We must not divorce Isaiah’s unified book from the biblical genre of prophecy, of which he is arguably the leading exponent. So, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of the purpose of prophecy in the Old Testament. Today, prophecy is mainly thought of as prediction of the future. God inspires the prophet to see and speak the future realities of his plans and purposes, whether for his covenant community and/or for the whole human race and the cosmos he has created. These may involve judgement and salvation, which are often viewed as the two sides of the same coin, predicting God’s intervention in the history of planet earth. But at the same time it is important to remind ourselves that the prophets also look back to what Yahweh has already revealed in the Torah, the instruction that constitutes the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses (Genesis–Deuteronomy) and which is the seed bed for everything else in the rest of the Bible.
In their excellent introduction to biblical interpretation, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart have a wonderful description of the prophets, whom they define as ‘covenant enforcement mediators’.1 They become prophets through the Word of the Lord which comes to them, not so much to reveal hitherto unknown facts about his character, but to apply revelation already given with divinely granted insight and penetration to the situation of their contemporary hearers. They are preachers of the covenant: its terms, its blessings for obedience and curses on disobedience (see Deut. 28:1–14 and 15–68). They are sent as God’s mediators, to explain the often perilous situation of the covenant people in their unfaithfulness and rebellion, to summon them to repent and renew their trust. They come to reiterate, apply and enforce the covenant relationship, with all that it involves, to the people who belong to Yahweh because of his steadfast faithfulness and loving kindness.
Isaiah provides a major example of this ministry. He comes to a people who are relatively prosperous, at the end of Uzziah’s long reign and who by the end of his ministry are again increasing in prosperity under Hezekiah (2 Chron. 32:27–29), having survived the crisis days of attack and invasion during the rule of Ahaz and the earlier part of Hezekiah’s reign. But prosperity is not necessarily a sign of God’s pleasure, not least because much of the wealth is in the hands of an increasingly rich elite, who oppress and exploit their fellow citizens, whom they should regard as their covenant brothers.
Isaiah is shown the inevitable outcome of this course of action, in considerable detail, by the Lord whose wrath against sin and rebellion must express itself in judgement. He is sent, therefore, to summon Judah to fresh repentance and renewed faith, but with the chilling knowledge that there will be no mass repentance (6:9–10).
We might say that the prophet’s role is to warn of an impending disaster, an accident of huge proportions just waiting to happen, and to call people to hear, to heed and to act now, while there is still time. But in addition we are to see the ‘accident’ not as the random product of historical forces outside of Judah’s control, but as the predetermined plan and purpose of the God who rules the whole of his creation according to the counsel of his will and the perfection of his character.
The prophet speaks from God to his covenant people to inform them of what God is going to do, whether in the immediate or more distant future, and to call for amendment of life in the present. God yearns jealously over his people and loves them so steadfastly that he cannot allow them to sin with impunity or to rebel and get away with it.
For those who lived as Isaiah’s contemporaries during the known historical parameters of his ministry, from the death of Uzziah (740 BC) to the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib’s armies (701 BC), the message is plain and urgent. Assyria, the rod of God’s anger, is being raised against Judah’s rebellion, not yet in a terminal sense, but as a fearful prototype of an even more devastating future judgement in the coming exile at the hands of the Babylonians. But Isaiah’s focus does not end there. Chapters 40–55 deal with the period 605–538 BC, when the Babylonian attack and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple led to the exile actually happening. This material was designed as a warning to Isaiah’s first hearers and to their succeeding generations, whether in Judah or later in Babylon. Not only does it affirm the truth of God’s Word, but also looks beyond the events themselves to a more glorious fulfilment of God’s promises, in the universal salvation procured by the suffering servant. This would be a source of great strength to the believing ‘remnant’ through all those intervening years, as they held on to the sure and certain hope culminating in new heavens and a new earth (65:17).
There is, however, a third setting which is the major focus of the final section of the prophecy, chapters 56–66. This deals with the period following the restoration to the land at the hand of Cyrus (538 BC), and could be characterised as ‘the waiting time.’ It looks forward not only to the replanting of a faithful covenant people in Israel, but beyond its borders, geographically and ethnically, to the gathering-in of believers in the Lord and his salvation, from across the world: ‘all mankind will come and bow down before me, says the LORD’ (66:23). Since that day is still future for us too, this final section has a particularly direct application to our ‘waiting time’, living, as we do, between the first and second comings of Christ, in what the New Testament calls ‘the last days’.
As we discern Isaiah operating in these three distinctive contexts, we begin to see that we too need to keep three horizons, or points of reference, in view when we come to teach this material. This will help us to ‘cut with the grain’, to use Scripture for the purposes God intends, not trying to make it do something for which it was not given.
As always, in biblical interpretation, we need to go back to the original writer, hearers and their context—‘them and then’—before we can move with confidence and integrity to our own very different situation—‘us and now’. However, we must never preach this in a detached, merely academic way, as though its purpose is simply to present us with interesting historical background information.
We relate to the original context in at least two basic ways. Firstly, because the biggest picture of the Bible is that God is preaching himself to us, we recognise that everything the unchanging Lord reveals of his nature and character in the Old Testament text is still true for us as its twenty-first century readers. Secondly, because human nature does not change, we can only too easily see ourselves reflected in the deceitful hearts of the people of Judah and learn from their mistakes how our own divided hearts may equally lead us astray. All of this stems from careful reading of the text and sensitive immersion of ourselves in the circumstances and world-view of Isaiah’s original hearers.
But we are not in the same position as they were. Our second reference point must be the great divide of human history, in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, to bring about God’s great rescue plan. It was Christ himself who told his disciples, ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44). His post-resurrection ministry was characterised by his appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, when, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27).
The text of Isaiah has more specific references to the Messiah than any other Old Testament prophet, but what was future to him is past to us, so that we must always view his message through the lens of Christ’s person and work. Theologically, the expositor must consider carefully where there are points of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, and especially where our position as members of the universal church, indwelt by God’s Spirit, differs from that of the physical sons of Abraham living as members of a theocratic nation-state.
Our third point of reference will be future for us too, in that it will embrace the ‘eschaton’, the culmination and fulfilment of all God’s promises and purposes in the eternal kingdom, at the end of time. As Isaiah’s hearers waited for the first coming of the Messiah, so the prophets themselves ‘searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow’ (1 Pet. 1:10–11).
Similarly, we await his second coming and will learn from Isaiah many lessons about how to live in the waiting time. Indeed ‘waiting’ is a widespread theme throughout his book. In any specific passage we preach from Isaiah, we shall need to apply the three horizons or reference-points in our preparation, so as to hear his intended message clearly for our generation and then be able to preach it to ourselves and to others with integrity and clarity.
David Jackman, Teaching Isaiah: Unlocking Isaiah for the Bible Teacher, ed. Robin Sydserff, Teach the Bible (Ross-shire, Scotland; London, England: PT Media; Christian Focus, 2010), 25–30.
We have just released a new Bible study on: Isaiah.
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.