The Eighth-century Prophets
Douglas R. Clark
The prophets of the eighth century B.C.E. include Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Recognized by many as the first of the “writing prophets” and among the most brilliant and skillful preachers, they set out for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah the divine agenda against social injustice and idolatry.
The world in which these prophets lived and ministered was shaped historically and politically by many factors. Since the days of the beginning of the divided monarchy, following Solomon’s reign, the two nations-Israel in the north and Judah to the south-experienced political and economic fortune and famine as circumstances changed. While attempting to exert a degree of independence, both kingdoms often found themselves at the mercy of major powers to their north (Syria and Assyria especially) and south (Egypt).
Toward the end of the ninth century Assyria conquered Syria, thus effectively removing the latter as a serious threat to the state of Israel. Israel was then free, as the eighth century began, to expand geographically, politically, and, as a result, economically. With Assyria, its own strength waning, content to claim Syria as its southern-most prize of war and with Egypt too weak at this time to make a move on Palestine, both Israel and Judah entered modes of tremendous expansion. Times were good, peace was in place, and prosperity marked the endeavors of the wealthier classes and of the nation as a whole. Not since the reign of David were the national boundaries so enlarged. Optimism ran high. Security and a sense of accomplishment claimed the day.
It wasn’t until 745 B.C.E., with the rise to Assyrian power of Tiglath-Pileser III, that the sleeping giant reawoke and expanded its ambitions and, along with them, its borders and control. Before long both Israel and Judah felt the pressure of Assyria’s renewed authority over the western fertile crescent. In 732 Damascus would fall to Tiglath-Pileser. Samaria, the capital of Israel, would collapse in 722 following a siege by Shalmaneser V and destruction by Sargon II, putting an end to the northern kingdom. And by the end of the century Sennacherib would be encamped around Jerusalem, penning up King Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” 1
Given a basic theological understanding at the time that obedience to Yahweh resulted in prosperity and success and that disobedience led to poverty and disaster, one can quite easily correlate popular theological attitudes with events and circumstances during the eighth century. The long period of political expansion and economic boom during the first half of the century signaled divine favor to the well positioned. It must have been quite a shock, then, for Amos, Isaiah, and Micah to level their audiences with blistering broadsides against the problems caused by increased wealth-greater social injustice for the marginalized and the oppressed. By traditional assessments, the poor and disenfranchised deserved their lot, as their adversity indicated. Little wonder prophets suffered such low approval ratings!
The last half of the century marked a dramatic turnabout in fortunes for both Israel and Judah. Assyria’s destruction of Syria and Israel, and its assault on Judah left Israelites reeling and devastated and inhabitants of Judah sobered by the reality of offended divine intentions. What the prophets predicted had come to pass. The hard lesson: wealth and well-being do not necessarily indicate positive covenantal ties with God, especially if gained at the expense of other human beings.
1. For this portion of the Prism of Sennacherib, see James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East: Volume I An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), pp 199-201.
The book of the prophet Isaiah (“The Lord has saved”) is the most famous of the collections of prophetic sayings in the Hebrew Bible. Among the pro-phetic books it is the most often quoted in the New Testament and, according to John Schmitt, the most often cited in the Mishnah and the most often copied among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran (7). The prophet’s popularity grows from the breadth of his vision, the power of his proclamations, the size of his collection, and the trusting, humble intensity of his life and ministry.
We have in the book of Isaiah speeches and stories, hymnic songs and laments which conceptually, temporally, and spatially cover a wide range. Isaiah contains the largest number of chapters of any prophetic book in the Bible, although Jeremiah actually contains more words. From its opening judgment speech against the sinful eighth-century nation of Judah to assaults on misguided royal decisions and poor moral choices to predictions of prosperity, the book takes on the world. It exposes us to the social, personal and national crimes Isaiah decries; opens us to the faith struggles prophets, kings and commoners all endure; invites us to examine redefined theological constructs; and compels us, happily, to celebrate the promise of restored hope and lasting shalom (well-being). There is hardly a prophetic speech form he neglects, scarcely a persuasive rhetorical device he overlooks and little stylistic flare he omits. His theology is rich, his vision of the religious life unequaled. He was the consummate divinely inspired prophetic spokesperson.
History and politics
The basic historical and political setting for Isaiah in the last half of the eighth century B.C.E. has already been described in the introduction to this chapter. The prophet found himself an integral part of urban national life during a time periodically blessed with material prosperity, occasionally cursed by the dreadful specter of siege warfare and disaster (realized in fact at least twice). During the 740s and most of the 730s economic optimism reigned in Judah, as it did in the northern state of Israel. Unfortunately, however, Israel totally collapsed in 722. Judah’s confidence, combined with widening international commercial and cultural contacts, left her exposed to a broad spectrum of social, political, and religious temptations, heady enticements ultimately culminating in the nation’s undoing. This parallels what we know from studying Micah.
However, because of Isaiah’s extensive involvement in certain national and international events and because of their significance to the prophet’s proclamation, we will focus with greater precision on two major events of the late eighth century. Following the shockwaves generated in both Israel and Judah by the rise to Assyrian power of Tiglath-Pileser III in 745, two major events played central roles in Isaiah’s ministry. The first involved Assyria, Syria, Israel, and Judah in unanticipated alignments; the second squared the mighty Assyria off against an obviously outclassed and outmaneuvered Judah.
Sometime around 735, with the ascension of Ahaz to the Judahite throne, Israel and Syria joined in a somewhat surprising coalition (these two nations seldom cooperated in anything!) against Assyrian domination in order to escape the heavy tribute levied on them. In an attempt to muster the support needed to rebel against the ruthless and cruel Assyrian masters of the ancient Near East, Israel and Syria sought the cooperation of other surrounding nations, perhaps of remnants of the Philistines and of the Edomites, but especially of Judah to the south. In the face of Ahaz’ tenacious resistance, attempts at persuasion gave way to siege warfare, and Judah found itself attacked and its capital surrounded by superior and more numerous troops from the north.
Although this battle, which came to be known as the Syro-Ephraimitic War (Syrian and Israelite war on Judah), only lasted a short time, its impact upon biblical writers was significant. A record of the battle appears in 2 Kgs 16:5; 2 Chr 28:5-21; and Isa 7 and seems to be assumed in the judgment speech of Hos 5. The basic contours of the war are clear, even though the biblical writers do not all agree on the exact outcome and carry the conflict’s theological lessons in a variety of directions.1
Israelite and Syrian troops surrounded Jerusalem, leaving the king and his subjects quivering in terror “as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isa 7:2). Not left entirely without options, Ahaz bent beneath the pressure of the moment and, in some ways tossing caution to the wind, sent a request to Assyria for assistance. Actually, this action would serve Ahaz in two ways: rescue from the pressing siege and some guarantee of a weakened Israel and Syria which would allow Judah future space for expanded influence in the region.
