The Book of Isaiah is a tremendous work. It is long and meaty, full of fascinating prose and brilliant poetry.
Isaiah shaped the entire theology of Israel during a critical turning point of their history. As they looked back at their experience of Exile, Jewish theologians sought to understand what had gone wrong within their covenant relationship with Israel’s God; they sought to learn from their mistakes and forge a new future with hope and faithfulness.
Isaiah also 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 one, Jesus, whom they proclaimed to be Christ, God’s Messiah.
1st, 2nd and 3rd Isaiah
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. The narrative overflows with startling visions of the Divine, challenges the sins of the nation of Judah and warns 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 rebuild their devastated land. The words encourage the weary people and hope for the return of YHWH’s shining glory to the Second Temple.
Call to faithfuness
The prophetic tradition of Israel challenged arrogance, privilege and oppression. The prophets called God’s people back to faithfulness.
How the faithful cityIsaiah 1
has become a whore!
She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
but now murderers!
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low,Isaiah 2
and the pride of everyone shall be humbled;
and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.
For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up and high…
The Lord rises to argue his case;Isaiah 3
he stands to judge the peoples.
The Lord enters into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard;
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.
The prophetic tradition of Israel also called God’s people to hope.
Yes, God’s covenant promises included punishment, consequences for unfaithfulness, but the unending covenant also included God’s amazing grace.
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug…
Listen to me, my people,Isaiah 51
and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope.
Isaiah in the New Testament
The scroll of Isaiah had become sacred scripture by the time of Jesus. Theologians read and re-read their Bible; they searched and researched their scriptures in order to grasp the mystery of “Who is God?” and “Who IS this Jesus?”
Now the writings of these brilliant writers have become our sacred scripture as Spirit leads us also to read and RE-read, to ponder the fathomless mystery.
During the season of Advent every year, Christians turn to Isaiah as we remember: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
For unto us a child is born…
to us a son given and authority rests upon his shoulders.Isaiah 9:6
He is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
When 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 comfort 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.Isaiah 40:1-3
When we travel through the forty days of Lent, Isaiah travels with us, pondering the sacrificial life of God’s Suffering Servant.
Surely he has borne our infirmitiesIsaiah 53
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
When we stand with Jesus in his hometown synagogue in Luke 4 and watch him ask for the scroll of Isaiah, we hear him announce his ministry with the prophet’s own words and we too are invited to share this mission.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,Isaiah 61
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…
When we hear Jesus’ parable of the Vineyard, we experience a fresh interpretation, a re-reading of Isaiah‘s song for a new day:
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill…Isaiah 5 (Mark 12 and Luke 20)
Whenever we read Paul’s celebration of the gospel in his letter to the Romans, we understand here is yet another application of the hopes of Isaiah.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,Isaiah 52:7 (Romans 10)
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion: “Your God reigns.”
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.
(Note about the Suffering Servant: for the ancients and rabbis of today, the Suffering Servant was Israel itself. Christian theologians apply this description to Messiah Jesus.)