Messianism within the Scriptural Scrolls of Isaiah

Randall Heskett T&T Clark, New York September 20, 2007
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In this volume Heskett investigates the theme of messianism in the Book of Isaiah. The initial chapter addresses matters of definition and method. Heskett defines messianism rather narrowly: “Our definition of a Messiah requires that a person or persons offer a solution in an extraordinary way to activate and restore within this world the promises made to David after the monarchy has ended” (p. 3). He distinguishes between “an ideal king and the Messiah because idealism about the king cannot provide a rationale for messianism” (p. 264). He adds, “The hope of an ideal king uses exaggerated language but texts that provide messianic hope use eschatological language, about a superhuman deliverer” (p. 264). Messianism, as defined by Heskett, is a strictly postexilic phenomenon. Some preexilic texts, though not originally messianic, became so, he says, through postexilic editing (p. 265).

After defining his subject and outlining his method, Heskett examines four texts: (1) Isaiah 45:1, in which Cyrus is designated as Yahweh’s anointed one, (2) key passages in Isaiah 7–11 (7:14; 9:1–6; 11:1–9), (3) the fourth servant song (52:13—53:12), and (4) 61:1–3. Notable exclusions include Isaiah 4:2 and 55:3–5 (see pp. 267–68 for Heskett’s rationale), as well as the first three servant songs.

As Heskett points out, Isaiah 45:1 is the only passage in the book where the term “Messiah” (jÆyvim;) occurs. After surveying competing views that reject and portray Cyrus as Messiah, respectively, Heskett argues that the reference in 45:1 has been “de-messianized” in the context of the entire book (p. 36).

Heskett presents a lengthy study of the relevant passages in Isaiah 7–11 (94 pages in length) in which he interacts with the history of interpretation and contemporary scholarship. He concludes that the texts in question, while not originally messianic, have become so within the context of the book as a whole. He writes, “Isaiah 7:14 invites messianic interpretation within the context of later editing (6:11–13; 7:18–25; 8:20–23) and the reinterpretation of Emmanuel in ch. 8” (p. 132). While “9:1–6 could very well have originally been a hymn sung at a king’s enthronement or during the anniversary of his coronation,” it “takes on messianic proportions” in “the later editing” of the book (p. 132). As for Isaiah 11, Heskett views it as postexilic, an originally messianic oracle that “has also been interpreted messianically within the intra-textuality of the book of Isaiah (61:1; 65:25)” (p. 132).

In another lengthy chapter (91 pages) Heskett studies the fourth Servant song (Isa. 52:13–53:12), providing a survey of both messianic and nonmessianic interpretations, as well as an exegetical analysis. He concludes that the song “was not originally messianic and probably not viewed as messianic by the later editors,” but that it can be read as such “within the later formation of the book of Isaiah” because of “the ambiguity of the Servant’s identity” (p. 224). Heskett acknowledges the similarities between the Servant and the “Davidic Messiah” of Isaiah 9 and 11, but he prefers to highlight the differences and he concludes that the song cannot be harmonized with 9:1–6 and 11:1–5 in a way that would “interpret the Servant messianically” (p. 217). Heskett’s method seems overly rigid at this point, making his conclusion unconvincing. After all, when the fourth song is read in the context of the other songs (especially the first and second, both of which hint at His suffering), it is clear that He is depicted as a royal figure. Rather than separating the Servant of the songs and the Davidic Messiah of chapters 9 and 11, it is preferable to equate them, holding the seemingly contradictory portraits of Suffering Servant and conquering King in tension until the one who fulfills both emerges.

As for Isaiah 61:1–3 Heskett concludes that the passage “provides warrants for messianic interpretation” within the context of the book, though he is uncertain if this was its original intent (p. 263). He rightly draws attention to intertextual links between this text and 11:1–6 and 42:1–2. In all three passages Yahweh’s spirit rests on the individual in question (the Davidic Messiah in 11:1–6 and the Servant in 42:1–2). This raises the question of why Isaiah 42:1–7, as well as the second and third servant songs, do not receive more attention from Heskett as being at least potentially messianic.

This is a detailed, well-researched mongraph on the issue of messianism in the Book of Isaiah that deserves the attention of all who are interested in the topic. Haskett’s discussion of how various texts have messianic import in the context of Isaiah is valuable. However, his adherence to higher critical assumptions regarding the editing of the book colors his conclusions. According to his narrow definition, messianism has to be a postexilic phenomenon (see, e.g., his definition on p. 3 and his critique of Paul Wegner’s work on p. 7). But this hardly seems necessary. After all, Isaiah was writing prophecy. If a prophet foresaw, indeed announced, the fall of the monarchy, could he not also foresee and announce its restoration through an eschatological figure?

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

April 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2010 vol. 167 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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