The war was for Isaiah not only a senseless tragedy; it became an important springboard for his early preaching about trust in God. In an attempt to encourage faith, the prophet warned the king of sticky political entanglements like this one and of an ominous return of the Assyrians down the road, this time not on a rescue mission. Included in this invitation to trust is the famous, voluminously analyzed, unendingly debated story of the sign-child of 7:14. Ultimately, the assault troops of Syria and Israel evidently withdrew, perhaps fearing the worst from Assyria and returning home to prepare for its arrival. In keeping with Isaiah’s predictions, both Syria and Israel were destroyed-Syria in 732 and Israel in 722.
The ominous return of the Assyrians to Judah in 701 marks the second major event of Isaiah’s ministry with significant implications for the nation and for his proclamation. King Hezekiah, in opposition to his father Ahaz, turned against the Assyrians and looked to a weak and ineffective Egypt for military support. In spite of Judah’s misplaced hope, Sargon, king of Assyria, marched victoriously over all his major rivals, including Egypt and an emerging Babylon, from 714 to 710. He died surprisingly, however, in a battle in 705, sending nations once oppressed by him celebrating into the streets and plotting how to revolt.
Hezekiah jumped at the opportunity, perhaps with encouragement from Merodach-baladan in Babylon (Isa 39 may relate to this) and maybe from Egypt, but not with the support of Isaiah, to forge a coalition with other Palestinian states against Assyria. It all backfired. The new Assyrian monarch, Sennacherib, quickly mustered his army and marched on Palestine. The Assyrian flood Isaiah predicted during the Syro-Ephraimitic War had reached Judah’s neck (Isa 7:17-25); the country lay desolate, the daughter of Zion abandoned like a hut in a cucumber field (Isa 1:7f).
By his own reckoning, Sennacherib destroyed 46 walled cities of Judah and countless villages before laying siege to Jerusalem itself. Monumental stone reliefs Sennacherib commissioned for his palace in Nineveh picture graphically the fall of Lachish to the southwest of Jerusalem, near Micah’s home town. While engaged in the battle at Lachish, Sennacherib commissioned his emissary, the Rabshakeh, to address Hezekiah in Jerusalem, attempting to dissuade him from trusting in God and encouraging him to surrender (Isa 36f, 2 Kgs 18:13-19:37). Isaiah propped up the king’s faith by again calling for trust in God who promised an end to the Assyrian threat.
Although subsequent events are not entirely clear, it appears Egypt finally intervened. Unfortunately, this only delayed briefly the inevitable, while Hezekiah paid a huge tribute. Then, according to Sennacherib’s annals, he assaulted Jerusalem, penning Hezekiah up like “a bird in a cage” (ANET 288). Interestingly, Sennacherib does not claim complete victory over Hezekiah in his account. Rather, in keeping with Isaiah’s promise of reprieve, the Assyrian army, according to Isa 37:36-38, was miraculously decimated and Sennacherib returned to Nineveh.2 For a second time the prophet had called on the king to trust in Yahweh, this time with a positive response.
Social setting and religion
The social and religious conditions in Judah during this period were complicated. While many, especially the urban elite, basked arrogantly in the warm confidence prosperity lent them (God was blessing their faithfulness in accordance with traditional theological tenets), others-the oppressed poor, widows, orphans, and other similarly marginalized groups-agonized under the tyranny of slavery, land takeovers, and dishonesty and fraud at the highest levels. Members of the landed nobility were proudly adding to property and possessions at the same time as bloodshed, unrighteousness, and injustice cried out for resolution.
The religious landscape changed somewhat over time. With prosperity there always came a sense (according to Isaiah, a false sense) of security. Worship practices and ethical standards did not seem to live in the same house; at least, Isaiah tried to chase the double-minded out of God’s house (Isa 1). In addition, significant evidence exists for the presence of foreign deities in Jerusalem with their attendant idolatry and immorality. This was certainly the case during the reign of Ahaz who sold his religious soul out to foreigners, introducing pagan furnishings and practices into the Jerusalem cult (2 Kgs 16:10-20). Among other things, Ahaz even appears to have involved his children in sacrificial rites (2 Kgs 16:2-4). Hezekiah, however, is reported to have instigated major reforms by removing a number of foreign elements along with persistent practices hanging on from Israel’s and Judah’s checkered past.
The compatriot of Micah in the fight against injustice and idolatry, Isaiah received his call in ca. 740, the year king Uzziah died (6:1). Not originating from the desperate poverty of disenfranchised rural farmers and pastoralists like Micah, the prophet could claim roots among the elite in Jerusalem. In spite of this, Isaiah is unwilling to allow his socio-economic status to interfere with his profound sense of moral outrage at what he sees and knows is happening around him. In fact, he uses his status to maintain easy access to the kings under whom he served and even appears as a statesman in Hezekiah’s court, a position guaranteeing exposure to temptations to compromise his prophetic integrity.
Evidently young when called to prophesy, Isaiah was married to a person he identifies only as “the prophetess” (8:3). Their family consisted of at least two sons, both of whom play an important role in their father’s ministry as their names indicate. The older boy, Shear-jashub (“A Remnant Will Return”), accompanied his father during his visit to the trembling Ahaz, who feared the worst with Israel and Syria camped on his doorstep at the peak of the Syro-Ephraimitic War. The message of his name was good news and bad news-a war was on, but there would be a remnant. Maher-shalal-hashbaz (“Speed the Spoil; Hasten the Destruction”) was their second son. His mission was not ostensibly an optimistic one. Like the sign-child of Isa 7:14, Maher-shalal-hashbaz’ birth signaled an end to the Syro-Ephraimitic War, while pointing as well to the flooding onslaught of Assyria (see below for a fuller treatment of these chapters).
The precise time when Isaiah concluded his ministry is unclear. Most feel we know nothing of and have nothing from Isaiah after the 701 near-disastrous encounter with Assyria, although some traditions have him alive through Hezekiah’s rule (698 B.C.E.) and into that of the evil Manasseh who, many suggest, martyred the prophet. Thus, he served from ca. 740 until at least ca. 700.
The role of Isaiah in authoring the book with his name attached has caused and continues to cause discussion and debate. It goes without saying that Isaiah, like most or all of the “writing” prophets, first spoke the messages contained in the book. His speeches were then collected over time into something like an anthology by supporters, possibly even identified as his disciples in 8:16. This process is at least partially observable in the fact that Isaiah’s call vision is recorded in ch 6, not ch 1, as usually is the case among the prophets. In fact, ch 1 assumes the 701 encounter with Assyria and thus derives from nearer the end of Isaiah’s ministry.
But the issue at stake in Isaiah studies extends far past these considerations. At least from the time of the medieval Jewish scholar, Ibn Ezra (ca. 1100 C.E.), questions arose about some portions of the book and whether or not they could possibly have been authored by Isaiah in the eighth century. Certain passages were too precise in some of their predictions (e.g., Cyrus in 44:28 and 45:1) and appeared to assume events and circumstances decades, even centuries, later than the prophet’s lifetime. The period of the western Enlightenment added fuel to the fire by denying categorically the possibility of anything miraculous, thereby discrediting the predictive elements in Isaiah.
Most scholars today are not so starkly anti-supernaturalistic, although many would not be comfortable with open-ended predictive abilities among the prophets. In fact, although virtually all scholars agree that “foretelling” was not the major task of prophets, they do not deny predictions to them. The prophets were preachers in the best sense of the term and incorporated predictions when deemed necessary to communicate to their audiences. However, what has persuaded many of the existence of later materials in the book of Isaiah are considerations of 1) setting, 2) theological themes and subject matter, and 3) language. It is necessary for us to discuss these, follow where the evidence seems to lead, and draw out the implications for the study of Isaiah.
1) The setting of the book is fairly clear in much of its first half (eighth century). However, when one reads past ch 39 a change takes place. Events described and times and places assumed all suggest the period of the Babylonian exile. For example, Isa 43:14 promises divine intervention to break down Babylonian bars incarcerating Judahite subjects of the Holy One of Israel. Joyous shouts accompany news that Yahweh will rescue his people from Babylon (48:20) and return them with singing unto Zion (51:11).
In addition, a number of passages have captured a sense of expectancy that some major event is about to occur; redemptive change seems to be in the air. One group of texts appearing in Isa 41:2-4, 25-29; 44:24-45:7, 13; and 46:8-13 portrays a rising king from the east and north who will deliver God’s people from their prison. In 44:28 and 45:1, the king, Yahweh’s “messiah” deliverer is Cyrus, ruler of Persia on the east and Media to the north. This is the only time in the Old Testament a foreign king receives the title, mashiach, “anointed one.”3 Military success has met him at every turn, as the passages suggest and celebrate and as history confirms. Help is on the horizon, deliverance just around the corner. These expectations fit best the circumstances around 550-545, following Cyrus’ meteoric rise to power and his lightning conquests. Following his inauguration in 559, his almost immediate accession of Media, and his unprecedented conquest of Lydia, he destroyed Babylon in 539 and soon thereafter released the Judahite captives. Isaiah 44:28 also assumes the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, an event which only occurred in 587 in pre-New Testament times.
2) Theological themes and subject matter which appear in the book after ch 39 also demonstrate differences from the eighth-century preaching of Isaiah. Rather than prophesied judgment at the hands of the Assyrians, proclamations of joy resound at the promised release from Babylon, a nation only waiting in the wings of the international stage before the end of the seventh century. Although joy is by no means absent from Isa 1-39, the earlier section does not exude the abounding jubilation characteristic of chs 40ff. God’s message to his incarcerated people is now one of hope and rescue, a message similar in mood to that of Ezekiel after 587.
Other concepts reveal shifts in the chapters subsequent to 39. A strict monotheism which denies the existence of other gods (45:1-7), although hinted at earlier, appears to come to its first full expression during the exile. Earlier perspectives in the Hebrew Bible are better described as monism or henotheism which exalts Yahweh over the other gods while not denying their existence or territorial activity. The reason for this new emphasis, as observable in the Cyrus passages, appears to be an attempt to win the Israelites over from the temptation to worship Babylonian gods (Bel, Nebo [46:1], and Marduk, especially) who “obviously” had overpowered Yahweh in the battle for Jerusalem and the temple, the dwelling place of God. “Rather,” God is now saying, “I am the only God and you will know that very soon when my prediction of Cyrus’ arrival to rescue you comes to pass.” It did in 539!
In addition to these considerations, the notion of “redemption, redeemer” only shows up in Isaiah after ch 39. So, in any developed fashion, does the concept of “servant,” which is central to chs 40ff (and which becomes “servants” in the final chapters of the book).
3) Studies in the language and style of the book of Isaiah have not been particularly satisfying for either those who support one author or those sensing additional contributors to the book. At least, no one seems to be persuading those on the other side. Some have argued that phrases like “the Holy One of Israel,” which appears in 1-39 twelve times and in 40ff thirteen times (and only seven times elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible), support unity of authorship. Others look, rather, at how these terms and phrases have been utilized in their various contexts and see dependence on earlier uses by later writers who understand them in new ways. Some have even gone to the trouble of checking characteristic terms on computers to check for variations. These attempts have not proven successful. Most students of Isaiah feel that differences in language and style are not helpful enough alone to determine authorial changes.
Still Another Author? A new wrinkle in this debate appeared first in the work of Bernhard Duhm, a German scholar, who in 1892 recommended an additional author for Isa 56-66 beyond the author of chs 40-55. Many recent scholars share that assessment because of shifts in theological focus (away from unbridled hope and joy in 40-55 to concern about complacency in 56-66) and the location of the prophet’s audience as assumed in the text (Palestine, not Babylon). Those who see a separate author for 56-66 (or better, a community of contributors) place the date somewhere between 539 and 450.4
As the quest to understand the development of the book of Isaiah progressed, it became clear to some that occasional passages within Isa 1-39 also assumed a later audience, thus fueling the debate further. Especially singled out for attention here were some of the oracles against foreign nations in chs 13-23 (particularly those against Babylon in 13f, which was hardly a threat in the eighth century), the so-called “Isaian Apocalypse” in chs 24-27, and the historical interlude of chs 36-39 (which parallels the account of 2 Kgs 18-20 almost verbatim).
Toward Resolution. What, then, are we to make of all this discussion about the book of Isaiah? How should we handle what appears to be a confusing array of proposals and counter-proposals made in good faith mostly by people of some kind of religious persuasion who are searching for the most responsible ways to sort out and resolve apparently unavoidable questions? What approach will allow us to be honest with the evidence and true to a conviction that God, the Holy One of Israel, has indeed spoken through these words, all recorded long ago?
From among the many options that have been suggested over the centuries, Bible students have marked out basically two paths one might follow with regard to the book of Isaiah. The first, a route to which many subscribe, accepts as the words of Isaiah of Jerusalem in the eighth century the entire corpus of 66 chapters. To do that they take the latter chapters as predictive in specific and precise details and, according to Oswalt (26-28), as the necessary future implications of the material in 1-39. This approach would necessitate that the prophet was carried in vision to future periods of time. One could scarcely apply chs 40ff directly to events in the eighth century.
The problems with this approach arise in the questions: Why address the material dealing with the Babylonian captivity (40-55) or the time after the return from captivity (56-66) to an audience concerned rather about Assyria standing menacingly on the doorstep? What purpose does it serve those listeners? How is Isaiah playing a meaningful role of ministering to his congregation?
An alternative approach, one also adopted by many students of Isaiah, recommends that we have in this book the words of the great eighth-century prophet as well as those added later by groups faithful to the original vision and committed as well to its continued life and application to communities living in altered circumstances. According to this perspective, the book grew over time, especially with additions from an unnamed inspired preacher among the Babylonian captives from Judah and from spokespersons within a Palestinian community which had collapsed into complacency after the exile was over.
The difficulties here are numerous as well. To what degree does this reconstruction deny divine foreknowledge, given its unwillingness to consider an eighth-century origin for the Cyrus prophecies? Why don’t we have any evidence at all among available ancient manuscripts that would demonstrate support for the recommended divisions in the text? Early witnesses like Sirach (second century B.C.E.), New Testament writers, and Josephus (first century C.E.) never hint at the possibility of additional authors. Is this factor due to lack of any interest in the issue or a chronologically closer, hence better, assessment? How important is it that contents in a book under one name all be from one person?
