all the children she brought up.
  19       There were two things befalling you
  (who was to mourn for you?),
  destruction and devastation, famine and sword
  (who was I to comfort you?).
  20       Your children were overcome,
  they lay down at the entrance to all the streets
  like a snared oryx,
  the people full of Yahweh’s fury,
  of your God’s blast.
  21       Therefore do listen to this, lowly one,
  drunk but not with wine.
  22       Your Lord Yahweh has said this,
  your God who contends for his people:
  “There, I’m taking from your hand
  the shaking cup,
  my chalice, the fury cup,
  which you will not ever drink again.
  23       I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
  the people who said to your neck,
  ‘Bow down, and we will pass over,’
  and you made your back like the earth,
  like the street for them to pass over.”

  52:1       Wake up, wake up,
  put on your strength, Zion!
  Put on your majestic clothes,
  Jerusalem, holy city!
  Because the uncircumcised or taboo person
  will never again come into you.
  2       Shake yourself from the dirt,
  get up, sit down, Jerusalem!
  They are loosening the bonds from on your neck,
  captive Ms. Zion.
  3       Because Yahweh has said this:
  “For nothing you were sold;
  without silver you will be restored,”
       4       because my Lord Yahweh has said this:
  “My people went down to Egypt at the beginning
  to sojourn there,
  but Assyria oppressed them to no purpose.
  5       Now what was there for me here (Yahweh’s declaration),
  that my people were taken for nothing?
  Its rulers boast (Yahweh’s declaration),
  and constantly, all day, my name stands reviled.
  6       Therefore my people will acknowledge my name,
  therefore on that day [they will acknowledge]
  that I’m the one who speaks—here I am.”

  7       How lovely on the mountains are the feet of one who brings news,
  one who announces “All is well,”
  one who brings good news, who announces deliverance,
  who says to Zion, “Your God has begun to reign!”
  8       A voice!—lookouts are lifting voice,
  together they resound!
  Because with both eyes
  they see Yahweh returning to Zion.
  9       Break out, resound together,
  wastes of Jerusalem.
  Because Yahweh is comforting his people,
  he is restoring Jerusalem.
  10       Yahweh is baring his holy arm
  before the nations’ eyes.
  All the ends of the earth
  will see our God’s deliverance.

  11       Depart, depart, get out from there,
  don’t touch what is taboo.
  Get out from its midst, purify yourselves,
  you who carry Yahweh’s things.
  12       Because you won’t get out in haste,
  you won’t go in flight.
  Because Yahweh is going before you,
  and Israel’s God is bringing up your rear.

My feet went all nasty a few years ago in Jerusalem. Visiting Jerusalem was the only occasion when I got to wear sandals continually for two weeks, and the skin on my heels frayed. One result was that it became impossible to keep them clean. They looked horrible. I was ashamed of them. After that summer, the fraying and the nastiness never really went away. Yet their nastiness was nothing compared with the regular nastiness of people’s feet when cities lacked sewers, donkeys or horses rode through them, and streets ran with filth and you couldn’t avoid your feet getting filthy. Imagine what it was like to have people come into your home off the street. Imagine what it was like to wash someone’s feet.
The declaration that a messenger’s feet are beautiful is therefore implausible. Yet they’re beautiful because of the message they bring. Today was the day of a marathon in our city (we left home in the car, waited in vain for fifteen minutes at one of the places that was supposed to be a crossing point, then went back home to get our bikes for the ride to church). Marathons commemorate the legendary run of a messenger called Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens to tell the Athenians that their army had defeated the Persians. There’s no doubt that he had feet that were beautiful as well as dirty. The prophet imagines such a messenger arriving in Jerusalem. Ironically, he would be announcing a Persian army’s victory over the Babylonians. It would mean that Jerusalem was free from Babylonian rule and Judahites in Babylon would be free to come home.
It would mean Yahweh was reigning. There’s some sense in which God reigns all the time. Nothing happens that God doesn’t allow to happen. Yet God’s control of the world often looks like the governor’s control of a prison during a riot. There’s a limit to what the prisoners can do, but the governor’s will isn’t exactly being implemented there. Yet from time to time God makes something happen that really fulfils his will. Jesus’ coming was the greatest such occasion, when he declared that God’s reign had come, though one look at our world shows that this reigning was only partial. God’s putting Babylon down was an earlier such occasion. It was the occasion when Yahweh returned to the Jerusalem that he had walked out on fifty years previously. The prophet imagines Jerusalem’s lookouts watching Yahweh nearing the city and telling its people what they can see.
Yahweh won’t return alone; he will bring the Judahites from Babylon with him. The prophet thus also imagines telling these Judahites to get going when the moment of freedom arrives. They must avoid contact with things that would bring uncleanness back to Jerusalem with them. The great objects of uncleanness were the Babylonian images that attracted Judahites there. The Judahites couldn’t stroll into Yahweh’s presence when the taint of their worship of Babylonian gods infected them. They need to purify themselves, especially as they’re going to take back with them the articles that the Babylonians had appropriated from the Jerusalem temple as trophies when they return to rebuild the temple. It will be appropriate for them to waste no time about leaving, but in another sense they needn’t hurry. There will be no need for panicked flight, as if they may get recaptured. They will be going with Yahweh. He will go ahead and he will bring up the rear.
This exhortation addressed to the Judahites in Babylon is also meant for the people in Jerusalem. It appeals to their imagination too. Conversely the earlier part of the section that addresses the city would also be good news for the Judahites in Babylon. The “you” that is told not to be afraid and that is accused of putting Yahweh out of mind is the city (“you” is feminine singular in Hebrew). Its people are afraid of their rulers, but in the prophet’s imagination the oppressor has been defeated: his victims are about to be released.
So Jerusalem can stop lying prostrate and demoralized. It had been victim of Yahweh’s wrath as well as victim of Babylonian aggression, but a statute of limitation applies to both. Yahweh has said “Enough is enough.” It’s time to punish the oppressor instead of the victim. There’s more to it. She isn’t just going to be liberated. She’s going to be made beautiful again. She’s going to be cleansed; before the uncleanness brought upon Judahites in Babylon because they had associated themselves with Babylonian gods, there had been uncleanness brought upon Jerusalem itself by the Babylonian feet that had trampled their way through the temple and devastated it. It won’t happen again, says Yahweh, at least not in this generation’s lifetime. (It will happen again in four hundred years’ time, but Yahweh will rescue the city again.)

ISAIAH 52:13–53:12

The Man Who Kept His Mouth Shut

  52:13       There, my servant will thrive,
  he will rise and lift up and be very high.
  14       As many people were appalled at you,
  so his appearance is anointed beyond anyone,
  his look beyond that of [other] human beings.
  15       So he will spatter many nations;
  at him kings will shut their mouths.
  Because what had not been told them they will have seen,
  and what they had not heard they will have understood.
  53:1       Who believed what we heard,
  and upon whom did Yahweh’s arm appear?
  2       He grew before him like a sucker
  or a root out of dry ground.
  He had no look and no majesty so that we should look at him,
  no appearance so that we should want him.
  3       He was despised and the most frail of human beings,
  a man of great suffering and acquainted with weakness.
  As when people hide their face from someone,
  he was despised and we didn’t count him.
  4       Yet it was our weaknesses that he carried,
  our great suffering that he bore.
  But we ourselves had counted him touched,
  struck down, by God, and afflicted.
  5       But he was the one who was wounded through our rebellions,
  crushed through our wayward acts.
  Chastisement to bring us well-being was on him,
  and by means of his being hurt there was healing for us.
  6       All of us like sheep had wandered,
  each had turned to his own way.
  Yahweh—he let fall on him
  the waywardness of all of us.
  7       He was put down, but he was one who let himself be afflicted,
  and wouldn’t open his mouth.
  Like a sheep that is led to slaughter
  or like a ewe that is silent before its shearers,
  he wouldn’t open his mouth.
  8       By the restraint of authority he was taken;
  who would complain at his generation?
  Because he was cut off from the land of the living;
  through my people’s rebellion the touch came to him.
  9       He was given his tomb with the faithless,
  his burial mound with the rich person,
  because he had done no violence
  and no deceit with his mouth.
  10       While Yahweh desired the crushing of the one he weakened,
  if with his whole person he lays down a reparation offering,
  he will see offspring, he will prolong his life,
  and Yahweh’s desire will succeed in his hand.
  11       Out of his personal trouble, when he sees he will be sated;
  by his acknowledgment my servant will show many that he is indeed faithful,
  when he bears their wayward acts.
  12       Therefore I will give him a share with the many;
  he will share out the powerful as spoil,
  in return for the fact that he exposed his person to death
  when he let himself be numbered with the rebels,
  when he was the one who carried the offense of many people
  and was appealing for the rebels.

I just came across a comment someone made when my first wife died five years ago. “We are forever grateful that she paid the price of her discipleship.” She “stands tall” among people who have “worked for our comfort and edification.… Her direct contribution to our ministry is, without a doubt, one of the greatest gifts we have ever received.” The phrase “paid the price of her discipleship” struck me. It’s the kind of phrase you might use of someone who faced persecution or volunteered for some dangerous mission. Ann didn’t volunteer or do something of that kind. She was totally disabled with multiple sclerosis. For the last decade or so, she couldn’t even speak. Yet somehow she exercised a ministry to people.
This vision of Yahweh’s servant gives me a possible clue to the way she “paid the price of her discipleship.” It speaks of the servant “laying down a reparation offering”; maybe the way Ann handled her disability was a kind of offering to God. Lots of details in this passage are difficult to interpret (it’s one of the trickier passages in Hebrew in the Old Testament), but the big picture is clear. Someone has gone through extreme suffering. Mostly if not entirely it’s suffering at the hands of other people, which makes it different from being ill, but a common feature is that the person has to face the question of what to do with the experience, how to handle it. I almost described the person as the “victim” but then I realized that one aspect of the question is whether you agree to be a victim. The servant in the vision could decline to be a victim and instead could turn his experience into a kind of offering to God, which makes him an active agent instead of a mere victim. That’s the way he pays the price of his discipleship.
Specifically, he has the opportunity to turn his experience into a reparation offering. This kind of sacrifice was one you made when you needed to make amends for something you had done. The vision makes clear that the servant himself has no need to make amends for anything. He has lived a life of dedication to his Master. Yet he lives among a people who have desperate need to make amends to God. The people are there in exile because of the way they have turned to other gods, trusted in politics rather than God, and let people with power and resources take advantage of people without power and resources. For the most part the generation that lives in exile has continued the same pattern. They have desperate need to make amends to God, though as far as we can tell they don’t yet see that point.
Suppose someone who didn’t have that need were to offer his obedient life to God on behalf of the exiles to see whether God would accept his offering of his life, with its extraordinary commitment and dedication to God and to other people, as a compensation for their lives that lacked such commitment. In one sense it’s an implausible idea: How could one person’s offering make up for many people’s failure? Yet literal Old Testament sacrifices didn’t work on that logical basis—there was no correlation between the sacrifice’s size and its effectiveness. So maybe it could work and be the means whereby the servant would fulfill the commission to bring Israel back to God, of which he spoke in chapter 49. This would fit with this vision’s associating God with the servant’s experience: God lets everyone’s waywardness fall on him; God desires his crushing.
It’s Israel that is the “we” who speak in the main part of the vision. They took his being ignored and despised as a sign of his being punished by God. You could say they took him to be a false prophet. Eventually they realized they had the picture upside down. It was because of their wrongdoing that he was suffering, not his. He was sharing their experience of exile when he didn’t deserve it, as they did. And he was ill-treated and persecuted by them. He was being punished, but not by God. It was a chastisement he accepted as the price of seeking to bring them well-being and healing. What enabled them to come to see how they were wrong and to see the picture right was the way he coped with his suffering. He simply accepted it and didn’t complain. That’s not what people usually do. It’s not even what the Psalms expect you to do. It raised the question, “Who is this man?” and eventually they saw the answer (in the vision, that is; in the real world there’s no such movement yet).
The commission in Isaiah 49 spoke of being a light for the nations, and this note reappears in the vision. The vision starts from the promise that the servant who has been afflicted will be exalted. As the one God anoints, he will then be in a position to spatter nations so as to cleanse them.
This vision of what God might achieve through his servant helped the New Testament to understand what Jesus was about and to understand the church’s vocation. It has helped the Jewish people to understand their own suffering.

ISAIAH 54:1–17a

A Time to Cry and a Time to Whoop

  1       Resound, infertile one, you who have not given birth;
  break out into sound and whoop, you who have not labored!
  Because the children of the desolate are many,
  more than the married woman’s children
  (Yahweh has said).
  2       Enlarge your tent space;
  people must stretch your dwelling curtains, don’t hold back.
  Lengthen your ropes, strengthen your pegs,
       3       because you will spread out right and left.
  Your offspring will dispossess the nations,
  they will inhabit the desolate cities.
  4       Don’t be afraid, because you will not be shamed;
  don’t be humiliated, because you will not be disgraced.
  Because you will put out of mind the shame of your youth,
  you will no more be mindful of the disgrace of your widowhood.
  5       Because your maker will be the one who marries you;
  Yahweh Armies is his name.
  Israel’s holy one is your restorer;
  he calls himself “God of all the earth.”
  6       Because it’s as a wife abandoned,
  and distressed in spirit, that Yahweh is calling you,
  the wife of his youth when she has been spurned,
  your God has said.
  7       For a short moment I abandoned you,
  but with great compassion I will gather you.
  8       In a burst of anger
  I hid my face from you for a moment,
  but with lasting commitment I am having compassion for you
  (your restorer, Yahweh, has said),
       9       because this is Noah’s waters to me.
  In that I swore that Noah’s waters
  would not pass over the earth again,
  so I am swearing
  not to be angry with you or to blast you.
  10       Because mountains may move away, hills shake,
  but my commitment will not move away from you,
  My covenant of well-being will not shake,
  the one who has compassion for you, Yahweh, has said.

  11       Lowly, tossing, not comforted—
  here I am, resting your stones in antimony.
  I will found you with sapphires,
       12       make chalcedony your pinnacles,
  your gates into sparkling stones,
  your entire border into delightful stones.
  13       All your children will be Yahweh’s disciples;
  great will be your children’s well-being.
  14       In faithfulness you will establish yourself;
  you can be far from oppression
  because you will not be afraid,
  and from ruin, because it will not come near you.
  15       So: someone need be in dread
  of nothing from me.
  Who contends with you?—
  he will fall to you.
  16       So: I am the one who created the smith
  who blows into the fire of coals,
  and who brings out a tool for his work,
  and I am the one who created the destroyer to ravage.
  17a       Any tool formed against you will not succeed;
  you will show to be faithless every tongue
  that arises with you for a judgment.

We had dinner with a young couple a few months ago and were delighted to discover that they were expecting their first baby. It was not their first pregnancy; the wife had had a miscarriage last year. I remember how distressing it was when my first wife had a miscarriage, but that would have been our second baby, and I imagine it’s much more anxiety-making when it’s your first. Will I miscarry again? And again? No doubt the doctors assure you that there’s no reason why it should be so, but you have that thought sitting in the back of your head. Yesterday we received the joyful news. Evangeline has arrived! Evangeline the bearer of good news! The origin of the name is a word equivalent to the prophet’s term in chapter 40 for the one who brings news to Zion that its God is on his way back. As Ecclesiastes might have put it, the happy couple have been through a time to cry and they now have a time to whoop.
So it is for Ms. Jerusalem. For fifty years she has seemed like a woman who couldn’t have children, whose husband has left her or died, and who faces old age alone. When the prophet speaks of the disgrace of widowhood, the implication isn’t that losing your husband is shameful in itself, but in a patriarchal society losing your husband puts you in a vulnerable position, especially if you’re also childless. You may have to choose between being a beggar and a prostitute. It might be hard to imagine how you could have a viable life again (the story of Naomi and Ruth would be wonderful in the eyes of a person in this position).
Suddenly Ms. Jerusalem’s position is transformed. She has a huge family to look after her, so huge she needs a larger house. The representatives of other nations who have occupied her land are gone. Her husband is back. Yes, God admits having abandoned her; the prophet doesn’t here draw attention to the fact that she can hardly complain at his action. Like a woman who can forget the pains of giving birth when she has her baby in her arms, Ms. Jerusalem will be able to forget that her husband had gone for fifty years; you could say it was indeed only a moment in the context of her lifespan as a whole. The compassion and commitment and well-being that she will experience again will make it possible to put the separation out of mind. The city is to be rebuilt in wondrous splendor. Its people will be transformed into Yahweh’s disciples and it will establish itself in faithfulness; gone will be the rebelliousness against its teacher and the faithlessness of its community life, which were what had made Ms. Jerusalem’s husband depart. In association with that fact, its well-being will include peace and security; the domination by a superpower that it has known over decades won’t recur. Yahweh is, after all, the one who created the destroyer, and thus he is sovereign over the destroyer.
Over coming decades Yahweh will indeed return to Jerusalem, taking some of its exiles with him. Its people will rebuild the temple and the walls. They will commit themselves to living by the Torah in a way they didn’t before. Yet the picture is all marvelously larger than life. That commitment will have its blind spots, the city will remain a backwater, it will be underpopulated, it will turn out to have replaced one superpower-domination by another, and the couple’s marital problems are not over. But we should give them the chance to rejoice in the potential of this new beginning, even though we know with hindsight that they will have to go this way again and that even today Ms. Jerusalem grieves. The chapter is another typical expression of the promises of Old and New Testament that picture a reality way beyond what the people of God typically experience, inviting us to rejoice in what we do experience and to hope and pray for what we don’t experience.

ISAIAH 54:17b–55:13

Our Ideas and Plans, and God’s

  54:17b       This is the possession of Yahweh’s servants,
  their faithfulness from me (Yahweh’s declaration).
  55:1       Hey, anyone who is thirsty,
  come for water!
  Whoever has no silver, come,
  buy and eat!
  Come, buy without silver,
  wine and milk without cost!
  2       Why weigh out silver for what is not bread,
  and your labor for what is not filling?
  Listen hard to me and eat what is good;
  you can delight your appetite with rich food.
  3       Bend your ear, come to me;
  listen, so that you may come to life.
  I will seal for you a covenant in perpetuity,
  the trustworthy commitments to David.
  4       There, I made him a witness for peoples,
  a leader and commander for peoples.
  5       There, you will call a nation that you don’t acknowledge,
  and a nation that doesn’t acknowledge you will run to you,
  for the sake of Yahweh your God,
  and for Israel’s holy one, because he is glorifying you.

  6       Inquire of Yahweh while he is making himself available,
  call him while he is near.
  7       The faithless person must abandon his way,
  the wicked person his plans.
  He must turn to Yahweh so he may have compassion on him,
  to our God because he does much pardoning.
  8       Because my plans are not your plans,
  your ways are not my ways (Yahweh’s declaration).
  9       Because the heavens are higher than the earth;
  so are my ways higher than your ways,
  my plans than your plans.
  10       Because as the rain or snow
  falls from the heavens,
  and doesn’t return there
  but rather soaks the earth,
  and makes it bear and produce,
  and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
  11       so will my word be that
  goes out from my mouth.
  It will not return to me futile,
  but rather do that which I wished,
  achieve that for which I sent it.
  12       Because you will go out with joy,
  and be brought in with well-being.
  The mountains and hills
  will break out before you in resounding.
  All the trees in the countryside
  will clap their hands.
  13       Instead of the thorn a cypress will come up,
  instead of the briar a myrtle will come up.
  It will be a memorial for Yahweh,
  a sign in perpetuity that will not be cut down.

This morning we had the last regular seminary chapel of the year, the last regular seminary chapel ever for people who were graduating. The preacher was an eighty-year-old retired professor who told us stories about his experience at that stage of his life—how he graduated from Bible College with no clue what he was going to do and drifted from one ministerial involvement to another as a result of chance meetings. It was eventually as a result of one such chance meeting he came to be a professor of preaching. I imagine many of the students who were listening were frustrated because they like to have a plan for their lives—to discern their goal and work out what steps to take to get there. The trouble is that God seems to work the first way at least as often as the second way.
God’s ideas and God’s plans are often different from ours. The Judahites will have had some idea about God’s plan for them. Jeremiah, for instance, had told them that after some decades of exile God would be restoring them. But the chapters in Isaiah that we have been reading suggest they couldn’t imagine that God was going to fulfill his purpose by means of a wild Persian conqueror. They need to submit themselves to God’s ideas about how to fulfill his purpose. God is making himself available to them, is near to them, is about to act among them in restoring them and fulfilling his promises to them. They need to be looking to him, calling him—elsewhere we translate this word “summon him.” They’re being invited to urge Yahweh to come and act in the way he has announced. Instead, they’re discussing whether he really should be doing the thing he intends to do. They have to give up their formulation of how they should be restored, give up their plans, and believe that the word of promise and commission that God has issued will indeed produce its fruit in their restoration as a people. They don’t have to hesitate about doing so; God will be quite happy to pardon them.
The first paragraph’s talk about free food and drink and food that isn’t worth buying makes the same point in a different way. We know from the Psalms that their prayers will have often spoken about thirst and hunger, as they look to God for healing and deliverance and the restoration of their fortunes. Okay, then, says God, come and find it; and I will tell you its real nature. Its nature is expounded in the lines that compare and contrast them and David. Way back, God had entered into a special covenant relationship with David. It didn’t mean God was more real to David than to the average Israelite; the Psalms show us how real God was to ordinary Israelites. But God did work through David in ways that didn’t apply to every Israelite. It meant David had special experiences of God’s trustworthiness and God’s commitments. As a result of these, David was a leader and commander for the peoples over whom God gave him victory. He was thereby a witness to these peoples to the reality of the God who worked through him. Now God intends to democratize the special Davidic covenant and commitment. They will apply to the whole people. They will be God’s witnesses—it’s an expression these chapters have used before. They will summon other nations to acknowledge Yahweh as a result of what Yahweh does in restoring them.
The section’s opening declares that this is how they will come into possession of their land again; this is how God will show his faithfulness to “his servants.” Whereas previous chapters have mostly spoken of Israel and of the prophet as God’s servant, from now on the book will speak only of the people in the plural as God’s servants, reverting to the Bible’s more common usage. The singular reminds the people that they’re altogether; the plural reminds them that this position and vocation applies to all of them.

ISAIAH 56:1–8

An Ambiguous “Because”

  1       Yahweh has said this:
  Guard the exercise of authority,
  act [in] faithfulness,
  because my deliverance is near to coming,
  my faithfulness to appearing.
  2       The blessings of the person who does this,
  the individual who holds onto it,
  guarding the Sabbath rather than profaning it,
  and guarding his hand rather than doing any evil.
  3       So the foreigner who attaches himself to Yahweh
  is not to say,
  “Yahweh will quite separate me
  from among his people.”
  The eunuch is not to say,
  “Here am I, a dry tree.”
  4       Because Yahweh has said this,
  “To the eunuchs who guard my Sabbaths,
  and choose what I want, and hold onto my covenant—
  5       I will give to them,
  within my house and within my walls,
  a memorial and name
  better than sons and daughters.
  I will give to him a name in perpetuity,
  one that will not be cut off.
  6       And the foreign people
  who attach themselves to Yahweh, to minister to him
  and to give themselves to Yahweh’s name,
  to be his servants,
  anyone who guards the Sabbath rather than profaning it,
  and holds onto my covenant,
  7       I will bring them to my holy mountain,
  and let them celebrate in my prayer house.
  Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
  will be for favor on my altar.
  Because my house will be called
  a prayer house for all the peoples.”
  8       A declaration of my Lord Yahweh,
  the one gathering the scattered people of Israel:
  “I will gather yet more toward it, to its gathered ones.”

At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, is a room dedicated to the million and a half children who were murdered in the Holocaust. It’s a hollowed out cavern with some candles whose light is reflected on the ceiling by hundreds of mirrors so that they shine like countless stars, and the names of the children killed are read out continuously. There’s nowhere more moving in Jerusalem. In Hebrew Yad Vashem means “A Memorial and a Name,” more literally, “A Hand and a Name.” Yad Vashem exists in order to ensure that the millions who perished in the Holocaust will always be remembered.
The expression comes from this passage in Isaiah, which promises eunuchs that they will be remembered. People who have sons and daughters have people to remember them, to think about them, to keep them in mind, to thank God for them. Eunuchs cannot have children and therefore have no one to do so. The eunuchs in mind are presumably people who have been castrated in accordance with Middle Eastern and Greek practice to make members of the king’s staff incapable of sexual involvement with women at court. Isaiah 39 envisaged this fate for young men in exile. Being incapable of having children also meant being incapable of contributing to Israel’s future and therefore being viewed as useless by themselves and by other people; but not by God.
Foreigners could likewise be viewed as having no place in Israel, by themselves and by other people; but not by God. Here the question is whether they have attached themselves to Yahweh, like the foreigners whose stories are told in the Old Testament—people like Jethro, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah. The question for eunuchs and for foreigners is whether they’re prepared to commit themselves to Yahweh’s covenant. Here, the cutting edge of the covenant’s expectations is whether they keep the Sabbath. It’s not a question of whether they need a day of rest. It’s whether they’re prepared to recognize that Yahweh has claimed this day, so they should guard it rather than profane it. In their context, the idea of observing a Sabbath is under pressure, as it is in the West where workaholism and consumerism rule.
The concern with eunuchs, foreigners, and the Sabbath suggest a different atmosphere from Isaiah 40–55, and indications will accumulate through the closing eleven chapters of Isaiah that the prophecy is addressing a different situation. Whereas Isaiah 1–39 addressed the situation of Judah two centuries previously, and Isaiah 40–55 addressed the concerns of people in Babylon and/or in Jerusalem when Babylon was about to fall, Isaiah 56–66 addresses more concrete, ongoing concerns of life in Jerusalem in subsequent decades—the period whose story is told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. We know from those books that Sabbath observance and the position of foreigners were live issues in their time. Ezra and Nehemiah witness to the importance of not being too open to foreigners, as if it’s fine to “marry out” whether or not your partners have “attached themselves” to Yahweh. Isaiah 56 witnesses to the importance of not being too closed to foreigners if they have so attached themselves. They’re destined to join in ministry to Yahweh, to be able to pray and offer their sacrifices in the temple. Israel was never destined simply to be an ethnic community, and it’s still not so destined.
The chapter’s opening thus marks the transition from the work of the “Second Isaiah” to that of a “Third Isaiah.” It does so by means of a neat summary of key aspects of the significance of the book’s earlier parts. “Guard decision-making, act [in] faithfulness” summarizes much of Isaiah 1–39 (the First Isaiah). “My deliverance is near to coming, my faithfulness to appearing” summarizes much of the message of Isaiah 40–55 (the Second Isaiah). The last chapters will reaffirm both emphases. In Isaiah 40–55 God had promised to return to Jerusalem and take its people back, and Jerusalem has experienced something of Yahweh’s deliverance, but Yahweh has not yet fulfilled the promises of Second Isaiah in a full way, and these closing chapters reaffirm them. By now, there’s some evidence of people’s renewed commitment to Yahweh, but the community as a whole has not taken to heart the message of First Isaiah, and the closing chapters reaffirm his challenge.
Their opening line also makes a link between these two themes, though it does so in a neatly allusive way. People must pay attention to the exercise of decision-making in a way that reflects the faithfulness of the community to one another because they’re excited at the fact that Yahweh is going to fulfill his promises. People must pay attention to the exercise of decision-making in a way that reflects the faithfulness of the community to one another because otherwise they can hardly hope that Yahweh will fulfill his promises. Both implications are true.

ISAIAH 56:9–57:21

High and Holy, but Present with the Crushed and Low in Spirit

  56:9       All you animals of the wild, come and eat—
  all you animals in the forest!
  10       Its lookouts are blind,
  all of them; they don’t know.
  All of them are dumb dogs, they cannot bark;
  they’re lying snoozing, loving to doze.
  11       But the dogs are strong of appetite;
  they don’t know being full.
  And these people—they are shepherds
  that don’t know how to discern.
  All of them have turned to their own way,
  each to his loot, every last bit of it.
  12       “Come on, I’ll get wine,
  we’ll swill liquor.
  Tomorrow will be like this,
  exceedingly, very great!”
  57:1       The faithful person has perished,
  and there was no one giving it a thought.
  Committed people are gathered up,
  without anyone discerning
  that it is from the presence of evil
  that the faithful person has been gathered up.
  2       He goes in peace (while they rest on their beds),
  the one who walks straight.

  3       But you people, draw near here,
  children of a diviner.
  Offspring of an adulterer and a woman who acts immorally,
       4       in whom do you revel?
  At whom do you open your mouth wide,
  put out your tongue?
  Are you not rebellious children,
  the offspring of falsehood,
  5       you who inflame yourselves among the oaks,
  under any flourishing tree,
  who slaughter children in the washes,
  under the clefts in the crags?
  6       Among the deceptions in the wash is your share;
  they are your allocation.
  Yes, to them you have poured a libation,
  you have lifted up an offering:
  in view of these things, should I relent?
  7       On a high and lofty mountain
  you have put your bed.
  Yes, you have gone up there
  to offer a sacrifice.
  8       Behind the door and the doorpost
  you have set your memorial.
  Because from me you have gone away, you have gone up,
  you have opened wide your bed.
  You have sealed things for yourself from them,
  you have given yourself to their bed,
  you have beheld their love.
  9       You have appeared to the King in your oils,
  you have multiplied your perfumes.
  You have sent off your envoys afar,
  you have made them go down to Sheol.
  10       When you grew weary with the length of your way,
  you didn’t say, “It’s futile.”
  You found life for your strength;
  therefore you haven’t weakened.
  11       For whom have you felt reverence and awe,
  that you lie?
  You have not been mindful of me;
  you have not given thought to me.
  Have I not been still, yes from of old,
  but you are not in awe of me?
  12       I myself will announce your faithfulness,
  and your acts—they will not avail you.
  13       When you cry out, your abominable gatherings can save you;
  but a wind will carry them all off,
  a breath will take them.
  But the person who relies on me will receive the country as his own,
  will possess my holy mountain.

  14       Someone has said, “Build up, build up, clear a way,
  lift high the obstacles from my people’s way!”
  15       Because the one who is high and lofty
  has said this,
  the one who dwells forever,
  whose name is “Holy one”:
  “I dwell on high and holy,
  but with the crushed and low in spirit,
  bringing life to the spirit of the people who are low,
  bringing life to the heart of the crushed.
  16       Because I will not contend forever,
  I will not be perpetually irate.
  Because before me the spirit would faint,
  the breathing beings I made.
  17       At the waywardness of [Israel’s] looting I was irate;
  I hit it, hiding—I was irate.
  It lived turning to the way of its own mind;
       18       I have seen its ways, but I will heal it.
  I will lead it and return all comfort to it;
  for its mourners 19 creating as the fruit of lips well-being,
  well-being for one far away and one near
  (Yahweh has said), and I will heal it.
  20       But the faithless—they are like the sea tossing,
  because it cannot be still.
  Its waters toss muck and mud;
       21       there is no well-being (my God has said) for faithless people.”

In a recent sermon in our seminary I told students that Jesus isn’t their buddy. I’m told the air went out of the room when I said it. A friend subsequently gave me a “Buddy Christ” statuette, which I could put on my dashboard or on my computer console or anywhere else where I may be tempted by sin or plagued with self-doubt. Buddy Christ has his origin in the movie Dogma, where he represents a church’s attempt to be more user-friendly. He winks, smiles, and gives a thumbs-up. More recently I discovered the Church of Buddy Christ, a group who follow Our Lord, Savior, and Buddy Jesus Christ in the conviction that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and our bestest mate in the entire universe. To join, all you have to acknowledge is that Jesus is your friend. If it seems a blasphemy, one needs to recall how easily Jesus is portrayed as our life coach, financial guru, fitness trainer, career counselor, sex therapist, or wellness instructor.
The sermon’s text came from the last paragraph of this section of Isaiah, which describes God as high and lofty and holy. Its important statement about God also applies to Jesus. But the statement’s importance lies also in what it goes on to say, that the one who dwells on high and holy also dwells with the crushed and low in spirit, bringing life to the spirit of the people who are low, to the heart of the crushed. Either part of the statement on its own is disastrously misleading (as First Isaiah or Second Isaiah on its own would be misleading—hence Third Isaiah brings them together). People who have returned to Jerusalem after the exile or had never left Judah found life tougher than they hoped. It was as if they were continuing to be objects of the divine wrath that had destroyed the city and deported many of its people. So Yahweh speaks in a way designed to make clear that this is not so, commissioning aides to clear the obstacles that separate the people from their destiny and assuring them that anger belongs to the past, not the present. God’s lips are going to speak of well-being for this mourning people, people here in Jerusalem and still far way in Babylon.
They do need to be people who turn to Yahweh. In the absence of such turning, there will be no well-being for them; the warning repeats from chapter 48. It sums up the implications of the first two paragraphs in the section. The opening paragraph concerns the community’s leadership, its lookouts or shepherds, who are more like dogs than shepherds—sleeping dogs, too. They’re too busy indulging themselves to keep an eye open on their people’s behalf. Thus the faithful and committed people, the people who walk straight, can lose their lives—perhaps to ruthless people who deprive them of their land and their livelihood—without anyone noticing or caring. The leaders who should be looking out for them are fast asleep, resting in their beds. Ironically, the prophecy adds, perhaps losing one’s life, being gathered to one’s ancestors, is a kind of deliverance from the events one would otherwise see and experience, the judgment that must come.
While the opening paragraph thus critiques the leaders, the middle paragraph critiques people in general. Both aspects of critique indicate that the situation in the community has changed little from the time of Isaiah ben Amoz or Jeremiah. People are continuing in the traditional religious practices of the country, which the Old Testament associates with the Canaanites but also makes clear were commonly characteristic of Israel’s religious life. The immorality they describe is the people’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh; they’re involved in religious adultery. On the top of Mount Zion in the temple they were offering the proper sacrifices to Yahweh, but on other occasions they were down in the ravines below the city or taking part in observances at other elevated sanctuaries, making offerings designed to facilitate contact with dead family members to get guidance or help from them. In making these offerings, people might not see themselves as being unfaithful to Yahweh. They were not exactly making the offerings to the family members or to other gods. If they were making offerings to the king of death, they might see him as Yahweh’s underling, not a rival. But even if they rationalized their practices in that way, they were engaged in religious observances that clashed with real relationships with Yahweh and real commitment to Yahweh, all the more so when the offering involved sacrificing children.
They think they can combine commitment to Yahweh with adherence to these traditional practices. Actually they have to make a choice. They will find that the entities they’re turning to cannot save them. They have to turn to Yahweh to the exclusion of these practices. It would be tempting to doubt whether they can ever be in secure possession of the land again, and thus truly be a people. The promise declares that it is possible.

ISAIAH 58:1–14

(Un)spiritual Practices

  1       Call with full throat, don’t hold back,
  lift your voice like the horn.
  Tell my people about their rebellion,
  Jacob’s household about their offenses.
  2       They inquire of me day by day
  and want to acknowledge my ways,
  like a nation that has acted [in] faithfulness,
  and not abandoned its God’s decision-making.
  They ask me for faithful decisions,
  they want to draw near to God.
  3       “Why have we fasted and you have not seen,
  we have humbled ourselves and you have not acknowledged?”
  There—on your fast day you find what you want,
  but you oppress the people who toil for you.
  4       There—you fast for contention and strife,
  and for hitting with faithless fist.
  You don’t fast this very day
  in such a way as to make your voice heard on high.
  5       Will the fast that I choose be of this very kind,
  a day for a person to humble himself?
  Will it be for bowing one’s head like a bulrush,
  and spreading sackcloth and ash?
  Is it this that you call a fast,
  a day favored by Yahweh?
  6       Won’t this be the fast I choose:
  loosing faithless chains,
  untying the cords of the yoke,
  letting the oppressed go free,
  and tearing apart every yoke?
  7       Won’t it be dividing your food with the hungry person
  and bringing home the lowly, downtrodden?
  When you see the naked, you will cover him,
  and not hide from your fellow flesh and blood?
  8       Then your light will break out like dawn,
  and your restoration will flourish speedily.
  Your faithfulness will go before you;
  Yahweh’s splendor will gather you.
  9       Then you will call and Yahweh will answer;
  you will cry for help and he will say, “Here I am.”
  If you do away with the yoke from your midst,
  the pointing of the finger and wicked speech,
  10       and offer yourself to the hungry person,
  and fill the need of the humble person,
  your light will shine in the darkness,
  your gloom will be like midday.
  11       Yahweh will guide you continually,
  and fill your appetite in scorched places.
  He will renew your frame
  and you will be like a watered garden,
  like a spring of water
  whose waters do not deceive.
  12       People of yours will build up the ruins of old;
  you will raise the foundations from past generations.
  You will be called “Breach-repairer,
  restorer of paths for living on.”
  13       If you take back your foot from the Sabbath,
  doing the things you want on my holy day,
  and call the Sabbath “Reveling,”
  and Yahweh’s holy thing “Honorable,”
  and honor it rather than acting [in] your ways,
  or finding what you want, and speaking your word,
  14       then you will revel in Yahweh
  and I will let you ride over the heights of the earth.
  I will let you eat the possession of Jacob your father;
  because Yahweh’s mouth has spoken.

I was talking with a friend about the way Christians in our culture have got interested in “spiritual practices” such as meditation, silence, and fasting. This development is taking place in a context where Christians don’t have as much sense of God as they used to have, and they’re trying to encourage one another’s “spiritual formation.” As it happens, tomorrow will be Pentecost, and a generation ago churches had experiences of God acting not unlike Pentecost and its aftermath—people spoke in tongues, prophesied, saw people healed, and saw demons cast out. There’s not so much of that experience around nowadays, and one point about spiritual practices is to fill that vacuum. It’s to reach God when God isn’t reaching out to us. My concern was that people are trying to manipulate God or are really just seeking personal development. My friend’s suspicion was that God was more interested in the kind of spiritual practice represented by Martin Luther King Jr., taking action to ensure that people are treated more fairly in our country.
People in Jerusalem were particularly interested in the spiritual practice of fasting and were puzzled as to why it didn’t work. It’s obvious why to the prophet, and it fits my friend’s suspicion. There was a mismatch between people’s spiritual practice and the rest of their lives. Actually no one in the Bible would call fasting a spiritual practice. In the Bible, spiritual practices or following the guidance of the Spirit involves the kind of action the prophet talks about. I read yesterday that in the United States we have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population. It may be a myth that there are more African American men in prison than there are in college, but the myth isn’t much of an exaggeration of the facts. Losing chains that put so many people in prison might be a good spiritual practice. So might dividing our food with the hungry person instead of throwing it away and bringing home the lowly downtrodden instead of giving them our change and otherwise hiding from our fellow flesh and blood.
The word “want” recurs in the prophecy. People want to acknowledge God’s ways and want to draw near to God, but on their fast day and on the Sabbath they’re doing what they want. Doing what they want includes treating their workers just as toughly as they do on other days. Spiritual practices raise questions about what we really want and whether all our wants are compatible and whether we are capable of doing something regularly that we don’t “want” or “feel like” doing. Someone once said that you can’t be mean to people just because you are having a bad hair day. But people justify their behavior based on how they feel or how they think it might make them feel.
So the chapter offers another take on the reason why the community isn’t experiencing Yahweh’s restoration of the city. The previous section implied one reason; people were worshiping Yahweh and seeking guidance in ways incompatible with who Yahweh is, so that in effect they were having recourse to some god other than Yahweh. This chapter makes the same point on a different basis. If you’re seeking Yahweh in a way that involves serious self-discipline but you’re behaving in the way the prophecy describes, you’re again showing that you don’t understand who Yahweh is. It’s as if you are fasting before some God other than Yahweh; Yahweh cares so much about decisions being taken in faithful fashion in the community.
People’s reluctance to keep the Sabbath has something in common with their instinct to ill-treat their employees. The one thing that matters is to be doing okay economically. It doesn’t make sense to work only six days or let one’s staff work only six days. Once again the concern of the comment about the Sabbath focuses on who Yahweh is as well as on the needs of people. Yahweh has claimed the Sabbath. Observing it is a sign that one takes seriously Yahweh’s claim on time. It looks like an act that will incur economic loss. The prophecy challenges people to believe that Yahweh will honor such restraint. It will even pay off economically.

ISAIAH 59:1–21

Three Ways a Prophet Speaks

  1       There—Yahweh’s hand has not become too short to deliver,
  his ear has not become too heavy to listen.
  2       Rather, your wayward acts have become separators
  between you and your God.
  Your offenses have hidden his face
  so as not to listen to you.
  3       Because your hands—they have become polluted with blood,
  your fingers—with waywardness.
  Your lips—they have spoken deceit,
  your tongue—it talks of wrongful action.
  4       There’s no one summoning in faithfulness,
  there’s no one calling for the exercise of authority with trustworthiness.
  Relying on nothingness and speaking emptiness,
  conceiving trouble and giving birth to wickedness!
  5       They’ve broken open a serpent’s eggs,
  they spin a spider’s webs.
  Someone who eats of their eggs—he will die,
  and one that is smashed—an adder breaks out.
  6       Their webs won’t become a garment,
  they won’t cover themselves in the things they make.
  The things they make are things made of wickedness;
  the doing of violence is in their hands.
  7       Their feet run for evil,
  they hurry to shed innocent blood.
  Their plans are wicked plans,
  destruction and smashing is on their highways.
  8       The way of well-being they have not acknowledged,
  and there’s no exercise of authority on their tracks.
  They’ve made their paths crooked for themselves;
  no one who walks in it acknowledges well-being.

  9       Therefore the exercise of authority is far from us,
  faithfulness doesn’t reach us.
  We look for light but there, darkness;
  for brightness, whereas we walk in gloom.
  10       We grope like blind people along a wall,
  like people without eyes we grope.
  We have fallen over at midday as if it was dusk,
  among sturdy people as if we were dead.
  11       We rumble like bears, all of us,
  and murmur on like doves.
  We look for the exercise of authority but there is none,
  for deliverance that is far from us.
  12       Because our rebellions are many in your sight,
  and our offenses have testified against us.
  Because our rebellions are with us,
  and our wayward acts—we acknowledge them.
  13       Rebelling, being treacherous against Yahweh,
  and turning back from following our God,
  speaking deceit, conceiving lies,
  and talking words of falsehood inside.
  14       So the exercise of authority has turned away,
  faithfulness stands far off.
  Because truthfulness has fallen over in the square,
  and uprightness cannot come in.
  15       Truthfulness has gone missing;
  the one who turns from evil is despoiled.

  Yahweh saw and it was evil in his eyes
  that there was no exercise of authority.
  16       He saw that there was no one,
  he was devastated that there was no one intervening.
  But his arm brought deliverance for him;
  his faithfulness—it sustained him.
  17       He put on faithfulness like a coat of mail,
  and a deliverance helmet on his head.
  He put on redress clothes as clothing,
  he wrapped on passion as a coat.
  18       In accordance with deserts,
  as the one on high he will pay back fury to his foes,
  deserts to his enemies,
  deserts to foreign shores, he will pay back.
  19       They will be in awe of Yahweh’s name from the west,
  and of his splendor from the sunrise.
  When an adversary comes like the river,
  Yahweh’s wind raises a banner against him.
  20       He will come to Zion as restorer,
  to the people who turn from rebellion in Jacob
  (Yahweh’s declaration).

21 “And me—this is my covenant with them (Yahweh has said). My breath that is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not be missing from your mouth and from the mouth of your offspring and from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring (Yahweh has said) from now and in perpetuity.”

It’s Pentecost Sunday. I came home from church with some mixed feelings. There were fewer people in church than usual (it happens also to be a holiday weekend), but the day had a sense of celebration, including red balloons flying from the pews. People sang with enthusiasm of their commitment to pray when the Spirit said pray, and they called for the Holy Spirit to fall on them afresh. As part of our preparation for a confirmation service in three weeks, I preached on the basics of Christian faith as the Creed expresses them, led a related discussion with some adults, and had a session with the teenagers who are also preparing for confirmation. It was the preaching and the discussions that left me less enthusiastic. Did I achieve anything? Did anyone get it?
Later in the day as one of the red balloons flies above our patio I’m encouraged by the promise with which this section closes, encouraged to continue to live in hope. The prophet speaks of promises God made to him. He knows that he himself isn’t what counts; it’s the people of God who count. The way God relates to the prophet is part of the covenant God makes with the people. His spirit rests on the prophet, and he puts his words in the prophet’s mouth, and it will continue to be so for the people’s sake—not only in the person of this prophet but in the person of other prophets who will be his spiritual children and grandchildren. I’m not a prophet, but my position as a preacher overlaps a bit with the prophet’s, and I may ask God to put his Spirit on me so as to give me the words for the adults and the young people—not for my sake but for theirs, because he has made a commitment to them.
The section as a whole illustrates three ways in which the prophet had to fulfill his ministry, by means of challenge, prayer, and promise. The first paragraph concludes the challenge that dominated the previous section. Yahweh’s words again likely pick up the people’s prayers—they had been asking Yahweh whether there was something wrong with his hands or ears that made him fail to act on their behalf or listen to them. No, there’s nothing wrong with his body parts. The problem lay with them. The serpent and spider imagery suggests that their actions are poisonous but also useless. To judge from what follows, it’s themselves as much as other people that they’re poisoning. They think they’re behaving in a way that will serve themselves, but they have no clue where their well-being, their self-interest, lies.
In the second section the prophet turns around. Instead of speaking to the people on God’s behalf, he speaks to God on their behalf. By letting them overhear the way he’s praying, in effect he’s inviting them to join in, to say “Amen” to his prayer, but unless something dramatic has happened, the people he’s been confronting are unlikely to be doing so. In leading worship, I have recently started kneeling in the midst of the congregation when we confess our sins instead of kneeling at the front; I thus make clear I’m one with them in acknowledging my need for God’s forgiveness. This prophet goes one step further. He has no need to identify with his people in their sinfulness. While he is a sinner like everyone else, he’s not the kind of rebel they are. But he identifies with them, like the servant in Isaiah 53. He asks God not to forgive “them” but to forgive “us.” Once more he speaks of the absence of the faithful exercise of authority, only now he refers to the fact that God isn’t acting in this way toward his people, not to their not acting in this way toward one another. There is a link between the two, but implicitly the prophet reminds Yahweh of the commitment to the community that he cannot get out of. He is bound to act faithfully even if his people fail to do so.
In the third section the prophet speaks of Yahweh’s response. It implies that the ploy has worked. Here Yahweh, too, speaks of the faithful exercise of authority, not within the community but toward it. A few chapters previously, Cyrus the Persian was the unwitting agent of faithful exercise of authority toward the community. A few chapters earlier, a Davidic king was to be the agent. Here, there’s no one so acting. The prophet has a vision of Yahweh therefore acting in person. It’s as if Yahweh puts on a warrior’s armor and fights the battle himself. The results of his determining to do so lie in the future; “he will come to Zion as restorer.” But the prophet has had a dream. In a vision he has seen something happening. Yahweh is set on taking action. It’s up to people in Judah to turn from rebellion in order to find themselves on the right side when he comes.

ISAIAH 60:1–22

An Invitation to Imagination and Hope

  1       Get up, be alight, because your light is coming,
  Yahweh’s splendor has shone on you!
  2       Because there—darkness covers the earth,
  gloom the peoples.
  But on you Yahweh will shine;
  his splendor will appear over you.
  3       The nations will come to your light,
  the kings to your shining brightness.
  4       Raise your eyes around and look,
  all of them are gathering, they’re coming to you.
  Your sons will come from afar,
  your daughters will support themselves on the hip.
  5       Then you will see and glow,
  your mind will be in awe and will swell.
  Because the sea’s multitude will turn to you,
  the wealth of the nations will come to you.
  6       A mass of camels will cover you,
  dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
  all of them will come from Sheba.
  They will carry gold and frankincense,
  and bring news of Yahweh’s great praise.
  7       All the sheep of Qedar will gather to you,
  rams of Nebayot will minister to you.
  They will go up with favor on my altar,
  and I will add majesty to my majestic house.
  8       Who are these that fly like a cloud,
  and like doves to their hatches?
  9       Because foreign shores will look for me,
  Tarshish ships at the first,
  to bring your sons from afar,
  their silver and their gold with them,
  for the name of Yahweh your God,
  for Israel’s holy one, because he has made you majestic.
  10       Foreigners will build your walls,
  kings will minister to you.
  Because in wrath I struck you,
  but with favor I’m having compassion on you.
  11       Your gates will open continuously,
  day and night they will not shut,
  to bring you the nations’ wealth,
  with their kings being led along.
  12       Because the nation or kingdom that doesn’t serve you—
  they will perish, and the nations will become a total waste.
  13       Lebanon’s splendor will come to you,
  juniper, fir, and cypress together,
  to add majesty to my holy place,
  so I may honor the place for my feet.
  14       They will walk to you bending down,
  the children of the people who humbled you.
  They will bow low at the soles of your feet,
  all the people who despised you.
  They will call you “Yahweh’s city,
  the Zion of Israel’s holy one.”
  15       Instead of being abandoned,
  repudiated with no one passing through,
  I will make you an object of pride in perpetuity,
  a joy generation after generation.
  16       You will suck the nations’ milk,
  suck the kings’ breast.
  And you will acknowledge that I am Yahweh;
  Jacob’s champion is your deliverer and your restorer.
  17       Instead of copper I will bring gold,
  instead of iron I will bring silver,
  instead of wood, copper;
  instead of stone, iron.
  I will make well-being your oversight,
  faithfulness your bosses.
  18       Violence will not make itself heard any more in your country,
  destruction and smashing in your borders.
  You will call deliverance your walls,
  praise your gates.
  19       The sun will no longer be light for you by day,
  and as brightness the moon will not be light for you.
  Because Yahweh will be light for you in perpetuity;
  your God will be your majesty.
  20       Your sun will not set any more,
  your moon will not withdraw.
  Because Yahweh will be light for you in perpetuity;
  your mourning days will be complete.
  21       Your people, all of them, will be faithful ones,
  who will possess the country in perpetuity.
  They will be the shoot that I plant,
  the work of my hands, to demonstrate majesty.
  22       The smallest will become a clan,
  the least a strong nation.
  I am Yahweh;
  I will speed it in its time.

I was exchanging messages with a Pentecostal friend yesterday, the Feast of Pentecost, and was amused when he observed that oddly “we don’t really celebrate Pentecost in the Assemblies of God.” I don’t know whether his Pentecostal church has the things happen to which I referred in connection with Isaiah 58 (healing and so on); if they do, maybe they don’t need to celebrate Pentecost as other churches need to. Churches like mine need to do so to remind ourselves of the reality of the church described in the New Testament and to gain a vision of what life was like in those churches when God was involved in it. It doesn’t mean you can then make that reality happen; it’s God who has to do so. But you can pray for it to happen. You can lay the fire, but God has to ignite it.
Like many of our churches, the Jerusalem community lived with an everyday experience that fell far short of God’s promises. Isaiah 56–59 has focused on what the community needed to do in this situation if it was to expect God to act. The next three chapters turn to what God promises to do. Jerusalem is still in the devastated state to which the Babylonians had reduced it. Some descendants of its former inhabitants have returned to their ancestral city; most have not done so. The chapters lay an astonishing prospect before it. Everything seemed dark there. Indeed, the vision pictures darkness enveloping not only Jerusalem but the entire world. It then pictures the sun dawning over the city. The city can therefore climb to its feet with a bright smile on its face. One practical reason for the smile emerges from what follows. The whole dark world is naturally attracted to this bright city; one concomitant of its being drawn here is that it will bring with it the city’s own sons and daughters who are dispersed around it.
The world brings not only these descendants but vast resources. The city and the people who belong there are able to believe in its significance because it’s not any old city but the city that had been the paramount place of worship of Yahweh, the place where Yahweh made his presence known in its sanctuary. So the world comes to its light not just to see the light and not just to bring its children back but to worship Yahweh. The world’s resources come here for Yahweh’s sake.
Christopher Columbus quoted the whole of Isaiah 60 in connection with his voyage to the Americas and explained to the King and Queen of Spain that his aim was to bring the resources of countries across the seas for Jerusalem’s restoration. He said that he wasn’t really guided in his journey by intelligence, mathematics, or maps. His journey was simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied. The chapter’s imagery and hyperbole make clear that it’s not giving a literal picture of political and economic events to transpire in Jerusalem in the decades that will follow or in days to come a couple millennia later. It’s an invitation to imagination and hope. There’s a Jewish story told in connection with the chapter. A man was out walking at dusk, and several people lit a light for him to illumine his way, but each time, the light went out. Eventually the man concluded that henceforth he would simply wait for the dawn. The parable stands for Israel, which saw Moses’ light go out, and Solomon’s, but from now on waits only for God’s light. Yet it’s also an invitation to see events in Jerusalem such as the rebuilding of the temple or the rebuilding of its walls as little embodiments of the fulfillment of God’s promises.

ISAIAH 61:1–9

Blown Over and Anointed

  1       My Lord Yahweh’s breath is on me,
  because Yahweh has anointed me.
  He has sent me to bring news to the lowly,
  to bind up the people broken in spirit,
  to proclaim release to captives,
  the opening of eyes to prisoners,
  2       to proclaim a year of Yahweh’s favor,
  our God’s day of redress,
  to comfort all the mourners,
       3       to provide for the people who mourn Zion—
  to give them majesty instead of ash,
  festive oil instead of mourning,
  a praise garment
  instead of a flickering spirit.
  They will be called faithful oaks,
  Yahweh’s planting, to demonstrate majesty.
  4       People will build up perpetual ruins,
  raise up the ancestors’ desolations.
  They will renew ruined cities,
  desolations from generation after generation.
  5       Strangers will stand and pasture your sheep,
  foreigners will be your farmworkers and vinedressers.
  6       You yourselves will be called “Yahweh’s priests,”
  you will be termed “our God’s ministers.”
  You will eat the nations’ wealth
  and thrive on their splendor.
  7       Instead of your shame, double;

[instead of]

disgrace, people will resound at the share you have. Therefore in their country they will possess double; joy in perpetuity will be theirs. 8  Because I am Yahweh, one giving himself to exercising authority, who repudiates robbery in wrongdoing. I will give them their earnings in truthfulness; a covenant in perpetuity I will seal for them. 9  Their offspring will gain acknowledgment among the nations, their descendants in the midst of the peoples. All who see them will recognize them, that they are offspring Yahweh has blessed.

