Isaiah: An Overview
How can a sinful people become a servant of God?
Can a man become a servant by desiring to do so?1
Isaiah begins with a statement of the problem, Israel, Godís chosen people, is deep in rebellion against God, the profundity of which is not seen any other element of creation. So we must learn the way to transform people of sin into servants of God. Chapters 2-4 begin with Godís vision of what Israel would look like if she had been obedient to God. But Israel isnít there yet, and God explains where she falls short, followed by the path that will get her there. Chapter 4 brings us full circle. But only goes as far as the regathering, whereas Chapter 2 goes all the way to the Kingdom Age when Israel will be a blessing to the nations of the earth.
In Chapter 6, Isaiah demonstrates by personal example that nobody can become a servant of God merely by desiring to do so. God has a plan, but before He reveals it through Isaiah, more groundwork must be laid. The first issue to be addressed is trust, a topic Isaiah devotes 29 chapters (7 through 35) to. Isaiah 7-12 demonstrates in graphic detail that Israel and Judah both have misplaced the object of their trust. Trusting in Assyria was not preferable to trusting in Egypt, nor vice verse Ė either one was a foolish use of trust. And having demonstrated in chapters 7-12 that they were placing their trust in human powers, God spends the entirety of chapters 13-35 railing on how foolish this is.
By background, A Mesopotamian nation, Assyria, had their heart set on world dominion. Assyria was not a world power until 745 BC, when Tiglath-Pilesar became King. They had a good run of four strong Kings, and in fact they wiped the northern of the divided Kingdom from being a nation. The northern nation was named Israel, though if you wish to avoid confusion with the united monarchy, some passages refer to Ephraim. The southern of the two nations was named Judah, and Judah was very weak as a military force. Ephraim and Syria were forming an alliance to stave off the assault of Assyria. Judah needed help. She could have trusted God, but instead she trusted Assyria and forged a peace treaty with them. God opposed that treaty, for it exposed that Judah did not trust Him.
While chapters 7-12 focus on how Assyria in particular is unworthy of Judahís trust, chapters 13-23 build on that thesis by pre-notifying Judah that trust in any other nation they may turn to for an alliance is equally unfounded, disloyal, and unnecessary. God wanted Judah to trust Him, alone. He was the only Source worthy of trust by character, and He provided a protection superior to the nations. We see a brief interlude in Isaiah 24-27 where Isaiah launches from the topic of Godís superior might and describes Godís ultimate victory over all the earth, and escorts the saved of all the ages into the eternal presence of Himself. But Judah is not persuaded, and about two decades later, in chapters 28-33, after having withdrawn their alliance from Assyria, Judah turns to an alliance with Egypt. Stubborn. Trust in God gets bypassed again.
Chapters 34-35 introduce us to the Way of Holiness, and people can display their trust by passing through this way. But the impure in heart are not permitted access. The implication is that you needed to have a purified heart in order to pass through. No instructions on how to accomplish this are provided in the immediate context. The instructions are laid out throughout chapters 40-66. Those who would separate Isaiah into two books do so at their peril. For by ending proto-Isaiah at chapter 39, they accept the gift of the Way of Holiness, and make it impossible to pass through.
Contrary to what popular commentary tells you about Isaiah 36-39, this is not a mere historical interlude. Chapters 36-39 (a reprint of a 2 Kings 18:13 to 20:19 with six verses omitted) present a polar contrast to Chapters 1-35: In Chapters 1-35, Judah was trusting Assyria or Egypt. In Chapters 36-38, King Hezekiah trusted in God. And God delivered. Chapters 36-38 reveal to us that man does understand what it means to repent. Chapter 39 exposes that repentance can be short lived. For Hezekiah, after having been healed from a grave disease, and after seeing his nation delivered by God, makes an alliance with upstart Babylon. At the time, Babylon was not a world force. But God judged Hezekiahís trust in Babylon. And when God foretells the judgment Judah will face for it, the hero of Chapters 36-38 draws a stomach-turning conclusion about God's grace. Hezekiah actually puts up no protest for Judahís impending captivity. For he wonít be around to suffer anyway.
