Relevant Bible Verses: Isaiah 1, 5
Leading Question: “Was Israel’s place as God’s chosen people irrevocable?”
The book of Isaiah is a pivotal books in the Old Testament. It contains so many passages that have been applied to Jesus, that is has sometimes been called “the fifth Gospel,” as noted by D. J. Wiseman, General Editor of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, in the “General Preface” to Isaiah in the TOTC series [Alec Motyer, Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999), 5].
I should note here that Motyer’s commentary is a worthy companion for our studies in Isaiah this quarter. Motyer is a thoughtful Evangelical who takes the book very seriously.
In terms of the structure of the book, Motyer views chapters 1 to 5 as the author’s preface to the book. The message of the book thus begins with Isaiah’s call experience in chapter 6.
The overall structure of the book is unique, dividing tidily into two parts, Isaiah 1-35, which could be called “Israel under the Assyrians,” and 40-66. “Israel under the Babylonians.” Chapters 36-39 is an historical interlude. That historical interlude offers a rare OT opportunity to compare three versions of a particular segment of biblical history, namely, the reign of Hezekiah:
2 Chronicles 29-32 and 2 Kings 18-20, in addition to Isaiah 36-39.
Isaiah and the Kings of Judah During his Ministry
The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary (rev. ed., 1979), gives this description of the Isaiah’s prophetic ministry: “He was a son of Amoz (Is. 1:1; not Amos) and came to the prophetic office toward the close of the reign of Uzziah (Azariah), c. 790 – c. 739 B.C. and served also under Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (d. c. 686). Tradition makes him cousin of Uzziah. The chronology of Sennacherib’s campaigns into Judah (ch 36 and 37) shows that Isaiah remained active in the prophetic office approximately to the close of Hezekiah’s reign, and that his ministry therefore spanned more than half a cent.”
Here is a list of the four kings under whom Isaiah served, with the number of years each reigned and a brief evaluation of their reigns according to the assessment in 2 Kings:
Uzziah (Azariah), 52 years: “He did what was right” (2 K 15:3) – but see 2 Chron. 26:16-21, for the record of his tragic incursion into the temple and his resultant leprosy.
Jotham, 16 years: “He did what was right” (2 K 15:34)
Ahaz, 16 years: “He did not do what was right” (2 K 16:2)
Hezekiah, 29 years: “He did what was right” (2 K 18:3)
Question: What kind of stance could one expect from the prophet, given the record of the kings under which he served?
Note: The three sources reporting on the reign of Hezekiah give differing events and assessments of his reign. Chronicles is the most positive, including three whole chapters describing the Passover which Hezekiah initiated. Neither Chronicles nor Isaiah say anything about this Passover. And the ill-advised show-and-tell to the Babylonians is recorded in all three, but Chronicles handles it very gently, almost evasively, while both Isaiah and Kings gives Hezekiah’s response a flippant twist:
2 Chron. 32:25-26: The Chronicler’s evasive comment: But Hezekiah rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him; for his heart was lifted up: therefore there was wrath upon him, and upon Judah and Jerusalem. Notwithstanding Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord came not upon them in the days of Hezekiah.
2 Kings 20:19: Hezekiah’s flippant response to Isaiah: “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?”
Isaiah 39:8: Hezekiah’s flippant response to Isaiah: “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”
Question: Given the differing responses recorded in different sources in Scripture, how reliable are the prophetic judgments?
Comment: The primary thrust of the biblical responses is remarkably consistent, though the biblical writers do not hesitate to add their own nuance and emphasis. Perhaps one could quote a former dean of the Walla Walla College (University) School of Theology, Gordon Balharrie: “The things that really matter in Scripture are embarrassingly clear.”
Question: Could a modern spokesperson for God “get away with” accusing God’s people of being like Sodom and Gomorrah, as Isaiah did? After a devastating critique of the wickedness of God’s people (Isaiah 1:2-8), Isaiah declared in 1:9-10:
If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah. Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
Isaiah’s wide-ranging critique of religious practices among God’s people has led some to suggest that he was actually ready to abandon virtually all religious practice. Notice the power of this rhetoric in Isaiah 1:11-15:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Comment/Question: Isaiah’s prescription consists of 9 forceful commands. Are they too forceful for today’s church?
