It is difficult to describe the impact of the book of Isaiah on the Bible itself and on the people for whom the Bible is Holy Scripture. What is clear is that the writers of the New Testament understood the importance of the book of Isaiah in a profound way. When they searched the Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible and its Greek translation, the Septuagint) and Isaiah in particular, they discovered much that bore resemblance to Jesus' life and teachings and to his death. On the basis of these discoveries they argued that Jesus' appearance was anticipated already in the Scriptures. And they understood from this that Jesus' coming was hardly a coincidence; in fact, it was a fulfillment of God's larger plan for humankind.
Such an understanding lies behind the high esteem with which the book of Isaiah has been held in the church throughout its history. The book of Isaiah has certainly played an important role for the church in holding onto the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) as part of the Christian Scriptures.
Authorship, Date, Setting
Isaiah is designated as "prophet" in chapters 37–39 of the book that bears his name. At the outset of the book, Isaiah son of Amoz is named as one who sees a vision (ḥazon, 1:1), as one who sees a word (dabar, 2:1), and as one who sees an oracle (maśśa', 13:1). All of these terms depict Isaiah as a visionary, and in the Hebrew Bible the prophets are for the most part visionaries. They have an eye on the future while urging repentance in the present. Although the future cannot be known in detail, God's will for the future can typically be seen in prophetic vision. The prophet announces this future as the point of departure for a call to repentance and change.
Isaiah's visionary work centered in and around Jerusalem in the second half of the eighth century BCE (740/39–701) during the reigns of four Judean kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Most scholars recognize Isaiah's writing from this period in parts of chapters 1–39. In the last section of the book (chaps. 40–66), the time period assumed everywhere is the sixth century and later. Cyrus the Persian (559–530 BCE) is specifically named in 44:28 and in 45:1, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem is assumed. In this part of the book an unnamed prophet interprets the work and writing of Isaiah of Jerusalem for the exilic and post-exilic periods.
Form and Rhetoric
Most of the book of Isaiah is cast in poetic (prosodic) form, characterized by lines and stanzas. Chapters 36–39, as an exception to the rule, are cast in prose (prosaic) form (but not including 37:22-29 and 38:10-20).
The artistry of the book of Isaiah employs the feature of Hebrew poetry known as parallelism, which means that analogous ideas are expressed on adjoining poetic lines. So, for example, in 1:3 it is written ". . . but Israel does not know//my people do not understand" and in 40:29 we read that "[the LORD] gives power to the faint//and strengthens the powerless."
Isaiah's poetry awakens feeling and emotion in the reader. It is not simply assertion of fact that one can accept or reject in a matter-of-fact way. Rather, it is written to convince and to offer guidance. Isaiah writes out of a serious commitment to the Lord's way in individual, social, and political life.
Summary and Comment
In order to grasp the varied content and the flow of the book it is best to see the various parts that make up the whole. There are six fairly definable parts to the book.
Testimony and Teaching, 1–12 (I)
The first part of the book of Isaiah introduces the eighth-century prophet and presents the main themes of the book. The opening stanzas (1:1-15) serve as a prologue to the first part. The theme of the prologue is the rebellion of God's people. The focus of this rebellion is ethical transgression alongside of solemn worship. The prophet sees this combination as utterly contrary to the Lord's intention for his people. He concludes that the consequences of such rebellion are invasion and destruction. Nevertheless, beyond the rebellion and its consequences there is a call to repentance and a promise that redemption flows from repentance.
The richness of this redemption is described in terms of the Lord's holiness (chap. 6), God's presence as Immanuel (chap. 7), and the fear of the Lord as the antidote to fear (chap. 8). And this is not all there is to the promise of redemption. Redemption also includes a messianic king and kingdom (chap. 9) and a new world order resting on knowledge of the Lord (chap. 11).
The Nations and the Whole Earth, 13–27 (II)
There is a shift of focus in the second part of the book. Instead of centering on the judgment and redemption of "the nation" (represented as Judah and Jerusalem) in chapters 1–12, the spotlight now falls on "the nations" in the larger environment of Judah and Jerusalem. Similar concern with the nations can be found in Jeremiah 46–51, Ezekiel 25–32, Amos 1–2, and Zephaniah 2. God's relationship to the nations is defined by the larger issue of the Lord's reign, which has precedence over all nationalisms.
