Isaiah is the first of the major prophets and one of the most important. His ministry took place before the Babylonian exile of 587 B.C. We are told he started his ministry when King Uzziah died around 740 B.C. His prophetic task lasted some four decades.
Assyria had already taken the Northern Kingdom (722 B.C. – see 2 Kings 17), and Babylon was in a power struggle with Assyria for supremacy in the region. In 612 Assyria’s capital Nineveh would fall to the Babylonians and the Medes. It was in these tumultuous days that Isaiah gave his prophetic utterances.
Isaiah deals with both superpowers while he speaks to the Israelites, pleading with them to remain faithful and obedient to Yahweh, and not to put their trust in foreign powers. Only full trust and commitment to God will see them through these perilous times. But the people fail the test.
Isaiah and the nations
While the biblical prophets mainly minister to the nation of Israel, many of them also present oracles against the pagan nations. Some entire prophetic books are devoted to the nations (such as Jonah and Nahum), while many of the other prophets have large sections that relate specifically to them.
In Isaiah entire chapters are devoted to foreign nations: especially 13-23, along with 24-27, and 34. One clear illustration of how God and Isaiah look at the pagan nations can be found in Is. 10. Here we find that the menacing power Assyria is in fact just a tool in God’s hands (“the rod of my anger,” v. 5).
Because of Israel’s sins, Yahweh will actually use this evil nation as an instrument of judgment against his own people. However, even though God is calling the shots, Assyria is still accountable for her actions, and God promises to also judge Assyria. So God can use Assyria to punish Israel, and afterwards he then punishes Assyria.
God is in control of the nations, and Isaiah has to repeatedly call on God’s people to put their full trust in God alone, and not resort to alliances with pagan powers. This lesson is not learned, sadly, and eventually a superpower does come in an obliterate Israel – the Babylonians.
Such truths need to be considered today. And there are other reasons why all this is important, even for contemporary Christians. Often we are told that believers should not seek to impose their morality on non-believers, and we should not expect pagans and/or leaders to adhere to basic biblical morality.
This is not how the prophets saw things. I very much like how John Goldingay discusses this in his 2014 volume (see below):
Like Amos in his condemnation of the nations surrounding Ephraim (and like Paul in Romans), Isaiah assumes that nations have an inbuilt knowledge of their relationship to God, their subordination to God and their responsibility to God, and an inbuilt knowledge of what counts as right ways of behavior. They don’t need a special revelation concerning the basics of right and wrong. If they ignore that knowledge and simply do as they wish, they are responsible for their actions and may pay for them. Although it has unwittingly implemented Yahweh’s will, Assyria will pay for the fact that its motivation lay in a different direction.
That is an important truth to keep in mind. Indeed, try telling a more recent prophet, John the Baptist, that we should not run with moral issues or seek to speak to those in power in this way. Recall that he was beheaded for rebuking Herod over his sex life (that is, for divorcing his wife).
What Isaiah tells us about God
Overwhelmingly this is a book about God. It is about the God with whom we all have to do. His various attributes are on full display here. Obviously a major theme stressed in Isaiah is the holiness of God. This is most famously stated in the call of Isaiah. As we read in Is. 6:1-5:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
It was this encounter with the holy one of Israel that would forever mark the ministry of Isaiah. The holiness of God is reflected in his demands for his people to obey and trust, and it is also manifest in his judgments when they do not. Both can be seen as part of the holy passion of God.
In his commentary on Isaiah Goldingay speaks about Yahweh’s passion. He writes:
On the one hand, Yahweh is passionate in anger. The book uses a whole dictionary of terms for anger, fury, and wrath. It implies that anger is a normal personal emotion that is therefore as natural and right to Yahweh as a person as it is to a human being as a person, so long as it is rightly directed….
Yet raging is Yahweh’s shadow side (28:21). Yahweh is also passionate in compassion. Like Yahweh’s concern with authority and majesty, Yahweh’s anger is a threat to the powerful but a protection for the powerless. Yahweh’s compassion is more directly good news for the powerless.
In his commentary Barry Webb looks at these two aspects of the one God. He says:
Of key significance here are the two passages, in chapters 6 and 40, in which Isaiah finds himself summoned into the presence of God to receive a specific commission. . . . The first commits Isaiah to a ministry of judgment, the second to a ministry of comfort; and these become the dominant notes of the first and second halves of the book respectively. It is a book about demolition and reconstruction, judgment and salvation. And the order is significant: paradoxically, salvation emerges out of judgment and is possible only because of it.
All this is part of why we all need to read and study Isaiah. It is fully relevant to believers today. In his expository commentary on Isaiah, Raymond C. Ortlund rightly says that the prophet Isaiah “wants to show us more of God and more of ourselves than we’ve ever seen before.”
He continues, “As a pastor, it’s not my job to protect people from the living God. My job is to bring people to God, and leave them there. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the British minister, asked, ‘What is the chief end of preaching?’ His answer was, ‘It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence’.”
With all this in mind, enjoy being moved and challenged as you read through the book’s 66 chapters. And if you need further help along the way, consider making use of some of the following resources.
Studies on Isaiah
Abernethy, Andrew, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (IVP, 2016)
Firth, David and H. G. M. Williamson, eds., Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches (IVP, 2009)
Goldingay, John, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (IVP, 2014)
Given how important the concept of the suffering servant is in Isaiah, and the four main servant songs (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), here are a few specialised volumes on this:
Bellinger, William and William Farmer, eds., Jesus and the Suffering Servant. Trinity Press International, 1998.
Blocher, Henri, Songs of the Servant: Isaiah’s Good News. Regent College Publishing, 2005.
Bock, Darrell and Mitch Glaser, eds., The Gospel According to Isaiah 53. Kregel, 2012.
Glaser, Mitch, Isaiah 53 Explained. Chosen People Productions, 2009.
Lindsey, F. Duane, The Servant Songs. Moody, 1985.
MacArthur, John, The Gospel According to God. Crossway, 2018.
Expository/devotional commentaries on Isaiah
Meyer, F. B., Christ in Isaiah (CLC, 1941)
Ortland, Raymond, Isaiah (PTW, 2005)
Pawson, David, Come With Me Through Isaiah (Terra Nova, 2010)
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Comforted (David C. Cook, 1992)
Substantial commentaries on Isaiah
Major technical and scholarly commentaries, mainly from a more or less conservative and evangelical perspective include the following:
Goldingay, John, Isaiah (NIBC, 2001)
Grogan, Geoffrey, Isaiah (EBC, 1986)
Motyer, Alec, Isaiah (TOTC, 1999)
Motyer, Alec, The Prophecy of Isaiah (IVP, 1993)
Oswalt, John, The Book of Isaiah, ch.1-39 (NICOT, 1986)
Oswalt, John, The Book of Isaiah, ch. 40-66 (NICOT, 1998)
Oswalt, John, Isaiah (NIVAC, 2003)
Smith, Gary, Isaiah 1-39 (NAC, 2007)
Smith, Gary, Isaiah 40-66 (NAC, 2009)
Watts, John, Isaiah 1-33 (WBC, 1985)
Watts, John, Isaiah 34-66 (WBC, 1987)
Webb, Barry, The Message of Isaiah (BST, 1996)
Happy reading and studying.