|Isaiah, Theology of |
Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was an eighth-century prophet who appeared at a critical time in Judah's history, proclaiming a message of judgment. However, Isaiah apparently always entertained the hope that the nation would turn back to God and be spared from severe punishment. As Isaiah was beginning his ministry, the Assyrians were in the process of building an empire that threatened to swallow up Israel unless Yahweh would deliver his people. This is why the decision Ahaz was forced to make in Isaiah 7 was so crucial. He had to choose between placing his trust in human wisdom and power or in Yahweh to deliver the nation from war. God even graciously offered to give Ahaz a sign to enhance his faith, but Ahaz would not commit himself to trust in Yahweh. The outcome was the Syro-Ephraimite War (734-732 b.c.) and Judah's loss of political independence (they became vassals successively to Assyria, Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome). In spite of this, Yahweh promised to one day restore his peoplenot the entire nation, as he had done in the past, but a remnant. Isaiah was one of the first to prophesy that Yahweh was not limited by the people's unbelief, but that he could raise up and deliver a believing remnant. This remnant would be comprised of those righteous people of Judah who would turn to Yahweh and thereby be brought through the crisis.
The basis for this deliverance, even though rarely mentioned (54:10; 55:3-5; 56:4-5; 59:21; 61:8), is grounded upon the covenant that Yahweh originally made with Abraham. On several occasions in the Book of Isaiah, Yahweh steps in to deliver a remnant of the nation so that the covenant would continue. One such occasion was when Assyria, led by Sennacherib in 701 b.c., marched into Judah with the chief aim of annihilating it (10:7). They had destroyed all of Judah except for Jerusalem; the night before Sennacherib was to begin siege of the city, the text says that "the angel of the Lord" descended and killed 185, 000 Assyrian soldiers. The Assyrians subsequently returned to Nineveh without capturing the city. On another occasion Yahweh used Cyrus as his servant to deliver the nation from Babylonian captivity and allow them to return to Jerusalem (44:28-45:13).
Early in his ministry Isaiah was warned that his message would go unheeded by the vast majority of the nation (6:9-13); however, his call in the year of King Uzziah's death (6:1-8; approximately 740 b.c.) encouraged him to continue proclaiming his unpopular message. He was given a vision of the holiness of God that colored the rest of his ministry. Thus it is no wonder that the key title for Yahweh, "The Holy One of Israel, " is used twelve times in the first thirty-nine chapters and fourteen times thereafter. Unfortunately Isaiah was one of the few people in Judah who comprehended the extent of his unholiness (6:5); if more of the nation had had a similar perspective, they may have lived differently. God gave the nation extended opportunities to repent and turn back to him so that divine punishment could be averted, but the message never seemed to penetrate the people's hardened hearts.
Introduction. The first chapter of the book contains important theology regarding both Yahweh and man. Yahweh is long-suffering and merciful, but he must also punish sin. In fact, punishment appears to be administered by Yahweh to encourage the nation to repent (vv. 5-6). Sacrifices and empty prayers do not satisfy or impress Yahweh (vv. 11-15); a change of behavior accompanied by a proper heart attitude is what he demands (vv. 16-17). The nation needed to turn from their evil deeds and demonstrate practical good deeds, such as seeking after justice, punishing evildoers, and helping those in society who have no one else to come to their aid, such as orphans and widows. Yahweh graciously says that if the nation will turn back to him, he will remove their sins and bestow a blessing (i.e., eating the best of the land, vv. 18-19), but they will be punished if they rebel (v. 20), which is similar to the blessings and cursings found in Deuteronomy 27-28. In this section man is seen as more rebellious than dumb animals (i.e., donkeys and oxen) since even these animals know enough not to bite the hand that feeds them. By contrast, Yahweh's people rebel against him without considering the consequences (v. 3). They have the form of religion (offering sacrifices and prayers), but their hearts are far from Yahweh and therefore he refuses to listen to their prayers. Verse 15 says that the people's hands are full of bloodshed, either from their sacrifices or, more likely, in the literal sense, by allowing orphans, widows, and other poor people to be treated unjustly. In spite of their reprehensible behavior, some of Yahweh's people will be delivered and become righteous. The names for God, the Lord God of Hosts and the Mighty One of Israel, reinforce the certainty that these things will be accomplished.
