Raising Wings Like the Eagles
June 3, 2016 Leave a comment
Commentaries on Isaiah 40:30-31
By Tilemann Heshusius and Jerome
I undertook the following in connection with an invitation to preach on Isaiah 40:31 at a graduation service for a Lutheran high school. I like to use such special opportunities to familiarize myself with commentary by our Christian and Lutheran fathers.
In his commentary on Isaiah 40-66 in the NICOT series, John Oswalt writes (p. 74):
The versions [i.e. ancient translations of the Bible] take [the Hebrew word אֵבֶר, pinions or wings, in Isaiah 40:31] as the object [of יַעֲלוּ], but seem to understand the verb [עָלָה] to mean “put forth” in the sense of growing new feathers (see NEB, JPS, NJB). This reading might reflect the ancient tradition that eagles grow new feathers every ten years for a hundred years (see Ps. 103:5).
While Oswalt acknowledges that this idea would nicely parallel “will renew strength” in the first part of the verse and would continue the contrast with vs. 30, he goes on to dismiss the interpretation on semantic grounds: “[T]he verb is nowhere else used in this sense of ‘put forth’ (although it is used of growing plants); and [אֵבֶר] refers to wing feathers, not feathers in general” (p. 74-75). However, with his “although” clause he weakens his first reason, and his second reason assumes that the ancient translators did not also have wing or flight feathers particularly in mind – an unwarranted assumption. (What would be the point of stressing the growth of new feathers, if those new feathers did not give the eagle renewed strength to fly?)
It seems to me unfortunate that Oswalt merely called the view that eagles grow new feathers every ten years an “ancient tradition,” and did not pursue the factuality of the tradition any further. For better or worse, serious translators today want proven science, not ancient tradition, for exegetical cruces such as this one.
The two translations that follow below verify Oswalt’s claim that this interpretation is an ancient tradition – minus perhaps the “for a hundred years” part. Heshusius’ commentary was published in 1617, though the commentary itself must have an earlier date of origin, since Heshusius passed away in 1588. (For more on Heshusius’ life, see here.) Jerome’s commentary dates to 395-400 AD.
As far as the validity of this ancient tradition for interpreting Isaiah 40:31, we must take into consideration at least the following points:
- King Solomon (ruled 971-932 BC) was one of the wisest men ever to have lived (1 Kings 3:12), and one of the subjects he lectured on was ornithology (1 Kings 4:33). For how many years after his death was his lecture material still available, either in written form or through oral tradition?
- We do not know which particular species of eagle, if any, Isaiah had in mind. (The Hebrew word נֶשֶׁר has also been translated griffon vulture.)
- The modern-day bald eagle, for instance, only has an average lifespan of 20 years and its documented molting cycles do not match the every-10-years cycle of this ancient tradition. However, in addition to the previous point, the lifespan and behavior of humans have varied greatly from place to place and throughout the thousands of years of their existence. Why not also with birds and other creatures?
- Solomon’s father David (1039-969 BC) expressly likened the renewing of one’s youth to what happens to an eagle (Psalm 103:5).
Of course, regardless of which interpretation one prefers – mounting up (Luther), soaring (modern), or growing new flight feathers (ancient) – the point is the same and must not be lost: Leaving the terms and timetable for resolution to God, patiently and willingly suffering for his sake, and trusting in his implicit goodness in Christ Jesus – all of which cannot be done without regular contact with his saving Word – results in ever-increasing and renewed strength for life here on earth and eternal life in heaven. May God always bless our study of his Word to that purpose and end.
Tilemann Heshusius’ Commentary on Isaiah 40:30-31
OVERVIEW OF CHAPTER 40
With this chapter and those that follow to the end of the book, the prophet Isaiah begins sermons that are new in a way. Every one of them is meant to confirm, repeat, and shed light on the promise concerning the coming of the Messiah, both regarding his spiritual and eternal kingdom and regarding his eternal benefits,1 and to strengthen the Church in faith as she awaits salvation from the Messiah. For he explicitly prophesied several times in chapters 3 and 5 that the people of Jerusalem were going to be led away into captivity. And in chapter 39 he plainly announced to King Hezekiah that all the treasures of the king of Judah were going to be carried off to Babylon, and that the sons of the king of Judah were going to be servants in the court of the king of Babylon. And in chapters 24 and 34 he predicted that Jerusalem was going to be so completely destroyed and overthrown at some point that it would never rise again. But if the Mosaic government would be eradicated and the Synagogue rejected from being the people of God, could not the pious begin to doubt and think that all hope of the Messiah’s coming was cut off? That God had changed his will and plan concerning the redemption of the human race and retracted the promise repeated in so many generations?
