Remembering MLK

The prophet Isaiah spoke of the path from darkness to light:

Seek justice, encouraged the oppressed…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a national holiday commemorating the great preacher and one of the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Were he still living, Dr. King would have been 86 this weekend.

MLK bookIn a world where any black person on a bus was expected to give up his or her seat to any white person who asked, a world where peaceful civil rights protestors suffered unprovoked police brutality, and a world where blacks were often prevented from basic rights like voting simply because they were black, Martin Luther King, Jr., knew what it was to suffer injustice.

And he knew that his particular experience of injustice had universal implications. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In response to his fellow clergyman who called for him to slow down, he said that when we say “wait” to righting the wrongs around us, “wait” often turns into “never.” “Justice too long delayed,” he wrote, “is justice denied.”

One thing I want to do more of in 2015 is to stop saying “wait” in my own efforts to speak up and act in response to injustice—whether it’s racial injustice, poverty, homelessness, sexism, violence, or systemic oppression. I’m spending some time prayerfully discerning what this will look like. I am challenged by Isaiah’s call to “seek justice” and “encourage the oppressed,” an essential part of every Christian’s vocation.

I and we need to hear Isaiah’s urgent call and King’s impassioned words just as much today as their first hearers did.

May we open ourselves to God and listen to how he leads us to act on the words of the prophet.

The above is adapted from a short letter I sent to my congregation.

Isaiah (Tyndale Commentary) by Motyer, reviewed

Motyer TOTC Isaiah

J. Alec Motyer writes about his Isaiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries):

I have set out to provide a ‘reader’s commentary’ on Isaiah – a companion to daily Bible reading – and I believe that those who use it this way will reap the largest rewards from it. This is not to say that it cannot be used to look up ‘spot’ verses or passages, for I have done my best not to evade difficulties and, in every such place, to ask what a reader, Bible in hand, would find most useful to know.

The series has “the serious Bible reader” as its intended audience. It blends exegesis, theology, history, and application nicely.

Motyer’s Introduction to Isaiah

Motyer’s brief (less than 25 pages) introduction contains these sections:

  1. Isaiah’s message: Motyer summarizes Isaiah in five pages.
  2. Isaiah’s thought: “Isaiah is the Paul…’Hebrews’…James of the Old Testament….”
  3. Isaiah’s book: Motyer highlights the canonical and literary unity of Isaiah, bluntly noting that using stylistic differences to identify different authors “is and always has been a nonsense.”
  4. Text: “The Hebrew Text (MT) of Isaiah has come to us in fine preservation without any real doubt what the text means or a serious necessity of emendation.”
  5. Isaiah and the New Testament: “The New Testament quotes Isaiah more than all the other prophets together….”

Following the introduction is a six-page “Analysis,” which is a fairly detailed outline of Isaiah. IVP and Motyer have made the commentary easier to work through by then using this outline to structure the commentary proper. Each of the headings, points, and sub-points appear at the appropriate spots in the commentary for easier navigation. You always know where you are in the larger context of Isaiah, as Motyer understands it.

The Commentary Proper

I’ve used the Tyndale commentaries in preaching and also individual Bible reading. Motyer is not only a good exegete; he’s engaging and funny (e.g., he refers to a “stink-fruit harvest” in Isaiah 5).

Theologically, Motyer is comfortable (as we all should be, I think) with the idea of predictive prophecy: “There is no need to find anything difficult or strange in Isaiah’s prediction of Babylonian captivity.” Yet he engages critical scholarship that reads the book differently. Motyer addresses the book’s authorship, but he is more concerned with the book in its current form than anything like redaction criticism.

Motyer’s application of Isaiah is inspiring. Of Isaiah 2:1-5 he says, “[I]f the world is ever to say Come, let us go up (3), the Lord’s people must heed the call Come … let us walk (5): the first requirement in evangelism is to have a church that is worth joining!” While Isaiah was not necessarily thinking in these terms, it’s a good way for us who read him today to apply his message.

I would have liked to see more comment on the Servant/Anointed One as Jesus, or on how the New Testament picks up and uses such imagery. There is some of this–for example, Motyer mentions that Isaiah 61:1-4 is the passage Jesus read in Luke 4, “establishing the messianic credentials of Isaiah’s presentation.” And this is not necessarily a given in an Isaiah commentary, but since this is a series for “today’s Christian church and reader,” I had been hoping Motyer would go further in application.

Regarding the beautiful Isaiah 61 Motyer uses a wonderful turn of phrase to talk about the reversal of fortunes Yahweh will bring about: divine replacement therapy. His take on verse 3 is especially compelling. Isaiah reads (NIV):

and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

Motyer has this gem of a comment:

Note the downward movement of the transformation: from the crown (lit. ‘head-dress’; 3:20; cf. 61:10; Exod. 39:28), to the head (oil), to the clothing (garment). (Cf. the running down of Ps. 133:2–3, significant of heavenly outpouring.) Note also the inward movement of ashes, the visible evidence of grief (58:5; 2 Sam. 13:19), to mourning, grief in the heart, to the inner spirit of despair. The Lord thus acts to pierce progressively to the innermost need. 

