Who Were the Magi?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

(Mat 2:1 NRSV)

The Greek word for “wise men” is magoi, the plural of magus. It may read “magi”, “kings”, or “wise men,” depending on your translation. The word is usually more closely associated with magic than royalty or wisdom, so magi seems the most accurate. Gingrich’s Lexicon says it can mean “wise men” or “astrologers.” Friberg’s Lexicon says it refers to the high priestly caste of Persia. Thayer’s Lexicon says it was a name the Babylonians, Medes, and Persians used to refer to “wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, entry 3280 magus).

Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, uses it in a more neutral way for “one of a Median tribe” (Liddell-Scott, Greek Lexicon (Abridged)). For an example of how it is used in the Old Testament, we have this from the book of Daniel. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream, so he did what all kings did back then: He called in his experts to help him interpret the dream.

So the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. When they came in and stood before the king,

(Dan 2:2 NRSV)

In the Septuagint, magus translates the Hebrew ‘ashaph, which corresponds with “enchanters” in this translation. The reference to the Chaldeans could connect it to the “Medians” per Herodotus. The BDB lexicon defines it as a “conjurer, [or] necromancer,” and says it is probably a loan word from the Babylonian asuipu. All of the categories listed probably had some connection with magic and/or astrology, and they are advisors to the king. We could probably guess the magi in the Nativity story are the same. It is clear that they practiced astrology, because the appearance of a star prompted their journey.

In the Book of Acts, magi include Simon Magus (8:9-11), Bar Jesus (13:6), and Elymas (13:8), all of them villains. However, they would not have had the same status as Median or Persian magi in the court of the king. Given what Persian religion was, they might have been priests, as Friberg and Thayer said. There is an old image of the magi wearing caps shaped like cornucopias that identify them as priests of Mithras. Though it is dated several hundred years later, it is a possibility.

The Case for Persia

If you’re feeling like I turned a firehose of information on you, fear not. We can make sense of all this.

Scholars have speculated that these magi were likely either Persian or Arabian. I think Persian is more likely. They came “from the East,” so the land of Persia (Parthia to the Romans) is a likely candidate. The books of Daniel and Esther make references to the laws of the Medes and the Persians, and as one lexicon said, there is a possible connection of magoi with the Medes. Ever since Cyrus conquered Babylon for the Persians in about 538 BC, there had been a thriving community of Jews in Babylon. The book of Daniel is all about how he and his friends served alongside the advisors of the king’s court. It’s not hard to imagine that some wise men, priests, or magicians (perhaps a combination of all three) might have had some Jewish friends. They might have learned about their expectation of a Messiah. And then, they saw a “star” that indicated there was a new king of the Jews. Then about nine months later, they saw another “star.” Two stars in nine months both saying the same thing? For counselors/magicians/astrologers, that had to be significant. (I talk about what these “stars” most likely were in a previous post).

So they travel to Jerusalem along established trade routes bringing gifts, because you always bring gifts when you want to appear before a foreign king, perhaps on camels (or not, since archeologists said a few years ago there were no camels in the middle east until the 9th century AD, which makes no sense, because how could they be mentioned in the Bible so many times if the Biblical authors never saw or even heard of a camel? I like archeologists, but they got some ‘splaining to do on that).

Anyway, they arrive at the palace of Herod, king of the Jews, because isn’t that where you would look for a newborn king? Turns out it was news to Herod a new king had been born, which meant there was a usurper somewhere. They knew because they saw his star “at its rising” (not “in the east,” which makes no sense geographically).

Herod consulted his advisors, scribes and chief priests, who said the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem according to Micah 5:2. Herod had survived so long on the throne by being both crafty and ruthless. He pointed the magi to Bethlehem and asked them to send him word when they find him, so he could “worship him” (or pay him homage) as well. Of course, that was a pretense. Herod planned to use the magi to discover where to find this would be king, so he could kill him. Thanks to an angel, the magi got wise to his plan (maybe that’s why they were called “wise men,” ha ha). So after they visited the child (not baby, by the way), gave him their gifts and worshipped him—indicating they believed he was the Messiah—they left for home, avoiding Herod altogether.

