Review of Randall Heskett, Messianism Within the Scriptural Scroll of Isaiah
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Randall Heskett, Messianism Within the Scriptural Scroll of Isaiah (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 456; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2007). Pp. xv + 353. Hardcover, US$160.00. ISBN 978‑0‑567‑02922‑5.


In this revision of his 2001 dissertation at Emmanuel College under the direction of Gerald Sheppard, Randall Heskett attempts to examine messianism in the final form of Isaiah rather than trace potential trajectories or developments of messianic thought from pre-exilic traditions (Isaiah 1-36) to the later post-exilic interpretations of the "school of Isaiah" (40-55, 56-66). In emphasizing the way in which Isaiah" functions as a scriptural book, "Heskett resonates with Brevard Childs, although he makes contributions which go beyond the "canonical criticism" of Childs as well as the "scriptural approach" of his dissertation advisor. Beginning with what he calls "pre-biblical" traditions, Heskett attempts to show that the final form of Isaiah has worked within the bounds of scripture to re-read earlier texts as expressions messianic hope even if these texts had historical referents or were originally ambiguous.

In his first chapter, Heskett offers a definition of messianism which will guide his study. A "messiah" is a person or persons who "offer a solution in an extraordinary way to activate and restore within this world the promises made to David after the monarchy has ended" (p. 3). Given this definition, there can be no pre-exilic messianic texts in Isaiah since a king is still on the throne. A text such as Isa 32:1-8, for example, cannot be messianic since it is pre-exilic. The writer has used exaggerated language to describe a hope for an ideal king while the monarchy still exists. Pre-exilic texts often describe the king in idealistic or exaggerated language but are not messianic. Since an important element of messianic hope is the restoration of the Davidic king, the end of the monarchy provides the context for these hopes to develop. This definition of messianism is somewhat restrictive since it fails to allow for the possibility that some texts in the Hebrew Bible may express a hope for a future ideal king while the monarchy still exists. For example, 2 Samuel 7 seems to envision a perpetual Davidic king which goes beyond David's son Solomon. Two Samuel 7 provides a foundation for other prophetic reflection which might be termed "messianic" since no human could fulfill the promises of the Davidic Covenant. For Heskett though, a text that idealizes a king is not messianic until it is re-interpreted by the post-exilic community.

Pre-biblical texts in Isaiah that were non-messianic may have been altered in the final scriptural form of Isaiah in order to warrant a messianic interpretation. In some cases the editors of scriptural Isaiah have combined pre-exilic hope for an ideal king with the post-exilic eschatological expectation of a renewed Davidic kingdom. In other places the editors have exploited pre-exilic ambiguity in order to make a messianic interpretation more clear. A third possible editorial strategy is for a post-exilic tradition to be placed into a pre-exilic context. These traditions may not have been eschatological or messianic at all, but in the post-exilic final form Isaiah, they have become messianic.

Heskett devotes his second chapter to the declaration that Cyrus is "the Lord's Anointed" in Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1 as an example of how a royal text might be interpreted as messianic by a later tradition. The "pre-biblical" function of the declaration of Cyrus as "the Lord's Anointed" was probably part of a prophetic dispute in which the decree of Cyrus serves as a prophetic confirmation that the "former things" of Isaiah 1-39 have been fulfilled (p. 25). This pre-biblical Cyrus oracle was "messianized" by Second Isaiah since Cyrus functioned as a messiah by returning Israel to the land. But in the final scriptural form of Isaiah, the Cyrus saying is "re-historicized" because Cyrus cannot fulfill the description of the messiah found in Isaiah 7-11, the whole of scripture, or later Judaism (p. 36). If Heskett is correct, then the Cyrus saying demonstrates his thesis that the later editors of Isaiah re-interpreted earlier texts in the light of growing messianic hopes of the early Second Temple period.

Heskett studies three classic messianic texts from First Isaiah (7:14, 9:1-6, and 11:1-9) in order to test his thesis further (Chapter 3). Each of these texts is the subject of intense study and has generated a considerable secondary literature. To his credit, Heskett is able to manage this massive amount of material by summarizing them in broad categories as well as examining various theories of redaction of the book of Isaiah, although his purpose is not to offer a new solution to the formation of canonical Isaiah. He contends, rather, that Isaiah 7-11 represents a level of tradition which has been "rehistoricized" by the scriptural form of Isaiah (p. 39). Isaiah 7:14 had an original historical context that was non-messianic. The child who was born was not the messiah but rather a child in the house Ahaz. Post-exilic editing of Isaiah has juxtaposed 7:14 with 6:11-13 and 7:18-25 in order to invite a messianic interpretation (p. 92). The prophecy of 9:1-6 was an enthronement song describing an ideal king. Post-exilic editors placed the text after the "former things" of 8:23 (p. 98). So too the imagery of a "shoot from the stump of Jesse" in 11:1-9 depends on chapter 10 for a messianic interpretation. For Heskett, 11:1-9 is a post-exilic text that "warranted messianic interpretation" and was interpreted as messianic in the scriptural form of Isaiah (p.132). Evidence for this re-interpretation is to be found in Isa 61:1 and 65:25. Both of these texts pick up imagery from Isaiah 11 and expand it in a fully messianic fashion.

