Review: Darkness Visible

Darkness Visible

Darkness Visible (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Karlo V. Bordjadze (Foreword by R. W. L. Moberly). Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017.

Summary: A study of Isaiah 14:3-23, considering textual and interpretive issues, and focusing on how this passage may be read as Christian scripture today.

How you have fallen from heaven,
    morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!
 You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
    to the depths of the pit.

–Isaiah 14:12-15, NIV

This passage, part of a larger text running from Isaiah 14:3-23, has been understood by many Christians, including John Milton in Paradise Lost (the source of this work’s title), as a description of the fall of Satan. This is less the case among recent interpreters, and this raises the question for Christians reading this passage of how we might read and appropriate this in a Christian context.

This work, an outgrowth of a doctoral thesis, offers perhaps the most careful analysis of this text I’ve come across. Bordjadze begins with a verse by verse discussion of the philological issues in the text and how various translators have handled these. Then in chapter 3 he zooms in on the meaning of mašal, which might be understood as parable or proverb but in this context is a kind of grotesque taunt against an egregious form of human exaltation over and against both Israel and Israel’s God.

Chapter 4 considers a reading of Isaiah 14:3-23 in the context of the imaginative world of the ancient Near East. He explores the resonances in the text with other ancient Near East texts from the Enuma Elish to the Epic of Gilgamesh. This sheds significant light on the language of the underworld and particularly the horror of not receiving a proper burial (v. 20). Chapter 5 then turns to questions of myth and history to understand the significance of the “morning star, the son of the dawn” and the possible historical referents to a Babylonian king. There is also the question of how this passage fits into the larger context of Isaiah 13-23 and the collection of Oracles Against the Nations.

Chapter 6 moves forward in history to consider the reception of this text by Christian interpreters in church history. Two key interpreters are considered. First is Origen, who introduces the idea that this text is about the fall of Satan, the origins of evil and the freedom of human choice. Calvin, concerned with portraying the sovereignty and providential care of God reads this passage very differently, recognizing first the historical context of Babylonian invasion, and then seeing this in the light of those enemies arrayed against the church, and God’s sufficiency to deliver. Bordjadze recognizes the common element in both of pastoral concern for the faithful in different contexts.

Finally, Bordjadze considers how the text might be read in Christian churches today. He considers two theological readings, by Walter Brueggeman, and by Christopher Seitz before proposing his own. Brueggeman sees this as the victory of God over a cosmic tyrant while Seitz reads this text in dialogue with Habakkuk 2 and Psalm 82 and the lament of “how long” will tyrants prevail, uttered both by the prophet and in the “council of the gods.” Bordjadze takes a different approach of contrasting the King of Babylon and Jesus as two ways of pursuing the imago dei–one of prideful self-exaltation followed by abasement and the other of obedient acceptance of abasement followed by the vindicating exaltation of the resurrection. He sees this text as a salutary warning against self-exaltation over and against the cruciform way of Christ, exalted by God as sovereign Lord.

In this he identifies more closely with both Origen and Calvin if not following either of their readings. He draws parallels between these ideas of exaltation and abasement with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and the ultimate abasements of self-exalting Morgoth and Sauron while humble hobbits and a scorned ranger are lifted up. It is a reading that raises the question for every Christian reader of which path we will choose, as well as comfort for those who choose the path of Christ while observing the apparent success, the raw use of power, and the arrogance of the self-exalting.

The careful textual, contextual, and theological work to arrive at this reading strikes me as a delightful model of rigorous biblical and theological scholarship in service of God’s people. There was a kind of “line upon line, precept upon precept” aspect to this work that reflected a scholar working deliberately, and yet with appropriate care, toward a clear conclusion. It both sharpened my own reading of the text, and led me into fruitful reflection on the message of this text for me as a Christ-follower. This is a work that both demands and rewards careful reading.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom

book of isaiah and God's kingdom

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew T. Abernethy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A thematic approach to understanding Isaiah organized around the idea of ‘kingdom’ exploring the nature of the king, the agents of the king, and the realm and people of the king as elaborated throughout the book.

If you have ever attempted to study, teach, or preach the book of Isaiah, you understand what a challenge it is to wrap your mind around the 66 chapters of this book. Andrew T. Abernethy thinks that a thematic approach to the book can help with our overall understanding. The theme he develops throughout Isaiah is that of God’s kingdom.

For those looking for a discussion of the authorship of Isaiah (single or multiple), this is not your book. What Abernethy does is take a synchronic approach which looks at the finished product of the book as a whole, while still noting the distinctive character of chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. Likewise, while organizing his biblical theology of Isaiah around kingdom, he avoids flattening out the contours of the book. He takes a canonical approach to Isaiah without reading the book through an exclusively Christological lens.

He begins with Isaiah 1-39, observing God as both present and future king, reigning in holiness, seen in all his future beauty as judging and ruling on Zion, and in the present delivering from Sennacherib. Isaiah 40-55, speaking to exiles proclaims the good news of God as the only saving king. Isaiah 56-66 then presents God as the warrior king, showing compassion on faithful outsiders, and ruling over the nations as cosmic king.