The series and the author’s aims to give the serious Bible reader a guide for Bible study are successful. I’d heartily recommend Motyer’s Isaiah to anyone who is reading through the Bible’s “fifth gospel.”

Thanks to IVP for the review copy. Motyer’s Isaiah (TOTC) is on Amazon here. Its product page is at InterVarsity Press’s site here.

Isaiah (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)

Isaiah ZIBBCOTWhen I read through Isaiah last year, one resource I consulted whenever I could was the Isaiah section in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Zondervan has recently published it as a stand-alone book.

The sort of “backgrounds” that Isaiah describes are history, geography, culture, archaeology, and comparison to other Ancient Near Eastern texts and traditions. The introduction is quite short, but with its timelines of kings and map and historical overview, it provides a solid orientation to Isaiah.

David W. Baker’s comments on the first two words of Isaiah give a good sense of the approach of his commentary:

The vision (1:1). Most prophecies begin with a self-identification that can contain elements such as the type of literature, the identity of the prophet, and the time period. These indicate that they contain actual messages to a real audience addressing real-life issues they were facing. “Vision” is a form of divine revelation that did not necessarily involve the physical eyes, since here it involves primarily words rather than images (cf. 2:1). Prophets of Yahweh and pagan prophets experienced them. In Mesopotamia, even laypeople, both men and women, received visions or dreams from their gods.

The commentary does not reproduce the entire biblical text, but the words and verse to be commented on are marked in bold.

Isaiah 22:16 (NIV) reads:

What are you doing here and who gave you permission
to cut out a grave for yourself here,
hewing your grave on the height
and chiseling your resting place in the rock?

The verse makes some sense in its context already, but Baker’s concise comment adds more:

Hewing your grave (22:16). In Jerusalem, tombs were often hewn from the limestone rock, especially by people with means (e.g., Gen. 50:5; 2 Chr. 16:14; Matt. 27:60).

Baker has excursuses throughout the book that further illuminate themes like “Names and Naming” (Isaiah 9), “Assyrian Siege Tactics” (Isaiah 23), and “Divine Mercy” (Isaiah 54-55).

Swords shall be beaten into this (image from the book)
Swords shall be beaten into this (image from the book)

The ZIBBC series does not offer much by way of grammatical analysis or rhetorical criticism, but neither does it seek to. It ably accomplishes its purpose of giving the reader background information on the text, as well as sources for further reading.

To that end more than 1,700 (!) endnotes supply citations and bibliographic information that one can follow. (Note: I much prefer footnotes to endnotes, but with all of the sidebars and charts and photographs already in the body of the text, I think I see why the series uses endnotes.)

As the commentary progressed, I occasionally grew tired of the constant comparison of Isaiah to other Ancient Near Eastern parallels. On the one hand, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to criticize a “Bible Backgrounds” commentary for this, but the parallels sometimes felt a little strained.

Yet at other times the connections to ANE texts are illuminating, and downright fascinating. For instance, in a section called “Year of the Lord’s Favor,” covering Isaiah 61:1-11, Baker writes

Happiness and plenty are the goal of an ideal reign. A letter containing a prophecy addressed to Ashurbanipal foretells blessings from Shamash and Adad. These gods establish

a happy reign: days of justice, years of equity, heavy rains, water in full flood, a thriving commerce … Old men dance, young men sing, women and maidens are glad and make merry … Whom his crime has condemned to death, the king my lord has let live; who has been held prisoner many years, is set free; who were sick many days have recovered. The hungry have been sated; the lice-infested have been anointed; the naked have been clad in garments.

Many of these same elements characterize the anticipated messianic reign in Israel….

"He built a watchtower..." (Isa. 5:2/book image)
“He built a watchtower…” (Isa. 5:2/book image)

One can deduce, then, that the elements of this reign fulfill universally human desires (since they show up in other religious texts) for well-being and freedom. Understanding this enhances one’s read of Isaiah 61. The Messiah, one could say, fulfills a human longing that many cultures and religions have sought to express.

One missing piece in this single volume is the “Methodology: An Introductory Essay” by series editor John H. Walton, that can be found in the multi-book volumes. I would hope that future single volumes in this series include it.

The book is surprisingly well-constructed for a paperback that retails at $19.99. The glossy paper is of high quality, as are the full-color photographs, maps, and charts. The cover and binding are built to last. Regardless of your level of knowledge about the Old Testament or biblical background in general, Baker’s Isaiah is a good second book to have on hand when reading through the biblical book of Isaiah.

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy. Find it here on Amazon, or at the publisher’s page here.