The Servant Songs (Chapter 4) are an example of a text that was not messianic in its pre-biblical form and was likely not viewed as messianic by the editors of the final form of Isaiah. The text takes on a messianic character only after later theological reflection (p. 224). It is impossible for a single chapter to do justice to the vast literature on the Servant Songs; therefore, Heskett once again uses several helpful categories in order deal with the identity of the servant and the possibility of messianism in these chapters. Since the Servant Songs have been removed from their pre-biblical context, the identity of the servant is ambiguous with respect to historical circumstance, audience and identity of the servant (p.172). The servant in the scriptural book of Isaiah is similar to the Davidic messiah, but he is in other ways quite distinct. For example, the servant is described as the root from the stump of Jesse, recalling Isaiah 11. On the other hand, messiah is a "king of beauty" in 33:17, but "unsightly" in 52:14. Heskett sees the final form of the book of Isaiah as exploiting the functional ambiguity" of the Servant Songs, just as later Jewish and Christian interpreters have used this ambiguity in applying the text to Simon Bar Kosiba or Jesus (p.224).

Lastly, Heskett examines Isa 61:1-3 as the only explicitly messianic text in the scroll of Isaiah (Chapter 5). Like the other texts in surveyed in Isaiah, 61:1-3 is ambiguous, resulting in a wide range of suggestions identifying the speaker. Once again Heskett sifts through a wide range of literature and provides a helpful rubric for analyzing the secondary literature on this passage. While the pre-biblical form of this text may not have been intentionally messianic, there are enough warrants in the text for later interpreters to read it as messianic, as did early Christians and possibly the Qumran community. 11QMel may allude to Isaiah 61 as a messianic text, but this evidence is not clear (p. 251). In both cases, later interpreters exploit the ambiguity of the text and interpret the text as messianic. But Isaiah 61:1-3 is different from the other texts surveyed by Heskett. While there is no mention of David or a royal figure, the activity of the speaker cannot be said to be fulfilled by a human figure, as with the Cyrus text (p. 263.) The speaker is announcing salvation in such a way that goes beyond any human king ever did (no human king declared a year of Jubilee, for example). The text even goes beyond the end of the Babylonian exile, since the context includes the transformation of not only Jerusalem and Zion, but the whole world (p. 261). Since the setting is disconnected from historical events the text must therefore be understood as eschatological.

In his concluding chapter, Heskett returns to his thesis that the final form the book of Isaiah represents the earliest interpretation of pre-biblical traditions. He believes that historical critical methods have been distracted from the meaning of Isaiah by searching for specific Sitz im Leben for pre-biblical traditions. When scholars see the book as the word of three historically consecutive authors, they miss the fact that the final form of the book of Isaiah has edited all three alleged authors to the point that it is impossible to assign a given text to a historical circumstance. It is only when one views the book from the perspective of the final, canonical form that one is able to read Isaiah as a whole as prophecy. In the final analysis, Heskett is not at all interested in how Isaiah was formed, only the theology of the final scriptural of the book.

Heskett then seeks to draw several implications of his thesis for another large body of scripture that appears to have undergone a post-exilic redaction, the Psalms. This section is only a sketch of the issues involved when compared to his detailed examination of Isaiah. Heskett succeeds in making his case that it is only when the interpreter reads the Psalms as a post-exilic edited book that messianism in the Psalms is a possibility. Since twentieth century scholarship has been preoccupied with identifying the original Sitz im Leben of each psalm it has missed overall theological themes in the final form of the Psalter. This over-emphasis on pre-biblical form is perhaps a more pronounced problem for the study of Psalms than for Isaiah, but the resulting theological myopia is the same. Because this section is a suggestion for further study, it suffers from brevity. A number of studies on the final form Psalms are missing, such as Gerald Wilson’s The Editing of the Psalter (Scholars, 1985) or the more recent study by David Mitchell, The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme In the Book of Psalms (Sheffield, 1997). Both studies have much to contribute to Heskett’s suggestion that the final form of the Psalms ought to be the focus of study.

This study is an extremely valuable contribution to the study of Isaiah. Heskett is to be commended for mastery of the massive secondary literature on these passages as well as his sensitivity to both historic Jewish and Christian interpretations. What is more, this study is an important reminder that historical-critical methods can sometimes obscure the meaning of the scriptural form of the text.

Phillip J. Long
Grace Bible College
Grand Rapids, MI