Read: Isaiah 1 and 5
Background Considerations The opening discussions about a biblical book always raise the issues of date, historical context, authorship, background, themes, general outline, etc. (see the earlier pages in this booklet). The book of Isaiah lends itself well to these considerations because of its size and complexity and because of the immense amount of scholarship dealing with it. The book is a grand source not only for theological insights of the highest order, but also of literary, historical and background questions which will continue to tease us in useful ways.
While it is generally agreed that the bulk of the book, especially most of chapters 1-39, comes from the 8th century BC, many feel chapters 40-55 derive from another prophet, who builds on the earlier chapters, but lives in the 6th century, during the time of the Babylonian captivity with the exiles. Chapters 56-66 are often attributed to another author(s) and seem to assume life in Palestine following the captivity. Lots of factors play into decisions like this, including the historical situation assumed in the text itself. Whichever perspective one holds, there are wonderful things in store for students of this book! And, from the evidence we have in the Bible, the inspiration of Isaiah would not be at risk if there were more than one author. Much of the Bible comes to us without information about the author’s identity.
A note about the nature of prophecy itself might be in order as we set out on our quest to understand the grand book of Isaiah. The word comes from terms in related ancient languages and means someone who is called to call, someone who is invited to speak on another person’s behalf. The “Messenger Formula (‘Thus says the Lord ….)” is in every prophet’s mouth, a reminder that prophets are spokespersons for God. The future plays a role in the prophetic literature of the Bible, but probably a lot less than we typically think. At the core of a prophet’s task is communicating for God to the people; prophets are preachers.
While they often use the past to illustrate their point and regularly refer to the future to motivate and inform their audiences, it is Israel/Judah’s present which holds the greatest significance and occupies the largest segment of their work. How can they nudge, cajole, encourage, press Israel/Judah to turn to God in the lives they currently live? This is their major task. This means that we should probably place our primary focus on their message for their time, then search what later biblical writers understood them to be saying and how they might apply to us today. The proper order of questions: 1) What DID these words mean to the people who first heard them? 2) What, then, DO they mean to us? And 3) how, then, are we moved or changed by them? At least this approach will help us avoid the temptation (a strong temptation for Christians) to keep watching for New Testament or modern applications when that might actually be reading meaning back into the original speeches the prophets made. Sometimes this even means that we excerpt parts which seem to be for our time from a long context which appears to belong to the 8th century, the original setting. Is this a good method for reading the Bible?
Relevant Biblical Passages
- Read Isaiah 1-5 a couple of times this week. This is a good exercise as it allows the words of Isaiah to percolate gently into our very souls, to settle into who we are over time. Repeated reading of the same (larger) passages is never a waste of time.
- Isaiah 1:1 – There is something a bit odd about this beginning. While it is typical for prophetic books to begin with a short note about the time and place of the prophet (likely added by an editor who collected the prophet’s speeches to explain to people who lived later and needed some kind of introduction), we often have the call vision immediately following. Why is the call vision in chapter 6? Lots of suggestions in response to this question. Many feel that the book of Isaiah grew over time (a long time of ministry – either from 740 through ca. 700 BC or perhaps even into the 680s), beginning with chapters 6-9 and then was expanded as new speeches were added. The book of Jeremiah is a good example of this occurrence (Jeremiah 36). Most scholars date chapter 1 to post-701 BC (and therefore much later than the call vision of chapter 6 – 740) on the basis of references to the total devastation of the landscape which occurred during Sennacherib’s invasion of 701.
- Isaiah 1:2-20 – These verses represent some of the major concerns of the prophets, laid out in a powerful way to bring Judah to its senses. You have been beaten to a pulp, the prophet says, and I will tell you why – your worship, however much in line with what Moses taught, is tainted with acts of gross injustice against the poor and marginalized. No amount of prayer, sacrifice, incense can atone for the way you treat other people. THE two main points the prophets make are 1) how to worship God only and 2) how to treat with dignity one’s fellow human beings. Isaiah, like his contemporaries Amos and Micah, hits hard on number 2. And, like his other contemporary, Hosea, his does not lose sight of the importance of proper worship. Escape from punishment is based on Judah’s return to social justice and God’s willingness to reason together and forgive.
- Isaiah 1:21-31 – The focus on Jerusalem as a prostitute must have hit Judah like a ton of bricks. Almost the same as connecting Judah with Sodom and Gomorrah (1:10)! Along with other metaphors (the prophets were good with analogies), Isaiah blasts Jerusalem/Zion for its shortcomings, but does not leave it there without promises based on God’s grace, of restoration, even if by means of a remnant.
- Isaiah 2-4 – Chapters 2-4 contain a number of images of Judah in positive and negative messages mixed together. Some is beautiful, some blistering.
- Isaiah 5:1-7 – These verses provide us with one of the love songs in the Old Testament. Others can be found in Psalm 45 and, of course, the Song of Songs (Solomon). But here, rather than stopping at the celebration of the lover’s gift to his beloved of a fertile hill suited well for a splendid vineyard, Isaiah, in typical prophetic fashion, turns it into a message of judgment. Not unlike beginning with “Roses are red” and ending with “You will be blue.”
Contributions to the study of Isaiah We will likely be served best if we approach biblical books, attempting our best to slip out of our shoes into ancient sandals, out of our coats into their robes and then listen to the entire message as it was intended to be heard. Rather than taking away from what we thought prophets might have said or meant (an either/or approach), we might actually find ourselves enriched with more possibilities (both/and).
Lessons for Life What do these chapters tell us about ourselves and our needs? How might we do better at worship? At the way we treat other human beings, especially the marginalized?