The Gifts: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

One thing I love about the Christmas Carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is how it explains the appropriateness of these gifts, and how they foreshadowed Jesus’ destiny as the Messiah. Gold represented royalty; frankincense was burned in the temple, hence divinity; and myrrh was used for embalming the dead, hence his death would be central to his mission.

Glorious now behold Him arise,

King and God and Sacrifice!

Al-le-lu-ia, al-le-lu-ia,

Heaven to earth replies.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are”

Excellent Christology. I remember back in college, after I had rededicated my life to Christ, I would hear the traditional Christmas Carols, ones that I had heard all my life, and felt like for the first time, I got it. I realized then some of the best Christology ever written is in those traditional Christmas hymns. I still had a lot to learn, but that was such a beautiful feeling.

But Didn’t You Say They Weren’t Kings?

Yes, they were most likely advisors to the king but not kings themselves. Some traditions have changed their title from magi to kings. In Spanish, the holiday called Epiphany is translated Dia de los Reyes (“kings”), when technically it should be “Dia de los Magos.” I think early Christians were not comfortable calling them “magicians” or “astrologers,” since both practices are forbidden in the Bible. “Wise men” is one alternative that became popular, and I think that is an acceptable translation. After all, their job was to give wise counsel to the king. Kings became another alternative, even though there is no textual evidence to justify that translation.

And while we’re at it, our images and Nativity scenes show three magi, but we don’t know how many there were. The Gospel of Matthew never specifies how many magi. We probably got three from the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But two could have brought those gifts. So could twelve. Tradition settled not only on three but also names for them: Gaspar, Baltasar, and Melchior.

Balthasar, Melchior, Gaspar: the three magi bearing gifts
Image By Nina-no – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2176501 The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c.  565, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored during the 18th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes and Phrygian caps.

The earliest reference that says three magi comes from about 250 AD, too late for us to be sure. But we can stick with three just because it’s familiar, and three gifts from three wise men really does make the most sense.

We Have Seen His Star at Its Rising

Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Mat 2:2 KJV)

This doesn’t make sense. They came from the east (2:1), which means they traveled west. If they saw his star “in the east,” why did they follow the star “westward leading,” as the hymn says. That’s like if I wanted to find Santa’s workshop.

“Where is it?” I ask.

“The North Pole.”

“Which way is that?”

“Uh, north. Obviously.”

And then I travel south looking for the North Pole. Travel south to go north, travel west to go east. Crazy, right?

This is another case where we have learned a few things since the King James Version of 1611 that allow us to translate more accurately. The Greek phrase in question is en te anatole. In verse 1, Anatole is translated “East,” but it is in plural form. When it is singular, as in this particular phrase, en te anatole, it is best translated “at its rising.” In astrological terms, this refers to when a new “star” appears in the sky, as in a planetary conjunction. This is reflected in most modern translations.

In a previous post, I explained why I think the Jupiter-Regulus and Jupiter-Venus conjunctions of 3 and 2 BC are the best candidates for what the magi saw. So here is a better translation (humble brag).

2.1-2 And Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King. Behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who was born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay homage to him.”

(my translation).

When can you call yourself a Bible Geek? When you do your own translations of Biblical Greek and Hebrew for fun! So yes, I am an unabashed Bible Geek.

And in Your Seed Shall All Nations Be Blessed

Since there was an astronomical event around the time of Jesus’ birth that gives a plausible explanation for what the magi saw, I have this question. What does it say about God that God would time the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to correspond with a sign in the heavens that Gentile astrologers (how un-kosher can you get) would not only recognize but be so moved that they would trek hundreds of miles just to see this baby or young child?

There were many prophecies that people from all the nations of the world would come to the land of Israel to seek the wisdom of God’s chosen people there. Matthew’s community probably saw the magi as the first Gentiles to fulfill all those prophecies. I could refer to any of those. But what I think of now is something God said to Abraham.

