Isaiah is a magnificent work, speaking of Judgement, Restoration, and New Creation. It spans the warning time prior to the Exile, gives encouragement to the Exiles in Captivity and looks to a glorious future kingdom. It even points, quite remarkably, to Jesus as God’s Servant-Messiah. Whether written by one two or even three authors, there is a cohesion that spans the book as we have received it. In this blog we only touch on a few of the book’s treasures.
Isaiah’s commissioning is an inspiration in itself. It embraces a realisation of his own sinfulness and that he is a member of a sinful nation. But it also shows his willingness to do whatever God wants of him, despite the discouraging nature of the task. God tells him that the message will harden the hearts of the listeners and when Isaiah asks, “For how long?” he gets the answer, “Until they are completely ruined!”
A Book of Judgement
Isaiah’s call introduces him to the fate of most prophets. No-one wants to listen to bad news, particularly when they are being held accountable!
I don’t think that things have changed. Anything resembling criticism of society, its trends, lifestyles, “rights” and so on, especially if it comes from a biblical perspective, brings (ironically) an avalanche of counter criticism, condemning such judgemental attitudes! The result is that people are often afraid to speak out on issues that might be controversial and instead stick to the safe (read, majority) opinions which they are sure most of their friends will “like”. A related result is that the Christian church, while safely criticising politicians, will very often follow the crowd, rather than challenge it. The warning of 7:9 is pertinent…
“If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”
This was the sort of predicament that Isaiah faced, and yet he stood up and spoke out. He criticised the meaningless offerings, injustice and oppression of the most vulnerable (1:17), superstitions, divination and pagan customs (4:6), those who monopolised land (5:8), those who chased after drink, who turned values upside down and presented lies as truth (5:20). He accused Judah of being like a vine that produced bad fruit (5:1-7). He was scathing about idolatry (44:12ff) and called on Israel to wash their sins away.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow,
though they are red like crimson
they shall be like wool. (1:18)
And herein lies an important observation. The prophet shares in the condemnation of the people. The judgement comes not from him but from God. The prophet can take no delight in his pronouncements. Moreover the aim of judgement is restoration. It is an act of punishment (of justice) but also an act of discipline.
A Book of Encouragement and Restoration
Even in the first 39 chapters, which are predominantly about the judgement of Judah and other nations, God holds out hope for the future, beyond the devastation of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon…
I will restore your leaders as in days of old,
your rulers as at the beginning.
Afterward you will be called
the City of Righteousness,
the Faithful City. (1:26)
The Lord will have compassion on Jacob;
once again he will choose Israel
and will settle them in their own land. (14:1)
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him! (30:18)
By chapter 40 there is an even greater sense of encouragement…
Comfort, comfort my people…
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. (40:1)
There is the promise of a return couched in the language of the Creation and Exodus stories. “Don’t look to the past. I am doing something new!” Out of the wilderness and chaos God would use the great Persian King, Cyrus as his servant to make a way back to the Promised Land, through a desert now running with water and brimming with life. Here is a Creator who knows what will happen and causes it to take place, in stark contrast to a created idol, which is powerless to know or do anything!
A Book about the Messiah
But Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to an even greater hope. That of a Messiah, a servant of God and a deliverer and saviour for the nations. References are scattered through the book. Even while telling Isaiah that he will destroy Judah and Jerusalem, God rather cryptically adds…
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land. (6:13)
Now he could just be referring to the small remnant left behind from the Exile but as we continue to read, we find references picked up by the New Testament in association with Jesus Christ…
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…”
… He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God…” (9:2-7)
A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse [the line of David]
…The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him…
…with righteousness he will judge… (Chapter 11)
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news… (61:1-3) quoted by Jesus as referring to himself
Then there are the so-called “Servant Songs” (eg 42:1-7, 49:1-7, 50:4-9). It’s not always clear with whether in each case it refers to the prophet, to Israel or to the coming Messiah. What is clear is that the Messiah fulfils the servant role, where Israel failed to be a covenant and witness to the nations. When we arrive at chapters 52-53 it would be hard to apply the words to any other than Jesus Christ, in one of the most moving pieces of poetry found anywhere in the Bible and one that has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. I cannot edit it any more than I have…
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God, ”
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all…
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgement he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, n
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
A Book about the Future Kingdom
And it is on the strength of the ministry, the life, death and resurrection, of the Messiah that Isaiah can look forward still further, beyond the return from Exile, beyond the first coming of the Messiah to the culmination of God’s Kingdom. Again, there are references throughout the prophecy, but more particularly towards the end of the book…
See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth. (65:17)
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord. (65:24-25)
We will see some of this language picked up in Revelation, when all will be put right and people of every nation will stand before God and acknowledge him. Justice will be done and peace will finally reign. In this life however we do well to heed Isaiah’s exhortation:
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David…
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon…
12 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands…