Isaiah 40-55: Which Audience Was Addressed? -- By: Gary V. Smith

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 54:4 (Dec 2011)
Article: Isaiah 40-55: Which Audience Was Addressed?
Author: Gary V. Smith

Isaiah 40-55: Which Audience Was Addressed?

Gary V. Smith*

* Gary Smith is professor of Old Testament at Union University, 1050 Union University Drive, Jackson, MS 38305.

Although there are many issues where conservatives and critical scholars disagree, a good percentage of commentators in both camps agree that the prophecies in Isaiah 40-55 were written to a group of Hebrew exiles living in Babylon about 150 years after the time of the prophet Isaiah. Ronald Clements is so sure of this setting that he proclaims that “the sixth-century Babylonian background to chapters 40-55 is so explicit that to deny its relevance for an understanding of their contents is to ask for a totally different understanding of prophecy from that which pertains elsewhere in the Old Testament prophetic books.”1 Although Roger Whybray maintains that no “commentator has succeeded in giving a convincing interpretation of the book against any other historical background than that of the exile,”2 the texts examined in this article will suggest that another approach is hinted at in several verses. In fact, a couple critical commentators have already recognized that a few passages do not fit well in an exilic context. Therefore, in order to move toward a resolution of this issue, this study will wrestle first with the exilic assumptions about the location of the audience in Isaiah 40-55 and then will reassess the interpretation of seven passages that do not seem to address Hebrew exiles in Babylon.3

I. Exilic Assumptions About The Audience In Isaiah 40-55

Anyone who reads widely in the field of Isaiah will notice that commentators have quite different opinions about what qualifies as evidence that points to an exilic background for its audience. For example, Whybray is so convinced of the exilic setting of the audience that he tends to read it (assume it) into almost any passage. Whybray refers to the exiles nine times in his explanation of Isa 40:1-11. He suggests that 40:1-2 are words “to comfort the Jewish exiles that the time of their suffering is at an end,” believes these verses announce “God’s forgiveness to the exiles,” and maintains that the term Jerusalem refers to “the exiles.”4 He believes those moving through the wilderness in verse 3


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