Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-9
Isaiah 55 appears at the end of the so-called “Book of Comfort” (Isaiah 40-55), which is believed to be addressed to the exiles who were returning from Babylon.1
It appears that Isaiah 40-48 is addressed to them in Babylon, whereas chapters 49-55 may have been composed back in Jerusalem, against the background of the early Restoration period.
The opening verses, with their appeal to those who do not have money to buy bread and the basic needs of life, would probably have been quite relevant to those who returned to the land of Judah after 536 BCE. Despite the allowance of Cyrus and the Persian Empire for them to return, it was not a prosperous time. The city had not been rebuilt since its destruction by the Babylonians fifty years earlier, social and economic structures were weak, and there were struggles for the most desirable land between the returnees and those who had been in the land in the meantime. Later, in the fifth century, Nehemiah would report that common farming families were having to borrow money and grain to pay their taxes, and even selling their children into debt slavery (Nehemiah 5:1-12). If this in some way reflects sixth-century conditions earlier as well, then the invitation to eat and drink without paying would have been both gracious and exceedingly welcome.
It is still the case today that help given without expectation of reward is viewed as more virtuous, and even Cyrus answers to this standard in Isaiah 45:13, in which the Lord says that the Persian emperor will “build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward.”
The exhortations to listen (Isaiah 55:3), to seek the Lord (verse 6), and to choose between wickedness and the way of the Lord (verse 7) all show the passage’s connections with wisdom traditions. The invitation issued by Isaiah 55 is similar to that of Woman Wisdom to her table: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:5-6). These passages emphasize the choices a person faces in the course of a life, and they portray the divine summons as working through appeal and persuasion rather than command.
The allusion to the “eternal covenant” opens out onto a rich intertextual panorama. The same phrase is used for the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:16, and it is common found in priestly texts (for example: Genesis 17:7, 13, 19; Leviticus 24:8; Exodus 31:16; Ezekiel 16:60; 37:26). However, the phrase also occurs in Psalm 105:8-11 (and its parallel in 1 Chronicles 16:17) where it refers to the Abrahamic covenant. In addition, the “eternal covenant” appears in 2 Samuel 23:5 referring to the Davidic covenant, and in Jeremiah 32:40; 50:5 referring to Jeremiah’s new covenant (compare to Jeremiah 31:31-33). The “eternal covenant” was thus a longstanding and adaptable tradition, but the idea that the people were people bound to the Lord forever would have been more remarkable than ever in light of the trauma that the people had been through. That such a faith survived the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is one of the wonders of religious history.
The Davidic figure envisioned in Isaiah 55:3-4 is supposed to be not only a leader and commander, but also “a witness to the peoples.” That phrase evokes the “Servant songs” of Second Isaiah — especially Isaiah 42:1-7 and Isaiah 49:1-6, where the servant is called “a light to the nations.” (The songs describe a figure who is meant to restore the people, though their complexities have meant that the historical identification of the Servant has been essentially impossible.) In Isaiah 55:5, the leader is said to “call nations that you do not know,” so that “nations that do not know you shall run to you.”
The question of the nations’ significance and role was a major one for the authors of the later parts of the book of Isaiah — understandable for people who had found themselves and their kinsmen scattered more widely than ever before and swept along with the currents of international history. Images of the nations streaming to the Lord in Zion are common (Isaiah 49:22-23; 60:1-16) are common, though this was not to be taken as an entirely gracious invitation. Rather, the nations are called to submit; they stand under the judgment, and possibly the wrath, of the Lord (Isaiah 45:22-24; 52:10-12).
Another important theme introduced by Isaiah 55:5 is the question of who has knowledge. In point of fact, one could preach an entire sermon series on the use of the verb “to know” in the book of Isaiah. Its significance is signaled from the outset, in Isaiah 1:3 — “Israel does not know!” — and it recurs 76 times in the book as a whole. Those who oppose and ignore the Lord — from foreign nations to the people of Israel and Judah — are repeatedly inveighed against. The question is repeatedly posed to every reader and hearer: “Have you not known?” (Isaiah 40:21, 28). The Lord, however, needs no teacher of knowledge (Isaiah 40:13-14); God alone knows all things from beginning to end (Isaiah 41:20-26; 48:6-8). As in Isaiah 55:5, the Lord may be gracious to those who do not know, as he is to Cyrus (Isaiah 45:3-5), but even here the goal of God’s grace and mission is so that the world may know (Isaiah 45:6; 49:23; 52:6; 60:16; 61:9; 64:2[ET]; 66:14). This is only a partial sketch of a pervasive theme.
Related to the theme of knowledge is the divine plan, manifested in Isaiah 55:11 in the creative power of the word of God: “it shall accomplish that which I purpose.” The Hebrew verb translated as “purpose” can also mean “to will,” “to want,” and “to take pleasure in.” When the church prays, “Thy will be done,” we are simply joining their own will to the divine will that Isaiah repeatedly says must be done. Perhaps the most striking example is Isaiah 46:9-10:
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My purpose shall stand,
and I will fulfill my intention.’
Concepts of monotheism, divine knowledge, and predestination are intertwined in that statement, and theologians ever since have wrestled with the same complex of ideas: If God is the only god, how could anything subvert God’s will? How could God know everything unless God also foreordained it?
It is not necessary to abstract doctrines of divine omniscience and omnipotence from passages like these, but they are understandable conclusions. It is important, then, to note that they are invoked by the Isaianic author in the interest of comforting the people: “let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). Since these same theological perspectives were emphasized especially by John Calvin as the doctrine of “double predestination” (for example, predestination of some to salvation and others to damnation), their negative ramifications have been so frequently remarked upon as to be a cliché: “What sort of cruel God would condemn people to eternal damnation before they were ever born?”
That does not seem to have been the intended meaning either for Calvin or for the author(s) of Isaiah. Both of them emphasized the gap in knowledge and perception between God and humankind. In Isaiah 55:8-9, the thoughts and ways of the Lord are placed on an entirely different level from those of humans; they differ not in degree but in kind. One might compare Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12: “we know only in part… For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Thus, if some are damned, then God foreknew their fate — but humans do not and cannot know, and so are called to hope for everyone. Calvin wrote: “Ignorance of things which we are not able, or which it is not lawful to know, is learning, while the desire to know them is a species of madness. … [B]ecause we know not who belongs to the number of the predestinated, or does not belong, our desire ought to be that all may be saved” (Institutes 3.23.8, 14).
1 Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 17, 2017.
March 24, 2019