Currently, I am devoting a lot of time to finishing up my translation of the Major and Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. One of the things I am including in my translation are short introductions to each prophetic book that will hopefully help the reader understand what that particular prophetic book is about. Consider it sort of a Cliff Notes overview of each book, if you will. In any case, I thought I’d share my introductory overview of the book of Isaiah.
My translation of the Major and Minor Prophets should be available by the end of the month, or in early February.
The Book of Isaiah
Outside of a few specific verses and passages in Isaiah, most of the book of Isaiah goes unread or is considered simply too hard to understand. The passages that people are aware of (i.e. Isaiah 7:14, 9:2-7; 11:1-2; 40:1-5; 53:1-12) are because they are quoted or alluded to in the New Testament and applied to Jesus. The problem is that most never consider the original context of these passages, and they never take the time to try to understand Isaiah as a whole, on its own terms.
Admittedly, that is a hard task, for the book of Isaiah is 66 chapters long, and is really complex, especially if one doesn’t have a grasp of the historical context. Hopefully these next couple of pages will be able to provide that historical context, at least enough to get you started in the right direction. The main thing you have to realize is that the book of Isaiah really comes in three parts:
Isaiah 1-39 (sometimes called “Proto-Isaiah”)
This section of Isaiah is set in the 8th century BC, roughly between the years 742-701 BC. The historical prophet Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, and lived through a number of incredibly significant events in Judah’s history: the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis (around 742 BC), the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (721 BC), and the invasion by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (701 BC).
The easiest way to understand this section is to realize how it is structured.
Isaiah 1-5 is essentially the prologue that sets out the major themes in Isaiah: (1) Judah is guilty of turning away from YHWH and practicing injustice and idolatry; (2) Judah will suffer judgment and punishment for its sin; yet (3) after judgment will come restoration and salvation—the judgment will serve as the means of cleansing the people of Judah of their sins.
Isaiah 6 tells us of the prophetic call of Isaiah. Essentially, YHWH tells him to prophecy to Judah, but that Judah will not listen and will suffer judgment. Nevertheless, after that judgment, restoration will come.
Isaiah 7-12 is all about the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and Isaiah’s prophecies at that time. Basically, what happened was that the northern kingdom of Israel had teamed up with another nation called Aram, and they were threatening Judah and its new king, Ahaz. Isaiah encouraged Ahaz to put his trust in YHWH, and that YHWH would protect him, but Ahaz basically said, “I don’t think so! I’m going to ask Assyria to protect me, because Assyria is the major superpower!” In response to Ahaz’s choosing not to put his trust in YHWH, Isaiah utters a number of prophecies throughout 7-12. Essentially the prophecies boil down to this:
- The pregnant young woman will give birth to a son, and by the time he grows up, Assyria will not only have destroyed Israel and Aram, but Assyria will oppress Judah. Although the Immanuel child of Isaiah 7:14 this is later applied to Jesus, in the original context of the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, it is a prophecy about the birth of Hezekiah.
- Despite Ahaz’s lack of faith in YHWH opening the door to Assyrian oppression, it will be through Immanuel’s (i.e. Hezekiah’s) faith in YHWH that YHWH will protect Jerusalem and thwart Assyria’s attempts to destroy it.
Isaiah 13-23 then is a collection of various prophecies about the surrounding nations.
Isaiah 24-27 is an apocalyptic passage that envisions YHWH eventually doing away with death forever and bringing about peace for Israel.
Isaiah 28-35 is a collection of various prophecies about Jerusalem itself, in light of the up and coming crisis of Sennacherib’s invasion.
Isaiah 36-39 is the story of Sennacherib’s invasion, Hezekiah’s trust in YHWH, and YHWH’s salvation of Jerusalem from Sennacherib’s attack (36-37). Thus, the events of 36-37 are a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies from 7-12. After that, we are told two additional stories about Hezekiah: his sickness and how YHWH restored him to health (38), and about a visit of envoys from Babylon to Hezekiah (39).
Thus, one can make sense of Proto-Isaiah if one sees chapters 7-12 and 36-39 acting as “bookends” of initial prophecy and fulfillment of that prophecy. In fact, in light of what was said earlier about prophecy itself, seeing Proto-Isaiah in this way helps us understand why the prophecies of Isaiah were preserved: simply put, his Immanuel prophecies came true. Therefore, Isaiah was vindicated as a true prophet, and Hezekiah was seen as a godly king who put his trust in YHWH.
Isaiah 40-55 (sometimes called “Deutero-Isaiah”)
This section of Isaiah was clearly written much later, for these chapters highlight the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Exile. Since the Jews went into exile in 587 BC, and started to return from exile around 539 BC, that means that Isaiah 40-55 was written roughly 150 years or so after the events of Isaiah 1-39. This means they weren’t written by the historical Isaiah of 8th century Judah, but probably rather by prophets from an Isaianic school of prophets. That is why they are still in the book of Isaiah—they were still written in the Isaiah tradition.
The main feature to recognize in Deutero-Isaiah is the figure of the Servant. Scholars love to point to four specific passages known as “The Servant Songs” (found in Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 53) and then speculate on who the Servant could be: Is it Jesus? Is the prophet? Is it Israel? To be blunt, if you read these passages in light of the larger context of Deutero-Isaiah, the identity of the Servant is clear: it is Israel—or more specifically, the redeemed remnant of Israel. The reason why it is obvious is because there are other passages in Deutero-Isaiah that specifically say, “My servant, Israel!”
The key thing to realize with the figure of the Servant as the redeemed remnant of Israel is that reveals the purpose of the exile itself. Pre-exilic Judah was hopelessly idolatrous and sinful, and since YHWH was faithful to His covenant with Abraham, He used judgment and the exile to be the means by which He would purify them of their idolatry, so they could one day be a people who would bring blessing to all nations.
Furthermore, not every Jew who went into exile was guilty of injustice and idolatry. Nevertheless, they suffered the same fate. And although that seemed unfair, amazingly, YHWH used those faithful Jews who went into exile to be a light to the nations (think of the stories of Daniel). It was through the suffering of faithful Jews that the Name of YHWH was made known to the nations. Hence, that is what a passage like Isaiah 53 is all about: the Suffering Servant’s faithfulness leads to new life and God’s glory among the nations. And that is why passages like these are later applied to Jesus, for He is the ultimate fulfillment of that very thing.
Isaiah 56-66 (sometimes called “Trito-Isaiah”)
The final section of Isaiah seems to have been written after the Jews had come back from exile to the Promised Land, but had not experienced the full restoration that was promised in Isaiah 40-55. The Jews were still waiting for God’s Spirit to return to them, for the promises of Deutero-Isaiah had not seemed to materialize. The returned post-exilic community did not seem to be fully purified, they were still under the rule of foreign powers, sin and evil still held sway, and they had not experienced the new creation that was prophesied about in Deutero-Isaiah.
Therefore, what you see in Trito-Isaiah are passages filled with trying to make sense of what had, and hadn’t yet, happened. Near the end of Isaiah, in chapter 64, the writer says, “Oh that you would tear the heavens and come down!” clearly expressing his desire that God would act and fulfill the promises that were made. This is significant, because in Mark 1:10, at the baptism of Jesus, Mark writes, “And the heavens were torn apart” and the Spirit of God descended. What Mark was essentially saying to his audience was, “Remember that hope in Isaiah 64:1? It’s coming true here, now, with Jesus—God has come down and is making good on His promises!”
In any case, if you keep these few guidelines in mind, you will be able to better understand the book of Isaiah.