“And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

(Gen 22:18 NAS)

In the book of Galatians, Paul says this is a reference to the Messiah, because “seed” (Heb. zera`) is singular, not plural (Gal 3:16). In other words, the promise to bless all nations would not come through all descendants of Abraham, but through one particular descendant, the Messiah. The magi probably learned about this from their Jewish friends. If the Messiah has come, he will be a blessing not only to the Jews but to us as well. And God did not hold it against them that they engaged in astrology and/or magic. Instead, God used it to tell them the blessing of Abraham had come to them as well.

I don’t want anyone to see this as an endorsement of astrology. I don’t believe in it and never have. When did astrologers ever read something specific and get it right? Never. Well, I guess now I have to admit that on this one occasion, the astrologers were right. And it reveals a God who reaches out to people where they are, not just where they should be.

Credit to the Jews

For Jews living in a city like Babylon, their kosher laws made it difficult to interact with Gentiles. There was always a fine line between being good neighbors and losing their Jewish identity. The books of Daniel and Esther show some wise Jews serving in the courts of kings and how they reconciled faithfulness to God with respect for the laws of the land. In a Parthian court, these magi must have worked with some Jews. How else would they have known about the promise of the Messiah?

So when they saw the conjunction of Jupiter with Regulus, their “manual” told them a new king of the Jews had been born. He must be an important king if it is announced in the heavens. Could he be the Messiah? Then that was confirmed with the Jupiter-Venus conjunction nine months later. So in June of 2 BC, they knew the Messiah had been born. But it took until possibly some time between October and early December in 1 BC for them to arrive in Jerusalem at the court of Herod.

Why didn’t they leave immediately? Most likely their duties as priests/magi/counselors kept them home for a while. Since the Roman and Parthian empires were mortal enemies, it probably was not easy to get permission to travel to a Roman territory. But then somehow the opportunity came for them to take a diplomatic trip. They got permission to search for this newborn king, probably with a stipulation that they return ASAP. The time of the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus had passed, but astrologers back then had to be meticulous and precise in charting their observations. I think they still could have “followed the star” on their charts.

We can only imagine what they felt seeing this child, but here’s how Matthew describes it.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

(Mat 2:11 NRSV)

I imagine in a lot of ways, Jesus looked like an ordinary baby. But the wise men saw him as the Messiah, so they must have been overwhelmed after searching for him to finally see him in the flesh. I wonder what they told their Jewish friends about him when they returned. And this is where I want to give credit to those Jews who befriended them.

It’s not easy being a Jew in a Gentile country, always having to stay true to your faith and identity while mixing with people who represent a threat to both. Some took the path of isolation, and others the path of assimilation. In order to be friends with these magi, these Jews had to navigate a path between those extremes, not veering to the left or the right. That is not as easy as some people seem to think it is. But with God’s help, they found a way.

The magi were eager to learn new knowledge. They saw in the Jews a wisdom they had never encountered. If those Jews had assimilated, they would not have looked any different from the other counselors in the court. The magi would have found them interesting but not compelling. If they had isolated, the magi would never have learned about the Messiah. Because who else could have taught them about the promise of the Messiah in the scriptures? They didn’t proselytize or preach to a captive audience. They didn’t demand the magi convert, becomes circumcised, or give up their gods, magic, or astrology. They simply shared what they knew with people who wanted to learn. Never underestimate the power of that kind of witness. Without it, the Magi would have had no reason to care that a new king of the Jews had been born.

References

 “Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks Who Were the Magi,”

Translation Notes

μάγοι noun nominative masculine plural common

[GING] μάγος
μάγος, ου, 1. a Magus, pl. Magi, a wise man or astrologer Mt 2:1, 7, 16.—2. magician Ac 13:6, 8.* [pg 121]

17609  μάγος, ου, ὁ from Persian magus (great); (1) magus, plural magi, the high priestly caste of Persia; wise man of the Magian religion (MT 2.1); (2) magician, sorcerer, one using witchcraft or magic arts (AC 13.6)

ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ (Mat 2:2 BNT), Noun, Dat F S; see note on v. 1; “at its rising” (NRSV) or “when it rose” (ESV).