Judgment. Chapters 2-4 are in the form of an inclusio: The beginning (2:1-4) and end (4:2-6) deal with the future prospects of Judah and Jerusalem, whereas the middle section (2:5-4:1) concerns the present, disgraceful condition of Jerusalem. The land is filled with influences from the East (v. 6); there are soothsayers (v. 6) and idol worshipers (v. 8). God will bring destruction and punishment so that the people will finally turn to him. The key verse in this section on restoration is 4:4, which states that Yahweh will purge Jerusalem of filth and bloodshed by the spirit of judgment and burning.
Chapters 5-12 contain a message very similar to the preceding one, but describe in more detail the series of purgings and deliverances that will result in the final restoration of the nation. These chapters form a palistrophe (a literary structure in which the features in the first half of the story correspond to features in the second half), arranged as follows:
a) The Song of the Vineyard [essentially destruction] (5:1-7)
b) Six "woe" oracles pronounced upon the wicked (5:8-24)
c) "The raised hand of God" oracles culminating in destruction by Assyria (5:25-30)
d) The Isaianic Memoir (6:1-9:6)
c) Four "the raised hand of God" oracles culminating in destruction by Assyria (9:7-10:4)
b) "Woe" oracles pronounced upon Assyria, which give rise to the restoration of Judah (10:5-11:16)
The structure of this section emphasizes the central portion of the polystrophe, which contains Isaiah's call and commissioning (chap. 6). God used Isaiah as his spokesman to the nation. His message contains both judgment and subsequent restoration if the nation will trust in Yahweh. In actuality, however, only a remnant will turn back to Yahweh. The key verses of the Isaianic Memoir are 6:12-13, which mention two different purgings (namely, the Syro-Ephraimite War in 734-732 b.c. and the destruction by Sennacherib in 701 b.c.), from which will emerge a remnant called, in verse 13, the "holy seed." This remnant will be led by a future deliverer who, in the course of history, turns out to be the Messiah, the one of whom Christ claims to be the fulfillment. It would appear, according to the Isaianic Memoir, that restoration will immediately follow Assyria's defeat, but in actual fact the entire program, to be concluded by the rule of a future deliverer from the line of David, is still futuristic, even from our perspective.
The theme of judgment is continued in chapters 13-27, which contain oracles against the foreign nations. Isaiah 11:10 mentions that nations will rally to the Root of Jesse, but before this can happen they need to undergo a cleansing process similar to that of Judah. Chapters 13-27 specify that a cleansing will occur among the foreign nations so that they will turn to Yahweh. This section concludes with what is generally known as "The Little Apocalypse" (chaps. 24-27), in which Yahweh is pictured as pouring out judgment upon the whole earth, following which he prepares a banquet for those who are left (25:6) and establishes a kingdom of peace and safety for the righteous ones.
Chapters 28-35 contain a mixture of oracles of judgment and deliverance, warning listeners that even though Yahweh's people (both Israel and Judah) enjoy special consideration as a result of his covenant with them, they nevertheless will be purged through punishment, just like the other nations. The message of punishment and restoration is repeated again and again, emphasizing that only a remnant will be delivered (28:5, 16, 23-29; 35:10). The idea of a remnant had to have been a new theological concept for the nation of Israel. In the past Yahweh had worked with the people as a national unity, but now each person was required to maintain a proper inward attitude in order to be pleasing to Yahweh. Mere nationality could not guarantee favor with God; a new heart was necessary, one whose trust and belief in Yahweh would result in changed behavior. This is why Yahweh repeatedly directs them to look after the poor orphans and widows, for this would demonstrate a genuinely changed life.
