We’re in the middle of seven haftarot of consolation, seven readings from Isaiah that take us from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. The haftarah for this week is Isaiah 51:12–52:12 and the haftarah for next week is Isaiah 54:1–10, so it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to skip right over Isaiah 53 (which begins at 52:13). Those of us who see Isaiah 53 as the greatest portrayal of Messiah Yeshua in the Hebrew Scriptures might be tempted to claim that it was left out of the reading cycle on purpose. But to be fair, there’s another explanation for its absence, since it doesn’t explicitly include the theme of comfort or consolation, or mention the return from exile that’s so prominent in other passages.
In fact, rather than being left out of the haftarah readings, it almost looks like chapter 53 got inserted as a parenthetical statement into the book of Isaiah between this week’s haftarah and next week’s. But, of course, that interpretation misses the point too, a major point that Isaiah is making in the way he composed his prophecy.
The key to this major point is one word, Hineni, which appears at the end of Isaiah 52:6.
Here’s a literal translation: Therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that day [they will know] that I am he who speaks; Hineni—behold, here I am.
Hashem promises “my people will know my name,” but he has been using his name, yud-hay-vav-hay, all along, and everyone knows who that refers to. The promise means that God’s people, Israel, will get to know him in a far more profound way than they ever have. This deeper revelation will happen in the future, “in that day.” And to underline this promised revelation, the Lord says, Hineni, here I am!
Now, Hineni in the Tanakh is generally something that people say to God. When Hashem calls Abraham to tell him to offer up Isaac, Abraham responds with Hineni! When God calls Moses from the burning bush, he responds with Hineni! When God appears before Isaiah and asks who he can send with his message, Isaiah says Hineni! Send me! But here, for the first time, it is God who says Hineni. As the Jewish Study Bible notes, “Elsewhere in the Bible this word is used be human beings responding to a divine call. Only in [this section of Isaiah] does God call ‘here I am’ to humans.”
Hineni appears in this passage as a remez, a rabbinic Hebrew term for a hint or clue in Scripture. When he says Hineni, God is talking like a human, hinting that the greater self-revelation he promises will entail revealing himself in human form. He will come to his people as one of them, who can say Hineni in their midst.
Isaiah follows up this truth with a rhapsodic passage, “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news!” (Isaiah 52:7ff). His whole book could really end here, with the glorious promise of return and restoration for all Israel, when “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:10). But after this crescendo, just seven verses after the mysterious Hineni, comes another Hineh, Behold!, this time referring to the servant of the Lord, the subject of Isaiah 53. This servant is clearly human and suffers as a man, but he is also introduced as the one who will be “high and lifted up”—a phrase that Isaiah uses in two other places, one before this and one after, to describe the supreme God himself.
I am writing this on the first day of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, when we spend time in introspection and preparation for meeting with God during the High Holy Days. The words of Isaiah reveal that the God we seek is both high and lifted up, far above our preconceptions and definitions of him, and fully accessible in the person of his Servant, the one who says “Here I am” when we call.