This week I’m meeting with a young man considering ordination in the Episcopal Church who wants to “seek my advice regarding my vocation.” There are aspects of the Episcopal Church about which he is uneasy—how will he cope with those? Should he ask his rector to set going the process whereby his local church seeks to “discern” whether ordination is something that the Holy Spirit has put into his heart? The way he puts the question (which corresponds to the way churches put the question) presupposes that a “call” to ordained ministry is something like a prophet’s call.
The accounts of the commission of prophets in the Bible don’t fit very well with that assumption. This particular account starts with the sense of Yahweh’s spirit or breath or wind being on the prophet. It’s unlikely to have been a gentle experience or one hard to discern. Yahweh’s breath blows you over and leaves you without options. The additional talk of being anointed makes one think of the prophet as a bit like a priest or king—anointing isn’t usually linked with being a prophet. Anointing was a sign of being commissioned and given authority.
Both those claims, to have been bowled over by Yahweh’s wind and to have been anointed, buttress the message that follows. We are again reminded that the people to whom he ministers are lowly and broken in their inner being. They’re like people in prison (it’s as if they’re still in exile). They’re mourning Zion—mourning its own broken state. Their spirit is flickering. Their city lies in ruins, as it has done for years. They live with shame at the way their devastated state reflects their downfall to Babylon and their abandonment by God that lay behind that disgrace.
The prophet’s commission doesn’t involve his doing anything. Characteristically, all a prophet does is preach. This prophet’s task is to bring news, declare that their release is imminent, that God’s year of favor and day of redress is here. These are two sides of a coin. God’s action will mean that redress against Israel is replaced by favor and that God’s using the superpower’s instinct for destruction is replaced by bringing judgment on its destructiveness. It’s by bringing this message that the prophet will bind up the people, bring them comfort, make it possible for them to give up the clothes of mourning and put on celebration garments. God’s purpose for them will be fulfilled. Instead of being humiliated they will be able to take on their proper role as priests looking after the worship of Yahweh. Other peoples will support their work by looking after the shepherding and farming and otherwise providing for them, as within Israel the clan of Levi look after the worship and the other clans support their work. The other peoples will thus come to be astonished at God’s blessing of Israel instead of being astonished at their shame.
There’s nothing new about the message of this section. Its significance is that it has a prophet’s authority behind it. Sometimes a prophet’s account of his call precedes his account of his message—that was so in Isaiah 40 (as in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel). Sometimes it comes in the middle of the message, as was so in Isaiah 1–12 and is so here. You want to know whether the promises that have appeared in Isaiah 56–60 have any authority behind them, the book asks? Here’s the answer.
Jesus takes up the opening lines as a description of his ministry as he comes to bring good news to the lowly Jewish community of his day, living as they were under Roman overlordship.

ISAIAH 61:10–63:6

People Who Won’t Let Yahweh Rest

  61:10       I will rejoice ardently in Yahweh,
  my whole being will joy in my God.
  Because he is clothing me in deliverance clothes,
  wrapping me in a faithfulness coat,
  like a groom who behaves priestly in majesty,
  or like a bride who adorns herself in her things.
  11       Because as the earth brings out its growth
  and as a garden makes its seed grow,
  so my Lord Yahweh will make faithfulness and praise grow
  before all the nations.

  62:1       For the sake of Zion I will not be silent,
  for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
  until its faithfulness goes out like brightness,
  its deliverance like a torch that blazes.
  2       The nations will see your faithfulness,
  all the kings your splendor.
  You will be called by a new name,
  which Yahweh’s mouth will determine.
  3       You will be a majestic crown in Yahweh’s hand,
  a royal diadem in your God’s palm.
  4       You will no longer be termed “Abandoned,”
  your country will no longer be termed “Desolate.”
  Rather, you will be called “My-Delight-Is-In-Her,”
  and your country “Married.”
  Because Yahweh delights in you
  and your country will be married.
  5       Because a youth marries a girl;
  your sons will marry you.
  With a groom’s rejoicing over a bride,
  your God will rejoice over you.

  6       Upon your walls, Jerusalem,
  I’m appointing guards.
  All day and all night
  they will never be silent.
  You who remind Yahweh,
  there’s no stopping for you.
  7       Don’t give him stopping, until he establishes,
  until he makes Jerusalem an object of praise in the earth.
  8       Yahweh has sworn by his right hand,
  by his strong arm:
  “If I give your grain again
  as food for your enemies,
  if foreigners drink your new wine,
  for which you have labored …
  9       Because the people who harvest it will eat it,
  and praise Yahweh.
  The people who gather it will drink it
  in my sacred courtyards.”

  10       Pass through, pass through the gates,
  clear the people’s way!
  Build up, build up the ramp,
  clear it of stones!
  Raise a banner over the peoples—
       11       there, Yahweh has let it be heard to the end of the earth.
  Say to Ms. Zion,
  “There, your deliverance is coming!
  There, his reward is with him,
  his earnings before him!”
  12       People will call them
  “The holy people, ones restored by Yahweh.”
  You will be called
  “Sought out, a city not abandoned.”

  63:1       Who is this coming from Edom,
  marked in clothes from Bosrah,
  this person majestic in attire,
  stooping in his mighty strength?
  “I am the one speaking in faithfulness,
  mighty to deliver.”
  2       Why is your attire red,
  your clothes like someone treading in a wine trough?
  3       “I trod a press alone;
  from the peoples there was no one with me.
  I tread them in my anger,
  trample them in my fury.
  Their spray spatters on my clothes;
  I have stained all my attire.
  4       Because a day of redress has been in my mind,
  my year of restoration has arrived.
  5       But I look, and there’s no helper;
  I stare, and there’s no support.
  So my arm has effected deliverance for me;
  my fury—it has supported me.
  6       I trample peoples in my anger, make them drunk in my fury,
  bring down their eminence to the earth.”

I mentioned earlier the work calling that my wife’s daughter and son-in-law have been following for several years to stir up concern for the people of Darfur who are refugees in Chad. The effort is hard work for little effect. Over the past year my wife and I have felt drawn to pray one of the psalms of lament and protest for these people every dinnertime that we are home; these psalms make much more sense when you’re praying them for people in that kind of situation than if you’re trying to make sense of them in a context where we have food to eat and a roof over our heads.
I could describe this impulse as the sense of a challenge to be people who issue reminders to Yahweh, along the lines of the people this prophecy speaks of. Previous sections of Isaiah have been promising a great act of restoration by Yahweh, but it has not materialized. What do you do when that disappointment happens? The Western instinct is to work to further the kingdom of God; we might (for instance) seek to advocate for people who are poor and oppressed. These chapters of Isaiah suggest two different responses. One that has appeared in preceding chapters is that the people need to look at their own community life. The other is that they need to pray.
Presumably the “I” that speaks in this section continues to be the prophet, yet the talk of deliverance clothes and a faithfulness coat also makes one think of Israel itself—it’s the people that will be wearing such clothes. They will dress in a fashion that indicates their rejoicing in God’s faithful act of deliverance. The prophet speaks as an embodiment of the people he belongs to, one who believes the message he has been giving them and puts his clothing where his mouth is. It’s a common feature of Old Testament prayer, as the Psalms illustrate, that you begin praising God for answering your prayer when you have heard the answer, even if you have not yet seen it. So the prophet begins to give praise for what God is going to do.
The Psalms also show that having heard but not yet seen is also reason for continuing to pray; indeed, having heard gives more impetus and conviction to your prayers. In the second paragraph the prophet thus declares his determination to keep praying until he and his people see God’s faithfulness expressed in God’s act of deliverance. Alongside this commitment is his commissioning of others to join him as people who issue reminders to Yahweh. Behind this idea is the image of the heavenly King’s cabinet as the place where decisions are taken and of prayer as our taking part in the meeting of this cabinet and pressing it to take action. With any such body there can be delay between the making of a decision and the implementing of it. There may even be slippage. The people issuing reminders are people making sure there’s no slippage. It’s as if they stand on Jerusalem’s walls continually pointing out the situation about which action needs to be taken.
The fourth paragraph constitutes another indirect declaration that Yahweh’s promises will be fulfilled. Perhaps the prophet is addressing heavenly highway contractors, but the point of the words lies in the encouragement they offer to the people in Jerusalem itself. Their presupposition can seem surprising if we assumed that all the Judahites in Babylon had returned to Jerusalem when the Persians conquered Babylon. The Old Testament makes clear that many didn’t do so; the prophecy both presupposes that the desolate city still needs its people and promises that it will receive them.
The terrifying conversation that closes the section constitutes another such promise. The visions in Isaiah 60–62 have focused on the positive side to Judah’s restoration, but the rescue of the victim requires the putting down of the tyrant. It had once seemed that Persia’s victory over Babylon would constitute that deliverance, but history tells the story of how yesterday’s deliverer is today’s despot. One implication of the vision is that the people’s situation is now worse than it was a few years previously. Then, Cyrus was on the horizon; now, there’s no deliverer within sight. Yet the vision doesn’t refer to Cyrus or Persia, and even Edom looks like not the victim of Yahweh’s act of redress but simply the direction from which Yahweh comes to Jerusalem—as happens in other Old Testament passages. By not referring to a particular tyrant and not envisaging a particular deliverer, the vision points to a recognition of that fact that history is the story of a sequence of tyrannical superpowers that will need to be brought to an end by Yahweh’s own action—which the vision promises.

ISAIAH 63:7–64:12

On Grieving God’s Holy Spirit, and the Consequences

  63:7       I will recount Yahweh’s acts of commitment,
  Yahweh’s praises,
  in accordance with all that Yahweh bestowed on us,
  the great goodness to Israel’s household,
  that which he bestowed on them in accordance with his compassion
  and the greatness of his acts of commitment.
  8       He said, “Yes, they are my people,
  children who will not be false.”
  He became their deliverer;
       9       in all their trouble it became troublesome to him.
  His personal aide—
  he delivered them, in his love and pity.
  He was the one who restored them, lifted them up,
  and carried them all the days of old.
  10       But they—they rebelled
  and hurt his holy spirit.
  So he turned into their enemy;
  he himself made war against them.
  11       But he was mindful of the days of long ago,
  of Moses, of his people.

  Where is the one who brought them up from the sea,
  the shepherds of his flock?
  Where is the one who put in its midst
  his holy spirit,
  12       the one who made his majestic arm go
  at Moses’ right hand,
  dividing the waters in front of them
  to make himself a name in perpetuity,
  13       enabling them to go through the depths like a horse in the wilderness,
  so they would not collapse,
  14       like a beast in the vale that goes down,
  so that Yahweh’s spirit would give them rest?
  In that way you drove your people,
  to make a majestic name for yourself.
  15       Look from the heavens,
  see from your holy and majestic height!
  Where are your passion and your acts of power,
  the roar from inside you and your compassion?
  In relation to me they have withheld themselves,
       16       when you are our Father.
  When Abraham wouldn’t acknowledge us,
  Israel wouldn’t recognize us,
  you Yahweh are our Father;
  “Our restorer from forever” is your name.
  17       Why do you let us wander from your ways, Yahweh,
  let our mind be hard so as not to be in awe of you?
  Turn for the sake of your servants,
  the clans that are your very own.
  18       As something small they dispossessed your holy people;
  our foes trampled your sanctuary.
  19       Forever we have become people over whom you have not ruled,
  who have not been called by your name.

  64:1       Oh that you had torn apart the heavens and come down,
  that mountains had quaked before you,
  2       like fire lighting brushwood,
  so that the fire boils water,
  to cause your name to be acknowledged by your adversaries,
  so that the nations might tremble before you!
  3       When you did wonders that we did not look for,
  you came down and mountains quaked before you.
  4       Never had people heard or given ear,
  eye had not seen,
  a God apart from you,
  who acts for one who waits for him.
  5       You met with the one who was rejoicing and doing what was faithful,
  the people who were mindful of you in your ways.
  Now: you yourself got angry,
  and of old we offended in relation to them, but we were delivered.
  6       We became like something taboo, all of us,
  and all our faithful deeds like menstrual clothing.
  We withered like leaves, all of us,
  and our wayward acts carry us off like the wind.
  7       There’s no one calling on your name,
  stirring himself to take hold of you.
  Because you’ve hidden your face from us,
  and made us fade away at the hand of our wayward acts.

  8       But now, Yahweh, you are our Father;
  we are the clay, you are our potter—
  the work of your hand, all of us.
  9       Don’t be so very angry, Yahweh,
  don’t be mindful of waywardness.
  Now: do look at your people, all of us;
       10       your holy cities became a wilderness.
  Zion became a wilderness,
  Jerusalem a devastation.
  11       Our holy and majestic house,
  where our ancestors praised you,
  became something consumed by fire,
  and all that we valued became a ruin.
  12       At these things do you restrain yourself, Yahweh,
  do you remain still and let us be humbled so much?

The Episcopal Daily Devotions that we use each morning include prayers from Psalm 51 asking God to renew a right spirit within us, to sustain us with his bountiful spirit, and not to take his holy spirit from us. Using that prayer implies that God might take away his spirit, though someone recently observed to me how encouraging it is that God wouldn’t take the Holy Spirit away from us as he did from Saul, and as Psalm 51 presupposes he might. I reflect on the question all the more during this Pentecost season. The New Testament indeed doesn’t refer to the possibility of God taking his Holy Spirit from us, but neither does it say he couldn’t; and if he has done so, it would explain some facts about the church. What the New Testament does say is that it’s possible to lie, to test, resist, and grieve the Holy Spirit, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some of those actions led to God withdrawing his Holy Spirit.
The idea of grieving or hurting God’s Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4) comes from this prayer in Isaiah. It’s a passage that makes clear that God’s spirit was indeed active in Israel. There, as in the church’s life, one can see moments when God’s spirit is especially active and times when it’s dormant (the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was then a moment of great activity).
The prayer forms a kind of response to the promises of preceding chapters. Like a psalm, it begins by recalling God’s past acts. God got personally involved with Israel in Egypt and imagined they would be responsive to him. But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit (I won’t use capitals, Holy Spirit, because that risks us reading in too much New Testament thinking). God’s holy spirit was with the people, not just with its leaders, but therefore they could hurt and antagonize God’s spirit and could find God chastising them, though also being mindful of them—as God is at Sinai and in many later contexts.
The present problem (the second paragraph suggests) is that God is indeed chastising but has given up the mindfulness part. At the exodus and the Reed Sea God had put his holy spirit in their midst, but where is God now? God’s action in bringing them through the Reed Sea so they could relax on the other side was a spectacular act of power and passion—but where are the power and passion now? God is supposed to be their Father, so why is he not showing the concern and commitment expected of a father or restorer? Their physical fathers/ancestors, Abraham and Jacob-Israel, would hardly recognize the “family” in its diminished state—hence perhaps the appeal to God’s fatherhood, rare in the Old Testament. The paragraph goes on to embody the chutzpah that has appeared elsewhere in Isaiah. They grant that they have wandered from Yahweh’s ways but come close to blaming Yahweh for their wandering—couldn’t he have stopped them?
The third paragraph restates those themes, again expressing a longing for Yahweh to intervene and again suggesting some chutzpah as it implies that the people had offended in relation to Yahweh’s ways (that is, failed to live by them) as a result of Yahweh’s getting angry with them. Maybe Yahweh was justified in getting angry, but the result was that they sinned the more. The sin is described in terms of their abandoning a life of faithfulness for a life characterized by the kind of actions that made them taboo in Yahweh’s eyes—something that couldn’t be brought into Yahweh’s presence. The prayer goes on also to acknowledge that people have not been seeking Yahweh, but the chutzpah receives yet further expression in the claim that the reason is that Yahweh had turned his face away. There was no point in seeking him.
The prayer’s close constitutes a final appeal to God’s being their Father and also their potter. Chutzpah features yet again, as this last image is one God has used more than once in Isaiah to put them in their place; they turn the image back onto God. Is Yahweh really going to continue doing nothing?
What will be the reply?

ISAIAH 65:1–25

Straight-Talking Meets Straight-Talking

  1       I was available to people who didn’t ask,
  I was accessible to people who didn’t seek help from me.
  I said, “I’m here, I’m here,”
  to a nation that was not calling on my name.
  2       I spread my hands all day
  to a rebellious people,
  who walk in a way that is not good,
  following their own plans.
  3       The people are ones who provoke me,
  to my face, continually.
  sacrificing in the gardens,
  burning incense on the bricks,
  4       ones who sit in tombs,
  spend the night in secret places,
  who eat swine’s flesh,
  with a broth of desecrating things in their bowls,
  5       who say, “Keep to yourself, don’t come near me,
  because I’m too sacred for you.”
  These people are smoke in my nostrils,
  a fire burning all day.
  6       There: it is written before me,
  I will not be still, rather I am repaying,
  I will repay into their lap 7 your waywardness
  and your ancestors’ waywardness together
  (Yahweh has said).
  The people who burnt incense on the mountains,
  who reviled me on the hills:
  I am counting out their earnings
  first of all into their lap.

  8       Yahweh has said this:
  “As the new wine can be found in the cluster,
  and someone will say ‘Don’t destroy it,
  because there’s a blessing in it,’
  so I will act for my servants’ sake,
  so as not to destroy everything.
  9       I will bring out offspring from Jacob,
  and from Judah one who is going to possess my mountains.
  My chosen ones will possess it,
  my servants will dwell there.
  10       Sharon will become pasture for sheep,
  the Vale of Achor a resting place for cattle,
  for my people who have sought from me.
  11       But you who abandon Yahweh,
  who disregard my holy mountain,
  who set a table for Luck,
  who fill a mixing chalice for Destiny:
  12       I will destine you to the sword,
  all of you will bow for slaughter.
  Because I called but you didn’t answer,
  I spoke but you didn’t listen.
  You did what was evil in my eyes,
  and what I didn’t delight in, you chose.”

  13       Therefore my Lord Yahweh has said this:
  “Now: my servants will eat,
  but you will be hungry.
  Now: my servants will drink,
  but you will be thirsty.
  Now: my servants will celebrate,
  but you will be shamed.
  14       Now: my servants will resound
  from happiness of heart,
  but you will cry out from pain of heart,
  from brokenness of spirit you will howl.
  15       You will leave your name
  as an oath for my chosen ones,
  ‘So may my Lord Yahweh kill you,’
  but for his servants he will proclaim another name,
  16       so that the person who prays for blessing in the country
  will pray for blessing by the God who says ‘Amen.’
  Because the earlier troubles will have been put out of mind,
  and because they will have been hidden from my eyes.
  17       Because here I am, creating
  new heavens and a new earth.
  The earlier ones will not be recollected;
  they will not come into mind.
  18       Rather, be glad
  and rejoice forever in what I am creating.
  Because here I am, creating Jerusalem as a joy
  and its people as a rejoicing.
  19       I will rejoice in Jerusalem
  and be glad in my people.
  There will not make itself heard in it any more
  the sound of weeping or the sound of a cry.
  20       There will no longer be from there any more
  a baby of [few] days
  or an old person who doesn’t fulfill his days.
  Because the youth will die as a person of a hundred years,
  and the sinner will be humiliated as a person of a hundred years.
  21       They will build houses and dwell [in them],
  they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
  22       They won’t build and another dwell;
  they won’t plant and another eat.
  The days of my people will be like a tree’s days;
  my chosen ones will use up the work of their hands.
  23       They won’t toil with empty result;
  they won’t give birth with dismaying outcome.
  Because they will be offspring blessed by Yahweh,
  they and their descendants with them.
  24       Before they call, I myself will answer;
  while they’re still speaking, I myself will listen.
  25       The wolf and the lamb will graze together,
  the cougar, like the ox, will eat straw,
  but the snake—dirt will be its food.
  People won’t do evil, they won’t destroy,
  in all my holy mountain (Yahweh has said).”

I sometimes have a hard time persuading people that prayer is an act of communication between us and God and that there’s a mutuality about this communication. The idea has got around that prayer is really more like a form of reflection and meditation, designed to change us not to change God. There are several reasons why this idea has got around. People are puzzled and hurt by the experience of God not granting their prayers. When they pray, they don’t have a feeling of communicating with someone who is listening. They understand God to be wise and unchanging, and the idea of God having a change of plan as a result of a suggestion from us seems to make no sense. Another reason is that we pray out loud less than previous generations.
Christians at the same time often think God must be more real to them than he was to Israel, when the impression one gets from the Old Testament is that the opposite is the case. These chapters in Isaiah offer a spectacular example. They also suggest another reason for hesitating about the idea that prayer might involve mutual communication. Much human communication gets fraught and fractious. It involves confrontation and argument. In the West, we are uneasy when that happens. It will seem more worrying for communication with God to take that form, but the Old Testament assumes it can do so. Yet being able to argue is a sign of strength in a relationship. It means the relationship won’t break because you have a disagreement.
God here talks straight in response to the straight-talking in the previous section. Israel has had the nerve to complain at Yahweh’s inaction, his hiddenness, his absence, and to blame Yahweh for its own waywardness. “Excuse me,” Yahweh says. “You’re saying that I have been hiding? You’ve got a nerve. You’re the ones who have been hiding.” Yahweh begins with an extraordinary piece of self-description. He has been standing with his hands open toward Israel, in the manner of a suppliant. He has been appealing to them and they have been treating him like a master who is ignoring his servant.
Yahweh thus sees the self-portrait of the people praying in the previous section as ingenuous. Even if they are loyal worshipers of Yahweh, many of their fellows are not. They are engaged in religious observances that deny any faithfulness to Yahweh. Maybe these people see themselves as worshipers of Yahweh. They certainly see themselves as deeply committed to their faith (hence the line about their warning people to be wary of coming too near to them because of their consecrated state). But their expression of their faith is totally unacceptable to Yahweh.
They will pay for it. But Yahweh allows more explicitly than usual for the possibility of distinguishing between the faithful and the faithless in the community. The latter have surrendered any right to be designated “my servants.” That expression applies only to people who dissociate themselves from the faithless. When judgment comes, it will distinguish between the two groups. The prophecy’s aim is thus to encourage the faithful and also to push the faithless to changing their ways so that the judgment that comes doesn’t fall on them. It could still be the case that judgment needs to fall on no one.
Yes, Yahweh is to intervene positively in Jerusalem’s life in the way that prayer urged. The last paragraph offers a picture of the result of that intervention. Its “new heavens and new earth” doesn’t denote a new cosmos. There’s nothing wrong with the cosmos. The later lines in the paragraph make clear that creating a new heavens and new earth is an image for creating a new Jerusalem where the problems about human life in the present Jerusalem are put right. At the moment most babies die in infancy and most people who survive to grow to adulthood die by middle age. Then the person who might have died as a youth will live to a hundred and the sinner who lives to a hundred, instead of dying young as he should, will still die and be humiliated. People will build houses and live in them and plant vineyards and live in them, instead of leaving the houses and the vineyards to the next generation. Flocks will be safe from wild animals and people will be safe from attackers. Life will be more the way God intended from the beginning. And communication with God will be real instead of being short-circuited.

ISAIAH 66:1–24

Choose Your Ending

  1       Yahweh has said this:
  “The heavens are my throne,
  the earth is my footstool.
  Wherever would be the house that you would build for me,
  wherever would be the place that would be my abode?
  2       All these things my hand made (Yahweh’s declaration),
  and to this person I look:
  to the lowly, to the broken in spirit,
  someone who trembles at my word.
  3       One who slaughters an ox is one who strikes a person down;
  one who sacrifices a lamb is one who strangles a dog.
  One who lifts up an offering—it’s pig’s blood;
  one who makes a memorial of incense—he worships a bane.
  They for their part have chosen their ways,
  their soul delights in their abominations.
  4       I for my part will choose caprices for them,
  and bring upon them what they dread.
  Because I called and there was no one answering,
  I spoke and they didn’t listen.
  They did what was evil in my eyes,
  and what I didn’t delight in, they chose.”

  5       Listen to Yahweh’s word,
  you who tremble at his word.
  “Your brothers have said, people who repudiate you,
  who exclude you for the sake of my name,
  ‘May Yahweh be severe, so that we may see your celebration’—
  they will be shamed.”
  6       The sound of uproar from the city,
  a sound from the palace,
  the sound of Yahweh
  dealing out retribution to his enemies.

  7       Before she labors she has given birth,
  before pain comes to her she delivers a boy.
  8       Who has heard something like this,
  who has seen things like these?
  Can a country be brought through labor in one day,
  or a nation be born in one moment?
  Because Zion is laboring
  and also giving birth to her children.
  9       “Will I myself make a breach
  and not bring to birth? (Yahweh says).
  Or will I myself bring to birth
  and close [the womb]? (your God says).”

  10       Celebrate with Jerusalem, rejoice in her,
  all you who give yourselves to her.
  Be glad with her in joy,
  all you who mourned over her,
  11       so you may nurse and be full
  from her comforting breast,
  so you may drink deeply and delight yourself
  from her splendid bosom.
  12       Because Yahweh has said this:
  “Here I am, extending to her
  well-being like a stream,
  like a flooding wash
  the splendor of the nations,
  so you may drink of it as you’re carried on her side
  and dandled on her knees.
  13       Like someone whom his mother comforts,
  so I myself will comfort you.
  You will be comforted in Jerusalem,
       14       you will see, and your heart will rejoice,
  and your limbs will flourish like grass.”
  Yahweh’s hand will cause itself to be acknowledged among his servants,
  and he will rage among his enemies.
  15       Because there—Yahweh will come in fire,
  his chariots like a whirlwind,
  to return his anger in fury,
  his blast in fiery flame.
  16       Because Yahweh is going to exercise authority with fire,
  with his sword, among all flesh;
  the people slain by Yahweh will be many.
  17       “The people who sanctify themselves and purify themselves for the gardens,
  following after one in the midst,
  people who eat the flesh of pig, reptile, and mouse,
  will come to an end together (Yahweh’s declaration).

18 But as for me, on the basis of their deeds and their intentions, the gathering of all the nations and tongues is coming. They will come and see my splendor. 19 I will set a sign among them and send off from them survivors to the nations—Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, the people who draw the bow, Tubal, Javan, the distant shores, which have not heard report of me and have not seen my splendor. They will tell of my splendor among the nations. 20 They will bring all your family members from all the nations as an offering to Yahweh, by means of horses, chariotry, coaches, mules, and dromedaries, to my holy mountain, Jerusalem (Yahweh has said), as the Israelites bring the offering in a pure vessel to Yahweh’s house. 21 Also from them I will take people as priests and Levites (Yahweh has said). 22 Because as the new heavens and the new earth that I’m going to make stand before me (Yahweh’s declaration), so will your offspring and your name stand. 23 New moon by new moon, Sabbath by Sabbath, all flesh will come to bow low before me (Yahweh has said). 24 They will go out and look at the corpses of the people who rebel against me. Because their worm will not die and their fire will not go out. They will be a horror to all flesh.”

There’s a classic movie called The French Lieutenant’s Woman, set in nineteenth-century England, that tells of a tortuous relationship in which a man is powerfully drawn to a woman who hardly belongs to his class and when he is already committed to marrying someone else. The novel on which the movie is based has two alternative endings, which in effect invite the reader to decide where the relationship goes in the end. The movie script cleverly takes the form of a movie about the making of a movie in which the leading actors are having an affair that mirrors the affair of the leading characters in the story. That provides an alternative way of having two endings and leaving the audience to choose between them.
The book of Isaiah ends in a comparable way. The next-to-last verses have people from Israel brought home and people from the nations joining them in worship and brought into the body of the people who lead worship and offer the sacrifices. They are even involved in missionary work to their kin. But the very last verse pictures them gazing at the bodies of people who have died through Yahweh’s judgment as a result of their rebellion, thrown onto a heap in the canyon where Judahites used to offer their children as whole burnt offerings, which in effect becomes a graveyard for their parents. When this closing passage from Isaiah is read in synagogue worship, the next-to-last verse is repeated after the last verse to avoid the book closing on such a grim note, and Hebrew Bibles also repeat it in that connection. A saying in the Talmud (the collection of the sayings of rabbis from the early centuries of the Common Era) declares that the prophets were in the habit of concluding their addresses with words of praise and comfort, and it commends their example to us in connection with our everyday conversations. While the book of Isaiah looks a particularly spectacular exception, it may be less so than it seems. The last verses of the book offer their readers two alternative prospects for their own destiny. If the book’s compilers had had the technology available, they might have ended the book with these closing verses in parallel columns, so that people can choose their column.
On one hand, then, there are the people whom the book has from time to time attacked throughout, people who worship Yahweh but do so in a way that conflicts with who Yahweh is or who also worship other deities. The prophet again speaks in terms of two-way communication, a reality that played an important role in the previous section. They claim they are calling out to Yahweh and he isn’t answering, but the way they are calling out means Yahweh cannot answer. He is calling out to them about that fact, but they are not answering.
Then there are the people who tremble at Yahweh’s word. They know that the community as a whole has deserved and continues to deserve Yahweh’s judgment. Their own acceptance of this fact earns them the disapproval of other people and in some sense earns them their exclusion—perhaps they were priests who were debarred from ministry. The people in power mockingly welcome the idea that Yahweh may act in severe fashion. Admittedly even the people who count as Yahweh’s servants need to be wary about their assumptions concerning Yahweh and worship. Since preceding chapters have been positive about the temple, the opening verses of this section can hardly be totally rejecting it, but they are reminding Judahites that there’s a sense in which the idea of a temple for Yahweh is incoherent. They are also reminding them that a community that is broken in spirit and couldn’t build a temple would not be thereby incapable of relating to Yahweh. The prophet again seeks to build up their conviction that Yahweh is going to restore Jerusalem. Yahweh doesn’t bring a baby to full term and then not bring it to birth.
Readers of Isaiah have to choose which ending will apply to them.


Assyria, Assyrians

The first great Middle Eastern superpower, the Assyrians spread their empire westward into Syria-Palestine in the eighth century, the time of Amos and Isaiah. They first made Ephraim part of their empire, then when Ephraim kept trying to assert independence, they invaded Ephraim, destroyed its capital at Samaria, transported its people, and settled people from other parts of their empire in their place. They also invaded Judah and devastated much of the country but didn’t take Jerusalem. Prophets such as Amos and Isaiah describe how Yahweh was thus using Assyria as a means of disciplining Israel.

authority, authoritative

English translations commonly translate the Hebrew mishpat by words such as judgment or justice, but the word suggests more broadly the exercise of authority and the making of decisions. It is a word for government. In principle, then, the word has positive implications, though it is quite possible for people in authority to make decisions in an unjust way. It is a king’s job to exercise authority in accordance with faithfulness to God and people and in a way that brings deliverance. Exercising authority means taking decisions and acting decisively on behalf of people in need and of people wronged by others. Thus speaking of God as judge implies good news (unless you are a major wrongdoer). God’s “decisions” can also denote God’s authoritative declarations concerning human behavior and about what he intends to do.

Babylon, Babylonians

A minor power in the context of Isaiah ben Amoz, in the time of Jeremiah Babylon took over the position of superpower from Assyria and kept that for nearly a century until conquered by Persia. Prophets such as Jeremiah describe how Yahweh was using Babylon as a means of disciplining Judah. Their creation stories, law codes, and more philosophical writings help us understand aspects of the Old Testament’s comparable writings, while their astrological religion also forms background to aspects of polemic in the prophets.

Day of the Lord

The oldest occurrence of the expression “the Day of the Lord,” “Yahweh’s Day,” comes in Amos 5, which indicates that people saw it as a time when Yahweh would bring great blessing on them. Amos declares that the opposite is the case. Henceforth the expression always has sinister connotations. Yahweh’s Day is a day when Yahweh acts in decisive fashion. It doesn’t happen just once; there are various occasions that the Old Testament describes as Yahweh’s Day, such as Jerusalem’s fall in 587 and Babylon’s fall in 539. In Isaiah, Sennacherib’s devastation of Judah was such an embodiment of Yahweh’s Day (22:5).

decision, see authority

Ephraim, Ephraimites

After the reign of David and Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two. Most of the twelve Israelite clans set up an independent state in the north, separate from Judah and Jerusalem and from the line of David. Because this was the bigger of the two states, politically it kept the name Israel, which is confusing because Israel is still the name of the people as a whole as the people of God. In the prophets, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether “Israel” refers to the people of God as a whole or just to the northern state. Sometimes the state is referred to by the name of Ephraim as one of its dominant clans, so I use this term to refer to that northern state to try to reduce the confusion.


At the end of the seventh century, Babylon became the major power in Judah’s world but Judah was inclined to rebel against its authority. As part of a successful campaign to get Judah to submit properly to its authority, in 597 and in 587 BC the Babylonians transported many people from Jerusalem to Babylon. They made a special point of transporting people in leadership positions, such as members of the royal family and the court, priests, and prophets (Ezekiel was one of them). These people were thus compelled to live in Babylonia for the next fifty years or so. Through the same period, people back in Judah were also under Babylonian authority. So they were not physically in exile, but they were also living in the exile as a period of time. A number of books in the Old Testament indicate that one of the issues they are handling is the pressure this experience brings to people.


In English Bibles this Hebrew word (sedaqah) is usually translated “righteousness,” but it indicates a particular slant on what we might mean by righteousness. It means doing the right thing by the people with whom one is in a relationship, the members of one’s community. Thus it is really closer to “faithfulness” than “righteousness.”


In 336 BC Greek forces under Alexander the Great took control of the Persian Empire, but after Alexander’s death in 323 his empire split up. The largest part, to the north and east of Palestine, was ruled by one of his generals, Seleucus, and his successors. Judah was under its control for much of the next two centuries, though it was at the extreme southwestern border of this empire and sometimes came under the control of the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt (ruled by successors of another of Alexander’s officers). In 167 the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to ban observance of the Torah and persecuted the faithful community in Jerusalem, but they rebelled and experienced a great deliverance.

Israel, Israelites

Originally, Israel was the new name God gave Abraham’s grandson Jacob. Jacob’s twelve sons were then forefathers of the twelve clans that comprise the people Israel. In the time of Saul and David these twelve clans became more of a political entity. So Israel was both the people of God and a nation or state like other nations or states. After Solomon’s day, this state split into two separate states, Ephraim and Judah. Because Ephraim was by far the bigger, it often continued to be referred to as Israel. So if one is thinking of the people of God, Judah is part of Israel. If one is thinking politically, Judah isn’t part of Israel. Once Ephraim has gone out of existence, then for practical purposes Judah is Israel, as the people of God.

Judah, Judahites

One of the twelve sons of Jacob and the clan that traces its ancestry to him, then the dominant clan in the southern of the two states after the time of Solomon. Effectively Judah was Israel after the fall of Ephraim.

Kaldeans (Chaldeans)

Kaldea was an area southeast of Babylon from which the kings who ruled Babylonia came in the time Babylonia ruled Judah. Thus the Old Testament refers to the Babylonians as the Kaldeans.


The third Middle Eastern superpower. Under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, they took control of the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC. Isaiah 40–55 sees Yahweh’s hand in raising up Cyrus as the means of restoring Judah after the exile. Judah and surrounding peoples such as Samaria, Ammon, and Ashdod were then Persian provinces or colonies. The Persians stayed in power for two centuries until defeated by Greece.

Philistia, Philistines

The Philistines were people who came from across the Mediterranean to settle in Canaan at the same time as the Israelites were establishing themselves in Canaan, so that the two peoples formed an accidental pincer movement on the existent inhabitants of the country and became each other’s rivals for control of the area.

Remains, Remnant

The Prophets warn that Yahweh’s chastisement will mean Israel (and other peoples) being cut down so that only small remains or a remnant will survive. But at least some remains of Israel will survive—so the idea of “remains” can become a sign of hope. It can also become a challenge—the few that remain are challenged to become faithful remains, a faithful remnant.


A restorer is a person who is in a position to take action on behalf of someone within his extended family who is in need in order to restore the situation to what it should be. The word overlaps with expressions such as next-of-kin, guardian, and redeemer. “Next-of-kin” indicates the family context that “restorer” presupposes. “Guardian” indicates that the restorer is in a position to be concerned for the person’s protection and defense. “Redeemer” indicates having resources that the restorer is prepared to expend on the person’s behalf. The Old Testament uses the term to refer to God’s relationship with Israel as well as to the action of a human person in relation to another; so it implies that Israel belongs to God’s family and that God acts on its behalf in the way a restorer does.

Seleucids, see Greece


The most frequent of the Hebrew names for the place where we go when we die. In the New Testament it is called Hades. It isn’t a place of punishment or suffering but simply a resting place for everyone, a kind of nonphysical analogue to the tomb as the resting place for our bodies.


The Hebrew word shalom can suggest peace after there has been conflict, but it often points to a richer notion of fullness of life. The KJV sometimes translates it “welfare,” and modern translations use words such as “well-being” or “prosperity.” It suggests that everything is going well for you.


In most English Bibles, the word “LORD” often comes in all capitals as does, sometimes, the word “GOD.” These actually represent the name of God, Yahweh. In later Old Testament times, Israelites stopped using the name Yahweh and started to refer to Yahweh as “the Lord.” There may be two reasons. They wanted other people to recognize that Yahweh was the one true God, but this strange foreign-sounding name could give the impression that Yahweh was just Israel’s tribal god. A term such as “the Lord” was one anyone could recognize. In addition, they didn’t want to fall foul of the warning in the Ten Commandments about misusing Yahweh’s name. Translations into other languages then followed suit and substituted an expression such as “the Lord” for the name Yahweh. The down sides are that this obscures the fact that God wanted to be known by name, that often the text refers to Yahweh and not some other (so-called) god or lord, and that the practice gives the impression that God is much more “lordly” and patriarchal than actually God is. (The form “Jehovah” isn’t a proper word but a mixture of the consonants of Yahweh and the vowels of that word for “Lord,” to remind people in reading Scripture that they should say “the Lord,” not the actual name.)

Yahweh Armies

This title for God usually appears in English Bibles as “the LORD of Hosts,” but it is a more puzzling expression than that implies. The word for LORD is actually the name of God, Yahweh, and the word for Hosts is the regular Hebrew word for armies; it is the word that appears on the back of Israeli military trucks. So more literally the expression means “Yahweh [of] Armies,” which is just as odd in Hebrew as “Goldingay of Armies” would be. Yet in general terms its likely implication is clear; it suggests that Yahweh is the embodiment of or controller of all war-making power, in heaven or on earth.


The word is an alternative name for the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is more a political name; other peoples would refer to the city as “Jerusalem.” Zion is more a religious name, a designation of the city that focuses on its being the place where Yahweh dwells and is worshiped.

Goldingay, J. (2015). Isaiah for Everyone (S. iii–260). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.



A New Covenant Commentary

Aída Besançon Spencer

A New Covenant Commentary

New Covenant Commentary Series


The New Covenant Commentary Series (NCCS) is designed for ministers and students who require a commentary that interacts with the text and context of each New Testament book and pays specific attention to the impact of the text upon the faith and praxis of contemporary faith communities.
The NCCS has a number of distinguishing features. First, the contributors come from a diverse array of backgrounds in regards to their Christian denominations and countries of origin. Unlike many commentary series that tout themselves as international the NCCS can truly boast of a genuinely international cast of contributors with authors drawn from every continent of the world (except Antarctica) including countries such as the United States, Puerto Rico, Australia, the United Kingdom, Kenya, India, Singapore, and Korea. We intend the NCCS to engage in the task of biblical interpretation and theological reflection from the perspective of the global church. Second, the volumes in this series are not verse-by-verse commentaries, but they focus on larger units of text in order to explicate and interpret the story in the text as opposed to some often atomistic approaches. Third, a further aim of these volumes is to provide an occasion for authors to reflect on how the New Testament impacts the life, faith, ministry, and witness of the New Covenant Community today. This occurs periodically under the heading of “Fusing the Horizons and Forming the Community.” Here authors provide windows into community formation (how the text shapes the mission and character of the believing community) and ministerial formation (how the text shapes the ministry of Christian leaders).
It is our hope that these volumes will represent serious engagements with the New Testament writings, done in the context of faith, in service of the church, and for the glorification of God.

MSCS Certificate of Appointment

Every army is like a single soldier.
Some of its bodily parts are functioning well.
Some are malfunctioning and harming the rest of the body.
Some are assigned to maintenance to keep the body militant functioning.
And the post-commander, like the brain, is multi-tasking—
accomplishing several goals at once.
So was the army of Christ, as commanded by the Field Marshall Paul at Rome.
This campaign was Paul’s final battle.
At his side was his medic Luke and the platoon at Rome: Eubulus, Pudens, Linus,
Claudia, and the brothers and sisters—courageous and valiant each.
As any army or anybody, Paul’s command had its problems and its strengths:
Demas, the deserter, the body’s wandering eye, following after another general;
Alexander, a virus, doing great damage to the entire system;
Trophimus in the infirmary;
absent were Crescens and Titus;
off on a mission was Tychicus to secure the reinforcement—Timothy;
while maintaining other fronts were Erastus in Corinth and Prisca, Aquila,
Onesiphorus and his supply depot in Ephesus.
This was Paul’s army of Christ, wounded, as was his own body,
as together they fought the good fight.
(February 3, 2013)


Introduction to Pastoral Letters
Introduction to Titus
Titus 1
Fusing the Horizons: The Place of Education
Titus 2
Fusing the Horizons: The Importance of Holiness
Titus 3
Fusing the Horizons: The Place of Grace

Introduction to 2 Timothy
2 Timothy 1
2 Timothy 2
2 Timothy 3
Fusing the Horizons: Why Study the Bible?
2 Timothy 4
Fusing the Horizons: Coworkers

Subject Index



ANTC Abingdon New Testament Commentaries
BA La Biblia de las Américas
BBR Bulletin for Biblical Research
BDAG Bauer, Walter, et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
CE Halsey, William D., and Bernard Johnston, eds. Collier’s Encyclopedia. 24 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
CEB Common English Bible
CEV Contemporary English Version
DHH Dios habla hoy
ESV English Standard Version
CGTSC Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges
GW God’s Word Translation
HNTC Harper’s New Testament Commentary
ICC International Critical Commentary
IDB Buttrick, George Arthur, et. al. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. 5 vols. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.
JB Jerusalem Bible
JBL Journal of Biblical Literature
JETS Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
KJV King James Version
LCL Loeb Classical Library
LEC Library of Early Christianity
LSJ Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Rev. Henry Stuart Jones. 9th ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968.
LXX Septuagint
MM Moulton, James Hope, and George Milligan. The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930.
NASB New American Standard Bible
NCBC New Century Bible Commentary
NCCS New Covenant Commentary Series
NewDocs Horsley, G. H. R., and S. R. Llewelyn, eds. New Documents Illustrating Earliest Christianity. 9 vols. N.S.W., Australia: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre Macquarie University, 1976–1987.
NIBC New International Biblical Commentary
NICNT New International Commentary on the New Testament
NIRV New International Reader’s Version
NIV New International Version
NLT New Living Translation
NRSV New Revised Standard Version
NT New Testament
NTME New Testament in Modern English
NTS New Testament Studies
NVI Nueva Versión Internacional
OCD Hammond, N. G. L., and H. H. Scullard, eds. Oxford Classical Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.
OT Old Testament
OTP Charlesworth, James H., ed. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983, 1985.
RevExp Review and Expositor
REB Revised English Bible
RV Reina-Valera 1995
TDNT Kittel, Gerhard, and G. Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Trans G. W. Bromiley. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964–1976.
TEV Today’s English Version
Thayer Thayer, Joseph Henry. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Marshallton, DE: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1889.
ThTo Theology Today
TLG Thesaurus linguae graecae
TLNT Spicq, Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. 3 vols. Trans. and ed. James D. Ernest. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.
TNIV Today’s New International Version
UBS The Greek New Testament. Ed. Barbara Aland et al. 4th rev. ed. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 2001.
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
WYC Wycliffe Bible
YLT Young’s Literal Translation


Apostolic Fathers
1–2 Clem. 1–2 Clement
Did. Didache
Ign. Eph. Ignatius, To the Ephesians
Mart. Pol. Martyrdom of Polycarp

Phaen. Phaenomena

Pol. Politics
Rhet. Rhetoric

Epict. diss. Epicteti dissertationes

Deipn. Deipnosophistae

Hymn. Jov. Hymn to Jove or Zeus

Div. De divinatione

Clement of Alexandria
Strom. Miscellanies

Diodorus Diodorus of Sicily

Diatr. Dissertationes
Ench. Enchiridion

Hist. eccl. Ecclesiastical History
Praep. ev. Preparation for the Gospel

Artic. Joints
Mochl. Instruments of Reduction
Off. In the Surgery

Haer. Against Heresies

Ag. Ap. Against Apion
Ant. Jewish Antiquities
J. W. Jewish War

Sacr. Sacrifices
Philops. The Lover of Lies

Mishnah (m.)
‘Abot Avot
Git. Gittin
Ketub. Ketubbot
Meg. Megillah
Ned. Nega’im
Qidd. Qiddushin
Sanh. Sanhedrin
Tehar. Teharot

Embassy On the Embassy to Gaius
Flaccus Against Flaccus
Mos. On the Life of Moses
Spec. Laws On the Special Laws

Leg. Laws

Hist. Histories

1 En. 1 Enoch (Ethiopic Apocalypse)
Jub. Jubilees
T. Sol. Testament of Solomon

Geogr. Geography

Ann. Annales

Oec. Oeconomicus

Introduction to Pastoral Letters

When Luke the evangelist wrote his Gospel, he highlighted for Theophilus, his reader, some of the features he offered, while affirming the Gospels already written (Luke 1:1–4). Following the model of this wonderful historian, I, too, would like to affirm the many wonderful commentaries written on the Pastoral Epistles, which are Pastor Paul’s instructions and admonitions to two young pastors. Like the other commentary writers of the New Covenant Commentary Series, I come from an international background, born and reared in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and later in New Jersey in the United States, my mother from Puerto Rico and my father from The Netherlands. Like others in the series, I have focused on the flow of argument. My own translation is an attempt to illustrate the literal text as a basis for interpretation and stylistic analysis. I have studied the meaning of the text in light of its immediate and larger literary, biblical, historical, social, and cultural contexts. In particular, I have asked myself, how might these ancient communities have understood and received these teachings? To enrich my study, I traveled to Crete, Ephesus, Rome, and Greece, visiting many key ancient Greco-Roman sites. These were wonderful trips, which were accomplished with the help and companionship of my husband and son, Rev. Dr. William David Spencer and Mr. Stephen William Spencer.
In addition, I have always thought that scholarship would be advanced if more women were to study and publish on these letters that relate frequently to women and to church life. Thus, as a female Presbyterian minister ordained for over forty years (October 1973), I have paid consistent attention to any issues that relate to women and their role in the church. It is not, however, a commentary solely focused on “women’s issues.” As an active minister, who has taught New Testament theology for ministry for many years, I have also highlighted Paul’s ministry strategies, his coworkers, and their community. My own initial training was in stylistics, and, thus, when appropriate, I have also highlighted Paul’s rhetorical strategies.
Even though I have focused on the flow of argument, paragraphs and sentences are constructed from words and phrases. Therefore, in order to study the thoughts, I have also paid attention to semantics and grammar. I have done a close reading of the text. Like Luke, I have attempted to do a thorough investigation, but one understandable to my readers. My husband, as a theologian and a grammarian, graciously read the entire commentary. I am a “scholar,” but I am also a believer with the simple faith of a child (Luke 18:16–17). These words, although those of the Apostle Paul, are also God-breathed, I have, therefore, not read these letters as a skeptic, but as someone who is in love with God, who inspired the words and thoughts, and in sympathy with Paul, as a friend and colleague in ministry, who was mentoring other ministers in very difficult situations.

Introduction to Titus


Crete, in the Mediterranean Sea, 160 miles south of Athens, 200 miles north of Africa, is 160 miles long and 7 to 35 miles wide. It is a mountainous island with excellent shallow harbors. Ancient farmers grew wheat, barley, figs, olives, grapes, and tended to sheep and goats, and fish were plentiful. In Roman times Crete was covered with forests, now the interior mountains have few forests.2 Nevertheless, it has been called “the garden of the whole Universe,” for its “beauty, pleasure and profit.”
Crete had a mixed culture with influence from Western Semites (Phoenicia, Syria, Israel), Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Anatolia, Cyprus, and Greece. Jews lived in Crete as well. Ancient Cretans were known as a maritime people. Cretan archers were especially renowned and frequently hired as mercenaries. The society was organized very similar to Sparta’s, a communal society set up to train citizen-soldiers. Even the buildings were set up in a communal manner, with construction built around a central court. Streets would radiate out from the center of the palace.5
Minoan Crete had a predominance of female deities, including the Snake Goddess, protector of the household. But each new civilization brought its own deities. As in Ephesus, the goddess Artemis could be found. Cretans claimed that Zeus was born in a cave in Crete and that Crete was the birthplace of many deities.7
Although females in Crete did not have all the political rights that men had, in Minoan Crete women were probably the social equals of men and participated in all activities including the dangerous sport of vaulting over charging bulls.


Paul’s overall purpose is for Titus “to set straight what was remaining” at the church in Crete in order to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that accords with godliness.

I. Introduction: Paul writes Titus for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness (1:1–4).

II. Paul left Titus behind to set straight what was remaining by appointing godly elders and rebuking ungodly people (1:5–16).

A. Paul left Titus in Crete to set straight what was remaining by appointing godly elders in every city (1:5–9).

B. Sound teaching is necessary to correct the many who are deceptive and need to be rebuked (1:10–14).

C. Although they claim to know God, their minds and consciences are defiled (1:15–16).

III. Paul wants Titus to teach what is consistent with healthy doctrine (2:1–3:11).

A. Paul wants Titus to promote healthy teaching by encouraging godly behavior among the elders, youth, and slaves (2:1–15).

B. Paul wants Titus to remind people to live godly lives in the world because they are justified by Christ’s grace (3:1–8).

C. Paul wants Titus to have nothing to do with anyone who causes divisions (3:9–11).

IV. Conclusion: Paul wants Titus to come to him and, by helping Zenas and Apollos, teach people to devote themselves to good works (3:12–15).

A. Paul wants Titus to come to him (3:12).

B. Titus, by helping Zenas and Apollos, needs to teach people to keep busy in good works (3:13–14).

C. Final greetings: Christians greet Titus and ask Titus to greet Christians in Crete (3:15).


ADDRESS (1:1–4)

All the components of the letter are present in microcosm in the introduction. In the letterhead, Paul has an introduction second in length only to that of Romans (46 vs. 71 Greek words). His self-description contains themes he will develop in the letter, such as “knowledge of the truth” and God and Jesus as “our Savior.” Like most ancient letters, the first sentence presents the author, the reader, and the greeting (Paul, God’s slave, and Jesus Christ’s apostle, Titus, grace and peace). Paul adds, though, two lengthy prepositional phrases to describe his apostleship: (1) according to faith of God’s elect ones and knowledge of truth, the one according to godliness; and (2) upon hope of eternal life, which the truthful God promised before eternal time and revealed, in [God’s] own time, his word in proclamation, which I myself was entrusted according to the command of God our Savior (1:1–3). This is a dense synopsis of the Christian message. Paul reminds Titus first of the importance of one’s calling resting upon faith, that God elects, that God’s revelation is true, and it affects one’s way of life (eusebeia). Paul then reminds Titus of the second basis of his apostleship: hope of eternal life. God, who is described as “truthful” did two actions in regard to “eternal life”: promised and revealed. Both relate to time: eternal life was promised before eternal time, eternal life was revealed in God’s own time by means of proclamation. Paul then reiterates that he was entrusted with this proclamation by command of God.
Paul normally describes himself as a “slave of Christ” (e.g., Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1; Gal 1:10). Here in contrast he calls himself a slave of God. Possibly, his reason is that in this letter he will clarify that Jesus Christ is indeed “God.” Later in the letter, as a “slave of God,” he will also give directions to slaves of human masters (2:9–10).
The content of faith and its demonstration in one’s lifestyle are important themes for this letter. Titus is a genuine child according to the faith held in common (1:4). A “healthy or sound” faith is important to have in contrast to those who have an unhealthy or unsound faith (1:14). Slaves need to demonstrate their “good” faith in their actions (2:10) and love is done in the sphere of faith (3:15).
Truth (1:1, 2) (or its opposite) is not a frequent word-family in Titus but it is important since it sets an overarching theme. God does not lie (1:2). Therefore, God’s message is truth (1:1). Paul’s testimony is also true (1:13). Heterodoxy leads people away from the truth (1:14).
Eusebeia (godliness; 1:1) literally refers to “good reverence or worship.” It is an important word-family in the Pastoral Letters, where “godly living” is an important topic. Orthodoxy affects orthopraxy. One way to live is in a “godly manner” (2:12).
The object of hope is eternal life, both in 1:2 and 3:7. Thus, eternal life is something to which we aspire. That is why the “now age” (2:12) affects the eternal age. In 2:13, hope more specifically refers to the reappearance of Jesus Christ. Eternal life is a term frequently used in the Gospels. Aiōn may be connected to aēmi (“to breathe, blow, as to denote properly that which causes life, vital force”). Thus, “eternal life” may be considered to be “a life that is alive.” Understanding that “life” is a central aspect of “eternal” helps us understand the “now,” but “not yet” aspect of “eternal life” (1:2). In Titus and for Paul and for the lawyer and ruler who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25; 18:18), eternal life is something to obtain and to which one aspires (e.g., 1 Tim 6:12). Jesus and his disciple John bring out that it is also something one now has. Eternal life, according to Jesus’ prayer, is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (John 17:3). The goal or end is eternal life, but also it is a free gift from God in Christ Jesus. In effect, when one decides to keep or lose one’s life, one begins a trajectory in either the direction of eternal life or eternal punishment.
In this introduction, we find clear examples of the archetypal uses of chronos and kairos. Chronos has to do with duration: God’s eternal time (1:2). In contrast, kairos has to do with changeableness: human specific time (1:3).
Sōtēr is a frequent and an interesting word in Titus. Whenever God is referred to as our Savior, a second reference soon follows to Christ Jesus as “our Savior” (1:3–4; 2:10–13; 3:4–6). Thus, Paul emphasizes by juxtaposition that both persons of the Trinity are “our Savior.” Moreover, in one passage Jesus Christ is even called “God” (2:13). The “Savior” commands, gives grace and peace (1:3–4), teaches (2:10), has glory (2:13), is kind, loving, and pours out salvation (3:4, 6). “Savior” is also an important political word during this era. Caesar was acclaimed as “savior” of the people. From AD 66–68 Nero was officially described as “lord and saviour of the world.” Although the emperor could command and have temporal glory,8 in contrast to the eternal God, Nero certainly did not exhibit grace, peace, kindness, love, and salvation.
Titus, like Timothy, is described as a genuine child (1:4; 1 Tim 1:2). Possibly Jews at Crete might “criticize” Titus (2:15) because he was an uncircumcised Greek (Gal 2:3). Unlike Timothy, whose mother was Jewish but father was Gentile, Titus was not compelled by the leaders in Jerusalem to be circumcised (Acts 16:1–3). Thus, Paul uses genuine or “legitimate” as a word play. As a Gentile, Titus’ faith, held in common with Jews, made him a “legitimate or genuine” child. Titus also demonstrated a “genuine” faith. Titus first appears from Antioch in Syria accompanying Paul with a relief visit to Jerusalem. Titus is gifted in organization. He helped arrange the relief collection for the poor in Judea (2 Cor 2:13; 7:7; 8:17). As Paul’s coworker and partner, he is “urged,” but not “sent,” to go to Corinth as Paul’s representative (2 Cor 8:6, 17, 23; 12:18). At Corinth he functions as a peacemaker, also representing the Corinthians to Paul (2 Cor 7:7, 15). At Crete, Titus will again use his organizational and peacemaking gifts with the church to put in order what remained to be done (e.g., Titus 1:5).


Paul connects the first section (1:5–16) to the introduction (Because of this, I left you in Crete, 1:5a). Because Paul was entrusted with the message revealed in God’s own time—commanded by God (1:3), a message so important it was promised by God even before the start of time, a message which gives eternal life, by a God who does not lie (1:2)—therefore, identifying godly elders to promote these truths is crucial.

