With this essay we begin a study of the book of Isaiah. It is a rather daunting study. Isaiah is a very large book, with 66 chapters. My basic approach will be the same as with other books, but I may modify it some by summarizing certain larger sections rather than going through the entire book verse by verse.
For your information, I am going to rely a great deal on the two-volume commentary by John Oswalt, former professor at Asbury Theological Seminary. John is more conservative than most other Old Testament scholars, but he is an expert on Isaiah; and I trust his judgments.
In this essay we are going to do a rather sweeping introduction to the prophet Isaiah and his great book. I want to help you get a kind of “snapshot” of the prophet, the background of the book, and what scholars have to say about it. To begin, Isaiah was the first of the so-called “major” prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel being the others. What we know about Isaiah the prophet is found in his book and in 2 Kings, especially 18:13-20:21, which is parallel to Is. 36-39, with some variations.
He was born, probably in Jerusalem, but the date of his birth is uncertain. His ministry extended from the year that king Uzziah died, about 740 BC (6:1), to at least 701. Thus his ministry was four or more decades long and covered the reigns of four kings of Judah, counting Uzziah. The others were Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (1:1).
We can tell from what is revealed about Isaiah and his literary style that he was a member of the Judean aristocracy. He was quite well educated and had access to the kings. Isaiah was married to a prophetess (8:3), though we know nothing about her. He had two children to whom he gave symbolic names (7:3; 8:3).
As we shall see when we get to chapter six, Isaiah’s call to be a prophet occurred in the temple. Indeed he may have been, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, a priest connected to the temple, though that never is said. Whatever Isaiah’s status, or lack thereof, as a priest, he responded to God’s call by immediately beginning his prophetic ministry.
Isaiah’s advice to the kings over the years always was consistent. And it was more religious than political, though of course it had political implications. Isaiah opposed foreign alliances and always advised the kings to rely on God rather than other nations like Assyria and Egypt. But they rarely listened to him.
Turning now to the book of Isaiah, it has two major characteristics that have raised controversy among scholars. First, there are three easily identifiable parts to the book. The opening part is chapters 1-39. These chapters are tied fairly closely to the historical events of 739-701 BC. Thus they took place during Isaiah’s lifetime.
The second part is chapters 40-55, which deals historically with 605-539 BC. That is the period of the Babylonian Exile that took place long after Isaiah’s death. God intended those chapters to encourage the exiles and those of us who came much later in history, as well as to say something to the historical situation of the day.
The third and final part is chapters 56-66, which deals with the return to the homeland that took place in 539-400 BC, though Isaiah’s book probably only goes as far as approximately 500 BC. Again this is long after the death of Isaiah.
A second controversial characteristic of the book of Isaiah is the fact that the three sections of the book (already pointed out) are very different from one another in style and tone. These two characteristics, taken together eventually led many Old Testament scholars to the conclusion that the book of Isaiah had at least three authors, which have become known as First Isaiah, Second Isaiah, and Third Isaiah.
John Oswalt makes a fairly solid argument for the unity of the book and a single author, though most Old Testament scholars disagree with him about that. We are not going to discuss all of the arguments pro and con about authorship. Let me just summarize a few key points made by Oswalt. First, the very first verse of the book suggests that the book contains visions that came to Isaiah. And that alone suggests that it will be varied in its style and content.
Second, several verses in chapters 1-39 attribute words directly to Isaiah (2:1; 7:3; 13:1; 20:2; 37:6, 21; and 38:1). Though Isaiah is not named as a source of the material in chapters 40-66, neither is anyone else. Thus there is no indication in the text of any author other than Isaiah.
Third, regarding the different style and tone of chapters 40-66, Oswalt believes that the different types of visions already mentioned account for most of the differing styles. In addition, some of the difference may be due to their being written at different times in Isaiah’s life.
Finally fourth, since Oswalt believes that God occasionally gave predictive prophecies to Old Testament prophets (something that most Old Testament scholars do not accept) it is possible that Isaiah could have written those prophecies. As Oswalt says, “while prediction of the future is not the primary function of biblical prophecy, it is a legitimate element” (Vol. I, p. 48). Like Oswalt, I believe in predictive prophecy; and I will interpret accordingly. And I accept that Isaiah was the author of the entire book, though his followers may have had a part in putting the final text together.
A fifth point, one that Oswalt does not make, is the fact that in the great Isaiah scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is no break of any kind between chapters 39 and 40. And a sixth point, also unmentioned by Oswalt, is the fact that the New Testament credits the chapters after 39 as from the hand of Isaiah. The first three examples, all in Matthew, are: Mt. 3:3, 8:17, and 12:17-21. The 8:17 example is from the lips of Jesus himself.
When the matter of the date of the book is raised, those scholars who do not believe in predictive prophecy and who believe that there were at least three authors, date the book during the three different historical periods represented by the material. On the other hand, those of us who accept predictive prophecy and believe that the material came from Isaiah, date it during Isaiah’s ministry, about 740-to at least 701 BC.
Regardless of one’s opinions about authorship, for evangelicals at least, the book as a whole is the canonical book of Isaiah. And I agree with Oswalt’s commitment to the canonical form of the book. In summary, the book in its final canonical form (however it got that way) is a literary unit in the Old Testament. So I am going to treat it that way.
Looking at Isaiah as a whole, Oswalt suggests that the overarching theme of the book is servanthood. Servanthood is the main theme of chapters 40-55, but Oswalt believes it is the implicit theme of the rest of the book. “Servanthood” in this case relates not just to individuals, but also to God’s people as a whole. Chapters 1-5 are an introduction that makes clear that Israel is an arrogant and sinful nation rather than God’s servant. Therefore those opening chapters raise the question of how Israel can become the servant of God she is supposed to be.
Chapter six, which tells us about Isaiah’s call to ministry in the temple is a kind of short answer to the question. If the nation would do as Isaiah does in chapter six, she would become God’s servant again. In Oswalt’s words:
When they, like Isaiah, have recognized not only their complete helplessness to do anything about that condition, when they have received his grace as a completely unmerited act, then they will be in a position to hear his call to bear his message, then they will be able to respond with an obedience, which will leave the outcome in his hands (Vol. I, p. 55).
The rest of the book answers the question in a more detailed way. Chapters 7-39 emphasize the concept of trust. In chapters 7-12 we will see Israel and Judah put their trust in other nations instead of in God. Isaiah clearly saw the foolishness of that. And in chapters 13-23 we will find a series of pronouncements against the nations.
Chapters 24-27 stress the fact that God is Lord over all the nations. Chapters 28-33 show the folly of trusting nations instead of God. And in chapters 34-35 the results of misplaced trust are laid out. Then chapters 36-39 show that God can be trusted.
The latter part of the book of Isaiah (chs. 40-66) answers three remaining questions of servanthood: What will motivate us to serve God (chs. 40-48)? What means will make it possible for us to serve, even if we wish to (chs. 49-55)? And what are the marks of the servant’s life in an imperfect world (chs. 56-66)?
By the latter chapters of the book, the main threat to Judah no longer is Assyria. Rather it is Babylon. Indeed Isaiah prophesies about the Babylonian Exile that would take place a couple of hundred centuries after his death.
Of course the main issue of that coming day was captivity. But the matter went deeper than physical captivity in Babylon. There also was their spiritual captivity to rebelliousness and sin. God used the Persian, Cyrus, a human servant, to deliver the people from the physical captivity. But the final deliverance from spiritual captivity was going to take the divine Servant (49:1-6; 50:4-10; 52:13-53:12), who would come centuries later.