Book Review of: Isaiah 40 – 55, Concordia Commentary. R. Reed Lessing.
Isaiah 40 – 55, Concordia Commentary. By R. Reed Lessing. St. Louis, Mo: Concordia Publishing House, 2011, 737 pp., $49.99.
The author is Professor of Exegetical Theology and director of the graduate school at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He received degrees from St. John’s College, (B.A.), and Concordia Seminary (M. Div., S.T.M., Ph.D.). He also served pastorates for some thirteen years. The book is part of the Concordia Commentary series which, the publisher says, endeavors to “enable pastors and teachers of the Word to proclaim the Gospel with greater insight, clarity, and faithfulness to the divine intent of the biblical text.” Further the series interprets “Scripture as a harmonious unity centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Every passage bears witness to the Good News that God has reconciled the world to Himself through our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection. The commentary fully affirms the divine inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture as it emphasizes ‘that which promotes Christ’ in each pericope.”
This is an exceptional commentary and is to be highly commended and recommended. Any serious student of Isaiah, and particularly of this section (chapters 40 -55) of Isaiah, would benefit from the accessible scholarship in this volume. Lessing demonstrates a skilled touch with the text, offering his own translation, and is clearly comfortable in dealing with the vocabulary, syntax and thematic diagramming that provide the basis for his interpretations. His analogy of a ‘sonata allegro’ is well considered and shows an extensive and intensive grasp of the text: “The main theme of Isaiah 40-55 is stated in 40:1-2 and is then repeated and developed throughout the 16 chapters. The way in which Yahweh comforts His people, speaks to Jerusalem’s heart, ends her warfare, and forgives her sins comes through the second topic of the Suffering Servant, which complements the main idea. Yahweh’s plan of comfort through His Servant is further developed as other themes are explored such as Cyrus, creation, idolatry, and mission. These sections come in unpredictable places and are connected to the main composition while also distinct from it. Other multiple keys enhancing the composition are employed as Stichworter, or ‘catchwords.’ They include ‘arm, peace/well-being, everlasting, covenant love, and gather’” (page 49).
Lessing focuses on the “Servant Songs: in 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13- 53:12 and effectively unveils that is it Jesus of Nazareth who entirely fulfills the four servant songs. It is a masterful treatment: “While this commentary considers typology to be the hermeneutical employed by the NT citations of 42:1-9, rectilinear prophecy defines the manner in which the NT understands the Servant in the Second, Third, and Fourth Songs. This Servant is Jesus, and Jesus alone” (page 83).
There are substantial bibliographical resources cited, some 400 entries. Lessing weaves an effective argument for the literary, historical, canonical and poetical designs of Isaiah in general and of this section in particular. He also offers a succinct summary of the historical theologies as they touch on Isaiah. The Index of Subjects (28 doubled column pages) is very detailed and complete. The Index of Passages (36 triple column pages) is both useful and illustrative as to the attention the author has given to all of the Scriptures. Lessing always seems to write with clear, confident connections to the greater context of Isaiah and to the whole Bible. He does so without slighting either the near or far view of Scripture’s scope and sequence. This is not a small thing and is one of the great strengths of this commentary.
In the setting of such earnest scholarship it is also refreshing to read: “Commentary writers are not doing the primary work of the church. To import a war analogy, the front line of the battle is taking place as pastors preach and teach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper… Authors of commentaries are behind the front lines, assisting soldiers to be fully equipped with their chief offensive weapon: ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God’” (page 11).
In light of that, this volume serves as an exegetical and hortatory resource for preachers and teachers. It would serve the beginner well but also the seasoned expositor. There is a considerable devotional thread woven throughout the volume and Lessing has managed to avoid the pedantic pitfalls of commentaries that conceal more than they reveal. The design – to make this commentary useful – may also explain the few faults that might be found in this volume. Minor to be sure, but they are noticeable.
At times the commentary takes a colloquial turn with a penchant for cliché (“the tables will be turned’) but on the whole this may help expositors, especially inexperienced ones, and so that mutes the criticism. In addition, stylistically, the fifteen thematic icons are not different enough in appearance and at times seem to clutter the margin. However, repeated use would make them more identifiable and effective. The thematic name of each icon listed as it appears throughout the volume would enhance a future edition.
One further caveat: this volume is distinctively Lutheran, conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran, but definitely Lutheran. For example, considering Election the author says: “Jesus is the Elect One and through His election, the baptized are elected before the creation of the world.” (page 220); and in Isaiah 43 the author finds assurance that salvation comes “through the Word and the saving Sacrament of Baptism” (page 319). To Lutherans that may prove an advantage; to others surely a distraction.
Lessing concludes his treatise with powerfully evocative praise: “Throughout Isaiah 40 – 55, creation celebrates Yahweh’s restoring gift of shalom. ‘Sing to Yahweh a new song. …Let the wilderness and its towns lift up [their voice]’ (42: 10-11). The cadence is picked up in 44:23 and again 49:13. Why is the music so loud? Because Yahweh has condemned Babylon, ‘the great prostitute who defiled the earth by her immorality. And He has avenged the blood of His servants from her hand.’ (Rev. 19:2; see Isaiah 47). The world empire is deposed and ‘the Lord God Almighty reigns’ (Rev. 19:6; see Isaiah 52:7). The opening words of Isaiah 40 – 55 ring with hope: ‘comfort, comfort my people’ (40:1). In the closing words of Isaiah 40 – 55, Yahweh promises ‘[My Word] will do that which I please and it will accomplish [that purpose for] which I send it” (55:11). The ancient promises to Abraham and Sarah will be repeated. The exodus of Moses will happen again. The covenant of mercy with David will be renewed! Eden and with it all creation will be restored. Because of Christ’s shed blood and His resurrection power, we have this prophetic Word made more certain. When He returns, we will be led forth into the new Jerusalem, where everything will be marked by shalom” (page 671).
This is a commentary that draws the reader more deliberately into the Scripture it seeks to exposit. It makes the original text more accessible and understandable. It never attempts to undermine or obfuscate the message the Holy Spirit has given. Lessing never loses sight of the metanarrative of redemption and emphatically keeps the glory of God at the center of the study.
John Leland Baptist College, Georgetown, KY