Paul Left Titus in Crete (1:5–9)

When did Crete (1:5) receive Christian influence? Titus and Paul traveled together in Syria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia, according to Acts, Galatians, and 2 Corinthians. This letter is the only reference to both of them having been in Crete. The New Testament has two references to Crete outside of the Letter to Titus. One reference is to Pentecost (May–June) when devout Jews from Crete were present in Jerusalem, hearing Jesus’ disciples proclaim God’s wonder in the Cretan language (Acts 2:1–11). The Cretans spoke a dialect of Greek. The second reference is in Acts 27. As Paul, Aristarchus, and Luke set sail to Rome, they travel by Crete’s Cape Salmone, arriving at Fair Havens near Lasea (Acts 27:7–8). Because sailing was now dangerous (until Pentecost), the owner of the ship preferred to sail to Phoenix in Crete to winter there (Acts 27:12). Instead, the storm winds drove the ship as far as Malta (Acts 28:1), near Sicily.
Jews had been living in Crete for many years. In the second century BC, Roman Consul Lucius sent King Ptolemy a letter expressing that Jews were allies of the Romans. A copy of the letter was sent to Jews in Gortyn, Crete (not too far from Fair Havens) (1 Macc 15:15–23). Cretans may have been mentioned in the Old Testament as early as Genesis 10:14, descendants of Ham, Noah’s son (“Caphtorites, from whom the Philistines were descended”; also 1 Chr 1:12). Even though the Philistines were enemies of the Jews (1 Sam 30:14), Kerethites were part of David’s loyal guards. The Philistines are described as the “remnant of the isle of Caphtor” (Jer 47:4). Caphtor is a Hebrew name for Crete. Caphtorites and Kerethites were names used for descendants from Crete.
Thus, we cannot be sure when the Christian community began in Crete, but, most likely some Jews returned to it from Jerusalem after Pentecost to live as disciples of the Messiah Jesus. However, the church needed better organization, doctrine, and moral standards.
Paul regularly works with a team of coworkers, picking them up as he comes to their city, and leaving them behind to handle specific problems. Paul now describes the twofold purpose of Titus’ ministry: (1) that you yourself might set straight further the things remaining; (2) and you might set up in each city elders, as I myself directed to you (1:5). Epidiorthoō (set straight), like orthotomeō (“to cut straight”; 2 Tim 2:15) is built on the root orthos (“straight”). Even as the physically crippled man Paul healed at Lystra was able to stand straight (Acts 14:10), those spiritually “crippled” need to “stand” straight (Heb 12:12–13). Diorthōsis (“making straight”) could refer to restoring a broken or misshapen limb. Thus, the implication is that some restoring or making straight had been done when Paul was in Crete, but it had not been completed, and that Titus himself had to make the effort to finish it. One way to set straight is by appointing elders. However, the church at Crete had more than leadership that was not “straight.” It also had ungodliness and worldly passion (2:11), including dissipation, pleasing only oneself, quick tempers, bullying, shameful gain, empty and deceptive talk, turning to lies from the truth, corruption, unfaithfulness, disobedience, slander, quarreling about the law, and divisiveness. The elders could help, but ultimately every believer had to decide if he or she wanted to walk straight. And, while Titus was there, he had to encourage good choices by his teaching and exhortation (2:15; 3:14).
What did the elders do (1:5)? Their function is only suggested in the letter. Their role had similarities to Titus’. The same verb (set up; kathistēmi) is used elsewhere in the New Testament of those placed in charge of small or large households, such as a slave or manager who feeds and oversees the other workers and makes investments, judges over disputers,16 exemplified by Joseph as ruler over a household and all of Egypt (Acts 7:10). In addition, the function of steward is explicitly mentioned in Titus 1:7 (oikonomos). The establishment of elders is modeled by Moses, who chose trustworthy and honest judges over groups of a thousand, hundred, fifty, and ten to judge the minor cases while he handled the difficult cases (Exod 18:13–26). These judges were chosen by the tribes themselves and were trained by Moses (Deut 1:9–18). Later, the Lord commands Moses to gather seventy of these judges so that they too would be filled with the Spirit as Moses was and share his leadership burdens. In addition, the Spirit came upon Eldad and Medad, who prophesied in the camp (Num 11:16–17, 24, 26).
In Greco-Roman times, Jewish elders had authority in religious and civic matters. They handled city administration and jurisdiction. The council of elders (and chief priests in Jerusalem [or Sanhedrin]) decided cases of orthodoxy and heterodoxy with the power of possible excommunication. In a village, one of the elders might be chosen to be “ruler of the synagogue” to oversee the worship service and the synagogue building and represent the congregation to Roman officials.18 Presbyteros (elders), like presbeia (“a delegation”), could represent a group or a person, to ask for a favor, peace, or the resolution of differences. Thus, a synonym for “elders” was “ambassadors,” people who sought reconciliation.20
The Jewish Christians appeared to have adapted the Jewish leadership format. Christian elders first appear in Acts. Elders in Jerusalem receive the gifts collected by Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the starving Christians in Judea (Acts 11:29–30). As in Crete, at the second visit to new churches in Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas oversaw the election of elders in every church (Acts 14:23). The apostles and elders in Jerusalem would decide questions of heterodoxy versus orthodoxy (Acts 15:2–23; 16:4). The whole church would consent to their decision. Even as the apostles, Christian elders have the responsibility to pray for healing (Jas 5:14; Mark 6:13).
In Titus, overseer (episkopos; 1:7) is a synonym for elder (presbyteros; 1:5; also Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet 5:1–2). Episkopos etymologically signifies “to look upon or over.” In Acts 20:28, “to oversee” includes the function of overseeing doctrine and is synonymous with shepherding (also 1 Pet 5:2).
As in Acts (14:23; 20:17), every church in each city should have more than one elder (1:5). In Crete, historically, the cities were notorious for their disputes with one another. Willetts summarizes their relationship as “almost perpetual warfare.” The two most powerful city states, Knossos in the north and Gortyn in the south, were repeatedly in conflict.23 But, finally, in 67 BC, Crete became a Roman province and Gortyn its capital. Thus, Paul, by directing Titus to set up elders in every city, was beginning where the people were, blending the Christian organization with the indigenous one.
Paul does not clarify how Titus was to go about the process of setting up elders, except to make specific their moral qualities. However, Moses certainly had encouraged the Hebrew tribes to select their own leaders (Deut 1:13), and Paul appears to allow the local Christians to select their elders. What Paul did not require is instructive. Paul did not require that the elders be Jewish, or circumcised, as the circumcision party might have required. Paul did not require that the elders be aristocrats, as the Minoans might have required. Paul did not require that the elders be free citizens, as the Romans or Greeks required.27 Paul did not require that the elders be wealthy, men of leisure, as the rabbis required (m. Meg. 1:3; 4:3). There is no mention of ethnic or class or political or economic status. The term elder probably implied a certain age. Some early rabbis said thirty was the age for authority, sixty was the age to be an elder (m. ’Abot 5:21). Sixty was also the age for a widow to enter the church’s order of prayer (1 Tim 5:9).
Paul now adds the first set of qualifications for “elders” (if any are not open to attack, a one-woman man, having faithful children, not in accusation of wildness or disobedience; 1:6), to be further developed in a second longer sentence (For it is necessary [for] the overseer to be not open to attack as God’s steward, not self-pleasing, not prone to anger, not given to getting drunk, not pugnacious, not fond of shameful gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, wise, righteous, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word according to the teaching …; 1:7–9). Paul uses the same basic qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, but Titus has some different emphases.

Moral Qualities for an Elder Compared and Set in Sequence

Titus 1:6–9
1 Timothy 3:2–7
1. and 4. not open to attack
2. one-woman man
3. faithful children
5. not self-pleasing
6. not prone to anger
1. not open to attack
2. one-woman man
13. children in submission
7. not given to getting drunk
8. not pugnacious
9. not fond of shameful gain
10. hospitable
11. loving what is good
3. and 8. not given to getting drunk
9. not pugnacious
12. not greedy
6. hospitable
12. wise
13. righteous
14. holy
15. self-controlled
4. wise
16. holding fast the faithful word
7. able to teach
Qualities not in Titus
5. respectable/modest
10. gentle
11. peaceable
14. not newly converted
15. good witness from outside

Despite the close initial similarity between Titus 1:7 and 1 Timothy 3:2, the characteristics for godly elders are set in different sequences. Each list has some moral qualities not in the other list (but certainly not contradictory to the other list). The first characteristic for leaders (elder and widow [1 Tim 3:2; 5:7; Titus 1:6]) is that someone be chosen who is not open to attack, who cannot be discredited, someone against whom a justifiable charge could not be brought (anenklētos) from within the church (e.g., circumcision party, 1:10) or from outside the church (e.g., 2:5, 8) or eventually from God (2:13). Even before overt Roman persecution (AD 61–64), Nero’s actions had become more violent than earlier in his reign. In AD 59, for example, Nero had his mother Agrippina murdered. In AD 62, senator Seneca retired and Burrus, the serious Prefect of the Praetorians, died. Both had been positive influences on Nero. Nero then divorced his wife Octavia and had her murdered. In AD 62, after the law of maiestas minuta was revived, wealthy nobles were executed simply on suspicion. In other words, before the fire in Rome in AD 64, changes in the Roman political situation were evident. Nero clearly became a volatile, vicious ruler.
In Titus (1:6) as in 1 Timothy (3:2; 5:7) having an elder who is (or was) devoted to his spouse (a one-woman man) would be a dramatic contrast to many in the larger society. In Crete, as in the rest of the Roman and Greek society, sexual relations between a married free man and a slave or even the wife of a serf were not fined as “adultery.” According to the ancient Cretan Gortyn Code, even rape against a household slave received only a penalty of one to twenty-four obols depending on the circumstances (while against a free person was 1,200 obols).30
Elders are described as having faithful children, not in accusation of wildness or disobedience (1:6). Faithful children may refer either to children with belief in Jesus (in other words, “Christian” children) or to children who were trustworthy, for example, as the “trustworthy” word.32 But, how can a parent be held responsible for the faith of a child if every child has free choice? On the other hand, the modifying phrase “not in accusation of wildness or disobedience” (Titus 1:6) may very likely modify the “children” (wildness and disobedience being the antithesis of faithful or “trustworthy”). When children cannot be relied upon to obey the parent, they are “unfaithful.” They are incorrigible (asōtos, asōtia). These children are leading abandoned, dissolute lives. The same adjective is used for what happens as a result of drunkenness (Eph 5:18), the wild living of Gentiles (1 Pet 4:3–4), the Gentile immorality and disobedience of the law of followers of Bacchys in the temple of Jupiter (2 Macc 6:2–7). This is the life once led by the prodigal son (Luke 15:13). Children who live such a wild life dishonor their parents (Prov 28:7). They will not be subject to control of the parents (Heb 2:8). They are consistently disobedient, without any law (anypotakta; 1 Tim 1:9).
To what age is a parent responsible for a child? Ancients, as many today, tended to classify people by whether they were minors or whether they had or had not yet reached puberty.37 Adulthood or mature citizenship was marked by new clothing in Crete. However, in the New Testament, children (teknon) is a generic term that can refer to the unborn (Rev 12:4–5), babies under two years of age (Matt 2:16–18), twelve year olds (Luke 2:48), those mature enough to work but are living with their parents (Matt 21:28; Luke 15:31), and as a term of endearment for an adult coworker. Thus, Paul uses a general term in Titus. In addition, adult “children” often continued to live within the household of the parents. The child was responsible to the paterfamilias even in adulthood.
When the Christians are trying not to give opportunity for charges (kategoria) by the church or the larger society (1:6; 2:5, 8), for elders to have such wild children would be dangerous for the church. The impact would be especially harmful in such communal settings as Crete and other ancient Greek societies. Such wild living had already affected “whole households” (Titus 1:11).
An additional important reason for believers with wild children not to take on the responsibility of oversight of the church was to allow them the time to reach out to their children. The Old Testament has continual references to the importance of parents educating their children, for example, at Passover, reminding their children of what God did in their midst (Deut 4:9–10; Ps 78:3–8) and who God is (Deut 6:4–7). Similar exhortations can be found in the New Testament (e.g., Eph 6:4; 1 Thess 2:11–12). The church needed children who were cooperative members of a mini-nation, the household.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the household, with more of an extended family, is larger than in many contemporary North American and European households. A household would include all persons economically dependent on a master—children, even adult sons, slaves, freedpersons, clients, spouses of all these persons, including the master’s spouse. Aristotle explains that the household (oikia), the “partnership” for “everyday purposes,” in its “perfect form,” consists of slaves and free persons, “master and slave, husband and wife, father and children” (Politics I.1.6–7; I.2.1). The household might include twenty to thirty people. An ancient household would be an extended family with all the workers in the family business who lived in one housing complex.44
In the Cretan society the household was of considerable importance. One Minoan palace would sustain hundreds of people.46 The relatives and followers would construct their houses radiating out from the palace at the center. The Cretans were particularly communal. Meals and sleeping quarters were communal, one for the young men, another for the young women. Even mature men ate together. Contributions from the harvest were made by serfs toward worship of the gods, upkeep of public services, and to meals for citizens. Even marriage was collective: the young men were required to marry at the same age.48
An accusation (katēgoria, katēgoreō) then was a formal affair. For example, Paul refers to formal accusations against elders in 1 Timothy 5:19, reminding the church that two or three witnesses were needed, alluding to Deuteronomy 19:15. In the New Testament, such accusations before the Jewish religious leaders or Roman political leaders could lead to excommunication from the synagogue and death. Katēgorēo and katēgoria refer especially to an accusation before judges. Thus, an elder should not be recommended for leadership if that elder or a child living in the household is under a serious accusation process.
The overseer is God’s steward (1:7). A “steward” (oikonomos) was the manager of a household. The owner entrusted the management of affairs to the oikonomos: the oversight of the property, receiving and paying bills, planning expenditures, apportioning food, and overseeing minors. They had to be trustworthy.52 Erastus, for example, was a city “manager” (Rom 16:23). Overseers or elders were managers of church life. The owner of their property is “God” (Titus 1:7).
Paul enumerates five failings to avoid that would make God’s steward trustworthy (not self-pleasing, not prone to anger, not given to getting drunk, not pugnacious, not fond of shameful gain; 1:7) and seven qualities to cultivate to make God’s steward trustworthy (but be hospitable, loving what is good, wise, righteous, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word according to the teaching; 1:8–9). God’s manager must be willing to please God, not only oneself (not self-pleasing; authadēs). If a manager is prone to anger without cause, that will result in unnecessary conflict (Prov 29:22). Jesus spoke against anger without a good cause, as from envy, which can be a precondition to murder. Anger is a violent emotion that can lead to a violent action. It disparages the listener. The opposite is reconciliation or peacemaking. Anger is also infectious. Simply being a companion to a person given to anger can encourage one to be irascible too (Prov 22:24–25).
The components of aischrokerdēs (1:7) occur later in Titus (1:11, aischros kerdos) to describe those of the circumcision party who overturn whole households because of shameful gain. Aischrokerdēs is also used for “deacons” in 1 Timothy 3:8. Aphilargyros (the quality for an overseer in 1 Tim 3:3 and any believer in Heb 13:5) clearly refers to “not loving money.” Aischrokerdēs is a broader term. Josephus uses aischrokerdeia for deceitful financial gain (Life 13 [75]). Polybius sees the love for “shameful gain” (aischrokerdeia) and lust for wealth to prevail among the Cretans. They are “the only people in the world in whose eyes no gain is disgraceful” (Hist. 6.46.3–4). Because the state allows them to acquire as much land as they want, he accuses them of having an “ingrained lust of wealth” that causes “constant broils both public and private, and in murders and civil wars” (Hist. 6.46.9; 47.5). Thus, Paul’s requirement for an elder/overseer not to desire “shameful gain” would especially be significant in Crete. In contrast, for God’s stewards to be trustworthy, they must not shamelessly and deceitfully seek their own gain or profit.
Sitting long drinking wine (not given to getting drunk; paroinos) and fighting (not pugnacious; plēktēs, 1:7) are related words, because sometimes excessive drinking can lessen inhibitions that cover more hidden aggressive emotions, especially if a person is prone to anger anyway (orgilos). If the overseer begins with a foundation of pleasing oneself, instead of God, and to this foundation is added a tendency to be angry without good cause, impelled by intoxication and readiness to fight, no wonder the end would be shameless self-gain (aischrokerdēs).
In contrast, the trustworthy household manager is hospitable (philoxenos), loving what is good (philagathos) (not intoxicants or self-gain), is wise (sōphrōn), righteous (dikaios, dikaia), holy (hosios, hosia), and certainly self-controlled (1:8). Some of these positive qualities for an overseer/elder also appear in other ancient literature. Philo concludes that the lawgiver should especially have four virtues: love of humanity (philanthrōpos), love of justice (philodikaios), love of good (philagathos), and hatred of evil (misoponēros).
Two additional key characteristics of God are righteousness and holiness. As early as the Pentateuch, Moses summarizes God’s character as great: “God is trustworthy (pistos) and has no unrighteousness; righteous (dikaios) and holy (hosios) is the Lord” (Deut 32:4), and, as late as Revelation, an angel describes God as “righteous, the One who is and the One who was, the Holy One” (Rev 16:5). Jesus too is described as “holy and righteous” (Acts 3:14). In the first century, dikaios could refer to people who observe societal rules. In the Bible, it refers to people who observe God’s rules, like Noah, a “righteous human,” pleasing to God (Gen 6:10) or Zechariah and Elizabeth “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6).
The opposite of righteous (1:8) is lawless and disobedient, godless, sinful, and unholy (Titus 2:12; 1 Tim 1:9), as the wild and disobedient child (Titus 1:6). Righteousness is a characteristic people may have and yet will pursue but never perfect (1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 3:16). Human works of righteousness cannot save; only Jesus, the perfect Righteous One, can die for the unrighteous to bring them to God (Titus 3:5–7; 1 Pet 3:18). Nevertheless, the new believer is instructed to live according to God’s likeness in “true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).
How is anyone to avoid self-pleasure, anger, drunkenness, fights, shameful gain but to pursue hospitality, loving what is good, acting wisely, righteously, and in a holy manner? Self-control is the key. Self-control (1:8), to have power over oneself, is one of the fruits of the Spirit, which is made possible by crucifying the flesh with its passions while being guided by the Spirit (Gal 5:23–25). It is a characteristic of winning athletes (1 Cor 9:25). The persons with power over themselves are guided by holding firmly to the trustworthy message they were taught (Titus 1:9). This is the godly truth proclaimed by Paul (not the circumcision party)—his healthy teaching (Titus 1:1–3, 10; 2:1).
Overseers/elders must be able to do two things: (1) encourage and (2) reprove: in order that (s)he may also be able to encourage healthy teaching and to reprove those who are opposing (1:9). While they encourage healthy teaching, they also discourage those who undermine healthy teaching. Both encouragement and reproving will come up again in the letter for the elder and for Titus (1:13; 2:6, 15). Here explicitly Titus is reminded that there are some people at Crete who oppose (antilegō) healthy teaching. They are not obedient to the truth. Paul had been opposed before by some of his Jewish compatriots (Acts 13:45; 28:19), as had been John the Baptist (Luke 2:34). Therefore, the overseers/elders are to be people who will work with Titus while he is there (Titus 3:12) to facilitate true teaching.

Sound Teaching (1:10–14)

Paul left Titus behind to set straight what was remaining to be done by appointing godly elders in every city (1:5–9). Why was this necessary? For there are many disobedient, empty talkers, and deceivers, especially the ones from the circumcision, who it is necessary to silence, who overturn whole households teaching what is not necessary because of shameful gain (1:10–11). Paul begins by listing three negative qualities that many people have at Crete: disobedience (anypotaktos), empty talk (mataiologos), and deception (phrenapatēs) (1:10). Children (1:6), and certainly the elders themselves, should not be people unable to subject themselves to healthy teaching (anypotaktos, 1:9; “knowledge of truth,” 1:1). Does empty talk refer simply to someone who is verbose (“a windbag”), or is it a stronger term? Mataiologia (mataios, empty; and logia/legō, to speak) is synonymous with heterodoxy, myths, and endless genealogies that promote speculations, teaching what is wrong in contrast to God’s “household management” whose goal is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith (1 Tim 1:3–7; Titus 1:7). Mataios in Titus describes the lack of value in discussing “foolish arguments and genealogies and contentions and battles pertaining to the law” (3:9). Mataios is used in the New Testament to describe the pagan gods, like Zeus, who do not have the ability and force to create the world (Acts 14:15) and the way Gentiles who believe in such gods live and think. Mataios can also refer to lack of truth or value or force, as faith without the historic resurrection has no value (1 Cor 15:17; also 1 Cor 3:20; Jas 1:26). In Titus 1:10, Paul describes those people whose words have no value most likely because their content is not in accordance with truth. Possibly, they go through a sequence of steps. First, they do not subject themselves to healthy teaching and teachers (anypotaktos), then their words become heterodox (mataiologos), and, finally, they deceive others (phrenapatēs).
Eve is an illustration of someone who sinned because of deception, unlike Adam who sinned knowingly (1 Tim 2:14; 2 Cor 11:3). In Ephesians, Paul warns his readers not to be deceived because of “empty words” (Eph 5:6). Deception is based on untruthful information. For example, the serpent misled Eve by suggesting to her that God had told her not to eat from any tree in the garden, that she would not die, and that eating the fruit would make her like God (Gen 3:1, 4–5). The serpent made God’s commands (Gen 2:16–17) more strict and as well contradicted them. The same process was likely true of the opponents at Crete, and especially “the ones from the circumcision” (Titus 1:10). The Cretan mercenaries were so well known for their art of deception, the ancients had a saying, “to play the Cretan,” which meant to take every precaution and to examine a situation from every angle in order to deceive and vanquish one’s opponent (Polybius, Hist. 8.19.5).
The deviation from the truth at Crete has many similarities with the one at Ephesus. What is implied in Ephesus is explicit in Crete: the presence of some people from the circumcision party.

Heterodoxy Compared

1 Timothy
Wild pagan; impure vs. holy, 1:6–8, 15–16; 2:3, 5, 11
Unholy, impure, demonic, godless, 1:5, 9; 2:10; 4:1, 7; 5:15; 6:6, 20
Disobedience, 1:6, 10, 16; 3:3
Disobedience, 1:9
Empty talk, 1:10
Empty talk, 1:6; 5:13; 6:20
Deception, 1:10, 12
Deception, 2:14; 4:1–2
Shameful gain, 1:11
Using godliness as a means of gain, 6:5
Myths, 1:14
Myths, 1:4; 4:7
Mind and conscience defiled, 1:15
Conscience, 1:19–20; 4:2; corrupted minds, 6:5
Profess to know God, 1:16;
Turn away, 1:6; 6:20–21
turn away from truth, 1:5, 14; 3:3
Heterodoxy, 1:3; 2:4; 6:3, 5, 20
Unacceptable for God’s works, 1:16; 3:8, 14
Acceptable to God, 5:4, 10; 6:18
Controversies (foolish), 3:9
Controversy, 6:4
Genealogies, 3:9
Genealogies (endless), 1:4
Contentions and quarrels about law, 3:4, 9–11
Speculation, disputes, evil conjectures, irritations, misuse of law, 1:8; 2:8; 6:4–5, 20
Slanderers? 2:3; 3:2
Slander, 1:13, 20; 5:13; 6:4
Necessary needs, 3:14
Living luxuriously; love of money, 5:6; 6:10, 17
Human commands, 1:14–15
Ascetic-forbid marriage and foods, 4:3
Idle bellies; passion, 1:12; 2:11; 3:3
Teach good; harmful, 1:12; 2:3;
Want to teach, 1:7
Jewish myths, 1:14
Circumcision party, 1:10
Old-women’s myths; widow problems, 4:7; 5:3–16

In 1 Timothy, Paul discusses the law and the misuse of the law (1:8–10), as he does in Titus (3:9–10). However, in Titus, the circumcision party is explicitly mentioned and the Jewish aspect of the myths (1:10, 14). In contrast, in 1 Timothy, the speculative aspect of the myths is described as “old-women’s myths” (4:7). In Ephesus, difficulties with younger widows are mentioned (1 Tim 5:3–16), but not in Crete. Heterodoxy and the desire to teach are more explicit in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3, 6–7; 6:3, 5, 20). Nevertheless, both churches are dealing with controversies and quarrels that relate to genealogies and myths (Titus 1:14; 3:9; 1 Tim 1:4; 4:7).
Circumcision (peritomē; 1:10) is a symbol of the old covenant and obedience to Moses’ law. It can serve as a synecdoche to refer to Jews in general73 or to Jewish Christians in particular. But Paul argues that real circumcision is of the heart, not physical and external (Rom 2:28–29; Col 2:11). He points out that Abraham was circumcised as a symbol of imputed righteousness after he believed in God (Rom 4:11). Thus, when some Jewish believers insisted on circumcision and obedience to all of Moses’ laws and some rabbinic laws, they became a party critical of Paul and Peter. Exactly what is the Cretan circumcision party teaching? Are they requiring Gentiles to be circumcised (Gal 5:2–4; 6:12–15; Phil 3:2–5)? Are they requiring Gentiles and Jews to eat only kosher food and celebrate all Old Testament holidays? Even non-Jews in ancient times were aware of Jewish food prohibitions.77 Paul does not elaborate, although at Crete and Ephesus the teaching had to do with “Jewish myths and human commandments” that veered followers away from God’s truth (Titus 1:14). Whatever was happening in Crete, however, was motivated by “shameful gain” (1:11). Those in the circumcision party were out to please themselves by shamelessly and deceitfully seeking their own profit (1:7).
To silence (epistomizō; 1:11) has very different connotations from “silence” (hēsychia, hēsychios) in 1 Timothy 2:2, 11–12. Epistomizō literally refers to stopping up or bridling the mouth, a punishment. For example, Varus, the ruler of Syria, “punished” or “silenced” some Jews who had revolted against Caesar.79 Likewise, one of the functions of the elders was to reprove opposition (Titus 1:9, 13).
Paul then cites a Cretan as support against the wrong teachings in Crete: Someone said from out of their own, a prophet from among them: Cretans always are liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. This testimony is true (1:12–13a). Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–212) cites Epimenides’ poem Peri Chrēsmoi in Oracula as the source of the quotation (Strom. 1.14.59). Epimenides, son of Phaestius, who lived 600–500 BC, born in Knossos, Crete, was a legendary seer who was said to have lived 157 or 299 years (Diogenes Laertius 1.10.109, 111). Cicero cites him as an illustration of those who prophesy while in a frenzy (Div. 1.18.34). Ancient writers give him credit, because he had “superhuman foresight,” for a number of miraculous acts, such as stopping pestilence in Athens. Even some Cretans sacrificed to him as a god. If indeed Paul is quoting Epimenides, Paul is simply saying that his testimony about the general nature of Cretans (in ancient times) was true and applicable in this case (Titus 1:13).
The first three words of Paul’s quotation are cited by Callimachus of Cyrene (circa 310 BC), an epic poet and contemporary of Ptolemy Philadelphus, Cretans always are liars (Hymn. Jov. line 8). This idea was so proverbial in ancient times that the Greek krētizō, “to play the Cretan,” for many meant simply “to lie.” Even though some ancients might agree with the Cretan myth that many gods had their origin in Crete (Diodorus 5.46. 3), many did not appreciate the Cretan version that Zeus was buried in a tomb in Crete. Callimachus doubts that Zeus was born in Crete rather than Arcadia because the Cretans are known for their lying. He especially doubts their legend that Zeus was buried in Crete because Zeus is “forever” (line 9). Lucian cites Cretans as an illustration of “cities and whole peoples” who tell lies “unanimously and officially”: “The Cretans exhibit the tomb of Zeus and are not ashamed of it” (Philops. 3). The Jews who were overturning whole households might have been promoting their Cretan heritage. And, they did have many things to be proud of, as the earlier advanced Minoan civilization. Also, the Cretans were famous for their past laws. In Plato’s dialogue about ideal governments, he includes a representative of Crete (Clinias, along with a representative of Sparta-Megillus of Lacedaemon, and, of course, himself as the “Athenian Stranger”). Cretans claimed that Zeus gave his laws directly to King Minos.84 The laws of the Cretans were held in “superlatively high repute among all the Hellenes.” Nevertheless, there was an underside to Crete.
To what is Paul referring when he agrees with the accusation of evil beasts (thērion) and idle bellies (gastēr [1:12])? For ancient Greeks, thēr referred to a beast of prey, such as a lion or a monster. A thērion (a “little animal”) often referred to a “wild animal,” including even elephants. In the Bible, thērion is used as early as Genesis 1 to refer to animals that were not four-footed animals (cattle) or reptiles or birds. They were brought for protection by pairs into the ark (Gen 6:20; 7:14). Some were unclean. Sometimes the word referred to all wild animals (Lev 17:13; Jas 3:7). The snake was one example (Gen 3:2; Acts 28:4–5). Thus, thērion generally referred to animals, especially wild animals. The adjective evil limits the type of animal. This would be a harmful animal. God mentions four means of judgment: sword, famine, pestilence, and evil beasts/animals (Ezek 14:21). Thus, an evil beast is an animal harmful to humans or domesticated animals. Sometimes, people are described as living like “wild animals,” or being treated as animals.91 Paul’s reference, of course, is clearly a negative metaphor. Probably he would understand “evil beasts” in its Old Testament context, comparing these false teachers to destructive animals who destroy people by attacking them and destroying their healthy faith.
Plato, in his dialogue about the ideal government, mentions how the common meals and gymnasia in Crete (though beneficial in many ways) also could be quite harmful, corrupting “the pleasures of love which are natural not to humans only but also natural to beasts” (thērion). He mentions that these state structures encouraged pleasures “contrary to nature when male mates with male or female with female, and that those first guilty of such enormities were impelled by their slavery to pleasure. And we all accuse the Cretans of concocting the story about Ganymede” (Leg. I.636B–C). In this myth, Zeus, disguised as an eagle, takes Ganymede, a handsome youth, tending his flock, away with him. Plato appears to allude to a Cretan custom where a young man, with the aid of his friends, abducts another young man. He is given presents and taken away where for two months they feast and hunt. The abducted man is honored as “those who were chosen as stand-bys,” the abductor is called “lover.” However, not all in the ancient world would see this practice as admirable—certainly Plato did not (at least in this referral). Paul would not.93
The second descriptive phrase would also remind the reader of eating, since gastēr refers to the belly or “paunch,” the belly, especially “as craving food,” or “the womb.” Elsewhere in the New Testament, gastēr only refers to the wombs of pregnant women. Argē, argos is used in 1 Tim 5:13 for the young widows who do not pray but instead are idle, not having productive ways to spend their time. This is the same adjective that James uses to describe faith without action. It is “fallow” (2:20 vs. 1:21 “implanted”). Jesus uses it for laborers who have no work to do (Matt 20:3). Therefore, the phrase literally refers to “inactive bellies” or “stomachs that do not work” (people who eat but do not use their energy for work) or “wombs that do not bear children.” Consequently, evil beasts, idle bellies could allude to the pleasure-seeking Cretan lifestyle. Polybius describes the Cretan “point of view” to be one of only self-interest (Hist. 8.16.5–8). No wonder these opponents were seeking their own shameful gain (1:7, 11).
How is it possible that those in the circumcision party could be known for pleasure-seeking? Paul apparently thought it possible when he challenged some Jews who thought they were teachers to the ignorant: “Will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ ” (Rom 2:21–24; NRSV). He also claimed that those who required circumcision were avoiding persecution for the cross of Christ (Gal 6:12). They remove “the offense of the cross” (Gal 5:11). Sometimes those who insist on “self-abasement” (Col 2:18) are the very same people who indulge their flesh. Paul warns that regulations appear to help in promoting piety, but “they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col 2:23; TNIV).
Because many, especially of the circumcision party, are disobedient to God’s truth, talk without teaching God’s truth, and deceive people, Titus needs to: rebuke them rigorously, in order that they may be healthy in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and human commandments, turning for themselves away (being turned away) from the truth (1:13b–14). People can err either on the side of harsh narrow-mindedness or lax permissiveness. The promotion of truth necessitates a balance between compassion and integrity. In Titus, the goal is health, healthy faith and healthy teaching (1:9, 13; 2:1–2, 8). Good health is a reoccurring and helpful metaphor in the Pastorals. God warned the Israelites that “I am the Lord who heals” those who obey his statutes (Exod 15:26). Jesus explained that he ate with sinners because, like a physician, his intention was to heal the sick (Luke 5:30–31). Good health necessitates honest diagnosis and a rigorous program of avoiding unhealthy habits and foods and promoting healthy habits and foods. In the same way, spiritual health requires individuals (Titus) and groups of people (elders/overseers) who are vigilant to do something about teachings that turn people away from the truth. Frequently elenchō (rebuke) is balanced off by parakaleō (“encourage”) because a good physician promotes health and discourages sickness (e.g., 1:9). Elenchō has to do with bringing deeds and thoughts out in the open for clarity and truth (e.g., John 3:20; Eph 5:11, 13). The secrets of the heart are disclosed by prophetic teaching (1 Cor 14:24–25). Titus and the elders are assisted by prophets (1 Cor 14:24–25), the law (Jas 2:9), and the Holy Spirit (John 16:8–11). But the intention is not malicious; rather, conviction of sin is done out of a relationship of love, like a parent’s love for a child: to build up, not simply to tear down. The process helps to maintain a right attitude: to win over the Christian brother or sister.98 Jesus explains that the first confrontation should be private, then two or three witnesses should be included (Matt 18:15–16; also Deut 19:15). Then, the leadership should evaluate the situation, and, finally, the whole congregation should be a witness (Deut 19:16–20; 1 Tim 5:20). Only after all these stages should the person be “silenced” or treated as an outsider (Titus 1:11; Matt 18:17).
The use of apotomōs (rigorously) indicates that the problems at Crete are serious and persistent. They are serious because they cause people to turn away from the knowledge of the truth that gives eternal life (Titus 1:14, 1–2). They are persistent because a gentle explanation is not enough. But Titus has already shown he has the qualities of compassion and integrity when working with the Christians at Corinth who also had serious and persistent spiritual problems (2 Cor 7:13–16; 8:16–17).
The opposite of healthy or sound faith is paying attention to Jewish myths and human commandments (1:14). Mythos (myth) could simply refer to a “tale, story, narrative,” but, in this context, Paul treats it as “fiction,” “legend,” of which the opposite is logos or “historic truth.” The Bible contrasts it with God’s oikonomia, God’s principles (1 Tim 1:4), and the truth (2 Tim 4:4; 2 Pet 1:16). The secular Cretan had many myths about which they were proud, such as about Zeus. They used the myths as bases for their actions, as “sound” Jews use God’s written revelation as a basis for actions. Myth, thus, became a “didactic literary genre.”101 Therefore, possibly the Cretan “Jewish-Christian opponents were creating speculative doctrines based on stories of ancient OT heroes and using them to lend the weight of antiquity to certain questionable practices that Paul regarded as ungodly.”102 In a similar fashion, Jesus criticized the Pharisees who, abandoning God’s command, held on to human tradition (Mark 7:8).
Scholars who agree Paul wrote the Pastoral Letters have suggested that these Jewish false teachers could have been similar to (a) Essenes, (b) Hellenistic Jews, or (c) proto-gnostics. Many Essenes did not marry, were ascetic, had food and Sabbath restrictions, were hierarchical, and thought matter was evil.104 The Book of Jubilees (circa 160–50 BC) is a proto-Essene document that illustrates many of the false Jewish teachers’ concerns. It is a paraphrase or commentary (midrash) of parts of Genesis and Exodus. However, in contrast to Genesis, its main focus is the law. Those who “search out the Law” will be persecuted (1:12) and when children begin again “to search the law” God’s blessed time will have arrived (Jub 23:26; cf. Titus 3:9; Gal 4:21; 5:18). Jubilees highlights the importance of observing the Sabbath (Jub 2:24–33; 50:1–13; vs. Col 2:16), observing the moon and time (6:32–38; 49:10), and not eating blood (6:11–14; 7:27–33; 21:18–20; vs. Col 2:16). Circumcision is also indispensable (15:25–34; 16:25). Uncircumcised men cannot be forgiven. It is an “eternal error.” Hebrew is “the tongue of creation” (Jub 12:26; vs. 2 Cor 11:22). The author shows a fascination with angels (Jub 2:2, 18; 15:27; cf. Col 2:18). Perfection is possible (e.g., Abraham 23:10; Jacob 35:12; cf. Titus 3:5; Phil 3:8–9). True Israelites are to keep separate from Gentiles and not even eat with them (Jub 22:16; 30:7; vs. Gal 2:12–13).
Certainly, we cannot determine the particular books used at Crete or Ephesus, but Jubilees exemplifies the type of thinking that would be similar to the Judaizers in Crete and Ephesus.
Some second-century gnostics such as the Encratites abstained from marriage and animal food. Full-blown Gnosticism was a second-century phenomenon, but some proto-gnostics lived in the first century, such as Simon Magus and Cerinthus. Simon, a Samaritan, who in Acts already demonstrated his interest in “shameful gain” (Titus 1:11; Acts 8:18–20), was considered by Irenaeus the person “from whom all heresies got their start.” Holding to elements of reincarnation, docetism, and syncretism (Haer. 1.23.2, 4), Simon saw himself as “Father on high” who gave birth to “Thought” (Helen), who gave birth to Angels and Powers, who kept her from returning to her “Father on high” (Haer. 1.23.2). According to Irenaeus, the “mystic priests of these people live licentious lives and practice magic” (Haer. 1.23.4). Cerinthus, unlike Simon, appeared to be Jewish and was “enslaved to lusts and pleasure” (Euseb. Hist. eccl. 3.28 [2]; 7.25 [3]). He thought the world was not created by the first God, thereby appearing to treat matter as evil (Irenaeus, Haer. 1.26.1; cf. 1 Tim 4:3–5). Jesus died, but not “Christ” (Haer. 1.26.1). Thus, the Simonians might illustrate the focus on genealogies, and Cerinthians a low view of matter, but neither illustrated the Jewish quarrels about the law.

Minds and Consciences Are Defiled (1:15–16)

These teachers who claim to know God were seeing things that were clean or pure and treating them as unclean or impure because their own minds and consciences were soiled: All things are pure to the pure ones; but to the defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure, but also their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but they are denying his works, being abominable and disobedient and unacceptable for every good work (1:15–16). Paul uses imagery from the Old Testament sacrificial system, as Hebrews explains: “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22; TNIV). Katharos, -a, -on, katharizō (pure) can refer to “clear” or “clean,” but it also refers to ritual purity, such as a purified cup (Matt 23:25–26), or “clean” food, or a body free of leprosy.113 The opposite is defiled. The circumcision party (Titus 1:10) would be concerned for ritual purity, which would be met by such things as circumcision, kosher food and drink, and festival observation (e.g., Col 2:16–23). In contrast, Jesus’ blood given in behalf of sin results in genuinely purified or “cleaned” people, evidenced by their enthusiasm to do good (Titus 2:14). The focus, then, is taken away from external to internal purity. Thus, those who have been purified by Jesus’ atoning death now see all through purified inner selves. As Jesus explained, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21–23; NRSV). In the same way, as Jesus challenged the Pharisees and scribes who were concerned for the ritual external purity of the drinking and eating utensils while they remained internally greedy and self-indulgent (Matt 23:25–26), Paul challenged the circumcision party who chastised ritual impurity in the church while inwardly they were defiled. They denied God’s works by not doing them.
They are then described by three adjectives: bdelyktos (abominable), apeithēs (disobedient), and adokimos (unacceptable) (1:16). Bdelyktos is a strong word: “He that pronounces the unjust just, and the just unjust, is unclean (akathartos) and abominable (bdelyktos) with God” (Prov 17:15 LXX). Its noun form is used to describe the sacrilege at the temple in Jerusalem in 168 BC by worshipers of Zeus (1 Macc 1:54, 59). For those who are concerned for the law, to be called an “abomination,” a term employed for what is most abhorrent to God, would be shocking. But, they were people who could not be persuaded, and thus were disobedient to God’s truth (Acts 26:19). Apeithēs is the negation of peithos (“persuasive”). Paul will later describe himself as formerly apeithēs (Titus 3:3). And, finally, they are adokimos (“not approved” or “accepted”). As an athlete prepares to enter and win a race, a Christian should prepare to do good actions that merit God’s approval (1 Cor 9:24–27). But false teachings do not lead to good actions. The false teachers are unacceptable, they have failed the test (2 Cor 13:5)!

Fusing the Horizons: The Place of Education

What is the value of education? Education prevents deception and clarifies what we should believe and do. Orthodoxy affects orthopraxy. But, are orthodox people like a cement block? Do they become fixed, immovable, merciless, without life? Or, are the orthodox like a healthy body, which can move easily, be flexible, compassionate, alive? Paul uses the latter image in the Pastoral Letters.
Many across the globe are attracted to the awesomeness of the Triune God and the good news. However, they are not always discipled, educated, and helped to mature. Sometimes it is the fault of the new believer. They think they now own a card that they can show God and others: “The bearer of this card will receive grace no matter what they say or do.” Sometimes it is the fault of the evangelist: “I bring them in. God takes care of them from now on.” However, such attitudes make the new believer like a newborn who is cast out into the street to live on its own resources. Sometimes it is the fault of the church: “Just come to services to worship, bring your body, bring your money, take your seat.” The new believers may grow a bit, but they remain infants their whole lives. Sometimes the church does not have enough people to disciple the new believers. They may be busy with other matters or simply disorganized. The Pastoral Letters reiterate the importance of educating people in the truth, even as God had insisted on education in the old covenant. God’s law was regularly to be taught in the home by the adults and in the community by the priests and before the whole assembly by the religious leaders (e.g., Deut 31:12–13a).



But you are speaking what is appropriate to healthy teaching (2:1). But (de) is a strong adversative here. Titus is emphasized. He, unlike the opponents (1:9), should be speaking what is appropriate to healthy teaching, described in 2:1–3:8, not the unhealthy teaching described earlier (1:10–16). Chapter 2 begins the second major section of the letter. The first major section is more negative, dealing with setting straight what was remaining to be done (1:5–16). This next major section is more positive, dealing with teaching what is consistent with healthy doctrine (2:1–3:11). The first subsection deals with specific groups in the churches, the second subsection deals with the churches as a whole, and the third subsection deals with Titus specifically.

Godly Behavior among the Elders, Youth, and Slaves (2:1–15)

Paul recommends Titus speak to five groups: male and female elders, female and male youth, and slaves: (Encourage) elders (males) to be sober, honorable, wise, healthy in faith, in love, in perseverance; (encourage) elders (females), likewise, to be in demeanor holy, not slanderous, and not enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, in order that they exhort the young (females) to be loving their husbands, loving their children, wise, pure, working at home, good, being subject to their own husbands, in order that God’s word not be blasphemed (2:2–5).
What is the relationship between the male (presbytēs [2:2]) and female (presbytis [2:3]) elders to the “elders” of chapter one (presbyteros [1:5])? All terms go back to the root presbys (an old person or elder). Presbyteros is the comparative of presbys, literally, “the older one” or “elder of two,” as in Luke 15:25. Presbytēs and presbytis are the masculine and feminine prose forms of presbys. Do the forms in Titus 2 refer to church leadership positions (male and female “elders”) or simply to age (“old men,” “old women”)? Many English translations render the latter. However, the former is also possible. Why? First, in ancient times deference was given to elders simply because of their age.5 Second, in the same way as presbyteros could refer to leadership positions or to age, presbytēs could refer to age or to leadership positions. Although the Bible does have several references where presbytēs refers simply to age, other references clearly refer to ambassadors or envoys, as the “elders” of the ruler from Babylon who visited Hezekiah (2 Chr 32:31; LXX) and elders representing the Jews to Sparta and to Rome (1 Macc 14:22; 15:17; LXX). Even the envoys from Rome are called “elders” (2 Macc 11:34; LXX). Elders (presbytēs) are also mentioned at the city gate where judgments were made in Israel (Job 29:7–8; Lam 5:14; LXX). When Paul calls himself presbytēs, some translators render it “ambassador” (REB, TEV), while others “old man”/ “aged” (NRSV, NIV, TNIV, KJV) (Phlm 9).
The feminine presbytis occurs only in Titus 2:3 in the Bible. Were women ever called “elder” implying a leadership position in ancient times? One heroic “aged” (gēraia) mother of seven sons was called by the author of 4 Maccabees an “elder” (presbytis) even though a woman (4 Macc 16:14). At Crete, a female, Sophia of Gortyn, is described on a plaque as “elder (presbytera) and ruler of the synagogue.” A woman, Mannine of Venosa, thirty-eight-years-old, is described as an “elder” in a cemetery in Italy. Brooten found six or seven Jewish women “elders” spread over a wide geographical area. In the early years after the New Testament, female elders had leadership in the church.
If presbytēs and presbytis in Titus 2 refer to leadership positions, how do they relate to the qualifications in 1:6–9? In the same way as Paul describes the ministers/deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8–10 in a general way first and then goes on to describe the female and male distinctive qualities (3:11, 12), also in Titus, Paul first describes the general qualities of an elder/overseer (1:6–9) and then goes on to highlight qualities on which the men (2:2) and the women (2:3) need to work. Another way to understand the passage is that, in the same way as everyone is encouraged to seek an overseeing office (episcopēs) in 1 Timothy 3:1, but then the distinctive qualities of overseer (episcopos) and minister/deacon (diakonos) are delineated in 3:2–13, so the elders, youth, and slaves are encouraged to seek positive qualities that would make them eligible to serve as Christian leaders.

Comparison of Qualities in Titus 2:2–10 with Those Needed for Elder and Minister/Deacon

Male elders (presbytēs [2:2])
Female elders (presbytis [2:3])
1. sober
(elder, Titus 1:7; 1 Tim 3:2, 3; minister/deacon, 1 Tim 3:8, 11)
1. in demeanor holy
(elder, Titus 1:8)
2. honorable
(minister/deacon, 1 Tim 3:8)
2. not slanderous
(minister/deacon 1 Tim 3:11)
3. wise
(elder, Titus 1:8; 1 Tim 3:2)
3. not enslaved to much wine
(elder, Titus 1:7; 1 Tim 3:2, 3; minister/deacon 1 Tim 3:8, 11)
4. healthy in:
a. faith
(elder, Titus 1:9; minister/deacon, 1 Tim 3:11)
4. teaching what is good (elder, Titus 1:8; 1 Tim 3:2)
b. love
c. perseverance
(elder, Titus 1:7; 1 Tim 3:3)

Qualities for elders/overseers are evident throughout Titus 2:2–10: self-controlled limiting of consumption of intoxicating substances (elders), honor, wisdom (male elders, young women and men), faithfulness (male elders and slaves), love (male elders and young women), perseverance, holiness (female elders and young women), ability to teach (female elders), household-oriented, not being self-pleasing, not being disobedient, and not seeking selfish financial gain. Yet the male and female elders have distinctive aspects of their Christian walk to which they had to pay attention. Only women in these lists are challenged not to be slanderous (Titus 2:3; 1 Tim 3:11).
Paul highlights six qualities important for the male elder: to be sober, honorable, wise, healthy in faith, in love, in perseverance (2:2). A recurring topic at Crete and Ephesus is the necessity not to become intoxicated, but rather to remain sober. If one is sober, then the second quality is more likely—to be honorable or godly. Semnos has been translated by such diverse terms as “honorable, serious, dignified, and holy.” It describes the ideal minister/deacon (male and female, 1 Tim 3:8, 11), children (1 Tim 3:4), male elder (Titus 2:2), teaching (Titus 2:7), and all Christians (1 Tim 2:2). The noun, like its verb form (sebō) properly refers to God or the gods.14 Thus, semnos can refer to the feeling of awe or reverence before God. In the New Testament, semnos is always used in a positive sense. Luke uses it in Acts to describe the Gentile converts to Judaism, such as Lydia (16:14) and Titius Justus (18:7), the “God-fearers” (13:43; 17:4, 17), and to the respectable, august, or honorable women of Pisidian Antioch (13:50). Thus, semnos appears to be an aspect of God that humans should have. More than “serious,” it is “august.” It is a synonym for “godliness” (1 Tim 2:2) and “uncorrupted” (Titus 2:7). We are to think of whatever is honorable or godly or awesome (Phil 4:8) so that we can become honorable, godly, and awesome ourselves. This is true for all Christians, and certainly Christian leaders.
Wisdom permeates every aspect of leadership. Even though it is twelfth on the list for an elder in Titus as opposed to fourth on the list for an elder in Ephesus, nevertheless, Paul repeats it as an important quality for male elders and young women and men. Although one would expect this word-family to be more frequent in the New Testament, it occurs only sixteen times, ten of which are in the Pastoral Letters.16 The basic idea in wisdom is soundness or wholeness of mind, as the opposite of lunacy. In Attic especially, it refers to having control over the sensual desires, having moderation and self-control. The elder who keeps away from intoxication and dwells on godly attributes (Titus 2:2) will then be able to have a mature mind directed by self-control. In the New Testament, this quality is necessary for all, male and female, young and old. It is a prerequisite to prayer (1 Pet 4:7). Unfortunately, some translators will chose an aspect of wisdom to highlight when addressing particular groups of people. Mature men are to be “prudent” (Titus 2:2; NRSV) and “reasonable” (Acts 26:25; NIV), whereas women are to have “propriety, decency, modesty” (1 Tim 2:9, 15; NRSV, NIV) and the young are to have “self-control, self-discipline” (Titus 2:5–6; 2 Tim 1:7; NRSV, NIV). Of course, context affects the aspect of a word a translator might want to emphasize, but the sex or age should not limit meaning because then readers fail to see the continuity of virtue desired for all men and women, younger and older, indicated by the use of the same word-family for all.
If sōphrōn has to do with soundness of mind, hygiainō has to do with soundness of body. Both have to do with good health. The male elder has “to be in good health” when it comes to faith, love, and perseverance (2:2). Healthy or “sound” faith has already been mentioned as a goal in this letter for all. The three attributes of faith, love, and perseverance occur together once in each Pastoral Letter, referring in Titus to the elders (2:2), in 1 Timothy to Timothy (6:11), and in 2 Timothy to Paul (3:10). Faith and love are two of three qualities that persist longer than any spiritual gift (1 Cor 13:8–13). The content of faith has been summarized in 1 Tim 3:16. But since God is truth and love, love is necessary to work together with faith. Now, as well, the elder needs to persevere in faith and love with a constancy that persists through testing, cares, riches, pleasures, and persecution (Luke 8:13–15; 21:12–19).
The list for the female elders is connected with the list for the male elders by “likewise”: (encourage) elders (females), likewise, to be in demeanor holy, not slanderous, and not enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good (2:3). Thus, although Paul highlights distinctive qualities for each, yet their function as elders is similar. In 1 Timothy the likewise indicates that the women are to pray as the men (2:8–9), the ministers/deacons need leadership qualities similar to the overseer’s (3:8), and the female ministers/deacons need leadership qualities similar to those of the male ministers/deacons (3:11). The likewise also indicates that Titus is to encourage the female elders as much as he does the male elders.
Paul places the prepositional phrase in demeanor first (2:3), therefore highlighting it. Katastēma, occurring only here in the Bible, refers to an external bodily or mental state. For instance, some elephants were driven to a maniacal state by external inducements (3 Macc 5:45). Or, Alexandra, mother of Queen Mariamne, wife of King Herod, changed her behavior from boldly supportive of her daughter to critical of her (Josephus, Ant. 15.7 [232–34]). But Paul does not advise the women elders to display criticism or a maniacal state—rather a steady behavior of holiness.
The neuter form, hieron, is always used in the New Testament literally for the temple in Jerusalem (e.g., Matt 21:23). If indeed all believers are members of God’s “holy priesthood,” then certainly women elders also need to act appropriately to a priestly vocation, in other words, in a holy or reverent manner. Hieroprepēs signifies “appropriate to a sacred place.” It is a synonym for semnos (Titus 2:2).
The opposite of a holy demeanor, which is fleshed out in teaching what is good (2:3), is being slanderous (diabolos) and enslaved to much wine. Normally diabolos (with the article) refers to the devil. Jesus told some religious leaders that the devil “was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44; NRSV). In Ephesians, the devil’s schemes work against truth, righteousness, peace, and faith (Eph 6:11, 14–16). He is called “that ancient serpent,” “the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9).
The devil’s character is implied by aspects of the Letter to Titus. The devil would encourage wildness, disobedience, attack, self-pleasure, anger (cf. Eph 4:26–27), drinking, fighting, shameful gain, opposition, deception, lying, evil, idleness, false teachings, envy, hate, and lawlessness. In contrast, Paul encourages faith, truth, godliness, eternal life, grace, peace, salvation, goodness, wisdom, righteousness, holiness, self-control, honor, love, and perseverance (1:1–4, 8; 2:2–3). Thus, when Paul calls for women elders not to slander, he is calling for them not to act in a diabolical way. The verb diaballō highlights one aspect of the devil’s character—lying about another person, thereby breaking the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod 20:16; NRSV). Slander, from a biblical perspective, is a larger concept, referring to deception and lying that promotes the devil’s kingdom, which would affect the implementation of many of the Ten Commandments, including having gods before the Lord, promoting murder (of character at least), and, as well, bearing false witness (Exod 20:3, 13, 16).
The Pastoral Letters use a couple of synonyms that relate to drinking: nēphalios (Titus 2:2; 1 Tim 3:2, 11) and paroinos (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim 3:3). In Titus, the male elders are encouraged to be “sober” (nēphalios), while female elders are encouraged not to be enslaved to much wine (Titus 2:3).
Instead of wasting their time being drunk, the female elders are to teach (2:3). Didaskalos is the same root word used in 1 Tim 2:12. The difference is that in Crete the women are encouraged to teach what is good (kalodidaskalos), whereas the women at Ephesus were forbidden from teaching what is bad. The elder/overseer was to love what is good (philagathos, 1:8). The next step would be to teach what is good (2:3).
What is the purpose of teaching what is good? Paul answers with two adverbial clauses, one stresses the positive (in order that they exhort the young (females) to be loving their husbands, loving their children, wise, pure, working at home, good, being subject to their own husbands) and the second avoids the negative (in order that God’s word not be blasphemed) (2:4–5). The first purpose of the teaching is to help the younger women become wise. Exhort (sōphronizō) literally is to cause one to become wise or to recall or bring people to their senses. At first glance, for the young women to be exhorted to love their husbands and children seems to apply to a domestic role limited to the female sex. However, the male elders also are encouraged to be “healthy” “in love” (2:2). In contrast to Crete, where the wives are challenged to love their husbands (2:4), in Ephesians 5, the husbands are challenged to love their wives (Eph 5:25, 28, 33). The situation of women varied among the differing ancient cultures. Cretan marriage was a public, state-controlled ceremony, involving those who belonged to the same age-grade and same social class. However, the wives usually did not join the husbands’ homes until later when the young women had learned how to manage household affairs.28 Most marriages were arranged. For example, in Xenophon’s Oeconomics, the husband says to the wife, “I took you and your parents gave you to me” to obtain “the best partner of home and children” (Oec. 7.11). Thus, love for one’s husband had to be learned. Paul places responsibility for the training on the female elders. Neither Titus nor the husbands teach the women (cf. Xenophon, Oec. 7.8–9), nor the mothers, as we might expect. Paul wanted Christian models for the younger women.
A Christian’s responsibility to one’s family is very important. One’s spouse and children are one’s closest neighbor (“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Matt 22:39). Similarly, elders are to be a “one-woman man, having faithful children, not in accusation of wildness or disobedience” (Titus 1:6; and 1 Tim 3:2, 4–5). Love is the greatest motivator both for the one loving and the one being loved.
If one is sound of mind (wise, sōphrōn, 2:5) with self-control (also needed by elders/overseers [1:8; 1 Tim 3:2]), then one result will be purity. Purity is important for elders too (1:8; 2:2). Five different synonyms for “holy/pure” are used in Titus for leaders (hosios [1:8], semnos [2:2], hieroprepēs [2:3], and, for the youth, leaders-in-training, (hagnē [2:5] and aphthoria [2:7]). Hagnē (adjective) and the verb (hagnizō) go back to the Old Testament to the vow of separation with purity to the Lord. Men or women could make this vow for a certain time by abstaining from all products made from the vine, not cutting their hair, not coming near a dead body, and, finally, bringing offerings to the temple (Num 6:2–21). Or, Levites would purify themselves by washing their garments (Num 8:21). Certain symbolic acts were done to demonstrate one’s devotion to God. The same adjective is used for Jesus (1 John 3:3), Timothy (1 Tim 5:22), Paul, a wise teacher or a godly minister (Jas 3:17; 2 Cor 6:6), and betrothed virgins (2 Cor 11:2; 4 Macc 18:7). The young women in Crete who received the charge to be pure could be married, but they could also be betrothed, getting prepared for marriage. Peter also uses hagnē to describe the ideal conduct of wives who are trying to win over their unbelieving husbands (1 Pet 3:1–2). There is a lot of similarity between the situation of the wives in 1 Peter and those in Titus. Both are called to be pure in conduct (1 Pet 3:1–2; Titus 2:5), good, submissive to their husbands in order to “win over” someone (in 1 Peter the husband, in Titus maybe the husband but definitely a larger group).