Isaiah immediately pulls Hezekiah aside to tutor him with regard to what Hezekiah had just agreed to. In chapters 40-48, Isaiah while addressing Hezekiah does so in a manner that the ďsecond personĒ pronouns refer to the Judean captives in Babylon. He is speaking to Hezekiah, but addresses people who will not live for another 200 years. Isaiah skips about 100 years, because after Hezekiahís stomach-turning declaration, nothing else in the annals of Israel matter. Isaiah moves straight in Chapter 40 to the event foretold in Chapter 39. Isaiahís first words to the captivity in Babylon are, ďCOMFORT YE, COMFORT YE my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.Ē and the theme is pounded home for 9 chapters. Throughout Chapters 40-48, Isaiah describes Judahís deliverance from Babylon. This theme is variously co-mingled with a brilliant tutorial of exactly who God is: The self-existent Savior/Redeemer; the Creator; the Prophet who can validate Himself by telling mankind what is going to happen before it occurs. Isaiah reinforces his qualifications to make bold predictions by investing passage after passage that God is superior to any object of trust that man can construct out of his own imaginations, and highlighting this by demonstrating Godís ability to foretell events before they happen.
God is worthy of trust because He alone is not bounded by time, and can foretell future events before they occur on our timeline. With His perfect record on prophecy, He separates Himself from idols who cannot do that. It is a skill not easily feigned. The message of chapters 40-48 is God telling His people that they will be delivered from Babylonian captivity, and that the One who declares this prophecy is competent to be believed because He predicts perfectly. God even predicts the name of the agent of Godís delivery: Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). If Isaiah 45:1 is not authentic Ė and the Judeans in exile would be keenly aware if Isaiah 45:1 were written 200 years prior, or if it were written recently Ė if Isaiah 40-66 were written later than THE Isaiahís day, then chapters 40-48 serve no purpose. Nobody would be motivated to repent to a God who inspired a redactor to insert Cyrusí name after the event happened. And if the power of chapters 40-48 is nullified, then there is no link between the state of sinful Israel, and the Redeemer of Chapters 49-55 Who can make the transformation from rebellion to servanthood possible. The 8 Chapters would be God simply imposing salvation on His people, an action that hardly requires a prophet. It is through the hope of deliverance that Isaiah encouraged Judah through the exile in Babylon. It is through Godís ability to predict perfectly that generates the confidence that Isaiah spoke truth. It is through the promise of a Deliverer, and the consequent hope of delivery that Israel can become motivated to serve Ė not only because of Godís greatness, but because of His unstoppable love.
In other words, it is inadequate to bask in the glory of the word as delivered by Isaiah without regard to how many or in what age Isaiah was written. If Isaiah 45:1 is not authentically prophetic, then Isaiah 40-48 contains no message. And if Isaiah 40-48 contains no message, then there is no deliverance, and Isaiah 49-55 speaks of the Servant in vain.
But just as Isaiah was not able to choose transformation in chapter 6, Israel is not able to choose transformation throughout chapters 7-12. To become a servant of God, you must first be motivated to trust God, and you must use that trust in God to let God approach you, and you must receive God's approach through THE servant, the Messiah (chapters 49-55). But even as redeemed Christians well know, servanthood is not fulfilled at the moment of redemption. It is the outworking of the redemption that makes the Christian life more abundant. You made the team; now strive to get in the lineup. But the answer is ďtrust God.Ē
Finally, now that the servant (small s) of God is motivated to trust God, we still face a tension of finding a meeting point of human inability and Godís ability. If Moses was unable to act the servant in such a simple activity as to keep his arms raised (Exodus 17:13-18), the servant of God is powerless to fulfill the complexities of servanthood merely by his willingness. Those who trust God, and not man for redemption must continue to trust God for their servanthood as well. Instructions for this process is what Isaiah presents to you in chapters 56-66. Chapters 56-59 contrasts manís inabilities to perform the role of servanthood against chapters 63-66, which focus on Godís ability to raise man up to the office of servant. In between, we get a glimpse of what mankind looks like after he is glorified by God. Chapter 62 concludes with a grand crescendo of man living forever with God as glorified by God. It would seem a fitting conclusion to the book, if Hollywood and not God were the author of Isaiah. Even after the final four chapters highlight Godís abilities, the book ends on an awkward verse: precisely so we donít finish the book about trusting God with the feeling that man can live without God. There is a great peril in turning your attention away from God Ė even if just for the final verse.
1As noted in the parent link, the subtitle questions are put forth by Dr. John N. Oswalt.
1As noted in the parent link, the subtitle questions are put forth by Dr. John N. Oswalt.