The Fourth Servant Song   Leave a comment

Above:  Icon of the Crucifixion

Image in the Public Domain

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READING SECOND ISAIAH, PART IX

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Isaiah 52:13-53:12

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The Book of Common Prayer (1979) lists the Fourth Servant Song as one of three options for the reading from the Old Testament on Good Friday.  Another option is Genesis 22:1-18.  My thoughts on Abraham nearly killing his son, Isaac, are on record at this weblog.  The other option is the Wisdom of Solomon 2:1, 12-24, in which the wicked reject justice.  That reading fits Good Friday perfectly, for, as the Gospel of Luke emphasizes, the crucifixion of Jesus was a perversion of justice.  One may recall that, in the Gospel of Luke, for example, the centurion at the foot of the cross declares Jesus innocent (23:47), not the Son of God (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39).  As I will demonstrate in this post, the applicability of the Fourth Servant Song to Good Friday works thematically, too, but interpretive issues that have nothing to do with Jesus also interest me.

In the original context, the servant in Isaiah 53:13-53:12 is the covenant people during the Babylonian Exile.  The dominant theology in Second Isaiah (chapters 34-35, 40-55) is that the Babylonian Exile was justified yet excessive (40:2; 47:6)–that people had earned that exile.  The theology of Second Isaiah also argues that this suffering was vicarious, on behalf of Gentile nations in the (known) world.  In other words:

Yet the Israelites are still the focus in that these verses offer them a revolutionary theology that explains the hardships of exile:  The people had to endure the exile and the suffering it engendered because that suffering was done in service to God so that God, through their atoning sacrifice, could redeem the nations.

–Susan Ackerman, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003), 1031

Much of the Hebrew Bible, in its final, postexilic form, holds that the Babylonian Exile was divine punishment for persistent, collective, and unrepentant disregard for the moral mandates in the Law of Moses.  This attitude is ubiquitous in the Hebrew prophetic tradition.  I know, for I am working on a project of reading the Hebrew prophetic books, roughly in historical order (with some exceptions), starting with the Book of Hosea.

Yet Isaiah 53:7-9 contradicts that interpretation.  It rejects even 40:1-3 and 47:6, from within Second Isaiah.  Isaiah 53:7-9, not about Jesus, argues that the Babylonian Exile and its accompanying suffering was unjust and the people were innocent.  The thematic link to the atoning suffering of sinless Jesus is plain to see.

Let us not neglect the theme of the vicarious suffering of the Hebrews in the Babylonian Exile, though.  I can read; the text says that, through the suffering of these exiles, Gentile nations would receive divine forgiveness and the Hebrews would receive a reward–renewal.  I try to wrap my mind around this theology, yet do not know what to make of it.  I wrestle with this theology.

Atonement via vicarious suffering is a topic about which I have written at this weblog.  Reading in the history of Christian theology tells me that three theories of the atonement exist in the writings of Church Fathers.  These theories are, in no particular order:

  1. Penal Substitutionary Atonement,
  2. The Incarnation, and
  3. The Conquest of Satan (the Classic Theory, or Christus Victor).

I come closest to accepting the Classic Theory.  It has the virtue of emphasizing that the resurrection completed the atonement.  In other words, dead Jesus cannot atone for anything; do not stop at Good Friday.  I like the Eastern Orthodox tradition of telling jokes on Easter because the resurrection of Jesus was the best joke God ever pulled on Satan.  The second option strikes me as being part of the atonement, and the first option is barbaric.  I stand with those Christian theologians who favor a generalized atonement.

Whether the question is about the atoning, vicarious suffering of Jewish exiles or about the atoning, vicarious suffering of Jesus, perhaps the best strategy is to accept it, thank God, and live faithfully.  The Eastern Orthodox are correct; we Western Christians frequently try to explain too much we cannot understand.  Atonement is a mystery; we may understand it partially, at best.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JULY 10, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF MYLES HORTON, “FATHER OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT”

THE FEAST OF SAINTS EUMENIOUS AND PARTHENIOS OF KOUDOUMAS, MONKS AND FOUNDERS OF KOUDOMAS MONASTERY, CRETE

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOSEPH OF DAMASCUS, SYRIAN ORTHODOX PRIEST AND MARTYR, 1860

THE FEAST OF SAINT NICHOLAS SPIRA, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT

THE FEAST OF RUED LANGGAARD, DANISH COMPOSER

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