How a Wife Can Win over Nonbelievers

1 Peter 3:1–6
Titus 2:5
won over without a word
in order that God’s word may not be blasphemed
being subject to own husbands
being subject to own husbands
pure conduct
do good

Thus, a key component in these instructions is evangelism. Evangelism is an important element of the whole letter of Titus (and 1 Peter) and an important motivator for the behavior of all leaders. The elders/overseers must not be “open to attack” (1:6–7) and children “not in accusation of wildness or disobedience” (1:6). Titus models good behavior for the leadership to follow so the opponent cannot say “evil” concerning them (2:8). Since the goal of the elders’ exhortation is for God’s word not to be blasphemed (2:5), one would expect that the qualities exhorted in the young women would be positively viewed by the larger society. For instance, Xenophon’s ideal wife says her mother told her, her duty is to be wise (sōphroneō; Oec. 7.14).
Hypotassō (verb) and its noun (hypotagē; submit) are used in the Pastoral Letters for wives to husbands (2:5), slaves to masters (2:9), the ruled to ruling authorities (3:1), students to teachers (1 Tim 2:11), and children to parents (1 Tim 3:4). The New Testament never commands one adult human to subject another adult human.
In contrast to some in the larger society, Paul has Titus address his words to females directly (2:3), whereas Aristotle, for example, addresses his to male masters (Pol. I.ii.2 [1253b]). Aristotle uses the language of one human ruling another in the household (archō, Pol. I. ii. 8, 12 [1254a–b]), which Paul does not. Although hypotassō can be used for hierarchical relationships, it can also be used for mutual or equal authorities, as prophets who are subject to other prophets, allowing each other to speak and evaluate each other’s message (1 Cor 14:29–33), Christians to Christians (Eph 5:21), the Son and the Father (1 Cor 15:27–28), the people served and those serving in ministry (Corinthians and Stephana’s household, 1 Cor 16:15–18). Wives, along with other Christians, are exhorted to be supportive presences in actions and words. They are respectively to cooperate with their husbands, treating them as valuable. This is particularly important (and challenging) in a society where the father or husband was the paterfamilias or chief priest who held the power of life and death over the entire household.
Paul encouraged the young women to work in the household (oikourgos; 2:5). In contrast to postindustrial societies, in ancient times all people worked in the household, as Xenophon explains, husband and wife are “partners (koinōnos) in the household (oikos).” Xenophon goes on to explain that men work outdoors, while women work indoors (Oec. 7.30), however, the outdoors and the indoors are all part of the household. In contrast, the model of an ideal biblical, capable wife works both outdoors and indoors (Prov 31:13–27). According to Xenophon, the landed Greek wife is responsible to supervise and care for all the household workers, manage the budget, oversee the making of clothes and the quality of the raw food, teach spinning and housekeeping to the workers, and organize storage of supplies.36 A Jewish wife was required to grind flour, bake bread, wash clothes, cook food, nurse their child, make ready the husband’s bed, and work in wool unless she could afford household workers to help (m. Ketub. 5:5). Moreover, women would often participate in a joint business with their husbands (e.g., Prisca and Aquila—tentmakers, Acts 18:3). The women were rulers of the household (1 Tim 5:14) and thus could not be idle (1 Tim 5:13). The rabbis agreed “idleness leads to unchastity” and “idleness leads to lowness of spirit” (m. Ketub. 5:5). Their basis may be King Lemuel’s mother, who said: the capable wife “does not eat the bread of idleness” (Prov 31:27).
Early Christians, like Christians today, were concerned that God’s revelation not be treated in a disrespectful way. Blaspheme (2:5) can be used for disrespectful language about God (e.g., Rev 13:6) or about other human beings. With respect to the young women being loving toward husband and children, wise, pure, active, good, and respectful to husbands (Titus 2:5), Paul was trying to stem opposition to the faith.
Paul now finally clarifies what action Titus is to do: encourage: the younger ones (probably males), likewise, to be wise concerning all, showing yourself a model of good works, in the teaching—pure, honorable, beyond reproach, with a healthy message, in order that the opponent might be ashamed, not having evil to say concerning us (2:6–8). If the female elders are compared to the male elders by the use of likewise (2:3), now the male youth are compared to the female youth (2:6). The young men, like the young women, as well as the elders, are to be wise concerning all (2:7). Concerning all appears to summarize all the previous lists: young men, in every area of your life implement everything that applies to you which I have already stated to the others. If the elder women are models for the younger women, Titus is a comparable model for the younger men. They are like “brothers” (1 Tim 5:1). Education by model is a most effective means of communication, especially to those who are one’s equal.

Comparison of the Models of Timothy and Titus

1 Timothy 4:12
To all believers
Titus 2:7–8
To believing younger men
in word
good works
in conduct
in the teaching—pure
in love
in faith
beyond reproach in healthy message
in purity

The women at Ephesus were having more difficulty with heterodoxy, thus, Timothy has to be a model for all believers, whereas at Crete, the elder women can share the educational burden with Titus. The first priority for Titus is orthopraxy (right action), in contrast to Timothy’s priority which is orthodoxy (right doctrine). The opponents in Crete were confessing knowledge of God but their actions did not demonstrate their beliefs (1:16). Thus, Titus first had to work on acting like a Christian. Titus’ good actions do not save him (3:5), but they are the goal and evidence of salvation (2:14; 3:1, 8, 14). The second priority for Titus is teaching. Doctrine is important in both Crete and Ephesus at this time. As elders must teach healthy doctrine (1:9), so must Titus (2:1, 7). The unhealthy teaching of the opponents was overturning whole households (1:11). It was destructive. In contrast, Titus’ teaching was not to be destructive (phtheirō), rather, indestructible or uncorrupted, sound (2:7, aphthoria). Then, Titus was to be honorable (semnotēs, 2:7), as the male elders (2:2). And, finally, even as his actions are to be good, so must Titus’ words be healthy (sound) and without basis for any to condemn (beyond reproach, akatagnōstos; 2:8). Not being open to attack has been an important quality for leaders in Crete because there are opponents there (1:6, 7, 9) and God’s word could be criticized (2:5). Earlier the elder is encouraged to be able to reprove those who oppose (1:9). Now, Titus’ actions, teaching, honor, and words might be so effective as to shame and silence (entrepō; 2:8) the opponent. Although Crete had a number of opponents (1:9), Titus can win them one by one (the opponent; 2:8). An opponent is like a strong wind that could turn over one’s boat (enantios; Matt 14:24; Acts 27:4). The goal is not to be “turned” oneself but to make the opponent “turn about” or be shamed and show respect to oneself.
The final group that Titus needs to encourage to do what is appropriate to healthy teaching is slaves: slaves—to their own masters, to be subject in all, to be well-pleasing, not opposing, not misappropriating for themselves, but demonstrating for themselves every good trust, in order that they might honor the teaching, the one of our Savior God, in all (2:9). The household and the larger Cretan society had free citizens, serfs, and slaves. The Cretan Gortyn Code refers to woikeus, a person attached to the household (oikos), and a dolos, a “serf” or “slave.” Dolos could refer to the household woikeus or commercial chattel slave (slaves who were bought and sold like other commodities; e.g., Rev 18:13). Legal marriage was not allowed between chattel slaves but the serf family could marry, divorce, and own property. Free citizens could pay a debt by becoming slaves, pledging themselves voluntarily (katakeimenos; e.g., 1 Cor 7:23), or being condemned to bondage (nenikamenos; e.g., Matt 18:23–25). Serfs had similar rights to a free citizen except they were restricted from military aspects such as gymnastic exercises and possession of arms and required to pay tribute to a landlord. Their status was between that of a full citizen and chattel slave. Serfs in Crete, unlike other ancient areas, did not successfully revolt. A slave was not recognized by the law as a responsible person in his own right and could own no property. Cretans called urban slaves chrysonetoi (“persons bought for gold”). Some people were enslaved as prisoners of war (Aristotle, Pol. I.II.18 [1255a]; 2 Macc 8:10–11). When Cretan piracy increased in Hellenistic times, kidnapping people increased because slave trading was a profitable business. However, piracy was largely terminated by the Romans by the first century AD. Paul’s directions in Titus could be addressed to people, then, in a variety of situations, from serfs to house slaves to chattel slaves, from those voluntarily in their positions to those unjustly placed in their positions.
In striking contrast to Aristotle who writes from the master’s perspective (Pol. I.ii.2–4 [1253b]), 1 Timothy 6:1–2 and Titus 2:9–10 only address slaves, whereas Ephesians 6:5–9 and Colossians 3:22–4:1 address slaves and masters, and 1 Peter 2:16–25 addresses free and slave. Both 1 Timothy 6:1 and Titus 2:9 limit the topic to the slaves’ own masters, whereas, since 1 Peter 2:18 is addressed to “household slaves,” Peter assumes that the submission is limited to one’s own master. Only Titus and 1 Timothy call the masters despotēs, as opposed to kyrios. Only Titus and Colossians describe the obedience/submission to be in all/everything. Titus has a number of unique commands, to the slave not to be opposing nor misappropriating, but instead showing good faith or trustworthiness.
Like the younger women, the slaves are to subject or submit themselves (2:9). First Peter 2:17 orients the attitude of free and slave and helps define hypotassō in 1 Peter 2:18 in the same way that Ephesians 5:21, mutual submission (hypotassō) orients the attitude of all Christians to one another and helps define hypotassō in Ephesians 5:22–24. First Peter 2:17 challenges all believers to “honor (timaō) everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” Thus, slaves, as all Christians, are to honor others, including their masters, and cooperate with them. Slaves, like women, were in a challenging position. Slaves could hold many responsible positions in the household. They could serve as the manager of the household.47 They could plow fields, tend sheep, cook meals, invest and develop the master’s property, collect the rent, represent the landowner or ruler, be the master’s “apostle” or messenger, and yet their duties and authority were temporary as opposed to the authority of an heir (John 8:35) and they had to carry out their master’s orders (Luke 15:22–23; Gal 4:1–2). As Paul explains: “To their own master they stand or fall” (Rom 14:4; TNIV). Thus, Paul exhorts slaves to get free if they can and he exhorts free people to try not to become a slave (1 Cor 7:21, 23). In other words, for some people slavery offered opportunities, but ultimately it was a limiting position because the slave is not free.
Thus, in the New Testament, slavery is both a positive and a negative image. Voluntary slavery to a gentle master is the positive image for Christians who are disciples or “slaves” of Jesus Christ. It is also an exemplary image for humble leadership.50 Many believers are called or call themselves “slaves” of God. However, when people become disciples of Jesus, no matter their previous status, now they are “beloved” brothers and sisters and friends (Phlm 16; John 15:14–15), equal to one another (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). They are infused by the Holy Spirit to become prophets (Acts 2:18). The free become slaves and the slaves become free (1 Cor 7:21–22). These were revolutionary ideas. Yet, Paul does not want to create sudden massive societal revolts. He wants gradual change. Thus, Christians are exhorted how to behave in their current societal position (1 Cor 7:17, 21). Societal change is possible, but acting in a Christ-like manner immediately is most important.
Slavery, because of its limitations, can also have negative connotations. For instance, in Titus, female elders are not to be enslaved to an intoxicating substance such as wine (2:3). Believers in general are not to be enslaved to passions and pleasures (3:3). Elsewhere, the New Testament describes sin as causing slavery or lack of freedom. The law can also enslave (Rom 7:6; Gal 5:1). Pagan gods can enslave (Gal 4:8–9). Household slavery in the ancient world was very similar to indentured service. Paul wanted to promote hard work and trustworthiness (Titus 2:10), but also teach that believers should be moving to freedom both spiritually and societally.
Many of the qualities needed for an elder (1:6–9) are reiterated in the later lists. The opposite of pleasing oneself (authadēs; Titus 1:7) is pleasing others (euarestos; 2:9). Euarestos (well-pleasing) is a positive term in biblical literature. For example, Enoch is repeatedly described as so well-pleasing to God that God “took him.” Christians are to aim to “please” God.56 Faith and good deeds please God (Heb 11:6; 13:16). Jesus always pleased the Father when on earth (arestos; John 8:29). Joseph when he was enslaved (not voluntarily) to the Egyptian Potiphar still was so “well-pleasing” to his master that Joseph was placed as manager over Potiphar’s household (Gen 39:4). Paul wants the Christian slave to follow Joseph’s example. The opposite of being well-pleasing is being opposing (antilegō; Titus 2:9). Antilegō is also used to describe the opponents to healthy teaching. Certainly the Christian slave does not want to be included in this group.
The misuse of money is a continual theme at Crete and Ephesus. The circumcision party was affected by it (1:11). The overseers/elders are to avoid shameful gain and now, as well, Christian slaves are not to misappropriate funds (nosphizō; 2:10). Even as Ananias and Sapphira “set apart” secretly (and with intent to deceive) part of the proceeds of the sale of their land (Acts 5:2–3), slaves who managed a master’s property could be tempted to do the same. Jamaicans call this the Quashie, the sense that the slave deserves to take secretly what has not been given. Although one can defend taking what one thinks is one’s due, the danger is that one becomes used to stealing and, for Paul, one does not promote Christians as demonstrating themselves to be trustworthy good people (2:10). Instead, the Christian slave should aim to honor the teaching of the Savior God. Kosmeō (honor) has a basic sense of put in order, arrange, decorate, make attractive. For the slave who works in the household and could be the house steward or manager (oikonomos; 1:7), Paul uses a metaphor, comparing the gospel with decorating a house. In the same way as someone might organize, decorate, and make attractive a house (Matt 12:44; Luke 11:25), so too by cooperating with the master, being well-pleasing, not opposing, not stealing, but showing oneself trustworthy, the Christian slave “makes attractive” or honors the teachings of God, encouraging salvation for the slave, the master, and for others.
All the principles for the slaves, as well as all the other groups, are for the final purpose of encouraging salvation for all humans: For God’s grace illuminated with saving power all humans, instructing us, in order that, having denied for ourselves the ungodliness and the alluring passions, wisely and uprightly and in a godly manner we might live in the now age, waiting for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself in behalf of us, in order that he might ransom us from every lawlessness and he might purify for himself a chosen people, an enthusiast of good works (2:11–14). Paul wants Titus to “set straight what was remaining” at the church in Crete, first, by appointing godly elders and rebuking ungodly people (1:5–16) and, second, by teaching what is consistent with healthy doctrine (2:1–3:11). Paul wants Titus to promote healthy teaching by encouraging godly behavior among the elders, youth, and slaves (2:1–15) so God’s word is not slandered. And now Paul digs down to the positive foundational principle: God’s grace illuminated with saving power all humans. As the sun and the stars illuminate (epiphainō) the darkness (Acts 27:20), so too God’s grace illuminates those living in spiritual darkness because of their sins (Luke 1:76–79). Paul (like John the Baptist [Luke 3:3–6]) may be alluding to Isaiah 40:1–6 in Titus 2:11–13. These passages include reference to the forgiveness of sins (Isa 40:1–2; Luke 3:3; Titus 2:14), making “straight” (Isa 40:3–4; Titus 2:12; 1:5; Luke 3:4), the salvific nature of God’s work (Isa 40:5; Luke 3:6; Titus 2:11), and the appearance of God’s glory (Isa 40:5–10; Titus 2:13) to all humans (Isa 40:5; Luke 3:6; Titus 2:11). Humans have seen the appearance of God’s grace in order that they be instructed. Paideuō (2:12) has to do with the daily instruction and supervision of conduct of a minor. The Cretans too were “minors” in the faith and needed to become more mature. Grace is the name of their pedagogue or tutor or governess. The limitations (or “laws”) in Titus are not ends in themselves but means to a better life.
They should live in five ways: having denied, wisely, uprightly, in a godly manner, waiting (2:12–13). Negative behavior needs to end before positive behavior begins (e.g., Eph 4:22–24; Col 3:5–17). Often deny refers to what a believer is not to do, for example, denying God by one’s actions (Titus 1:16; 1 Tim 5:8), or denying rather than confessing one’s belief in Jesus (2 Tim 2:12; Matt 10:33). Denying (arneomai) basically refers to saying “no” (e.g., Matt 26:70). But in Titus 2:12 deny refers to what a believer should do, as in Jesus’ teaching to deny oneself and take up one’s cross (Luke 9:23). Believers must say “no” to two synonyms: ungodliness (asebeia) and alluring passions (Titus 2:12). Ungodliness is the negation of worship (sebomai). Godless chatter results in godless doctrine and behavior (2 Tim 2:16–18). The Lord will judge ungodliness (Rom 1:18; Jude 15). However, since Jesus died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6), no one need remain in that state.
Kosmeō has positive connotations in Titus 2:10 where the Christian slave “makes attractive” God’s teachings. However, the adjective (kosmikos; alluring) has negative connotations in 2:12. Passions (epithymia) basically refer to strong feelings (thymos) turned “upon” (epi) something. In the New Testament largely the term has negative connotations, except where it refers to the desire to be with Christ or to be with other believers (Phil 1:23; 1 Thess 2:17). But, it can also signify an inward strong feeling that can be the cause of temptation and sin (Rom 1:24; Jas 1:14–15) if the emotion opposes God’s will (1 Pet 4:2; 1 John 2:17). The negative nature of epithymia in the New Testament is understandable because it is in the same word-family (epithymeō) used in the tenth commandment, not to “covet” or desire what belongs to one’s neighbor, whether spouse, property, workers, or animals. These desires may appear attractive to the person, but they do not result in good actions pleasing to Jesus (Titus 2:14).
The opposite of ungodliness and alluring passions are wisdom, and righteousness, and godliness. Wisdom has already been mentioned as a positive attribute for male elders (2:2), young women (2:4–5), and young men (2:6). Righteousness is also a positive attribute for elders. A sound mind (wise) would choose to please God by observing God’s commandments (becoming upright), thereby resulting in a worshipful (godly) way of living (2:12; 1:1).
While Christians refuse to keep behaving as non-Christians and instead live in ways pleasing to God, they wait expectantly. Such faithful living should affect their perspective toward the past and the present and the future (2:12–13). Prosdechomai can signify “looking forward” to an event, such as God’s kingdom (Mark 15:43), or the resurrection (Acts 24:15), or to a person, so as to “welcome” them (Luke 12:36). Jesus would eat with sinners to “welcome” them into the kingdom (Luke 15:2). Paul wanted his readers to welcome Phoebe and Epaphroditus (Rom 16:2; Phil 2:29). In the same way as devoted slaves would look forward to serve their master, Christians should look forward to serve their Master, Jesus Christ. The way to wait for Christ is to avoid behavior that displeases Jesus and proactively live in ways pleasing to Christ (Titus 2:12). In this way, the now age affects the age to come (2:12–13).
God’s grace illuminated humans with saving power because of the incarnation and return of Jesus Christ. Only God can save humans eternally. That is why humans should be living in a way to welcome Jesus’ second appearing (Acts 1:11). We have seen how both God (1:3; 2:10; 3:4) and Jesus Christ (1:4; 2:13; 3:6) are called savior. In 2:13, Jesus is called God and Savior. By a Gentile, such a title might be possible, but a devout monotheistic Jew as Paul would have undergone a great transformation to affirm one God in three Persons. As the Jewish philosopher Philo explains: the “most grievous” of all sins for Jews is “when the created and corruptible nature” of humanity was made to appear “uncreated and incorruptible … since sooner could God change into a human than a human into God” (Embassy 16 [118]).
Jesus is our Savior because he gave himself in behalf of us (2:14). Titus 2:14 alludes to Jesus’ words about himself to his disciples: “The Son of Humanity did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28). In these passages (and in 1 Tim 2:6) give (didōmi) and ransom (lytron, lytroō) occur together. In Titus, Paul brings out the personal nature of Christ’s sacrificial gift (in behalf of us) and explains the twofold purpose of the gift: in order that he might ransom us from every lawlessness and he might purify for himself a chosen people (2:14). Ransom, a significant Old Testament concept, can signify being “delivered” from enemies in a broad sense, as God “ransomed” the Israelites from the Egyptians. In this basic sense, it refers to being saved from death.75 At Passover, instead of the firstborn of the Hebrews being killed along with the firstborn of the Egyptians, the Hebrew firstborn are “ransomed” by the Levites, money, and sheep. Humans can be “redeemed” from indentured slavery.77 Humans can also be “redeemed” from iniquities (Ps 129:8) and Hades (Pss 49:15; 102:4; Hos 13:14). Those redeemed become God’s possession (Isa 43:1–3). When Jesus ransoms humans, he “delivers” them from difficulties, dies instead of them, “frees” them from spiritual slavery and judgment, and thereby cleanses them from sins eternally (Titus 2:14; Heb 9:7–22). One of the “difficulties” is the empty or lawless way of life (Titus 2:14; 1 Pet 1:18–19). Thus, people are not ransomed simply for their own benefit but that they might change their way of living, becoming one of God’s people, enthusiastic to act in ways pleasing to God.
Paul concludes this section (2:1–14) with a charge to Titus, summarizing: These things say and encourage and reprove with all command; let no one despise you (2:15). Paul sets in a polysyndeton three parallel verbs which are all equally important (say, encourage, reprove). Each word is increasingly intensive. Laleō (say) at its root refers to the forming of words with the mouth (onomatopoetically la-la). Paul uses laleō for “speaking in tongues” but also for speaking prophecy. He uses it for strange or infantile sounds (1 Cor 14:11; 13:11) and for authoritative revelation from God. In Titus 2:1, 15, Paul wants Titus to speak the true teaching from God about mature Christian qualities (2:2–10) and the nature of God (2:11–14).
Parakaleō (encourage) and elenchō (reprove, 2:15) are used earlier in Titus (1:9) in contrast to each other. Parakaleō literally signifies “to call to one’s side.” Its use in legal situations can form a helpful basis for understanding its other uses. In legal situations, parakaleō can mean to “summon one’s friends to attend one in a trial, … call them as witnesses, … summon a defendant into court” or simply “appeal to.” First, as a defendant appeals to friends for help, God and Christians can appeal to (as opposed to command) people to do an act.84 The appeal can be to do something good, or to watch out for wrong teaching and behavior (Rom 16:17), or to change behavior. Second, as a witness supports a friend, God and Christians can help others in difficult times.87 Third, when a witness supports a friend, the friend feels the support. In the same way, change of behavior or good news or education can encourage the friend. Both Titus and Timothy are to teach and encourage. In Titus 2:15, the first meaning of parakaleō (“appeal”) would fit well in a context where healthy teaching is needed.
Elenchō (reprove, 2:15) in the New Testament predominantly has to do with bringing sin out to the open. For example, Jesus explains, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” It can be part of an attempt to become reconciled (Matt 18:15). It can also result in destructive retaliation (Luke 3:19–20); therefore its basis should be love. Its goal is repentance. All Persons of the Trinity convict people of sin.92 Authentic preaching also should result in conviction of sin (1 Cor 14:24). Although parakaleō (“appeal to”) is not done as a command, elenchō, or the conviction of sin once discovered, commands change (Titus 2:15).
Thus, Titus is first to communicate true teaching, then appeal to listeners to follow it, and, finally, if people are still resistant, to exhort them to stop sinning. Paul concludes with a brief command to Titus: let no one despise you (2:15), or express a negative opinion against Titus’ leadership. The same negative connotations can be found in other Jewish literature: for instance, to dishonor and affront parents because of being ashamed of them or thinking oneself wiser. We do not know how old Titus was. Paul does not accentuate his youth (as he did with Timothy).94 Why would the church at Crete “disregard” or despise Titus? One reason may be simply because, at times, those who do evil hate the one who shines the “light,” as Jesus warned (John 3:20). Another additional reason might be that Titus is a Gentile ministering among Jews and those attracted by legalistic Judaism.96 Already some Jews had complained about Titus (Gal 2:3–5). But, Paul, whose calling was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, recalling Titus to his freedom in Christ (Gal 2:3–7), commands him not to let anyone disregard his leadership (Titus 2:15).

Fusing the Horizons: The Importance of Holiness

At the turn of the first century, an elder called Clement wrote a sermon to his listeners exhorting them to change because their behavior was dragging the name of Christ through the mud. Alluding to Isaiah 52:5, he wrote: “The Lord says, ‘My name is continually blasphemed among all the nations,’ … Why is it blasphemed? Because you do not do what I desire. For when the pagans hear from our mouths the oracles of God, they marvel at their beauty and greatness. But when they discover that our actions are not worthy of the words we speak, they turn from wonder to blasphemy, saying that it is a myth and a delusion” (2 Clem. 13:2–3). Sadly, today the church is not that different. When my husband and I applied for our first calls after completing seminary, we discovered that the male chaplains that preceded us at both colleges had had sexual liaisons with female students. One secular institution was so upset, it was about to prohibit the Christian ministries board from sending any more Protestant chaplains. The only way the ministries board was able to send another chaplain was by sending them a female, which in this case was myself. Being a female in itself was not the key, but being a female who was intent on demonstrating her faith in her lifestyle was. We preserved our witness at this institution, but how much irreparable harm was done previously? What did others think of religious persons abusing their authority? What happened to the women who were sexually abused? Did they ever forgive God? What about the chaplains’ wives and children? Did they blame God? What about all the people who heard about these sins? Have they come to understand what true Christianity is all about? This is where Paul’s Letter to Titus is so helpful. As a wise mentor, Paul is counseling Titus to clarify the place of good deeds in the lives of those who have received God’s grace. Actions express one’s genuine beliefs, educate others, reflect God’s purposes for our lives and help others, as well as oneself.
In both the old and the new covenants, God desires holy behavior. The behavior, in itself, does not save us, but good behavior has its positive role to play.



Paul next reminds Titus of general exhortations about how to conduct oneself in the world. He begins with a command: Remind them to be submissive to rulers, authorities, to obey (a ruler), to be ready for every good work, to slander no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all people (3:1–2). Paul wants Titus to remind the church in Crete to do three basic actions: to be proactive, maintain good character, and refrain from some action.
Paul, who has been imprisoned unjustly by the Roman authorities, warned by Jesus that his followers would be persecuted as their Master has been (John 15:20), yet also repeatedly implores believers to cooperate with or be submissive to governing authorities (3:1). In Romans 13, Paul reminds believers that all power ultimately comes from God (v. 1) and those in authority are supposed to encourage good conduct (v. 3). In 1 Timothy (2:1–4) and Titus (3:1–2), Paul encourages believers to evangelize these rulers by cooperating with them and praying for them, which in the end would make believers’ lives better. When in Rome, despite the disreputable behavior of the Emperor Nero, Paul did establish positive relationships with Caesar’s household and the Praetorium Guard (Phil 1:13; 4:22). At Ephesus, Paul was assisted by the Asiarchs, leaders in the province, and the city clerk, the chief executive officer (Acts 19:31, 35).
Then, the Cretans are to be, in other words, maintain good character. They are to be ready (or prepared, hetoimos) for every good work (3:1), in contrast to some besieged Jews, who were “ready (or prepared) for battle” (1 Macc. 12:50). Titus 3:1 may be an allusion to Isaiah 40:3–4, John the Baptist’s call to the nation of Israel: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Luke 3:4). John’s listeners were to prepare for the Lord by making “straight” their own behavior (Luke 3:7–14). Here the church is to prepare (be ready) for the Lord (Titus 2:11–13) by being prepared themselves to do any good action as necessary. They were to be “soldiers” ready to fight with wholesome weapons. Or, as Paul will exhort Timothy, vessels, cleansed, ready to be used (2 Tim 2:21). Paul has already reminded Titus that Jesus died so that he “might purify for himself” enthusiastic people of good works (Titus 2:14).
Now he will elaborate some features of good action (3:2). While the Christians might be slandered by others, they are not to lie, deceive, or speak falsely of anyone. Instead, they are to be people who are peaceable (amachos) and gentle (epieikēs, 3:2), not “pugnacious” (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim 3:3). These same qualities are necessary for all Christians (Titus 3:2). To reinforce his point, Paul uses a synonym for “gentleness” (prautēs; show humility) and explicitly mentions it should be demonstrated to all people (3:2). Praus (noun) is a key characteristic of Jesus: “I am gentle (meek) and humble in heart” (Matt 11:29). A gentle person gives rest and loads light burdens (Matt 11:30). Paul exhorts the Corinthians by these two qualities of Jesus: “humility and gentleness” (2 Cor 10:1), fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). This is the way to correct sinners (1 Cor 4:21; Gal 6:1) and opponents (2 Tim 2:25; 1 Pet 3:16). Gentleness might be shown with the use of a “soft” voice or a reasonable, fair, mild, not angry or contentious, manner. In the Old and New Testaments, we learn that the “meek shall inherit the earth” (Ps 36:11; Matt 5:5). In Psalm 36, the “meek” are those who may be envious of the worldly success of sinners and even may be unjustly treated by evil-doers, but, if the “meek” persist in doing the good that God requires, they will be rewarded by God and will live in peace. Moses was known as more “meek” than all the people living on the earth during his lifetime (Num 12:3). Thus, when Paul calls the church at Crete to exhibit humility, he is exhorting them to be gentle, humble, noncontentious, good, and to rely on the Lord’s care.
How might the Cretans react to such commands? Cretans were known for their military upbringing. During the Hellenistic period, “Cretan mercenaries became as familiar as Cretan pirates.” The cities in Crete were in “almost perpetual warfare.”14 Polybius remarked that the Cretans “are involved in constant broils both public and private, and in murders and civil wars” (Polybius, Hist. 6.46.9). They might well understand the necessity to obey their military superiors (Titus 3:1). However, the emphasis on gentleness and peacemaking (3:2) would be more difficult to act on. Would the aristocracy be able to be gentle with the peasantry and slaves? Now the Christian Cretans would have to redirect their values to those of peacemaking.
Paul explains his rationale for cooperating with ruling authorities in Titus 3:3–7: For we once also ourselves were foolish, disobedient, being led astray, enslaved to passions and manifold pleasures, living in wickedness and envy, hated, hating one another (3:3). Anoētos (foolish) has the basic idea of slow to understand, as humans who are thinking like cattle to which human words are unintelligible (Ps 49:12, 20; 4 Macc 5:8–9). This state can come from lack of education (Rom 1:14) or from being deceived or lack of belief (Gal 3:1; Luke 24:25). The New Testament speaks of those who obey (or are persuaded by) the good news (the word) as opposed to those who disobey (or are not persuaded). Apeithēs is a synonym for anoētos, a nonbeliever, as in John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life.” It is a characteristic of those in the Cretan circumcision party (Titus 1:16). Planaō (planē, led astray) has a basic idea of someone who wanders about aimlessly or roams hither and thither, without a sense of proper direction, as Joseph did looking for his brothers (Gen 37:15) or as sheep might wander (Matt 18:12). Metaphorically, it can refer to those who “wander” away from the truth (Jas 5:19) or leave the straight road and go astray (2 Pet 2:15).
Possibly with these words (3:3a) Paul alludes to his previous state as a Jew who had rejected Jesus as Messiah and therefore persecuted Christians. He was foolish or lacked understanding (anoētos). He was disobedient (apeithēs) to the truth. He was led astray or deceived (planaō) by the teaching he had gotten. But, he turned his life around when he chose to be obedient to Jesus in the vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:19).
The next phrase (enslaved to passions [epithymia] and manifold pleasures [ēdonē]; 3:3) hearkens back to earlier references in the letter. Female elders are encouraged not to be enslaved to much wine (2:3). God’s grace teaches believers to “deny” alluring passions. In the same way that addictive intoxicating substances, such as wine and beer, can enslave us, other objects can elicit strong feelings and passions from us, enslaving us as well. The wrong kind of pleasures can keep people from persevering in the Christian life. People can receive God’s word, but as time goes on are overwhelmed by worries and riches and “pleasures of life,” thereby not maturing (Luke 8:14). Pleasures (ēdonē) may be similar to the coveting aspect of passions (epithymia). Because someone wants something, the person will quarrel and fight for it and even pray for it. But pleasures are a wrong basis for prayer (Jas 4:1–3). Pleasures can result in wild and self-indulgent debauchery (2 Pet 2:13). Thus, an important aspect of humility (3:2) is being satisfied with what one has.
Next, the Cretans are to remember that they used to live in wickedness (kakia) and envy (3:3). Kakia can refer in a general way to evil intentions and actions, or it can serve as a synonym for a specific type of evil, a ramification of a life not serving the Creator.23 Paul is not referring to one sinful act, but to a way of life (diagō, 3:3).
Finally, the result of their former way of life is being hated and hating one another. Paul uses two synonyms for hatred (stygētos and miseō; 3:3). A Stygian was “of the nether world,” pertaining to the River Styx, a river of the underworld, whose waters were thought poisonous. For instance, high priest Jason, who had an unhappy end to his life, accused by King Aretas, fleeing from city to city, pursued by all, an enemy of his country and countrymen, was “hated as a forsaker of the laws” (2 Macc 5:8). Beginning with lack of understanding, one chooses not to believe, is led astray, becoming enslaved to passions and pleasures. Such dissolute, addictive masters lead to a way of life that is wicked and full of jealousy, bringing out hatred against oneself and hatred of one another (3:3). All this contrasts with God’s compassionate love, God’s way of life (3:4). Paul’s point is: be empathetic as you deal with those in the world because you used to act like they do now.
But, what happened to former hateful unbelievers such as Paul and the Cretans? They did not change their lives by themselves. Rather, two characteristics of the Savior God appeared in their lives: And when the kindness and the love for humanity of our Savior God showed itself, not out of works, the ones in righteousness, which we ourselves prepared, but according to his mercy, he saved us through washing of rebirth and renewal by means of the Holy Spirit, who poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, in order that, having been justified by that grace, we might become heirs according to hope of eternal life (3:4–7). In this one sentence, we have a compact summary of the good news. The main clause is he saved us (3:5), but Paul places before it an extended adverbial clause, the subject of which is God’s two attributes (chrēstotēs, philanthrōpia). God’s actions are driven by his attributes, similar to human foolishness which drives human actions. Chrēstotēs (kindness, 3:4) and its adjective chrēstos are used many times in the Bible to describe God’s nature. In Titus 3:2, 4, Paul has picked up several words used by Jesus: “I am gentle (praus) and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls; for my yoke is comfortable (chrēstos), and my burden is light” (Matt 11:29–30). Jesus’ yoke is helpful and comfortable. In a similar way, God’s “milk” is wholesome, healthy, and good (1 Pet 2:3). Thus, when God is chrēstotēs, God is forgiving toward humans, bringing them health and wholesomeness.
The second characteristic (philanthrōpia, love for humanity, 3:4) of the Savior God is a synonym to the first characteristic (chrēstotēs; kindness). In both of the New Testament examples of love for humanity, compassion is shown. For instance, the centurion Julius was empathetic to Paul’s needs when he allowed him, even though he was a prisoner, to visit his friends at Sidon so they might provide for him (Acts 27:3). The Malta natives were also empathetic with Paul, Aristarchus, and Luke when they kindled a fire for them in the cold, rainy weather (Acts 28:2).
These two aspects of God’s nature, God’s forgiving and empathetic nature, led to their salvation. It was not their own deeds, even their righteous ones, that saved them. If God’s mercy (eleos) saves, what then is the value of good deeds or actions? In Titus, four valuable aspects of good actions are mentioned. First, they are a way believers “confess” publicly their belief in God (1:16). Second, they are part of the educational process, along with the verbal aspect (2:7). Third, God redeems humans from a sinful life in order that they might be enthusiastic to do good actions. This aspect is reminiscent of the many Old Testament covenants. For example, the Lord reminds Moses that “I bore you on eagle’s wings” out of Egypt and now, if the people “obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:4–6; NRSV). What the New Testament calls “good actions” would be comparable to keeping God’s covenant. Fourth, these good actions are good for people, for themselves, and for others (Titus 3:1, 8, 14).
Dikaioō (verb), dikaiosynē (noun, 3:5), dikaios (adjective), and dikaiōs (adverb) each occur once in Titus. The root word is dikē, which signifies “right, justice.” It can refer to a judicial hearing or decision, a trial, and to the execution of the sentence,33 as when Aristotle describes those who play a part in “judicial justice,” who judge claims (Pol. IV.III.13 [1291a]). Paul uses the word-family frequently to refer to righteous as a synonym for “holy.” For instance, it is a characteristic of an overseer and a right way to live (Titus 1:8; 2:12). It would certainly include the idea of justice, but as well holiness. God is holy and those who approach God in an unacceptable way die (Lev 16:2, 13). For example, on the Day of Atonement all sins were placed on a goat who was released outside the city and, thereafter, the Jews, cleansed from sins, were now “clean” before the Lord. Jesus permanently took on the sins of the world to purify those who believe in him.36 Because of Jesus’ death, the unrighteous who had no inheritance but now believe in Jesus have been declared righteous heirs of God’s kingdom by the righteous Judge.
How then did God save them? They were not saved by their own good deeds. Rather, they were saved according to God’s attribute of mercy (3:5). Mercy hearkens back to God’s compassionate character (3:4). There were two agents of salvation: washing of rebirth and renewal by means of the Holy Spirit (3:5). Palingenesia (rebirth) appears to refer to the same experience as Jesus explains to Nicodemus: one must be born from above to see God’s kingdom (John 3:3, 7). Washing is an important image in the Bible. It can refer to literal everyday bathing. But for the Jews washing was a regular procedure for priests39 and others who may have become unclean from touching a dead body or having had a skin disease.41 Priests would bathe in preparation for entering God’s sanctuary. Newborn babies also were washed (Ezek 16:4, 9). Thus, washing became an apt metaphor for not sinning, as in “Wash you, be clean; remove your iniquities from your souls before mine eyes; cease from your iniquities” (Isa 1:16). In Titus 3:5, Paul reminds his readers that simply being reborn washes or purifies one from sin. This idea was previously explained in Titus 2:14: Jesus died in order that people might be ransomed and cleansed.
The second agent of salvation is the Holy Spirit (3:5). The Holy Spirit makes people new (anakainōsis). The Holy Spirit gives life. When God sends forth the Holy Spirit, life is created and the earth is made new again (Ps 104:30). Despite difficulties experienced through ministry that may affect Christians’ outer nature, their “inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16; NRSV). Paul uses the imagery of pouring (ekcheō; 3:6) to describe the experience of being made new by the Holy Spirit. This verb continues the imagery of washing (3:5), because water can be poured out to fill a container. The same verb for “pouring” was used to describe the entering of the Holy Spirit into the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:17–18, 33) and the manner in which God’s love enters human hearts (Rom 5:5). Similarly, the Holy Spirit “fills” humans bringing birth (Luke 1:35) and rebirth (Titus 3:5).
The subtle mystery of the Triune God is included in Titus. Either God as a whole or God the Father is the Savior who is described as kind and loving and merciful. Rebirth is accomplished by the agency of the Holy Spirit, who is poured out generously (3:4–5). This “pouring” is accomplished by the agent, Jesus Christ (who is also our Savior [3:6]), who made people righteous by means of God’s grace (3:7). All three Persons of the Trinity are merciful and generous and work together to accomplish the same goal: that we might become heirs (3:7).
The theme of inheritance is a frequent and important one in the Old and New Testaments. Abraham set out from Chaldea to receive an inheritance for himself and his descendants. His expectation and anticipation46 were to receive the inheritance. God was the One who promised the inheritance, but Abraham had to trust the Lord. God is still the One who promises inheritances (Titus 1:2). But God’s inheritance is not earthly; as a matter of fact, earthly possessions can make it harder for the believer to inherit. Only the humble will inherit (Matt 5:5; Titus 3:2). The inheritance is eternal life, which begins now, but continues forever. It is God’s “imperishable and undefiled and unfading” inheritance kept safely in heaven for the final resurrection (1 Cor 15:50–54; 1 Pet 1:4). However, the wicked do not inherit God’s kingdom, but only the sanctified, those who “overcome.”
How might this promise be received by the ancient Cretans? Paul elsewhere has promised that Abraham’s offspring, the heirs of God’s promised kingdom, are Jew and Greek, foreigner and citizen, slave and free, male and female (Gal 3:28–29; Col 3:11). What might strike an original reader is that the promise of becoming heirs is for all people and for all time. Ancient Crete had numerous social classes. The ruling citizen class (a minority), of course, had the landed wealth. The household owned the family estate (klēros). There were free people who owned property and free people without political rights. The resident aliens had to live in special quarters of the city. The serfs originally did not own houses on the estate, but eventually they might inherit if the free citizens had no living relatives. Slaves normally were not heirs.52 They were part of the inheritance! But, they could be set free and adopted as heirs. Women and non-citizens had no political rights. In Athens, a daughter could inherit when she had no brothers, similar to the Hebrew practice.54 In Crete, daughters did inherit but smaller portions than the brothers. Daughters who were sole heirs had to marry next of kin. Paul had described all believers as formerly slaves.
But now they were all adopted and reborn as wealthy heirs looking to the realization of their glorious inheritance (3:3, 5–7). What a marvelous vision for then and for now!
Paul then summarizes a key principle in this section of his letter and a key theme in the whole letter: The word is trustworthy; and, concerning these things, I desire you to maintain strongly, in order that the ones having believed in God may be careful to stand forth with good deeds; these things are good and helpful to humans (3:8). Pistos ho logos (the word is trustworthy) precedes five key teachings in the Pastoral Letters. Logos (word) in the Pastoral letters can refer to God’s revelation and teachings of faith,59 but also human teachings, even heterodox ones.61 In this context, modified by pistos (trustworthy), Paul refers to authoritative, accurate teachings or revelations from God expressed in a pithy saying or summary statement that can be passed on to others as fully reliable. Josephus also uses this phrase to describe an accurate report or news (Ant. 19.1.16 [132]). Paul emphasizes that Titus should promote this teaching strongly. Although good deeds do not save anyone,63 they are helpful for believers (3:8).


In the second major section of the letter (2:1–3:11), Paul encourages Titus (a) to promote healthy teaching by encouraging godly behavior among the elders, youth, and slaves (2:1–15); (b) to remind people to live godly lives in the world because they are justified by God’s grace (3:1–8); and, now, (c) to have nothing to do with anyone who causes division (3:9–11). Most of the letter contains instructions for the church. Previously, Paul had exhorted Titus to be a model of good deeds to other young men (2:7–8), not to let others despise him in his role as minister (2:15), and rebuke others (1:13). Now he warns Titus himself: But foolish arguments and genealogies and contentions and battles pertaining to the law, avoid; for they are useless and without value (3:9).
Genealogia (genealogy; 3:9) refers to a collection of words (logeia) about “persons in a family” (genea) or “tracing a pedigree.” Ancestry was very important to Jews, determining many things, such as eligibility for inheritance or for the priesthood. A priest had to trace his fiancee’s descent four generations to make sure she was qualified to marry him (m. Qidd. 4:4). Marriage records were sent to the public registries in Jerusalem. They kept the records of succession of high priests for 2,000 years (Ag. Ap. 1.7 [30–36]). Knowing or talking about one’s ancestry, in itself, cannot be wrong, because both Matthew (1:1–17) and Luke (3:23–38) accentuate the importance of ancestry as a basis for Jesus’ representative nature and eligibility for ministry. In Titus 3:9, the adjective foolish precedes and modifies the four nouns that follow (arguments, genealogies, contentions, battles). These are discussions about ancestry that lead to spiritual error. The Greeks loved to recount stories of mythic ancestry. Legalistic Jews might be proud of their “pure” ancestry. The current Herodian ruler in Judea (Marcus Iulius Agrippa [Acts 25–26]) himself was of mixed ancestry (Jewish and Idumaean). He would not be considered “pure.” One’s own genealogy or that of one’s leaders might be concerns raised in Crete. However, Paul had already reminded the Christians that God intends all of them to become eligible as heirs (3:7).
In the New Testament zētēsis and zētēma (arguments) can refer to an official or judicial inquiry. Zētēsis, zētēma, and zēteuō connote an inquiry that is vigorous, a dispute or argument searching for the truth, or simply resolution, such as when some disciples argued over whether John the Baptist and Jesus were in competition (John 3:25) or whether circumcision was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1–2). Sometimes a verbal dispute can have physical ramifications (Acts 18:12–17). Arguments in themselves are not wrong, but foolish ones are (Titus 3:9). Foolish can refer to error that is consciously chosen or to innocence. Those who hear Jesus’ words but do not act on them deceive themselves and will suffer the ramifications for their actions (Matt 7:26–27; 25:2–13). Those religious leaders who make judgments that value what is less important also will be judged (Matt 23:13–26). These are arguments about topics that lead to spiritual error.
Eris (contentions) and machē (battles) are synonyms for zētēsis (arguments; 3:9). In 3:9, they seem to be in intensifying sequence. Eris personified is a goddess who “excites to war.” Eris can be a result of not acknowledging God and a synonym for jealousy (Rom 1:28–29; 13:13). It describes the fighting in Corinth when the church divided over who was the best leader. In secular Greek, eris referred mostly to “battle-strife.” Machē refers to the battle or combat of armies. Paul uses it for external conflict (2 Cor 7:5). Thus, arguments necessitating resolution (zētēsis) become jealous contentions that incite people (eris) to full battles (machē). And in the mix are the questions of genealogy and the law.
All of these divisive topics, equally, Titus is to avoid. Titus is to turn himself around away from arguments and genealogies and contentions and battles pertaining to the law that lead to error (3:9). He is not to participate; he is not to encourage others because: they are useless (anōphelēs), do not profit anyone and they are without value, a waste of time (mataios). The circumcision party wastes its time in such words. The opposite is love that comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith (1 Tim 1:5). Paul warns Titus (and Timothy in 2 Tim 2:16) not to get involved in disputes that do not lead to truth.
Instead, Titus should warn (at least twice) people who create divisions with such arguments (3:9–10). And, after such warnings, then he should himself reject these people: A divisive person, after one and a second admonition, reject, knowing that such a person is completely turned away and sins, being self-condemned (3:10–11). Eusebius cites Titus 3:10 word-for-word as a basis for Polycarp not acknowledging Marcion’s teachings as orthodox and for the apostles and their disciples not “even to join in conversation with any of those who mutilate the truth” (Hist. eccl. 4.14.7). Paul describes someone who pushes people to choose sides in arguments that will not be edifying.
On what two bases can Titus reject such people? They are completely turned away (ekstrephō) and they sin (3:11). Ekstrephō metaphorically can have positive or negative connotations. For example, Jesus challenges his adult disciples to turn back and become like children (Matt 18:3). Stephen describes his ancestors as having “turned back” to Egypt when they asked for the Egyptian gods (Acts 7:39). Since the perfect tense presents a “completed state or condition,” sometimes in the past these people turned away from the truth and have remained in this state. They are similar to those in Moses’ time who had turned from the living God to worship foreign gods. They are “twisted.”80 (But Titus still had to warn them.) In the end, they condemn themselves by their choosing not to change.

CONCLUSION (3:12–15)

With these words, Paul concludes the body of his letter and moves now to concluding directions to Titus. Paul wants Titus to come to him and, by helping Zenas and Apollos, teach people to devote themselves to good works (3:12–15).

Titus, Come (3:12)

Paul has left Titus behind in Crete to complete their work (1:5). Soon Paul will enable Titus to join him at Nicopolis in Greece by sending a coworker to take his place: Whenever I will send Artemas to you or Tychicus, make every effort to come to me into Nicopolis, for there I decided to spend the winter (3:12). Titus’ plans are indefinite. They depend on (a) when Artemas or Tychicus reaches Crete; (b) when Titus’ work is completed at Crete; and (c) the time of year and sailing conditions. Where is Paul now? Possibly he is in Macedonia and he will hike (or sail around the Gulf of Corinth) to Nicopolis. Paul wants Titus to meet him at Nicopolis before or after the winter season, when the west winds begin to blow. Because sailing on the open sea was so dangerous, no one sailed from mid-November to mid-March.82 Travelers were warned of weather hazards beginning in mid-September until mid-February. Thus, Paul would plan to visit key churches (1 Cor 16:6) or cities during these times. A good winter harbor was free from sudden, frequent, and violent winds. Therefore, if Titus, Artemas, and/or Tychicus are to travel safely, they need to sail between the six months of April through September. The trip between Crete and Nicopolis might take 10 days up to a month.84
Several ancient cities at that time were called Nicopolis. Most likely, this Nicopolis is in Achaia (Greece),86 facing the Sea of Adria in Illyricum (Rom 15:19), not far from Dalmatia (2 Tim 4:10), because of its location and size. It is “by far the most important and famous city of this name.” It was founded by Octavian Augustus to celebrate his victory88 over Mark Antony at the Bay of Actium in 31 BC. Herod the “Great” built many public buildings there for the inhabitants (Josephus, Ant. 16.5 [147]).
Paul continues his ministry strategy of sending his coworkers to different places depending on their spiritual gifts and the needs of different churches. Titus’ organizational and peacemaking gifts will, most likely, next be needed at Nicopolis.
Coworker Artemas is nowhere else mentioned in the Bible. Tychicus (literally, “fortuitous”) was originally from Asia and has accompanied Paul as a coworker since the late 50s until just before Paul’s death in the late 60s. He accompanied Paul and others with the donation for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. They traveled together from Greece to Asia to Syria. He was with Paul in Rome during both the first and second imprisonments.93 Paul sends him twice to Ephesus, once to Colosse, and now to Crete. He may have carried the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Paul describes his role and mission in Ephesians and Colossians in almost the same words: “the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord.” Although “brother(s)” and “sister(s)” are common ways for the early Christians to indicate their close relationship, Tychicus and Onesimus are the only individuals called “beloved brother.” Tychicus is a reliable minister with a special gift. He was sent to the churches in Asia so that they would know “the things” concerning Paul and his coworkers in Rome and, thereby, have their “hearts” encouraged.96 “The things concerning us” (ta peri hēmōn) is an important phrase for Paul. For example, in Philippians, followers of Christ should show their interest in Christ by showing interest in one another because all believers are members of Christ’s body. This is agapē love. By “encouraging their hearts,” Tychicus would support the Christians in Crete. Tychicus seems to have the gift of encouragement (Rom 12:8), a helpful role to follow Titus’ previous organizational efforts.

Teach People to Keep Busy in Good Works (3:13–14)

Paul will send Artemas or Tychicus to Titus and Paul, in turn, wants Titus to send Zenas and Apollos: Zenas the lawyer and Apollos—diligently send on their way, that nothing may lack to them (3:13). Zenas and Apollos, having similar interests, both being learned men, probably made like-minded companions. Zenas is only mentioned here in the Bible. He was a lawyer (“learned in the law”) either Jewish or Gentile. One lawyer (nomikos) is mentioned in the Septuagint (Eleazar, a priest in ancestry, but a lawyer by profession [4 Macc 5:4]), more in the New Testament. Some Jewish lawyers had tested and questioned Jesus’ teachings and authority and, thus, Jesus had some strong criticism for them. Zenas, though, is a lawyer who served God’s kingdom as one of Paul’s colleagues in ministry.
Apollos, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, was called “learned” by Luke (an educated man himself) and was gifted in teaching and bold, charismatic rhetorical speaking. He was effective in speaking as a Jew to other Jews.102 Even though the church at Corinth created a competition between the leadership of Paul and Apollos, Paul never shows any resentment toward Apollos. He even is willing to send him back to Corinth (although Apollos himself is not willing to return at that time [1 Cor 16:12]). Paul sees that Apollos builds on Paul’s own ministry: Paul “plants” and Apollos “waters” as together they work on God’s “field” (1 Cor 3:6–9).
Why were Zenas and Apollos in Crete? Did they bring Paul’s letter to Titus at Crete or had they already been (or will they stay) at Crete for a while ministering alongside Titus? We cannot be sure. However, their presence at Crete would be very helpful since the heterodox teachers were raising many questions about the use of the law and especially questions about the place of the Old Testament law in the Christian life (1:10, 14; 3:9). They could help Titus, a Gentile, in addressing the legal and Jewish questions raised by the church in Crete.
But now it is time for Titus to exert his own effort and organizational gifts to help them go on their way (2 Cor 8:17; Titus 3:13). Paul wants Titus to place high importance and exert much effort (diligently) in helping Zenas and Apollos as travelers. Titus has to equip them with everything they need for the journey (way), which will include finding the right ship, obtaining provisions, escorting them to the ship, possibly giving them money for the trip and letters of introduction, and praying for them.
The next verse serves to reinforce Paul’s exhortation to Titus to help Zenas and Apollos in their journey, and, as well, serves as an apt summary for the whole letter: and let our people keep on learning also to stand forth with good deeds for necessary needs, lest they may be unfruitful (3:14). By following 3:13 with this verse, Paul implies that the church should join Titus in preparing Zenas and Apollos for travel. Practice in doing loving actions is a way experientially to learn to do them. This verse hearkens back to the faithful saying in 3:8. Doing good deeds helps other Christians, helps educate those who do the good deeds, should be limited to genuine needs, and is a result of one’s faith (3:13–14). The good deeds they are to do are limited by the phrase for necessary (anankaios) or indispensable needs, not luxuries.
Akarpos is a lovely metaphor (3:14). The faith of believers should have a “harvest” (karpos) of good deeds. As seeds result in produce or a harvest, God’s word cast into our hearts should result in a harvest of outward goodness. The outward deeds demonstrate the inner attitude.110 As Jesus explained, “from their fruits you will recognize” whether a tree is good or bad (Matt 7:20; 12:33) and the kingdom of God is for those who “produce its fruit” (Matt 21:43). Bearing much fruit glorifies the Father (John 15:8). Therefore, Paul seeks fruit in his converts (Phil 4:17; Titus 3:14).

Final Greetings (3:15)

Paul concludes the letter: All the ones with me greet you. Greet the ones loving us in faith. Grace be with all of you (3:15). Artemas and Tychicus (3:12) and others are with Paul. Paul rarely is alone. He may be single, but he is not solitary. He writes the letter to Titus, but he lets other believers know. Everyone with Paul sends a written “kiss” toward Titus. Then, Paul commands Titus to greet not everyone, but only those loving us in the faith. At first glance, Paul may appear unnecessarily restrictive. However, previously he had commanded Titus to reject divisive people (3:10), even as he commanded the churches not to associate with those who are disobedient. The kiss of peace is not to be extended to those who are not at peace with God’s message.
Ancient Greek letters would terminate with a final “farewell” (“be in good health”) and begin with a greeting (chairō). Paul, in comparison, refers to grace (chairō or charis), both at the beginning and end of this letter (1:4; 3:15) and many of his letters. He does not clarify to whose grace he refers. Earlier in the letter, “grace” is a quality that flows from God and Jesus Christ. Thus, again good deeds (3:14) are placed under the larger rubric of grace (3:5, 15). As in 2 Corinthians 13:13 (14), Paul adds all. The churches at Crete and Corinth are besieged by heterodox persons. Nevertheless, God’s grace is for them too. It is for everyone. Grace envelopes deeds in Paul’s message to Titus.

