Theology Themes of Isaiah

Isaiah’s ministry spanned fifty years as he prophesied and addressed the sins of the people during the reign of four different kings. As a messenger of God’s covenant, one of Isaiah’s primary roles was to remind the people what God expected of them. The book has a coherent structure, which can be divided into two parts, but written by one author. The first half, chapters 1-39, focuses on God’s judgment of His people, while the second half, chapters 40-66, focuses on the salvation of God’s people. Another key difference is the first half deals more with the Assyrian crisis while the second half deals with the Babylonian crisis and resulting exile. Despite these calamities, an overarching theme throughout the book of Isaiah is God’s special relationship with the nation of Israel and the unfortunate need of judgment and exile to bring about the future restoration of God’s people.

GOD’S JUDGMENT AND SALVATION OF HIS PEOPLE

Michael Wilkins explains, “The people of Israel understood that God was using them as a people to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah; however, the problem was Israel, as a nation, had failed in its mission and as a result had become a blind and deaf servant”[1] (Isaiah 42:18-25). God can use anyone and anything to accomplish His plan and during the first part of Isaiah, He uses the Assyrian army to confront the people’s sinfulness and bring about judgment and salvation. “Assyria was the rod of Yahweh’s anger and the staff in their hands was His fury” (Isaiah 10:5). In the second half of Isaiah, it would be the Babylon Empire that the Lord would use to pronounce judgment on Israel, but even before the exile took place in 586 B.C., the Lord planned to use Cyrus, the Persian king to allow the people to return home. As J. J. M. Roberts asserts, “Israel’s current predicament was due to the sins of her people (Isaiah 42:24-25). Their plight was well deserved, their coming salvation was due simply to Yahweh’s graciousness, and the appropriate response was to return to Yahweh in trust and confidence”[2] (Isaiah 43:22-44:2). Ultimately, the hope and salvation of Israel would only come through their suffering, judgment, and exile.

RESTORATION AND TRANSFORMATION OF THE CITY OF JERUSALEM

Barry Webb explains, “The transformation of Zion is both the literary link and formal key that helps us understand the message of Isaiah.”[3] In chapter one, Zion, the unfaithful prostitute is reduced, but in chapter two, Zion, Yahweh’s bride is exalted and taken back, following the divorce/exile. This dichotomy is a powerful reminder of God’s grace and the comparison being made is how old Jerusalem was equated with God’s judgment while the New Jerusalem was going to be a place of God’s blessing and a place where God establishes His kingdom forever. Roberts explains, “Isaiah’s transformation of the royal ideology and the Zion tradition became the wellspring from which the later messianic expectations and the hopes for a New Jerusalem [and] the conception of a heavenly Jerusalem and a transhistorical view of salvation that includes even the ultimate victory over death [arose].”[4]

After the purge, John Watts shows, “The important thing about Zion is her reputation as Yahweh’s dwelling. It is Yahweh’s house, the temple, which stands out, because He is present and active there.”[5] This is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision again, as the glory of the Lord filled the temple. His holiness is overwhelming, as the seraphim are depicted covering their face and feet, calling out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Watts adds, “Yahweh’s presence in the temple lifts its importance to supremacy and this has nothing to do with Israel or Judah, their kings or leaders. Purely because Yahweh is there, Zion attracts the other nations.”[6] Then the imagery of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is profound. Here, Geoffrey Grogan explains, “The issues that set nations against one another do not disappear automatically but are settled by the supreme Judge, whose decisions are accepted. Thus there is no uneasy calm but peace based on righteousness.”[7]

The coming kingdom of God and the future restoration of Israel are dominant themes. Gary Yates states, “God is going to bring the people back to their homeland; there is going to be the restoration of the Davidic Dynasty, through the Messiah; the temple will be rebuilt; and as the nations see how God blesses Israel, they will come to the Promise Land to worship God.”[8] Sin still had consequences, so as the children of Israel return home from the Babylonian exile, they find themselves impoverished and living under foreign oppression. It is here, Yates asserts, “If the return from exile is all there is, then Isaiah’s prophecies and promises are a disappointment at best and they are an outright failure at worst.”[9] Ultimately, the full restoration will not occur until they have fully returned to the Lord (Isaiah 56:1-7). The new heavens and new earth referenced in Isaiah 65 and the New Testament, (Hebrews 12:22-24) says the blessings and presence of God are being enjoyed now, but in the future there will come a time where God completely reverses the effects of the fall. This means death, violence, and wickedness will be replaced with life, love, and harmony and Isaiah recognized, as he looked to the future kingdom, some of these promises and blessings are being enjoyed now, but some are still yet to come.