6 tn Or “in its rising,” referring to the astrological significance of a star in a particular portion of the sky. The term used for the “East” in v. Mat 2:1 is ἀνατολαί (anatolai, a plural form that is used typically of the rising of the sun), while in vv. Mat 2:2 and Mat 2:9 the singular ἀνατολή (anatole) is used. The singular is typically used of the rising of a star and as such should not normally be translated “in the east” (cf. BDAG 74 s.v. 1: “because of the sg. and the article in contrast to ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, vs. Mat 2:1, [it is] prob. not a geograph. expr. like the latter, but rather astronomical…likew. vs. Mat 2:9“). (BW translation note).

2.11

πεσόντες verb participle aorist active nominative masculine plural from πίπτω

[GING] πίπτω
πίπτω fall, the passive of the idea conveyed in βάλλω—1. lit. Mt 15:27; Mk 9:20; Lk 8:7; 21:24; Ac 20:9; Rv 1:17. Fall down as a sign of devotion Mt 2:11; 18:26, 29; Rv 5:14. Fall to pieces, collapse Mt 7:25, 27; Lk 13:4; Hb 11:30; Rv 11:13.—2. fig. Ac 1:26; 13:11; Rv 7:16. Fail, become invalid Lk 16:17; 1 Cor 13:8. Be destroyed Rv 14:8; 18:2. In a moral or cultic sense go astray, be ruined, fall Ro 11:11, 22; Hb 4:11; 1 Cor 10:12; Rv 2:5. [pg 159]

προσεκύνησαν verb indicative aorist active 3rd person plural from προσκυνέω

[GING] προσκυνέω

proskune,w (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully depending on the object—1. to human beings Mt 18:26; Ac 10:25; Rv 3:9.—2. to God Mt 4:10; J 4:20f , 23f; 12:20; Ac 24:11; 1 Cor 14:25; Hb 11:21; Rv 4:10; 14:7; 19:4.—2. to foreign deities Ac 7:43.—3. to the Devil and Satanic beings Mt 4:9; Lk 4:7; Rv 9:20; 13:4; 14:9, 11.—4. to angels Rv 22:8.—5. to Christ Mt 2:2, 8, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 20:20; 15:25; 28:9, 17; Mk 5:6; 15:19 ; Lk 24:52. [pg 171]

They knelt down. Some translations say fell down. In Greek the word is pesontes, which is a participle of pipto. Generally, it means fall, but it can have the specific meaning of “Fall down as a sign of devotion Mt 2:11; 18:26, 29; Rv 5:14” (Gingrich).

Paid him homage. Some translations say worshipped him. In Greek the word it prosekunesan, an Indicative Aorist of prosekuneo. In general, it means “(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully depending on the object” (Gingrich).

The Suffering Servant as the Leper Messiah

My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).

In the last post, I introduced the suffering servant in Second Isaiah. In the first song, the servant counter-intuitively brings justice by patiently and quietly enduring injustice. Second Isaiah addressed the Jews in Exile, letting them know their judgment had passed and they would soon be allowed to return home to Jerusalem.

The Fourth Song: He Was Despised and Rejected

This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.

I won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, 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 has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)

He/him refers to the Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly, many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace, healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.

In the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself. It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song, that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked human (52:14).

We see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him (53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible says,

“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).

(HC 53:4-6 footnote)

And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.

Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.

He Grew Up Like a Young Plant

The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)

They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.

The Servant as Messiah

First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.

So I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

(Isa 52:13 NRS)

When the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only implicit.

The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.

(Rut 2:14)

The Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.

Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].

If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.

A Leper Messiah

Here is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

(Isa 53:4 NRS)

The Talmud comments,

The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.

(Sanhedrin 98b)

Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.

The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”

“… like a leper messiah,” 2:25

David Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,

One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.

Ziggy Stardust,” AZ Lyrics

Rabbi Bowie?

Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.

But God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes with it.

And out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.

The First Principle of Recovery

Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.

Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.

A Deal for You

Book cover Dark Nights of the Soul on rustic table
Winner Nonfiction, Writer’s Digest Self-Published Ebooks, available on Kindle through January for $0.99. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083JNXHZF

My book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. In honor of this, it will be available on Kindle for only $0.99 throughout the month of January! (You can also get it in paperback if you prefer). I am humbled, amazed, and grateful. Thank you to Writer’s Digest and to anyone who reads it.