Fusing the Horizons: The Place of Grace

What is the foundation of all good behavior? It is grace, mercy, love, salvation, kindness. When I was a college student and not yet a confirmed believer in Jesus as Lord of the Universe and as my Lord, I was invited to attend a meeting of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It was a Friday night. The night was a supreme example of what not to do as a bearer of good news. The Christian who invited me to come at the last moment told me to go on my own because she was coming with her boyfriend. Did I feel abandoned? Yes. I was attending an all women’s college and I had to go across town by bus to an all men’s college at night. It was my first time. I was terrified! I had to find a specific classroom building in a strange school, but all the buildings were deserted and nameless and there was no one to ask. The Christian group met on the top floor of one empty building. No signs or people were at the bottom to welcome me. But, as I rode across town in the empty college bus and walked across the strange quad and slowly dragged my feet up the many stairs, I felt as if I were in a clear bubble, a cloud, that enveloped me and brought me along. My feet still moved, but this bubble stayed with me throughout the journey, enabling me to do the impossible—what even appeared to be ridiculous. But, when I finally arrived, I was wholeheartedly welcomed by the Christian believers with open arms.
God was with me. God is still with me. God was with me as I entered the kingdom and God is with me as I live each day in the kingdom. In the old covenant, God allays Moses’ fears when God tells Moses: “I will be with you” (Exod 3:12). Jesus, Emmanuel (“God is with us”), also promises, “Behold, I myself am with you every day, until the end of the ages” (Matt 1:23; 28:20). Paul too tells the Athenians that God would always be with them too because in God “we are living and we are moving and we are being” (Acts 17:28). Thus, as I experienced personally, Grace is the contextual bubble in which good deeds are done and Grace carries, guides, and instructs us all along the way.

Introduction to 2 Timothy



Unlike Titus and 1 Timothy, in 2 Timothy, Paul is now in prison. Paul is the Lord’s “prisoner” who is “suffering for the gospel” (1:8, 12). Paul mentions his own suffering many times (he suffers hardship for the gospel, “even to the point of being chained like a criminal,” while, in contrast, “the word of God is not chained” [2:9] and he quotes a “saying” that encourages Christians who suffer [2:11]). Paul summarizes his life (3:10–11; 4:7–8) and the inevitability of persecution for a Christian (3:12). He discusses “death,” which has been “abolished” by Christ Jesus (1:10). Unlike the situation in the other prison epistles (Phil 1:14; Col 4:7–14), all in Asia “have turned away” from or left Paul, including Phygelus and Hermogenes (1:15), Demas (4:10), Crescens, Titus (4:10), and Alexander (4:14). At his first defense, all “deserted” him (4:16). In contrast, Onesiphorus’ household was “not ashamed” of Paul’s “chain.” Instead, when Onesiphorus’ household arrived in Rome from Ephesus, he eagerly searched for Paul and found him (1:16–18). In this context, Paul’s main message to Timothy is not to be ashamed of his imprisonment, but rather to “share in suffering” (2:3; 4:5).
Similar problems continue to occur at Ephesus as had been occurring earlier in Ephesus and Crete: “wrangling over words” (2:14), “stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23), women who do not know the “knowledge of the truth” (3:7), false teachers (3:7; 4:3), and myths (4:4).
Instead of expecting release (Phlm 2:2; Phil 2:24; 1:25–26), Paul describes impending death (4:6; cf. Phil 2:17). At his first defense, he was rescued from “the lion’s mouth” (4:17). Yet he still expects to write (4:13), and he expects to see Timothy before winter impedes transportation (4:21). According to tradition, to avoid arrest, Paul had rented a villa or room outside the city near San Sebastiano. Arrested in AD 66, he spent about nine months imprisoned. Although he no longer had the mild conditions of his first house arrest (Acts 28:16, 30; 2 Tim 1:17), yet his trial was delayed, probably because he appealed to the emperor, again pleading his Roman citizenship and previous acquittal. Paul and Peter at the end were imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison, one of the principal prisons of Rome, below which was the dungeon of the Tullianum. Traditionally, Paul and Peter were both killed June 29, AD 67. Paul was executed on the Ostian Way outside Rome. Both Paul and Peter were interred in a marble tomb in San Sebastiano on the Appian Way for a year and seven months. Paul was then moved by Lucina in AD 69 near the Ostian Way on the Via Valentiniana, where his coffin remains to this day.
No clear traditions recount exactly where in Rome Paul was being held during the writing of this last letter. Probably, not under house arrest, yet not at the Mamertine dungeon (where any writing would be impossible), he may have been incarcerated in a military camp or palace in the city, bound to a soldier, as had been Agrippa. Paul was allowed to have friends visit him.
Titus and 1 Timothy clearly mention the locale of the readers of his letter—Crete (Titus 1:5) and Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3)—but 2 Timothy is not as explicit. Most likely, Timothy is still in or has returned to Ephesus (c. one to four years later than 1 Tim, AD 64–66), because Onesiphorus’ household, who had visited Paul in Rome, had rendered service in Ephesus (1:18) and was present now with Timothy (4:19). Prisca and Aquila had been in Ephesus (Acts 18:19, 24–26) and were also now with Timothy (2 Tim 4:19). If Timothy was in Ephesus, being part of Asia, he would indeed “know” that all in Asia had deserted Paul (1:15). Paul sent Tychicus to Ephesus to replace Timothy so that Timothy could leave (4:12). Second Timothy is the last letter written by Paul in the canon.

Analytical Outline of 2 Timothy

Paul’s overall purpose in 2 Timothy is to encourage Timothy to join in suffering with him for the gospel which he learned, unlike others who have abandoned Paul.

I. Letterhead: Paul reminds Timothy of “the promise that brings life in Christ Jesus” (1:1–2).

II. Timothy should not be ashamed to suffer for the gospel, nor of Paul suffering (1:3–2:13).

A. Timothy should not be ashamed because of his faith and heritage (1:3–7).

B. He should not be ashamed because of the gospel and Paul’s own example and teaching (1:8–14).

C. Timothy should follow the example of those of Onesiphorus’ household, who were not ashamed of Paul’s chains, instead of others in Asia who turned away from him (1:15–18).

D. Timothy also should join in suffering (2:1–13).

III. Timothy needs to remind the people of these things, instead becoming a vessel for good works, while himself avoiding ungodly talking (2:14–26).

A. He should treat truth with integrity and avoid ungodly talking (2:14–19).

B. He should become a vessel prepared for good works, pursuing virtues, avoiding controversies, gently guiding the opposition because they may repent (2:20–26).

IV. Timothy needs to continue in his ministry of evangelism and sound teaching despite opposition (3:1–4:8).

A. Timothy needs to turn away from lack of genuine piety (3:1–5).

B. Some of the people who have an outward godliness will take women as prisoners, although eventually their folly will become evident (3:6–9).

C. Timothy needs to follow Paul’s model, because the godly in Christ will be persecuted, while evil people will be deceived (3:10–13).

D. He needs to remain in the Scriptures, which prepare him for every good work (3:14–17).

E. Paul exhorts Timothy, in light of Jesus’ judgment, to proclaim the word at all times, because a time is coming when people will turn from healthy teaching to myths (4:1–5).

F. Paul and all who love the Lord will receive a just crown (4:6–8).

V. Paul wants Timothy to come soon, because he has been left alone by all except Luke, he needs supplies, and he was opposed by Alexander and abandoned by all except the Lord (4:9–18).

VI. Paul sends final greetings (4:19–22).

A. Paul greets Prisca and Aquila and Onesiphorus’ household (4:19).

B. He explains where Erastus and Trophimus are (4:20).

C. He reiterates: come soon (4:21a)!

D. Christians at Rome greet Timothy (4:21b).

E. Paul blesses Timothy and the church (4:22)


ADDRESS (1:1–2)

Paul reminds Timothy that he was appointed an apostle of Christ Jesus through God’s will.2 This appointment is indispensable for Paul’s conversion. Paul had been redirected from persecution of Christians to promotion of Christianity. Ananias had told him that God had chosen him to know “God’s will” (Acts 22:4–5, 14). Paul had previously referred to this crucial change in his life and to eternal life (1 Tim 1:12–16). Paradoxically, in a situation where death is imminent, Paul emphasizes the promise of eternal life, only present in Christ Jesus.
In the first letter, Paul addresses Timothy as “genuine child” (1:1), as he did also Titus (1:4), but now Paul writes to Timothy, beloved child (1:2). Beloved is a term that Paul has used to describe a father-son (or parent-child) relationship. A good father or parent “puts in (the) mind” (noutheteō) of the child good content, teaches, warns, exhorts, admonishes, because the parent is genuinely concerned for the child, unlike a pedagogue, an enslaved instructor who has been ordered to teach the basics (1 Cor 4:14–17; Gal 3:24). To the Corinthians, Paul had described Timothy as a beloved child because he had begotten him spiritually (gennaō) and Timothy’s way of life was identical to his spiritual father’s (1 Cor 4:15–17). Beloved children imitate their parent(s), as believers should imitate God (Eph 5:1–2). Loving parents provide a good model. Thus, using beloved for Timothy reminds Timothy of their loving familial relationship which they had had for about twenty years since Acts 14:8. Although Paul uses “beloved” for many specific Christian believers and for many churches,8 Timothy is the only beloved child. Also, “beloved child” presages the advice Paul will pass on to Timothy in this letter, as father passes advice to a son. Moreover, in itself, “beloved” calls out to Timothy to respond because love evokes love since Paul will exhort Timothy to do some difficult actions (such as share in suffering).10


Paul’s main point of the first section of his letter is to exhort Timothy not to be ashamed to suffer for the gospel, nor of Paul suffering (1:3–2:13). Paul gives three reasons: (a) Timothy should not be ashamed because of his faith and heritage (1:3–7); (b) Timothy should not be ashamed because of the gospel and Paul’s own example and teaching (1:8–14); (c) Timothy should follow the example of those of Onesiphorus’ household, who were ashamed not of Paul’s chains, instead of others in Asia who turned away from him (1:15–18). Therefore, Timothy also should share in suffering (2:1–13).

Paul Thanks God (1:3–5)

While in 1 Timothy 1:3–4 Paul jumps right into his concern about the heresies at Ephesus and the following of his previous directions to Timothy, in 2 Timothy 1:3–5 Paul begins with an affirmation of Timothy: I have gratitude to God, to whom I serve from my parents’ time in a clean conscience, as I have unceasing remembrance concerning you in my prayers by night and by day, longing to see you, remembering your tears, that I might be filled with joy, having remembered the genuine faith in you, which dwelled first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and I am persuaded also in you (1:3–5).
Many ancient private letters began with a reference to prayer and reasons to be thankful for the reader (I have gratitude). Paul begins by thanking God whom he serves. Implicitly, he will compare his own situation with that of Timothy’s. His family too has worshiped God (God, to whom I serve from my parents’ time). Not only was Paul a Pharisee, but his father was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). His parents were devout, having him circumcised on the eighth day, rearing him according to the strict legal requirements of the written and oral Torah (Phil 3:5–6). Thus, Paul became “zealous for God” (Acts 22:3), even if misdirected.
When defending himself before the Sanhedrin, Paul describes himself as having lived before God “with a good conscience” (Acts 23:1). Paul’s conscience is his interior faculty for personal discernment of good and evil. It affects his conduct and motives for action. Conscience arises from knowledge that the subject shares with himself or with someone else. When Paul’s knowledge about Jesus was redirected (1 Tim 1:13–16), the basis for his convictions changed and his conscience was restructured since it had never been destroyed (vs. 1 Tim 4:2).
Paul now changes focus from his reasons for gratitude to God for his own upbringing to Timothy’s upbringing. Paul has unceasing remembrance concerning Timothy in his prayers (1:3). In a similar unceasing manner (“without intermission”), Paul had remembered the believers in Rome (1:9) and in Thessalonica (1 Thess 1:2–3). Paul practiced what he preached to others (1 Thess 5:17). What Timothy, the Romans, and Thessalonians had in common was they were people not currently present with Paul, and Paul eagerly desired to be in their presence (longing to see you), but he was not able to do so at that time. He wanted to be with Timothy but was in prison. Paul took his concerns and feelings of disquiet and thanksgiving and shared them with God.16 The loving expressed by the spiritual parent, Paul, was reciprocated by the child, Timothy (1:4). Paul in his prayers remembered Timothy’s tears. Dakryō/dakryon refer “to shed tears, weep silently.” Tears may express outwardly inward concerns. Timothy is concerned for Paul. Did Timothy cry when Paul was arrested in Rome again?18 Timothy was like his mentor Paul, who had told the elders from Ephesus how he had served the Lord “with all humility and tears,” and, as a father, he exhorted them with tears (Acts 20:19, 31). Tears were an aspect of Paul’s love for the Corinthians (2 Cor 2:4). Both Timothy and Paul modeled on Jesus himself, God incarnate, who prayed with both silent tears and loud shouts (Heb 5:7) and wept upon seeing the grief expressed by humans mourning the death of Lazarus, even though he knew he would resurrect him from the dead (John 11:25–26, 32–44). God’s compassion may be demonstrated in tears, but these types of tears from this suffering world will all be wiped away by God when God dwells with humans in the new earth (Rev 7:17; 21:4). Somehow the end of the prayers and longing to see Timothy, remembering his tears, will result in Paul being filled with joy, if he indeed sees Timothy. And, indeed, he will ask Timothy to come soon (2 Tim 4:9, 21).
Paul remembers Timothy’s tears and Timothy’s genuine faith (1:5). To remember is an important act in the Bible (e.g., 1 Cor 11:2) and here particularly as Paul faces his own death. Later, he will ask Timothy to cause other believers to remember (“remind”; 2:14). Peter, too, in his last letter, focuses on reminding his readers.20 Paul’s joy is not only to see Timothy, but to see Timothy in light of his genuine faith. His faith is without hypocrisy.
Faith is described metaphorically as a friend who dwells within (enoikeō) someone, even as the Holy Spirit dwells within the church. In the same way, as faith dwelled in Paul’s parents and grandparents when they worshiped the God revealed in the Old Testament, so too faith dwelled in Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice when they worshiped the same God in the New Testament times. Moses commanded the Hebrews to read the law to all the men, women, children, and foreigners living in the cities every seventh year so they could listen and learn to fear the Lord and follow carefully the law (Deut 31:10–13). In many places in the Old Testament, parents are exhorted to teach their children about God’s great deeds. God’s words are to be remembered: “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut 11:19; TNIV).24 Godly instruction should come from the father and mother (Prov 1:8), but Timothy’s father was a Gentile and thus did not undertake Timothy’s biblical training (Acts 16:1). Even some Romans esteemed the education of “the good old days” when mothers (not servants) trained their children, as did Cornelia, the mother of Sempronius and Tiberius Gracchus, Aurelia mother of Caesar, Atia of Augustus, so that the child might “lay hold with heart and soul on virtuous accomplishments” (Dial. 28). While the Roman focus might be more on an occupation such as “the army, or the law, or the pursuit of eloquence,” a devout Jew would instead focus on God’s revelation. Timothy learned the holy Scriptures from infancy from his mother and grandmother (2 Tim 3:15). Timothy and at least also Eunice became believers in Jesus as the Messiah in Lystra (Acts 16:1).

God’s Gift (1:6–7)

Paul then returns to his earlier point: I am persuaded (a genuine faith) dwells also in you (1:5). Yet, though genuine faith dwells within Timothy, as it did in his mother and grandmother, he needs to act more: For this reason I remind you to keep stirring into flame God’s gift, which is in you through the laying on of my hands (1:6). Paul has remembered (mneia) Timothy in his prayers, remembered (mimnēskomai) Timothy’s tears, remembered (hypomnēsis) Timothy’s faith, and now he calls to remembrance or reminds (anamimnēskō) Timothy to act on this “genuine faith” that he has. If in 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul exhorts Timothy not to neglect his spiritual gift, now he tells him to keep lighting it up again, stirring into flame or causing to blaze again God’s gift (1:6) of evangelism (2 Tim 4:5). Anazōpyreō is a concrete image. Zōpyron is an ember of a fire or a hot coal that is used to kindle a fire. Paul repeats the preposition ana- (anamimnēsko … anazōpyreō; 1:6). Ana- implies repetition or “motion upwards.” As long as a fire has hot coals, it can be easily stirred up into a blaze of fire. Spiritual gifts from God can become dormant.
Why would evangelism be such a difficult gift to heighten at this time? Timothy only has to see Paul’s situation to become cautious before he reaches out aggressively with the good news into his society. Paul is in prison again and this time the circumstances are less hopeful for release (1:8; 4:7, 16). No wonder Paul explains: for God did not give to you a spirit of fear but of power and of love and self-control (1:7). In English, “Timothy” and “timid” form a quotable word-play, but not in Greek (Timotheos vs. deilia). Timothy might become fearful not because of his own personal nature, but more because of the dangerous situation in which the Christians find themselves, suffering persecution for their faith (1:8). For a good reason, Timothy might be fearful since he himself will eventually be imprisoned in Rome as well (Heb 13:23). If Timothy indeed was a former soldier, he might very well appreciate the first two adjectives: fear and power (1:7). Fear describes the disciples when their boat was swamped by waves from a fierce storm (Matt 8:24–26). Spicq explains: Paul “stirs up ‘the good soldier of Jesus Christ’ (2 Tim 2:3) to undertake and pursue combat (1 Tim 1:18), according to the traditional military maxim, dating back to Deuteronomy: ‘Conquer … fear not and be not disheartened.’ ”
Power (dynamis) or “strength” is the antithesis of fear (1:7). Courage takes strength. The best strength comes from God (1:8). A soldier must also have self-control (sōphronismos) (which Timothy will also need if he is to flee youthful passions; 2:22). This is the same quality required of the women at Ephesus (1 Tim 2:9, 15). These three military qualities (fearlessness, strength, self-control) are still insufficient in themselves. They must be combined with love (agapē), because Paul and Timothy do not fight a physical battle, but a spiritual one. The aim of the order is love,34 a love which comes from Christ Jesus (1 Tim 1:14).

Join in Suffering (1:8–12)

Paul concludes with direct exhortations to Timothy: Therefore, do not begin to become ashamed of the testimony of our Lord nor of me, his prisoner (1:8a). The aorist subjunctive prohibition suggests that from Paul’s perspective Timothy is not yet ashamed of Paul. Paul had previously described Timothy as a model of someone who lives a costly life (1 Cor 4:9–17). But, Paul is concerned that Timothy could desert him too. Jesus challenged the crowd and his disciples to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him, assuring them that he will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him and his words (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26). Witnessing in behalf of Jesus is worth the difficulties because Jesus gives life and salvation. Paul had said in 1 Timothy 1:12 that he is not ashamed because of whom he trusts. Onesiphorus’ household also modeled believers not ashamed of being identified with a prisoner (1:16–17). In contrast, other believers appeared to have left Paul, possibly because they were ashamed of Paul or fearful of their own safety (4:10, 16).
The opposite of being ashamed of Jesus and Jesus’ believers is to join in suffering for the gospel according to God’s power (1:8b). If Jesus is a crucified Messiah (1 Cor 1:23) whose death on the cross was a shameful way to die in its time, how can the followers of this Messiah not suffer difficulties (Heb 12:2)? Peter reiterates: suffering as a Christian is not shameful (1 Pet 4:16). Jesus taught that, if he had been persecuted, so would be his disciples (John 15:20; 2 Tim 3:12).
Paul uses a unique word. Join in suffering is one word in Greek (synkakopatheō). Kakopatheō (“suffer”) without the preposition “with” is also repeated later in the letter to describe Paul’s own suffering from his imprisonment and to challenge Timothy to endure suffering (2:9; 4:5; 1:12 paschō). The use of the preposition sun accentuates to “suffer together with someone.” Paul describes by the preposition (“with”) how a communal aspect helps the sufferer in the midst of suffering.
However, Paul and Timothy and other believers are not to “join in suffering” simply for their own interpersonal enrichment, but for the gospel. Paul invites others to join him because he is inviting them to follow their crucified Messiah. But, how can Paul and Timothy have the strength to suffer for the gospel? They can only do so according to God’s power (1:8). What is that power or strength? Paul describes it in an extended modifier: the one having saved us and called us to a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, the one having been given to us in Christ Jesus starting from eternal times, on the one hand, having been revealed now through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, on the other hand, having abolished death but having brought to light life and immortality through the gospel (1:9–10). God’s power accomplished several things: it saved us and called us to a holy calling (1:9). That calling is one not based on one’s own works, accomplishments or actions (i.e., suffering for the gospel in itself does not save). Rather, it is a calling according to God’s own purpose and grace. God’s grace contrasts with our works. Paul further describes the grace in four ways: the one (1) having been given to us in Christ Jesus before eternal times; (2) having been revealed now through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus; (3) having abolished death; and (4) having brought to light life and immortality through the gospel. Paul begins and ends this pericope referring to the gospel (1:8, 10). The calling has four actions in time. First, starting from eternal times refers to God’s continuous, immeasurable time as opposed to human specific time. In other words, before human time ever existed, God’s power had a holy calling for humans in Christ Jesus, according to God’s purpose and grace. That calling is a “godly life in Christ Jesus” (3:12), or a calling to be holy (1:9). Ephesians also describes this calling as “for good actions, which God prepared beforehand, that in them we might walk” (2:10), or God chose humans “to be holy and blameless before him in love” (1:4), in contrast to such actions as “godless vain talking” and succumbing to “youthful passions” (2 Tim 2:16, 22). The second action refers to the incarnation (the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus), which highlights Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior, the deliverer, who gave his life as a ransom for many. Later, Paul will repeat: faith in Christ Jesus brings salvation (2 Tim 3:15). Elsewhere, Paul uses the appearing (epiphaneia) to refer to Jesus’ return to earth for judgment, however, in 2 Timothy 1:10 Paul refers to the incarnation by using the past tense (having been revealed), indicating this “appearing” has already occurred, similar to Titus 2:11 and 3:4, where Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace and salvation.
The third action is having abolished death (1:10). The fourth, and final, action is having brought to light life and immortality through the gospel (1:10). Abolish might be more exactly rendered “making of no effect.” Christ Jesus deprived death of its strength, power, force, and influence. Death is now unemployed and inactive and inoperative. Christ’s resurrection or life demonstrated God’s victory over death (see also 2:8). Christ also nullified the power of death by having entered its domain. Rather than having been overwhelmed by it, he returned from death, not spreading darkness and death, but rather bringing to the light life and immortality. Death has not yet been literally abolished. The state of having to be enslaved to sin has been abolished (Rom 6:6; 7:6). Death separating us from God’s love has been abolished (Rom 8:38–39). But, death, the last enemy, will be completely made inoperative at the very end of time (1 Cor 15:24–26; Rev 20:14).
Paul has just presented a synopsis of the gospel, which has to do with life and immortality, rather than death (1:9–10). Paul now ends this extended main clause (1:8–11) with an adjectival clause, for this gospel I myself was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher (1:11). Previously mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:7, these three roles also follow a synopsis of the good news (1 Tim 2:4–6). This gospel (2 Tim 1:9–10) is so marvelous, it is worthy of Paul’s appointment (1:11) and it is worth suffering for (1:12). Consequently, Paul says he is not ashamed—he is a prisoner (1:12)—as he had exhorted Timothy not to be ashamed. Paul reiterates why he is not ashamed, because he knows two things: for I know in whom I trusted and I am persuaded that he is powerful to guard my deposit into that day (1:12). In the past, Paul has trusted and continues to trust the Savior Christ Jesus who appeared, made death ineffective, and brought life and immortality (1:10). How appropriate to trust someone victorious over death as one faces one’s own death! Jesus is trustworthy. Jesus is also powerful (1:12). He is powerful to guard until the second coming (that day) Paul’s deposit (1:12). Elsewhere, Paul exhorts Timothy to guard “the deposit” (1 Tim 6:20), which appears to be the order of love from a clean heart and a good conscience and a genuine faith (1 Tim 1:5, 18). In light of the historical context and the theme of suffering, Paul may be saying that his gospel message will not be imprisoned, even though he is.54 The message that has been given to him (my deposit) is also guarded by Jesus himself.

Guard Sound Words (1:13–14)

Paul now returns his attention to Timothy: Keep holding onto a model of sound words which you heard from me in faith and love, the one in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit through the Holy Spirit, the one dwelling among us (1:13–14). The deposit is the sound or healthy words that Timothy heard from Paul himself (1:13). Paul exhorts Timothy to keep holding the model or pattern or standard of words that he received from Paul. Paul himself was a model or example of one aspect of the gospel message: Christ’s mercy toward sinners. These words or teachings promoted spiritual health (sound). In contrast, some people only want teaching that promotes disease (1 Tim 1:10; 2 Tim 4:3). True words themselves are health-inducing, but the listener must also receive the words in a receptive manner, in faith and love. Faith and love, already mentioned in this letter as exemplary virtues, are two key ingredients in healthy teaching. Those who are not receptive to health-inducing words may be attempting to alleviate their spiritual illnesses by superficial or harmful ways (2 Tim 4:3). Ultimately, however, the faith and love that enabled Timothy to hear Paul’s message came from Christ Jesus, who is exemplary of faithfulness and love.
The words Paul passed on to Timothy are not only “healthy,” they are also good and a deposit, entrusted for safekeeping (1:14). Even as Jesus guards Paul’s deposit, simultaneously Timothy needs to guard his deposit.60 Timothy received Paul’s sound teaching in (en) Christ Jesus’ faith and love (1:13). En basically signifies “within.” It is as if Timothy lived within the surrounding presence of Jesus. Simultaneously, Timothy is to guard his deposit through (dia) the Holy Spirit (1:14). The Holy Spirit as “the agent is conceived as coming in between the non-attainment and the attainment of the object in view.” Timothy is ultimately responsible to guard his deposit, but he needs to do so by means of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can empower him to do the guarding.63 But how near is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is very near, because the Holy Spirit is the one dwelling among us (1:14).

Example of Believers in Asia (1:15)

Paul now illustrates by negative and then positive examples those who have not and have guarded their deposit (1:14), those who have and have not been ashamed of Paul, and those who have and have not joined in suffering with Paul (1:8). Timothy knows about the first negative example because he most likely is in Ephesus in Asia: You know this, that all turned away from me, the ones in Asia, including Phygelus and Hermogenes (1:15). Asia had many Jews. In Jerusalem, some Asians opposed Stephen; others opposed Paul (Acts 6:9; 21:27; 24:19). At first, Paul, Silas, and Timothy were not allowed by the Holy Spirit to preach the good news in the province of Asia (Acts 16:6), referring to the province that included Ephesus. Asia was bounded by the province on the north of Mysia, on the south of Caria, and on the east of Phrygia and by the Aegean Sea on the west. But eventually Paul went to Ephesus in Asia with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:19–20:1, 18), where many became believers, including Epaenetus, the first convert to Christ in Asia (Rom 16:5), and Tychicus, Trophimus (Acts 20:4), and Onesiphorus’ household. The believers formed many churches who send greetings to the church in Corinth (1 Cor 16:19). Thus, Paul experienced the great moving of the Holy Spirit in Asia, but also great difficulties. He remembers his earlier experience in Asia as having received the “sentence of death,” because Paul and Timothy and other coworkers were “so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8–9). Sadly, now again Asia is giving Paul difficulties. All turned away from Paul does not include Onesiphorus’ household and Tychicus (2 Tim 4:12). Thus, Paul speaks of the majority. How devastated Paul must have felt when those whom he taught for many years rejected him at this difficult time in his life! But, likewise, Jesus when he was arrested and crucified was rejected by even his close disciples. Paul highlights two particular individuals in Asia: Phygelus and Hermogenes (1:15).

Example of Onesiphorus’ Household (1:16–18)

In contrast to most believers in Asia was Onesiphorus’ household: Might the Lord give mercy to Onesiphorus’ household, that often it refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain, but having been in Rome diligently sought me and found me. Might the Lord give to them (it/him) to find mercy from the Lord in that day (1:16–18a). Onesiphorus could be Onēsiphoros (a male) or Onēsiphoron (a female). Paul was probably visited not by one person but by a group of people,72 not necessarily the entire household. Oikos may refer to a set of apartments, all a person possesses, or to a homestead and all the people who live in the house. It would include the extended family and workers in the family business who lived in the housing complex, in other words, all the persons economically dependent on one master (children, adult sons, slaves, freedpersons, clients, and spouses of all these persons). A household was a partnership, a group of twenty to thirty people, not all related by blood ties, dwelling or working together. The New Testament has both male and female “heads of households,” such as Cornelius, Crispus, Stephana(s), and Lydia.74
Two times Paul asks the Lord to be merciful to this household (1:16, 18). Mercy is a significant attribute of God, to which Paul refers in the address of both 1 and 2 Timothy (1:2). Paul sees that the Lord was merciful in forgiving him his great sin as a persecutor of Christians. “Mercy” is a frequent word in the Old Testament, being included in many of God’s self-descriptions, such as “the Lord God, compassionate and merciful, persevering and very merciful and true and keeping justice and mercy for thousands.” Clearly, Paul is asking for Onesiphorus’ household to be blessed, but does Paul have a more specific request in mind? For instance, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees who have not forgiven the repentant tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:11–13). Has this household committed some great sin in the past or is Paul simply asking God that they be blessed in a general way?
Paul gives two reasons why this household should be blessed: (1) often it refreshed Paul, and (2) it was not ashamed of Paul’s chain. Onēsiphoros/on literally is “bringing advantage, beneficial” and, indeed, this household was greatly beneficial to the Apostle Paul. When its members refreshed Paul, literally they caused him “to cool again, to cool off, to recover from the effects of heat.” The focus in anapsychō appears more to be in bringing God’s presence to an evil situation than simply helping Paul rest and become stronger. The household represented Christ to the prisoner, Paul, who represented Christ as well, because, just as this household visited Paul (“the least of these”) in prison, they were, in effect, visiting Jesus (Matt 25:40), and they did so not just once but often (many times).
By visiting Paul, they demonstrated they were not ashamed of his imprisonment (1:16). Moreover, Paul was not easy to find in Rome. They had to place importance on and be conscientious in their searching.82 Paul now asks for the Lord’s mercy in that day, most likely referring to the second coming of Jesus (1:12; 4:8).
Paul concludes by reminding Timothy: And to everything in Ephesus it/they ministered, as very well you know (1:18b). We, however, do not know how much this household did at Ephesus, but in Rome they served Paul by their presence and actions, comforting him in his afflictions.



Paul, having mentioned his attitude to his imprisonment, the power of Jesus (1:12), the soundness and importance of Paul’s own words (1:12–13), the receptiveness of Timothy (1:13), the presence of the Holy Spirit (1:14), the negative example of some believers (1:15), and the positive example of others (1:16–18), returns again to exhort Timothy: Therefore, you, my child, keep on being empowered in the grace, the one in Christ Jesus, and what you heard from me through many witnesses, entrust these things to trustworthy humans, who are able also to teach others (2:1–2). Paul has given many reasons how and why Timothy can continue to be empowered. By using the pronoun you, Paul exhorts Timothy in particular to be like Onesiphorus’ household and not like Phygelus and Hermogenes. He calls Timothy again my child to remind him of their special spiritual parent-child relationship. Timothy’s power2 comes from Jesus to guard the message entrusted to him (1:12). Somehow, Timothy himself should make an effort, but yet that effort is done in Christ Jesus’ grace (2:1). Christ’s grace has already accomplished many marvelous actions.4 Yet, Timothy himself needs to participate in an ongoing process to allow Christ Jesus’ strength to come into his life.
Timothy has to guard his own walk with Jesus and develop an army with which to fight. As Paul realizes his own death is imminent, he wants to strengthen Timothy and strengthen the church, thus Paul begins 2:2 describing what it is that Timothy needs to entrust to others: what you heard from me through many witnesses. The content of the education is of paramount importance. This content is validated by two sources: (1) me (i.e., Paul) and (2) many witnesses. Timothy directly heard from Paul about Jesus being the Christ and the Savior, having abolished death and having brought eternal life (1:9–10, 13). He also learned from Paul the ramifications of the gospel, that it will entail suffering (1:8). Timothy models Paul’s “way of life in Christ” (1 Cor 4:17), that their difficulties as believers demonstrate that their “extraordinary power” must come from God (2 Cor 4:7).
Other agents that corroborate or support what Timothy heard from Paul are many witnesses.7 Timothy witnessed Christ’s empowering but difficult work in his travels and even while Paul had been in prison in Rome previously. A witness might be a legal witness, acceptable in court, someone who can verify what he or she has seen or heard or known by any other means. Both the Old and New Testaments are founded on the principle established in Deuteronomy: “By the mouth of two witnesses (not one), or by the mouth of three witnesses, shall every word be established” (19:15). This same principle works for historical witnesses. Paul had already exhorted Timothy in Ephesus to make sure women, not educated previously in Jewish law, should now be educated (1 Tim 2:11). All were encouraged to seek leadership positions in the church by becoming godly persons (1 Tim 3:1). Now Paul reiterates that message to Timothy to entrust the gospel educational process to trustworthy humans. Part of the function of an elder is the ability to teach others (1 Tim 3:2). That same function is repeated here (2 Tim 2:2). Nevertheless, Paul does not require that only elders teach. Many people may have the gift of teaching (Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28), some of whom may become elders.
In 1 Timothy, Paul has entrusted the order of “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and genuine faith” to Timothy (1:5, 18). Now he wants him to entrust the order to others. In 2:2, a message is “placed before” people, entrusted to them as a deposit, a deposit not to hide but to reveal to others. The recipients of this message are described in three ways: (1) humans, who are (2) trustworthy, and (3) able to teach others.
Some commentators want to limit humans, anthrōpos, to men only in 2:2 because they presuppose that the teaching offices are restricted to men only. However, 1 and 2 Timothy have plenty of references where anthrōpos is clearly generic: prayer for all humans, God desires all humans to be saved, one mediator between God and humans, God is Savior of all humans, sins of some people, people of corrupt mind, rich people, no human can see God, people will love themselves, evil people. Definitive lexicons define anthrōpos as a generic term in the singular and plural. The assumption is that God’s revelation cannot rise above the androcentrism of its culture. However, if Jesus could rise above the androcentrism of his Jewish culture, why cannot his disciples rise above the androcentrism of their cultures?14 In addition, the culture of antiquity was not one culture but many cultures, some of which allowed women to take leadership.
Paul wanted both women and men to be taught sound words in order to teach these to others. But, for the important process of accurate transmission, students must have two qualifications. They must be faithful or trustworthy (2:2). Moreover, since the goal is not simply self-edification, such people must also have the gift of teaching and the motivation to teach others. Then they will all be able to join Timothy, Paul, and other believers in suffering, and, if they should die or move away or be arrested for the faith, the message to join in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2:3) will continue.


Paul now has the third command to Timothy in the concluding part (2:1–13) of the first section of the letter (1:3–2:13): “Keep on being empowered” (2:1) and “entrust” (2:2). Now, he adds, join in suffering (2:3), returning to his earlier command (1:8), but modifying in what manner Timothy should join in suffering: he should do it as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Fighting as a soldier has been a predominate image that Paul has used for Timothy. Timothy is exhorted to be a good soldier under his commander who is Christ Jesus. His commander determines the campaign and weapons he uses: Timothy serves in a “good” campaign with weapons of “faith and a good conscience.” How does the image of being a soldier relate to suffering? A soldier has to endure difficulties. For instance, the Roman soldier might have to carry eighty pounds on an all-day march and then construct defenses at the end of the day. But, soldiers did not work as individuals, but in companies.20 That is why Paul calls Timothy to join in suffering. He does not endure difficulties alone.
A good soldier is further described: No one serving as a soldier entwines himself in affairs of life, so that he might meet the needs of the one having enlisted him (2:4). Following the orders of one’s commanding officer is crucial. The centurion in Capernaum described his way of life: “For I myself am a person under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Luke 7:8). Often soldiers volunteered because they were attracted to the general’s personality and reputation and felt their allegiance to him rather than to the State. Soldiers were recruited by a commander to participate in that commander’s campaign. Therefore, the good soldier would aim to meet the needs of, or please, that commander. They were not even allowed to marry until their term of service was completed. Towner considers affairs of life could be distractions related to “living, buying, and selling,” not sinful in themselves, but activities that might interfere with active military responsibilities. Paul was encouraging Timothy to be completely devoted to his commander, Christ Jesus, and to his citizenship in and his campaign for God’s kingdom.
Paul now uses a related image: athletic competition: But if also someone may compete in a contest, (s)he is not crowned unless (s)he might compete according to the rules (2:5). A soldier could be decorated with a necklace, armband, and embossed disc placed on the corselet and a centurion could be awarded a gold crown or a silver spearshaft. Athletics was itself an aspect of preparation for war, which entailed suffering.25 In athletics, one contends for a prize. In Paul’s first illustration, the key is whom one serves (2:4); here it is how one serves (2:5). Athletics (as opposed to serving as a soldier) intensifies the emphasis on a goal. However, the prize is not awarded if the contest is not done according to the rules. Athletes who won games might receive generous monetary rewards as well as many other honors. A victor in the Sacred Games had a right to free sustenance or to a pension and was exempt from taxation. A victor might be awarded a crown or wreath. But, “when money enters into sport corruption is sure to follow.”28 Sometimes, victory was bought and sold. For example, in 388 BC, Eupolus of Thessaly bribed his opponents in boxing to allow him to win the prize. In addition, each sport would have its own regulations. So too, Timothy needed to follow Christ’s rules (his teachings) to win the goal of affirmation by Christ at the last judgment.
The third illustration highlights why one serves: It is necessary the laboring farmer first to share in the fruits (2:6). On active duty, a soldier would not himself farm, but, when pensioned off, he might. Lystra, Timothy’s home town, was set in a fertile plain. Second Timothy 2:6 appears to refer to a more general reward for labor. The soldier, athlete, and farmer labor hard and have rewards for their work. In 2 Timothy, the farmer appears to be a tenant farmer who leases the land, rather than the landowner, because he looks forward to a share of the crops. The fruits or reward for labor here appear to be salvation in Christ Jesus with eternal glory and living and reigning together with Christ (2:10–12). Thus, those who join in suffering as good soldiers of Christ Jesus endure difficulties, please Christ, live according to Christ’s rules, and are rewarded. Whom one serves, how one serves, and why one serves are important in these illustrations.
Paul concludes this section: Keep pondering what I am saying; for the Lord will give to you understanding in all (2:7). Paul uses two synonyms: ponder (noeō) and understand (synesis/syniēmi). In contrast, the teachers of the law do not “ponder” or “grasp.” They have no perception of spiritual truths based on careful faith-based thought. Timothy should continue thinking about what Paul has said (2:3–6) or will say (2:8–13), so that his mind will apprehend its significance. Timothy should ponder to understand spiritual truth based on careful faith-based thought that effects action. Most commentators conclude that Paul wants Timothy to contemplate the meaning and application of the three metaphors that Paul just introduced (2:4–6). If Timothy is to ponder some spiritual truth over time, understanding the meaning of the three metaphors appears rather simple. However, if Paul wants Timothy to ponder the dangerous path of suffering that lies ahead for him, that would certainly take more time. Timothy’s path and Paul’s path were reminiscent of Jesus’ final path to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51–53).


Paul now gives additional reasons why Timothy should endure suffering. It results in salvation for others and himself (2:8–13). Timothy needs to remember that, even though Paul is bound, God’s word is not bound: Keep remembering Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, from David’s seed, according to my gospel, in which I suffer evil to the point of bonds as an evil doer, but God’s word is not bound (2:8–9). Paul still is developing the theme why Timothy should partner in suffering with him for the gospel. He has already mentioned how Jesus, full of grace, as Savior, destroyed death and brought life (1:9–10; 2:1). Now, he reminds Timothy to keep in his mind two things about Jesus Christ: (1) Christ was risen from the dead and (2) he is from David’s seed (2:8). Throughout 2 Timothy, Paul employs “Christ Jesus,” highlighting his status as Messiah (or Christ). This time Paul calls him Jesus Christ, possibly because he emphasizes Jesus as the descendant of King David and the prototype human who was raised from the dead. In Romans, Paul describes Jesus as “David’s seed according to the flesh” (1:3). Jesus, then, is an apt model of hope for Timothy because those who suffer now will have hope for the future since the crucified Messiah is also the risen Messiah.
Paul has used the phrase my gospel two times previously. Here, the phrase reminds Timothy of what he has “heard” from Paul (2:2). Paul is highlighting that the gospel he preaches includes suffering. Paul suffers to the point of being imprisoned unjustly, even as Jesus was crucified between two criminals, although he was righteous, Paul is in bonds (desmos), but God’s word is not bound (deō; 2:9). Ironically, Paul had bound male or female followers of the Way in Damascus, but now he was bound himself for the same reason he bound others. He writes that he is treated as an evil doer. Ultimately, Paul realizes he had been persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:4–5), who himself had been bound, unjustly, and was now sharing his fate. But, no matter the situation, those who suffer unjustly for Christ’s sake can still promote their message of good news (4:17).
On account of this I endure all things on account of the elect, in order that also they themselves might attain salvation in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (2:10). By implication, Timothy, too, should endure suffering, thereby helping others. The principle idea in endure in a context of suffering is perseverance in one’s faith in Christ despite persecution for that faith. “The person persevering to the end, this one will be saved,” Jesus taught his disciples.44 Paul considers Jesus’ teaching from another perspective. The person who perseveres even through imprisonment (not only saves him/herself, but also) can help other believers.
Elect is frequently used in the New Testament for believers in a context of suffering. To be “elect” is to be special or precious to God. One of the things the church is elected or picked out or chosen for is for suffering on behalf of its testimony to Jesus Christ. People are called by God, but to become “elect,” they must persevere until the end.47 Of course, Jesus, the Messiah, the Chosen One, is the ultimate model of someone who perseveres. By persevering as a Christian, Paul serves as a model for other believers who are (and will) suffer for their faith, with the ultimate goal that they attain salvation in Christ Jesus (2:10). That salvation comes not with a temporary glory, but an eternal glory (a glory that is continuous and immeasurable).50
Paul concludes this first section of his letter (1:3–2:13) with a pithy summary statement that is an authoritative, accurate, and fully reliable teaching from God: The word is trustworthy: for if we died together, also we will live together; if we persevere, also we will reign together; if we will deny, also that one will deny us; if we are unfaithful, that one remains faithful, for he is not able to deny himself (2:11–13). This summary statement expresses the value of sharing and persevering in suffering. Paul has four conditional clauses, where each condition (protasis) results in a conclusion (apodosis). These four sets of clauses (a condition followed by a conclusion) concern themselves with four concerns in times of persecution: death, perseverance, denial, and unfaithfulness.
In the same way as Paul earlier put priority on Jesus as “risen from the dead” (2:8), Paul puts priority on living and reigning with Jesus (2:11–12). He begins with for if we died together (2:11), using the past tense (aorist). The aorist treats the act of dying as a single whole. “Death” is a synecdoche of the afflictions a Christian endures. Paul himself had been near death many times and now he looks forward to it again.54 Paul looks at death from the standpoint of the future: also we will live together. He correlates death with life (zaō), alluding to his previous references to “eternal life.” A number of verbs begin with the preposition sun (“together with”): synapothnēskō (“die together”), syzaō (“live together”), and symbasileuō (“reign together”) (2:11–12). They complement Paul’s central imperative to Timothy: to “suffer together with” (synkakopatheō; 1:8; 2:3). All of these verbs describe the action of being “together with” or accompanying someone. The object of each of these verbs is omitted: die with whom? Live with whom? Reign with whom? Primarily, Paul refers back to Christ Jesus (2:10), but he probably also includes other believers. In the same way, “join in suffering” has a double allusion: Timothy suffering for the gospel and for Christ Jesus and Timothy suffering with Paul.58
The second set of clauses begins with the ongoing present tense and ends with the future tense: if we keep persevering, also we will reign together (2:12a). Believers become joint heirs with Christ, “if we suffer together that also we may be glorified together.” Heirs reign over their kingdoms.61 When Jesus by his blood ransomed his people, he made them a kingdom, rulers on earth, and priests to serve God. But, Paul presents the difficulties in living as a Christian in an antagonistic world (death and the need to persevere), before he presents the rewards (life and reigning). Otherwise, believers might want to reign in order to avoid any costs to discipleship (1 Cor 4:8–13). The first two sets of clauses end with a positive conclusion. Death results in life, perseverance in victory.
In a time when one’s testimony for Jesus Christ, “risen from the dead, from David’s seed” (2:8), might cause difficulties, the temptation is to deny one’s faith or become unfaithful: if we will deny, also that one will deny us (2:12b). Denying one’s faith may be by words or by action. Several believers in Rome had already denied Jesus, by deserting Paul.64 Jesus had warned his disciples that whoever denies our Lord before others, he also would deny him/her before his Father in heaven (Matt 10:33). Human action results in divine action. Instead, Jesus’ followers were to deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23).
To deny someone is to say “no” to someone. God allows human action and decision. However, human unfaithfulness does not nullify God’s faithfulness: if we are unfaithful, that one remains faithful, for he is not able to deny himself (2:13). Paul described himself as unfaithful, a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent person who received mercy. But even though humans may not remain consistent, God the Trinity always will keep God’s promises. God’s very nature is truth and faithfulness and cannot act outside itself.


With this summary statement (2:11–13), Paul concludes the first section of his letter, explaining why Timothy should not be ashamed to suffer for the gospel, nor of Paul’s suffering (1:3–2:13). What Paul has just told Timothy is not simply for Timothy’s own edification, but it is to be passed on to others: these things keep reminding (2:14a). These things refer to what Paul has just said in 1:3–2:13. Timothy is also to remind the church about matters brought up in more length in 1 Timothy and Titus: while charging in the presence of God not to dispute about words, useful for nothing, for destruction of the ones hearing (2:14b). In this second section of his letter, Paul exhorts Timothy to remind the people while himself avoiding ungodly talking and instead become a vessel for good works (2:14–26). Timothy should treat truth with integrity and avoid ungodly talking (2:14–18). Despite ungodly talking, God’s firm foundation stands (2:19). Timothy should become a vessel prepared for good works, pursuing virtues, avoiding controversies, gently guiding those of the opposition because they may repent (2:20–26). Before Timothy can leave Ephesus for Rome, he needs to help the church mature spiritually. Part of joining in suffering has to do with ensuring integrity in one’s own actions and exhorting others to do the same.

Treat Truth with Integrity and Avoid Ungodly Talking (2:14–19)

Paul commands Timothy solemnly to charge the church in the presence of God (2:14). Paul uses charge (diamartyromai) twice in this letter to avoid negative behavior and in 4:1, for Timothy himself to act in a positive manner. Paul charges him not to dispute about words (logomacheō, 2:14). At Ephesus, there continued to be battles about words, arguments about topics that led to spiritual error. These words are described in two ways: (1) useful for nothing and (2) for destruction of the ones hearing (2:14). Paul also describes these words as “godless” and “empty,” leading to more “ungodliness,” as “a spreading cancer” and deviating from “the truth” (2:16–18). These words are not beneficial or of any use; they are destructive to those listening.
In contrast, Timothy must: Make every effort to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2:15). Timothy must not concern himself with being approved by those who are on a road to destruction. Rather, his judge is God. And, although he has been saved by grace (1:9), he still needs to make every effort (spoudazō) to please God. As Onesiphorus’ household made extensive effort to find Paul (1:17), Timothy is to make that same extensive effort to present himself approved. These are times of urgency, when Paul exhorts his coworkers to hasten and exert themselves in coming to see him. With that same urgency, he wants Timothy to work on his spiritual maturity. Approved (dokimos) may be used to describe pure metals that sustain their structure even if cast into a furnace. They are genuine. Humans too demonstrate the genuineness of their character by persevering through trials (Jas 1:12). Timothy also should extend effort to persist as a genuine believer and thus become approved or commended by God.
Paul further defines what it means to be approved by God with three modifiers: (1) a worker, (2) who does not need to be ashamed, and (3) rightly handling the word of truth (2:15). A worker is someone who “makes every effort.” Therefore, they are not ashamed. Paul alludes to Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples: of those who are ashamed of Jesus and of his words, Jesus “will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Of what not to be ashamed has been an important topic in this letter: the testimony of the Lord and of Paul, the Lord’s prisoner.77 Now, Timothy himself is to be unashamed, probably because he is making every effort to present himself approved to God and he is rightly handling the word of truth (2:15). By the context, it appears that others, by their word-battles, are not interpreting the word of truth rightly (e.g., but rather, deceptively; 3:13).
How should Timothy handle the word of truth? He should do so rightly, that is, cutting it in a straight line (orthotomeō). Wisdom can “rightly direct” one’s paths (Prov 3:6) and righteousness blamelessly cuts straight paths, as opposed to ungodliness (Prov 11:5). The word of truth is used for the gospel orally communicated in the New Testament. It may also be in written form, but when it is correctly interpreted, it directs their paths in the right direction, so that orthotomeō (“straight-cutting”) then affects orthopodeō (“straight-walking”). The opposite of falsifying God’s word by shameful and deceptive means (2 Cor 4:2) is handling it correctly.
Such handling of the word of truth was not occurring in Ephesus. So, Timothy needs to keep avoiding the godless empty talk; for they will increase to more ungodliness and their word as a spreading gangrene will increase, among whom are both Hymenaeus and Philetus, who, concerning the truth, have deviated, saying, the resurrection already is past, and they are upsetting the faith of some (2:16–18). All three Pastoral Letters have similar descriptions of the heresies (see table on the following page).
The difference is that 2 Timothy does not specifically refer to genealogies, a negative use of the law, defiling of the conscience,83 ascetism, and the circumcision party. Thus, either Paul did not repeat in his second letter to Timothy every aspect of the problems in Ephesus or there have been improvements in some areas since his previous letter around three to four years earlier. What does remain consistent are word-battles, empty talk, heresy, deception, women’s involvement, unhealthy self-serving teaching, myths, harm, demonic aspects, godless behavior, and false piety.

