Introducing Isaiah

Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr.  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 11 - Fall 1968

In sheer majesty and grandeur, to say nothing of immensity of size and theological significance, the book of Isaiah towers like some awesome cathedral over much of Old Testament literature. Like an ancient cathedral in modem Europe, however, Isaiah, too, is the constant object not only of reverence and of study, but of attempts to reconstruct its history, to detect the locale and date of various parts of the building complex, and, most important, through the development of a sense of historical perspective to understand its contribution to man’s search for meaning and purpose.

This article is an attempt to suggest some areas of modern critical study which may be of help in introducing Isaiah during the January, 1969, Bible Study Week. While the text for the week, The Gospel in Isaiah, deals with the theme of God’s redemptive grace reflected in selected portions of the entire book of Isaiah, primary attention is given in the book to Isaiah 40-66. Hence, the burden of this article will rest upon Isaiah 40-66.


Isaiah of the Assyrian Crisis (Isaiah 1-39)

There are two historical focal points of overarching importance for the whole of Isaiah 1-66; the crises of the Assyrian era (Isa. 1-39), and exilic deportation and return (Isa. 40-66). The historical context of Isaiah 40-66, differing from that of Isaiah 1-39, is that of the exile, whether described two centuries before the events transpired, or written by one who lived during the occurrence of those events. Isaiah 1-39, on the other hand, is late 8th century B.C. in nuclear form, although some material has been appended to the original nucleus.[1]The clearest example of this is the historical narrative (Isa. 36-39) which also appears in II Kings 18:13-20:19 (except for 38:9-20), but other passages are also often ascribed to a period of time later than the Isaiah; for example, the oracles (13-23), the “Isaiah Apocalypse” (24-27), plus other more limited sections. Its historical point of reference is the era between approximately 742/740 B. C. and the early 7th century. It focuses on the problems associated with the coalition of Syria and Ephraim (Israel) against Judah and the whole of the various Assyrian forays under kings such as Tiglath-Pileser III and Sennacherib, as well as the general spiritual crises of the era.

The personal name “Isaiah” (yesha’yahu) means salvation (yesha’) is of the LORD (yahu, an abbreviation for yhwh, LORD). The prophet’s name thus epitomized his confidence that in the midst of Israel’s crises salvation would come from the LORD; a faith borne out in the departure of Sennacherib from the gates of Jerusalem (Isa. 36-37), and a confidence which Isaiah sought to enjoin upon Ahaz (cf. Isa. 7:1ff). The prophet apparently believed that he was living in an era which stood on the threshold of the LORD’s salvation within history; that the reign of peace and tranquility was imminent (cf. Isa. 9:1ff; 11:1ff). Such confidence as was his in the LORD’s salvation caused him to oppose joining the Egyptian alliance against Assyria (Isa. 30-31; cf. 31:1ff), and, in all opposition to reliance upon external power politics, to assure his people that “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15). His confidence in the LORD’s salvation gave rise to his vision of the city of God (Isa. 2:1ff), the reality of God’s unique presence in history (Isa. 7:14), the conviction that following judgment a remnant would return (Isa. 7:3), and the hope of life’s transformation through the appearance of a descendent of David (cf. Isa. 9, 11).

Social and religious conditions of the prophet’s era reflected a superficial attitude toward religion (Isa. 1:10ff), flagrant social abuses (Isa. 5:8ff), insensitive and faithless political leaders (7:1ff), an inappropriate reliance upon foreign military alliances (28-31), and an insensitive popular attitude which led men to reject all correction (1:5ff).

Against the background of such conditions Isaiah prophetically called men to a deeper commitment and a higher vocation, assuring them of the possibility of an ideal city of God, contingent upon the LORD’s exaltation (2:1ff ). True to his confidence in the ultimate purposes of God, he never allowed the discouraging nature of the times to dampen his conviction that the real Jerusalem (2:6-4:1) could become the ideal Jerusalem (2:1-4). To this end the booklet of prophecies, which probably circulated separately at one time in their literary history (1- 12), closed with the confident assurance that, “With joy you will. draw water from the wells of salvation . . . Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (12:3-6).

Isaiah 1-39 is composed of a variety of literary forms: oracles, declaring the LORD’s “word” (cf. 1:10ff); autobiographical narrative, or memoirs, which also incorporate certain oracles (cf. 6:1ff); biographical sections, embracing oracular material (cf. 8:7ff); and a variety of other, smaller literary units such as parable (5:1ff), prophetic liturgy (33: 1ff), and writings associated with wisdom literature (32:1ff). The whole of the work might well be divided among (1) a booklet of prophecies (1-12), (2) oracles of doom on foreign nations (13-23), (3) the “Isaiah Apocalypse, an eschatolog1cal section (24-27), (4) oracles related to the Egyptian alliance (28-33), (5) eschatological hopes (34-35), and (6) historical narratives, taken over, in all probability, from II Kings 18:13-20: 19 (36-39).

