Sunday, July 29, 2007

"The Footsteps of the Messiah": Psalm 89, Isaiah 53 and 1 Peter 2

About a month ago Brant wrote an amazing post on the phrase “the footsteps of the Messiah” in Psalm 89. I want to follow up on what he said here by pointing out a few things. This post is the result of long conversations Brant and I have shared.

Note: for some reason my Hebrew font did not copy and paste correctly over from Word to blogger. I just do not have enough time to go in and fix it all.

In his post “‘The Footsteps of the Messiah’ and the Messianic Tribulation” Brant explained that the Rabbis read Psalm 89 as a description of the eschatological suffering which the Messiah himself would undergo. In particular, he looked at an image found at the end of the psalm which was picked up on by the rabbis and seen as a description of the Messiah’s eschatological sufferings: “they mock the footsteps of thy anointed” (Ps 89:51).

This is an important insight for the following reasons. First, this would seem to indicate a presence of expectations of a suffering Davidic Messiah in Jewish thought. Since it is hardly likely that this tradition was invented by Jewish writers after the Christian period, it seems more than likely that such hopes were present in Jesus’ day.

However, to say such a thing runs counter to the conclusions of some biblical critics who have made the case that there was no pre-Christian tradition for a suffering Messianic figure. That particular understanding of the Messiah’s role emerged only after Jesus’ death. According to some of these scholars the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus’ death as fulfillment of Scripture is a bit of a stretch since the Scriptures did not really present such an expectation.

When encountering such a view one might immediately think of the suffering servant prophecy of Isaiah. Is not that a clear instance of such a messianic understanding? According to many biblical scholars the answer to that question is “no”. Isaiah 53, it is said, describes not an individual per se but the “servant” figure in this part of Isaiah actually represents the nation of Israel.

Upon close inspection it does indeed appear that the “servant” language in the second part of Isaiah is often referring to the people of Israel (cf. Isa 41:8-9). Yet, there are clear instances where the term “servant” is used to describe an individual (e.g., cf. Isa 22:20; 36:35; Isa 63:11). Clearly there are numerous references to a coming individual messianic figure in the first part of Isaiah. The historical-critical conclusion that Isaiah 1-39 was written by a different author cannot be used to argue that ancient Israelites would have read those chapters apart from later chapters. Clearly the book of Sirach shows as that ancient Israel did not make such distinctions (cf. Sir 48:22-25).

Moreover, it seems clear that the sufferings of servant are associated with the eschatological regathering of Israel. The servant therefore is clearly an eschatological figure. The suffering of this figure is thus linked with the restoration.

Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9
That Isaiah 53 was understood in this way is likely confirmed by a close reading of Daniel. Many scholars recognize the way Daniel draws from Isaiah―in particular Isaiah 53.[1] What is often overlooked is the similarity between Daniel 9 and Isaiah 53. As in Isaiah 53, Daniel 9 describes a coming “messianic” figure (an “anointed one”), who is killed (Dan 9:26; cf. Isa 53:8-10) and whose death is associated with the atonement of “transgressions” (Heb.: פֶּשַׁע; cf. both Dan 9:24; Isa 53:5) and “iniquities” (Heb.: עָוֹן; cf. both Dan 9:24; Isa 53:5). In both contexts this suffering is linked with an eschatological “return” (Heb.: שׁוּב; cf. Dan 9:25; Isa 52:8) to Jerusalem / Zion and the restoration of God’s people. With this understanding of Isaiah 53 we can now return the passage which Brant focused on in his original post: Psalm 89.

Psalm 89 and Isaiah 53
Scholars have long noted the relationship of Isaiah―especially the latter part of the book―with the Psalter.[2] However, what is seldom noted is the interesting relationship between Psalm 89 and Isaiah 53. Both passages speak of the “servant” of the Lord (Ps 89:39 [40]; Isa 52:13; 53:11; Heb.: עבֶד). In both passages this “servant” is described as being pierced or wounded [the word is the same in Hebrew: חָלַל; Ps 89:39b (40b); Isa 54:14].

The two passages also share many other literary points of contact. Both Psalm 89 and Isaiah 54 describe Israel’s experience of exile in terms מְחִתָּה ― terror, destruction, ruin (Ps 89:40 [41]; Isa 54:14). Likewise in both contexts the strength of the Lord is described in terms of the strength or holiness of his arm (Ps 89:13-14; Isa 52:9). In addition, both contexts speak of lost “youth” (cf. Ps 89:45 [46]; Isa 54:4). One might also point out that the preceding psalm, Psalm 88, like Isaiah 53, speaks of one who is cut off:

Ps 88:6: I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit; I am a man who has no strength, 5 like one forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave [Heb. קבֶר] like those whom thou dost remember no more, for they are cut off [Heb.: גָּזַר] from thy hand

Isa 53:8-9: By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off [Heb.: גָּזַר] out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?... And they made his grave [Heb. קבֶר] with the wicked…

Although it is clear the psalms were arranged at a later date than their composition, one can hardly fail to note the similarities between these two passages. Indeed, scholars already view these psalms in terms of a unit.[3]

Peter’s use of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 89
From what we have seen I think it at least appears plausible that Psalm 89 was understood in connection with the traditions present in Isaiah 53. Confirmation however is found in 1 Peter. There the various threads we have followed here intertwine.

