Window on Isaiah

19 August 2010 10:45:28

Philip Greenslade helps us to understand the book of Isaiah and its relationship with the Gospels.


Isaiah of Jerusalem was a remarkable man with a prophetic ministry spanning the 60 year reign of four Judean kings (Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah) during the second half of the 8th century BC – that is, from around 850BC onwards.

Apparently able to move easily in court circles, Isaiah spoke the Word of God to kings and nations in a critical phase of the history of God's people.

He lived through the nerve-jangling Assyrian threat to Judah and felt the pain of the demise of the Northern Kingdom of Israel when Samaria fell to the invaders in 722BC.

Married to a prophetess who gave him symbolically-named sons, Isaiah, like all true prophets of God, not only spoke but to some extent embodied God's message in his own experience (6:1ff) and behaviour (20:1ff).

The book that bears his name is majestic in scope and magnificent in content. It seems to gather up all the richness of previous Old Testament revelation and to project it forward in fruitful ways into the New Testament era.

In its theology and structure it virtually encapsulates the whole of the Bible. In the words of evangelical commentator John Oswalt, 'If the book is read in its wholeness today, it will continue to unite the two Testaments as no other book can.'

The fascination of the book of Isaiah – and its enigma – arise from the fact that it seems to have three distinct focuses:

(i) Chapters 1–39 relate to the crisis posed by Assyrian imperial expansion from 750BC onwards.

This destroyed the Israel of the Divided Kingdom and its capital Samaria in 722BC and later, around 701, ravaged Judah and threatened to engulf Jerusalem – 'up to its very neck' (8:8).

Chapters 36–39 form the bridge, linking this crisis which Judah will survive (36–37) to the future invasion by the Babylonians which it will not (38–39).

In the extended period of danger, Isaiah urged first Ahaz (chapters 7–9) and later Hezekiah (36–39) to put their entire trust in God rather than unreliable political alliances with foreign powers.

Prophetic clues, one prophet

With the future of the failed monarchy increasingly in doubt, Isaiah begins to lay clues for an ideal king to come (7,9,33).

(ii) Chapters 40–55 offer comfort and hope in stunning visions of salvation and new creation.

It makes best sense read as addressed to the traumatised exiles in Babylon reeling from the destruction of Jerusalem in 585 BC and the loss of kingship, Temple and land.

Isaiah brings good news of God's strange work of judgment and even stranger means of grace in raising up the pagan Medo-Persian emperor Cyrus as the 'anointed' deliverer of Yaweh's people (45:1) who will conquer the Babylonians and decree the release of God's people and their return to the Land.

Beyond this, Isaiah predicts the appearance of a mysterious suffering servant – one who will fulfil the vocation of a failed Israel by being the true Israelite, God's faithful covenant partner, prepared to restore the people to their holiness and covenant destiny.

(iii) Chapters 56–66 seem to reflect the post-exilic situation where returning exiles struggle to rebuild their ruined city and shattered Temple, and seek to regain their identity as God's people.

Tension still seems to persist between the 'righteous' and the compromisers as Isaiah probes the ambiguous response of the people to the renewed call to spiritual worship and social justice.

This enigma remains unresolved. The earlier critical consensus which explained this by posing three distinct authors has broken down under the renewed weight of scholarly attention given to the undoubted overall unity of the book.

But no doubt exists about the power and significance of the sweeping prophetic panorama. The theological unity of Isaiah is impressive. 'Isaiah sums up biblical theology in a better way than does any other single book of the Bible.' (John Oswalt.)

Misplaced faith

It takes faith to be a servant people and a servant king, as the contrast between Ahaz (6–8) and Hezekiah (36–39) brings out.

Isaiah 1–39 has been termed a 'critique of dominant ideology' (Walter Brueggemann). Political events on the world stage are shaking the foundations of the false security of the Israelite and Judean kings.

This exposes the misplaced faith of king and people in human pride and power at the expense of that risky trust in God which makes possible the vulnerable role of servanthood.

Isaiah (1–39 and 40–66) mirrors the painful reversion from earthly kingship to divine kingship shown by the arrangement of the Psalms (cf Psalms 72–89 with 90 ff).

God is 'the Holy One of Israel', the one Creator and Lord of Creation and therefore the one Redeemer of his people and his world (40–49).

Isaiah was the first to strike the 'apostolic' note that 'God took the responsibility of creating the world because he knew He possessed the power to redeem and retrieve whatever creation might come to' (P.T.Forsyth). Isaiah insists that the nation's extremities are God's opportunities. World events are going his way!

As John Goldingay has it: 'God is not just someone to protect them from crises; he is someone who brings about crises.' The convulsions of history are sovereignty bent to his saving purpose.

Hence the hope for an exiled people revolves around two promised figures.

An agent of God, the Persian overlord Cyrus, will effect the return to the Land (chapters 40–48).

The evangelical prophet

But to bring about a return to the Lord as well as the Land requires that the deeper problem of Israel's inveterate sin and covenantal unfaithfulness be dealt with.

For this, Cyrus will not do; only through an enigmatic suffering servant of God (42–53) will God's people be returned to him and come home to salvation and peace.

Not for nothing has Isaiah been called 'the evangelical prophet'. His whole book, and especially chapters 40–55, form the primary seedbeed for New Testament theology.

The ministry of Jesus is best seen as the long awaited end of exile, with the announcement of forgiveness and the day of grace. This is confirmed by the way in which Isaiah is plundered by the gospel writers to define the 'gospel'.

Mark starts the Jesus story with Isaiah's 'wilderness herald' who, he says, is John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:9; Mark 1).

Matthew particularly sees Jesus as the Isaianic bearer of the good news of God's kingdom of peace and salvation, the one in whom the reign of God arrives on the earthly scene once more (cf isaiah 52:7; Matthew 4:14–23; see also 12:12:17ff; 13:14ff).

Isaiah 61:1–3 is for Luke the Manifesto of the Messiah, Jesus – the starting point for understanding all he is and intends to do (Luke 4 ).

John is almost certainly deeply indebted to the Isaianic vision of God's salvation too. His unique emphasis on the 'I am's' of Jesus probably derives from Isaiah's stress on the incomparability of God, the great 'I am' (Isaiah 40–48).

Paul's preaching of 'justification by faith' derives from Isaiah's vision of the covenental faithfulness of God going out in power to save (cf Isaiah 51:1–8 with Romans 1:16–17 etc).

This has important repercussions for our understanding of the Gospel:

Justification is a word with forensic or legal overtones, but in an Old Testament context where God in the law court of the nations decides for his people against their enemies, it has nothing to do with any 'just-as-if-I'd never-sinned' talk.

To be justified is to be declared a member of the covenant family of God on the basis of faith in Messiah Jesus. Justification is not how we become Christians but the declaration that we are Christians. It represents the fulfilment of the Isaianic hope that God will one day act to restore his people to covenant righteousness and relationship.

All this is rooted in Isaiah, and only Jesus joined together the royal, messianic hopes of Isaiah and his portrait of the suffering servant.

Only after Cross and Resurrection did the pieces fit together and the good news dawn that through the judgement and 'death' of exile had come the restoration of Israel and salvation for the world.

And still ahead lies the prophetic and apostolic vision – of the new creation 'bursting out all over' as 'new heavens and new earth' (Isaiah 65–66 and Romans 8, 2 Peter 3, Revelation 21–22).


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