In response to the two approaches and the problems associated with them, we offer an assessment by means of an analogy. The evidence, in our opinion, argues for the second option, i.e., that the book of Isaiah was enlarged and enriched over time as later inspired spokespersons and editors faithfully and creatively contributed to the message of their highly esteemed spiritual forebear. Perhaps Christopher Seitz explained it best with the metaphor of an old farm house in which he once lived (107-109). Noticing signs of settling along one side of the hallway, his family began to realize that their house had not always been shaped as at the present, but had at some prior time undergone significant remodeling and had accrued additional rooms. The process by which the house expanded did not make it something other than a functional house. It did not undo the previous builder’s work, nor critique his intentions nor undermine his skills. The building was still a house, intended for the safe and comfortable habitation of a family, evidently a larger one now. Of course, modifications occurred, but not to the removal of the original structure.
In similar fashion, the book of Isaiah initially met the needs of the prophet’s eighth-century Jerusalem congregation. Isaiah addressed the social, religious, and political issues confronting a Judah apparently bent on self-destruction. Not departing from this message, an exilic preacher remodeled it to provide an environment more conducive to comfort and redemptive anticipation for despairing captives hoping against hope for release. Still later, other builders added on to the growing message an emphasis calculated to encourage continued fidelity and ongoing commitment in the face of insidious apathy and indifference. In the process, a number of themes, generated originally by Isaiah, developed and grew, infused with fresh and contemporary applications to life under God in a changing world.
The book of Isaiah as a whole contains a wide range of carefully crafted literary features. Some of the best and most moving poetry in the Hebrew Bible has its place in this collection. For its hymnic majesty, its richness of poetic imagery, expansive scope, and rhetorically forceful speeches, much in Isaiah is unexcelled.
Literary forms abound. The book exhibits typical prophetic sayings such as the threat (8:5-8), the invective (1:4-9; 5:8-10), exhortation (58:1-12), oracles against foreign nations (most of chs 13-23; 34; 47), and oracles of salvation (2:2-5; 9:1-7). “Thus says the Lord” normally introduces these speeches, giving to their message a sense of divine authority and, especially in the case of judgment sayings, divine urgency.
Additionally, spokespersons in the book utilize a love song (ch 5), the vision report (ch 6), the divine lawsuit or legal complaint (3:13-15), disputations (28:23-29; 40:12-31), a royal oracle (45:1-7), laments (ch 64), the unique and deeply moving “servant songs” (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), and praise hymns (40:9-11; 42:10-13; 44:23). These demonstrate acquaintance with a broad spectrum of ancient life settings where they were originally used.
Beyond the use of conventional forms, often in new and creative ways, the book reveals stylistic innovation, artistic flair, and superb literary genius. To illustrate, the pun which concludes the “Song of the Beloved’s Vineyard” (5:1-7) dramatically transforms the love song into a searing social indictment:
and [God] expected justice, (vayqav lemishpat) but saw bloodshed; (vehinneh mispach) righteousness, (litsdaqah) but heard a cry (vehinneh tsaqah) (Isa 5:7)!
Although not a match for Hosea, the book’s rich repertoire of metaphors adds color and texture. Israel finds itself portrayed as wayward sons (1:2), ungrateful domestic beasts (1:3), a bruised and bleeding body (1:5f), a lonely hut in a cucumber field (1:8), a drastically reduced remnant (1:9), a harlotrous city (1:21), alloyed metal (1:22), diluted wine (1:22), a well-tended vineyard gone to seed (5:1-7), perishable grass (40:8, 24), sheep (40:11; 53:7), a light unto the nations (42:6; 49:6; chs 60-62), ceramic greenware (45:9; 64:8), a daughter of Zion (1:8; 52:2), Yahweh’s servant (throughout 40-55, especially in the servant songs), and a barren mother (54:1-3).
The varied metaphors for God are rich, powerful and, on occasion, endearing, even maternal. He is a metallurgist, purging alloy from Judah (1:25), a power broker (throughout), a viticulturalist (5:1-7), a judge (throughout), a rock of refuge (17:10), a victorious conqueror and road-building engineer (40:3-5), a shepherd (40:11), a woman in labor (42:14; 45:10f), a potter (45:9; 64:8), a nursing mother (49:14f), a comforter (51:12ff), refreshing waters (55:1), an everlasting light (60:20), and a comforting mother (66:12f).5 As creator, God is pictured as skilled tent-maker (40:22) and fearsome but friendly dragon-slayer (51:9-11-exodus motifs are also present here).
The book of Isaiah also incorporates irony, satire, imaginative poetic and prosaic composition, and constitutes some of ancient Judah’s most moving and meaningful literature. The speakers, writers, and editors represented in the final product have placed in our hands an incomparable literary legacy.
Growing out of our assessment of the book of Isaiah as an anthology which has grown over time, we will divide the treatment of its message into three subsections, matching the three periods we assume for the book’s literary history.
EIGHTH-CENTURY MESSAGE-ISAIAH 1-39
In spite of the fact that some of the material in chs 1-39 may derive from later periods, the outline will be inclusive:
I. Speeches regarding Judah and Jerusalem..................... 1-12 II. Oracles against foreign nations............................ 13-23 III. Apocalyptic interlude...................................... 24-27 IV. Prophetic warnings against Judah........................... 28-33 V. Two poems regarding the nations and Judah.................. 34-35 VI. Cohesive historical narrative.............................. 36-39
Survey of contents
Chapters 1-12. The survey of the contents of Isa 1-39 will follow the canonical order of chapters rather than attempt a chronological restructuring based on historical considerations. Chapters 1-12 consist of a number of speech units which, in somewhat the fashion of a patchwork quilt, address judgmentally problems of a social, religious, and political nature. They also include the call vision of the prophet (6), extremely optimistic assessments of the ideal future (2:1-5; 4; 12), and the peaceful reign of the ideal Davidic ruler (9:1-7; 11:1-9).
The opening speech in the book blasts Judah with a fusillade of devastating metaphors (see above), calculated to level any theological arrogance, cleanse Jerusalemites of a double standard of morality (proper worship practices combined with tragic social injustice during the rest of the week), open negotiations based on repentance and purge the capital city of dross. Chapters 2-4 mix and match good news with bad for Judah in a fashion we have seen before in Hosea. The love song of 5:1-7 is particularly memorable because of its pleasant agricultural setting (characteristic of love songs, e.g., the Song of Songs), the harvest expectations of Yahweh, and the ironic prophetic twist by which the vineyard is abandoned and destroyed.
Chapter 6 sets the tone of the entire book of Isaiah with its focus on the holiness of God who has revealed his glory to the prophet at the time of his call. It is a majestic portrayal of fiery seraphim, the splendor of the divine presence, and Isaiah’s response which overwhelm the listener/reader. So, albeit in a different way, does the prophet’s commission. He is to preach:
"Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand." Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed (6:9f).
Within the chiasm of this poetry (minds/minds; ears/ears; eyes/eyes) lies one of the most difficult passages in Isaiah to understand and appreciate. Ultimately, it is within the mysterious divine purpose to blunt the people’s response in order to bring about his own will-humility in the face of pride, righteousness instead of injustice, trust in the place of autonomy.