1 Peter 2:22-25 clearly describes Christ’s suffering in connection with Isaiah 53:
“He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”
What is fascinating is that this allusion to Isaiah 53 is immediately preceded by what clearly seems to be an allusion to the image of the footsteps of the messiah in Psalm 89:51.
1 Pet 2:21: For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
Here Peter relates the sufferings of the Messiah Jesus to the very same passage the ancient rabbis read in connection with the eschatological sufferings of the Messiah. Indeed, much could be said about 1 Peter and the eschatological sufferings―recently an entire monograph was written developing this theme in the epistle.[4] Moreover, the image of the footsteps of the Messiah from Psalm 89:51 is seamlessly conflated with allusions to Isaiah 53.

Even more, Peter links the sufferings of Christians with Jesus’ sufferings―they must walk in his steps. In other words, whether or not Isaiah 53 describes an individual or the people of God would have been a moot point for Peter―for him it describes both, since Christians have a participation in the eschatological suffering of Christ. He thus goes on to say, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin… rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:1, 13).

When Brant wrote his dissertation he had yet to discover many of these connections. However, I think 1 Peter’s use of these passages serves as a powerful confirmation of the argument he has put forth.

Indeed, Brant and I have been discussing many further implications and dimensions of these insights… expect to read more in the future―we’ve barely scratched the surface!
[1] For a discussion and bibliographical references see Jesus, the Tribulation and the End of Exile: Restoration Eschatology And the Origin of the Atonement (2006), 61.
[2] In particular, we might mention that Robert Cole has noted connections between Psalm 89 and Isaiah 55: “Both vv. 4 [of Psalm 89] (Davidic covenant) and 2-3 [of Psalm 89] (faithfulness and fidelity) are brought together in the one verse of Isa. 55:3 by parallel vocabulary... (v. 55:3cd).” Robert Cole, The Shape and Message of Book III (Psalms 73-89) (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 209 n. 17. In addition, see Norbert Lohfink, Der Gott Israels und die Völker – Untersuchungen zum Jesajabuch und zu den Psalmen (Stuttgarter Bibel Studien 154; Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1994).
[3] See for example Cole, The Shape and Message of Book III (Psalms 73-89), 177-230. For a fuller discussion of Psalm 89 and the Jewish interpretive tradition which understood it in connection with Isaiah 53, Zechariah 9, and Psalm 88, see the excellent discussion in David Mitchell, The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms (JSOTSupS 252; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 253-8.
[4] Mark Dubis, Messianic Woes in First Peter: Suffering and Eschatology in 1 Peter 4:12–19 (Studies in Biblical Literature 33; New York: Lang, 2002).


Brant Pitre said...

This is brilliant stuff!!
The connection between Isaiah 53 and Psalm 89 is ingenious, Michael, and the link with 1 Peter is a huge confirmation of the antiquity of this connection which is found so clearly in the Rabbis.

Because we've had conversations about this, you obviously know what i think, but as I was reading the post I couldn't help but wonder if Zechariah 12-13 is another ancient interpreter who saw Isaiah 53 and Psalm 89 as descriptions of the tribulation of a Davidic Messiah. Is it a coincidence that Zechariah describes the "house of David" looking upon him who they have "pierced" on the day when their "sin and uncleanness" will be cleansed? I haven't done the linguistic work, but the images alone are striking.


Michael Barber said...


Thanks a lot. Obviously, this was the fruit of many conversations--in particular, one we had in Houston.

Frankly, I think this is pretty important. Aside from confirming your thesis, it also sheds considerable light on second temple messianic hopes. After all, the Rabbis were not likely to borrow from the Christians.

In short, therefore, what we've been doing in the posts I've done on David's sufferings in the Psalms, yours on the Rabbinic tradition, and the work on the "footsteps" of the Messiah is offer a considerable bit of evidence for the belief in a Davidic suffering Messiah.

...and we're not even showing all of our cards yet!

This is so exciting! I can't wait to see what you're going to put up next!

brainout said...

You'll want to take a look at Psalm 90, also. Turns out the meter in Isaiah 53 is keyed off Psalm 90, which Moses wrote, and BOTH chapters tie to Daniel 9, furnishing the reader with the accounting basis for time in Daniel 9.

I made many videos on both Psalm 90 and Isaiah 53 Meter Hypotheses (#4 is the correct one), in Youtube under my 'brainouty' nickname. Webpages which further explain how God Orchestrates Time (the theme of the meter in Psalm 90, showing the origin of the Daniel 9 numbers) are in the video descriptions.

brainout said...

FYI, guys: BIBLE HEBREW METER is all over the OT and the NT! Why? Because they had to count the syllables, the meter is an ACCOUNTING meter: accounting for Time, accounting for WHERE in another PASSAGE, the writer references.

It's shocking: Psalm 90 tracks history panoramically, and annually. Isaiah tracks it annually from David's Birth to Messiah's then-scheduled death. Daniel uses the meter to track the history from David to his own capture. Then Paul 'plays' David, via Hebrew meter.

I'm slowly making demonstration videos now, in two playlists concurrently on Psalm 90, Isaiah 53, Daniel 9's prayer, Dan9:24-25 (which are METERED based on Daniel's METER), and get this -- Ephesians 1:3-14! The prayer in v.15ff is antiphonally patterned after Daniel's prayer.

The two Youtube playlists are (for Hebrew) Psalm 90, and 10 Greek Geek Stuff . Vid descriptions have links to Word docs/pdfs/worksheets which show the Hebrew parsing, and the Greek, and I made metrical translations of all but Daniel. The Daniel videos haven't yet been completely posted -- there will be maybe 18 more of those.

For Paul uses the HEBREW meter for his Greek words, tagging to the three previous sections.

Guys, I learned all this by accident, when trying to vet what my pastor taught since 1970's about how God uses believers to BUY TIME (aka 'salt' doctrine). Just asked God how to prove that from Bible, 11 years ago.

So you should have the tools you need to vet the idea.