LORD AS KING AND HOLY ONE OF ISRAEL

Roberts states, “If there is any one concept central to the whole book of Isaiah, it is the vision of Yahweh as the Holy One of Israel [and] Isaiah’s vision… left a lasting impression on the prophet’s ministry.”[10] Isaiah’s vision in chapter six is profound as the glory of the Lord filled the temple and this encounter would shape his entire ministry and message. Isaiah desperately wanted the nation of Israel to have a similar experience and encounter, so that they too would find themselves undone by their sinful lives.

Unfortunately, Israel had to learn the hard way, despite God’s sincere desire to enter into a relationship with His people. Instead of pouring out blessings, as a result of righteous behavior, the Lord would use the exile to purge all the unholy traits from the people. God is the one the people should have put their trust in exclusively, but the people, instead, chose to rely on political and military alliances for protection. The main issue throughout Isaiah was Israel’s failure to deal with its own spiritual apostasy and no alliance made with any other nation could protect them from the Lord’s wrath. The holiness of the Lord demanded a proper response from His children, but as Roberts explains, “If Israel refused to look to Yahweh, to trust in the quiet waters of Shiloah, God would send the raging waters of Assyria against them to reveal the vanity of their trust in human power”[11] (Isaiah 8:5-8).

LORD OVER ALL NATIONS

Roberts further illustrates how, “Before Yahweh would fight for Zion; He would fight against her (Isaiah 31:4-5). Jerusalem would be humbled and humiliated, but in the hour of her desperation, when Yahweh had cleansed her in the fiery judgment, God would intervene to save her from her arrogant enemies (Isaiah 31:4-5). Then Jerusalem would be exalted and glorified.”[12] While God used Assyria and Babylon as tools to purge Judah and Israel of sin, the very nations used by God would face judgment themselves because they failed to recognize Yahweh as Lord over all. When reading Isaiah 45, part of which focused on the fact that God is the one who “Forms light and creates darkness, the one who makes peace and creates calamity. I am the One who does these things.” This portion of Scripture is amazing, especially considering most people do not normally think that God has anything to do with the darkness. In fact, most people define darkness as the absence of light, so Isaiah is making a profound assertion here that God declares that He is even in the dark chaos of the world, and for this reason, followers can have peace, even in the darkness, because He is Lord over all. John Oswalt explains, “What Isaiah asserts is that God, as creator, is ultimately responsible for everything in nature, from light to dark, and for everything in history, from good fortune to misfortune. No other beings or forces are responsible for anything.”[13] Even in darkness and chaos, God is with every true follower, and the darkness will eventually give way to the light of day. “For the light has shone already into the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

FUTURE MESSIAH AND SUFFERING SERVANT

Instead of leading the people of other nations to Yahweh, the people of Israel often did the exact opposite by worshipping the false gods of other nations. In the midst of this apostasy, Isaiah promises that God would provide a solution to the problem, which was the raising up of an individual Servant who would restore the national servant, the nation of Israel. Richard Averbeck explains, “The Lord’s concern for the nations, not just Israel, is declared in the larger context in Isaiah 49:6-7; 56:6-7 and now the same sacrificial redemption and restoration applies to them as well.”[14] This means the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 brought redemption and restoration, as Averbeck says, “To the Jew first, but also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Roberts further explains, “The plan of salvation, centered in the vicarious death of Jesus Christ is dependent on [Second] Isaiah’s portrayal of the Suffering Servant, and the NT emphasis on the receptions of that salvation through faith picks up and continues the Isaianic demand for faith.”[15]