For many Christian readers, Isaiah is best known for his messianic hope, and New Testament writers saw in the person of Jesus of Nazareth the fulfillment of many of those hopes. When considering “messianic prophecy,” to use the popular phrase, one would do well to keep in proper focus both the original historical context and the ultimate fulfillment of those principles which were inherent in the original prophetic statement. There are probably persons who think of Isaiah as a prophet endowed with the ability to see into the future to sue an extent that he could describe a messianic person who ultimately appeared 725 years later, but who was unrelated to the times of the prophet in the 8th century. Such an attitude fails to do justice to the nature of Old Testament prophecy and the manner in which prophets addressed their contemporaries with relevance and meaning-despite the way in which the principles inherent in their message may have found greater fulfillment in a later era. Consequently, and because of the intrinsic importance of the subject, several emphases should be made concerning the idea of “messianic prophecy” in Isaiah 1-39.[2]Chapter 5, “The Interpreted Christ,” in The Gospel In Isaiah by Gilbert Guffin, the study guide for January Bible Study Week, deals with the same issue.

First, one should use the phrase “messianic prophecy” with the clear understanding that Isaiah 1-39 does not make use of the word “messiah” or “messianic.” In fact, the whole of the Old Testament uses the terms far less often than is generally assumed.[3]Nelson’s Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version Bible lists no occurrences of messiah or messianic. Normally, “anointed” (hence, “messiah”) in the Old Testament refers to a priest (Lev. 4:3) or a king (I Sam. 24:10; Psa. 2:2). These references are then often reinterpreted by New Testament writers as having found ultimate fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth (cf. the manner in which the New Testament utilized Psalm” 2; Acts 2:34f). Lest one misunderstand this point, however, it should immediately be pointed out that Isaiah, as other Old Testament writers, did look forward to the appearance of a descendant of David who would restore the fortunes of the idealized kingdom of David; one who would usher in a quality of life never envisioned by the first David.

Second, every “messianic passage” has a historical context which was meaningful to those who lived in the same generation as the writer, and one should avoid lifting passages out of context and viewing them totally in light of their ultimate or final fulfillment. To view a passage with proper perspective requires a type of bi-focal exegetical vision. One should first look at the original passage, utilizing all the positive aids of scientific methodology in order to understand what it meant for the Old Testament community of faith. Then, one should shift his vision and examine the manner in which the original meaning was often reinterpreted by New Testament writers following the life of Jesus as having been fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Several illustrations of “messianic prophecy” drawn from Isaiah may helpfully illustrate the relationship between historical context and later fulfillment, or reinterpretation. For example the historical context of Isaiah 7:14 is that of the Syro-Ephraimitic war, and Ahaz’s lack of faith. In an effort to reassure Ahaz of the temporal nature of the crisis Isaiah suggests that a “young woman shall conceive and bear a son . . . For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (7:14, 16). Beyond this, the name of the child was unique, Immanuel—God with us. The birth of the child would portend the unique presence of God in history-whether in grace, or in judgment (which is more likely in the total context of 7-8). The Septuagint translators used the Greek word for virgin, parthenos, rather than a more common word for “young woman,” and Matthew, in all probability following the Septuagint, interprets the virgin birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 ( Matt. 1:23). With regard to the virgin birth, Isaiah 7:14 neither strengthens nor weakens the evidence by its use of ‘almah rather than bethulah (virgin). Perhaps it was providential that the Septuagint translators used parthenos to translate ‘almah, and thus led Matthew to see in the virgin birth the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Regardless of this these observations concerning the original meaning of Isaiah 7:l4ff should be noted: (1) there is no standard lexicon, so far as I am aware, which translates ‘almah other than “young woman,” (2) the significance of the Isaiah 7:14 context rests in the name of the child, Immanuel, God with us, as opposed to the nature of his birth, (3) in its historical context the passage was a means of assuring king Ahaz that before the child reached the age of making judgmental decisions, Rezin and Pekah would pass off the scene—an assurance which would have been meaningless had Isaiah been speaking solely of the virgin birth of Jesus some 725 years after Ahaz.

Again, in their original context Isaiah 9:2-7 and 11:1-9 were probably originally written to celebrate the accession of a Judean king to the throne, possibly king Hezekiah (ca. 715/ 716), in whom the prophet most likely felt the realization of his hopes for the Davidic monarchy were about to be realized and the purposes of God brought to fruition. Despite their original context within the framework of the Davidic monarchy, it is altogether appropriate to speak of principles within these passages which never found fulfillment in the Davidic dynasty prior to the fall of the kingdom, but which did come to fruition in the appearance of another “descendent of David,” Jesus, whose life and spiritual kingdom epitomized the principles suggested by Isaiah. But this is not to say that Isaiah saw with undimmed eye the figure of our Lord. The way in which Isaiah’s words are applicable to one born at Bethlehem under Herod and crucified at Jerusalem under Pilate was perhaps far from the mind of the prophet—though never far from the mind of God, who, in his providence, brought to fruition the principles enunciated by Isaiah.

