As early as the twelth century scholars have noticed that the emphasis and tone of Isaiah 40-55 is markedly different from the first 39 chapters. While the main concern of chapters 1-39 was the threat from the Neo-Assyrian empire, 40-55 is concerned with Jews living in exile in Babylon. By the time of the Babylonian exile the Neo-Assyrian empire had collapsed, defeated by the Babylonians who went on to conquer Judah and Jerusalem and take its king, the nobility and officials into exile. Scholarship now widely accepts that chapters 40-55 were written much later than 1-39, by a “Second Isaiah” who lived during the Babylonian exile. The main thrust of Second Isaiah is to provide comfort and hope for the Jews living in exile, and to encourage them with the message that the time is soon coming when they will leave Babylon, cross the desert, and return to Zion/Jerusalem. The sequel, and the third part of this “trilogy,” is in chapters 56-66 (“Third Isaiah”) which records the return from exile and commencement of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Second Isaiah declares its intentions to offer hope and comfort in the face of adversity from the very first verses:
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. (40:1-2).
In one lengthy section (43:1-48:22) the prophet compares the return from exile in Babylon to the exodus from Egypt, with the crossing of the Red Sea being re-enacted in the exiles’ crossing of the desert and a “way in the sea” becoming “a way in the wilderness”.
16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: [an allusion to the defeat of the Egyptians with their chariots in the Red Sea]
18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing … I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (43:19)
As God provided water for Israel when they were in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt, so God will again provide water in the desert which lies between Babylon and the land of Israel: “I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) and “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (44:3). The exiles should take comfort in the fact that what God has done in the past he will do again in the future:
Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split open the rock and the water gushed out” (48:20-21).
For the exiles in Babylon who had been forcibly removed from their homeland, this message would have given hope, together with prophecies that Jerusalem with its Temple and Judah would be rebuilt and inhabited again (e.g. 44:26-28). As Moses was chosen by God to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, so Cyrus is called God’s “shepherd” and a “Messiah” (מַשִׁיחַ =Messiah/anointed), the agent of God in freeing the Jews from Babylon (44:28-45:1). Like the fleeing slaves, the exiles would be set free: “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children” (49:25).
This message was followed by a series of visions of a restored Israel with Jerusalem rebuilt and glorified, elevated to be the most beautiful and important of all the world’s cities, reaching a crescendo with the return of the Lord to Zion (52:7-10). Immediately following this series of visions of a restored city and nation comes the fourth servant song, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Against the setting of an exiled and oppressed people who are not only restored to their ancient homeland but also elevated to be of prime importance among the nations, this song about a servant who first suffers and then is exalted makes perfect sense.
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations (52:13).
Having said restored Israel would prosper, this servant song says the suffering servant will prosper. As the nations would be astonished that Israel and Judah which had been destroyed and exiled by first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians could be restored to be even greater than they were at first, so they will be startled by the amazing recovery of the suffering servant. Despite the terrible things which happen to him, the servant will be vindicated and numbered with the great (53:11-12).
In the context of Second Isaiah – a message of comfort and hope to a nation in exile – and against this background of the nation’s prolonged sufferings, it becomes clear that the song of the suffering servant personifies the nation as an individual. It is followed by another song (54:1-17) where Jerusalem is personified as a childless woman (the book of Lamentations personifies Jerusalem in a similar way) who becomes the wife of the Lord and has many children. It is similar to the suffering-servant song in that it provides hope and promises restoration for the exiles. There are several similarities between these two songs. In the song of the childless woman God acknowledges that “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer” (54:7-8). In a similar way, in the servant song the writer says “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10). Both songs make similar claims that the sufferings of the servant and the childless woman were inflicted by God because of sins committed by the people, but that God will also bring them to victory. The themes are similar, and both songs would have been relevant and encouraging to people in exile wondering if they would ever see their homeland again. The message of Second Isaiah was that their tribulation would be temporary and would lead to greater prosperity than previously experienced.