Among difficult passages, chs 7 and 8 rank with the best. Under threat of Jerusalem’s fall at the hand of Israel and Syria in ca. 734 (the Syro-Ephraimitic War), King Ahaz is terror-stricken. Isaiah and his son, Shear-jashub, promise a way out of the dilemma if the king will only put his confidence in Yahweh. In the face of Ahaz’ objections, the prophet publicly gives him a sign which, literally translated, reads:
Behold the young woman is pregnant and will bear a son and you will call his name “Immanuel” (7:14).
… before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted (7:16).
Another son, Isaiah’s second (Maher-shalal-hashbaz), is the subject of Isa 8:1-4. Of him:
… before the child knows how to call “My father” or My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria (8:4).
How are we to understand the sign-child(ren)? Obviously, they both signify a quick end to the war going on, but did the child of 7:14-16 belong to Ahaz or to Isaiah (=Maher-shalal-hashbaz?) or to any pregnant woman standing in the crowd? Of course, Christians familiar with Matt 1 ponder further implications as well.
The two poems about the new Davidic ruler (9:1-7; 11:1-9) also pose fascinating interpretive questions. It is clear from the throne names in 9:6 (typical for the ancient world), the king’s wisdom and just rule, and the reign of peace he ushers in that Isaiah had high hopes for his people’s future. Again, New Testament readers will quickly see applications to Jesus, the son of David. Hopefully, in the process, however, the original and local meaning will not be overlooked, since these words had redemptive significance for their first hearers, too.
Chapters 13-23. Following the prophet’s attack on hubris (human pride) in ch 10 and the song of God’s salvation in ch 12, the book continues with the oracles against foreign nations in chs 13-23. Appearing in every prophetic book except Hosea, these speeches seem odd, especially in light of the fact that they likely were never intended to be delivered to the nations mentioned in them. According to John Hays, they served to rally the troops for battle against foreigners, to contrast foreign aims with God’s at the coronation of new kings (see Ps 2), and to accomplish other worship purposes.6 Often they appear in prophetic books as a transition between speeches of judgment and those of salvation, assuring the removal of oppressive enemy nations who might block the arrival of the promised ideal future. In fact, those in Isaiah are interjected with (sometimes strange) promises of Judah’s future well-being (see 16:5; 19:16-25, especially vv 23-25).
Chapters 24-27. Although composed of a variety of material, these chapters appear to focus on God and Judah more like the apocalyptic literature of later times. Apocalyptic tends to press prophetic judgments and promises somewhat beyond a this-worldly perspective and more into the cosmic realm. There is greater concern for what is beyond-beyond our tangible world and beyond the grave. Too many ties exist here with traditional prophetic themes to label the section pure apocalyptic; rather some of its seeds seem to be apparent.
Chapters 28-33. Picking up again with the “woe speeches” of earlier chapters, ch 28 introduces us again to more traditional Isaian oracles. The material through ch 33 is basically judgmental, punctuated here and there with an occasional splash of good news (30:15-18, 19-26; 32:1-8, 15-20; 33:5f).
Chapters 34f and 36-39. Following two poems in chs 34 and 35, the first an invitation to foreign nations to come close to hear God’s plans against them and the second a song of celebration about returning to Zion and renewal of the land, this section of the book concludes with chs 36-39. The outline calls these chapters a “cohesive historical narrative” in order to stress the transitional nature of the passage. It reviews the Assyrian Rabshakeh’s 701 visit to Jerusalem to demand the city’s surrender and King Hezekiah’s terror in the temple, assuaged only by a comforting word from Isaiah. It also recounts the Rabshakeh’s second warning, which sent Hezekiah fleeing again to the temple for prayer, a prayer God answered with an oracle from the prophet, again predicting Sennacherib’s humiliating retreat and demise. An angel of the Lord instigated the retreat and the monarch’s sons ensured his demise on his return (37:8-38).
The chapters also record Hezekiah’s appeal to Yahweh during a serious illness which ultimately subsided, as before, at the prophet’s intervention (ch 38). The concluding chapter (39) introduces us to the Babylonian envoy sent by Merodach-baladan in honor of his recovery. Happy to see all Hezekiah’s possessions, they returned to Babylon with the report of the king’s wealth and with the ironic preparation to receive Judahite captives in little over a century. The stage has been set; all is ready. By the time we turn the page to ch 40, the story line is clear-exiles in captivity hoping against hope for a way out, forced there by the mistakes of kings and subjects back home.
A number of themes in chs 1-39 quickly become apparent to the careful listener/reader. Among the sacred traditions of the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah deals with and develops well the remnant motif and the concepts of Davidic kingship and Zion. His understanding of them will appear in the treatment of the two major overarching themes below.
The first is the problem of human sin and its results. Isaiah has little patience for the ongoing sordid history of Judah’s shameful performance in its religious, social, and political life. The litany of crimes seems never to end. At the heart of it all lies a seemingly incurable rebellious pride-hubris. Pride touts its own independence; it stifles any kind of other-orientation, fosters a cruel and destructive selfishness; it marks the end of redemptive relationships; it is the death of trust. Perhaps it was the dominance of pride in ancient Judah that led to the extreme pessimism evinced in the prophet’s call to preach hardening and heaviness to this crowd (6:9f). Possibly Isaiah wanted to press the issue past impenetrable pride to its total collapse before any hopes of positive relationships with God or with fellow human beings could be realized. The proud are singled out in “woe” oracles as wise in their own eyes (5:21) and drunkards, the “fading flower” of Ephraim’s glory (28:1).
Sin springing from pride leads to callous social injustice, crushing God’s people and “grinding the face of the poor” (3:15). Its carnage stains perpetrators’ hands with the blood of the oppressed and marginalized segments of the community, those living on the periphery of social, religious, and political life, the disenfranchised-widows, the fatherless, the displaced and indentured poor. Jerusalemites needn’t bother Isaiah with lame excuses or politically correct explanations. They shouldn’t waste their breath on religiously motivated rationalizations. Their attendance at worship services only mocks the righteous God they claim to serve and legitimizes their ongoing oppression of the poor. “I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly,” (1:13) the Holy One of Israel screams through the prophet. The result is a body thoroughly bruised and bloodied, untended and festering from “the sole of the foot even to the head” (1:6); a city whose alloy and dross place it in need of purification and purging (1:21-23); a desolated, Sodom-like landscape (1:7-9). The only remedy for such a case is the cleansing, purging assault of the Assyrians who loom ominously on the horizon, awaiting God’s invitation to pounce. They are “the rod of my anger, the staff of my fury” (10:5); a menacingly approaching army with bows taut, arrows ready, a lion’s growl in their throats (5:26-30); the ubiquitous wild bee whistled for by Yahweh (7:18f); a hired razor (7:20). Jerusalem pride finally meets its match in the humiliation measured out by the just and holy God of Israel.
This brings us to the second major theme in Isa 1-39-God’s character and his plans for resolving the sin problem. God is consummately “the Holy One of Israel.” His holiness (elevated otherness, exalted separateness), so dramatically revealed in the call vision of ch 6, demands holy (righteous) living among his people. It is this moral characteristic that separates the God of Israel from other ancient deities, thus insisting on more from Israel and Judah than other gods did from their subjects.