The concerns of Isaiah were multiple, but closely interrelated. He was concerned about an insensitive people, rebellious and estranged; yet intent upon the pursuance of their own indulgent action, and convinced that the sagacity of kings and the strength of military alliances could stave off disaster (cf. 1:2ff; 21ff; 3:16ff; 30:1ff). The religious and moral disintegration of the nation was already an accomplished fact, and the passing years would soon bring national disaster (1:24ff; 28:1ff). The Day of the LORD would come to bring low the haughtiness of man and initiate the exaltation of the LORD alone, “in that day” (2:12-4:1). Yet, Isaiah’s faith burned with undimmed hope, and beyond the national disaster set the concept of a delivered remnant in the light of God’s purposes (4; 2ff; 7:3). His faith was such that he believed the greatest empire of his world to have been but a rod in God’s hand ( 10:5), an axe or a saw to be used of the LORD (10:15). Yet, overshadowing all else, was the ultimate concern of the prophet-his exaltation of the LORD, his emphasis upon the holiness of God, and the manner in which men were both judged and sustained by the “Holy One of Israel.” Beyond this, dreams not realized in his own time matured through passing centuries, and Immanuel did come, the possibilities of a new quality of life took on new impetus, and the kingdom envisioned by the prophet was set on new spiritual foundations and thrust on its way toward ultimate fulfillment. All of this is but to say that the theology of Isaiah 1-39 permeates every aspect of man’s relationship—from the holiness of God to the manner in which a man responds to his neighbor.


Isaiah of the Exile (Isaiah 40-66)

Isaiah 40-66 is characterized by a two-fold concern—the redemptive activity of God expressed in the deliverance of the exiles out of Babylon, which constitutes a symmetrical and balanced literary whole in chapters 40-55; and those scattered oracles concerned with events in Jerusalem after the return from Babylon, which have been appended in chapters 56-66.

Problems of authorship may or may not be of crucial importance in certain teaching situations. For example, it is highly questionable that detailed attention need be given in a church-oriented study period to the technical problem of whether Isaiah used material from II Kings, or whether II Kings used material from Isaiah (cf. Isa. 36-39; II Kings 18:13-20:19). When knowledge about authorship, and especially the time of authorship and the manner in which the author did or did not address his contemporaries with issues relevant to their own time, helps to clarify a book, however, then authorship becomes of crucial importance. The authorship of Isaiah 40-66 falls into the latter category, and thus deserved considered thought and attention by those who seek either to under­ stand for themselves or teach others the book of Isaiah.

The historical event described in Isaiah 40-66 is unmistakable—the exile and the return of those taken captive in the fall of Jerusalem, plus matters of concern in the post-exilic community. Either these events were predicted by eighth­ century Isaiah, over 200 hundred years before they happened, or the material in Isaiah 40-66 came from a source in the exile and was attached to the body of material already associated with that prophet’s work. Eichorn (1783) and Doderlein (1789) concluded that 40-66 came from an exilic prophet; an assumption accepted by Duhm (1892), who made the further suggestion that only 40-55 came from the period of the exile while 56-66 came from a later period of time. With the exception of writers such as Allis (1954) and Young (1954) in this country, the view of Duhm has been generally accepted in broad form, and appears in almost every introduction to the Old Testament or special study on Isaiah.

What evidences are there that Isaiah of the 8th century wrote 40-66? First, although not necessarily an evidence, historically the chapters have been assigned to Isaiah, and the burden of proof rests upon those who propose an alternate view. The Qumran Scroll on Isaiah, for example, makes no distinction between 1-39 and 40-66. Since before the Christian era, therefore, Isaiah 1-66 has been a unified book. Second many feel that New Testament references such as the statement that the Ethiopian eunuch was “reading the prophet Isaiah” (Acts 8:28) -and he was seemingly reading Isaiah 53—are determinative with regard to authorship. Such an attitude pre­ supposes that the New Testament is authoritative in matters of literary authorship, and no allowance is made for the possibility that the statement reflects a common, albeit improper, assumption with regard to the person of the author. Third, those maintaining Isaianic authorship for chapters 40-66 suggest that there is nothing impossible in the assumption that God permitted Isaiah to see events two centuries beyond his own time. These observations doubtless have already suggested to the reader that more than the problem of the authorship of a single book is at stake, and that in the problem of authorship one confronts the much more basic problem of the nature of inspiration and revelation.

Since Old Testament scholarship has so widely subscribed to the main outlines of Duhm’s views on the authorship of Isaiah 40-66, one should consider the primary considerations which support an exilic dating for Isaiah 40-55, and a possible post-exilic dating for Isaiah 56-66. The evidences for such a view follow, although the numerical order of appearance does not suggest any evaluation of merit.

1. While prophets did make predictions, they primarily addressed themselves to their contemporaries, and flights into the future were temporary and for the benefit of those addressed in their own generation. If Isaiah did write 40-66, then this is without parallel in the Old Testament. No other writer dwelt for so long in the detailed and minute consideration of an era two centuries removed from his own time. Nor is there a parallel for the manner in which the Persian ruler, Cyrus, living in the mid-sixth century is called by name by someone living two centuries previous to the times.