Therefore, in order that he may remove this doubt and strengthen the pious in faith in the coming Messiah, he preaches with absolute certainty about the Messiah’s coming, expounds his spiritual kingdom in exact detail, describes the distinguished person of the Messiah in many different ways, and comforts the Church with the news that she will be gloriously freed by the Messiah and brought to supreme glory and happiness, and that neither the extremely oppressive Babylonian captivity nor the other manifold misfortunes that will befall that people are going to prevent the coming of the Messiah, who is going to appear towards the end of the government. Yes, he predicts, in fact, that the people of Israel are going to be freed from the Babylonian captivity and that the entire Babylonian empire is going to be destroyed and overthrown by Cyrus the Persian, that Jerusalem is going to be restored and the government preserved until the promised Messiah is presented. Therefore he tells the pious to be of good cheer and to place all their confidence in the promised Messiah, and to expect certain righteousness and salvation from him, and far greater and superior blessings in the New Testament, with the Mosaic government abrogated, than they had ever possessed in the Old.
First he comforts the Church and predicts that the end of the Mosaic government and of the entire Old Testament is drawing near, and he expounds in summary fashion the future benefits of the New Testament, which of course include the free remission of sins.
Then he prophesies about John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, who would cause people to leave the temple and, with sacrifices left behind, would proclaim in the wilderness that the New Testament was about to commence2 and would prepare the way for the Lord Messiah by the preaching of repentance, and would testify with a clear voice that the Messiah was at hand.
He teaches that the Lord himself would be the Messiah, and that the omnipotent God, having been clothed in human flesh, would live among humans and furnish himself for viewing and go about among the cities of Judah. He accuses the entire human race of sin and corruption, in order to warn all people that they need the help of a mediator. He encourages the Church by liberally publishing the good news that the promised Messiah will be presented.3
He describes the Messiah’s spiritual kingdom, that he will not rule with arms and armies the way other kings do, but will gather his Church together like a shepherd and will lead his faithful in a most agreeable and gentle way. He teaches that Christ will rule with divine and heavenly power, and that he will gather a holy church in the world through the ministry of the gospel, the gates of hell notwithstanding. Upon all his enemies, however, he will inflict eternal punishments.
He then preaches in splendid detail about the immense wisdom and infinite power of the Messiah, that he is the creator of heaven and earth, that he has all things in his hand, that he is the source of all wisdom and knowledge, that all the nations are nothing when considered in comparison with the Messiah, the omnipotent God. He teaches that idols and images are nothing, and that those who rely on them are extremely delusional, but that the Messiah is the most powerful of all, as the one who has heaven and earth in his hand, who reduces powerful kings and princes to nothing and makes the wise look like fools.
He teaches that God has not forgotten his Church, nor has he retracted his promise, nor does God grow weary with the passing of time. And so there should be no doubt as to the coming of the Messiah, nor should they abandon the hope of salvation; indeed, they should rather conclude that God will certainly fulfill and accomplish what he has promised, and that he is always supplied with strength and power, but that this kind of judgment will ensue for even the strongest young men, that their strength will let them down so that they fail. But those who wait on the Lord and steadfastly persist in faith will continually regain new powers and will be strengthened through the Holy Spirit. And in this way he instructs the pious to become partakers of Christ’s spiritual kingdom through faith and eager expectation, and to reap the fruit of the Messiah’s coming.
27. Why therefore would you say, O Jacob, and (why) would you, O Israel, speak (this way): “My way has been hidden from the Lord, and my judgment escapes my God”?
28. Do you not know? Have you not heard that God is eternal, and the Lord is the one who created the ends of the earth? He neither wears out from fatigue nor can his intelligence wear out.
29. He (rather) gives strength to the faint, and to him whose powers have surely forsaken him, he supplies vigor in abundance.