Though there have been many suggestions as to why chapters 36-39 were added here, it seems most reasonable, in accordance with the theology of the book, that it provides a suitable illustration of dependence upon Yahweh that would be required of the remnant mentioned so often by Isaiah. Hezekiah both positively and negatively exemplifies this dependence upon Yahweh. As a positive example, Hezekiah trusts in Yahweh to deliver Jerusalem from the armies of Sennacherib (chaps. 36-37). This is almost certainly why the author carefully omits Hezekiah's attempts to pay off Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:13-16) and, instead, emphasizes Hezekiah's prayer and Yahweh's answer of deliverance for Jerusalem. The second illustration of dependence upon Yahweh is seen in chapter 38, when Hezekiah prays for deliverance from his illness and God graciously does so. As a negative example, however, Hezekiah demonstrates a lack of dependence upon Yahweh when he became proud and sought to impress the emissaries from Babylon. Hezekiah's punishment appears particularly harsh, except when we realize that it is representative of the severe consequences for all those who do not place their trust in Yahweh. If the nation of Israel at first thought that Hezekiah was their future deliverer, in retrospect they must have realized that he would not bring in this kingdom of peace, prosperity, and righteousness, and that they must look for another.
Comfort. There has been much disagreement as to whether the Book of Isaiah was written by two or more authors, primarily because of the mention of Cyrus about 150 years before his birth. To further support dual authorship, it has been argued that the basic nature of prophetic material is to call for repentance or to warn against judgment in the immediate future, since calling for action in the present against some distant judgment would be of little value. It is a mistake, however, to define prophecy so narrowly, for unless the prophet is able to pronounce the ultimate consequences of the people's actions, his message is of little value. In any case, there is no question that the final form of the book was intended to be understood as a unity. In fact, the strongest theological point supporting unity can be found in 41:21-29, where Yahweh argues that the real test of divinity is whether he is able to control and predict the future. Yahweh claims that he is the only true God because he is the one who planned history from the beginning and is thereby able to tell the Israelites what will transpire in the future. Yahweh forces the issue even further: If he is not able to announce future events, he is no different than the other false gods.
It seems best to divide chapters 40-66 into three units of eight chapters (40-48, 49-57, 58-66), according to the recurring refrain at the end of each, "There is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked" (48:22, and cf. 57:21; this refrain is greatly expanded at the end of the book, 66:24).
Chapters 40-48 offer promise of deliverance. Beyond the statement in 39:6 that Israel would be taken captive to Babylon, there is little information given. Instead the author emphasizes that Yahweh will bring them back to their land through his servant Cyrus (44:28-45:7). During the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites no doubt felt abandoned by Yahweh and fearful that the covenant with him had been annulled because of their wickedness. Isaiah 40-48 therefore begins with Yahweh's assurance that Israel had been punished sufficiently for her sins (40:2) and that he is willing (41:8-16) and able (40:12-31) to bring his people back to the promised land. Yahweh draws a very strong contrast between the "former things" (punishment and exile) and the "latter things" (deliverance from exile). He claims that he alone directed history to prepare the way for Israel's emergence from captivity, in a manner that no one would have ever imagined (48:7)by guiding a Persian king named Cyrus to do Yahweh's will (41:2-4, 25; 44:28-45:7; 45:13; 46:11; 48:14-15). It is plausible that Yahweh's servant described in the first servant song (42:1-9) is Cyrus but, once again, he is only Yahweh's tool, not the future deliverer whom the people should continue to expect. According to 48:4-11, Yahweh foretold events far in advance and directed history in such a way that the hard-hearted Israelites could not claim to have been delivered by their idols; the people were instead to serve as his witnesses (43:10, 12; 44:8). One of the major theological concepts Yahweh wished to convey to the Israelites is that he will not share his glory with another, for Yahweh, and no one else, had delivered his people (43:11, 13; 44:8; 45:5; 47:10).
Chapters 49-57 make it clear that Zion will be restored through Yahweh's servant. Three of the four "servant songs" are recorded here (49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). The key to understanding the flow of thought in this passage, 51:18, states that Yahweh looked among all the sons of Israel and could find no one to lead the nation, to take her by the hand and lead her to victory. To accomplish this, Yahweh must raise up his own servant, before whom will appear a forerunner to announce the coming deliverance. This servant, a suffering servant, will apparently have a part in their purification. He will be the long awaited future deliverer described in chapters 9, 11, and 32 and ultimately fulfilled in Christ, the Messiah. Israel was intended to be a light to the nations but had failed miserably. Yahweh will use this servant to bring light to the nations (49:6, 26; 52:10); through Israel's deliverance Yahweh will be glorified and the nations will finally learn how truly awesome and powerful he is. After the final "servant song, " there is a significant change in the flow of the passage; the emphasis hereafter is on the restoration and glorification of the nation of Israel. The author continues to emphasize that the promised deliverance is only for those who have a personal belief and trust in Yahweh (49:23; 50:10; 51:7-11; 55:1-11; 56:1-8). Isaiah 54:7-8 stresses the fact that Yahweh turned away from Israel only for a brief moment and then, with great compassion, delivered her and brought her back to himself. The section closes with a plea to accept Yahweh's salvation and come to him while he may be found. This invitation is open to anyone who is willing to trust in Yahweh and live righteously, but for those who are not willing to live righteously there will be no peace.