Similarities in Heresies in the Pastorals

2 Timothy (AD 64–66)
1 Timothy (AD 62–64)
Titus (AD 62–64)
Fights about words, controversy (2:14, 23)
Controversy (2:8; 6:4–5)
Controversy, battles (3:9–11)
Empty talk, useful for nothing, foolish, stupid (2:14, 16, 23 vs. 2:21)
Empty talk, unuseful use of law (1:6, 8–10; 5:13; 6:20)
Empty talk, useless (1:10; 3:9)
Heresy: resurrection already past (2:18)
Heterodoxy, problems with Christology: Jesus, human, was unique moderator for all (1:3; 2:4–6; 6:3, 5, 20–21)
Jewish Christian heresy (1:10, 14)
Deceptive, not true, false (2:18, 25; 3:8, 13; 4:4; vs. “straight” 2:15)
Deceptive, not true (2:14; 4:1–2; 6:3, 5)
Deceptive, against truth (1:10, 12, 14, 3:3)
Education necessary, women never learn (2:2; 3:6–7)
Education necessary, especially for women (1:7; 2:11–12)
Education necessary: elders, male and female, teach (1:9; 2:3)
Not healthy (1:13; 2:17; 4:3)
Not healthy (1:10; 6:3–4)
Not healthy (1:9, 13; 2:1–2, 8)
Self-serving; loving money (3:2; 4:3)
Self-gain (6:4–5)
Self-gain (1:11)
Myths vs. legal (2:5; 4:4)
Myths, genealogies, legal (1:4, 8; 4:7)
Myths, genealogies, legal (1:14; 3:9)
Destruction, judgment, demonic, slanderous vs. approved (2:14, 19, 26; 3:3)
Satanic, slanderous (3:6–7, 11; 4:1; 5:15)
Harmful, slanderous (1:12; 2:3; 3:11)
Godless behavior, idle, spreading cancer (2:16–17)
Godless (1:5, 9; 2:10; 4:1, 7; 6:6, 20)
Godless (1:6–8, 15–16; 2:3, 5, 12)
Outward piety (3:5)
False piety: ascetism (4:3)
False piety (1:16)

Godless empty talk has two basic results: (1) they will increase to more ungodliness and (2) their word as a spreading gangrene will increase (2:16–17). Ungodliness is the negation of worship (sebeia). Godless empty talk is not static, it increases. Its ramifications increase, while genuine worship decreases. Paul then repeats the same concept using a simile: as a spreading gangrene (2:17). Gaggraina is “a disease involving severe inflammation, which if left unchecked can become a destructive ulcerous condition, gangrene, cancer.” This illness is spreading and is destructive (nomē). Not all growth is healthy.
Gangrene is gradual and painful. It is massive death of tissue, an infection that may be caused by overly tight bandaging or the growth of bacteria that live without oxygen but enter the body through a wound. The bacteria produce a toxin that spreads into the surrounding tissues and kills them. The cure is removal of the dead tissues. What does gangrene have in common with godless empty talk (2:16)? An outside source causes spiritual death and unhealthy growth, spreads, and eventually results in people losing, not gaining, their salvation (2:19). Paul then gives an example of two people: among whom are both Hymenaeus and Philetus, who, concerning the truth, have deviated, saying, the resurrection already is past, and they are upsetting the faith of some (2:17–18). Hymenaeus (mentioned in 1 Tim 1:20) apparently has won over a coworker, Philetus. Along with Alexander, Hymenaeus had abandoned the conscience, the interior faculty for the personal discernment of good and evil, as guided by faith or trust in God for an external law structure. Both Hymenaeus and Alexander had been acting in a diabolical manner: deceiving and speaking falsely instead of furthering truth, peace, righteousness, and love.
Wrong teaching about the resurrection (anastasis) has been mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Some Greeks might not want to believe in a bodily resurrection because the body or matter was considered evil (Acts 17:18, 32). The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, believed there was no resurrection at all. Some, at the church in Corinth, like the Sadducees, believed there was no resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:12). But, Paul explains, if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised, and people’s sins are unforgiven (1 Cor 15:16–17). Paul presents a correct sequence: Christ is the first to resurrect, then Christ returns, at which time those who belong to Christ resurrect (1 Cor 15:23). Jesus and Paul confirmed the belief of most ancient Jews that there would be at the judgment two resurrections: one to life, one to condemnation. This is a foundational doctrine (Heb 6:2), previously mentioned in this letter (2 Tim 2:8, 11). Now, at Ephesus, Hymenaeus and Philetus had been promoting a different slant on the resurrection claiming at some point in the past the resurrection occurred and this event has changed the state of affairs. In the fictional second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla, the author has the villains Demas and Hermogenes hold to a similar view, believing that the resurrection has already taken place in the children (14). Both cases seem to propose a type of Gnosticism where “knowledge of the true God” results in resurrection or reincarnation. We cannot fully understand this heresy of Hymenaeus and Philetus, but it must have had ramifications for human behavior. Possibly by believing the resurrection is past, they then thought judgment was past. In that case, they might live immoral lives95 or legalistic, ascetic ones (1 Tim 1:9; 4:3). Sometimes those who propose excessive legalism are the very people who live unrighteous or ungodly lives. Their rules are so excessive, no one could ever obey them, including themselves.
Thus, Paul exhorts all who claim to be Christian, including Timothy: Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal: the Lord has known the ones who are his, and all naming the Lord’s name must stand away from unrighteousness (2:19). Paul appears to allude to the Old Testament incident wherein Korah and 250 chiefs insist they could offer sacrifices in the tabernacle as did Aaron and his sons. At that time, Moses told Korah and his followers that God has known the ones who are his, who are the “holy ones,” set apart, chosen as priests (Num 16:5). Then Moses exhorted the rest of the Hebrews to separate themselves from the people who had questioned whether the Lord had sent Moses and Aaron, so as to avoid falling into the earth when it opened up in judgment: literally, they had to “stand off away from” (aphistēmi) the tent of Korah and the others if they wanted to stay alive (Num 15:27). Paul’s allusion to this incident shows that the heresy of Hymenaeus and Philetus was a dangerous one that would result in condemnation for any attracted to it.
Unrighteousness implies immoral behavior because Paul now proposes in a positive manner its opposite, righteousness: But in a great household there are not only golden and silver vessels but also wooden and clay, and, on the one hand, some are into honor, but, on the other hand, some are into dishonor; therefore, if some might purify themselves from these things, (s)he will be a vessel into honor, consecrated, useful to the master, prepared for every good work (2:20–21). In contrast to battling about words, which is “useful for nothing” (chrēsimos; 2:14), Timothy and the church are to make themselves useful (of good service) to the master (2:21). Paul uses an extended illustration, comparing people (household servants) with different types of vessels (skeuos). This is a large household with many different vessels. A vessel is moveable property, any item that can be carried. It includes the moveable items in the temple (Num 1:50; Heb 9:21). Thus, if Christians as a group are God’s sanctuary (e.g., 1 Cor 6:19–20), individually they are vessels in the sanctuary. Whereas in Romans 9:21–23 the focus is on the potter and the malleability of the clay, in 2 Timothy 2:20–21 the focus is on the pot and human responsibility. In 1 Thessalonians 4:4, the vessel symbolizes the human body, and one’s own use of it for an honorable or dishonorable purpose, sexual holiness or impurity (vv. 4–7). Thus, the reference to fleeing youthful passions (2:22) follows naturally from the earlier reference to vessels.
Timothy, and others in the church, can make themselves into vessels for honorable uses. This result is dependent on the condition: if some might purify themselves from these things (2:21). These things appears to refer to all the negative behavior previously mentioned: disputing about words that are useless and destructive, engaging in godless empty talk, and unrighteousness (2:14–19). But, he will also apply unrighteousness to youthful passions and foolish and non-instructive arguments (2:22–23). The subjunctive tense (might purify) indicates that purification is a possible but not an accomplished goal. A vessel of honor is further defined in three ways: (1) consecrated, (2) useful to the master, and (3) prepared for every good work (2:21). The vessel is consecrated or made holy. In 1 Timothy, Paul described everything created by God, including marriage and all foods, as “rendered holy” or “sanctified” (hagiazō) by God’s word and prayer. As Jesus prayed, believers are sent into the world but they are not from the world (John 17:14–19). They too are to work on being holy de facto in an unholy world.
An honorable vessel, like a household servant, is available for service by the master of the household, by implication, the Lord (2:19). This vessel has been prepared ready for use for every good work (2:21). Every good work has a double meaning, literally, for its intended use in the household, and, metaphorically, for holy or good behavior.
Paul now warns Timothy to continue to beware of specific temptations: But keep on fleeing the youthful passions and keep on pursuing righteousness, faith, love, peace, accompanied by the act of calling upon the Lord from a clean heart (2:22). Passions (epithymia) or “desires” are strong feelings turned upon something. They can be good or harmful. They can refer to coveting what belongs to another,104 such as wealth, but since in this verse they are modified by youthful, and Timothy himself was probably in his late twenties or early thirties, what belongs to another is probably sexual.106 Similar language is used in 1 Thessalonians 4 to exhort Christians to control their “vessel.” The same verb flee (pheugō) is used in 1 Corinthians 6:18 (“flee sexual immorality”). In the same way as sheep will flee from strangers (John 10:5), Timothy should flee from youthful passions. But, he should not leave a vacuum in his being. The same active intensity should be directed to keep on pursuing righteousness, faith, love, peace (2:22). The first three of these attributes were mentioned in Paul’s personal exhortation to Timothy in 1 Timothy, attributes Timothy was to keep pursuing. Faith and love are two key concerns at Ephesus. Later, Paul will explain that Scripture helps in training in righteousness and faith (3:15–16). Peace was included in the opening greetings, but here is reiterated because, if Timothy pursues peace, he will be able to be gentle with his opponents (2:24–25).
Timothy is to keep pursuing these four virtues while calling upon the Lord from a clean heart (2:22b). In this letter consistently, human action and God’s action occur concurrently. While Timothy flees from harmful passions and pursues helpful virtues, he regularly appeals to the Lord for help in growth in these four virtues. For, ultimately, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13; Joel 2:32). In 1 Timothy 2:1, Paul describes several different types of prayer. All of them may be found in 2 Timothy. Second Timothy 2:22 and 1:3–4 contain requests: Paul longs to see Timothy and exhorts Timothy to call on the Lord. Paul intercedes for Onesiphorus’ household in 1:16, 18. He continually thanks God (1:3), and he asks the Lord to bless Timothy (4:22). In prayer, Paul too serves as a model for Timothy. But, the basis of the prayer must be a clean heart. Paul had previously summarized Timothy’s commission as “love from a clean heart and a good conscience and genuine faith.” If within one’s inward self, one prays with evil intentions, one’s prayers will not be answered. Paul describes his own prayers as done with a “clean conscience” (1:3).
Temptation can come from one’s strong passions (2:22), but they can also come from external sources: and keep on averting the foolish and non-instructive arguments, knowing that they give birth to battles (2:23). In 2:16, Paul had warned Timothy to keep on avoiding (periistēmi) “godless empty talk” because ungodliness would spread. Now, he adds to that warning, to keep on averting, declining, or refusing (paraiteomai) arguments or disputes that lead to spiritual error. Disputes can be caused by a search for the truth. But, these disputes are foolish and non-instructive. Non-instructive arguments is the opposite of what Timothy is to do in 2:25. These arguments do not seek to guide, like the daily instruction and supervision of conduct of a minor, as God’s grace instructs. These arguments, like the “old women’s myths” are neither instructive nor edifying.116 Arguments that do not search for the truth and for guidance eventually give birth to battles (machē; 2:23).
Paul continues the imagery (2:21) of the household slave with a master: But it is necessary the Lord’s slave not to battle, but to be kind before all, apt in teaching, patient, giving guidance in gentleness to the ones opposing oneself, whether perhaps God may grant to them repentance into knowledge of truth (2:24–25). Timothy is to become involved in conversations with those with whom he disagrees, but in a different manner. He is not to battle, as in armed combat aiming to destroy his enemies at all costs. Rather, he is to converse using four means, the first of which is to be kind (ēpios; 2:24). Ēpios, when referring to heat and cold, is “mild, less intense” and in actions, “soothing, assuaging,” as opposed to strong or angry. Eusebius defends the traditional view that 2 Timothy was written during Paul’s second imprisonment because during the first Roman imprisonment that Luke describes in Acts: “Nero’s disposition was gentler and it was easier for Paul’s defence on behalf of his views to be received, but as he advanced towards reckless crime the Apostles were attacked along with the rest” (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.22). A kind conversation, not one in anger, is less likely to result in a battle. Moreover, Timothy is to display this kind attitude to all, not just those with whom he agrees.
Paul uses two synonyms for instruction: didaktikos (2:24) and paideuō (2:25). Didaktikos, apt in teaching, a quality needed for overseers, was especially needed in a context of heterodoxy. In a gentle manner, Timothy was to teach the truth. Timothy, instructed by Paul, was qualified to cause to learn.120 In teaching, the focus is more on content. Anyone of any age can choose to learn a skill or new content. (Prisca and Aquila may have returned to Ephesus to help Timothy in this educational process; 2 Tim 4:19.) In contrast, to guide (paideuō) focuses more on conduct and the relationship of an adult and a minor. Paul describes the law as a pedagogue (paidagōgos; teacher) that instructs a minor until he or she becomes the heir who has now received faith. But, before, in the middle, and after these two concrete words (teach and guide), Paul intersperses three synonyms: ēpios (kind), anexikakos (patient), and prautēs (gentleness) (2:24–25). If kind refers to a soothing, conciliatory manner, patient (anexikakos) is even stronger, referring to holding one’s self firm (anechō) to endure evil or difficulties or wrongs (kakos). This is a type of endurance that perseveres in the faith despite persecution123 or that perseveres in love with other believers. Of course, Timothy is not to accept or promote falsehood because the goal is knowledge of truth (2:25), not knowledge of falsehood. Love, after all, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6), not in falsehood. Such guidance is given not in anger, impatience, or haughtiness, but in gentleness (prautēs; 2:25). Prautēs is a significant attribute of Jesus (Matt 11:29), which signifies gentleness, humility, non-contentiousness, goodness, and reliance on the Lord’s care. This is the way to correct sinners,126 with a soft voice.
A soothing, firm, and soft manner might educate and guide those who persist in placing themselves in opposition to Timothy (2:25). Timothy educates and guides, but God grants repentance. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility work cooperatively together. Paul’s opponents: might become sober again (and escape) from the trap of the devil, captured alive by him into that will (2:26). Being sober is an important qualification for an overseer, elder, and minister. Those who are not continually sober cannot understand the Lord’s will and be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:17–18). They may not even notice that they have been captured alive by a trap of the devil to do his will (2:26). Paul has used the imagery of a trap twice in 1 Timothy (3:7; 6:9) to describe a snare that suddenly catches animals unawares. Possibly, the gentleness and patience, the soothing soft voice, the persistence in teaching and guidance is needed with the opponents because, like trapped animals, their will is limited, their lack of freedom blinds them from seeing the truth. Even animals trapped in “Have-a-Heart” cages can become so terrified that they do not leave when the door of the cage is opened.



In this third major section (3:1–4:8) of the letter, Paul exhorts Timothy to continue in his ministry of evangelism and sound teaching despite opposition, turning away (3:1–5) from those who lack genuine piety, opposing the truth and taking women as prisoners. Eventually their folly will become evident (3:6–9). Instead, Timothy needs to follow Paul’s model, expecting the godly in Christ to be persecuted and evil people to be deceived (3:10–13), while Timothy remains in the Scriptures, which prepare him for every good work (3:14–17). Paul exhorts Timothy, in light of Jesus’ judgment, to proclaim the word at all times because a time is coming when people will turn from healthy teaching to myths and Paul will be gone (4:1–6), to receive with all who love the Lord a just crown (4:7–8).

Lack of Genuine Piety (3:1–5)

As in 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul mentions the last days: And know this, that in the last days difficult times will be present (3:1). These last days are now here, having already begun with Jesus’ incarnation and life, after Pentecost. And, in these last days, life for an evangelist will be more difficult. If being captured alive by the devil’s trap sounds terrifying (2:26), Paul depicts days so violent as to be compared to possession by demoniacs who prohibit any human from passing through them (Matt 8:28). Paul describes people characterized by nineteen negative qualities: for people will be loving themselves, loving money, boastful, haughty, blasphemous, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderous, without self-control, savage, not loving the good, traitors, reckless, deluded, loving pleasure more than loving God, having an outward form of godliness but denying its power (3:2–5). The first two and the last word of the series (philautos, philarguros, philēdonos) all begin with philos, a friendship type of love. But, having such objects of love does not develop friendship with God, faith and love in Christ Jesus (1:13), salvation, living, reigning, and enduring with Christ Jesus (2:10–12), enduring with the truth (2:18, 25), and escaping the devil’s trap (2:26). The first love is love of self. The second love is love of money (silver), a visible deity. The final love summarizes one aspect of all these negative qualities: pleasure is loved more than God (philotheos; loving pleasure, 3:4). Timothy and the church could never join Paul in suffering for the gospel, if love of self, money, or pleasure superseded their love for Christ Jesus.
The concrete negative qualities that follow relate to one or more of these three bad friendships. Those who do not acknowledge or thank God may end being boastful or having false pretensions. In reality, they may love self or money more than God. Haughty (hyperēphanos) is a more intensive synonym of “boastful” (alazōn; 3:2). To be haughty is to cause oneself to be resplendent, brought forth into the light, to shine more than others, having an undue sense of one’s importance bordering on insolence. Many of the qualities in the 2 Timothy 3:2–5 list may also be found in Romans 1:30–31 because, like haughtiness, they are a result of not acknowledging God or being humble before God, but, being a friend of the world instead of a friend of God. God opposes such haughty people.9 Such boastful and haughty attitudes may easily turn to blasphemy or slander, being demonic qualities (3:2). Disrespectful language about God or about other human beings was a continual problem at Ephesus and Crete. A result of the heresy at Ephesus, it had been a problem for Paul himself.
Paul now lists five words that all begin in Greek with not (the a privative): disobedient, unthankful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable (3:2–3). Disobedience to parents (3:2) may appear of a different character than the other qualities in this list. However, children’s attitudes to parents is important, being also mentioned in 1 Timothy (3:4–5; 5:4, 8) and Titus (1:6) and in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:12). Disobedience is a quality of the heretical circumcision party (Titus 1:16) and of non-Christians (Rom 1:30). Disobedience contrasts with righteous wisdom (Luke 1:17). These are children who refuse to be persuaded by Christ’s truth.
Unthankful (acharistos) is a characteristic of non-Christians (Luke 6:35) because non-Christians do not thank God or honor God despite creation manifesting God’s power and divine nature (Rom 1:20–21). Thankfulness (charistos) is an aspect of God’s grace (charis), which overflows from God’s character toward humans (2 Tim 1:9; 2:1). Unthankfulness to God may result in acts lacking holiness that are profane (anosios; unholy). Obedience to parents (3:2) should be based on a relationship of affection between parents and children, but in these last days this is lacking. Some people refuse to make a truce with God; they are implacable or irreconcilable.13 Slanderous (diabolos; 3:3) is a synonym of “blasphemous” (blasphēmos; 3:2), employing the same word as the Slanderer par excellence, the devil, for the act of lying, deceiving, speaking falsely against others.
Paul then has a second set of words that begin in Greek with the a privative: without self-control (3:3), without strength, dissolute (akratēs), not tame, savage (anēmeros), and not loving the good (aphilagathos). Lack of self-control is a servant of love of self-pleasure, possibly leading to savage, bestial, behavior, as opposed to gentle behavior (2:24–25) that ends with no longer loving the good. Loving goodness is an essential quality for an elder, the opposite of demonic behavior.
Paul continues with two attributes that begin with the same preposition (pro; “before”). To give or hand over in a treacherous manner is to be a traitor, such as Judas Iscariot, who betrayed even Jesus, God incarnate (Luke 6:16), and those who betrayed the prophets who foretold the coming of Jesus, the Righteous One (Acts 7:52). Alexander, the metal worker, appears to have been such a person betraying Paul (2 Tim 4:14–15). Propetēs, literally, is “falling forwards” or “down” and thus a precipitous or reckless act. Not loving goodness, people will fall down and act recklessly (without thought). The end result is their brain is clouded with smoke, making their mind unclear. They are deluded, loving pleasure (philēdonos) more than loving God (philotheos; 3:4).
Unlike Romans 1:18–32, where Paul depicts those who do not claim to be believers, these similar qualities in 2 Timothy 3:2–4 describe actions of those who claim to live in a godly manner (eusebeia; 3:5). In genuine godliness one dedicates oneself to please God in one’s words and actions. One’s life is offered as worship of God. Morphōsis and its cognates morphē and morphoō refer to an outward form of godliness seen by the eye that reflects an inward nature or essential attribute. For example, when Jesus was transfigured (metamorphoō), his outer glory represented his true inward nature as God. In contrast, the external or outward visible form of godliness of the behavior Paul describes (3:5) is not authentic. Probably, this description is similar to the ascetic behavior described in 1 Timothy 4:3 and the Jewish heresy described in Titus 1:16. Paul had written about not denying one’s faith, but denying ungodliness (Titus 2:12), but here, he writes of denying the power of godliness. What could be the power of godliness? Most likely, it refers to having the authentic “form” (morphōsis), where the outward piety reflects an inward piety. Genuine godliness has power or strength, which is the antithesis of fear (1:7). That power comes from God who saves and calls according to the purpose and grace manifested by Christ Jesus who abolished death and gave life and immortality (1:9–10).
Timothy, in contrast, must: keep turning yourself away from these (3:5b). Apostrephō can be used as an exemplary or non-exemplary action. In a non-exemplary manner, some people turned away from Paul (1:15) and others turn away from truth (Titus 1:14), but, in an exemplary manner, believers need to turn away from evil. Timothy must reject all the behavior listed in 3:2–5. However, since the pronoun these (toutous) in 3:5 is masculine plural, does this suggest Timothy must turn away from the people (3:2) who exhibit such behavior? If so, how can he then dialogue with his opponents with the intention to help them repent (2:24–25)? Or, must Timothy turn away only from the behavior itself, as in 2:16, 23, not the people per se? Timothy certainly must reject these behaviors, and, keeping away from people who do these behaviors is an aspect of turning away from their behavior. As Paul tells the Corinthians: “bad company destroys good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). Yet, he must also be open to teach those who are teachable (2:24–26).

Women as Prisoners (3:6–9)

People (rather than behavior) is suggested by the next sentence, because from the type of people listed in 3:2–5 comes this group: For out of these (people) are the ones going into the households and taking prisoner attractive women, overwhelmed with sins, being led by manifold passions, always learning and never being able to come into knowledge of truth (3:6–7). Paul uses the present participle to suggest this action is present and ongoing. These people do two things: go into households and take prisoner women (3:6). They themselves already have been taken prisoner by the devil to do the devil’s will (captured alive in a trap; 2:26), and now they take others prisoners as subservient captives of war. They are not motivated by love of God (3:4), but by love of themselves, money, or pleasure (3:2, 4). Who does the imprisoning? They are described by the generic anthrōpos (people; 3:2) or the generic masculine plural (these, toutous; the ones, hoi; 3:5–6). Thus, the false teachers probably include women as well as men. Some younger widows would be likely dispersers of these falsehoods (1 Tim 5:13, 15). In conservative wealthy homes, the women might live in gynaikeia, the part of the house belonging to women, and only women could enter that section.
Some women in particular are the victims. Paul uses the diminutive for women (gynaikarion; 3:6). Most commentators think “little women” is a derogatory term,37 but it is not necessarily. The first-century (AD 50–120) Stoic philosopher Epictetus used gynaikarion as a positive term for an attractive woman. Wars arise to win her, he writes (Diatr. 2.22 [23]). Men wish to please her (3:1[32]). Attractive women capture the “citadel (acropolis)” of fever within men (4.1[86]). It is also a term of endearment for “a little wife and child” (Ench. 7). These women are described in three ways: (1) overwhelmed with sins, (2) being led by manifold passions, and (3) always learning and never being able to come into knowledge of truth (3:6–7). Overwhelmed (sōreuō) is a metaphor, literally signifying “to heap together” or “to heap up.” In Romans 12:20, Paul refers to Proverb 25:22, heaping up burning coals on an enemy’s head. Hospitality for one’s enemies results in a judgment against them, but a reward from God, whereas, in 2 Timothy 3:6, sin has been heaped upon these women. These women have never comprehended the nature of the gospel that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and, therefore, is merciful to every sinner. They have not been freed. They continue to sin. They are led, not by God, but, by manifold passions. Paul had previously warned Timothy to flee “youthful passions” (2:22), strong feelings and desires turned upon something or someone inappropriate. Paul does not specify what kind of passions the women have. It could be sexual or financial or different since they are manifold, but they are not good desires. As a result, despite Paul’s goal for everyone, but especially women who have not been educated properly44 (i.e., although they learn by study [manthanō]), they have not reached the goal: knowledge of truth (3:7).
Paul then compares these false teachers to Jannes and Jambres: But just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, in the same way also they themselves oppose the truth, humans who corrupted the mind, discredited concerning the faith. But they will not advance any more, for their folly will be quite plain to all, as also happened to those persons (3:8–9). Jannes and Jambres were names given to two of the magicians called in by Pharaoh in Egypt to oppose Moses. After Aaron had turned his staff into a snake, the court magicians were able to do the same, but then Aaron’s serpent swallowed up theirs. Later, with the Lord’s help, when Aaron is able to turn dust into gnats, the magicians could not copy that act. Therefore, they told Pharaoh: “This is the finger of God” (Exod 7:11–13; 8:18–19). The teachers at Ephesus, like Jannes and Jambres, may have appeared impressive to these women, but in reality they were opposing the person(s) chosen by God to promote God’s message. As Jannes and Jambres were shown not to be empowered by the only true and most powerful God, so too these false teachers will be shown to oppose the truth and be less powerful. Does this mean that the Ephesians were still impressed by magic since Paul mentions two magicians? Lock suggests that since this church is fond of Jewish myths and genealogies and magic (Acts 19:19), Paul gives them an example of magicians whose folly was exposed.
In addition to opposing the truth, they are characterized by two phrases: corrupted the mind and discredited concerning the faith (3:8). God destroys in punishment those who destroy God’s temple. However, humans may destroy or corrupt their own minds. Whose minds are destroyed here?49 Do the false teachers only destroy their own minds (“humans of corrupted mind”) or also the minds of the female students (“humans having corrupted the mind”)? Both will happen. (They are deceived and deceiving; 3:13.) What is the end result? They are discredited or not approved when it comes to the faith. Ground that produces thorns and thistles eventually will be burned (Heb 6:8). An ominous future looms before these false teachers.
Everyone needs to advance or progress (3:9) in a positive manner. Paul promises that false teachers, like Jannes and Jambres, will not progress in their influence, because their corrupted mind (nous; 3:8) will be revealed as a lack of mind or no mind (anous, folly; 3:9) to all people.

Follow Paul’s Model (3:10–13)

Timothy, instead, needs to follow Paul’s model because the godly in Christ will be persecuted while evil people are being deceived (3:10–13): But, you, follow after my teaching, way of life, way of thinking, faith, compassion, love, perseverance, persecutions, sufferings: what happened to me in Antioch, in Iconium, in Lystra, what persecutions I endured and from all the Lord rescued me (3:10–11). Throughout this letter, Paul has interspersed negative (what not to do) and positive (what to do) comments. With the explicit pronoun you (3:10), Paul personally addresses Timothy. He had warned him to keep turning away from the people who love themselves, money, and pleasure more than they love God (3:2–5). Instead, Timothy is to follow after nine aspects of Paul’s life. The first three attributes are close in meaning: his teachings and leading or conduct (way of life, and way of thinking or goals). The next attribute, of course, is the central one: faith. In Titus 2:2, the male elder was to be “faithful, loving, persevering,” the same exact words and sequence Paul has used in 2 Timothy 3:10 (but in 2 Tim compassion is inserted after faith). Paul uses these same three attributes to refer to Timothy. The battle at Ephesus is over faith and love.55
Paul highlights three specific reflections of faith, which are fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23) and also attributes of God: compassion, love, perseverance (3:10). God had been compassionate with Paul by being merciful toward him, forgiving him. Paul will later exhort Timothy to be compassionate (4:2). To persevere until the end is the trait Timothy most needs if he is to join in suffering with Paul despite persecutions and sufferings. Jesus had warned his disciples that the believer without roots falls away when trouble or persecution arises, unlike the believer in “good soil” who hears the word, understands it, and bears fruit (Matt 13:21–23). However, no trouble or hardship or persecution could ever separate a believer from Christ’s love (Rom 8:35). While diōgmos (persecutions) is concrete and specific, pathēma (sufferings) is more abstract and general. Paul uses pathēma to refer to the sufferings of Christ, the sufferings from living as a Christian,62 and the sufferings from one’s own mortality living in a fallen world. Now, he presents some specific illustrations of difficulties Timothy had learned about early in their acquaintance from Paul’s ministry at Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. He picks three cities in the province of Galatia, the governing center of Phrygia, Antioch in Pisidia, nearby Iconium, and Timothy’s own home town, Lystra, in the region of Lycaonia.64
At first at the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, the message of Paul and Barnabas was enthusiastically received. But some Jews, filled with jealousy at the large crowds, slandered them and contradicted their words, eventually stirring up so much persecution against them they had to leave the region. At Iconium, also at first in the synagogue, many believed. But again the unbelieving Jews stirred up persecution against them and tried to stone them (Acts 14:1–5). Thus, Paul and Barnabas arrived in Lystra just having been persecuted extensively for their faith. At Lystra, Paul and Barnabas were again well received after they healed a crippled man. However, Jews from the earlier cities followed Paul and Barnabas to Lystra (Acts 14:8–19). They persuaded the crowds to stone Paul and dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead. When Paul returned to Lystra, what did he emphasize in his teaching? “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Paul reminds Timothy of this very message: what persecutions I endured (3:11). And yet the Lord rescued him from them all. Even in Lystra, he got up and traveled by foot the next day (Acts 14:20).
From these illustrations, Paul concludes: Likewise all the ones wishing in a godly manner to live in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (3:12). Being an apostle, Paul is not in a unique position when it comes to suffering: All … will be persecuted. Why? They will be persecuted because they desire to live in Christ Jesus in a godly manner (eusebōs). In a world that is not genuinely godly, not dedicating itself to please God in its words and actions, godly living can become an indirect judgment, and those being judged, because of jealousy or misunderstanding or falsehood, may occasion reprisal. To live in Christ Jesus reminds the reader of the sufferings Christ endured and Jesus’ warning: “if they persecuted me, also they will persecute you” (John 15:20).
Lest Timothy be enticed, Paul reminds him again that evil people do not advance or progress to the better: But evil people and imposters will advance to the worse, leading astray and being led astray (3:13). Paul describes the evil people as imposters (goēs). But, goēs also signifies “sorcerer, conjuror.” The use of goēs appears to allude back to the magicians or sorcerers Jannes and Jambres (3:8). These evil people both lead others astray and are themselves led astray (3:13), possibly by deceitful spirits (1 Tim 4:1). Some of Paul’s own coworkers had been led astray.73

Remain in the Scriptures (3:14–17)

Paul repeats again the personal pronoun you (3:14), directly exhorting Timothy, that in contrast to these evil people and imposters who have been led astray and now lead others astray, Timothy needs to remain in the Scriptures, which prepare him for every good work (3:14–17): But, you, remain in what you learned and are firmly persuaded, knowing from whom you learned and that from infancy you know the holy writings, the ones being able to make you wise into salvation through faith, the one in Christ Jesus (3:14–15). While you occurs once in 1 Timothy, near the end (6:11), and once in Titus (2:1), it occurs six times in 2 Timothy, showing how much Paul has focused this letter toward Timothy. Of these six references, four of them call Timothy to contrast himself with those who lead astray (3:9–10), evil people (3:13–14), those who follow myths (4:4–5), and Alexander, a harmful person (4:14–15). Thus, the repetition of you intensifies the difficult context of people who could harm Timothy’s faith.
Timothy had a two part process: he learned and then he was firmly persuaded (3:14). Over an extended period of time Timothy learned. Manthanō may refer to the acquisition of knowledge or skill gained by instruction and, as well, to the thoughtful pondering for further understanding of the significance of something or someone. Both aspects are pertinent here. The content of the learning is the holy writings. Timothy’s learning contrasts with the learning of some women in the church, who never arrive at the “knowledge of truth” (3:7 vs. 1 Tim 2:4). Timothy has come to the knowledge of truth because he is now firmly persuaded. Pistoō is a significant concept in the Old Testament. It can refer to God establishing or confirming a truth or a promise78 or to humans confirming a truth. Faithfulness is included.80 Thus, Paul has observed that Timothy has moved from learning to commitment, confirming the truth of what he was taught by word and action.
Timothy’s acquaintance with and regard for his teachers, which include Paul and many others, helps him persist. His teachers included Lois and Eunice, who taught Timothy from infancy (3:15). Lois and Eunice taught this man (Timothy) and were affirmed in it, and, now, Timothy is commanded to remember them. Infancy (brephos) can refer to a fetus still in the womb or to a newborn child or nursing baby.84 Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois began to teach Timothy at the earliest age possible! Apparently, they did not even wait for five years of age (m. Abot’ 5:21). The content of their education was the holy writings or Scriptures (3:15). A pious Jew of that time would consider the holy writings to refer to the twenty-two books of the Old Testament. In accordance with Deuteronomy 4:2, Josephus mentions that no one has added, removed, or altered a syllable “and it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth, to regard them as the decrees of God, to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to die for them” (Ag. Ap. 8 [42]). Writings (gramma), by itself, refers to anything written, including the Bible. The adjective holy clarifies to which writings Paul refers. Paul himself treats the Old Testament as authoritative and reliable. He also treats the Gospel of Luke as Scripture.90
In addition, Paul explains that these holy writings are the ones being able to make you wise (3:15). A wise person could be someone learned, an expert, skilled in letters. James defines genuinely wise teachers as people who prove their actions by their good conduct characterized by gentle wisdom (Jas 3:13). Therefore, in a practical sense, a wise person is one who in action is governed by piety and integrity. The wise person understands the Lord’s will (Eph 5:15–17) and will not be led astray (3:13). The law of the Lord makes even infants wise (Ps 18:7; LXX). By study of the law, righteous people become wiser than even their teachers or enemies (Ps 119:97–99). Since God is wise (Rom 16:27), God’s writings make people wise.
But not all wisdom leads to knowledge of truth. Therefore, Paul clarifies to what kind of wisdom he refers with two prepositional phrases: into salvation through faith (3:15). The phrases explain the goal and means through which wisdom is obtained. To be saved is to be forgiven one’s sins and, thus, be purified, made acceptable to a holy God. God, the Savior, does the purifying, but humans must cooperate in this process. Study of the Scriptures gives guidance toward the end goal of salvation. Moreover, the Scriptures must be studied through the lens of faith in Christ Jesus, which helps the Scriptures be handled rightly (2:15).
Paul then further defines Scripture: All Scripture is God-breathed and advantageous for teaching, for reproof, for restoration, for guidance, the one in righteousness, in order that God’s person may be complete, being completed fully for every good work (3:16–17). Paul highlights two key characteristics of Scripture: from whom does it originate and for what purposes is it helpful. The foundational truth is that it is God-breathed. In 3:15, he uses the plural “writings,” while in 3:16 the singular “writing.” Every single one of the “holy writings” is God-breathed (3:16). God-breathed is a composite of two words: “God” and to “breathe forth” (pneō). Pneō is often used literally of winds that blow, such as winds that blow down a house or a ship. The Holy Spirit is analogous to the wind that “blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8). The Spirit creates and keeps humans and animals alive. Similar to breathing the breath of life into a mass of dirt and making Adam alive (Gen 2:7), God has blown life into the Scriptures. They are created by God and, therefore, are inspired by God. Human beings who received God’s revelation mainly through prophets, now have heard God-incarnate’s message102 recorded in God-breathed writings, true to his original message, and, as God-breathed, standing forever (Isa 40:8).
Therefore, they are useful for four goals: teaching, reproof, restoration, guidance (3:16). Teaching (didaskalia) and learning are crucial concerns in Ephesus. Scriptures cause the reader to learn.104 They also reprove, bringing deeds and thoughts out in the open for clarity and truth. Readers may learn that some actions done are sinful, and, thereby, reproved. But the process does not end with reproof, it continues on to restoration. “Health” is a frequent metaphor Paul uses in the Pastorals. “Straight” is a synonym. The word of truth should be handled “rightly,” cut in a straight line (orthotomeō). The Scriptures also help people to become “straight,” restoring people to an “upright or a right state.”107 Epictetus exhorts his students: “What sort of a teacher, then, do you still wait for, that you should put off reforming yourself until he arrives?” (Ench. 51.1). In comparison, the Scriptures teach and restore or reform and are always available. Finally, Paul ends with guidance (paideia; 3:16), the day-by-day instruction activity Timothy was to do with his opponents (2:24–25). This guidance is not a worldly one; rather, it is the one in righteousness (3:16).
Scripture’s final goal is: that God’s person may be complete, being completed fully for every good work (3:17). In 1 Timothy 6:11, Paul had exhorted Timothy as God’s person to flee the love of money and instead pursue “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, gentleness.” Now, he wants Timothy to be complete (artios; 3:17), “complete, perfect of its kind, suitable, exactly fitted” to the purpose; “full-grown,” “sound, of body and mind”; “prepared, ready.” Thus, as a result of studying Scripture, Timothy is completely prepared for every good work (3:17), since all study of Scripture must be practical. Otherwise, its intended purpose has been distorted. Learning without knowing and applying the truth (3:7) is inconceivable to Paul. Learning Scripture while engaging in foolish arguments is contradictory (2:23). Studying Scripture is intended to prepare Timothy to be a vessel of the Master for holy behavior (2:21).

Fusing the Horizons: Why Study the Bible?

In summary, based on 2 Timothy, why should someone rely on the Bible?

1. The Bible provides a standard of wholesome, true principles to guide us and help us teach others.
2. The writers claim the messages are from God (3:16).
3. The Bible is relevant no matter our situation (2:9; 4:17).
4. The Bible enables us not to be deceived nor to deceive others (3:13).
5. We follow wise teachers (faithful parents, guardians, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, pastors, professors, mentors, etc.) who know the Bible (3:14).
6. We experience the Bible’s effects in our lives, by obtaining a wisdom that leads to salvation (3:15).
7. We are challenged to mature and change because the Bible exposes evil and restores (3:16–17).
8. The Bible prepares us for the judgment (4:1, 8, 18).
9. The Bible prepares us to minister to others (4:2).



Paul then concludes by exhorting Timothy, in light of Jesus’ judgment, to proclaim the word at all times because a time is coming when people will turn from healthy teaching to myths (4:1–5). He gives a solemn warning: I am charging, in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, the one coming to judge the living and dead, and in his appearing and his kingdom: proclaim the word, take a stand in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, encourage, in all compassion and teaching (4:1–2). Believers need to mature spiritually (3:17) because they will face the judgment. Paul had used the exact first seven words in 1 Timothy 5:21 (I am charging in the presence of God and Christ Jesus) in similar locations in each letter (about one chapter before the close of the letter). He exhorts Timothy about a serious content in a serious manner on three bases: (1) God as his witness, (2) Christ’s appearing, and (3) Christ’s kingdom. Christ Jesus is described as the one coming to judge the living and dead (4:1). A judge (krinō/kritēs) would decide what is just in court trials. The last judgment is done by the Father with the Son.3 But, the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son “so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” Jesus promises that all who hear his word and believe him who sent him already have eternal life and do not come under judgment.5
Appearing (epiphaneia) is a synonym for the time when Jesus will judge the world (4:1). Judgment focuses on the serious preparation needed, while appearing focuses on the glorious event. “Appearing” is reminiscent of the Aaronic benediction: May the Lord “make his face appear (or shine) upon you” (Num 6:25). It is a metaphor for deliverance and blessing. At the appearing all will know Jesus is God (Ezek 39:28). An “appearing” was a “glorious manifestation.”
Why now add kingdom (basileia) as the third basis for his charge (4:1)? After the judgment and the appearing, Christ will set up his kingdom. Paul looks forward to Christ’s kingdom (4:18). Jesus did much teaching on God’s kingdom, as did Paul.9 The kingdom is not food and drink but “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). The wicked will not inherit it. The perishable will become imperishable (1 Cor 15:50–55). People who are forgiven and lead a life worthy of God may enter Christ’s kingdom. As eternal life (2 Tim 1:1), Christ’s kingdom begins now and extends forever.
Paul now gives his five-part charge: to proclaim, take a stand, reprove, rebuke, encourage (4:2). Timothy is not merely supposed to do these actions because of his personal opinions or habits,13 but he should do them based on remaining in what he learned from his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and from his teachers (3:14–16). First, Timothy is exhorted to proclaim the word. Why does Paul not write “teach the word,” “prophesy,” “heal the sick,” “do wonders and miracles” as one of these five main commands, especially since the first function of the Scripture is to teach (3:16)? Preaching or proclaiming is an action all believers are to do, but especially evangelists, such as Timothy and Philip. A preacher is a herald, a messenger from the Scripture (the word) to the people. A preacher or evangelist brings good news (Rom 10:14–15). Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry exhorted his disciples “to proclaim in his name repentance for forgiveness of sins to all nations.” Jesus himself proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”17 Timothy too will be proclaiming Jesus’ kingdom (4:1).
In this difficult time, the next key action is to take a stand in season, out of season (4:2). Literally, take a stand means “to stand” (histēmi) “over” (epi) or make a stand. Sometimes simply standing and waiting is enough, as Cornelius’ emissaries were waiting at the gate or someone may be standing, affirming an action, as Paul affirmed the condemnation of Stephen (Acts 22:20). But, Timothy is charged to remain firm in season (at good times) and out of season (at bad times). Timothy is to proclaim the gospel, that is, take his stand, whether it is convenient or inconvenient, opportune or inopportune.20 And, he has no leisure to wait; he must be urgent.
In the same way as the Scripture reproves (3:16), Timothy too is to bring deeds and thoughts out into the open for the sake of truth (Eph 5:11) since proclamation of the word clarifies for hearers what is sin. A synonym of reprove (elenchō) is rebuke (epitimaō). Epitamaō in the New Testament often means to order something or someone not to do something, to speak or to act in a certain way. For example, Jesus told his disciples, if believers sin, order them not to do so (rebuke, censure severely) but, if they repent, forgive them (Luke 17:3). Thus, if sinful deeds are brought out in the open (reprove or reveal), then the next step is to order the listener not to do them (rebuke).
The final step is parakaleō, which can include appealing to people, supporting or helping, and encouraging them. Paul explains that he and Timothy “are ambassadors for Christ since God is appealing” through them. Therefore, the Corinthians should “become reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). Appeal is one stage in the reconciliation process between humans and God. That appeal is done in all compassion and teaching (4:2). Compassion is a synonym for gentle mercy. It is the way Paul tells the Galatians a transgressor is to be restored (Gal 6:1). Paul himself was treated with compassion by Jesus. So, Timothy should be loving toward sinners. And, now is when he should teach them. Education is a means of restoration, returning Timothy to the first benefit of Scripture: teaching and guiding (3:16).
The urgency with which Paul exhorts is necessary: For there will be a time when they will not endure the healthy teaching but according to their own passions they will accumulate teachers who scratch their hearing and, on the one hand, they will turn their hearing from the truth, while, on the other hand, they will turn away to the myths (4:3–4). Paul writes in the future about events that have already begun, but will get worse. Already some women are not coming to knowledge of the truth (3:6–7). Unhealthy doctrine is being taught at Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3, 10). Paul described some of the causes of susceptibility to deceptive teaching earlier: being overwhelmed with sins and being led by manifold passions (3:6). These same passions result in people not enduring healthy teaching, but, rather, accumulating teachers that do not bring health. To endure (anexomai) can be used in a positive sense, if the objective is necessary, as to endure persecution for the faith,27 an action Paul wants from Timothy, to join in suffering, because all who wish to live in Christ Jesus in a godly manner will be persecuted (1:8; 3:12). However, here “endure” is used in a negative sense, since the object should be repelled: teachers who scratch their hearing (4:3). As in Corinth, where the church had been accepting a “different gospel” than they had received, transmitted to them by “super apostles” who enslaved, consumed, trapped them, put on airs, and even slapped them (2 Cor 11:4, 20), at Ephesus, healthy teaching, the truth, would no longer be endured. Instead, some would listen to teachers who scratch their hearing (4:3). Hearing is an important step in the communication and reception of the gospel. Faith comes from hearing. The people Paul describes are impaired in their hearing.30 They apparently want their ears scratched because they itch. If someone had sores, they would itch and want the sores scratched to relieve the unpleasant sensation,32 although that scratching would be the worst action they could do. Scratching would only make the itching worse. Since the sensation of being overwhelmed with sins and passions could be cured by the truth that brings greater health, a superficial cure, scratching, just makes the problem worse. In this case, the scratching is listening to myths (4:4). Mentioned in all the Pastoral Letters, myths were speculative doctrines based on fictional stories, not historic truths. They promoted asceticism and legalism and concern with genealogies. These stories could be entertaining.34 However, they did not prepare the listeners for persevering in persecution and suffering for their faith.
In contrast to these people, Paul gives Timothy four commands: But, you, continue sober in all, endure hardship, do work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (4:5). This is the final time Paul addresses Timothy directly as you. In some ways these four commands contrast with the negative characteristics in 4:3–4. Instead of being unhealthy and lacking perception, Timothy is sober. Instead of merely following his personal passions, Timothy endures suffering. Instead of pursuing falsehood, Timothy promotes truth as an evangelist. Instead of destroying his health, he maintains it by using his spiritual gift to carry out his ministry fully. These four commands also recall previous charges to Timothy. Sober has both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Being sober (nēphō) is an important attribute for elders and ministers. Paul tells the Thessalonians to be sober for “those who are drunk get drunk at night,” but, since they belong to the day, they should be sober (1 Thess 5:6–8). Synonyms are staying awake, having self-control, and keeping alert. Thus, “sober” in 2 Timothy 4:5 hearkens back to “self-control” (sōphronismos) in 1:7. Timothy must be alert if he is to save himself and his hearers (1 Tim 4:16).
Earlier Paul had explained how he suffered evil (kakopoieō) to the point of imprisonment (2:9). Now he exhorts Timothy to “suffer evil” (endure hardship; kakopatheō). This verb is a synonym for the main theme of the letter, Paul’s exhortation for Timothy to join in suffering with him for the gospel (1:8; 2:3). Paul explains next how he expects his own death. Timothy himself will experience difficulties from the Roman government (Heb 13:23).
The next command hearkens back to 1:6 (“to keep stirring into flame God’s gift”) and 1 Timothy: “Do not neglect the spiritual gift in you.” Here Timothy’s spiritual gift is explicitly mentioned. An evangelist, as a minister of the word, is a messenger of God’s good news of salvation who preaches, baptizes, and instructs people in the basics of faith. Having this gift would help Timothy pastor this church that needs to learn the basics of truth. But, in a time of persecution, being an evangelist would be dangerous. Nevertheless, Paul reiterates fulfill your ministry (4:5), carry it through to the end. Paul himself reminds Timothy how Paul’s own ministry was fulfilled at his first defense when all the Gentiles heard the good news (4:17).


Paul concludes this section of the letter exhorting Timothy to continue in his ministry of evangelism and sound teaching despite opposition (3:1–4:8) by describing his own future: For I myself already am offered up and the time of my departure stands near (4:6). This verse introduces one of Paul’s most poignant descriptions of his present suffering and imminent death. While Paul exhorts Timothy to continue in ministry, Paul himself is in the final stage of his ministry. He compares himself to an Old Testament offering, though not a sin or guilt offering since Christ has already forgiven his sins. Neither is he a fellowship or peace offering because he knows God is present with him. He describes himself as a drink offering. Drink offerings of wine were combined with meal offerings every day, every Sabbath, and every festival at the temple, as together they were presented to the Lord (Hos 9:4). Paul describes himself as presently (already) being such an offering. He is not the one making the offering happen, but, nevertheless, by calling himself a drink offering, he sees his life as a gift being presented to God. The eventual giving of his life-blood is similar to the pouring out of red wine. He is indeed offering his body as a living sacrifice to God (Rom 12:1).
After he describes his forthcoming death in metaphorical terms, as an offering, then, in more literal terms, he states the time of his departure stands near (4:6). The Lord had rescued Paul from all his previous difficulties (3:11) but now the right time (kairos) has come. Time is personified as a person (a soldier) standing nearby, ready to escort him to depart life in the flesh (Phil 1:22–23).
Paul then describes further why this is the right time in three almost parallel clauses: I fought the good fight, I finished the race course, I kept the faith (4:7). Life is first described as a fight (agōn), an image from athletics, which he had already used for Timothy (1 Tim 6:12). The idea of effort is the very essence of athletics and the real prize is the honor of victory. Paul has exerted effort as a believer and he looked forward to his prize, the “righteous crown” (4:8). A fight (or athletics) is a general term, a race course now indicates a specific type of sport. Paul had previously described his life to the elders from Ephesus as running in a race course. His goal was to “complete his race course and the ministry” that he received from the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:24). Ancient foot races were not run in curved tracks but in straight ones where runners fixed their eyes on a post at the end of the track, the goal. Paul’s goal was “to testify to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). He was seeking an imperishable prize. His running was purposeful. Now, Paul was stating that he had finished the race course. The last clause describes the completion of his goal: Paul has kept the faith (4:7). Tēreō literally signifies “to guard.” It was often used as a synonym for “to obey,” as in 1 Timothy 6:14, “to keep (obey) the commandment(s).” Paul had lived consistently in obedience to the mandates of the faith. He had exhorted Timothy to “keep” himself pure (1 Tim 5:22), as Paul kept the faith pure. Following Jesus who asked the Father to “guard” or protect from the evil one the people that he had given him (John 17:15), Paul had protected the faith, the gospel he preached, from the falsehoods promoted by the evil one.
To what does Paul look forward? Henceforth, the righteous crown is laid up for me, which the Lord will grant to me in that day, the righteous judge, and, not only to me, but also to all the ones having loved his appearing (4:8). Paul continues the athletic imagery, referring again to the crown. In 2:5, the focus was how one competes. In 4:7–8, Paul’s focus is the completion of the race. Every city-state had its athletic festival, including Ephesus, which had its annual athletic games (the Ephesia). Crown winners had many privileges, but “the most coveted prize in the Greek world was the wreath of wild olive which was the only prize at the Olympic Games. The real prize is the honour of victory … The branches for the crown were cut with a golden sickle by a boy both of whose parents were living, from the sacred olive tree that grew at the west end of the Temple of Zeus, where even to-day the wild olive may be seen.” The metaphor of an imperishable crown, or crown of life and glory that never fades, was used by several New Testament authors.55 In times of persecution, a reward is important to motivate people to persevere. In this last letter, Paul describes the crown as laid up, held in reserve for him and mentions three things about it: (1) what kind of crown it is, (2) who will give it, and (3) who will get it (4:8).
Instead of olive branches, which are imperishable and become brittle, God’s crown partakes of the same nature as the judge who bestows it. Dikaiosynē and dikaios may be rendered just or righteous (4:8), which describes God’s character (Deut 32:4). It may refer to the judge in a court, but here it is the judge of an athletic contest. The highest honors were bestowed by emperors. Sometimes ancient matches were arranged beforehand, however, Jesus as judge cannot be bribed, but is always just and holy. In the Pastorals, dikaios and dikaiosynē always are synonyms of “holy.” Timothy has been exhorted to pursue this characteristic, to be a person who observes God’s rules. No one can be perfectly righteous, except Jesus, the Righteous One.60 Nevertheless, at the final judgment, the pursuing of righteousness will be completed because it will be awarded.
Apodidōmi (will grant) in 4:8 is clearly positive, while in 4:14 it is negative. It can be a reward or a punishment. The verb is often used in legal situations, such as paying back debts,63 paying taxes or shares, paying wages (Matt 20:8), and giving conjugal obligations (1 Cor 7:3). The crown of righteousness is the reward that Paul expects, the righteousness that comes from God based on faith (Phil 3:9). But this reward is not just Paul’s, rather it is to all the ones having loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:8).
Does appearing refer to Jesus’ incarnation or second return to judgment? Sometimes Paul clearly uses appearing to refer to Jesus’ second return to judgment but at other times to Jesus’ incarnation.66 These people have long loved Jesus’ appearing (4:8). Thus, it could refer to the prospect of Jesus’ second return or to the action of Jesus’ first coming to earth or both. The Lord will grant clearly refers to the future, but the love of believers has been present for a while.

COME SOON (4:9–18)

After this expectant look to the future (4:8), Paul has completed exhorting Timothy to continue in his ministry of evangelism and sound teaching despite opposition (3:1–4:8). Now Paul exhorts Timothy: Make every effort to come to me soon (4:9). This act of coming is Timothy’s first step in joining Paul in suffering (1:8; 2:3). Paul then cites several reasons why he would like Timothy to come soon, before winter (4:21): (1) Paul is left almost all alone (4:10–11a); (2) he needs human and material resources (4:11b–13); and (3) he was abandoned at his first defense—and opposed (4:14–18). How was Paul abandoned while a group of Christians in Rome greet Timothy (4:21)? Probably Paul was incarcerated in a military camp or palace, where it was not as easy to have company as when he was under house arrest during the first Roman imprisonment. Sometimes Bible students envision Paul as a self-sufficient independent minister, but these verses indicate how relational and communal and interdependent Paul was. He was building on the precedence of Jesus’ action to send out the Twelve and the Seventy-two, “two by two.”69
Paul mentions four coworkers: Demas has abandoned me, having loved the present age, and he went into Thessalonica, Crescens into Galatia, Titus into Dalmatia; Luke is only with me (4:10–11a). The most disturbing coworker is Demas. Demas, like Luke, was probably a Gentile.71 He, along with Luke, had kept Paul company during the first Roman imprisonment, when Paul was under house arrest. Paul describes Demas as: he has abandoned me (4:10). Enkataleipō (abandon) is an intensive word, signifying “to leave behind in the lurch or in straits” or “leave in the lurch one who is in straits,” thus, “abandon.” Jesus cried out in Aramaic when on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”74 Paul had described his and Timothy’s ministry as “being persecuted but not abandoned” (2 Cor 4:9). But, now, Paul felt abandoned in Rome by Demas. In contrast to those who love Jesus’ appearing (4:8), Demas loved the present age. He would not join Paul in suffering. He would not carry his cross with Jesus. He did not want to take the chance that he be imprisoned along with Paul. He probably returned home to Thessalonica in Macedonia.76
When times became difficult, Demas no longer heeded the message Paul had given the Thessalonians, that they imitate Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy, a word they had received with joy in spite of persecution (1 Thess 1:6). Paul had warned them that they would suffer persecution, as did Christ Jesus, the prophets, and Paul and Silas (and Jason). Even though Paul wrote extensively about the future of Jesus’ return,78 Demas preferred the present world. Unfortunately, he did not hold fast to what he was taught (2 Thess 2:15).
Crescens and Titus (4:10) are not described as having abandoned Paul and loving the present age, but they leave to different regions, one to Gaul or Galatia, one to Dalmatia, the southern part of Illyricum. Titus, like Demas and Luke, was a Gentile. He had been in Crete two to five years earlier and was to have met Paul at Nicopolis (Titus 3:12). Dalmatia is not far from Nicopolis. Possibly, Titus felt some urgency in returning to the area of Illyricum (Rom 15:19). Titus was a coworker of Paul but he was not in a hierarchical relationship with him. Paul had “left” Titus in Crete but did not “send” him to Corinth. As Titus was a responsible, committed, mature Christian with the gift of organization and peacemaking, it is difficult to believe he would abandon Paul, but possibly his strength in organization might not gift him for the intensive personal support that Paul needed at this time.
Then comes the brief sentence filled with so much pathos: Luke is only with me (4:11a). Even in suffering for Christ’s sake, the follower of Christ needs support, as Jesus needed support when he asked in Gethsemane before the crucifixion: “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?” (Mark 14:37; NRSV). In addition, the imprisoned person needs material support. When Agrippa was imprisoned by Tiberius, Antonia arranged certain concessions for him: the centurion handcuffed to him would be humane, Agrippa would be allowed to bathe every day, receive visits from friends, have a bed, and other bodily comforts. Paul was in prison and Luke visited and supported him (Matt 25:36).
Luke had felt called by God, along with Paul, Timothy, and Silas at Troas in Asia Minor, by the Macedonian appealing in a vision. Luke, taking leadership in maintaining the newly established church, remained in Philippi and returned with the large group that accompanied Paul with the offering for the Jerusalem Christians. The Macedonian church had many strong Christian women and Luke’s Gospel also emphasizes Jesus’ ministry to women. Thus, Luke too must have been sympathetic to the leadership of women in the church. Along with Aristarchus, Luke accompanied Paul from Caesarea when he was sent to Rome and stayed with him during the house arrest.84
Paul describes Loukas, probably a nickname for Loukanos, as “the beloved physician” (Col 4:14), one of his coworkers. “Beloved” indicates Paul and Luke had a close and affectionate relationship. Possibly Luke assisted Paul with his eye difficulties.86 Luke may have been a freed slave, because slaves were often physicians. Sometimes physicians were generously paid. Luke shows his education by his use of good literary Koine style88 and his interest in detailed, comprehensive, orderly, truthful history in his two writings sent to Theophilus.
Paul then asks Timothy: Having picked him up, bring Mark with yourself, for he is useful to me for ministry (4:11b). Mark must be somewhere near Ephesus, on the way to where Timothy will board a ship at Troas (4:13). In this sentence, we are reminded that Paul and John Mark are now reconciled to each other. John Mark as a youth was reared in the Christian church. His mother, Mary, hosted the Jerusalem church in their home. Mark joined Paul and Barnabas on their first traveling outreach (Acts 12:25), but he deserted them in Perga in Pamphylia, thereby causing Paul not to want to take him on the second trip. Mark’s cousin Barnabas advocated for him (Acts 13:13; 15:37–40). By the time Paul is first imprisoned in Rome (c. AD 59–62), Mark remains steadfastly with Paul as his coworker (Col 4:10; Phlm 24). Mark became a consecrated “vessel,” “useful” to the “master” (2 Tim 2:21) and useful for ministry (4:11), like Onesimus (though once not “useful” was now “useful”), though we cannot be sure exactly how Mark would be useful to Paul for ministry. Zahn suggests that Mark possessed “a treasure of narratives from the lips of Peter and of other disciples of Jesus, who were accustomed to come and go to his mother’s house.” Possibly, Mark might help in Paul’s writing projects (4:13). Mark is also well acquainted with Rome and with the condition of the church in that city. Paul adds: And Tychicus I sent into Ephesus (4:12). As in Crete, Tychicus’ presence allows another of Paul’s coworkers to leave.
Paul continues with a further reason he wants Timothy to hasten to Rome: When you come, bring the cloak which I left in Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments (4:13). Paul here assumes Timothy will come to Rome. These details have impressed many commentators as the type of simple details no forger would ever have. Paul wants two items, something to warm the body and something to activate the mind. Even though Paul expects the final outcome not to go well, he still wants to keep active. The cloak (phailonēs) is a thick upper garment, and is a solid reason why Paul wants Timothy to come before winter (4:21). Paul left this heavy cloak in Troas, the important seaport between Asia and Europe in Mysia in northwest Asia Minor on the Aegean Sea where Paul received his vision to go to Macedonia. After being released from the first Roman imprisonment, Paul must have returned to Troas, where he left his cloak with Carpus. Possibly, Paul had to leave Troas in haste.
He writes he left behind the books (4:13). A biblion could be as small as a document or as large as a complete book.101 In the New Testament, the emphasis is a literal document one touches. A biblion, a strip of byblos made of Egyptian papyrus, could be a tablet, petition, book, and in the plural even a library. Literary works made into scrolls did not usually exceed thirty-five feet. Membrana (a parchment scroll or codex notebook) were made from the skins of cattle, sheep, and goats. Quality parchment was developed in Pergamum in Mysia. It was more durable than papyrus and could be written on both sides of a sheet, washed off, and reused. Many commentators have theorized that the biblia made of papyrus were copies of the Old Testament and the membrana were copies of Paul’s own letters. Thus, the first collection of Paul’s letters might be Paul’s own private collection. The phrase can be translated, the books, especially the parchments, which implies two different types of books, those of papyrus and parchment, or the books, namely, the parchment ones, which implies one type of books. At a minimum, Timothy had to transport Paul’s library to the prison in Rome, especially the most durable ones, the ones made of parchment.
Paul warns Timothy: Alexander, the metalworker, did much evil to me; the Lord will repay him according to his works; from whom also keep yourself away, for exceedingly he stood against our words (4:14–15). The New Testament cites several Alexanders: son of Simon (Mark 15:21), high priest family member (Acts 4:6), a Jew in Ephesus who tried to make a defense before the mob (Acts 19:33–34), and a person in the church at Ephesus who by rejecting conscience made a shipwreck of his faith. Some scholars have suggested that the Alexanders in Acts 19 and 2 Timothy 4 were all the same person: “The character of this Alexander appears to have been all too consistent with that of the other two references.” Other scholars have suggested that only the Alexanders in the Pastorals are the same. Paul describes “the same person in a different setting, and his expulsion from the church may have been the cause of his relocation to another place where he continued to oppose the apostle.”108 However, Paul may have used the modifier the metalworker to distinguish this Alexander from the other two, especially the Alexander Paul had previously mentioned in 1 Timothy 1:19–20. A chalkeus was a smith who worked in metal, such as copper, iron, bronze, and brass. The smith’s trade was widespread in the countryside. Smiths worked in tool rooms, temples, stables, on boats, and irrigating machines.111 The name Alexandros means “defender of men,” but he was no defender of Paul. Probably at Troas,113 he harmed Paul. Paul does not specify what evil Alexander manifested, but possibly he accused Paul, thereby getting him arrested. This Alexander is so antagonistic to the Christian teaching (our words), Paul warns Timothy to be on guard against him (keep yourself away; 4:15). Thus, if Demas had been a passive opponent (4:9), Alexander was an active opponent (4:14–15).
Paul then concludes this section of his letter (4:9–18) by explaining his legal situation: In my first defense no one came to my aid, rather all abandoned me; may it not be counted against them; but the Lord stood by me and he strengthened me, in order that through me the proclamation might be fulfilled and all the Gentiles might hear, and I was rescued out of the lion’s mouth (4:16–17). Paul describes his legal defense, the first stage in his trial, the prima actio, a preliminary hearing before the emperor or a magistrate that precedes the actual trial, secunda actio. The previous time he had had a two-year delay after the preliminary hearing (Acts 24:27; 28:30). He notes no one had the courage to take a stand in court as his witness or advocate.
The historian Tacitus mentions the conviction of “vast numbers” of Christians who were arrested and, “on their disclosures,” convicted to squelch the rumor that Nero had ordered the fire in Rome (Ann. 15.44). In addition, Tacitus adds that their convictions were not so much because of the charge of “arson as for hatred of the human race.” Suetonius mentions the punishment of Christians as a permanent practice. Ramsay explains that Suetonius “considered Nero to have maintained a steady prosecution of a mischievous class of persons, in virtue of his duty to maintain peace and order in the city, and to have intended that this persecution should be permanent.” The Romans felt that the Christians were turning them from their ancestral ways, Roman manners and laws, customs, and religious beliefs. Christians “were bent on relaxing the bonds that held society together; they introduced divisions into families, and set children against their parents.”117 Christianity greatly influenced its converts, resulting in marvelous reformations, enthusiastic devotion, and unbending resolutions. To be able to have such changes implied to some the practice of magic. The persecution of Nero began by diverting popular attention, but it “continued as a permanent police measure under the form of a general prosecution of Christians as a sect dangerous to the public safety.” Active persecution of Christians persisted between AD 64–66 but became sporadic between 66–68. Sulpicius Severus wrote that Nero’s persecution in 64 was “the beginning of severe measures against the Christians. Afterwards the religion was forbidden by formal laws.” Even when Nero left Rome in AD 66, the prefect of the city would still be bound to follow the example set by the Emperor. Moreover, Nero’s action served as a precedent to guide the actions of all Roman officials in every province toward the Christians. There would be no need for a general edict or a formal law. In contrast, in later persecutions, acknowledgment of the Name of Jesus alone sufficed for condemnation.
Thus, it appears as if Alexander’s accusation resulted in Paul’s arrest. Despite the accusation and the lack of support, Paul was not convicted, but neither was he freed. As a Roman citizen, he continued to appeal to the Emperor’s tribunal.
Paul had reminded Timothy that the Lord had rescued him from all the persecutions in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. Even though Paul had at this first trial been left abandoned (4:16), the Lord stood by Paul and strengthened him (4:17). Unlike humans, the Lord never abandons because God is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. God not only was present with Paul but also strengthened or empowered him.124
God’s presence and strengthening had a goal: in order that through me the proclamation might be fulfilled and all the Gentiles might hear (4:17b). This was Paul’s ministry (cf. 4:5), to bring God’s name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. As a result of the Lord’s empowerment, Paul was rescued out of the lion’s mouth (4:17c). The lion was a symbol of strength and confidence,127 but also death and destruction, as in, “[T]he people rise up like a lioness and they rouse themselves like a lion that does not rest till it devours its prey and drinks the blood of its victims” (Num 23:24; TNIV). The lion’s mouth would be the penultimate point of destruction. In the Messianic Psalm 22, David describes his enemies: “They open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion” and cries out, “Save me from the mouth of the lion” (vv. 13, 21)! Some rulers were compared to roaring lions: “tearing the prey, they have devoured human lives.” Daniel’s account of being cast into a den of lions, but remaining unharmed because an angel stopped the lion’s mouth, became proverbial in later Israelite and Christian accounts. Peter aptly describes the Christian adversary, the devil, “as a roaring lion who prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8).
Could Paul have been writing literally? Probably not, since during Nero’s reign Christians were tortured, burned, and mauled by dogs (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44), but not so much eaten by lions. Later, the animal hunts would include lions. Moreover, Paul as a Roman citizen would be executed, not sent to the coliseum. The lion could represent Nero, because of his “ferocity,” or his representative, the praefectus praetorii as judge, or Satan working through Nero. For example, imprisoned Agrippa was told about Emperor Tiberius, “The lion is dead,” giving Agrippa hope for his release (Josephus, Ant. 18.6.10 [228]). Tiberius, like a lion, was “quick to anger and relentless in action … It was his bent to turn savage in every case that he decided; and he inflicted the death penalty even for the slightest offences” (Ant. 18 [226–27]). To employ a lion to depict tyrannical rulers has been a long-standing practice that Paul used to describe how he was saved at the last moment from death. God, like a shepherd, rescued Paul from the lion’s mouth (Amos 3:12).
Paul then summarizes: The Lord will rescue me from evil work and will save me into his heavenly kingdom (4:18a). Alexander did much evil (kakos) against Paul, but the Lord rescued him from his evil (ponēros) goals. Evil works are the works of the world against which Jesus testified (John 7:7). They are done by God’s enemies (Col 1:21). God rescued Paul and will rescue him again (4:17–18), but now he emphasizes that God will save him for his kingdom, the heavenly one, not necessarily his earthly kingdom (4:18). With this thought about his preservation for the heavenly kingdom, Paul, like many a rabbi, breaks out into a blessing: to whom be the glory forever and ever, amen! (4:18b). In the Pastorals, Paul has written about glory that is continuous and immeasurable (2:10) and now he ascribes that same glory back to God (4:18). Jesus has such glory and his gospel has this glory.