The nations (principally Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Tyre, and Egypt) are presented with manifestos, public declarations of policy by the Lord. These manifestos, in general, announce judgment upon the nations, judgment based on God's intention for his people and for humankind as a whole. The manifesto addressed to the whole earth (24–27) at the end of this part brings the nations' manifestos to a conclusion by insisting on the manner of the Lord's work and way in the world, which combines judgment and hope.
Weal and Woe, 28–39 (III)
Another dramatic shift is found as the reader moves from chapter 27 to chapter 28. In a sequence of chapters (28, 29, 30, 31–32, 33) introduced by the interjection "Woe!" (so KJV, NIV), the book of Isaiah returns to the Lord's judgment of his people. It should be noted that the word "judgment" is both a negative and a positive term. In Isaiah 30:18, "the Lord is a God of justice" (= judgment) who is gracious and compassionate. Among the announcements of judgment against Israel-Judah there are assurances of hope.
Chapters 34 and 35 paint contrasting pictures: the Lord's anger against Edom (34) in particular and the nations in general centers on their usurping the vengeance that belongs to the Lord. The joy in Zion (35) is evidence of deliverance from physical and spiritual bondage.
The third part of the book of Isaiah concludes with the prophet in the court of the king (Hezekiah) near the end of the eighth century. There are three "panels" in this conclusion, beginning with the Assyrian advance into and retreat from Hezekiah's Judah (36–37). The second panel (38) reflects on Hezekiah's illness and restoration. The third panel (39) has an official delegation from Babylon on a visit to Hezekiah's court.
New Day Dawning, 40–48 (IV)
In the fourth part of the book, the mood and historical situation shift again. Now a sixth-century prophet writes in the tradition of Isaiah of Jerusalem. The exile in Babylon is nearly over as chapter 40 begins, and there is an emphasis on offering comfort to God's people. A prologue of announcement (40:1-11) opens the chapter, and as chapter 40 continues, it enlarges on Isaiah's vision two centuries earlier.
Although the prologue of chapter 40 announces the dawning of a new day, there is not unremitting comfort and encouragement in chapters 40–48. There is, for example, an ongoing expectancy that there will be blindness and disobedience on the part of God's people (42:13-25), and challenges to God's rule by a host of idolatries can be found at various places (41:21-29; 44:9-20; 46:1-13).
In spite of this, however, the Lord's presence among his people continues to be felt. It is seen especially in a servant figure (42:1-4), who is authorized to bring justice to the nations. This servant is "showcased" in four Servant Songs, only the first of which is found in chapters 40–48. The other three Servant Songs are found in chapters 49–57 (49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12). Throughout these songs the servant's mission is a teaching mission that moves in two different directions. One is a movement toward Jacob-Israel, where the emphasis is on gathering and restoring and instruction. The second moves toward the nations, where the emphasis is on establishing justice and on teaching the Lord's way.
At the end of chapter 48, there is a literary marker concluding part four (v. 22). This is not a summary as much as it is a declaration flowing from the previous chapters that those without roots in the Lord's instruction cannot expect to realize the spiritual and material benefits of well-being and wholeness.
Servant and Scaffold, 49–57 (V)
Part five begins with the second and third Servant Songs (49:1-6; 50:4-9). The first Servant Song (41:1-4) introduced the servant's mission. Now the second and third songs give a focus to that mission: the gathering of scattered Jacob-Israel and the giving of light to the nations. Although the Lord's servant is not mentioned in chapter 51, the echo of his voice reverberates throughout the chapter.
Chapters 52–54 proclaim the peace and salvation at the center of God's kingdom. In the fourth Servant Song (52:13–53:12) the servant holds fast to the vision of God's reign, bringing good out of evil and refusing to retaliate against evil with more evil. But a "scaffold" awaits the servant who challenges the powers that be. This fourth Servant Song, and the other three as well, describe the suffering of the Lord's servant as suffering on behalf of the nations in order to restore them to wholeness (53:5). Chapter 54 recalls and resumes chapters 51 and 52:1-12, and provides a word of consolation to God's people in exile.
The call to seek the Lord and to find refuge in him brings part five to a close (55–57). The literary marker concluding part four now also concludes part five (57:21). This verse focuses on the wicked who stand in opposition to the peace proclaimed in 57:19. The wicked focus on practices leading to death. Peace belongs to those who choose healing with its roots in shalom.