2. The whole tenor of Isaiah 40-66 is not a prediction of the exile, but assumes that it is· already in progress, and that the return is imminent.

3. If written in the 8th century, one wonders what relevance Isaiah 40-66 could conceivably have had for Isaiah’s own generation. A basic, and all but inviolable, principle of Old Testament prophecy stresses the relevant manner in which the prophet addressed his own people. Yet, if Isaiah wrote 40-66, there is never any appeal to Israel of his own day on the basis of what he has said about the return from exile (40-55). Did Isaiah address a silent audience two centuries removed?

4. The attitude toward Jerusalem and the message of the prophets in the period between Isaiah of the 8th century and the period of the exile suggest that 40-66 was not yet written. If the detailed description of the exile and return (Isa. 40-55) was present in the 7th century, then how does one explain the attitude toward Jerusalem, the failure to believe that the city would fall? How does one explain the necessity for Jeremiah having to write to the exiles and explain the nature of the exile and the guarantee of return (Jer. 29), if the exiles already possessed Isaiah 40-66?

5. Although not definitive, it is interesting that when biblical writers sought for a pre-exilic prophet whose predictions concerning the return had been fulfilled they turned to Jeremiah, not to Isaiah (cf. II Chronicles 36:22ff //Ezra 1:1ff, although both may have used Jeremiah because of his prophecy that the exile would last for seventy years, Jer. 29: 10).

6. While matters of theology and style are highly subjective tests when applied to the problem of authorship, they do appear to be theological and stylistic peculiar to both 1-39 and 40-66. To cite but one example, the future hope for a person in whom the purposes of God are to be realized is the kingly “messiah” in 1-39. Within 40-66, however, there is no mention of such a future deliverer, and the entire thrust is toward a Suffering Servant who suffers, the one for the many. Emphases upon creation, idolatry and sovereignty in history are unique to 40-55. Stylistic differences are noted with every fresh reading of the material, and although this is admittedly subjective, the style and general literary form of 40-66 differs considerably from 1-39.

7. As C. R. North observes, Isaiah 48:6f is unintelligible if written by eighth-century Isaiah:

“From this time forth I make you hear new things,

 hidden things which you have not known.

They are created now, not long ago;

before today you have never heard of them,

lest you should say, ‘Behold, I knew them’.”

How could the prophetic message of redemption be characterized as “new things” if they had been known for two centuries? How could they be created now, not long ago; or, how could sixth-century exiles be told that they never knew them before, if they had been given in the 8th century?[4]C. R. North, The Second Isaiah ( Oxford: At The Clarendon Press, 1964), p, 3.

When all evidence is taken into consideration, it appears that 40-55 was written in the period immediately prior to and shortly following the fall of Babylon ( which is described in 46-47), and that 49-55 was collected following the fall of Babylon and offers the LORD’s “Great Redemption” to the exiles. The symmetry with which the chapters are constructed, the manner in which opening and closing chapters so neatly balance one another (cf. 40:1ff //55:lff), to say nothing of the developed train of thought, suggest that Isaiah 40-55 is a unified whole, and, if not written by a single author in the exile, has been given editorial coherence and symmetrical balance. Isaiah 56-66, on the other hand, is probably a collection of prophetic utterances from the post-exilic period which were appended to the Isaianic collection.

The theory often is expressed that the author of Isaiah 40-55 was a disciple of Isaiah, or a member of a group who followed in the tradition of the prophet (cf. Isa. 16ff). If so, this could account for the material having been attached to Isaiah 1-39. Fohrer suggests, however, that the author’s relationship to Isaiah was quite unlikely, and that:

. . . Deutero-Isaiah nowhere appears to have been particularly influenced by Isaiah. We must instead start from the observation that, to a greater extent than in the other prophetical books, all kinds of sayings of later prophets have been interpolated into Isaiah 1-39. Deutero-Isaiah agrees with their basic eschatological approach, so that the addition of his writing seemed appropriate. Furthermore, in the later period Isaiah was often considered the prophet par excellence, so that association with his book amounted to official recognition of Deutero-Isaiah’s preaching, which was frequently disputed.[5]Ernst Sellin, Introduction To The Old Testament, Revised and rewritten, by Georg Fohrer, translated by David Green (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968), p, 375.

For those who recognize the multiple authorship of Isaiah, Skinner’s estimate concerning the origin of Isaiah 40-48 is perhaps applicable to the whole of Isaiah 40-55: “A series of anonymous broadsides or flysheets, issued in rapid succession to be circulated among the exiles or read in their synagogues, is perhaps the best description…”[6]Skinner, Isaiah XL-LXVI, in The Cambridge Bible (Cambridge: At The University Press, 1951), p. xxxviii.