GREETINGS (4:19–22)

Paul concludes his letter by sending final greetings to coworkers who are with or near Timothy. He asks Timothy to Greet Prisca and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus (4:19). These two households are dedicated to promoting God’s reign. Prisca (her nickname in Roman style is lengthened to Priscilla) and Aquila are mentioned several times in the New Testament. Aquila is a Jew from Pontus (near the Black Sea). Some have theorized that Aquila (and probably Prisca) had been in Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 2:9–10). They had been living in Rome, Italy, and when Emperor Claudius in AD 49 had thrown the Jews out of Rome for their quarrels about the Christ, they brought their tentmaking business to Corinth in Achaia, an important trade center. Paul stayed with them over a year and a half, becoming partners in tentmaking with them (Acts 18:5). Together in Corinth in AD 50–51, they joined Paul when he moved on, arriving in Ephesus in Asia around 51–52. Afterwards, Paul traveled back to his home church in Antioch (Acts 18:18–22). In Ephesus, about a year later, Prisca and Aquila more accurately expounded to Apollos Christian doctrine, in particular about baptism. During their stay in Ephesus, Aquila and Prisca greet the believers in Corinth. They are pastoring and teaching a church which met in their home (1 Cor 16:19). After Emperor Claudius dies in AD 54, they return to Rome. Paul describes them as coworkers, colleagues in ministry who prepare believers for ministry and to whom the churches were to be subject. In Rome, by AD 57, again they have a church in their home (Rom 16:3–5). Paul reports they risked their own “neck” on behalf of his life (Rom 16:4), using the image of an execution where the prisoner “places” his/her neck “under” the sword. Like Paul, they emphasized their ministry outreach to the Gentiles.141 After Paul’s release from imprisonment in Rome, they had returned to Ephesus (almost ten years after Romans was written), most likely, with Timothy, to continue their teaching ministry among the Gentiles.
Prisca and Aquila are remarkable for their ministering as a couple together and as equals. Even in a patriarchal culture, Priscilla was honored for her teaching abilities. They are always mentioned together and are always ministering together. Both were tentmakers by trade, both offered hospitality to Paul and to others, both were teachers, both traveled together, both were church overseers, and both risked their lives for Paul. They scheduled their business so that they could take church leadership positions wherever they went and offered their economic resources to other believers. Their time, money, and lives were given over to the promotion of God’s reign. Possibly they informed Paul of the spiritual condition of the Roman churches before he wrote to the Romans. Paul had a special relationship with them. They are the first people whom he greets in his letter to Rome. They have the most extensive description in Romans 16:3–15. Prisca and Aquila ministered to many and were appreciated by many. They are a wonderful illustration of a couple who have taken seriously God’s mandate for a married couple together to subdue the earth and have dominion over it.
Remains of the homes of Prisca and Aquila are still recognized today in Rome. Near the Tiber River, the Church of Saint Prisca, in the area of Aventino, was built over the house of Prisca and Aquila. Archaeological excavations have unearthed an early Roman Christian place of worship and Mithras worship. Peter stayed with them for a while. Further outside Rome, on the Via Salaria, an old Roman road used for commerce, near a main gate was a villa owned by Prisca and Aquila. The property was later donated by Prisca to the Christian community for burial (Catacombs of Saint Priscilla).144 In one of the oldest areas of the catacombs under the original villa was found a burial inscription: “M(anio) Acilius c.v. (‘most illustrious man’) … and Priscilla C. (f.) (‘most illustrious woman’).” “C.V.” indicates that both of them belonged to families of senatorial rank, the family of Acilius. Suetonius, in the Life of Domitian mentions that Emperor Domitian (AD 81–96) condemned to death “many senators, some of whom had been consuls, among them.… Acilius Glabrione, the latter having been exiled. They were accused of wanting to introduce new things.” This general charge, akin to that of atheism, would relate to the practice of calling Christianity an entirely “new concept,” in contrast with that of idolatry, “where the brotherhood of all who had been baptized was recognized, with no discrimination for reasons of social condition or of national origin.” Manius Acilii Glabriones is a relative of Pudens. When Paul thanks Prisca and Aquila because “they placed their own neck” to help him and also the church of the Gentiles (Rom 16:3–4), possibly they used their senatorial rank to speak to proconsul Gallio in Corinth before Paul was brought to court, despite the danger of being themselves accused and executed (Acts 18:6–16).
The household of Onesiphorus (4:19b), mentioned earlier, who had visited Paul in Rome, was now in Ephesus. Paul mentions two coworkers about whom Timothy might have been concerned or whom he expected to be with Paul: Erastus remained in Corinth, and I left Trophimus in Miletus, being sick (4:20). Possibly, they had begun to accompany Paul on his final journey to Rome. Erastus (“beloved”) probably is the same one mentioned in Acts 19, whom Paul sent ahead with Timothy from Ephesus to Macedonia. Described as “the ones ministering with” Paul (19:22), Erastus and Timothy are coworkers, Paul sending them ahead to Macedonia to prepare the churches for the collection for the Jerusalem Christians offering and to meet Titus there.
Is this Erastus the same mentioned in Romans 16:23, a steward (oikonomos) of a city? A “steward” could be a manager of a household or here of a city-state, who would oversee the property, receive and pay bills, plan expenditures, apportion food, and oversee people. A good manager would be trustworthy. If the Erastus of Acts had been in Ephesus with Paul and was traveling to Macedonia, how could he be functioning about the same time as manager of another city? Such an official would not be able to leave his city for a long period.151 If Erastus is the same Erastus discovered in a first-century inscription on a marble in Corinth (“Erastus, commissioner for public works, laid this pavement at his own expense”), then the Erastus mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:20 would have remained in his hometown, Corinth.
Trophimus and Tychicus were from Asia. They, along with Timothy and others, had accompanied Paul from Achaia through Macedonia, Troas, and Miletus to Caesarea and Jerusalem to help guard the collection for the Jews in Jerusalem and, as well, to represent their churches and provinces (Rom 15:25–27). Miletus, where he was left sick, is a city right on the Aegean Sea, about thirty miles south from Ephesus (Acts 20:15, 17). Founded by Cretans, it was one of the oldest and most important cities in Ionia. With four harbors, it was an active and prominent harbor city. Jews lived there free to celebrate their festivals. The city had a synagogue.
Trophimus was a Gentile from Ephesus. Because he was present with Paul, some Jews from Asia falsely accused Paul of bringing this Gentile into the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27–29). Thus, ultimately, Trophimus is responsible for Paul’s arrest and first imprisonment in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome (Eph 3:1). Paul never had the opportunity to explain in Jerusalem that Trophimus never entered the temple. In his defense speech, when Paul repeated the Lord’s call to him: “Go, for, I myself, I will send you to Gentiles far away,” the crowd became so wild, the tribune had to remove Paul (Acts 22:21–24). Apparently, Trophimus tried to accompany Paul on this journey almost ten years later, but, when Trophimus became sick, Paul left him behind at some household or inn to be healed.
Paul now succinctly states his main reason for writing: Make every effort, before winter, to come (4:21a)! This is the third time Paul uses the imperative of spoudazō in this letter: Make every effort to present yourself to God (2:15) and make every effort to come to me quickly (4:9). Because of dangerous winter weather, safe traveling was done between May through October (or, at the far limits, March 10 to Nov 10). The dangers of winter sailing were “scant daylight, long nights, dense cloud cover, poor visibility, and the violence of the winds doubled by the addition of rain or snow.” The trip from Ephesus to Rome might take anywhere from two weeks to two months.158 Walkers averaged fifteen to twenty miles a day and coastal ships twenty-five to thirty-five miles a day. Timothy had a lot to do before he could arrive in Rome. Not only did he have to stop at Troas to pick up Paul’s belongings (4:13) and follow all the directions Paul has given in 2 Timothy for the church in Ephesus, but he also had to do the many activities necessary before travel. Land or sea voyagers would have to bring their own clothing, supplies for cooking, eating, bathing, and sleeping (from pots and pans down to mattresses and bedding), and servants to pack, cook, and prepare the beds. To travel by ship, Timothy would have to go to the waterfront and find a vessel scheduled to sail in the direction he wanted to go, then book a passage with the master of the ship, often applying for an exit pass and waiting for the herald’s cry that the vessel was ready to leave.
Paul now closes with greetings from Christians in Rome: Eubulus greets you and Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers and sisters (4:21b). Even though many have abandoned Paul, he was not abandoned by Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, and Claudia, and other believers. Eubulus literally signifies “prudent.” Rome has significant archaeological and traditional information on Pudens and Claudia. Pudens was probably a senator. A church was built over the home of Pudens and Claudia (now the Basilica of Santa Pudenziana). They had used their home for worship. Pudens was a member of the Acilii Glabriones family (probably related to Aquila). His sons (Novatus and Timotheus) ran Roman thermal baths. Pudens married Claudia, who was British. After being captured by Emperor Claudius and sent to Rome, the family was set at liberty, eventually introducing Christianity into Britain.162 According to a repeated tradition, Peter lived in their house in AD 64. Pudens and Claudia’s daughters, Pudentiana and Prassede (Praxedes) are remembered today by churches in their names. Linus, possibly an Italian from Tuscany, lived with Pudens. He became the second bishop in Rome, after Peter, and is buried near Peter in the Vatican under St. Peter’s Basilica, where a coffin reads “Linus.” The bishops of Rome for two centuries all lived at Pudens’s home at Via Urbana in Rome.
Paul closes with a brief two-part benediction: The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you (4:22). The first sentence is addressed to Timothy since your is singular, while the second sentence is addressed to the church, since you is plural. The Lord had been present with Paul during his first defense and rescued him (4:17–18). Paul would want the same benefits for Timothy as he joins him in suffering for Christ. Paul and Timothy could be assured the Lord was with them because Jesus promised it: “Behold I myself am with you all the days until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).
Paul uses pneuma in the Pastorals to refer to the human spirit (2 Tim 1:7; 1 Tim 3:16) as well as to the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 1:14; 1 Tim 4:1; Titus 3:5). The human spirit is that inner aspect of a person that self-examines and reaches up to communicate to God’s Spirit with the Holy Spirit’s aid. The human spirit, so necessary for life,167 comprehends deep thoughts within oneself and within others. Paul closes this letter with the same farewell as in 1 Timothy.169 By using the plural you, he shows that, although he addresses Timothy, he writes to him in the context of the whole church. In 2 Timothy, grace was in Christ Jesus and revealed in the incarnation and is available to humans. Thus, the Lord is present in a personal, compassionate, and merciful manner.

Fusing the Horizons: Coworkers

The Pastorals are letters that illustrate the work of team ministers and coworkers, including not only Paul, Timothy, and Titus, but also Onesiphorus’ household, Demas, Crescens, Luke, Mark, Tychicus, Carpus, Prisca, Aquila, Erastus, Trophimus, Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, Claudia, Artemas, Zenas, and Apollos. Paul has worked with his coworkers in a variety of ways. Some serve as avant garde; others follow-up; some are replaced (Tychicus and Timothy). Some travel Paul commissions (sends or designates). Other travel is uncommissioned (Crescens, Titus) and some is desertion (Demas). Thus, some coworkers are faithful (Luke), others unfaithful.
Even as God is triune and a “team,” so is ministry in God’s name a team effort. Ministry teams have diverse people, in diverse stages of availability (e.g., illness limited Trophimus) and married and single people can take part and they should all have one purpose: to promote the good news. Team members can encourage each other in difficult as well as daily situations, since no one is too mature not to need a team.
Here are summarized some basic principles:

1. We need to know other Christians in order that their gifts can be discerned and then used in a cooperative ministry.
2. We need a structure flexible enough to allow different persons to come into a church periodically as they are needed.
3. Team ministry is biblical. The lone-ranger minister is not a biblical model. (Although even the Lone Ranger had Tonto.) Two is a minimum. However, not all Christians have to be under our own authority or in our program to be worth supporting or cooperating with.
4. Concern for a person and assistance in a ministry should be demonstrated in material as well as emotional terms. Presence is important.


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Subject Index

Aaron, 111, 123, 133
Abraham, 23, 63–64
Adam, 21, 130
adultery, 14, 27
Agrippa, 66, 76, 93n, 144–45, 152
Alexander, v, 75, 109, 120, 127, 148–49, 151–52
Ananias, 79
Ananias, and Sapphira, 48
anger, 13, 17–19, 39, 42n, 115–16, 152
Antioch, 8, 36, 126, 151, 153
Apollos, 70–72, 153, 160
appearing (epiphaneia), 51, 86–87, 133–34, 142–43
Aquila. See Prisca, and Aquila.
Aretas, 60
argument(s). See heterodoxy.
Aristotle, 16, 42, 46, 62
Artemas, 68–70, 72, 160
Artemis, 3–4
Asia, 70, 75–76, 80, 90–92, 145, 147, 153, 156–57
athlete (athletics), 19, 31, 98–99, 139–41
attack, not open (anenklētos), 14–15, 17, 41, 45
beast(s) (thērion), 25–26
beloved, 47, 70, 79–80, 145, 156
belly (gastēr), 26
Bible. See Scriptures.
blaspheme. See slander.
Brooten, Bernadette, 34–35
Callimachus, 24
calling, 86–88, 113–14
Calvin, John, 12n
Carpus, 147, 160
Cerinthus, 29–30
charge(s) (katēgoria/diamartyromai),14–15, 17, 52, 105, 133–35, 138, 150, 155.
See also attack, not open.
child(ren), 13–16, 20, 36, 40–43, 55, 68, 79, 83, 91, 94, 110, 119, 128, 135n, 150, 155n
Cicero, 24
circumcision (peritomē), 12, 14, 18, 20–23, 26–27, 29–31, 48, 54n, 59, 67, 107, 119
Claudia, v, 158, 160
Claudius, 153–54, 158, 160
clean. See pure.
Clement, 54, 57n
Clement, of Alexandria, 24
cloak, 147
conscience, 20, 22, 30, 67, 81, 88, 95, 97, 107, 109, 114, 148
Cornelia, 83
coworker(s), v, 1, 8, 10, 15, 68–70, 91, 106, 142–47, 153–54, 156, 160
Crescens, v, 75, 144, 160
Crete, 3–4, 8–10, 12, 14–16, 18–19, 21, 24–26, 28, 34, 36, 40–41, 44–45, 54, 58–60, 64, 75, 156
crown, 8n, 98, 140–42
Daniel, 151–52
David, 9, 93n, 100, 104, 151
days, last, 117–21
death, 42, 75, 79, 86–88, 100, 102–3, 109, 139, 151
Demas, v, 75, 91n, 110, 142–44, 149, 160
demeanor (katastēma), 33, 35, 38
deny, 49–50, 59, 85, 104, 120
devil, 38–39, 116–18, 121, 152. See also slander.
drinking. See wine.
education, 31–32, 58, 83, 94–95, 108, 123, 128–29. See also teaching.
elder(s), 10–14, 18–20, 24, 27, 33–41, 44, 47–49, 95, 119. See also overseer.
elect, 101–2
Elizabeth. See Zechariah.
empty talk (mataiologia), 10, 20–22, 52, 105, 107–9, 112, 114
encourage (parakaleō), 20, 27, 52–54, 70, 136
Epaphroditus, 51
Epictetus, 122, 131
Epimenides, 24
Erastus, v, 17, 155–56, 160
Essene(s), 28–29
Eunice, 83, 128
Eubulus, v, 158, 160
Eupolus, 98
Eusebius, 68, 115
evangelism (evangelist), 41–42, 56–57, 84, 134–35, 137–38
Eve, 21
faith (faithful), 82–84, 89, 96, 113, 124–25
farmer, 98–99
gangrene, 109
Genymede, 26
genealogy. See myth(s); heterodoxy.
Gentile(s), 8, 15, 21, 23, 27, 29, 36, 51, 54, 71, 83, 143–44, 151, 154–55, 157
gentle(ness), 13, 28, 47, 56–58, 60–61, 113–16, 119, 129, 131, 136
genuine, 6, 8, 72, 79–80, 82–84, 88, 95, 106, 114, 117, 120
gift, spiritual, 8, 37, 69–71, 83–84, 95–96, 137–39, 144, 160
glory, 8, 49, 99, 101–2, 106, 120, 141, 152–53
Gnosticism, 29–30, 110
God, 19, 49, 53, 60–63, 92, 104, 125, 151. See also grace.
godliness (eusebeia) (ungodliness), 6–7, 10, 22, 36, 39, 49–50, 77, 87, 105, 107, 109, 114, 118, 120, 126, 131
good news/gospel, 60–65, 86–88, 101
Gortyn, 9, 12, 14, 34, 45
grace, 6, 8, 49, 51, 59–60, 63, 66, 72–74, 86–87, 94, 100, 106, 114, 119–20, 140, 159. See also mercy.
haughty, 117–18
health: 6, 73; character traits, 37, 40, 44–45, 61; teaching, 20–21, 26–28, 31–33, 35–37, 40, 43–45, 48–49, 53, 65, 89, 108–9, 117, 131, 136–37. See also teaching.
heir(s). See inheritance.
Hermogenes, 75, 90–91, 94, 110, 143n
heterodoxy, 20–23, 28, 45, 66–68, 73, 75, 105–6, 108, 114–15, 136–37. See also myth(s).
holiness. See righteous(ness); honor(able).
honor(able) (semnos/kosmeō), 36, 44, 48–49, 112, 119
household, 3, 10–11, 14–18, 20, 25, 36, 40, 42–48, 64, 75–76, 91–93, 111–12, 114, 121, 153, 156
human(s) (anthrōpos), 96
Hymenaeus, 107, 109–11
Iconium, 126, 151
imprisonment. See prison.
inheritance, 62–66, 103
Irenaeus, 30
Isaiah, 49, 55, 57
Jannes, and Jambres, 123–24, 127
Jesus, 6, 19, 31, 48, 51–52, 85–88, 93, 100–101, 120, 134. See also God; ransom; Savior.
John the Baptist, 20, 49, 57, 66
Joseph, 11, 48, 59
Josephus, 9n, 18, 65, 129
Jubilees, 29
Judas Iscariot, 120
judgment (s), 25, 34, 52, 67, 87, 98, 106, 108, 110–11, 117, 122, 126–27, 132–34, 141–42
Knossos, 12, 24
Korah, 111
law (lawless), 10, 15, 19, 21–23, 25, 27, 29–32, 39, 47, 49, 52, 60, 66–67, 71, 83, 95, 99, 107–9, 115, 129
Lazarus, 82
life, eternal (aiōn), 6–7, 9, 28, 39, 59–60, 64, 78, 95, 103, 133–34
Linus, v, 158, 160
lion, 25, 75, 151–52
Lock, Walter, 124
Lois, 80, 83, 128
love, 85, 88–89, 113, 118, 120, 122. See also marriage.
Lucian, 24–25
Luke, v, 1–2, 9–10, 61, 71, 129, 142–45, 160
Lydia, 36, 92
Lystra, 10, 83, 98–99, 124, 126, 151
magic(ian), 30, 123–24, 127, 150
maiestas minuta law, 14
Mamertine Prison, 76
Mannine, 34
Marcion, 68
Marianne, 38
Mark, John, 146–47
marriage, 40–42, 45, 66, 112, 154. See also one-woman man.
mercy, 60–62, 73, 80n, 89, 91–93, 104, 136. See also grace.
Miletus, 156
minister(s)/deacon(s), 35–36, 38, 160
Minos (Minoan), 3–4, 12, 16, 18–19, 25
money/wealth, 18, 23, 30, 48, 98, 118, 131
Moses, 11–12, 19, 23, 58, 61, 68, 74, 83, 111, 123
myth(s) (mythos), 20, 22–29, 55, 66, 75, 78, 107–8, 114–17, 124, 133, 136–37.
See also heterodoxy.
Nero, 8, 14, 56, 101n, 115, 150, 152
Nicodemus, 62
Nicopolis, 68–69, 144
Noah, 19
one-woman man, 14, 40. See also marriage.
offering, drink, 139
Onesimus, 70, 146
Onesiphorus’ household, v, 75–76, 80, 85, 90–94, 106, 114, 153, 155, 160
overseer (episkopos), 11–13, 17–20, 35, 38, 62, 115–16, 154. See also elders(s).
parent(s), 14–16, 28, 42, 54, 79, 80–83, 94, 117–18, 132, 150
passion(s) (epithymia), 10, 19, 22, 37n, 47, 49–50, 58–60, 85, 87, 112–14, 121–23, 136–37
Pastoral Epistles, defined, 1
paterfamilias, 15, 42
Paul, 6, 59, 75–76, 79, 81–84, 88, 102, 124–27, 139–42. See also prison.
Pergamum, 148
Philetus, 107, 109–11
Philo, 19, 51
Phoebe, 51
Phygelus, 75, 90–91, 94
Plato, 25–26
Polybius, 18, 26, 58
Polycarp, 68
polysyndeton, 52, 67n, 85n, 158n
prayer(s), 13, 37–38, 59, 80–83, 112, 114, 119n
priest, 38, 41–42, 61–63, 66, 103, 111–12
Prisca, and Aquila, v, 43, 76, 90, 115, 153–55, 158, 160
prison (imprisonment), 56, 61, 70, 75–76, 81, 84–86, 88, 92–95, 101, 106, 115, 117, 121–22, 138, 142–50, 152, 154, 157
prophet(s), 24, 27, 42, 47, 120, 130, 144
Ptolemy, 9, 24
Pudens, v, 155, 158–60
pure (clean) (katharos/hosios), 22, 30–31, 33, 40–41, 43–44, 54n, 66–67, 95, 106, 112, 140
Quashie, 48
ransom, 49, 52, 63, 87, 103. See also Jesus.
rebuke (elenchō/epitomaō), 27–28, 53, 66, 130–31, 133–35
reprove. See rebuke.
resurrection (anastasis), 21, 51, 64, 87, 91n, 107–10, 143
righteous(ness) (dikaios), 13, 17–19, 23, 50, 54–55, 60–63, 87, 106, 109, 111–13, 120, 130–31, 134, 140–42
Savior (salvation) (sōter), 6, 8, 45, 48–49, 51, 60–63, 86–88, 94, 96, 100, 102, 129–30. See also Jesus; God.
saying (logos), 65, 72, 75, 102–3
Scriptures, 83, 113, 117, 127–32, 134–35, 136, 148
self-control, 13, 17–19, 36–37, 39–40, 84–85, 117, 119, 138
Sharp, Granville, 51n
silence (epistomizō), 20, 23–24, 28, 45
Simon Magus, 29–30
slander (blaspheme) (diabolos), 10, 22, 33, 35–36, 38–39, 43, 49, 56–57, 108, 117–19, 126
slave(s) (slavery), 6, 10, 14, 16, 33, 35–36, 42, 45–52, 58, 64–65, 91, 97, 114, 145
sober. See wine.
soldier, v, 3, 57, 76, 84–85, 92n, 96–99, 115, 139
Sophia, 34
Sparta, 3, 34, 40n
Spicq, Ceslas, 84
Spirit, Holy, 27, 47, 60, 62–63, 82, 89–90, 94, 116, 130, 134, 159
steward (oikonomos), 10–11, 13, 17–18, 28, 48–49, 156. See also overseer.
straight (orthos), 4, 10, 20, 49, 57, 106–8, 131
Stygian, 60
stylistics, 1
submit (hypotassō), 42, 46, 56
suffering, 75, 80, 85–88, 90, 96–97, 99n, 100–103, 118, 125–27, 138, 143–44
Sulpicius Severus, 50
synecdoche, 23, 102
Synod, of Laodicea, 35n
Tacitus, 150
teaching, 20–21, 33, 38–40, 44, 49, 65, 89, 95–96, 115–16, 125, 128–31, 136; false, 28–31, 99.
See also education; health.
tears, 82, 84
Thessalonica, 81, 142–43
Tiberius, 83, 144, 152
time (chronos, kairos), 7, 87
Timothy, 8, 44, 53, 79–82, 84–85, 90, 94–95, 121, 127, 159
Titius Justus, 36
Titus, 6, 8, 10, 44–45, 52–54, 69, 71–72, 75, 144
Towner, Philip, 98, 100n, 147n, 159n
travel, 1, 9, 69, 72, 145n, 156–58, 160
trial, 53, 62, 76, 97n, 133, 149–51
Troas, 10n, 145–47, 149, 156–57
Trophimus, v, 90, 155–57, 160
truth, 7, 27–28, 116, 135
Tychicus, n, 68–70, 72, 76, 90–91, 147, 156, 160
understand, 99–100
ungodliness. See godliness.
Varus, 24
vessel(s) (skeuos), 57, 105, 111–13, 131, 146
washing/cleansing, 62–63. See also pure.
wealth. See money.
widow (s), 13–14, 22–23, 26, 92n, 122
Willetts, R. F. , 12
wine, 18, 33, 35–39, 47, 59, 116, 137–39
wisdom (wise), 36–37, 39–40, 42–43, 50, 99n, 106, 119, 129–30, 132
witness, 13, 17, 28, 39, 53, 55, 85, 94–95, 133, 150. See also attack, not open.
women: elder(s), 33–39, 42–43, 47, 75, 95–96; in Crete, 4, 64; in Ephesus, 85, 107–8, 114, 121–23; learners, 128, 145.
work, good, 57, 61–62, 72–73, 86–87, 112, 131
Xenophon, 40, 42–43
youth, 12n, 26, 33, 35, 41, 43–44, 49, 54, 65, 85, 87, 112–13, 123, 146
Zechariah, and Elizabeth, 19
Zenas, 68, 70–72, 160
Zeus, 4, 21, 24–26, 28, 31, 71n, 141

Spencer, A. B. (2014). 2 Timothy and Titus: A New Covenant Commentary. (M. F. Bird & C. Keener, Hrsg.) (S. iii–164). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts- course – provided by LAD Rosary


MSCS Certificate of Appointment

Craig A. Evans

Lexham Press, 2014

NT308: The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts


You may use  quotations from this content in presentations, books, or articles.

Logos Mobile Education
Screencasts: Daniel Threlfall and Todd Bishop
Educational Designer: Johnny Cisneros
Video Producer: Joshua Burdick
Managing Editor: Miles Custis
Academic Editor: Michael S. Heiser


Course Description

The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts (NT308) answers a question commonly asked about the New Testament: Can we trust the manuscript record? This course clearly outlines the history of these important documents. It discusses the quality, quantity, and age of the manuscripts, and how these elements compare to nonbiblical ancient texts. The course describes the practices of ancient writers and scribes and provides numerous examples to show that the manuscripts of the New Testament are reliable.

Course Outcomes

Upon successful completion you should be able to:

• Detail the number of pre-Gutenberg NT manuscripts we have and describe their quality
• Explain how the NT manuscript record compares to that of other ancient works
• Describe practices of ancient scribes and scholars that contributed to the longevity and quality of NT manuscripts
• Describe the preservation of the NT in ancient translations and commentaries
• Discuss how the various forms of historical attestation demonstrate the reliability of the NT text

Recommended Base Package

Logos Bible Software, Platinum Edition.
To download a Notes document that highlights the readings for this course, join the NT308 Faithlife group:

Course Outline

Introducing the Speaker and the Course

Unit 1: Evidence for the Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts
1. The Basics of New Testament Manuscripts
2. Finding Manuscripts in Logos
3. Examples Demonstrating the Quality of New Testament Manuscripts
4. Adding Manuscript Images to Presentations or Documents
5. Exploring Ancient Manuscripts and Resources
6. The Comparative Strength of the New Testament Manuscript Record
7. The Longevity of the Autographs
8. Researching the Works of Tertullian
9. The Number of Autographs
10. Accessing and Navigating the Textual Apparatus
11. The Preservation of the New Testament in Translations


Course Exams

The final exam will cover everything in the course. It will consist of multiple-choice and true or false questions. Use of a Bible or any other tool is not permitted.


Introducing the Speaker and the Course


My name is Craig Evans. I’m the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, eastern Canada. My area of expertise is the historical Jesus and the NT Gospels. Of course, this area of study has taken me into textual criticism, the study of ancient manuscripts, archaeology, [and] the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other early Jewish and rabbinic writings.
In this course, we’re going to be looking at the NT manuscripts, particularly the ones relating to the Gospels. We’re going to be asking ourselves the question: Can we trust the NT manuscripts?

How Close Can We Go?

A series of questions will be addressed in this course. How close to the autographs, or the originals, can we go? That is, how far back in time does the evidence take us? The originals were written in the first century. How old are our earliest copies?

How Good Were the Scribes?

Of course, there is a second very important question, and that is, how good were the early scribes? Were they competent, or were they sloppy and careless? These are the scribes who not only wrote out the originals, but also made the earliest copies, in the first and second centuries and beyond.

How Many Autographs Exist?

A third question asks, how many autographs were there? You might think this is strange. There are, after all, 27 books in the NT. Weren’t there 27 autographs? I think you’re going to find the answer to this question very surprising, very interesting, and very encouraging.

How Long Did the Autographs Circulate?

Then we have a last question that we must address, and that is, how long did the autographs circulate? How long did they last—their longevity—before being discarded or destroyed? I think you’re going to find this question interesting and the answer very surprising.
I look forward to having you with me, and I look forward to going through this lecture and speaking to these very intriguing questions.

Evidence for the Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts

1. The Basics of New Testament Manuscripts
2. Finding Manuscripts in Logos
3. Examples Demonstrating the Quality of New Testament Manuscripts
4. Adding Manuscript Images to Presentations or Documents
5. Exploring Ancient Manuscripts and Resources
6. The Comparative Strength of the New Testament Manuscript Record
7. The Longevity of the Autographs
8. Researching the Works of Tertullian
9. The Number of Autographs
10. Accessing and Navigating the Textual Apparatus
11. The Preservation of the New Testament in Translations

The Basics of New Testament Manuscripts

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Discuss the reliability of NT manuscripts by detailing the number of manuscripts we have and the date of the earliest manuscripts
• Describe the quality of the earliest NT manuscripts

How Far Back Can We Go?

How far back does the manuscript evidence take us?

The Number of the Manuscripts

We have 5,800 handwritten manuscripts of the Greek NT. That is, these are manuscripts that predate the Gutenberg press, predate the first printed Greek NT produced by Erasmus in 1516. Now of course, most of these 5,800 are from the Middle Ages. There are only a few hundred that reach back to great antiquity. In fact, we have some four dozen manuscripts—and most of these are incomplete, of course, and some of them are small fragments—that date to the year AD 300 or earlier.
For our purposes, these are the most important manuscripts. If they date to the 200s or up to about the year 300, that means that they were composed about 200 years or so after the NT originals. The originals were written, we think, in the second half of the first century; maybe one or two [were] written at the beginning of the second century. That is, in a nutshell, the manuscript evidence.

The Dates of the Earliest Manuscripts

We do have two or three manuscripts, perhaps four, that reach back to the second century. One of these is P52, and it’s a fragment of John 18. Some date it as early as 120 or 130; most think that it’s probably to be dated about to 140. Another one is P64. That dates perhaps to 170, 180—something like that; in other words, the latter part of the second century—and it only provides a few words and phrases from Matt 26.
We may even have a fragment—it’s not yet published, and it’s not yet settled, but it’s a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that could even date to the end of the first century, maybe even to the 80s. This is quite surprising. That’s not a bad record, and we’re going to analyze it in greater detail in lectures that are coming.

What Is Their Quality?

The other question that we must ask is, what is the quality of these manuscripts? After all, it’s one thing to say, OK, we have some very old fragments that we can get back within 100, 150 years or so of the originals—but how good are these copies, these fragments?

The Professionalism of the Scribes

Actually, in looking at them, we see that they’re neatly copied by professional hands. They’re not sloppy. They’re not illegible. They’re not full of misspellings, grammatical errors, and other types of mistakes. On the whole, [they’re] very neatly done.

The Stability of the Text

We find a textual agreement with the more fully preserved copies of later times. In other words, these early copies don’t appear to be eccentric or radically different in some way, textually, from the mainstream textual tradition that came to be well-preserved and dominate on into the Middle Ages. We have every reason to believe that the early texts and the early manuscripts reflect a stabilized textual tradition.
Examination of the oldest NT manuscripts demonstrates that they are of quality, and it shows that they compare very well to other manuscripts in the non-Christian classical tradition, in Greek and in Latin, and we will do some comparison with manuscripts from these traditions later on in this course.


Suggested Reading

New Testament Manuscripts LBD
From the Evangelists to Us: Handing Down the Gospel Texts INT:CMMF
Exegetical Skill: Textual Criticism INT:CMMF

See Also

Greek New Testament Manuscripts DNTB
The Ancient Records of the Greek New Testament TNT:MME
The Text of the New Testament HWGNT:TTT

Guides and Tools

New Testament Manuscripts Topic Guide

Finding Manuscripts in Logos

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Search your Logos library for manuscript resources
• Find images of manuscripts in your Logos library


This entire course is centered on the study of ancient NT manuscripts, and in particular, the Gospels. Dr. Evans raises several critical questions at the beginning of his lecture: How close to the autographs, or to the originals, can we go? How far back in time does the evidence take us? How old are the earliest copies? How good were the early scribes—were they competent, or were they sloppy and careless?
One of the ways that we can enhance our understanding of the manuscripts is by looking at them directly—actual transcripts of the manuscripts, and in some cases, images of the manuscripts. Logos provides a wealth of resources that introduce us to manuscripts discussed in this course. That’s what I’d like to survey in this screencast video.

Searching for Manuscripts

First, click on the Search icon to open up a new Search panel. We are going to run a Basic search. Simply type in “manuscript” to run a search in your library for this topic. We’ll leave off quotation marks, so that we can keep the search as broad as possible. This search is for “All Text” in “Entire Library,” according to the preset parameters.

Exploring the Results

I wanted to show you the results of this search so that you can get an appreciation for how many resources are included in Logos relating to manuscripts, even for base packages that have comparatively few resources.
Now scroll down to “Library Results” and click on “By Title” to rank this list by title.
The first resource I want to look at in detail is The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. I click on the title page, and a few things are apparent here. First, this resource is that of a single manuscript: 0162 (P. Oxy. 847). As we get further into this course, we’ll get a better understanding of what this identification code refers to. Second, this is an actual record of the text from the NT Greek manuscript. Third, it contains John 2:11–22. And finally, the resource is brief; true to the description, it contains only the text from John 2:11–22.
Now, what we’re doing here is actually viewing the words of an original Greek manuscript. The image of the manuscript is not provided, but the most important element is—the text of the manuscript.
The reason I brought this particular resource to your attention is because it is the most valuable source of manuscript information in your Logos library. If you will be doing any textual criticism work in the original manuscripts, you will be referencing this resource time and again.

Exploring The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts

Let’s do a quick aside on this resource. Click on your library icon. Then type in “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts.” Most likely, you’ll have dozens of results. That’s because this resource is so vast. I’m going to click on this one, 0162. Then I’ll click on “Title Page” in the left navigation pane. Now I’ll click “main volume” to access the master resource.
Now I’m still in the relevant corresponding section of the resource, but it is located within the collection as a whole. From this view, we can get a glance at the contents, date, provenance, housing location, physical feature, and textual character of the manuscript. This depth of information on the manuscript is a key aspect of manuscript research. For further research on the manuscripts, this is a definite go-to resource.
Let’s close out this window, and I’m going to point you in another direction of our general search results.

Searching for Manuscript Images

This time, click on “Image” and re-run the search in order to surface image results. When studying the manuscripts, I like to have a clear visual understanding of the subject matter, especially when dealing with physical objects like manuscripts.
Many of the images returned in this query are very relevant to the subject matter of this course. Let’s click on this one. This image shows the John Rylands fragment of John 18:31–33. Seeing this picture puts the subject matter of the course into clear perspective. When Dr. Evans refers to “manuscripts,” he is often considering small pieces of papyrus with nearly illegible script.
The discussion in this resource is helpful in sharing some of the information about this manuscript: “This papyrus fragment (2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches) from a codex is the earliest known copy of any portion of the New Testament.”
Let’s close this window and return to our Image Search panel. I want to show you one more important image. I’ll click on this image from [The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary] labeled “Photo 33.” This is a facsimile of one of the most important manuscripts of the NT: Codex Sinaiticus. Dr. Evans will look at this manuscript in a later lecture, so this is a good one to tuck away for future reference. And as is the case with most images, you can right-click on the image that appears in the new panel and choose to share this graphic through your choice of presentation software.
Seeing the manuscript is excellent background knowledge to have as we dive into the remainder of this course.


Oftentimes, a simple and general search in Logos is a great starting point for more detailed study. As you’ve seen from this screencast video, we performed a very basic search, but by doing so we helped to frame our understanding of a vast subject area in biblical research, and deepened our understanding, going forward, for this course.
More specifically, we found resources that we can return to during the progress of this course, and found some sources of deeper research for future study. Even before launching into the details of this lecture, we’ve been able to look at actual manuscripts, view the text of these manuscripts, and access a master resource that contains nearly all of the text of the early NT manuscripts.

Examples Demonstrating the Quality of New Testament Manuscripts

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Discuss how early NT manuscripts compare in quality with contemporaneous works from the non-Christian world
• Describe the professionalism of early NT scribes

Papyrus 52

The quality of the Greek NT manuscripts can be seen by simply looking at them, reviewing the oldest ones that we have, and I’ve done that. I begin now with Papyrus 52, and I just want to make a few comments about it. It is in Manchester, England, if you want to see it for yourself. It is a small fragment, [the] size of a large postage stamp, and on one side we have a few words and phrases from John 18, beginning in verse 32. And then, if you flip it over, it continues with a little later in John 18. The value of it is—if you have a chance to see it, you’ll notice that it’s neatly inked, neatly lettered; very straight lines; a proper margin at the top; and the style of writing puts it in probably the mid-second century. Some scholars date it to perhaps as early as 120 or 130. Most would agree that it’s prior to 150, and put it about 140.
Now if you compare it to writings from a similar period of time—secular writings written by professional scribes—you’ll notice that P52 is [of] equal quality. The point I’m making here when I say this is, [there’s an] idea that because Christianity was an illegal religion, sometimes persecuted in some places in the Roman Empire, that the scribes therefore hired to make copies of Scripture would be so poorly trained, perhaps even incompetent, that early copies of Christian Scripture would be very poorly done—unreliable, inaccurate, rife with errors, and so forth. But when we look at the manuscripts themselves, not theories but the actual artifacts themselves, we discover that that simply is not true. P52, our earliest fragment, compares very well to non-Christian papyri produced in the same period of time.

Papyrus 52 Compared to the Petaus Collection

If we just look at a number of other papyri, I think I can make that point even clearer. For example, if you look at the Petaus collection, also found in Egypt—Petaus was a village scribe. We’ve found among his papers one that’s numbered 121, a practice sheet, and about a dozen times he writes out the same line: “I, Petaus, village scribe, have handed in …” If you look at it, it’s terribly executed. The lines are not straight. They wander; they meander. Some of the letters—you can’t even make them out. In fact, he misspells some of the very words that he’s written over and over again. I’m not aware of any early Christian manuscript that looks like this.

Papyrus 52 Compared to the “Letter of a Prodigal Son”

We have another example. This one—you could call it the “Letter of a Prodigal Son.” In fact, just like in the parable, the young man that writes this letter says to his mother, “I know that I have sinned.” He desires to be reconciled to his mother. He’s in debt—he owes people money. He’s reduced to wearing rags, and he’s full of regrets and full of sorrow. The interesting thing is, if you ever have a chance to look at this particular papyrus, you’ll notice how poorly written it is—grammatical errors, misspellings, sloppily constructed letters. Again, the point is, I don’t know of anything written by early Christian scribes that compares to this kind of sloppiness.

Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 209

Sometimes it’s pointed out that the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 209, which has been given the Greek papyrus number of P10, is an example of poor scribal execution. It’s Romans 1:1–7, but this is hardly fair. It actually isn’t a Greek NT manuscript; it’s a businessman’s paper. On the back side, we have his business agenda and notes, and on the other side, perhaps whiling away the time as he was waiting for a meeting, or perhaps just simply practicing his knowledge of Scripture, he apparently wrote from memory the first seven verses of Romans, and along the way accidentally omitted most of verse 6. So instead of being an example of poor NT scribal scholarship, it’s actually just the opposite—a rather remarkable testimony to the knowledge of Scripture a layman possessed, who was not attempting to write out a copy of Romans.

Papyrus 1

If we just waltz through some of the oldest papyri that we have, we will see a consistent pattern. For example, Papyrus 1, which was one of the very first papyri discovered by Grenfell and Hunt when they went to Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1896. Papyrus 1 begins with Matt 1:1–12, and you flip it over to the other side and it continues at verses 14–20. Now, it’s in poor shape. There are holes in it and so forth, but when you look at it carefully, you see neatly executed letters, nice straight lines, and no glaring errors or mistakes.

Papyrus 45

Papyrus 45 preserves about one-half of the four NT Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—again, well executed: nice straight lines, clearly written-out letters, and overall, a very good manuscript.

Papyrus 46

P46 also dates to about the same time, [the] beginning of the third century. [It’s] a collection of Paul’s letters, neatly executed—pages are numbered, proper margins, straight lines—no evidence of carelessness or sloppiness, but first-rate work.

Papyri 64, 66, and 67

P64: small fragments of Matt 26 in Magdalen College, Oxford. These fragments also could date to the very end of the second century. Some even date them as early as AD 170 or 180. Neatly executed letters. Now we’re not talking about high-end penmanship here, or calligraphy. We’re just talking about proper, workmanlike, scribal execution.
P66, another example of early third-century Christian scribal practice: John’s Gospel, beautifully executed.
P67: fragments of Matthew. The same thing. If you look at these fragments, you’ll see neatly executed letters, straight lines—what you [would] expect in scribal professionalism.

Papyri 75, 77, 87, 104, and 121

P75: another important copy of the Gospel of John, [with] the same characteristics as the other manuscripts—neatly done, professionally done, and it compares very well to its own contemporaries. We have some fragments in P77, fragments of the Gospel of Matthew. P87: fragments of (not well attested) Philemon, also dating to the third century. P104, from Matthew, although very fragmentary—again, we can see neatly executed penmanship. The legibility of the letters—crystal clear, properly done. P121: fragments of John 19.

NT Manuscripts Compared to Secular Ancient Manuscripts

So how do these manuscripts compare, then, to the penmanship that we see in the second century and the early third century in the eastern Roman Empire? Quite comparable. There are some manuscripts in the secular world, the non-Christian world, that would be of higher grade, high-end, where calligraphy is very important—fancy, beautiful, artistic-style manuscripts. It’s true [that] Christians didn’t have that kind of financial wherewithal. There was a greater economy and [pragmatism] on the part of the early Christian communities and their scribal activity. But if you actually look at the manuscripts, you see no evidence of sloppiness, carelessness, incompetence, which some have alleged in recent years. No, you see first-rate scribal execution.
There’s no reason to think that these early copies of Christian Scripture were somehow inferior or incompetently done [and] therefore unreliable, [so that] we don’t really know how the original text read. There [are] no grounds for this at all.


Suggested Reading

Comparing Manuscripts LBD
Manuscript Witnesses BECA
Papyrus 52 TENTGM

See Also

List of the Most Important Manuscripts DNTB
Significant Manuscripts and Printed Editions EM:INTPTC
What Ancient Books Looked Like TNT:MME

Adding Manuscript Images to Presentations or Documents

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Access images of biblical manuscripts
• Add images to PowerPoint, Keynote, or Proclaim presentations
• Add images to documents


Dr. Evans opened the lecture by explaining that the quality of NT manuscripts can be seen by simply looking at them and reviewing the oldest ones that we have. He discusses, in particular, Papyrus 52 and explains its features, like postage-stamp size, phrases from John 18:32, the neatly inked and lettered features, etc.
Evans’ point is this: When compared with the integrity of other ancient Near Eastern manuscripts, the biblical manuscripts are extremely well attested, valid, and accurate. The goal of this screencast is to provide an understanding of how to access these manuscript image resources, and also how to integrate the usage of them with other products and for other practical purposes.

Finding Images of Manuscripts

Let’s go ahead and find a good image to use. I’ll start with a general search, and then we’ll bore down on a single image. Click the Search icon. Then click “Image” to conduct an Image search. Finally, type “papyrus” into the Search box.
The search returns a variety of images that might not actually be manuscript images, but we can easily sort through them to find real manuscripts. I’m going to choose this one—Papyrus 1532, featuring a text from Heb 12:1–11.

Sending Images to Proclaim

Now if you’re doing a lesson or presentation on manuscripts, or maybe even on inspiration or biblical integrity or a similar topic, this would be a helpful resource to feature. The image provides a helpful understanding of what an ancient manuscript looks like.
If you’re using Proclaim, like I do, you can send the image directly to Proclaim. First, I’ll go ahead and open up Proclaim on my system. Then right-click the image to bring up the context menu. Click “Send to Proclaim,” and this resource automatically goes to this presentation software. I’ll keep the upload option as it is—“Upload and sync to my group.” Then click “Add.”
Now I have the image in my new presentation. I can add a description and create my presentation as I normally do.

Sending Images to PowerPoint or Keynote

Now if you are not using Proclaim, you can also send the image to Keynote or PowerPoint. Simply right-click the image, then send to the application of your choice. Just to provide an example, I’m going to click “PowerPoint,” and automatically the image is inserted into a new PowerPoint project, scaled to fit or in its original size.
Keep in mind that you can use the image “Send to” feature for almost any image in your Logos library. But as always, please remember to provide citation information for each image that you use.

Adding Images to Documents

If you’re creating a document and want to include an image, the process is very easy. You have two options. First, you can save the image to your computer—right-click, [choose] “Save as,” then choose the destination for the file—or you can copy the image and paste it into a document. Just right-click, then choose “Copy.” You can easily paste it into most documents, using keyboard shortcuts or paste options. I’m going to simply copy this image and paste it into a Word document, like that. This is great if you’re creating a handout for your people to follow.


We just looked at a single example of image search and import in this screencast video. These images are helpful resources, not only for personal study and research, but also for sharing with others. There are plenty of ways to do this—Proclaim, Keynote, PowerPoint, or simply adding them to any document.

Exploring Ancient Manuscripts and Resources

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Download the Perseus collection within the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri
• Open the Petaus collection
• Examine the ostraca and find general information on them


In the previous lecture, Dr. Evans spends some time discussing the Petaus collection. The Petaus collection is a group of writings discovered in Egypt. The writings are apparently by a village scribe. These manuscripts have had a continued impact upon scholarly research in the realm of biblical manuscripts.
Dr. Evans explains how the Petaus collection serves as a benchmark for establishing the superiority of most—if not all—of the biblical manuscripts that we have access to. The Petaus collection is an important resource for biblical manuscript research.

Downloading the Perseus Collection

The resource we’ll examine in this screencast video can be downloaded for free. From’s home page, type in “Duke Databank,” then press Enter. The resource to download is called the “Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri (256 vols.)”
To download, you can add this resource to your virtual cart, or click “Quick Buy” if you already have an account established with Logos. Once you have downloaded this resource, you’ll be able to access this massive work that we will explore in this video.

Surveying the Petaus Collection

First, let’s actually open up the Petaus collection and find out what these documents look like. Click your Library icon and type in “Petaus.” Here is the resource: P. Petaus: Das Archiv des Petaus.
There is not much explanation surrounding this resource. The title page is pretty skinny. I simply want to highlight at this point that we have access to the complete collection of Petaus, 127 documents in all.
If you were doing your own comparative research on the grammatical methodology of Petaus vs. the grammatical method of, say, Pauline epistolary writings, this would be your resource. You can analyze each of the writings of Petaus and draw out relevant comparisons.
One of the helpful features of the Petaus collection is that every word has been morphologically mapped. So, if you hover over this first word—Ὅρμου (Hormou)—you’ll see the grammatical information below.

Accessing Ostraca Resources

Now, I want to go to another resource. This one wasn’t mentioned by Dr. Evans, but it does touch on the subject of manuscript research in a tangential way. One of the things that we’re doing in manuscript research is really diving into the use of ancient Greek. And one of the best examples of koine Greek is found in everyday transactional writing.
These writings are found in the ostraca. It’s helpful to look at the ostraca, especially when doing detailed comparative studies, and Logos has these ostraca. I’ll just provide you with a cursory overview of the ostraca resources available in your library.
So I’ve closed the previous resource, and now I’m going to pull up a new resource. Go to your library and type in “ostraca.” Instantly you get a sense of the kind of resources that are available. I’m going to choose the first one—O. Ashm.: Ostraca in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Again, most of the words in this resource are mapped, making the job of grammatical analysis much easier for us.

Finding General Information on Ostraca

This level of research is suitable for academic journals and some (very detailed) exegesis, but what might give us an introductory insight is a brief understanding of Petaus and ostraca. I love the way that Logos allows us to pivot from microscopic, detailed research to panoramic, big-picture research within just a few keystrokes.
Let’s back up from this investigation and get the big picture. Click on the Search icon. Then, keeping your search parameters to “All Text” and “Entire Library,” type in “ostraca.” The first level of result is a Topic Guide on ostraca.
This is going to help my research immensely, so click on “Ostraca,” and what we see next is the Topic Guide menu on ostraca. I hover over the entry “Ostraca” in my Bible dictionary, and have an instant sense of what ostraca [are], how [they affect] biblical research, and a summary of the findings. Further, I can see images of ostraca in the media resources below.


These two levels of research—the detailed and the macroscopic—are helpful when you’re orienting yourself to a new topic or theme, and then when you’re delving into a theme in greater detail.
This course on manuscripts is a great place to conduct this level of research. Although it’s a detailed topic, there are perfect opportunities to back up and acquaint ourselves with some of the broader features of the study as well.