Chapters 58-66 begin with a description of the proper way to come to Yahweh. For him to heed prayers and fastings and move into action, the people's hearts must be open and obedient to him, and their lives must demonstrate true righteousness, without which, ritual fastings will accomplish nothing. Yahweh makes it clear that it is sin that separates the people from him, and that he is in no way lacking in power (59:1-2). The flow of thought changes abruptly in 59:15, when Yahweh sees the desperate conditions of his people and decides it is time to intervene. However, Yahweh will not deliver everyone; according to verse 20, only those who turn from their transgressions will be delivered. Yahweh is pictured as the divine warrior coming powerfully to the aid of his people. The next several chapters look forward to Zion's restoration, during which time the prosperity and glory of Jerusalem will be evident to all. The inhabitants of Jerusalem will no longer remember their former rejection, but will rejoice in their new status. Yahweh will protect his servants (65:13-16) and create new heavens and a new earth (65:17-20), in which there will be peace and safety. Yahweh's original intention of letting Israel serve as a light to the nations will now finally be fulfilled; nations will come to learn about Yahweh's glory and will declare it to yet other nations. It is interesting to note that the book ends almost as it began: The commencement announces judgment upon those who rebel against Yahweh and the conclusion pictures the punishment of transgressors against Yahweh.
The New Testament's Use of the Book of Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is quoted or alluded to approximately 419 times in the New Testament, which is more than any other book (the psalms are next closest, about 414 times). It appears that most of the New Testament authors use either the Septuagint's translation of Isaiah, or some form or slight modification of it. Two New Testament authors who are noteworthy for either not using the Septuagint's translation or modifying it significantly are Matthew (1:23; 8:17; 11:5; 12:18-21; 15:8-9; 24:29) and John (1:23; 6:45; 12:40). The passage from the Book of Isaiah that is quoted most often in the New Testament, in full or in part, is Isaiah 6:9-10 (Matt 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26-; 27 ). It refers to the hard hearts of the people of Israel, a condition apparently little changed in the seven hundred years until the time of Jesus, who was able to quote this passage from Isaiah with equal relevance. The next most quoted passages from Isaiah are 40:3 (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; John 1:23) and 56:7 (Matt 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46). The former is used by the Gospel writers to refer to John the Baptist, who preceded Jesus and prepared the way for him. In the Old Testament this verse specifically proclaims God's deliverance of the exiles from Babylon, but it was easily applied to the spiritual deliverance Jesus was to accomplish. Isaiah 56:7 foresees a time when people from all nations will come and worship the one true God, and their worship will be acceptable to Yahweh. The New Testament authors announce that salvation is open to every one, no matter their nationality or background, which is a decisive fulfillment of this promise. In general these three examples (6:9-10; 40:3; 56:7) indicate the various ways New Testament writers employ an Old Testament passage: (1) it speaks to a situation that has remained unchanged through history and thus is still applicable to the New Testament audience (6:9-10); (2) it speaks to significantly different circumstances, but the New Testament writer sees connections between the two occasions and reapplies the Old Testament passage to the present (40:3); (3) it is not fulfilled in the historical context of the author but is expected to have a future fulfillment (56:7).
Paul D. Wegner
See also Israel; Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy
Bibliography. R. E. Clements, Int36 (1982): 117-29; idem, Isaiah1-39; idem, JSOT 31 (1985): 95-113; W. J. Dumbrell, Tyn Bul36 (1985): 111-28; W. S. LaSor, et al., Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament; J. N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39; J. J. M. Roberts, Int 36 (1982): 130-43; N. Whybray, Isaiah40-66; H. Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12; J. T. Willis, Isaiah.