The Holy One of Israel has a plan, a plan whereby Israel can realize its full potential in just relations among its inhabitants, in proper worship, in appropriate international ties. In all these areas God calls upon Judah to trust in him and emulate his moral uprightness. Over and over again he issues invitations to trust, not to trust in human military might or political treaties, but in the God of Israel. The episode in ch 7 surrounding the Syro-Ephraimitic War could well be entitled: “An Invitation to Trust.” Ahaz has the opportunity (illustrated in the sign-child of 7:14f), but reneges on the patently flimsy grounds of presumption. Later, Hezekiah maintains a record of trust in divine protection under pressure, resulting in a positive assessment by the Bible’s historians. But not Ahaz. In his evaluation of the situation in 734, he doesn’t need a baby, he needs an army (Achtemeier 37)! Nevertheless, Isaiah counsels him to “take heed, be quiet,” not to fear, and not to “let your heart be faint” in the face of your enemies (7:4). Subsequently he advises Judah that:
In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength (30:15). In the absence of trust, God punishes his people, but does so therapeutically. The oft-repeated refrain is inescapably redemptive: For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still (5:25; 9:12, 17, 21).
To ensure the ongoing existence of Judah and continued positive relations, Yahweh promises a remnant which will enjoy the reign of the ideal Davidic ruler in Zion. Gerhard Hasel has demonstrated the significance of the remnant motif to Isaiah, where, for the first time in the Hebrew Bible, we have the portrait of a holy remnant.7 Employing a wide range of remnant terminology, the prophet pictures a holy, productive, and gloriously peaceful, even if small and once impotent, remnant of survivors who will enjoy the refuge and savor the fruitfulness of Zion (especially 4:2-6).
The ideal Davidic king, through whom Yahweh promises to ensure a positive future, will rule wisely and justly (9:1-7; 11:1-9). Peace, prosperity, power, and protection will characterize his reign and guarantee security for his people; “the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this” (9:7).
EXILIC MESSAGE-ISAIAH 40-55
Although most scholars who study Isa 40-55 agree on the unity of the proclamation of “the Second Isaiah,” there is little agreement and few serious attempts toward an outline for the section. What maintains the sense of wholeness is not logical flow of thought or observable divisions of proclamation, but rather a consistent mood and steady tone. It is a unified perspective on the world of the exiles and their spokesperson’s vision of redemption for Judah and restoration to the land. It is the joyous expectation and celebrative hope that holds the chapters together. Given this more basic foundation for unity of thought, our treatment of these chapters will proceed with themes, rather than an outline or survey of contents.
There are four major theological traditions the Second Isaiah treats: 1) creation, 2) the exodus, 3) the patriarchs, and 4) Zion. In some of the most brilliant language and moving rhetoric in the collection, the author majestically and redemptively portrays God as the mighty creator. As creator, God’s exalted power lays the foundation for the very hope and encouragement Judah needs in captivity and is promised in the opening lines of ch 40. This God measures the heavens with hand spans, cradles oceans in his palm, weighs mountains on his own scales, and stretches out the heavens like a bedouin tent. Nothing can match his incomparable majesty and strength-which is just the point. Having created order out of chaos in the beginning, he is certainly able to put shattered lives and broken communities back together again and to do so as easily as at the start; those who wait on him “will run and not be weary” (40:31).
It is also creation language that undergirds the call of Jacob (48:12ff) and the mission of Israel as a light to the nations (42:5-9). In addition, hope for return from captivity is partially built on other references to creation: 43:1-7; 44:24ff; 51:9-11.
Isaiah 51:9-11, while boldly drawing on Babylonian creation mythology, combines creation and exodus language with an interesting effect. The mythological primeval ocean which God conquers transmutes into the Sea of Reeds which is likewise removed as a threat to God’s people. This all reminds us how central to the Second Isaiah the concept of the exodus was. As for his contemporary among the captives, Ezekiel, the notion of a new exodus lent itself well to Judah’s circumstances. Babylon was now the agent of bondage, but a desert, not a sea, still separated them from Canaan. Promises of protection and provision also echoed language from an earlier era (43:16-21; 48:20f; 49:9-13; 52:11f).
The patriarchal and Zion traditions are not dealt with in any detail or to any extent in chs 40-55. Our author refers to the covenants with Noah (54:9f) and Abraham (41:8; 51:1-3) as binding on God to be gracious and to rescue. Zion occurs often, but most often simply as a name for Jerusalem and the people Israel.
The themes of Isa 40-55 surrounding God are many and varied, but always positive and redemptive. As noted above in the treatment of background for the book of Isaiah, the focus on monotheism is significant. Connected as often it is in these chapters with the rise of Cyrus and in antithetical juxtaposition with idolatry, the theme is fundamental to the prophet’s message. The temptation for whipped captives to turn to Babylonian deities was too strong for earlier theological formulations. But the shift in emphasis to belief and trust in one and only one God who not only allowed the exile, but who promised unprecedented release from a national captor and a celebrated return home was essential. Idols no longer represented other gods, however insignificant; there simply were no other gods … period. This tenet was creatively supported by the parodies on idolatry found in chs 44 and 46.
As sole deity in the cosmos, Yahweh moves consistently in these chapters to deliver and rescue. He is the mighty savior, the redeemer of Israel. His deliverance gives rise to his role as comforter and to responses of celebration and unbounded joy. He forgives not on the basis of Judah’s repentance, but because the nation has already received double for all her sins (40:2). He pardons because it is in the graciousness of his nature to do so (43:25). In some of the earliest of such expressions, he becomes not only the God of the entire world by controlling nations in order to protect his people; he is also the God who commissions his “servant” as a light to the nations in order to bring them to a recognition of his sovereignty as well.
Themes regarding the community of captive Judah are also several in number and positive. We will deal with the two major ones. In the absence of rebukes for social injustice and political intrigue, the consistently pervasive theme surrounding the people has to do with joy and hope. Exuberant delight, boundless jubilation, and unquenchable anticipation characterize the entire collection of speeches and songs. Joy exudes from divine words of comfort, assurances of forgiveness, and promises of return. It leaps from the lines of celebrative hymns. It is the air the Second Isaiah breathes and hopes to encourage his compatriots to breathe, too. Even the occasional reminders of sins past are transformed from condemnation into optimistic oracles of salvation.
The second theme centers around the famous, oft-debated “servant songs” in Isa 40-55. Literature on the subject is voluminous. References to “servant” appear some twenty times in the chapters, often associated with Israel. The oracle in 41:8-9 demonstrates this:
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, "You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off."
Interpretations of the “servant songs” themselves, which occur in 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12, cover a broad range. Some understand the servant to be an individual, others see the term as a cipher for the community, or at least a part of it. Surely the prophet had someone or some group in mind that would make some sense to his audience, but the quest to identify categorically who that was continues.