Does such a conclusion concerning authorship adversely affect either the inspiration or the authority of the book? The answer to this is to some degree influenced by one’s view of inspiration and revelation, but it would seem the better part of wisdom to conclude that neither inspiration nor authority is dependent upon the human agency by which scripture came into being. Rather, the inspiration and authority of the scripture rests in the reality of God’s spirit who moved men -some of them anonymous to us—to address their own generation in the light of God’s will; who further led men to preserve for succeeding generations the unique and incisive revelation mediated through them by the LORD of history. Whatever one concludes concerning authorship, one should recognize that Isaiah in its entirety speaks God’s revelation to the community of faith with authority, relevance, and power—that through those ancient words God’s WORD continues to break into contemporary life.


Isaiah and Recent Critical Study

The words “critical” and “criticism” are often viewed from a negative point of view, rather than from their positive denotation. Although “critical” does mean fault finding, or censorious, Webster also cites a second meaning, more applicable to the critical study of scripture, as “characterized by careful analysis: as, a sound critical estimate of the problem.” Criticism suggests painstaking and careful examination as opposed to haphazard study, or, as Kendrick Grobel once referred to criticism, “discriminating appreciation.” Thus, every biblical student should employ “critical” tools and a sound critical methodology. Just as a literary critic may either praise or condemn a novel, or as a theater critic may applaud or chide a playwright, so a biblical critic may make judgments and reach conclusions that are “left” or “right” ( all depending upon who evaluates his results). Biblical criticism, therefore, is not negative, nor is it hostile by nature to biblical interpretation. Rightly used, biblical criticism is a staunch ally, an irreplaceable aid, for the student. All of which is but to suggest that each of us would do well to listen to the conclusions reached by biblical critics; neither accepting nor rejecting their findings simply because someone of stature has voiced them, but, rather, weighing and judging the results for ourselves in the fairest manner possible.

Numerous emphases concerning Isaiah 40-66 have emerged in recent critical study and should afford insight concerning the nature of the literature. Only three emphases can be mentioned, and these quite briefly.

First, the emphasis upon “tradition,” has become of central concern in biblical criticism. Recent critical study, in both testaments, has assumed that the incorporation of tradition (understood in the best sense as later oral or written collections or sources) alongside the original message of a prophet gives to it an authority synonymous to that of the original message. Claus Westermann has best summarized this movement. He suggests that until the 18th century prophetic books were handed down as unbroken units in which the word of God and the words of the prophet were synonymous. This was followed by an era of critical study in the 18th and 19th centuries in which men saw the living man behind the scripture, and began to separate prophetic material original to a prophet from later additions to the book. This particular era witnessed the emergence of the view that only the “original words of the prophet” were authoritative, and that later additions should be exercised and, if not ignored, examined in a highly negative manner. The third period is only now emerging, suggests Westermann, in which the whole of the prophetic book, “original words” of known prophets plus additional anonymous material, is viewed in its entirety and the history of the forms and history of prophetic speech investigated. As Westermann concludes:

This new understanding of tradition emphasizes that the word of God has come forth through a man, the prophet, and has been passed on by men; that the preservation, spread, and transmission of these words by those to whom they were directed—the hearers, the disciples, and those who were affected by them-is of no less vital significance than the utterance of this word; and that those who trans­mit the utterance play an important and necessary role in the origin of the tradition that is found in the completed prophetic books. These three factors together make up the whole of a prophetic book. To begin by recognizing tradition as a third factor makes it possible to avoid both extremes. The research in recent times has thus been turned toward the prophetic tradition, and significant advances in understanding have been made in this area.[7]Claus Westermann, Basic Forms Of Prophetic Speech, Translated by Hugh Clayton White (London: Lutterworth Press, 1967), pp. 13f. Italics are mine.

It would be impossible, in my own judgment, to overestimate the significance of Westermann’s analysis for contemporary study of prophetic literature. Such an attitude delivers one from the tenuous position of older literary critics who argued that secondary additions to a prophetic book were so suspicious as to call their authority into question. The more contemporary attitude recognizes the inspiration not only of an original prophetic writer, but of disciples and others who may have incorporated later material alongside the original words of the prophet.

Second, the “New Exodus” as a unifying theme in Isaiah 40-55, while hardly new or spectacular, is important for understanding both the message of the book and the mission of the Servant. In his essay, “Exodus Typology In Second Isaiah,” Bernhard W. Anderson suggests that the dominant theme of Second Isaiah’s eschatological message is the “new exodus.” While others had observed this earlier (cf. Muilenburg, The Interpreter’s Bible, V, 602), Anderson helpfully collected 10 passages which speak of the new exodus:

  1. 40:3-5 The highway in the wilderness.
  2. 41:17-20 The transformation of the wilderness.
  3. 42:14-16 Yahweh leads his people in a way they know not.
  4. 43: 1-3 Passing through the waters and the fire.
  5. 43:14-21 A way in the wilderness.
  6. 48:20-21 The exodus from Babylon.
  7. 49:8-12 The new entry into the Promised Land.
  8. 51:9-10 The new victory at the sea.
  9. 52:11-12 The new exodus.
  10. 55:12-13 Israel shall go out in joy and peace.[8]Bernhard W. Anderson, “Exodus Typology in Second Isaiah,” in Israel’s Prophetic Heritage, edited by Bernhard W. Anderson and Walter Harrelson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962), pp. 181lf.