Exciting Announcement and New Blog Series

2020 with snow background
Happy New Year 2020!

Welcome to my first blog post of the year. And since this is January 6, Happy Epiphany/Dia de los Reyes (whichever term you prefer).

I have an exciting announcement. The original version called Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction Category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. I’m still almost in shock. I say “original version” because I did some tweaking to it. The main reason for changes was I needed to add more material to make it viable as a print book. So even if you have a paperback, it’s the same material as the award-winner and more. I would recommend waiting until Tuesday, January 7, to order a copy, because that is when the “award-winning deluxe” version will be available.

There are four passages in Isaiah called the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” I used these in two of my four principles for recovery. I’ve found the Suffering Servant to be a great source of comfort, so that seems like a good place to pick up the blog.

But Isaiah is a long, complicated text, written over a period of more than two hundred years. So first, you should have a good overview of when, how, why, and to whom it was written. This is called context, by the way, which is pretty important anytime you do anything with the Bible.

Three Isaiahs?

Experts generally divide Isaiah into three sections.

  • First Isaiah: Chapters 1-39. Before and after the fall of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) to Assyria, ca. 738-687 BC
  • Second Isaiah: Chapters 40-55. Near the end of Exile of the Jews, ca. 545-539 BC.
  • Third Isaiah: Chapters 56-66. After the return to Jerusalem, ca. 520-515 BC.

You won’t see these divisions in the Bible text itself. However, differences in tone, language, and references indicate each of these sections was written in different historical circumstances. If you are used to just reading the Bible without referring to the historical background, this may sound confusing, or you might think we are making it unnecessarily complicated. “The Bible doesn’t mention First, Second, and Third Isaiah. It’s just called the book of Isaiah.”

I understand why you might object to this. But I’ll say there are very good reasons for this “three Isaiahs” theory that come from the text of Isaiah, along with just basic knowledge of what was happening in Israel and Judah between the eighth and sixth centuries BC. Hopefully, that will become clearer as I walk you through it.

And yes, while this is fun for me, I know I’m in the minority. So believe me when I say I wouldn’t drag you through this preliminary history and textual analysis if I didn’t really believe it was necessary to understand not only the message but the comfort the songs of the Suffering Servant can offer. So, I’ll try to make it as interesting as I can. And I promise, it will not be a waste of time. So if you’re ready, let’s dive in.

The songs of the Suffering Servant all come from Second Isaiah, but I think it’s important to understand First Isaiah to get the full impact of it.

First Isaiah: What You Need to Know

As I said, First Isaiah refers to chapters 1-39 of “the book of Isaiah.” He said he received his call to be a prophet in the year king Uzziah died, about 738 BC (Isa 6). He continued to prophesy and write until about 700 or 687 BC, depending on the date of his last word to the king Hezekiah. This entire time, the nations of Israel and Judah were in crisis because of the Assyrian empire. Isaiah’s message to both nations was, repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or God is going to send Assyria as the hand of judgment.

Assyria was the hyperpower of its day. They built a juggernaut of an army that no one could stand against. They conquered all the land of Mesopotamia, then turned their attention toward the land of Canaan. The nation of Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC. After this, Isaiah’s warnings to the nation of Judah became more urgent. Repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or you will be next on Assyria’s list of conquered cities and nations. The people didn’t listen until Hezekiah took the throne. He was known as a righteous king.

Even under Hezekiah, Assyria wreaked havoc through Judah. Isaiah warned them they would, but with one caveat: Because of God’s covenant with David, they would not take the city of Jerusalem (2 Sam 7:1-17). Isaiah proved right on both counts. Assyrian records said they took forty-six cities from Judah. When they got to Jerusalem, they laid siege like they had to hundreds of cities before. Until then, the result was always the same. The city fell, its treasures were plundered and sent back to the capital city, Nineveh, and the people were either slaughtered, tortured, enslaved, and/or exiled. The people within the walls of Jerusalem thought the same would happen to them, but Isaiah’s word proved true. The Assyrian army left with the city of Jerusalem still fully intact.

