Isaiah

After John the Baptist (cf. Matthew 11:9-11), Isaiah was probably the greatest Old Testament prophet. The opening verse of the book states that Isaiah ministered during the reigns of four kings of Judah, namely king Uzziah (who died in 740/739 BC; cf. Isaiah 6:1), Jotham, Ahaz, and ending sometime after king Hezekiah died (in about 687 BC). It is possible that Isaiah died a martyr’s death, because according to a Jewish tradition, king Manasseh put Isaiah in a hollow tree before cutting it and Isaiah in half, an incident which may be referenced in Hebrews 11:37. Given the above data, the Book of Isaiah may have been written sometime in about 680 BC. Isaiah was married, we know of two sons that he had (Isaiah 7:3; 8:3) and he was likely the greatest writer among the Old Testament prophets.

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Authorship of Isaiah

While many in academia who follow a critical approach to the study of the Old Testament hold to two or even three authors of this book (Döderlein, Eichhorn, Gesenius, Duhm, etc.), Isaiah is the one and only writer of the entire book which bears his name (1:1; 2:1; 7:3; 13:1; 20:2; 37:2, 6, 21; 38:1, 4, 21; 39:3, 5, 8). There is no evidence whatsoever that Isaiah 40-66 or perhaps even 40-55 and 56-66 circulated independently of chapters 1-39 (Rooker 2011:370-371). In fact, the apostle John quotes Isaiah 6:10 (in John 12:41) but three verses earlier he had quoted Isaiah 53:1 (John 12:38) — but John did not quote ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, he quoted Isaiah. Another reason why the authorship of Isaiah is questioned is because numerous predictive prophecies are found in Isaiah 40-66 and it is thought that Isaiah could not possibly address situations post the Babylonian exile. But on the contrary, six times in Isaiah (42:8-9; 44:7-8; 45:1-4, 21; 46:10; 48:3-6) the Holy One of Israel says that He predicts the future — ‘declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done’ (46:10) — the very things some scholars try to deny. But do the writing style, content or theological emphases of Isaiah 1-39 not argue for multiple authors? Not only does it not do that, but in fact the argument favours a single author writing under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit (cf. Rooker 2011:367-371; Constable 2017:1-5). The view that Isaiah wrote one unified composition is strengthened by the fact that chapters 1-39 contain more references to ‘Babylon’ than do chapters 40-55 (so the suggestion that 40-55 must be ‘Babylonian-based’ is wrongheaded), the recurrence of the name ‘the Holy One of Israel’ throughout the book, the Isaiah scroll found at Qumran preserved the book as a unified whole and, lastly, the New Testament attributes all parts of the book to Isaiah (Rydelnik & Spencer 2014:1005-1006).

Audience

Since he ministered during the reigns of four Judean kings in Jerusalem (Isaiah 1:1), Isaiah must either have lived in that city or he must have been in Jerusalem rather often. Further, since Isaiah ministered over a period of at least four decades, if not for about 60 years, keep in mind that the audience who heard Isaiah preach was not necessarily the same as the first recipients who read the Book of Isaiah. In agreement with Rydelnik and Spencer (2014:1006), Isaiah was written ‘for the faithful remnant of Israel in order to engender comfort, hope, and faith in them by reminding them that the Holy One of Israel would judge sin and ultimately comfort and restore Israel according to His promise’. Isaiah’s task was to ‘explain to these chosen people that the old world order was passing away and that the new order—controlled by Gentile world empires that sought to swallow Judah up—required a new commitment for Israel to trust and obey Yahweh as His “servant” nation’ (Constable 2017:7). Even though Babylon would ultimately sweep the Southern Kingdom (Judah) away, a remnant shall return to eventually enter the Messianic kingdom which will merge into the Eternal order, for the salvation that God provides is eternal (Isaiah 2:1-5; 4:2-6; 7:3; 9:1-6; 65-66). The table below helps to situate the writing prophets of Israel in their respective historical contexts – with the dates being the time when they started ministering and/or writing.

Table 1: Writing Prophets in the Old Testament
(in probable chronological order)

Time PeriodEmpire ProphetDates BCHomesDestinationsKingsTexts
Pre-exilicAssyrianObadiah845Judah?EdomJehoram
Pre-exilicAssyrianJoel835Judah?JudahJoash
Pre-exilicAssyrianJonah780IsraelNineveh & IsraelJeroboam II
Pre-exilicAssyrianHosea760IsraelIsraelUzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Jeroboam IIHos 1:1
Pre-exilicAssyrianAmos760JudahIsraelUzziah, Jeroboam IIAm 1:1
Pre-exilicAssyrianIsaiah740JudahJudah & JerusalemUzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, HezekiahIsa 1:1
Pre-exilicAssyrianMicah735JudahJudahJotham, Ahaz, HezekiahMic 1:1
Pre-exilicAssyrianNahum655JudahNineveh & IsraelManasseh
Pre-exilicBabylonianZephaniah630JudahJudahJosiahZep 1:1
Pre-exilicBabylonianJeremiah625JudahJudahJosiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, ZedekiahJer 1:2-3
Pre-exilicBabylonianHabakkuk605JudahChaldea & JudahJehoiakim
ExilicBabylonianEzekiel593BabylonBabylon (Jewish)Zedekiah, NebuchadnezzarEz 1:1-3
ExilicBabylonianDaniel535BabylonBabylon (Gentile)Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, CyrusDan 1, 5, 6, 10
PostexilicPersianHaggai520JudahJudahDariusHag 1:1
PostexilicPersianZechariah520JudahJudahDariusZec 1:1
PostexilicPersianMalachi432JudahJudahArtaxerxes

Source: Constable (2017:340).