New Heavens and New Earth, 58–66 (VI)
In the sixth and final part of the book of Isaiah, there is an ongoing conversation with God's people, enlisting them to live and act in faithfulness to the Lord. Chapter 58 calls the people to blend personal piety with social ethics. The complement to this call in chapter 59 is that the Lord comes as Redeemer to those who truly repent.
The theme of Jerusalem's righteousness founded on the Lord's redemption follows in chapters 60–62. The Lord comes as Redeemer (60), issuing an everlasting joy and an everlasting covenant (61). The Lord's salvation for Zion-Jerusalem (62) is a promise, employing language from Isaiah 40 adapted to the new reality of the exiles living in Jerusalem.
Contrasting pictures of the Lord's judgment and salvation appear in chapters 63–64. Edom is the object of the Lord's judgment (63:1-6). This is followed by a recital of the Lord's deliverance (63:7-14) in spite of their faithlessness. A prayer of petition (63:15–64:12) concludes chapters 63–64.
The last two chapters of the book of Isaiah (65–66) form a two-part conclusion to the book. The ongoing rebelliousness of some of the people is addressed with words of judgment (65), and the persevering faithfulness of others (the Lord's servants) is addressed with words of promise (66).
Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition
The book of Isaiah, far removed as its writing is from us, brings the power of vision into our modern everyday lives. The vision of Isaiah brings the reader face-to-face with God's purposes in the world. These purposes focus on the creation of a people who will "be" and "proclaim" light to the nations. The problem in the mid-first millennium before the birth of Christ is the same as at the beginning of the third millennium after the birth of Christ: God's people are imperfect bearers of God's light. The nations (representing various cultures and worldviews) point to this imperfection and doubt the legitimacy of God's light.
As with Isaiah's, the Anabaptist vision of God's light can be carried forward by people who are flawed. So this vision, too, is suspect. Isaiah's antidote, however, is not abandonment of the vision. Rather it focuses on spiritual renewal and growth in genuine personal piety as the basis for social ethics and speaking truth to power.
It is in the domains of piety and ethics that Anabaptists turn with special interest to the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah, piety and ethics are kept together; they are not separate and sundered arenas of activity. In the famous "swords into plowshares" text (2:1-5), for example, learning the Lord's ways and walking in his paths are of-a-piece with Isaiah's vision for peace and peacemaking. In the latter part of the book, the call to combine social ethics and personal piety dominates chapter 58.
Within the Anabaptist movement it is notable that Louis Haetzer, the Strasbourg (Alsace, France) Anabaptist, was translating the book of Isaiah into German already in 1526. The emergence of Hutterian communal practice in 1528 grew out of the early church's teaching on having everything in common (Acts 2; 4; 5), with a reference also to Isaiah 23:18. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Anabaptists have found in texts such as Isaiah 46:6-9 the impetus for mission to the nations. Anabaptists have also found in texts such as Isaiah 2:1-5 and the "peaceable kingdom" text of Isaiah 11:1-9 the constituents for a Christian peace testimony. Anabaptists have also found common ground with other Christians in seeing the book of Isaiah as a formative and programmatic part of Scripture. Alongside of the book of Genesis and the Psalter, pastors and people often turn to Isaiah for guidance and inspiration.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
- Bailey, Wilma Ann. "Isaiah 2:2-5 and Micah 4:1-4: Learning the Ways of the God of Jacob." In Beautiful upon the Mountains: Biblical Essays on Mission, Peace, and the Reign of God, edited by Mary H Schertz and Ivan Friesen, 51-61. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies; Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2003.
- Barton, John. "Ethics in the book of Isaiah." In Writing and Reading the Scroll of Isaiah: Studies of an Interpretive Tradition, edited by Craig C. Broyles and Craig A. Evans, 1:67-77. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
- Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 1–39. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998.
- ––––––. Isaiah 40–66. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998.
- Clements, Ronald. Isaiah 1–39. New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980.
- Gottwald, Norman K. The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985.
- Limburg, James. "Swords to Plowshares: Text and Contexts." In Writing and Reading the Scroll of Isaiah: Studies of an Interpretive Tradition, edited by Craig C. Broyles and Craig A. Evans, 1:279-93. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
- Muilenburg, James. "The Servant of the Lord." In The Interpreter's Bible, edited by G. A. Buttrick, 5:406-14. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1956.
- Yoder, Perry B. Shalom: The Bible's Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace. Newton, KS: Faith & Life, 1987.
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|—Ivan D. Friesen|