30. Grown men are rendered tired and panting, and the choicest young men all fall down.
31. But those who wait for the Lord continually regain new powers; they will raise wings like the eagles. They will run and not wear out; they will walk and not get tired.
Grown men are rendered tired and panting, and the choicest young men all fall down.
He compares the powers of the impious to those of the pious, and he shows how the success is different in each case. The impious vaunt their powers, wisdom, righteousness, free will, courage, and vigor. They expect that they will be able to overcome all troubles and adversities by their own strength. They are confident that they will be able to endure God’s judgment and to overcome death by their own merits and to obtain eternal life. But in fact when troubles and adversities assail, when severe trials attack, when sins awake and they are overwhelmed with a sense of God’s wrath, when death exposes his powers, immediately they grow weary, are unable to hold out, and all fall down.
For human powers cannot endure the judgment of God, and the impious are all destitute of the work and help of the Holy Spirit and therefore must of necessity meet their ruin. Thus Saul met his ruin, Sennacherib fell, Balthasar perished, Goliath fell, the Pharisee in Luke 18 fell. And all the impious, who trust in their own works and powers, sink into despair in the end, destitute of all comfort. Even if they are the choicest young men, who stand out in wisdom, righteousness, vigor, and virtue, who are regarded as most holy, all these fall down too, both among the people of God and among all the heathens.
But those who wait for the Lord continually regain new powers; they will raise wings like the eagles. They will run and not wear out…
That is, the pious, who place their confidence and hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, are continually bolstered with comfort, are revived through the Holy Spirit, receive the remission of sins, are flooded with new light, acquire new powers, are renewed and transformed from splendor to splendor [cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18]. They are sustained in all affliction and adversity, are assisted in every hardship, are strengthened in trials. And in the very courtroom of God’s justice and the sensing of the wrath of God, and also in the agony of death, they have the Holy Spirit as an advocate [paracletum], they receive a taste of eternal life, overcome all evils, and obtain eternal life.
He distinguishes the pious from the impious thus: “But those who wait for the Lord,” that is, those in whom true faith in our Lord Jesus Christ shines forth. For the pious have sins just as much as the impious do. And the pious in large part are weak and feeble. Yet they do not fall down, for they receive the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the one difference between them and the impious, that the pious wait for the Lord.
They therefore continually regain new powers. Just as eagles change their feathers every ten years and renew their strength, so the pious will blossom even in old age; they will be lush and green.
“They will run” – namely in the labors of their vocation, in the endeavor to be pious, in great dangers and trials. “…and not wear out” – namely, they will not be broken by any hardship or any adversity, since they are confirmed and strengthened through the Holy Spirit, whom they have received through faith, and in the end, with all evils overcome, they will be led into eternal life. And thus he also indicates the means through which we may apply to ourselves all the Messiah’s benefits, the remission of sins, grace and truth, an eternal reward, renewal, and eternal life.
Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah 40:30-31
…That is why God gives sadness to those who have an impenitent heart, in order that they may recognize their sins. And since many people take pleasure in the health of the body, and think that youth and childhood last forever, he continues by saying that the flowering age of life quickly fades, and sturdy bodies waste away. But those who have confidence not in their own powers, but in God, and are always awaiting his mercy put on new strength [mutent fortitudinem] and proceed from strength to strength [de virtute in virtutem], and they take on feathers like the eagles, and they hear, “Your youth will be renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5). They run to the Lord, and do not toil under his desire; they walk, and never grow weak. We have often said that the old age of eagles is revitalized by the exchanging of feathers, and that they are the only ones that gaze at the brightness of the sun and can look at the splendor of its rays with sparkling eyes, and they use this test determine whether their chicks are of the noble kind. So too the saints become children again, and since they have taken on an immortal body, they are not affected by the hardship of mortals, but they are snatched up to meet Christ in the clouds, and according to the Septuagint they do not get hungry at all, because they have the Lord at their side as their food.
1 Latin: & de spirituali & æterno regno ipsius de ipsius æternis beneficiis,… There is either an “&” missing before the second de, or the second de should be cum.
2 I am reading exorsurum (in agreement with testamentum) for exorsurus.
3 I am reading exhibiturus for exhibitus.