Structure of Isaiah

Several structures have been proposed for the Book of Isaiah, of which we note two. The first structure is proposed by Rydelnik and Spencer (2014:1007). After an introduction and Isaiah’s call to the office of a prophet (chapters 1-6), one finds the narrative of a sign rejected (7-12), which is followed by oracles of judgement (13-35). Then in chapters 36-39, one finds a narrative of a sign accepted, followed by oracles of blessing (40-66). The resultant structure of Isaiah can be depicted as follows:

Introduction chapters 1-6JUDGEMENT OF ISRAEL AND THE NATIONS
Narrative of a ‘sign’ rejected 7-12Oracles of Judgement
Oracles against the nations 13-23The Little Apocalypse 24-27“Woes” upon the nations 28-33Summary of Judgement 34-35
BLESSING OF ISRAEL AND THE NATIONS
Narrative of a ‘sign’ accepted 36-39Oracles of Blessing
Deliverance from Babylon (Theology Proper) 40-48Deliverance from sin (Soteriology & Christology) 49-57Deliverance in the End (Eschatology) 58-66

Source: Rydelnik and Spencer (2014:1007).

The second structure for the Book of Isaiah is proposed by Dorsey (1999:234):

A Introductory messages of condemnation, pleading, and future restoration 1:1-12:6
B Oracles to nations: Humiliation of proud king of Babylon 13:1-27:13
    C Collection of woes: Don’t trust in earthly powers! 28:1-35:10
      D CENTER: Historical narratives showing Yahweh’s supremacy over all earthly and heavenly powers 36:1-39:8
    C’ Yahweh’s supremacy over idols: Don’t trust in idols! 40:1-48:22
B’ Servant messages: Exaltation of the humble Servant 49:1-54:17
A’ Concluding messages of condemnation, pleading, and future restoration 55:1-66:24

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah did not only structure the book as a whole, but smaller units are also structured. For example, Motyer (1993:194-195) shows how Isaiah 24-27 — often called ‘The Little Apocalypse’ because it describes the 7-year Tribulation Period and its immediate aftermath — may be structured:

A The Lord’s harvest from a destroyed world (24:1-13: destruction 1-12; gleanings 13)
B The song of the world remnant (24:14-16a)
    C The sinful world overthrown (24:16b-20)
      D The waiting world (24:21-23)
        E The song of the ruined city (25:1-5)
          F Mount Zion (25:6-12)
        E’ The song of the strong city (26:1-6)
      D’ The waiting people of God (26:7-21)
    C’ Spiritual forces of evil overthrown (27:1)
B’ The song of the remnant of the people (27:2-6)
A’ The Lord’s harvest from a destroyed people (27:7-13: destruction 7-11; gleanings 12-13)

Purpose

Why was Isaiah written? There may be more reasons why Isaiah was inspired by God to write this book, but we note only the following two. First, when Isaiah started ministering in about 740 BC, the Northern kingdom (Israel) was within about 18 years of begin taken captive by Assyria (in 722 BC). Isaiah warned the Southern kingdom (Judah) that unless it repented, it too would eventually be uprooted from the land and be taken captive — as eventually happened in the Babylonian captivity. The pivot from the Assyrian threat to the future Babylonian captivity is especially evident in what Dorsey (1999:224) views as Isaiah’s chiastic turning point in Isaiah 36-39.

Second, since the Davidic Covenant is unconditional and eternal, God will have his anointed Son of David on the throne in Jerusalem. Various warnings and judgements in Isaiah are frequently followed by prophecies regarding the Messianic kingdom. For example, 1:2-31 (warning and judgment) is immediately followed by 2:1-5 (the Messianic kingdom), and 2:6-4:1 (warning and judgment) is again immediately followed by 4:2-6 (Messianic kingdom). God is therefore providing hope and comfort to the faithful, be they the believing remnant of Israel or the believers from the Gentile nations (cf. Isaiah 42:1-6). Rydelnik and Spencer (2014:1006) states it well: ‘The enduring message of Isaiah is that God’s people would continue to live in the knowledge that He is the holy God who delivers those faithful to Him. This message is interwoven in the various discussions about the remnant, the coming Messiah, and the eventual restoration of all creation. Recognizing that God is the holy God who delivers those faithful to Him empowers believers of all generations to live lives of obedience and love regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves. It continues to remind the faithful to trust in God and to follow Him even when it appears to be irrational, inconvenient, or dangerous’.

Conclusion

The name ‘Isaiah’ means ‘The LORD saves’, a name similar to the name and meaning of Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation” (cf. Matthew 1:21). When Isaiah saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, his response was: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5; ESV). Isaiah saw the Second Person of the Trinity, for only Christ can see God the Father and live (cf. John 1:18; 1 Tim 6:13). Later the Apostle John (12:41) testifies that ‘Isaiah said these things [cf. Isaiah 6] because he saw his glory and spoke of him’. Isaiah was one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, and yet he desparately needed the LORD to save him — and so do we all.

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Sources:

Constable, T.L., 2017, Notes on Isaiah, 2017 edition.

Dorsey, D.A., 1999, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

Motyer, J.A., 1993, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove.

Rooker, M.F., 2011, ‘Isaiah’, in E.H. Merrill, M.F. Rooker & M.A. Grisanti, The World and the Word, pp. 367-379, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville.

Rydelnik, M. & Spencer, J., 2014, ‘Isaiah’, in M. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (eds.), The Moody Bible Commentary, pp. 1005–1102, Moody Publishers, Chicago.

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