Thoughts from Isaiah for Passover, Holy Week and life

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 13, 2011

My column last week concluded with the line from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31).

This drew quite a few affirming responses from our coffee companions. As one reader said, “My spiritual journey has taken me to many ‘places’ and through a lot of personal growth.  It’s such a private journey, but this verse has always been the foundation of my treks.”

With the beginning of the Jewish Passover and the Christian Holy Week only a few days away, I thought I’d share a few further thoughts from this prophetic book whose words hold such a special place in all four Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Baha’i.

The book of Isaiah, at 66 chapters, is the longest of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. It is the most quoted Old Testament book in the Gospels of the Christian New Testament.

It features prominently in Handel’s Messiah, where the opening recitative proclaims, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, . . . saith your God,” quoting from Isaiah 40:1. The Suffering Servant theme of Isaiah 53 is developed in the chorus, “Surely He hath borne our griefs.”

Tradition holds that the book was written by the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah, though modern scholars see also the hands of one or more subsequent writers.

Much of its message of judgment and hope is understood within Judaism as referring to the nation of Israel. Christianity has understood the Suffering Servant portions of the book, in particular, to refer to Jesus as the coming Messiah.

In Judaism Isaiah 11:1–4 is read on the last day of Passover:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . . .

Christians, when thinking of the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday, will often reflect on these words from Isaiah 53:4–12:

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Then there is this great word of hope from Isaiah 2:2–4, so appropriate for today’s world torn apart by conflicts:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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