In light of the entire canon of Scripture, God still has a plan for the nation of Israel and while they were spiritually blind to the Suffering Servant’s arrival, Isaiah 61:1-3 indicates the first coming of Jesus began the restoration of Israel and the second coming will finish it. Jesus quoted these words in Luke 4:18-19 and as He read to the people in the synagogue, He stopped in the middle of 61:2 after the words, “The time of the Lord’s favor has come.” Rolling up the scroll, He said, “The Scripture you have just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21). While the world is now under God’s favor; His wrath is yet to come.[16] Robert Hughes and J. Carl Laney explain how Isaiah 61:1, “Revealed that the Messiah, who ministered salvation at His first coming, will also minister comfort for redeemed Israel at His second coming.”[17] By His death and resurrection, Jesus instituted and inaugurated a new phase of God’s kingdom, some of which is now, and some of which is still to come, when Christ returns.

CONCLUSION

While this student does not agree with Roger’s conclusion on the matter of multiple authors of Isaiah, nonetheless, Rogers does offer considerable insight on the overarching themes in the book that bears his name. Upon reading Isaiah, there is no denying the special relationship God had and still has with His children, but while they were supposed to be a light and witness for God, they fell victim to greed and apostasy. God wanted the best for them, yet the nations of Judah and Israel chose to find their own versions of “God’s best” outside of God’s will. As a parent punishes a child, Yahweh too is forced to pronounce judgment before He is able to provide salvation. This salvation ultimately finds its initial fulfillment in the arrival of the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, but even then, as Isaiah prophesied, “He would be despised and rejected by man” (Isaiah 53:3). The words written by the eighth century prophet are just as relevant today and much can be applied to nations, like America, by heeding what was revealed in the woe oracles against foreign nations. These declarations can directly be traced back to the Abrahamic Covenant, which God made with man and are unconditional promises by God. Christ is coming back, a future kingdom will be established forever, and the Lord will rule over all, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Isaiah 45:23; Philippians 2:10). In addition to Isaiah having multiple dominant themes, it also is the only Old Testament book to predict the virgin birth of Christ (7:14), the ministry of John the Baptist (40:3-5), and contains one the Old Testament’s clearest statements on the Trinity (48:16). Next to Deuteronomy, Isaiah presents the most detailed information on the person and work of God and also the Messiah’s role as both sacrificial lamb and ruling lion. Christ was obedient and empowered by the Father and He will return one day as the anointed one of the Lord and victorious warrior (63:1-6). 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bock, Darrell L. and Mitch Glaser, eds. The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012.

Grogan, Geoffrey W. Isaiah, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Hughes, Robert B. and J. Carl Laney. Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.

LaSor, William S., David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush. Old Testament Survey. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Life Application Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

________. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Roberts, J. J. M. “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology.” Interpretation 36, no. 2 (April 1982): 130-143. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 18, 2017).

Watts, John D. W. Isaiah 1-33. Word Biblical Commentary, Old Testament. Volume 24 “Act I: Like a Booth in the Vineyard, Chapters 1-6, Scene 1: In the Hall of the King of Heaven and Earth (Isaiah 1:2-2:4), Episode C: The Mountain of Yahweh’s House,” Edited by David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.

Webb, Barry G. The Message of Isaiah. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Yates, Gary. “Isaiah and the Future Kingdom.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 12:49, (accessed August 22, 2017).

[1] Michael J. Wilkins, “Isaiah 53 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 109-110.

[2] J. J. M. Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” Interpretation 36, no. 2 (April 1982): 135-136. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 18, 2017).

[3] Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 42-46.

[4] Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” 143.

[5] John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, Word Biblical Commentary, Old Testament, Volume 24 “Act I: Like a Booth in the Vineyard, Chapters 1-6, Scene 1: In the Hall of the King of Heaven and Earth (Isaiah 1:2-2:4), Episode C: The Mountain of Yahweh’s House,” eds. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), 27.

[6] Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 27.

[7] Geoffrey W. Grogan, Isaiah, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 35.

[8] Gary Yates, “Isaiah and the Future Kingdom,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 12:49, (accessed August 22, 2017).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” 131.

[11] Ibid., 133.

[12] Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” 137.

[13] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 203.

[14] Richard E. Averbeck, “Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 60.

[15] Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” 143.

[16] Life Application Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), 1187.

[17] Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990), 268.

 

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