Chapter 4 particular reflects Abernethy’s willingness to understand Isaiah on its own terms as he considers the “agents” of the kingdom. Rather than simply reduce them to a single kingly or messianic figure (Jesus!), he takes the text on its own terms and discusses three distinct agents, the Davidic ruler, the servant of the Lord, and the Spirit empowered anointed messenger. While a canonical approach sees the fulfillment of all of these in Christ, by allowing for the distinctive character of these three agents not to be merged into one in Isaiah, one sees all the more the splendor and greatness of Christ, who encompasses all three agents in his person.

Chapter 5 then considers the kingdom realm, noting both the focal point of Zion, to which all the nations come and yet the international, indeed cosmic extent of this realm. He then concludes the book by raising the idea that the theme of the kingdom and its many faceted elaboration is meant to encourage the readers of Isaiah, then and now to a richer and fuller imagination of what this kingdom rule is like. For Christians we see its fulfillment, now and yet to come, in Christ, the church as God’s living temple, looking forward to the Zion of the New Jerusalem. Following this conclusion, Abernethy provides two different teaching outlines for how one might teach Isaiah along the lines this book has developed.

Abernethy’s book makes a good complement to John Goldingay’s The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (reviewed here). Both authors take a synchronic approach to Isaiah, but Goldingay only considers the book from the horizon of Isaiah’s first readers, and not through a canonical lens. They reach different conclusions about the servant in Isaiah, but also recognize many of the same themes in the book–particularly the holy King of Israel amid the nations, and the ways this king will come as warrior, and judge, and savior. What Abernethy’s book most helpfully models is the process of both reading Isaiah in its own setting, and as part of the biblical canon, without slighting either of these. This makes the book a wonderful resource for the pastor-theologian, or anyone else who would make the attempt to scale the challenging and wonderful mountain that is the book of Isaiah. Abernethy helps us see that it is indeed Zion that we are ascending, to encounter the great King.

 

Review: The Theology of the Book of Isaiah

Theology of IsaiahThe Theology of the Book of Isaiah, John Goldingay. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Taking the book of Isaiah as a whole and as it would have been read by its first readers, Goldingay both considers the theologies present in each major section of Isaiah, and traces the theological themes emerging from the book as a whole.

I wish I had this book a few years ago when I was teaching Isaiah in an adult ed class at my church. Isaiah’s 66 chapters encompass a sweeping vision extending from the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah to the post-exilic destiny of Israel and the nations. Most of the commentaries on Isaiah are multi-volume or lengthy single volume works. What makes this a great resource is that it is both a concise work and yet gives the reader a good grasp of the framework of the book and key theological themes, crucial to understanding the book. What is also refreshing is that rather than pursuing the endless discussion of “how many Isaiahs are there?” he simply deals with the book as we have it, “the book called Isaiah”.

Goldingay notes what many of us who have taught Isaiah have seen–this is no ordinary book of sequential narrative or discourse. Rather it is a collection of prophecies occurring over an extended period of time. Goldingay contends that this collection can be considered as five or six “collages” that make up the book: Chapters 1-12; chapters 13-27 (or a separate collage of 24-27); chapters 28-39; chapters 40-55; and chapters 56-66. The first part of the book then delineates the major theological themes to be found within each “collage”.

The second part of the book explores the theology that emerges from “the book called Isaiah” as a whole. The themes he explores, each in a short chapter are:

  • Revelation: Words of Yahweh mediated through human agents
  • The God of Israel, the Holy One, Yahweh Armies
  • Holy as Upright and Merciful
  • Israel and Judah
  • Jerusalem and Zion Critiqued and Threatened
  • Jerusalem and Zion Chastised and Restored
  • The Remains
  • The Nations
  • The Empires and Their Kings
  • Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
  • Divine Planning and Human Planning
  • David
  • Yahweh’s Day

One thing that the reader should be aware of is that Goldingay does not read Isaiah in light of the New Testament but as its first readers would have considered it, which is actually careful scholarship and interpretation controlled by what is found within the book itself. This is most evident in his discussion of the “servant” passages, which he treats in terms of Israel, the prophet, and eventually Cyrus. I think he is right in the sense that these were in fact the only interpretive options that would have made sense to the first readers. Yet, this seems to evade the question of who in fact fulfilled this–neither Israel, Isaiah, nor Cyrus completely do so. The question the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip recorded in Acts 8:34 reflects this enigma: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

One of the most significant insights comes in his discussion, which recurs at several points of holiness as uprightness and mercifulness (mispat and sedaqa). He writes at one point:

Mispat and sedaqa thus suggests the faithful exercise of power in community. People with power control resources; they will therefore make sure that ordinary people can share in resources such as land and food. People with power do control decision making in court, which meets at the city gate; they will see that judicial decisions are made in a fair way. People with power control what happens in community worship; they will make sure that it is offered in a way that is faithful to Yahweh.” (p. 22-23)

Israel in Isaiah’s day, and the church in our own have rarely worked with such a comprehensive vision of holiness, and we see that this is both Israel’s problem, and the realization of this vision, Yahweh’s intention. Goldingay’s approach teases out important themes like this, and Yahweh’s ultimate intention not only for Israel but the nations that might often be missed.

I would commend this book for anyone looking for a concise treatment of this book, including those, like me, who might be attempting to teach “the book called Isaiah” in an adult ed setting. Yet there is also the academic depth to make this an assigned text either in a seminary level course on Isaiah, or a wider survey of the prophets.