The songs give mixed descriptions of the servant. Isaiah 42:1-4 begins to familiarize us with a gentle, soft-spoken servant whose persistence, favor with God, and anointing by the Spirit of Yahweh will guarantee the establishment of justice in the earth. In the second song (49:1-6) the servant himself speaks, calling the peoples from afar to hear him. Symbols of peace and tranquility give way, in the servant’s speech, to weapons of war, suggesting a different kind of mission. Israel is identified in this song as the servant, but we must understand this as a portion of the people (special? sacred? remnant?) which is commissioned with the task of restoring Israel and reaching the nations with God’s salvation as well. The servant in 50:4-9 takes on an adversarial role, apparently suffering for some of the positions he holds and expresses. The notion of suffering prepares us for the final and, for Christians, most intriguing of the songs-Isa 52:13-53:12. Reading this passage in its original setting without the aid of the lens of the New Testament is a bit difficult for some. The song pictures a servant whose prosperity-turned-to-adversity has captured the attention of many nations. Once exalted, he now grieves, sorrow etched on his face. He is oppressed and bruised at the Lord’s wish. None of this is out of keeping with the history of Israel. But this servant also suffers and dies vicariously, in the place of “my people” (v 8); he “shall bear their iniquity” (11). Who could this be? Have been? The language of sheep before shearers is often tied to Israel in the Psalms and Lamentations (from the time of the exile). In addition, the language of vicarious suffering is not foreign to the Hebrew Bible. Lamentations conveys dispirited sentiments from the survivors of Jerusalem’s destruction in the following way:
Our ancestors sinned; they are no more, and we bear their iniquities (5:7).
So, who is (are) the servant(s)? Investigation will continue, but perhaps it is most important to review the basic outlines of what we can affirm. Whatever the final word, the servant is loved by God and receives his/their call from him. His function is one of service to his own people and, more broadly, as a light to the nations regarding God’s salvation for all. In the words of McKenzie (LV):
For the community to whom the Songs were addressed, they are a challenge to a commitment, to a faith in a future which is revealed in the figure of the Servant. Unless Israel accepts the Servant as its incorporation, it cannot keep faith with Yahweh.
POST-EXILIC MESSAGE-ISAIAH 56-66
An outline, adapted from one by James Newsome (172), gives an idea of the structure and flow of ideas in Isa 56-66:
I. Sayings on the universal love of God............... 56:1-8 II. Speeches of judgment............................... 56:9-57:21 III. Oracles on proper worship.......................... 58 IV. Indictments and judgment........................... 59 V. Salvation speeches................................. 60-62 VI. Speech about Yahweh as warrior..................... 63:1-6 VII. Prayer for Yahweh's intervention................... 63:7-64:12 VIII. Oracles of judgment and salvation.................. 65-66
Survey of contents
A brief survey of the contents of these chapters may illustrate what some scholars sense regarding the origin of the varied passages: they derive from a community of spokespersons, rather than from one voice and pen.
The first section surprises us with a warm and inviting universal perspective on salvation unequaled anywhere else, as foreigners and the formerly unqualified gain direct access to the temple. Chapter 56:9 breaks radically from this tone, however, along with ch 57, and launches into a biting invective against ravenous but stupid and lazy Judahite “dogs” and mounts a stinging polemic against those captivated by the attractions of idolatry. One can only trust the God “who inhabits eternity” (57:15) because he is above all idols and judges the proud and saves the contrite.
In ch 58, this collection of speeches ascends to some of its highest moral ground. In a brilliant poem, characterized by significant cultic catchwords, pressing rhetorical questions, and profound poetic imagery and development, the prophet draws a bead on social responsibility to the poor and appropriate worship behavior. However, in likely the most dispirited speeches of Isa 56-66, ch 59 returns to themes of judgment. Our speaker decries the iniquity, evil, and malicious designs some in the community have perpetrated, demonstrating the lost vision of light (v 9) promised by the Second Isaiah years before.
But the tide again turns toward salvation in the expansive and optimistic oracles of salvation in chs 60-62. The returned nation of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, arise and shine in splendor as a testimony to the astonished and now submissive foreign nations. Terror returns in 63:1-6 with God’s bloody trouncing of Edom, followed in 63:7-64:12 by a contrite petition for divine understanding and renewed efforts at restoration. The collection concludes with a series of judgment and salvation oracles, including promises of appropriate retribution on offenders and a newly created order.
Among the themes of chs 56-66, we single out five: 1) salvation, 2) an undermining tension within the community, 3) universalism (after a fashion), 4) cultic concerns, and 5) creation. Like the Second Isaiah, the community responsible for chs 56-66 proclaimed salvation with joy and celebration. However, these oracles differed from the earlier totally promissory announcements; salvation became attached as well to judgment speeches. In fact, salvation had not yet materialized as expected due to sins within the community (McKenzie XVIIIf and Newsome 175).
The shifts observable in the proclamation of salvation may have been due to tensions within the population of Jerusalem. A number of indicators point in this direction. Given the rigors of returning to the land and rebuilding houses for themselves and for God, the taunting presence of hostile neighbors, the perceived failure of glorious promises of Zion’s exalted position among the nations made during the exile, and inevitable party politics and power struggles, it is little wonder these chapters depict an atmosphere of conflict and infighting.8 Some have even suggested the tensions are apparent in the disappointingly imperfect portraits of life in God’s new creation (65:20; 66:24).
Diverse perspectives on whether or not foreigners should become part of the Zion community exist within the chapters. The bold universalism of ch 56, with foreigners and eunuchs worshiping in the temple and keeping the Sabbath, is quite astounding, leaving the temple “a house of prayer for all peoples” (v 7). The oracles of salvation in chs 60-62, while opening Yahweh worship and celebration to the now persuaded nations, nevertheless relegate them to subservient roles (e.g., 61:5f). Finally, the devastating anti-Edomite sentiments expressed in 63:1-6 indicate that at least these neighbors, often maligned in exilic oracles against foreign nations, could hope for no place in restored Israel.
Concerns relating to the cult arise regularly in Isa 56-66. Discussions about temple worship, fasting, and Sabbath observance are positive, even celebrative in chs 60-62 regarding worship. However, all come under critique. If idolatrous or superstitious, worship is ineffective; if not matched with social concern, fasting is worthless; and if not a delight, the Sabbath is self-destructive.
Creation, a tradition developed in a variety of innovative ways especially during and following the exile, finds a place in Isa 56-66 as well. At the end of the collection in chs 65f divine pledges of a “new” creation promise heavens, earth, and Jerusalem without memorials to “the former things” (65:17). This may be an allusion to current community frustrations and delays in the fulfillment of promises. In the new order, the worlds of pleasant human existence, peaceful animal cooperation, and prospering worship continuity are assured.
Returning briefly to the book of Isaiah as a whole, how might we summarize the completed product of a long and complex process? There is in the Hebrew Bible no equal to this collection of judgment and salvation speeches delivered to God’s people over a period of at least two centuries and still relevant today. It has spoken and continues to speak to Jews and Christians in deeply profound and redemptive ways.
