Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 44:6-8 is a short, defensible unit, marked off from the unit that follows (verses 9-20) which shifts to prose in the NRSV (contrast NIV and TNK),

July 17, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 44:6-8

Isaiah 44:6-8 is a short, defensible unit, marked off from the unit that follows (verses 9-20) which shifts to prose in the NRSV (contrast NIV and TNK),

but most commentators consider verses 6-8 to belong to a larger unit, whether that includes preceding verses, verses that follow (e.g., verses 21-22), or even both.  So, if this short unit is adopted as the preached text, preachers may need to expand their view and consider a wider selection of verses.  This is not to say there is not enough here to preach on its own–there certainly is!–but preachers will have to linger over the words and, in so doing, teach their congregations to do the same.

Verse 6 begins with a typical prophetic introduction: “Thus says the LORD,” but this common form is immediately modified.  The Lord is “the King of Israel…his Redeemer, the LORD of Hosts” (NRSV).  In poetry, no less than in other literature and in truth probably more so than in other literature, every word is present for a reason, and so each of these three “qualifications” (a double entendre!) of the Lord is weighty and deserves consideration. 

The king language is obviously royal and evokes the Lord’s sole sovereignty in matters official and political.  Nowadays, the redeemer language is full of spiritual significance (redeeming from sin), but the political and economic roots of redemption ought to not be overlooked (consider, for example, the redemption language in Leviticus 27 and Ruth).  Finally, “the LORD of hosts” has both military (troops, armies) and creational (the heavenly hosts: stars, the divine entourage, etc.) overtones.

This impressive (and allusive) rounding out of a standard introductory speech formula leads directly and naturally into what follows:

I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god (verse 6b; NRSV).

This, along with some other statements in this section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55, frequently called Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah–a term also used for the prophet responsible for this material) are often said to be the fullest if not the earliest articulations of full-blown theoretical monotheism in the Old Testament.  “Theoretical monotheism” is what most people mean by the term “monotheism”–namely, the (abstract, philosophical, theological) belief that only one God exists. 

“Ethical monotheism,” on the other hand, is used to describe someone who is monotheistic in practice (that is, they only worship one deity).  Such a person may think other gods exist, but he or she doesn’t worship them.  Other terms that are used for this include “monolatry” (worship of only one) and “henotheism” (one deity out of many possible ones). 

Many scholars believe that Israel (at its best) was monolatrous or henotheistic or ethically monotheistic, but not theoretically monotheistic–not in the early days at any rate.  And it is often the case that scholars attribute the emergence of full blown theoretical monotheism to the later periods, especially the Babylonian exile and beyond, precisely on the basis of texts like this one found in Second Isaiah–a unit that it typically attributed to the exilic period. 

If this reasoning sounds a bit circular, it’s probably because it is.  It is certainly possible that theoretical monotheism antedates the exilic period (a form of it seems to have been known in Egypt in the 14th century during the reign of king Akhenaten and his worship of the sun-disk Aten) and even after the exilic period some Jews struggled with syncretism (note the 5th century archive from Elephantine). 

So it is unlikely that Second Isaiah created theoretical monotheism out of thin air, and it is equally unlikely that his statements, even if they reflect theoretical monotheism (this, too, could be debated), settled the matter in some sort of final or decisive fashion.  One might even argue that the only monotheism that ultimately matters is of the ethical variety (cf. the first commandment which does not say there are no other gods, but only that Israel must not have any other gods before the Lord). 

If this somehow sounds less-than-Christian or pre-Christian, it is only because we haven’t looked hard in the mirror lately.  As Luther saw clearly–and Jesus before him!–the first commandment is the most important one; everything stands or falls with it. 

More recently, in his book on the Creed, Nicholas Lash has written that

“all human beings have their hearts set somewhere — if only on themselves.  For most of us, there is probably no single creature that is the object of our faith.  Most of us, in other words, are polytheists.”1

Ethically, Lash lashes, even Christians are polytheists.  And the proof is in the pudding, isn’t it?  If one is not ethically monotheistic, what does one’s theoretical monotheism mean?  Very little indeed.

All this is to say that maybe Isaiah 44:6 reflects theoretical monotheism, maybe it doesn’t.  It probably doesn’t matter much either way.  Earlier, in fact, in Isaiah 41:21-24, God actually questions the other gods, which seems to score low on the theoretical monotheism standardized test.2 

What matters, again, is the ethics–always the ethics!–and this in two ways. Not only will Israel worship only (the) one God (the human ethics), but also what do/does the gods/God do (the divine ethics)?  In Isaiah 41:24 the Lord declares concerning the other gods: “You, indeed, are nothing and your work is nothing at all.”  In chapter 44, the absurdity of idol worship is underscored in the parody of idol-making that follows 44:6-8 hard and fast in verses 9-20.  In contrast, Isaiah 40-55 is filled with praise for the God who creates, makes, and acts (see, e.g., Isaiah 40:10-26; 43:1-7; 44:2-3)–indeed, who does “all these things,” even if we don’t like the sound of all those things (see 45:7)! (Again, theoretical monotheism may not be all it’s cracked up to be.)

So, coming back to the unit at hand, we hear once again (cf. 40:18, 25) that the Lord is incomparable by means of a question from God’s own lips: “Who is like me?” (44:7). The Lord awaits an answer from someone, somewhere: maybe from the silenced gods who are nothing (at least by comparison), or, more likely, from Israel. 

The next part of verse 7 is difficult, however, and many translations/commentators find the Hebrew nonsensical and so resort to corrections of one sort or another (cf. the different versions in NRSV, NIV, TNK).  Whatever the final decision or translation that is adopted, the sentiment seems similar to verse 6b.  There is no other god–no other comparable–who can do what the Lord can do: in verse 7 such doing includes calling, proclaiming, declaring, announcing from of old things yet to come and things yet to be (so NRSV).  God does precisely that for Israel (verse 8b)–that is why they are God’s witnesses (verse 8c) and that is why they shouldn’t fear or be afraid (verse 8a). 

And so we end where we began, with another question from God about the gods:

“Is there any god besides me?” (verse 8d).

And again the Lord answers the rhetorical (in the most persuasive sense of that word) question for Israel, before Israel has to:

“There is no other rock; I know not one” (verse 8e).

“Rock” is a divine metaphor, used in Deuteronomy 32 to define the Lord (32:4, 18, 31) as well as other gods (32:31).  Among other things, it seems to connote stability, security, safety.  In Deuteronomy, the divine rocks are incomparable (32:31); in Isaiah, there is only one such stable, secure, safe deity. 

And this stable, secure, safe deity testifies directly and personally that there are no other rocks around.  Precisely here, then, the divine ethical monotheism–the fact that this God can be relied upon3–motivates the human ethical monotheism–worshipping and serving as witnesses of the One and Only Rock.  So, here, we get the best, and most practical, of both worlds!

1Nicholas Lash, Believing Three Ways in One God: A Reading of the Apostles’ Creed (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 21.
2Cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 50-66: A Commentary (trans. D. M. G. Stalker; Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969 [German orig.: 1966]), 140: “They must therefore be present, there must be such gods, even in the mind of Deutero-Isaiah–such is our conclusion….The words, ‘and beside me there is no god’, constitute a claim, not a statement of fact.”
3Cf. Westermann, Isaiah 40-55, 141: “deity or divinity is proved according as, over a long period of time, the god concerned guides a community’s history by means of proclamations whose fulfillment allows the community to know that this god can be relied on to guide.”