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Question: Can we really “wash” ourselves and make ourselves “clean”? Or is that God’s work?
Question: What are we to make of the alternation between condemnation on the one hand, and forgiveness on the other?
Isaiah 1:18-20: Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Question: Is Isaiah’s approach simply a stronger version of 1 Corinthians 4: 21: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”
Isaiah 1:21-28 How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. 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. Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
The official study guide takes us from chapter 1 to chapter 5 where we have a “love song” (5:1), but a “love song” with a bite, a stronger bite than in Hosea or the New Testament.
Additional Comment on the Book Isaiah and its Authorship:
The following comments from John Watts’ commentary on Isaiah include important insights on the nature of the book. The tendency of critical scholars is to divide the book into three parts: First Isaiah – Chapters 1 to 39, the only part that mentions Isaiah by name; Second Isaiah – chapters 40 to 55; and Third Isaiah, chapters 56 to 66.
Watts is a moderate evangelical scholar, a Baptist, who seeks to be faithful to Scripture while also recognizing that the material found in the book of Isaiah, covers several centuries. He avoids the more typical evangelical rigidities in dealing with Isaiah, but affirms the divine oversight of the book in a way which is often difficult for “critical” scholars to do.
These quotes many not appear in the Good Word discussion, but they should enable the listeners/readers to ponder some broader perspectives than would usually be the case in conservative (evangelical) circles.
Selected quotes from John. D. W. Watts, “Isaiah,” in Mercer Commentary on the Bible (1995).
Authorship [pp. 565-566]
The author, or authors, of the book are unknown. Jewish tradition understood the reference to the PROPHET in the superscriptions (1:1; 2:1 and 13:1) as indications of authorship. Attention to the person ISAIAH certainly suggests that this is a book about the prophet Isaiah, known to us otherwise only through the account in 2 Kgs 19-20 [sic: see also 2 Chron. 32:20]. The existence of an apocryphal book, The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, is ample evidence that the figure of Isaiah had an enduring place in Jewish traditions. The superscriptions in 2:1 and [565 – 566] 13:1 claim that prophecies of a future temple and the destruction of Babylon also belong to Isaiah son of Amoz from 1:1.
Modern critical scholarship has trouble ascribing authorship of the entire book to an eighth century prophet because the work of chaps. 40 – 66 so clearly relates to persons and events of the sixth and fifth centuries. The apparent periodization of the material in the Book of Isaiah led to the division of the book into First, Second, and Third Isaiah.
The difficulty of crediting an eighth-century author with so broad an interpretation of history is removed if the phrase of Isaiah (1:1) is understood as more than an author’s signature (these issues are also treated below in the commentary on the superscriptions). The author or authors remain unknown.
Unity [p. 566]
If the claim for eighth-century authorship is eliminated, no strong reason remains to deny unity to the book. Chapters 1– 2 at the beginning and 65 – 66 at the end form an INCLUSIO around the historical development in the book. The use of the name the Holy One of Israel for God continues throughout the book. The plot, which portrays God’s decrees of destruction in chap. 6, is balanced by his reversal of that fate in chap. 40. Taken together, these three points open the possibility of reading the book as a coherent whole.
Date [p. 566]
Since the final chapters of the Book of Isaiah do portray the fulfillment of the Vision in the building of the new Temple in Jerusalem, the likely date for completion of the Vision should fall somewhere near the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century B. C. E. But many parts of the Vision show signs of belonging to a long period of tradition and of prior use, perhaps going back to the time of the prophet himself.
The Superscription, 1:1 [pp. 568-569]
The opening phrase of the Book of Isaiah, the vision of Isaiah, suggests that the entire book is written as a VISION. The whole work is clearly related to a man named Isaiah, who is identified as a son of Amoz, but it need not be narrowly considered as a designation of the author. The issue of authorship involves a number of problems, especially the evidence that the book describes things that happen over [568/569] a span of centuries. No one person could have recounted all of them.