After First Isaiah

Now how do you think the people of Jerusalem responded to this remarkable salvation? They were probably grateful at first. But it didn’t take long for them to become arrogant. “This is the Temple of the LORD,” they said of the great structure Solomon had built over 200 years before. “No one can touch us, because this is where God has chosen to dwell on earth. Not even Assyria can stand before our God.”

Even the righteous king Hezekiah became so arrogant he foolishly showed all the treasures of the city, the palace, and the Temple to the king of Babylon. Chances are, said Babylonian king recorded them in the archives, so about 150 years later, king Nebuchadnezzar knew exactly where to find all the riches when he took the city.

In the meantime, people all over the Assyrian empire got sick of living under their iron boot. Assyria constantly had to put down rebellions throughout their territory in Whack-a-Mole fashion. No matter how brutal they were in crushing rebellions, they could not stop people from rising up to throw off their yoke.

Finally, in 612 BC, an alliance of Medes and Babylonians overthrew the capital Nineveh, and with it, the territory of the Assyrian empire became ripe pickings for the neo-Babylonian empire. No Jew shed any tears over Nineveh, that’s for sure. That is, except for the prophets who knew what would follow.

The Unthinkable Happens

Jerusalem, the chosen city, the one with the Temple of the LORD, the city God had chosen for his name to dwell on earth, the city even the king of Assyria could not conquer because of God’s presence there, fell to king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The immortal, impregnable, indomitable city of David, was conquered, torn down, and plundered. Even the Temple, with its great and huge stones, was torn down so not one stone was left standing on another. Its gold, silver, and bronze furnishings were all brought back to Babylon in about 587/86 BC. And the people were sent into exile, mostly to the city of Babylon.

If Isaiah had been alive at this time, the people probably would have said, “WTF, Isaiah? You said this couldn’t happen!” But Isaiah’s word concerning Jerusalem was for Isaiah’s time. The prophets of their time, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, warned them in stark terms, “Do NOT think God will save you this time. You have not repented of your unjust and unrighteous ways. Do not think the Temple of the LORD will save you. God has removed his glory from that place.” Even with his high view of Zionist theology, Isaiah probably would have said the same thing.

Second Isaiah

Like many other prophets, Isaiah had a school where he taught others to receive messages from God as a prophet. The school likely continued after his death. Over the years, they preserved his writings and teachings. They may have continued to write in his name. This was actually common in the ancient world. Students of a particular school, if they had mastered the founder’s teachings, might write new documents in his name.

Around 545 BC, there was a new major player on the world scene. Cyrus, king of Persia, looked like someone who could challenge the might of Babylon. As he racked up victories on the battlefield, a new hope arose for the Jews in exile, because unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians before, he acted with justice and righteousness.

In about 539/8 BC, he conquered the city of Babylon, and all of Babylon’s territory became part of the Persian empire. Two things are remarkable about Cyrus’s victory. One, the people of Babylon opened the gates for him, so he took the city without bloodshed. Two, one of the students of Isaiah’s school predicted his rise to power.

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him– and the gates shall not be closed:  

I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.

(Isa 45:1-6 NRS)

This is Second Isaiah, responsible for chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. He appears to have written between 545-539 BC, before Cyrus’s ultimate victory over Babylon. Second Isaiah predicted Cyrus would succeed in taking over the Babylonian empire, because the LORD had chosen him to rule and to free Israel, God’s chosen. He also predicted Cyrus would allow the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem. And so his chapters are filled with hope and anticipation. “It won’t be long now. We will go home, thanks to our God and his chosen one, Cyrus.”

When the LORD Restored the Fortunes of Zion …

I have taken you on this brief journey back in time in the hopes that you could have some sense of how dreamlike it was to the Jews in Exile when the student of Isaiah told them they would return to their ancestral home of Jerusalem. The sense they had of being God’s chosen people and nation had burned down with their beloved city. For decades, the Babylonians had mocked them, saying, “Where is your God?” and they had no answer.

Now, God is promising deliverance through a foreigner named Cyrus, and they are seeing it come true. City after city either falls or surrenders to him. God calls him his “anointed,” like David. God calls him by name, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is all so strange. They are not used to hearing God talk like this about a Gentile king. And yet, if this was how God chose to deliver them from Exile, I don’t think any of them would have complained.