The Comparative Strength of the New Testament Manuscript Record

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Describe the difference between NT manuscript attestation and that of other works from a similar time period
• Explain how that strong manuscript record points to the textual reliability of the NT

The New Testament Compared to Other Works

If the Greek NT manuscripts are numerous and very old and very reliably copied, we must ask then the question, how does the NT manuscript record compare to the record of other ancient manuscripts? That’s a good question, and when we answer it, we will be very surprised, and I think we will learn a lot. You’ll be impressed to know that the NT record compares very well.

Julius Caesar’s Gallic War

Take, for example, Julius Caesar and his Gallic War. He composed it in the 50s BC. What do we have? Now, Julius Caesar is the founder of the imperial Roman legacy. All we have are ten fairly well-preserved manuscripts. The oldest dates to about AD 850.
Think about that. One of the most important Romans ever to live in antiquity, he wrote Gallic Wars—which made him famous in elite circles in Roman society—and all we have are ten fairly well-preserved manuscripts, and the oldest one is 900 years removed from when he wrote the original.

Livy’s Roman History

Or how about Livy? Livy, the Roman historian? He was born around, we think, 59 BC and died, we think, around AD 17—so, a turn-of-the-era scholar. He wrote Roman History, of which about one-third survives. So in this case, we don’t even have the entire work. Two-thirds of it is missing. Well, of this one-third that survives, our oldest manuscript, which contains parts of books 3, 4, 5, and 6—this oldest manuscript dates to about AD 350. In other words, [it’s] more than 300 years removed in time from when he originally wrote, and it isn’t even complete. Most of his work is lost.

Tacitus’ Annals and Histories

How about Tacitus, the Roman historian, author of Annals and Histories, writing sometime around AD 110, 115? The oldest manuscripts of these works date to the 9th and 11th centuries (AD)—in other words, 800 years and 1,000 years after the original. Tacitus’ minor works, like Agricola and Germania, same thing. These two important works [are] preserved in a 10th century codex—in other words, some 800 years after the writing of the original.

Thucydides and Herodotus

Or Thucydides, the great Greek fifth-century-BC historian? His History survives, and our oldest manuscript dates to about AD 900, or about 1400 years after the time of the original. Or Herodotus, also a fifth-century [BC] Greek historian? His Histories survives, and the oldest manuscript [dates] to about AD 800, or about 13 centuries or so after the original.

The Superior Preservation of the New Testament

So what we have are classical works. Classical historians read them, study them, take them seriously—yet the manuscript tradition is rather weak compared to the NT manuscript tradition. The classical manuscripts are late and few in number, yet no recognized classical historian doubts the general reliability of these manuscripts, even if they were produced 1,000 years or so after the original. That’s what so impresses me about the Greek NT manuscript tradition.
And if we’re referring to the Gospels, we have virtually the entire Gospel text about 200 years or so after the time of the writing of the originals. We don’t just have a handful of manuscripts—we have hundreds that are old. We have thousands that predate the Gutenberg printing press, which means that through comparison and examination, reconstruction, and hard work—what’s called textual criticism—we can with confidence reconstruct the text as it was originally written, or at least come within about 99 percent of it. This is a record of preservation that by far and away surpasses that of all other texts from antiquity.


Suggested Reading

New Testament Manuscripts: The Story of the Manuscripts BECA
Writing and Books BEB

See Also

Ancient Writing Materials and Practices ENTM:WITC
Writing and Literature: Greco-Roman DNTB

The Longevity of the Autographs

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Describe the implications of recent manuscript discoveries upon questions of the longevity of NT autographs
• Discuss reasons for the possible longevity of NT autographs

How Long Do Manuscripts Last?

We come now to a very important question, and that asks, how long did the manuscripts last? Now, I have here in mind the originals, the autographs, but also the earliest copies.
Just for illustration, let’s think of Matthew. Let’s suppose Matthew’s Gospel was written in the year 75. It might have been written some years earlier, maybe even a few years later, but we’ll just say, in the year 75. How long did it last? How long did it circulate?
I asked a professor, when I was in grad school many years ago, this very question. “How long do you think the autographs lasted?” I asked. “Oh,” he says, “I don’t know—10, 20 years.” The answer, at that time, seemed reasonable to me. We think of our cheap paperbacks, read several times—the spine begins to crack; pages start to fall out. Surely these precious documents would have been eagerly read by many people over and over again.
So after 10 or 20 years, maybe the original Matthew was falling to pieces and was discarded, and other copies were made, and so on. In fact, if—let’s say every manuscript lasted about 10 years, and then there was a copy made, and that copy lasted 10 years, and another copy was made. Over the course of 150 years—or from, say, the year 75 to 225—we could have as many as 15 generations. Each time there’s a new copy made, probably some more scribal errors are introduced; more variance enters into the text.
So after 15 such generations, who knows? Maybe the text of Matthew in AD 225 would be very different from the original Matthew that was composed by the evangelist in the year 75. So this is the backdrop, just—that kind of assumption. Is there evidence that shows that that is so? Or perhaps the evidence shows something else?

Libraries in the Ancient World

Well, in a recent study published in 2009, there was an analysis of 53 libraries from antiquity that have been recovered intact. And what I mean by that is, the entire library: the actual literature itself—the various books—as well as supporting documentation, private letters, and things like that. The entire collection was dumped at the same time. So when scholars were sifting through the dry sands of Egypt, or whatever the location is, all of these books were found together.
Of course, this is wonderful, because the books then can be studied together. We not only have copies of literature, but we have letters that have dates on them. We have correspondence talking about the books—requests that a new one be copied, or a request that one that had been loaned out be returned, and so forth. And so this kind of information has enabled scholars to reconstruct the history of the library, as it were.
Now, I’m talking about 53 libraries—not archives, business papers, and that sort of thing, but libraries, [consisting] of literature. The smallest library that’s been analyzed had 12 books in it, and some of the largest have close to 1,000 books. Many of these libraries that were found intact were recovered from the dry sands of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, where about a half million texts were recovered from 1896 on into the 20th century, when the digging finally came to an end.

The Answer for the Longevity Question

What we’ve learned is that these libraries contained books that were in use, before being retired or discarded—were in use anywhere from 150 years to 500 years. It was noticed that most of these books fell in the 200- to 300-year range before being retired or discarded or thrown out. This has enormous implications for our understanding of the NT manuscripts and [for] our question: How long were they used? What was their longevity before they were retired or thrown out?

Implications for the New Testament Manuscripts

This would mean that the original Matthew—written in 75, let us suppose—could possibly still have been in circulation as late as AD 225. This is extraordinary. In other words, when P45, which I mentioned briefly in the previous lecture—when Papyrus 45, which contains chunks, about half or so of the four NT Gospels—when that scribe put pen to paper and composed that, sometime around AD 210 or 220, the original Matthew and the original Mark and Luke and John could still have been in circulation, being copied, influencing the text of the NT. So the idea that there was this was wide gap, this broken link between the originals, written in the first century, and our oldest extant copies that we now possess, that you and I can go see in museums and libraries around the world—instead of a wide, 150-year gap, where who knows what changes may have taken place, we may well have had the originals lasting right on into the third century itself.

Reasons for the Longevity

Now, of course, as I got to thinking about this 2009 study by George Houston—after I picked myself up off the floor, I realized, now, wait a minute. That’s not so strange.

Materials Used by Scribes

Books in antiquity were valuable. They were precious, and they were made of very durable materials. They were made out of papyrus, which obviously lasts a long time; otherwise, we wouldn’t be digging them up in the dry sands of Egypt and in various tombs and other locations. After all, we have papyri documents reaching back to 1,000 BC, so it is endurable stuff—but also animal skins, parchment, vellum, and so forth last a long time.

The Practice of Scribes

It isn’t just that, but look at the practice—say, at Qumran. Qumran was destroyed either in the year 68 or 73. The library was still in circulation, still being used. Over 200 Bible scrolls, and what do we find when we look at them? Well, many of these Bible scrolls, perhaps as many as 40, were somewhere between 200 and 300 years old when the Romans destroyed the compound at Qumran near the Dead Sea. This is the same practice that’s been observed involving the libraries that George Houston has studied. Books were used for a long, long time.

The Practice of Early Christians

What about the early Christians themselves? We have some evidence there that’s very important. For example, the great codices—Vaticanus, which dates to the early fourth century, and Sinaiticus, which also dates to the early fourth century—they were used for hundreds of years, and we know that because they were re-inked. In the case of Vaticanus, in places where the original ink had faded—these pages were re-inked, we estimate, about 500 years after the book had originally been produced.


We even have evidence from the church fathers. Tertullian, writing around the year 190, in a tractate called Prescription against the Heretics—in chapter 36, he complains of the heretics who mutilate the text, and he says, “If you don’t believe me, then check out the autographs of Paul’s Letters,” and he mentions a few letters by name, “which you can find in Hierapolis, in Asia Minor.”
The autographs? Tertullian wrote in Latin, and the word he used was authenticæ. Well, some translators couldn’t believe that he should be taken literally. Maybe what he meant was the original Greek, as opposed to a mutilated copy or a translation. But authenticum, or in the feminine plural, authenticæ—referring to Paul’s Epistles (another feminine plural), it literally means “autographs.” Well, thanks to George Houston’s study and the discovery of how long books were in circulation—their great longevity—perhaps we should take Tertullian’s remark at face value. Maybe that’s literally what he meant, that there were actual autographs in circulation, still available for study in a place like Hierapolis.

Bishop Peter

In fact, another bishop, writing in the early fourth century—Bishop Peter—he says the same thing about the Gospel of John, that the original could still be seen at Ephesus. Well, at one time, this struck us moderns as far-fetched. We couldn’t imagine a book lasting 150 or 200 or 225 years, but the evidence from Egypt and from elsewhere suggests that that’s exactly the way it was, so we should have no reason to think that the NT writings would be an exception.
The original Letters of Paul, the original Gospels—these would have been precious for early Christians. They would have held on to them for as long as they could. For them to have existed 100 or even 200 years or more would not be surprising at all. But the important point that I’m making is: As long as they existed, they would have been copied.
So the originals would not have simply influenced the first copies in the first century, but would have been the template, the archetype for copies in the second century as well and perhaps even on into the third century. This encourages our view that the Greek text was quite stable. There were not wild fluctuations, changes, subtractions, and additions, but a very reliable and very stable text.


Suggested Reading

Ancient Libraries BEB
Library HIBD

See Also

Libraries: In Greece and the Roman Empire ISBER
How Ancient Manuscripts Were Written TNT:MME

Guides and Tools

Library Topic Guide

Researching the Works of Tertullian

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Access the writings of Tertullian
• Open Tertullian’s writings from citations in other Logos resources


Dr. Evans has referred several times to Tertullian, who was an influential church father. Tertullian’s works are significant in NT research, and so it is important that we become familiar with this individual and his writings.
Tertullian himself has some things to say about the authenticity of NT manuscripts. Dr. Evans explained that Tertullian wrote in Prescription against the Heretics in chapter 36 in such a way that affirmed the authenticity of apostolic writings.

Opening Prescription against the Heretics

We know, first of all, that this work is by Tertullian, and it’s called Prescription against the Heretics, so that’s enough to do a basic-level search in our library. Click on Library. Then type the first word—”Prescription”—and there it is. Let’s go ahead and click to open this, and see if we can find the account where he mentions apostolic writings.
I’m going to search for the phrase that Dr. Evans mentioned. So I press CTRL + F or CMD + F to keyboard shortcut the search function. Then I type the following phrase: “in which their own authentic writings.” The resource moves directly to chapter 36. The first sentence of this section contains the phrase that we searched for.
Now just as a point of interest, look at the phrase “authentic writings.” Notice footnote 12. Hover over that, and you’ll understand more about what Dr. Evans was referring to when he discussed the controversial interpretation of this word.

Accessing Other Tertullian Resources

Because Tertullian is such an influential figure in early church literature, you’ll probably encounter him at other points in your research.
For example, if you’re studying, say, the book of Job, and you’re reading Keil and Delitzsch’s Commentary on the Old Testament—in their treatment on Job 29:18–20, they refer to Tertullian’s treatment of this passage. Here we read “We have the reverse case in Tertullian, de resurrectione carnis, c. xiii.” This reference is automatically tagged to the appropriate Tertullian resource. You can mouse over or click through to access the resource. It’s that easy.


In this screencast, we’ve seen how easy it is to reference some of the original sources, whether they’re mentioned in an external lecture, or whether we encounter them in our reading or study.

The Number of Autographs

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Discuss how many NT autographs may have been created
• Describe the practices of ancient scholarship and how they point to the reliability of the NT
• Discuss modern chances of finding and recognizing a NT autograph

Ancient Writers and Multiple Autographs

Let’s raise now another question: How many autographs? You might think, ‘Wait a minute—there would be 27. There are 27 books of the NT, so there’d be 27 originals, right? Everything else would be a copy.’ Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Papyri from Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere show that multiple autographs were written before documents were circulated. What typically would happen is, the draft would be written out, it would be carefully proofread, and then another draft would be written out, and this one would be signed, if it was a letter, and that is where we get “autograph.” But then a copy would be retained, so at the very least, there’d be two copies—two originals, and by “original” I mean written out by the sender, by the author (or his scribe, who did the writing [while the sender did] the dictating). There’d be at least two composed under his nose, on his desk, that would go out with his stamp of approval. They in fact might not be identical, but obviously they’d be very, very close.

Multiple Autographs and the New Testament

With the 27 books of the NT, the reality is, there probably were at least 54 autographs—one set sent out for circulation, and one set retained. Actually, it’s even more than that. Letters, by their very nature—especially circular letters, like probably Ephesians, maybe 1 and 2 Peter; perhaps also James; perhaps some of the other letters by Paul—would have two, three, four copies made that were then sent out and circulated. This would mean, if I can hark back to the previous lecture, that the chances of an autograph surviving 100, 150, or even 200 years would be greatly increased, because there is not just one that might get lost or perhaps deliberately destroyed, but by having a second or third, we have, in effect, backup. We have redundancy, which would increase the chances for survival. This is a very important observation to make, and so we should not think then that the autographs disappeared after just 10 or 20 years, but rather [that they] circulated for a long time, influencing, even controlling, the textual tradition in subsequent years.

The Practice of Ancient Scholarship

Of course, George Houston’s fascinating study of these 53 libraries from antiquity showed us more things than merely longevity. His study showed that manuscripts were collected, compared, corrected, circulated, interpreted, and read publicly. In fact, in some cases very sophisticated commentary accompanied the documents: philological notes, exegetical notes, explanatory glosses—the kind of sophisticated interpretation we’ve come to expect in modern commentaries. We should never condescend and assume that people who lived 2,000 years ago weren’t very bright, or were naive and gullible.

Scribal Scholarship and the New Testament

We should assume that NT scribal scholarship was very similar to the secular scribal scholarship we see in the 53 libraries that George Houston has studied.

Evidence from Paul’s Practice

In fact, there is some evidence for thinking that way. I remind you of Acts 19:9, where Paul quit the synagogue, “taking the disciples with him, and then argued daily in the lecture hall”—the scholē or school or university—“of Tyrannus.” In other words, Paul had no trouble transitioning from a synagogue setting that had become hostile into a Greek or Hellenistic school, where he could lecture, and presumably where copies of Scripture could be made, even copies of Paul’s letters. Where there could be study—grammatical and philological study—and so forth.

Evidence from the Practice of Rabbis

I remind you that this is in keeping with the results reached by Saul Lieberman in his book Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1962), where he shows that rabbinic principles—and Paul was trained as a rabbi, as a Pharisee, at the feet of Gamaliel—that rabbinic principles of study and exegesis are indebted to Greek academics. This more recently has been reaffirmed in a work by Martin Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE. It’s the same thing, and so Hellenistic principles of pedagogy and study overlapped with rabbinic principles of study, and that would include scribal activity. Fair-minded comparative study shows that the scribes who copied NT Scripture were far more competent than village scribe Petaus, who found it difficult to write legibly and spell correctly.

The Practice of Ancient Scribes

We could ask another question, just for fun: Could we recover autographs? Is it possible to find Paul’s original letter, say, to the Thessalonians, or to the Galatians? Actually, I think it would be. Why? Well, we have autographs that have been found in Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere, and we know they are autographs simply because, after several pages of professional scribal handwriting, when we come to the greetings and the signature, the handwriting changes. It becomes large, clumsy, and sloppy. For example, in one secular papyrus—a letter—it says, “I wrote in my own hand.” The author wants to note that the entire letter was written by him and not just by a scribe. And yet in other letters it will say, ‘I, so-and-so,’ and then it will note [that] actually it’s been written by the hand of a scribe, because the author of the letter does not know letters—hasn’t ever learned how to make letters correctly.
Compare this to what Paul says at the end of 2 Thessalonians 3:17: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine. It is the way I write.” Paul, I think, says that because in 2 Thessalonians 2, he complains of a rumor that has started on the basis of a letter supposedly by him or Paul’s own scribe, Tertius, who wrote Romans for him. It says this in Romans 16:22: “I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” At the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul says this—1 Corinthians 16:21, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.” Or Colossians 4:18: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.” Or Philemon 19: “I, Paul, write this letter with my own hand.” Or in Galatians 6:11, Paul says, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.”

Can the Autographs Be Recovered?

I think it would be likely that a Pauline autograph would be readily recognized. Do you think we’ll actually find one? Well, I’m skeptical. Why? Because Paul didn’t write a letter, so far as we know, to the Christians at Oxyrhynchus. He didn’t write a letter to somebody who lived in an arid setting, where a letter written 2,000 years ago had a pretty good chance of surviving. He wrote his letters to Greece, to Asia Minor—at least one to Rome, in Italy—and those places get rainfall. Those places are not dry deserts. There’d be little chance for an original letter to be left in the city trash and then survive for 2,000 years.
No, I don’t think we’ll ever recover a Pauline autograph. But if by some fluky chance a NT autograph—especially if it’s a letter with a distinctive signature—should it turn up in the dry sands of Egypt, should it have gone to a place like that near the Dead Sea in Israel, for example, then at least theoretically I think it would be possible to find one and identify it.
Now, we have—I mentioned in the previous lecture—just to recap, we actually do have historical evidence, claims, that the autographs, some autographs of the NT, existed a long time. I remind you of Tertullian, writing about in the year 190 in a work called Prescription against Heretics. [In] chapter 36 he claimed that some of the autographs—and remember, in Latin, authenticæ—some of the autographs of Paul’s letters were still available for examination in order to refute heretics and others who had altered the text of Paul’s writings. Then a chap named Peter, bishop of Alexandria (he died, we think, around the year 311)—in his writings, of which only fragments survive—in fragment number five, he claims that the autograph of the Gospel of John was still available in his time, in Ephesus.
Even if this is incorrect and it was not the autograph, for him to say that would imply, I think, at the very least, that it was a very, very old copy, probably dating back to the early second century, which would lead some to think that it might have been the actual original that the apostle penned in the 90s. This is very important evidence, not only that there were multiple autographs, but [that] the autographs lasted a long time, and that they were passed on by scribes who were careful. We actually have numerous fragments of very early copies of Scripture, and we find that they were well done, well executed, and at the level that would be expected of any professional scribe.


Suggested Reading

Introduction to The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts TENTGM
Understanding Scribes and Scribal Practices LBD

See Also

The New Testament in Greek MTNT:IER
The Transmission of the New Testament HWGNT:TTT
Significant Uncial Manuscripts EM:INTPTC

Accessing and Navigating the Textual Apparatus

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Access a Greek NT apparatus
• Research variants within the apparatus

Summary of the Lecture

As Dr. Evans wraps up this course, he talks about several observations that are practical for the purpose of Bible reading and understanding. For example, he explains that the 27 books of the NT have textual attestation based on at least 54 autographa—and probably more, due to the circular nature of many of the epistles and the likelihood of scribal duplication.
The redundancy and resultant textual variations that he discusses are what form the textual tradition that we observe in extant manuscripts.
So what does this actually look like? Well, most of the major variations are clearly documented in the most popular versions of the Greek NT.
Prior to the advent of Logos, biblical researchers were tied to a rather laborious method of apparatus research. But I want to show you how easy this is to do within Logos.

Open the Greek New Testament, UBS4

First, let’s open up your Greek NT. So go to the Command bar and type in “Novum,” which is the first word of the Novum Testamentum Graece Greek NT. Then click on the auto-populated entry, “Open Novum …”
I’m going to look up Phil 3:21 in my NT. Then I want to open another resource. So I click the Command bar again and this time add the term “apparatus.” The first entry is the apparatus that corresponds to the Novum Testamentum, so I want to click on that: Novum Testamentum Graece: Apparatus Criticus. Now I’ll drag to open the apparatus to a new panel, so I can view the two side by side.
Print copies of the [Greek] NT, most notably the Nestle-Aland and UBS, featured the apparatus as an on-page section of information, located below the main text. More detailed apparatus information was sometimes contained in an extra volume, as was the case with the UBS. Within Logos, these resources are broken up into two separately accessible and indexed resources. Now we can see how easy it is to interact with them.
To make sure that we connect the two resources, click the icon in the upper left corner of the Greek text. Select Link set “A.” Do the same with the apparatus: Click the icon and choose Link set “A.” Now whatever passage we access in our Greek text will provide sympathetic location for the apparatus.

Analyzing the Apparatus

My Greek NT is turned to Phil 3:21, and I have the apparatus information opposite it. The notation in the apparatus demonstrates the manuscripts’—or textual—support for variant readings in this text.
The first variant reading listed is συνμορφον, contrasted with the prefix συμμ and its corresponding support. The support for each reading is listed. The helpful feature here is being able to see, at a glance, where the support occurs within each text. So let’s hover over that first notation, the Hebrew letter א. When we mouse over this symbol, we see the entry within Sinaiticus Petropolitanus. We can go through every element in the apparatus and examine additional information by simply hovering over the hyperlinks.
If you are doing any detailed study on a particular text, it’s important to first examine the textual tradition for any variant. A significant variant could open up a new area of research. The ability to dive into the textual tradition and interact with the cited support sources is an extremely timesaving feature.


The rubber-meets-the-road value of this course is that it bolsters our understanding of the validity of NT manuscripts. Having this information as background also supplements our exegetical spadework. Coupling our manuscript knowledge with the textual apparatus power of Logos makes the task even more rewarding.

The Preservation of the New Testament in Translations

Learning Objectives

After this section, you should be able to:

• Explain how early translations of and commentaries upon the NT demonstrate its reliability

Early Translations of the New Testament

Before concluding, we need to also know that the NT is preserved in a number of translations. Not only do we have 5,800 pre—Gutenberg Bible, pre—Gutenberg printing press, handwritten manuscripts in Greek, but you also have some 10,000 Latin translations that are early. We also have a number of translations in Syriac, Georgian, Coptic, and Ethiopic; in fact, another 10,000 or so of these manuscripts—when you add it all up, more than 25,000 old copies or originals of the NT.
In fact—one more point—even if all of the Greek NTS were lost, and all of these translations I just now mentioned somehow disappeared, we could reconstruct almost the entirety of the Greek NT from patristic quotations and commentary. In other words, the NT is the best-attested book by far from antiquity. Its text is stable. Its manuscripts are numerous and very old and very competently written.
We have every reason to have confidence that the modern Greek NT we have today, on which our modern translations are based, is very, very close to the originals, the autographs.


So allow me to conclude: The Bible manuscripts are early, they are numerous, and they’re available not just in Greek—the original language—but in several languages. The manuscripts are accurate. They reflect the work of competent scribes who collected and compared.
When we look at these manuscripts and compare them to other non-Christian manuscripts and traditions—well, maybe I should say there is no comparison. Of 20,000 lines of the Greek NT—according to Professor Bruce Metzger, long-time respected textual critic at Princeton Theological Seminary—of the 20,000 lines that make up the Greek NT, only 40 lines are in doubt, and not one of those lines contains anything that relates to important NT or important Christian teaching.
I conclude again by saying the NT is well preserved. The text is stable. The text of the NT reflects the original text, and therefore, when we read it and study it, we should have great confidence: This is indeed what Jesus originally taught, and what His disciples originally wrote.


Suggested Reading

Ancient Versions of the Bible LBD
Introduction to A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament TCGNTSE

See Also

Ancient New Testament Versions DNTB
The Translation of the New Testament HWGNT:TTT

Guides and Tools

Ancient Versions of the Bible Topic Guide

Final Exam

To take the Final Exam for this course please click here.

Evans, C. A. (2014). NT308 The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Who did not know?- Deeper insight into hebrew bible research- via LAD Rosary

How to Execute a Hebrew Lemma Phrase Search

Today’s blog is based on a question from a Logos user who is digging deep into the Hebrew text:

I am trying to find every instance in the  OT where the Hebrew words are in an exact sequence.  For instance, if I search in English for “who did not know” in the OT, I get two results. But are there other verses that have the same Hebrew words, but have been translated differently? For instance, in Exodus 1:8 “who did not know” is translated from “אֲשֶׁר לֹא ידע”. So, I would like to see if there are other verses that have these Hebrew words in this sequence,  but translated differently than in Exodus 1:8 and Judges 2:10.

Another excellent question from a serious Logos student. Even though there are several ways to accomplish the objective, I’ll provide you with a straightforward method that works both for the English and Hebrew students.

  • Open an English Bible containing the interlinear option such as the NASB (A)
  • Open the Lexham Hebrew Bible (LHB) (B)

  • Choose the panel menu one each Bible (C)
  • Select the same Link set letter such as A (D)

  • Click the Visual filters icon on each Bible (E)
  • Check the Corresponding selection box on each (F)

  • Select in the English Bible the phrase who did not know (NASB) (H)
  • Notice Logos “highlights” the corresponding Hebrew phrase in the LHB (I)

  • Select the “highlighted” Hebrew phrase in the LHB (J)

  • Right click on the selected Hebrew phrase in the LHB (K)
  • Select from the right side of the Context menu the Hebrew phrase at the top (L)
  • Select from the left side of the Context menu Search Morph: “the Hebrew words” (M)

  • Notice a Search panel opens with the Hebrew lemmas serving as the query for a proximity search (N)
  • Click Verses to view the results both in the Hebrew (O) and your desired English Bibles (P)

As you can see, by combining the Corresponding Selection Visual Filter with searching,  we’re able to execute original language searches even though we may be English students!

For more information about all Visual Filters and Searching check out the Logos Training Manuals Volumes 1-3 in print or digital.

Also, be sure to register for Camp Logos Inductive in Atlanta April 23-25 or join the training via a live streaming webinar!

And when you follow you’ll automatically receive a FREE digital download of Dr. Grant Osborne’s commentary Ephesians Verse by Verse.

***Open common source from LOGOS/Faithlife Google Blog- with kindly unspoken, but never denied permission by:

Morris Proctor
is a certified trainer for Logos Bible Software. Morris, who has trained thousands of Logos users at his two-day Camp Logos seminars, provides many training materials.

Genesis study guidse, part 1.2 – by Archbishop Dr. Uwe Rosenkranz

Genesis, creation of man, Michelangelo





Lesson 7


Jesus, the “Seed”
(Genesis 3:15)


In our lesson on Mary as “the woman” of Genesis 3:15, we observed something surprising begin to emerge. Studying the details of her life, we began to understand that the mother and son foretold in Genesis would not only appear someday to begin God’s victorious battle against the devil, but they would, in a mysterious way, undo what went wrong in Adam and Eve. This is even more glorious than what we might have expected. It satisfies the longing all of us develop as we read the first three chapters of Genesis. Saint Paul is the one who alerts us to this grand plan, in his references to Adam as “a type of the one to come.” The earliest Christians bear testimony in their writings that the Church continued to reflect on the relationship between “the woman” and her “seed” and a New Adam and New Eve. Already we have noted the comparison between Eve and Mary: Eve’s conversation with a fallen angel led to the loss of God’s likeness in human flesh; Mary’s conversation with an angel led to the Incarnation, God taking on human flesh.
Eve, left exposed by her husband, talked herself out of being embarrassingly gullible in believing God’s word about the forbidden fruit; Mary, full of grace through the work of her Son, chose God’s will for her life, knowing the potential for embarrassment over her unusual pregnancy.
Eve, having broken the covenant she and Adam had with God, heard God’s curse on her life, which would be pain in childbearing; Mary, having accepted God’s plan, heard a voice of blessing on her and her childbearing.
Eve, Adam’s helper, assisted him in entering the devil’s bondage; Mary, at the wedding in Cana, assisted Jesus in showing Himself to be the Messiah who had come to free Israel.
Eve became the mother of the dying; Mary, the mother of the living. Eve was expelled from Paradise; Mary appeared as the Queen of Heaven.
Now we will continue our examination of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Having recognized “the woman” in Mary, we will also see the “seed” in Jesus, her Son. We will want to watch the details of Jesus’ life to see why Saint Paul refers to Him as a second Adam. Was Adam’s life, without the fall into sin, recapitulated in Jesus?
There’s one more question we ought to ask ourselves. What does all this mean? If Jesus and Mary, in the details of the lives they lived, undid the wrong of Adam and Eve, what were the implications for humanity? Dare we let ourselves think that if we find within human history a New Adam and a New Eve, we might also find a new Garden of Eden, complete with beauty, goodness, and truth?
This lesson follows the format of the previous topical study.


“He Opened to Us the Scriptures”

Before we read God’s Word, we ought to take a moment to humble ourselves before Him, remembering that His Word is primarily a conversation with us, not a textbook. “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears” (1 Sam. 3:10) can be the prayer on our lips. In this lesson, because of the variety of texts, use the “Our Father,” the prayer that Jesus gave His disciples, to prepare you to hear what God has to say to you.


Now, ask for His help as you work on the questions below.



Jesus and the Devil
Read Mt. 4:1–11
Read Lk. 22:39–46
1. In an earlier lesson (lesson 3, question 6c.), we observed that the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempted the humans to cast off the mantle of creaturely dependence on God and to listen to the voice of pride and autonomy.
a. Read Matthew 4:1–11. Look carefully at how Satan tempted Jesus in the desert. How were those temptations similar to the one in the Garden?

b. How did Jesus counter them?

c. Read Luke 22:39–46. In this Gospel scene, which took place in another garden, Gethsemane, do you see any evidence of another kind of temptation?

2. See that Jesus’ sweat fell to the ground “like great drops of blood” in this scene. Remember the Garden and God’s punishment on Adam (see Gen. 3:19). What do you think is the significance of Jesus sweating in His own garden of temptation?


3. Read Hebrews 5:7–10. This text reveals how Jesus met His temptation in Gethsemane. What difference might this kind of reaction have made for Adam in his garden?


Jesus, the New Adam
It wasn’t just a coincidence that Jesus happened to be in a garden when He had to make His decision to choose God’s will over His own, no matter what the cost. This was the moment when Jesus completed His work as the New Adam. The first Adam was silent and passive in the face of temptation. Jesus, well aware of what it would cost Him to obey God, put the will of the Father first. The pride of the first Adam was replaced by the humility of the Second Adam. If Adam shrank from the danger in his garden, giving into disobedience, Jesus rose to the challenge of the danger in His garden, surrendering Himself freely to God’s plan. The undoing of the devil had begun. As the Catechism says, “The evangelists indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event: Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation.… In this, Jesus is the devil’s conqueror: he ‘binds the strong man,’ to take back his plunder [cf. Ps. 95:10; Mk. 3:27]. Jesus’ victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father” (no. 539).

“Here Is the Man!”
Read Jn. 19:1–11
4. Challenge question: See that Pilate declared to those seeking to kill Jesus, “Here is the man!” (v. 5). How was that announcement by Pilate an unwitting fulfillment of Genesis 1:26?


5. Read verses 10–11. What was the source of the courage Jesus showed here which Adam lacked in the Garden?


A Return to Paradise
In Luke 23:43, Jesus promised one of the criminals next to him on the Cross: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” As Tim Gray says in Mission of the Messiah:

The word ‘paradise’ is only used two other times in the New Testament. Paul uses it to describe heaven (2 Cor. 12:3), and it is used in Revelation to describe heaven as the new Garden of Eden that Jesus promises to those who persevere in faithfulness: “To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). Jesus completes on the Cross the return from the ultimate exile, the exile from the Father. With Jesus’ last breath on the Cross, the exile from Eden ends, and heaven is reopened to Adam and his descendants.

An Opened Side
Read Jn. 19:31–37
6. Look at verse 34. Recall that an opening in Adam’s side produced his bride, Eve. Then read the Catechism, no. 1225. What was the significance of blood and water flowing from a wound in Christ’s side?


Jesus, the Gardener
Read Jn. 20:11–18
7. Challenge question: We know that Jesus was buried in a garden (John 19:41). Thus, the Resurrection took place in a garden as well. Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus to be “the gardener” (20:15). What is the connection we can make between Jesus and Adam in this scene?


Suffering and Death
Read Heb. 2:5–18
8. Challenge question: Look at verses 9–10 carefully. The writer says that “it was fitting” that God made Jesus “perfect” through suffering. This does not mean that Jesus was imperfect. “To perfect,” in this context, means to advance to the final and complete fulfillment. Knowing what we know about life in (and out) of the Garden, why was it “fitting” for Jesus to suffer in order to reach His fulfillment as the “pioneer” of our salvation?


9. Challenge question: Look at verses 14–15. In Genesis 3:15, God said to the serpent, “he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heal.” According to these verses, Jesus delivered that bruise through His own human death. His death destroyed the devil, who “has the power of death.”
a. What do these verses suggest is the “power” the devil has in death?

b. Why would the death of Jesus have destroyed the devil’s power?*

A Surprising Solution
Read Jn. 3:1–15
10. In the Garden, we realized that Adam and Eve (and all their descendants) underwent a radical, systemic change in their human natures. In this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, what did Jesus present as the solution to this radical problem?


Eat and Live Forever
Read Jn. 6:47–59
11. Here is another occasion in which Jesus startled Jews with His teaching. Why was Jesus’ offering of Himself as food and drink for immortality a sign that Eden could be regained?


The Church, the Goal of Eden
The signs are everywhere in the New Testament that the Woman and her Seed—Jesus and Mary—preside over new life in a regained Paradise, which is the Church. The Church is the family of God, people who are born anew through faith and baptism into the life of supernatural grace that was lost in Eden. It was always God’s intention that men would have communion with His divine life. As Saint Clement of Alexandria tells us, “Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called ‘the Church.’ ” The plan of God has never been thwarted. The Catechism assures us that even the fall of angels and men was only permitted by God in order for Him to demonstrate more magnificently His love for us and His power to save us (no. 760). Evil never has and never will triumph over Eden.

12. Challenge question: The Garden of Eden was both a spiritual and physical reality. The same is true today. The Church exists spiritually, among God’s people, and it also exists in a physical way, when Christians gather together to give public demonstration of their faith in God and their desire to keep covenant with Him. They do this in churches.
Picture the inside of a traditional Catholic church. What are some of its features that evoke the Garden of Eden?


“Did Not Our Hearts Burn within Us?”

Our hearts will burn with joy when we consciously open them wide to God’s Word. Scripture memorization is a good way to get that started. Here is a suggested memory verse:

Father, if thou are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
—Lk. 22:42

Continue to welcome Him into your soul by reflecting on these questions:

In the Catechism, we read an amazing statement: “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of recapitulation. All Jesus did, said, and suffered had for its aim restoring fallen man to his original vocation” (no. 518). And also, “Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us” (no. 521). Think about your life as one who has been readmitted to the Garden of Eden. Is your love being tested? Do you hear a temptation to deny yourself nothing? What have you learned in this lesson about the power of Jesus’ life that can see you through every struggle this day will bring?


We understand from this lesson that Jesus defeated the devil by conquering death and the fear attached to it. If fear has a grip on you anywhere in your life, recognize it as a sham. Name that fear, and ask the New Adam to set you free.


“Stay with Us”

The Scriptures leave no doubt that all the stirrings of hope and anticipation we experienced in our study of the first chapters of Genesis, in spite of the tragedy of man’s fall from grace, were not without foundation. As the Gospel story unfolds, we have seen all the clues that Mary and her Son, Jesus, are the long-promised “woman” and her “seed” from Genesis 3:15. By their faithful obedience, not only do they bring ruin to the devil, but they also become the human faces and bodies of a New Adam and New Eve. God’s lost children, barred from the Tree of Life, have now received a way back into Eden. The Garden of the Church is a haven of safety in a hostile world. Although the children of the Church are still battered by an enemy, his time is short. In this Garden, the children enjoy the presence of the New Adam and New Eve and the community of love and holiness that was supposed to fill Eden. They eat freely of the Eucharist, the food that will give them eternal life. Theirs is a blessed, happy life.
The prayer that sustains these children in their life is the “Our Father.” Think for a moment about this prayer. Knowing what we know about everything that happened in the first Eden, what kind of prayer do you think men and women would pray if they were allowed back in? What would they have learned from the experiences of Adam and Eve? With their restored spiritual sight, what would they say to God in their profound gratitude for being restored to what was lost, entirely through His goodness and grace?
Surely, they would adore and honor Him. “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” They would recognize the need for obedience to His plan for creation, and that no other plan will do. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” They would know that God provides the food they need. They would have no need to lust after forbidden fruit. “Give us this day our daily bread.” They would be ready to confess their faults, which Adam and Eve tried to avoid. They would recognize the need to forgive others rather than laying blame. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” They would live in dependence on God, knowing that an enemy stalks them. Their lives would be lived in humility and faith, not pride and autonomy. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
The “Our Father” is the prayer of the New Eden. It says everything.


Lesson Summary
✓ The Gospel details of the life of Jesus lead to an inevitable comparison between Adam and Jesus. Not only was Jesus “the seed” of Genesis 3:15, who did battle with the devil, but He was also the Second Adam, undoing what went wrong in Eden:
• He chose to obey God in His garden of temptation, even though it meant terrible suffering and death.
• He cried out in faith to His Father instead of remaining silent in doubt, as Adam did.
• He began to take the curse of man’s sin onto Himself, with sweat and thorns.
• A wound in His side while He was on the Cross became a symbol of His Bride, the Church, just as from a wound in Adam’s side, God created Eve; the water of Baptism and blood of the Eucharist create a community of believers in union, body and soul, with Him.
• Jesus is the “gardener” of the New Eden; Mary, His Mother, is the first fruit of that Garden.
✓ In fulfillment of God’s promise in Genesis, “the seed” defeated God’s enemy, the devil, through a great reversal. Although His death on the Cross had the appearance of defeat, it was actually the beginning of victory. Because Jesus perfectly obeyed God, loving not His life to the end, God raised Him from the dead, breaking the bondage that comes through fear of death. The devil was left powerless in his battle with a human being (“he shall bruise your head”), just as God promised.
✓ The death and Resurrection of Jesus in a garden is meant to help us understand that He has made it possible for men to return to Eden. He took upon Himself the punishment of God on man’s rebellion. The innocent suffered for the guilty. As a result, the guilty can be washed clean in the water of Baptism and receive the new life of a second birth through the Holy Spirit. They can once again live as God’s blessed family.
✓ Jesus offered Himself as food for those who desire to live forever. In the Eucharist, men will enjoy “the medicine of immortality,” just as they would have in Eden, eating from the Tree of Life.
✓ The Church, the New Eden, is the family of God, which is primarily a spiritual reality. But Catholic life in its physical expression, especially in churches, evokes many features of the original Garden. This preserves what God intended for man from the very beginning. It is a life that is very good.
For responses to Lesson 7 Questions, see pp. 127–32.






Lesson 8


Life Outside of Eden
(Genesis 4–5)


It is time now to return to the story of Genesis. We have been fortified by our knowledge of what the New Testament reveals as the fulfillment of the promise of God in Genesis 3:15. We have allowed ourselves to peek ahead to see if the hope of a restoration and return to Eden, which we felt so strongly when Adam and Eve were expelled, could be possible. Now the challenge for us is to continue our study of Genesis as if we do not know what lies ahead. This will take some discipline, of course, but our study will be better for it.
We are now ready to see what happened to Adam and Eve once they left the sanctuary of Eden. Remember that when they left Paradise, even though they had lost their supernatural grace, and were consequently subject to sin, suffering, and death, they also left with concrete reasons for hope (read about these again, by way of review, in lesson 5, response 10). We ought to be full of questions about their new lives outside the Garden. What kind of relationship will the “dis-graced” humans have with God? What will they pass along to their offspring? What kind of civilization will develop from these people?


“He Opened to Us the Scriptures”

Before we read God’s Word, we ought to take a moment to humble ourselves before Him, remembering that His Word is primarily a conversation with us, not a textbook. “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears” (1 Sam. 3:10) can be the prayer on our lips. Then, read all the way through Genesis 4 and 5. Think about what you understand and what you don’t understand. Make a simple response to God in terms of what you do understand. Write your prayer in this space:


Now, ask for His help as you work on the questions below.
(Prayer hint: “Lord, please grant that I will always accept Your invitation to ‘do well’ rather than evil.”)



Firstfruits of the Fall
Read Gen. 4:1–7
1. Look at Eve’s comment after the birth of Cain (v. 1). She recognized that this son was a gift from God. Why was Eve’s statement a hopeful sign in this new life outside Eden?


The Offerings of Cain and Abel
It is interesting to see that the sons of Adam and Eve both understood that offerings to God were necessary. Where would they have gotten that idea? Undoubtedly they had learned it from their parents. We can assume that Adam and Eve told their children everything that had happened to them in the Garden. They would have explained how they had disobeyed God and paid dearly for it. They would also have been able to testify to God’s continued love and kindness for them, especially in the promise of defeat of God’s enemy. The first knowledge that Cain and Abel had of God would have come to them through their parents.
The details about God and His creation that Adam and Eve passed on to their children would have been their offspring’s first encounter with grace. Because of original sin, men, outside of Eden, would know that a Creator existed and that He was entitled to their reverence, but they would be dependent on additional information to know more than that. The story of Eden, with details of God’s nature revealed in His actions both before and after the Fall of man, would have provided that extra knowledge. The creation story was a source of grace to Cain and Abel. It gave them what they couldn’t have gotten for themselves. How did they respond to it?
Abel’s response to the God of his parents was wholehearted and generous, which pleased the Lord (Heb. 11:4). He gave the best of the best; he must have believed that God was worthy of it. Cain, on the other hand, did not please the Lord, and his offering was not acceptable. It is important to see that “for Cain and his offering,” God had “no regard” (Gen. 4:5). It was not simply that Cain had made the wrong offering. There was something in Cain himself that the Lord found displeasing. What could that have been? We don’t know for sure, but perhaps Cain had made the offering perfunctorily, without generosity or gratitude. Perhaps he had offered the leftovers and not the “first” portion of his crop. God knew that Cain’s offering reflected his heart. He knew that Cain was capable of something better, something more appropriate for creatures who are made in God’s image. So, He rejected the lesser, in hopes for something better.
These two men give us the two responses possible to God’s grace in the world. One response to the fact of God’s existence is humble generosity of heart. The other response is proud resistance. Thus begins the story of life outside of Eden.

2. Cain was very angry over God’s response to him and to his offering. What does this suggest to you about the kind of man Cain was?


3. God gave Cain the opportunity to worship Him in the right way, which opened wide the door to forgiveness and restoration (v. 7). It was a lavish offer of grace.
a. If Cain refused God’s offer and did not “do well,” what problem did God tell him he would face?

b. Challenge question: God’s warning to Cain about not doing well (doing evil) suggests that sin has two consequences, not just one. Read Romans 6:16. What does Saint Paul say is the second consequence of sin (one that happens in addition to the first consequence, which is broken communion with God)? (Read also Catechism, no. 1472.)

4. Cain and Abel were born to the same parents and presumably had the same upbringing. What do you suppose explains the difference between them?


Cain Is Cursed
Read Gen. 4:8–16
5. See the details of Abel’s murder in verse 8. What more do we understand from these details about the kind of man Cain was?


6. Surely God knew where Abel was; why do you think He asked Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” (v. 9).


7. Read Cain’s answer to God’s question in verse 9. What becomes increasingly clear about the man Cain?


The Blood of Abel
In verse 10, the word “blood” is mentioned for the first time in Scripture. Abel’s blood cried out to the Lord. It seemed alive. Although Abel had been murdered, somehow his life had not been completely snuffed out. Throughout the rest of Scripture, blood will have potent meaning for man’s life, both natural and supernatural. It will come to represent the life of man, and, liturgically, the means of atonement for man’s sin. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; … it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life” (Lev. 17:11). At the Last Supper, Christ said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20). In the Book of Revelation, the final victory over the devil was won “by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11). Thus, we have a consistent witness to the vitality of blood in Scripture, beginning with Abel’s blood crying out from the ground.
What do we think Abel’s blood said when it cried out to the Lord? Sometimes we think that Abel’s blood must have been crying out for justice, which is a reasonable deduction. Yet, because Abel was a righteous man who had faith in God, is it possible that he was crying out for mercy for his brother? In Hebrews 12:24, there is a reference to the blood of Abel, comparing it to the blood of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says that the blood of the New Covenant speaks “more graciously” than the blood of Abel. The possible implication is that Abel’s blood spoke graciously—that is, it gave more than what was deserved. If Abel’s blood spoke graciously, then it must have been asking God to show mercy to his murderer, Cain. The blood of Jesus, who also begged forgiveness for murderers, speaks “more graciously” because He was a willing victim of murder, whereas Abel was an unwilling victim. He had been accosted and killed, without any opportunity to choose life or death.
This is an idea worth pondering. If Cain and Abel represent fallen mankind, making their way through life outside of Eden, their story suggests that among the descendants of Adam and Eve, throughout all the ages of human history, there will be some who respond to God and others who will not. Those whose lives are touched by God are willing to offer their suffering to obtain mercy for those who harden themselves. Think of Jesus on the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:43).

8. Look at Cain’s response to the punishment God gave him.
a. What was completely lacking in Cain’s response to God?

b. What was his primary concern?

We Reap What We Sow
Cain is an example of the moral axiom that will appear over and over in Scripture—we reap what we sow. Adam and Eve wanted autonomy from God, and that’s exactly what they got, even to the point of being expelled from Eden. Cain’s original problem with God was that he was unwilling to give Him the best of himself or his harvest. God’s punishment was that Cain would experience from the earth exactly the treatment he had given God; the ground would be hard and unyielding, just as Cain had been in the offer of grace God extended to him. In addition, his desire to be autonomous and not responsible for his brother would have its fulfillment in his life as a “fugitive and a wanderer on earth” (v. 14). His covenant-breaking act would result in him being away from his home and family, God’s covenant-keeping community.
Cain’s punishment suggests that the worst that can happen to us in life, when we are in rebellion against God, is for Him to give us what we want. If we insist on having life on our own terms, God will give it to us. We will make our own misery.

9. Why do you think God marked Cain so no one would kill him?


10. After the Fall in Eden, we saw signs of God’s continued tender care of His creatures. During this second episode of human rebellion, do you see similar signs of God’s love for humans?


Two Cultures Develop
Read Gen. 4:17–26
11. Cain departed from the presence of the Lord and began a family.* Among his descendants, seventh in line from Adam through Cain, was Lamech.
a. What type of man does Lamech appear to have been?

b. What does this suggest about the kind of civilization that developed among people who lived “away from the presence of the LORD”? (v. 16).

12. What was different about the line of descendants of Adam through Seth (v. 26)?


Summary of Genesis 5
The next chapter in Genesis begins with a genealogy of Adam through Seth, the son God gave him to replace the slain Abel. In the first verses, however, there is a beautiful recapitulation of the creation of man, male and female, in the likeness of God (vv. 1–2). The text tells us that Adam “became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (v. 3). Adam was like God, Adam’s son was like his father, and thus Adam passed along to all his human descendants the imprint of divine likeness.
The genealogy of Adam through Seth produced many people, who lived many years. One of the most interesting of his descendants was a man named Enoch, who was seventh in line from Adam through Seth. “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (v. 24). If we look back through Adam’s descendants through Cain, we discover that the seventh in that line was Lamech, a proudly violent man, as we have seen. What a contrast in Enoch! He is the first man described as a “prophet” in Scripture (Jude 14–15; cf. Heb. 11:5–6). The difference between Lamech and Enoch helps us understand the difference between the two families of humans who developed through Adam and Eve, typified first by Cain and Abel. There are those who live “away from the presence of the LORD” (4:16), and their lives bear the fruit of that separation, tending towards pride and violence. There are those who “call upon the name of the LORD” (4:26) and respond generously to Him; their lives, too, bear the fruit of that choice.
Enoch is the first biblical example of what we call a “saint”—a human being in whom God does an extraordinary work of His grace. Apparently, he is also the first human to be taken up into heaven (Gen. 5:24; Heb. 11:5). Elijah, the prophet, was another taken that way (2 Kings 2:11), as was the Blessed Virgin Mary. This reference to Enoch, so early in the Scripture, begins the long and wonderful line of humans who walked in the friendship of God.
Genesis 5 also includes the account of another man named Lamech; he was a descendant of Seth. He had a son and “called his name Noah, saying ‘Out of the ground which the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands’ ” (v. 29). Lamech’s simple statement of hope for his son Noah gave voice to the expectation of the humble human descendants of Adam through Seth that, someday, a male child would grow up to deliver relief from God’s curse on sin. Lamech acknowledged the authority of the Lord and did not chafe against the curse. He was not complaining. He was only looking for deliverance. Lamech’s hope showed that he was living out God’s plan for humanity in the right way; he had a realistic understanding of man’s basic predicament, and he clung to exactly the kind of hope that the promise of God in Genesis 3:15 was meant to produce. What a beautiful thing to see!


“Did Not Our Hearts Burn within Us?”

Our hearts will burn with joy when we consciously open them wide to God’s Word. Scripture memorization is a good way to get that started. Here is a suggested memory verse:

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.
—Gen. 4:7

Continue to welcome Him into your soul by reflecting on these questions:

In her teachings about sin, the Catholic Church preserves the very serious warning that God gave Cain (Gen. 4:7) and that Saint Paul wrote to the Romans that sin is a form of slavery (6:16). Each time we decide to do the wrong thing, we make it easier for ourselves to do wrong the next time we are tempted. Think about the little sins in your life that you have grown accustomed to. Take seriously God’s challenge to Cain, and resolve to turn away from them. Even small sins form calluses on our souls. Ask God to help you find and rid yourself of them.


When you give to God, whether it is time or money, service, attention, or anything else, do you give your best or your leftovers? Consider in your heart what has been given you and what you should return out of thanks to God.


“Stay with Us”

This first lesson on life outside of Eden packs quite a punch. So much of what has characterized human life through all the centuries of our history appears in embryonic form in Genesis 4 and 5. First, there was a mother’s announcement of the birth of her son (4:1), a gift from the Lord. The icon of Mother and Son began to take shape. We saw men worshipping God with offerings and that their offerings represented what was in their hearts towards God. Cain and Abel showed us the two kinds of responses that men can have towards their Creator—humility or pride. There was the clear, loving choice God gave to man to choose to live righteously, even after failure. There was the sober warning that sin begets sin and that resisting it means a battle. Cain became a living example of how sins like jealousy and hatred, if not mortified, give birth to betrayal, lying, and murder. Those sins harden the soul, leaving it callous and impervious to God’s approach. We saw that physical death didn’t mean the end of a life; Abel was still able to “speak” through his blood. Perhaps his voice was one that cried out for mercy for his brother, true evidence of the righteousness that characterized his life, which had so enraged his brother. We observed God as the loving Father who sought explanations, who punished in order to reform, and who held open the possibility of reconciliation. We recognized the disastrous consequences for human life and development when men live away from the presence of the Lord. We were cheered by the evidence that the descendants of Adam and Eve were still loved deeply by God and that they could, in spite of everything, walk in friendship with Him.
The final scene from Genesis 5, in which Lamech expressed hope for his son Noah, prints indelibly in our minds a conviction that all who love God have shared through the ages. Even among men who acknowledge God—calling upon His Name and responding to His grace, sometimes heroically—there is still the clear understanding that deliverance from God’s curse is necessary, that things are not as they should be, either in the earth or in the heart of man. They wait patiently for God to act within human history. Lamech focused that hope on the birth of his son. Thus, the lesson began and ended with a human baby. These chapters perfectly set the stage for the rest of the story of redemption. What we see in outline form here will grow in detail and drama as we wait to see what God has planned for the creation He loves.


Lesson Summary
✓ From the very start, the discord Adam and Eve’s sin brought to the world was evident in their children. The internal conflict that would reign between will and emotion was dramatized in the conflict between Cain and Abel: Abel gave God his best while Cain gave only the minimum. Abel’s sacrifice pleased God because it reflected a heart of gratitude for God’s provision and a desire to please Him. In contrast, the Lord had no regard for Cain’s offering because it reflected his heart’s desire to keep the best for himself.
✓ Cain’s jealousy and anger were apparent to God, who extended an offer to him to set everything right by choosing to live righteously. God warned him that to capitulate to the rage he felt inside would make him subject to sin, like a slave to a master.
✓ Cain chose his way rather than God’s. He murdered his brother. God approached him, extending grace to him by calling him to be accountable for his actions. That would have been the first step to forgiveness and restoration. Cain’s heart hardened, however. The trap that sin had laid for him snapped shut.
✓ God punished Cain, allowing him to experience in his own life the effects of the choices he had made. His life would be preserved by God, however, perhaps to make reconciliation possible.
✓ Cain left the covenant, which made him a fugitive and wanderer. The civilization that grew from him bore the continuing marks of pride and violence. His descendants became a living picture of human development apart from a humble acknowledgement of God.
✓ Seth, the son born to Adam and Eve to replace Abel, was a man who called on the name of the Lord. Among his descendants, were men like Enoch and Lamech who lived in friendship with God and who patiently waited for deliverance from the curse that rested on man’s life because of disobedience.
✓ Noah, whose name means “rest,” was a descendant of Seth’s. He was so named by his father in the hope that he would be a deliverer of God’s people.
For responses to Lesson 8 Questions, see pp. 132–35.






Lesson 9


Noah and the Flood
(Genesis 6–8)


Whenever genealogies appear in Scripture, as they did for the first time in our last lesson, they are meant to signify the passing of time and the unfolding of human history. The story of man, begun in the first chapters of Genesis, is now going to proceed in a way that will spread out in many directions. What was it like when the family of man began to fill the earth? We know from the account of Cain and Abel that the human story is going to be marked by violence and tragedy, as well as by faith and hope. These two men are examples of how differently each of the descendants of Adam and Eve will respond to God. Abel loved God; Cain loved himself. Cain murdered his brother, an act that was the fruition of his rebellion against God. His hard, unyielding heart, revealed first in his inadequate offering to God, eventually turned against his brother. His departure from the presence of the Lord meant that his descendants would live and develop away from the light of the truth and the covenant God had made with Adam and Eve. Among Cain’s descendants, we noted, was arrogance and violence.
Seth, however, was a son given to Eve to replace the murdered Abel. He was a man who called on the Lord’s name, a covenant-keeping man. His descendants showed faithful obedience and friendship with God.
We discovered in Genesis 5 that men were waiting for a deliverer. Even in this ancient era in the story of man, a picture begins to take shape of men who know that they are justly under sin’s curse and who are waiting for a male offspring to make some kind of difference for them. Remember Lamech naming his son “Noah,” a name that means “rest.”
In this lesson, we will watch the further development of man’s history, formed out of the two lines of descendants from Cain and Seth. How will the violence and pride of Cain’s line coexist with the covenant-keeping of Seth’s line? Why does God send such a devastating flood upon the earth? God has shown Himself to be remarkably patient and unconquerably loving to His human creatures. Will this continue?*


“He Opened to Us the Scriptures”

Before we read God’s Word, we ought to take a moment to humble ourselves before Him, remembering that His Word is primarily a conversation with us, not a tex