Although the prophet’s eschatological hopes were shaped by the primal event in Israel’s salvation-history, the “old exodus,” the “new exodus” would be far more than a mere repetition of the old exodus. The prophet believed that he was living in or near the “end-time,” at a time when the end would be like the beginning, a common premise of prophetic eschatology. Thus, Anderson concludes that “The Exodus, then, is a ‘type’ of the new exodus which will fulfill in a more wonderful fashion, with a deeper soteriological meaning, and with world-wide implications, Yahweh’s purpose revealed by word and deed in the beginning.” It should be no surprise, therefore, that the careful New Testament student will find dozens of parallels between the exodus and major motifs of both the gospels and apostolic literature.

Third, recent biblical criticism has moved beyond its pre­ occupation with literary criticism to form criticism, which studies the development and transformation of individual forms and formulas, and attempts to reconstruct and examine the nature and history of pre-literary forms. Far from repudiating literary criticism, however, form criticism takes literary criticism for granted. Form criticism simply moves one step nearer the pre-literary source in an effort to understand the development of biblical literature. In seeking to correct the tendency to ascribe absolute authority to form-critical method, Georg Fohrer suggests that,

the tendency to ascribe primary or absolute authority to the form-critical method . . . and to exalt it as the sole or at least basic principle of interpretation . . . must be opposed. Form-critical stud y must be based on literary analysis and thought of as literary analysis developed further along one of several lines.[9]Ibid., p. 28, italics are mine. A helpful introduction to form-criticism will appear in the announced translation of Klaus Koch, Was ist Formgeschichte. Koch describes his work as his response to G. von Rad’s invitation “to write a little handbook of form criticism for our students,” p. XI.

Fohrer’s warning should be heeded, but it should not obscure the fact that the form-critical analysis of the biblical text is one of the most active and, in one sense, rewarding aspects of contemporary biblical study. Form criticism seeks to reconstruct as nearly as possible the original words of the prophets and their successors, and categorizes such statements, usually brief in form, with regard to a series of literary types. It should be of help in teaching Isaiah to recognize the brief, pithy utterances of the prophet, and to identify the basic types of literary forms which he used. Although one should hardly attempt a detailed form-critical analysis of Isaiah 40-55; 56-66 in a local church, one might well utilize the benefits of such study.

Many Old Testament specialists understand Isaiah 40-55 to contain an exceedingly large number of very brief, pithy statements which have been brought together in their present form, separated by a series of catchwords. Muilenburg summarizes many such emphases:

Hugo Gressmann finds forty-nine such independent units, Ludwig Kohler, seventy, Mowinckel, forty-one (excluding the servant songs), Paul Volz, fifty (excluding the servant songs), Joachim Begrich, seventy.[10]James Muilenburg, “Isaiah,” Vol. V, The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956), p. 384.

One is susceptible to error through either (1) stressing the independent nature of such oracles to the point that the larger coherence of Isaiah 40-55 is ignored, or (2) ignoring the contribution which has been made to the study of Isaiah by those who have sought to isolate and categorize by type the various smaller units.

The following are among the more common literary types which form-critics have isolated in Isaiah 40-55:

  1. The hymn, a literary form found also in the psalms, is “the song which extols the glory and the greatness of Yahweh as it is revealed in nature and history, and particularly in Israel’s history.”[11]Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, An Introduction, Translated by Peter R. Ackroyd (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 105f. Within Isaiah 40-55 the hymn appears in 40:12-26, 27-31; 42:10-13; 44:23; 48:20-21; 49:13.
  2. The mocking song, Isaiah 47 (cf. Isa. 37:22-29; Eissfeldt, p. 92).
  3. Invective sayings, 42:18-25; 43:22-24; 45:9-13, although the invective is not so strong as pre-exilic prophets (cf. Muilenburg, p. 390).
  4. The herald’s message, 40:9-11; 52:7-10 (Muilenburg, loc. cit.).
  5. Oracle of salvation, in which according to Begrich, the LORD speaks in the first person and addresses those seeking help in the second person (two exceptions are the salvation oracle for the people, 41:17-20; 42:14-17). These are found in 41:8-13, 14-16, 17-20; 42:14-17; 43:1-7, 16-21; 44:1-5; 45:1-7, 14-17; 46:3-4, 12-13; 48:17-19; 49:7, 8-12 ( 13), 14-21, 22-23, 24-26; 51:6-8, 12-16; 54:4-6, 7-10, 11-12, 13b, 14a and 13a-17; 55:8-13,[12]Joachim Bergrich, Studien zu Deuterojesaja (Munchen: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1963), pp. 14f. and are of unique importance in considering the message and contribution of Isaiah 40-55.
  6. Decrees of judgment (Gerictsrede, cf. Begrich, pp. 26ff), characterized by Muilenburg as “judicial proceedings,” appear in 41:5, 21-29; 43:8-13, 22-28; 44:6-8; 48:1-11; 50:1-2a, and reflect the lawsuit motif common to other elements of the Old Testament.[13]cf. G. Ernest Wright, “The Lawsuit of God: A Form-Critical Study of Deuteronomy 32,” Israel’s Prophetic Heritage ed. Bernhard W. Anderson and Walter Harrelson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962), pp. 26ff.
  7. The words of disputation (Disputationsworte, Begrich, pp. 48ff ) , or argumentative (quarrel) speeches (Streitgespraches), the given form of which is a quarrel motif between two partners, set in the form of question and answer, affirmation (Behauptung) and denial (Gegenbehauptung). The characteristic beginning of the disputation word is a question directed to the argumentative partner, such as, “To whom will you liken God . . .” (Isa. 40: 18). Examples of the form appear in Isaiah 40:12-17, 18-20 and 25-26, 21-24, 27-31; 44:24-28; 45:9- 13, 18-25; 46:5-11; 48:1-11, 12-15; 50:1-3.
  8. Lyric poetry or “songs’ (die lyrischen Gattungen, cf. Begrich, pp. 54ff) is a general category under which Begrich includes the following variety of songs: the hymn (42: 10-12, an eschatological hymn 49:8-13); the song of lamentation (50:4-9; 51:9-16), the song of thanksgiving (49:1-6).
  9. Sayings of advice, or direction (Anweisungen, ibid, p. 57), which begin with very short imperatives, such as “Go forth from Babylon . . .” (40:20f), and appear in Isaiah 48:20- 21; 52:1-2, 11-12; 54:1-3. Related to these are the victory-messenger (Siegesboten) or herald of good news (Heralilsbotschaft), Isaiah 40:9-11; as well as Isaiah 55:1-5, which is closely related to wisdom teaching.

Regardless of their dates of composition, these brief literary units probably constituted the original form of the prophetic message. If the message was originally oral, then the prophet probably poke brief oracular forms patterned along the lines of given literary types. If the material originally was written, then the author (Isaiah, or the prophet of the exile) expressed himself through literary forms comparable to those suggested above. In any event, the original statements were probably much more brief than we have been accustomed to consider them.

Although it is highly unlikely that Isaiah 40-55 should be understood as a miscellaneous collection of seventy unrelated literary forms, it would be equally misleading to suggest that the literary form of Isaiah 40-55 was totally isolated from common literary forms. The prophet did not likely borrow these forms in specific detail from already existing bodies of literature, but it is highly probable that the prophet was influenced by a wide variety of literary forms much like those above as he wrote Isaiah 40-55—or, more probably, as he wrote various literary types, which were then edited and placed in the form in which we now have them.

In quoting extensively from Begrich there has been no intention to suggest that his conclusions are to be accepted without question, but his work does represent a legitimate illustration of the manner in which form critics have sought to understand more clearly the message of Isaiah 40-55. Much could be gained from a detailed examination of each of the types suggested by Begrich (and other form critics), for they carry one quite close to the original literary, and in some instances pre-literary, form of the prophetic book.


Teaching Isaiah

How is one to teach 66 chapters of a book like Isaiah in the limited time allotted to a week of bible study? Many will choose to follow the thematic approach of the study guide prepared by Gilbert F. Guffin, The Gospel In Isaiah. Others may prefer to have enrollees read this as background material, but develop their own material. For those who choose the latter course, the following suggestions may be of assistance.

One might utilize one evening to introduce the book of Isaiah, suggesting pertinent information concerning the times of the prophet, his characteristics, the structure and emphases of the book. A brief summary of Isaiah 1-5, under the heading “The Death Of A Nation” or, “The Way to Exile,” might suggest reasons for the destruction of Jerusalem. One could indicate Judah’s rebellion and ingratitude (1:2-4), the refusal to respond to correction (1:5-9), and the attempt to substitute ritual for regeneration (1:10-17); alternatives to judgment (1:18-20), and the necessity of judgment (1:21-31). This might be followed by contrasting the three Jerusalems; the ideal Jerusalem (2:1-5), the real Jerusalem of pride, anarchy, and frivolity (2:12-4:1), and the final Jerusalem (4:2-6). The parable of the vineyard (5:1-7) and the catalogue of social evils that mar the vineyard (the “woes” of 5:8-24) are also suggestive.

A second evening or more might well be given to Isaiah 40-55; a book of consolation, divided into two primary emphases: part one, “Redemption And Release-The Redeemer God,” 40-48; and part two, “The Offer Of Redemption,” 49-55. One might spend at least an evening on 40-48, discussing: “Going Home-The Call To Deliverance,” 40; “When Worlds Collide-Who Is In Control?” 41; “Israel the LORD’s Servant”—the called servant, 42:18-43:7, the blind servant, 42:18-43:7, the witnessing servant, 43: 8-28, the chosen servant, 44: 1-8 (9-20) , the forgiven and redeemed servant, 44:21-28; “Salvation With­ in History,” 45-46; “Humiliation And Exaltation,” 47-48. In another evening one might consider Isaiah 49-55, the LORD’s offer of redemption to those in exile: “The Certain Restoration Of Zion,” 49:7-50:3; “The Coming Of The LORD’s Redemption,” 51:1-52:12; “The Certainty Of Reconciliation,” 54; and, “The Great Invitation,” (55), which is the counterpart to 40:1ff.

