The Book of Isaiah is a tremendous work. It is long and meaty, full of fascinating prose and brilliant poetry. It shaped the theology of Israel during a critical turning point of their history. And it is quoted or referenced over and over again throughout the New Testament. Within the pages of Isaiah, New Testament theologians discovered profound insights helping them make sense and understand this Jesus who is proclaimed to be Christ, God’s Messiah.
Scholars note three major and distinctive writings within the one book that carries the name Isaiah.
First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) seems to have been penned by Isaiah of Jerusalem during its last days. Its narrative is filled with startling visions of the Divine, challenges against the sins of the nation of Judah and warnings of dire consequences.
Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55 ) seems to have been written during the years of Exile in Babylon. There are no new visions but the writer is an inspired interpreter of First Isaiah. Here is some of the most soaring poetry in all of Scripture, maybe in all of literature, holding out hope in the midst of hopelessness.
Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) seems to have been recorded after the exiles returned home to their devastated land and began to rebuild. The words encourage the weary people and yearn for the return of YHWH’s shining glory to the Second Temple.
Within the Christian tradition, we regularly engage this powerful work during the Christmas season.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (9:6)
Whenever we hear Handel’s magnificent Messiah, we listen again to Isaiah’s hopes and promises.
Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to
Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her
Iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness
Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for
Our God. (40:1-3)
Whenever we stand with Jesus in his hometown synagogue in Luke 4, we see him ask for the scroll of Isaiah and we hear him pronounce his ministry and mission:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners… (chapter 61)
Whenever we read Jesus’ parable of the Vineyard (Mark 12 and Luke 20), we are seeing a fresh interpretation of Isaiah.
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill. (chapter 5)
Whenever we read Paul’s celebration of the gospel in Romans 10, we also hear yet another application of the hopes of Isaiah.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (52:7)
The Book of Isaiah is a vastly significant work both within Judaism and Christianity. As Bible students and seekers of truth, it is well worth our time to read this hefty book at least once a year.
Isaiah icon by Lynne Beard