A number of scholars have encouraged a holistic view of the book as it now stands in the Bible. Among others, James Newsome (176-79) has been helpful in delineating the major themes of the book when viewed as a whole. He notes three unifying theological concepts. 1) Yahweh is the Holy One of Israel. Never does this dictum escape the purview of any of the sections of the book. It is the central truth of the prophecy, apart from which Isaiah, his later admirers, and the people of Judah would not exist as an ongoing community of faith. 2) Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, is the only true God, the creator of the heavens and the earth. 3) Yahweh is serious about sin, but he saves those who place their trust in him as the Holy One of Israel.
VALUE/RELEVANCE FOR TODAY
From among many considerations in the book of Isaiah, three come to mind in a discussion of relevance, one each from the three main sections of the book. In the first place, the world today, no less than eighth-century Judah, is desperate for prophetic voices. Whether in the marketplace, within religious institutions, inside political machines, or on the street, the prophetic critique of society for abuses of its citizens whenever it occurs is a necessary moral force for the sanity and security of our world. The obsessive greed that drives nearly every human institution becomes oppressive when gain is possible and no one is watching. Prophets speak against these abuses and the world needs their courageous convictions.
A second value of the book of Isaiah for today, coming from chs 40-55, is the ethic of service. In a largely individualized world wrapped tightly by centripetal forces of egomania and self-preservation, society could use a fundamental, religiously motivated and energetically pursued “other-orientation.” Service to one’s community and to the wider world based on people’s worth and value is an altogether appropriate response to need, even if it calls for vicarious suffering.
Third, there is a significant note growing out of Isa 56-66 and informed by Paul D. Hanson in an article on the community lying behind these chapters. Based on his description of the tensions he senses in post-exilic Judaism, especially as observed in Isa 56-66, he recommends a path for moderns caught up in religious debates that accomplish little for the good of the world. In order to contribute, servant Christians must avoid fundamentalism, with its condemnation of rivals in and outside the church, and any liberalism that denounces out of hand pessimistic prophetic or apocalyptic voices. The serving community lives somewhere between these two traps, somewhere that takes society seriously and people redemptively.
ISSUES FOR DISCUSSION AND REFLECTION
- How should a person handle the issue of multiple authorship of a biblical book claiming ostensibly to be the work of Isaiah? What affect does resolution of this problem have on one’s view of the inspiration of the Bible? Does it matter for interpreting the book?
- In light of Isaiah’s polemic (ch 1) against those who worship well but do not live in a morally responsible fashion the rest of the week, how does one successfully merge the two? Which is more important to the life of faith-regular church attendance or social justice?
- How should a Christian of one tradition relate to individuals or groups of other Christian persuasions? Of other world religions? When should one be inclusive? When exclusive?
- Given modern and historical instances of the tendency within communities of faith to divisiveness and dissention due to power plays and personal agendas, what might the book of Isaiah have to contribute to resolutions of such conflicts?
- Reading quotes from Isaiah in Matthew and in Paul’s writings, one is tempted to observe that a funny thing happened on the way to the New Testament! What dynamics are at work as New Testament writers cite the Old Testament?
- Discuss the devotional values of the book of Isaiah, a rich source for contemplative spirituality. What does it mean to trust God in all situations of life? What risks does pride impose on spirituality? How does hope for the future help shape a person’s (a community’s) perspectives and ability to function? How does one respond to a God who rescues on the basis of his own gracious commitment to his people’s welfare?
- How does one balance appropriate reverence for the “holiness” and transcendence of God with casual ease at the perception of God as parent or friend?
- Achtemeier, Elizabeth
- 1988 “Isaiah of Jerusalem: Themes and Preaching Possibilities” in Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah. Ed. C.R. Seitz. Philadelphia: Fortress, pp 23-37.
- Clements, Ronald E.
- 1987 “The Unity of the Book of Isaiah” in Interpreting the Prophets. Ed. J.L. Mays, P.J. Achtemeier. Philadelphia: Fortress.
- Conrad, Edgar W.
- 1991 Reading Isaiah. Minneapolis: Fortress.
- Hanson, Paul D.
- 1988 “Third Isaiah: The Theological Legacy of a Struggling Community” in Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah. Ed. C.R. Seitz. Philadelphia: Fortress, pp 91-103.
- Kaiser, Otto
- 1972 Isaiah 1-12. (Old Testament Library). Philadelphia: Westminster.
- 1974 Isaiah 13-39. (Old Testament Library). Philadelphia: Westminster.
- McKenzie, John L.
- 1968 Second Isaiah. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Newsome, James D., Jr.
- 1984 The Hebrew Prophets. Atlanta: John Knox.
- Oswalt, John
- 1986 The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Schmitt, John J.
- 1986 Isaiah and His Interpreters. New York: Paulist.
- Seitz, Christopher R., Ed.
- 1988 Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah. Philadelphia: Fortress.
- Watts, John D.W.
- 1985 Isaiah 1-33. (Word). Waco, TX: Word.
- Watts, John D.W.
- 1987 Isaiah 34-66. (Word). Waco, TX: Word.
- Wilson, Robert R.
- 1988 “The Community of the Second Isaiah” in Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah. Ed. C.R. Seitz. Philadelphia: Fortress, pp 53-70.
1. The treatment by Michael E.W. Thompson in Situation and Theology (Sheffield: Almond, 1982) is particularly insightful.
2. There is some debate about whether there was one or two Assyrian assaults on Jerusalem-one in 701 and another approximately twenty years later.
3. The Hebrew term, mashiach, translated “messiah,” means “an anointed one.” As a noun it applies in the Hebrew Bible most often to rulers (1 Sam 2:10, 35; 12:3, 5; 16:6; 24:6 (2X), 10; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam 1:14, 16; 19:21; 22:51; 23:1; 2 Chr 6:42; Pss 2:2; 18:50; 20:6; 89:38, 51; 132:10, 17; Dan 9:25; and to Cyrus in Isa 45:1), but it may also refer to priests (Lev 4:3, 5, 16; 6:22), prophets (?) (1 Chr 16:22, Ps 105:15), the people (Pss 20:8; 84:9; Lam 4:20; Hab 3:13), or even objects/places (2 Sam 1:21; Dan 9:24?).
4. See Watts (1985) p xxx, who dates the first audience of the entire book to 435 B.C.E.
5. See the intriguing article by Mayer I. Gruber, “The Motherhood of God in Second Isaiah” in The Motherhood of God and Other Studies. Ed. Jacob Neusner, et al. (Atlanta: Scholars, 1992, pp 3-15). In comparing the use of mother images for God in Isa 40ff with the lack of the same in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the author detects a direct relationship between their use and the removal of idolatry-successful for Isa 40ff and not so for Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The latter were unable, by Gruber’s account, to woo the women away from the attraction of foreign deities because their portrait of God was male only.
6. See John H. Hayes, “The Usage of Oracles Against Foreign Nations in Ancient Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 87 (1968):81-92.
7. Gerhard Hasel, The Remnant: A History and Theology of the Remnant Idea from Genesis to Isaiah. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1972), p 216 ff.
8. See McKenzie, pp LXXf and Paul D. Hanson, pp 91-103. Hanson probes into potential party squabbles between the Zadokite priests and Levitical and other groups in an attempt to understand what we see in Isa 56-66.