Next Isaiah 56-66 could be studied under the heading “A New Beginning”; “The Problems Of A Restored People” (56:9-59:15a)—the problems of faithless leadership (59:9-12), the inequities of life (57:1-21), irresponsible religion (58:1-14), and the problem of moral disintegration (59:1-15). Despite such problems, however, the book is convinced of “The Full Redemption of The Restored Community,” (58:15b-60:22), in which the writer portrays “The LORD’s Response,”—a redeemer will come to Zion (59:15b-60:22). “The Good Tidings of Salvation” (61-62), precipitates the question, “Why Doesn’t God Act?” (63-65). The narrative concludes with a picture of “The Blessedness of The True Israel,” (66).

The concluding session might well be spent discussing the four servant songs, especially the final song (52:13-53:12), which is so important for Christian theology. The songs have a progression of thought from one to the other which should be traced, beginning with the call of the servant (42:1-4 ) as one chosen by God (v. 1), whose conduct (vs. 2-3) and constancy (v. 4) are meritorious. The servant in the first song is probably the nation. The second song discusses the commission of the servant (49:1-6), and the servant is probably a remnant within Israel; one who is pre-destined (v. 1), prepared for service (vs. 2-3), who perseveres in labor (v. 4), and whose purpose is the extension of salvation to the ends of the earth (vs. 5-6). The third song expresses the conviction that suffering is not merely attendant to but integral for the fulfillment of the servant’s mission; or, suffering is his mission. The servant is a disciplined (v. 4), devoted (vs. 5-6), and delivered (vs. 7-9) servant who is not specifically identified. The fourth of the songs exalts the vicarious nature of the servant’s suffering, 52:13-53:12, suggesting: exaltation through humiliation as cardinal for his ministry (52:13-15); the man of sorrows (53: 1-3); his vicarious suffering—it was for me! (vs. 4-6); his oppression unto death (vs. 7-9); and, the fruit of his suffering (vs. 10-12). Although many interpret the servant as national in the fourth song, in my judgment he is an individual—probably, following von Rad, a prophet like Moses for the original author, but ultimately fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. As C. R. North suggests “. . . but for Christians the Servant in the last resort can be none other than Christ. The Prophet may have, tended to describe Israel but his final portrait is that of the perfect Israelite.”[14]C. R. North, The Second Isaiah (Oxford: At The Clarendon Press, 1964), pp. 20f. With regard to von Rad’s suggestion it is interesting that Moses is called the servant of the LORD some forty times, and that the identification of the servant as a prophet like Moses would suit well the “new exodus” motif so central to Isaiah 40-55. Such a view permits the later Christian identification of the servant as Christ, but meanwhile admirably explains the possible inten­tion of the servant passages in their original context.


Selected Readings

John Bright, “Isaiah—I” in Peak’s Commentary on the Bible: the revised edition of Peake’s Commentary is perhaps the best one-volume commentary available—the articles on Isaiah are exceedingly helpful, “Isaiah I and II” was written by Douglas R. Jones.

Clyde T. Francisco, “The Book Of Isaiah,” in Shield Bible Study Series (Baker): A new paperback which should be of significant value (the volume was not available at the time of writing).

J. Leo Green, God Reigns: Expository Studies in the Prophecy of Isaiah (Broadman Press): a “supplement to those teaching the January, 1969, Bible Study” (available in September). Professor Green is professor of Old Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The book should prove helpful (a copy is not available at this writing).

Page H. Kelly, Judgment And Redemption In Isaiah (Broadman): an excellent treatment of Isaiah 1-12; 40-66, directly related to the approaching study of Isaiah. Professor Kelly is professor of Old Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Abingdon Press): a generally helpful commentary, non-technical, limited to chapters 40-55.

James Muilenburg, “Isaiah,” in The Interpreter’s Bible: a scholarly, widely acclaimed, and helpful commentary.

C. R. North, “Isaiah 40-55,” Torch Bible Commentaries, a series for the general reader ( SCM Press, London—available in the States through Allenson’s, Naperville, Ill., 60540): brief, thorough, scholarly without undue technical detail; a generally helpful commentary which could be used profitably in preparing to teach Isaiah.

The Second Isaiah (Oxford Press): a superb commentary, tending toward the technical, thus most helpful for those with some acquaintance with language.

The Suffering Servant In Deutero-Isaiah (Oxford): the most thorough and detailed treatment of the servant’s identification which is available, nothing compares with the comprehensive nature of this study of the Servant.

George E. Wright, “The Book of Isaiah,” Layman’s Bible Commentary (John Knox Press): a brief, non-technical, but responsible treatment written on the lay level, quite helpful.


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