Isaiah Part Two Deep Dive
THE MOUNTAINTOP | EUON FAM
Let it be said that it is truly a daunting task for any reader to embark on the long and harrowing journey that is reading the Book of Isaiah. It’s sixty-six chapters, at times, feel like a relentless onslaught of prophetic judgement and declaration and there are few clear markers left by Isaiah to aid in navigating his writings. Without the appropriate preparation, it is understandable that this book may turn many readers away and leave them feeling as if there is little to be gained by persevering. But to leave this book by the wayside is a mistake. Although it is a challenging read, it holds the potential of providing a unique glimpse into the enormous scope of the sovereign plans of God. Isaiah alone is quoted more times in the New Testament than all of other Old Testament prophets put together. When Jesus declares Himself the Messiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, He reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:18). The famous passage of the suffering servant, one of the most significant prophecies about Jesus, comes from Isaiah 52 and 53. It is without argument that these writings carry a unique significance and command a certain degree of attention and examination. So with all that being said – our purpose here will be to begin laying a foundation so that we can better understand and interpret Isaiah’s powerful message.
Trashing tip: Isaiah 61:1-2 are the same verses that Jesus uses as His opening speech in Luke 4:14-30, and summarise His mission and the mission of the Church in Acts. Highlight where you can see Jesus and prophecies of Him as you read Isaiah.
Before we dive into any book of Old Testament prophecy we need to ask who the prophet is, who they were speaking to and why they were speaking to them. Isaiah prophesied around 740BC to 680BC to a greatly distraught Judah. In Isaiah 6, we read of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord and commissioning to bring a message of judgement to the people of Judah. At this point, Israel was a divided nation and both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms were in rebellion against God, caught up in the worship of idols and empty religious practice. It is because of this rebellion that God brought a strong message of indictment through Isaiah and warned of a coming righteous destruction that would befall both Judah and Israel. The instrument of this destruction was an invasion of one of the major powers at the time, the Kingdom of Assyria. Isaiah foresaw the threat of Assyria and much of the beginning of Isaiah is dominated by the tense situation that arose. Assyria was notorious, greatly feared, and well known for their cruelty and atrocity.
the prophets speak for god
When many of us think of Old Testament prophecy, we can often think of it as being primarily predictive messages from God brought for the purpose of warning. This isn’t necessarily wrong but the core role of the prophets was to be representatives of the covenant to the leaders of Israel. They were sovereignly chosen by God and anointed as His emissaries and prosecuting attorney. The covenant was a constitutional and legal framework and the prophets were used to bring charges against the people. They were there to reveal the consequences of rejecting God and the blessing that comes with walking righteously.
With this in mind as we read Isaiah, we read of the case brought against Judah and Israel, Assyria being their punishment. But as we progress through the book, the scope of Isaiah’s message begins to broaden. The judgments being delivered no longer target Israel and Judah alone but also Assyria, Egypt, Babylon and other surrounding nations. Then, in Chapter 24, we reach a climax with the warning of judgement, directed at the whole earth. This is the first time that Isaiah’s message is not solely concerning Israel and Judah and their immediate situation. There is something much larger at play.
a short respite
When navigating Isaiah, the clearest marker we’re given is in Chapters 36-39. This central section suddenly switches from prophecy to historical narrative as we read of the story of Hezekiah. These chapters parallel 2 Kings 18-19 and tell of a story rich in lessons of faith, prayer and disobedience. In a climactic final stand, we see Assyria sweep the nation, taking all of Israel captive along with all the cities of Judah. But thanks to Hezekiah’s repentance, in a single miraculous act, Assyria is turned back and Jerusalem alone remains standing. However, this respite is short lived as Hezekiah’s pride paves the way for the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of the people of Judah. Assyria was defeated but Isaiah prophesies that the new major power, Babylon, will soon descend upon Jerusalem and carry away all its people and wealth.
It is here, between Chapters 39 and 40, that we reach what has previously been a point of contention among many Bible scholars. Chapters 40 and onwards have a very sudden shift in tone and audience as Isaiah’s writings move into a message of hope and comfort to a people in exile. This can be problematic for some as the exile takes place some 100 years after Isaiah’s death. Not only this, but in Chapter 45, Isaiah names the future Babylonian king, Cyrus, and prophesies of his rise into power. Earlier manuscripts have also hinted at a possible gap between these two chapters, as a line of text was left blank between them. Some theorize this was an indication of some sort of division and along with the previous changes in tone likely meant there were possibly multiple authors for the Book of Isaiah. J Alec Motyer points out that in the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah (one of the earliest complete manuscripts) this supposed gap is absent. It is also worth noting that theories relating to the fragmentation of the Book of Isaiah likely are rooted in 19th Century rationalism which denied predictive prophecy. If predictive prophecy isn’t an issue for you then it’s easy to say that the authorship of this book, from beginning to end, is none other than Isaiah of Jerusalem.
awaiting the promised salvation
As we move into the second half of the book, Isaiah’s message becomes one of hope and comfort. He speaks of sins forgiven, time served and that God’s mercy would triumph as they are restored back to Jerusalem. However, this return is but a small victory. They remain under the ruler of the imperial power of Babylon and are far from being a truly free and sovereign nation. Historically and politically, this a crucial moment for the people of God, for they are neither are they enslaved nor completely free. They no longer stand as a united nation against a clear enemy but rather have been suppressed, absorbed and dispersed into a greater society. Never again do the people of God identify themselves as a sovereign nation, instead they become a religion and culture that is tolerated in a secular society.
With this backdrop and Israel left to continue to wait upon the Lord’s salvation, Isaiah’s message begins to unfold God’s bigger plan. Israel may have witnessed a great deliverance through Cyrus but they are yet to experience an even greater deliverance through a coming Servant. This servant will succeed where Israel failed and comes not just for Israel, but will be anointed to bring blessing and salvation to the whole world.
There is a reason the Book of Isaiah has been called the ‘fifth gospel’. Its size and complexity cause it to slip by without close inspection but those willing to take the time to understand what is written in this book will find revealed to them a broad, compelling and clear vision of God’s plan and redemptive nature. Isaiah is a book that has the unique ability to lead us to a mountaintop on the biblical landscape and give us a sweeping view of the entire Bible.