Prophets of Zion and the Babylonian Exile
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In ancient Jewish culture, prophets were a part of every-day life. They proclaimed what they understood to be God’s word, and lived according to it. In times of crisis, prophets were even more present, to warn and give consolation to the people. One time period in which there were many prophets was the Babylonian Exile, where the people of Judah were taken and deported to live in Babylon. Of the books of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Isaiah 63:7-64:12 and Jeremiah 29:4-23 will be examined together.
The book of Isaiah can essentially be divided into three groups of authors, the first being an eight century prophet called Isaiah of Jerusalem. The second is an anonymous prophet who shares Isaiah of Jerusalem’s same ideal of the Davidic king. The third prophet is possibly the same person as the second, or his disciple or group of disciples (Meeks 1013). The third prophet or group lived in the land of Judah after the Babylonian exile and wrote the chapters which will be discussed, and thus will be referred to as Isaiah, rather than adding an indication of his place in the sequence of prophets under the book of Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah was firm in his belief of the Davidic king which stemmed from the southern land of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah was from a small tribe whose influences were the older traditions of Mosaic theology, which is closer to the ideals of the Northern Kingdom’s many Tribes of Israel (Meeks 1110). The excerpt that will be analyzed from the book of Jeremiah was written during the exile, and will automatically have a different viewpoint than that of Isaiah.
The first difference to note between the two passages is who is speaking, and who is being addressed. “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord…and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy…Thus you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name” (Is 63:7,14b). Here, Isaiah is the speaker, who, aside from the initial referral to God in the third person during the first seven lines, is actually talking to God. Looking at the Jeremian passage, God is the speaker who speaks through Jeremiah to his people, as he writes “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent from exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them…multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer 29:4,5,6b).
As it is a prayer, the passage from Isaiah had the potential to have attributes of a Psalm, which it virtually is. Its prose style lends itself easily to becoming a Psalm, and is even titled A Communal Psalm of Lament according to the Harper Collins Study Bible. This excerpt is often compared to Psalm 44 since it is a communal lament, with the formal elements of “complaint, confession of sin, expression of confidence, petition, inducements for God to intervene” (Mays 889). Conversely, the command given in Jeremiah 29:4-8 is directly from God, to his people. It begins with a command, telling everybody to settle and live in their place of exile, and after instructing them, makes his plan known to them. In total, the citation from Jeremiah 29 is an address from God to his subjects.
It is arguable that the prayer in Is 63:7-64:12 was written either pre-exile or post-exile, so there is no confirmed time or date. According to J. J. M. Roberts, the audience that Isaiah addresses is once again living in Judah, which obviously implies a post-exilic date. He uses Isaiah 66:1 to suggest that the building of a temple had begun or was soon to begin: “…what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place?” Although not a part of the prayer being analyzed, Isaiah 66 was said to be written in the same general time-period as Isaiah 63:7-64:12. With the return of the people to the land of Judah, they are having difficulty trying to reestablish themselves, with economic oppression and a revival of pagan rituals (Meeks 1013). However, some scholars argue that the prayer is pre-exilic, referring the response to the prayer in Is 65:1-16a, stating that it has features that are more indicative of the adoption of pagan, specifically Canaanite, rituals that occurred prior to the exile. Also, the following chapters have a citation from Is 11:6-9 and other traditions that supposedly do not belong to what has been gathered and suggested as the Isaiah of the post-exilic Judean society (Bergant, 1042).
As stated earlier and quoted from the passage itself, the Jeremian passage was written during the Babylonian exile and deals with that current situation. It begins with God directly addressing his exiled people, and goes on to tell them what he plans for them. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare…For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer 29:8,10,11).
It is important to note the fact that after his initial acknowledgement of God’s “gracious deeds” and “praiseworthy acts,” Isaiah’s confidence in God deteriorated and not once throughout the rest of the passage did he regain any of it. The prayer is a communal lament, but disorganized in such a way that it adds a feeling of desperation (Mays 889). It could be said that the whole prayer could show a downward spiral, and show the progressive degradation of not only Isaiah’s confidence in God, but his knowledge and comfort in God’s plan as well. Isaiah is uncertain; he asks questions, makes requests, and pleads. He asks why God will not help them now, when he has helped them so many times before: “Where is the one who put within them his holy spirit, who caused his glorious arm to march at the right hand of Moses” (Is 63: 11c-12a)? In 64:9 the prophet even tries to remind God of his duties and persuade him to help: “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” Isaiah ends the prayer with a true sign of desperacy, by questioning God with a challenge: “Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become reuins. After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely” (Is 64:11-12)?
One might be inclined to say that Jeremiah 29:4-23 may be God’s response of sorts to Isaiah’s prayer. God speaks to his people, through Jeremiah, words of consolation and encouragement. The Jeremian passage is obviously not a direct answer to Isaiah’s prayer, but it does contain responses to things mentioned in the excerpt from Isaiah. One thing Isaiah does is ask God “What should we do?” in which Jeremiah gives the response in telling them to raise families and settle their lives in Babylon. As Isaiah had asked God the question of “What are you doing?” Jeremiah replies by telling everybody just what God planned to do and plans to do with his people. Throughout the passage in Jeremiah, Isaiah is affirmed; he told God to remember his people, and in Jeremiah 29:12 God says: “Then when you call upon me and come pray to me, I will hear you.” Although chronologically the argument may not make sense, in terms of question and answer, the two passages fit together as one conversation between God and his people.
Literally, the viewpoints of the two passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah differ because Isaiah is a man speaking to God, and Jeremiah is a man speaking for God. The goals of the excerpts are dissimilar, one asking and the other commanding and declaring. Chronologically, the two selections cover different topics: Isaiah of Judah before or after the exile, and Jeremiah during the exile. Even as the two passages differ in certain ways, it is known now that at the very least, they are truly indicative of God’s relationship with his people.
Bergant, Dianne. Collegeville Bible Commentary. Liturgical Press, Minnesota. 1989.
Mays, James L. HarperCollins Bible Commentary. HarperCollins Publishers, New York. 2000.
Meeks, Wayne A. HarperCollins Study Bible. HarperCollins Publishers, New York. 1993.