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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 128–131 

Book Review


Ivan D. Friesen. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2009. 479 pages.

Reviewed by Waldemar Janzen

A very fine commentary! Its relative brevity as compared to other volumes in this series, whether imposed by the publishers or chosen by the author, initially raised some questions for me. It is indeed a major factor in shaping the approach. Friesen has seen this and has wisely placed {129} his major emphasis on the “Explanatory Notes.” Inevitably, therefore, the other two sections prescribed for each unit by the series format—the “Text in Biblical Context” (TBC) and the “Text in the Life of the Church” (TLC)—usually sample only one or two themes. Although these have generally been chosen and treated perceptively, the reader may feel somewhat short-changed in these sections at times.

The relative brevity of the commentary, however, also contributes to its high quality. To present Isaiah in one volume visibly emphasizes this book’s canonical unity. It also facilitates ample cross-referencing of recurring themes, among them the following: the cosmic plan of the Lord, the “Holy One of Israel”; Israel and the nations in historical and eschatological perspective; the juxtaposition of the sovereign Lord and the rulers of the empires who, despite their arrogant claims, have to serve the Lord as instruments toward his own ends; trust in the Lord, not in political alliances, as Jacob-Israel’s only hope; the Lord’s requirement of justice and righteousness, issuing in peace/shalom; the Lord’s wrath and judgment, both on the nations and on his people when they turn away from him; exile as judgment, but also as a commission for Jacob-Israel to be a light to the nations; the Lord’s steadfast love and grace that never fail, but bring comfort and salvation to a remnant consisting of those who trust in him; the Lord’s salvation by doing “a new thing” in form of a new exodus, evident in the release of his people, epitomized in the Suffering Servant of chapters 52–53. More themes and nuances could be mentioned.

These major themes are interlaced and held together by recurring terms, names, images, symbols, metaphors, and analogies, such as the Holy One of Israel; the Lord’s vineyard; thorns and thistles; the forest hewn down, the burned stump, but then the new vineyard, the holy seed, the shoot from the stump of Jesse; the highway as reconciliation between enemies; hardening of hearts, stopping of ears, shutting of eyes, and then their opening to new receptivity; and others.

Friesen is well grounded in historical-critical Isaiah-scholarship, but he avoids its terminology of “First,” “Second,” and “Third Isaiah,” and the controversies surrounding it. Instead, he sees the book of Isaiah as a composite canonical unity consisting of six major “parts” (chaps. 1–12, 13–27, 28–39, 40–48, 49–57 [sic!], 58–66). Where there are major seams in the flow of the text, such as the change to a new context (for example, from Jerusalem to Babylon, and back to Jerusalem; or from the prophet Isaiah to other prophetic voices), Friesen introduces these in the course of exegetical analysis of the relevant texts.

To put it differently, rather than beginning with a reconstructed history of the Ancient Near East, with its empires, politics, and wars, or a reconstructed tradition history, as the framework into which to fit the text units, {130} he exegetes these units in their canonical flow, treating political, social, and religious matters, as they occur, within the narrative world of the book of Isaiah. (I think this is what Hauerwas demands of a theological reading—to read “the way the words run,” rather than “from the outside.”) Thus the theological narrative of the story, rather than an outside agenda applied to the textual material, dominates the reading. (The author presents his approach clearly and succinctly on pp. 23–25 and in his essay “Composition of the Book of Isaiah,” pp. 441–43.)

While strongly approving of this text-centered approach, I believe that drawing on historical studies of the Ancient Near East for an overview of the Neo-Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires could have helped to clarify the larger picture and to profile more clearly the contrast between the sovereignty of the Holy One of Israel, juxtaposed throughout Isaiah to the sovereignty claims of empire rulers, without undermining the author’s inner-biblical stance. (Friesen’s excellent essay “The Wrath of God,” pp. 455–57, performs this profiling function to some extent.)

Moving steadily through the text and elucidating it by way of patient and careful exegesis is the genius of this commentary. Friesen resists the temptation of “picking the raisins from the cake” by unduly privileging well-known and beloved passages (such as the gathering of the nations on Mount Zion, where they learn to “turn swords into ploughshares,” 2:2–4; the temple-vision, chapter 6; the Messiah-texts, 9:1–7; 11:1–9; the “Comfort, comfort my people” text, chapter 40; the “Suffering Servant” text, 52:13–53:12; and others), while relegating the rest to cursory comment. Instead, he moves patiently through the book, exegeting unit after unit, strophe after strophe. This is not a commentary for hurried skimming, but for meditative reading, so that the riches of the whole book can emerge and be savored.

Readers might sample chapter 32 and Friesen’s interpretation, pages 192–199, to see how a relatively unfamiliar text can lead to far-reaching and profound reflection on central biblical, but also amazingly modern political-social and religious motifs; or chapter 55, to sample how another less than familiar text has been effective in spawning Christian hymnody (TLC, 348–49; on this, see also chap. 6, TLC, 65; and chap. 40, TLC, 239). Here Friesen rightly reminds us that biblical texts do not only continue their effectiveness in theology and ethics, but also in the church’s music.

Friesen writes from a Christian-Anabaptist vantage point. Themes emphasized by Anabaptists, such as ethics, peace, and justice and righteousness, are recognized and pointed out where they occur, often with reference to Anabaptist sources (Menno Simons, the Martyr’s Mirror, and more contemporary Anabaptist-Mennonite writings), but only as the biblical text evokes and supports this; Friesen’s is a humble, deep-rooted Anabaptism, {131} rather than an ostentatious Neo-Anabaptism. He can also be critical of Anabaptist one-sidedness, if necessary, as for example, in his stance against a facile contrasting of the Old and the New Testament as proclaiming God’s wrath and God’s love, respectively, a stance that has widely characterized Anabaptism. (See the treatment of this in the essay “Wrath of God,” but without naming Anabaptism explicitly.)

Although my review of this commentary has been very positive, and deservedly so, I have some questions and reservations. For example, I am not convinced by Friesen’s placing the division between parts 5 and 6 after chapter 57, rather than 55, as the majority of scholars do. Further, I find Friesen’s designation of the Suffering Servant in 52:13–53:12 as “crown prince” (328, 333) to be inappropriate, shifting the accent unduly to the royal sphere, while the servant theme in part 5 is pervaded by prophetic language and motifs.

Such details of disagreement here and there do not at all diminish my great appreciation for the commentary as a whole, a work I found to be very thorough, profound, and rewarding to read.

Waldemar Janzen
Professor of Old Testament, Emeritus
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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