Well I never knew that was in the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)
Title: The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army

Despite having been familiar with the Bible for many years I have had to confess that much of my understanding has been at a layman’s level and only sporadically informed by more thorough scholarly insights. One assumption that most lay readers are likely to bring to the Bible is that it speaks with a uniform voice about a future time when a Messiah figure descended from King David will once again restore Israel to a power exceeding the comparable status she held in the days of King Solomon.

So I was taken aback when I read that one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah had no such vision about a future Davidic messiah, but on the contrary accepted that David’s dynasty had finished, been terminated. But don’t we read in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 that God promised an everlasting dynasty for David? Did our Isaiah writer not know of this prophecy? How could that passage be included in the canon if it contradicted other “sacred scriptures”?

Part of the answer emerged when I recollected my earlier post, How Bible Contradictions Began. Notice what our author does to God’s eternal promises.

That second Isaiah was keen to reinterpret what he could of Isaiah’s oracles can be seen in his handling of the Davidic convenantal tradition. Though political realities would not allow him to simply repeat Isaiah’s promises to the Davidic monarchy, he skillfully actualizes this tradition by “democratizing” it, and applying the Davidic promises to the entire nation (55:1—5). (David Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon, 1986. p. 34)

Again 5 pages later,

We already saw how the Davidic promises were applied by second Isaiah to all Israel (55:1— 5).

If you’re confused by the above reference to “second Isaiah” then understand that scholars have long believed that the 66 chapters of our book of Isaiah are a composite of different writings: “first Isaiah” wrote chapters 1-39 during the time of the Assyrian empire; “second Isaiah” wrote the rest at the time of the Babylonian empire. Some even add a “third Isaiah” responsible for chapters 55-66.

The New Living Translation of the key passage: Isaiah 55:1-5

◄ Isaiah 55 ►
New Living Translation

1 “Is anyone thirsty?
Come and drink—
even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—
it’s all free!

2 Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
You will enjoy the finest food.

3 “Come to me with your ears wide open.
Listen, and you will find life.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you.
I will give you all the unfailing love I promised to David.

4 See how I used him to display my power among the peoples.
I made him a leader among the nations.

5 You also will command nations you do not know,
and peoples unknown to you will come running to obey,
because I, the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, have made you glorious.”

So we have here another reminder that it is a mistake to assume that all the Jewish Scriptures were in concord, that all pointed to the “obvious” features we assume were integral to the religion of ancient (pre-rabbinic) Jews.

Not that David Meade’s comment was a lone maverick interpretation of Isaiah, either. No doubt there are commentaries on Isaiah and specialist studies that refer to the same point, but for now I tried to follow up the work Meade cited in this context, O. Eissfeldt’s “The Promises of Grace to David in Isaiah 55:1-5” found in Israel’s Prophetic Heritage (1962). Unfortunately I found I don’t have quick access to that book but I did come across an article in The Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, “The Unfailing Kindnesses Promised to David: Isaiah 55.3” by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr, 1989, and this was even better. The author disagrees with Meade’s and Eissfeldt’s interpretation of Isaiah 55:3. But in making his case he helped me understand quite a bit more.

One thing I learned was that Meade’s interpretation appears to be the conventional or widespread view of scholars of Isaiah:

But is the promise made to David transferred to the nation Israel, as so many have claimed on the basis of Isa. 55.5? (Kaiser, p. 96)

The other point I learned was that Kaiser’s objection to the reading that has Isaiah transfer the promises from David to the collective of Israel as a nation is somewhat, in my view, “fundamentalist”. What I mean is that Kaiser seems to be arguing from the principle that it is highly unlikely that the Bible would contradict itself so blatantly. Hence. . . .

To detach the unfailing or inviolable kindnesses or mercies from David and to transfer them over to the nation of Israel, as many interpreters understand these words, would run contrary to the emphatic claim that these promises were hanne’emānîm, ‘certain’, or ‘unfailing’. That had also been the point of 2 Sam. 7.15, ‘my mercy shall not depart from [David]’, as it had also been in Ps. 89.37, ‘[David’s] seed shall endure forever’. (p. 96)

On the contrary, I suggest that it is the emphatic claim that the promises are certain and unfailing that led “second Isaiah” to attempt to rescue them from the clear evidence that they had indeed failed historically, and to declare them “transferred” to the nation of Israel.

One is reminded of Paul’s assertion that the promises to Abraham about his seed Isaac were transferred to all who were “spiritual heirs” of Abraham and who had faith in Jesus Christ.



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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Well I never knew that was in the Bible”

  1. If you want to handwave the contradiction away, notice that it’s 124 or so generations between David and today. Since everyone has two parents, that’s 2 ** 124th power parents, or quite a few gazillion. It’s highly likely that everyone today is descended from King David, although rather obviously not in the strict male line.

    On another note, what does the contention that Isaiah was written during the Assyrian and Babylonian periods do to the contention that most of the OT was written during the Persian period? Or does that only apply to the major collections: Genesis through Numbers, Deuteronomy through Kings and the Psalms?

    1. Meade’s book was published in 1986, well before the “minimalist” debate over the late date of the OT books became widely known. (Davies’ book, In Search of Ancient Israel, 1992, is considered the beginning of the more public phase of that debate.)

      I must revisit some of the “minimalist” arguments on Isaiah and the prophets. I recall Davies picturing these writings being produced by various schools in dialogue with one another from the time of the Persian era in the province of Yehud. Isaiah certainly conflicts with Ezekiel on a number of points, including the one addressed here about the future of a Davidic King.

      More material for future posts. . . .

      (Agreed on the point about genetics and descent from the line of David. I have pointed out a few times that in the days of Jesus probably every Jew in Palestine could technically claim descent from David.)

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