Comparing First and Second Isaiah

When you read First Isaiah, there is a strong sense of looming judgment. And it was no mystery how it would come. Assyria would steamroll them like they had everyone else. Though there is hope in Isaiah, it’s mostly directed toward a future king, a Messiah, who would execute justice and righteousness for the people (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-9). At times, it seems Isaiah believed the Jews’ present king, Hezekiah, could have been that Messiah. But for the present, he is mostly gloom and doom. Repent! Judgment is coming! Repent! Judgment is coming!

Right from the beginning, he says,

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!

(Isa 1:2-4 NRS)

What is the result?

Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.

(Isa 1:7 NRS)

Why has judgment come?

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her– but now murderers! … Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

 (Isa 1:21, 23 NRS)

That’s a small sampling, but it tells you mostly what you need to know about why God is angry, and why judgment has come for Israel and is coming for Judah.

… he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry [of distress]!

(Isa 5:7 NRS)

But later, when you turn the page to chapter 40, suddenly the tone is entirely different.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

 (Isa 40:1-2 NRS)

That is the tone through most of Second Isaiah. The thrust of First Isaiah is judgment is coming. The thrust of Second Isaiah is judgment is over. First Isaiah makes sense when there is an enemy like Assyria, looking at them like a wolf licking its chops. Second Isaiah makes sense only after they have received their punishment. Now, God says Jerusalem has received double for all her sins. Their debt is paid in full. There is nothing to prevent them from returning home to Zion. He goes on to say,

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

 (Isa 40:4-5 NRS)

God will clear the way home for them. They had just been through the longest, darkest night in their history since the period of slavery in Egypt, and they were about to come out of it.

The Dark Night of the Soul Is Over

I don’t know where you are in your journey. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you finally see yourself coming out of your own dark night of the soul, like the Jews when Cyrus conquered Babylon. Maybe you are still so deep in darkness you can’t see the deliverance yet. I was there just a few years ago myself, but I can see it now. There were many years when the Jews thought they were stuck in Babylon with no way home. So don’t give up. Sometimes it’s just about living long enough for your work to start bearing fruit.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

 (Psa 126:1-2 NRS)

Now that you have the background, next week I’ll talk about the songs of the Suffering Servant and what they mean in the context of Second Isaiah and recovery.

Translation Notes

וַיְקַ֤ו לְמִשְׁפָּט֙ וְהִנֵּ֣ה מִשְׂפָּ֔ח לִצְדָקָ֖ה וְהִנֵּ֥ה צְעָקָֽה׃ ס

 (Isa 5:7 WTT)

… [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isa 5:7 NRS)

There is a pun in the Hebrew text not apparent in any English translation. The word for justice here (as in most cases throughout the Hebrew Bible) is mishpat. It carries with it the same meanings as in English. Justice, as in the justice system and its execution through legal process. Justice in a more conceptual sense of fairness and equality. It can also refer to following established customs and procedures. In this context, it is a synonym for “righteousness.”

The word for “bloodshed” is mishpach. Halladay’s lexicon defines it as “a breach of law,” so it is the opposite of mishpat. BDB defines it as an “outpouring (of blood), bloodshed,” the inevitable result when a society abandons mishpat. So to show the pun, I’ll say it like this.

He expected mishpat, but saw mishpach

The word for “righteousness,” here as in most places in the Hebrew Bible, is tzedakah. It can mean right behavior in general, honesty, integrity, or doing the right thing. It is often paired with mishpat (as in this verse), making it a synonym for justice. In the plural, it often refers to acts of generosity. The box in the Temple for collecting donations for the poor (Mark 12:41-44) was called a tzedakah box, and they are still found in synagogues today.

The word for “a cry” is tze`akah. Halladay’s lexicon defines it as a “cry of wailing, call for help.” It is the same word God used when God told Moses the cry of the Israelites living under slavery in Egypt had reached God’s ears (Exo 3:7). So Isaiah is charging the nations of Israel and Judah with being just as oppressive to the poor, the slave, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and alien as Egypt was to them. So again to show the pun,

… [God expected] tzedakah, but heard tze`akah.