Isaiah: The Man and His Book

Robert Prince  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 34 - Fall 1991

The book of Isaiah is a giant among the Old Testament prophecies, great in quantity and quality. Historically, it has been highly revered in both Jewish and Christian communities. For example, in the Jewish Mishnah it was the most frequently quoted book, in the Qumran com­ unity of the Dead Sea Scrolls it was the most frequently copied prophetic book, and in the New Testament it was cited approximately 411 times, more than any other prophecy.[1]JohnJ. Schmitt, Isaiah and His Interpreters (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 7, and William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederick William Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 365.

This article seeks to introduce the prophet Isaiah and the book bearing his name. It will do so by exploring the life and personal qualities of Isaiah the man, surveying some of the critical questions concerning his book, considering the structure of his book, observing some of the major themes of his work, and suggesting his prophecy’s relevancy for today.[2]Since other articles in this journal will deal with the topics of Isaiah’s servant songs and theological themes, these will be surveyed only briefly in this article.


Isaiah the Man

Isaiah’s Roots

Even though Isaiah may have been the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, little is known about his personal background. His Hebrew name, which means ”Yahweh is salvation,” is linguistically similar to “Joshua,” “Jesus,” “Hosea,” and “Elisha.” Even though the name may have held symbolic significance for the prophet himself (Isa. 8:18), it was a common name in Israel (1 Chron. 3:21; 25:3, 15; 26:25; Ezra 8:7, 19; Neh. 11:7), and it gives no real information about his birth or his parents’ religious beliefs.[3]J. Skinner, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapters I-XXXIX, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, ed. J. F. Kirkpatrick (Cambridge: University Press, 1896), xxii, and George A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), s. v. “Isaiah,” by C. R. North. Henceforth, this latter reference shall be referred to as IDB, “Isaiah.”

Sources of information about Isaiah’s life in­clude references found in the book of Isaiah itself, and parallel references in 2 Kings, especially 18:13-20:21. It is reasonable to assume that the prophet was born in Jerusalem about or shortly before 760 B.C. Nothing is known about his father, Amoz, and even though his father’s name sounds similar to “Amos” in English, there is no such similarity in Hebrew. Jewish tradition indicates that Amoz was the brother of King Amaziah. If that was so, then Isaiah would have been a member of Judah’s royal house.[4]Skinner, I-X XXIX, xxii. The king, the rulers, and the priests of Jerusalem apparently were familiar with Isaiah (Isa. 7:3; 28:7, 14), and the prophet seems to have had quick and complete information of sensitive details of decisions in high circles of the government.[5]R. E. Clements, Isaiah 1-39, The New Century Bible Com­mentary, ed. R. E. Clements (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), 12. Even though one cannot prove for certain that Isaiah was born into a noble family, his familiarity with the court and his easy access to the king suggest that he was born into a significant family, and that he enjoyed the education and privileges which came with good social standing.[6]Skinner, 1-XXXIX, xxii.

The book of Isaiah records that the prophet was married, that he referred to his wife as “the prophetess” (8:3), and that he had two sons, whom he named Shear-Jashub (7:3), meaning “a remnant shall return,” and Maher-Shalal-Hash­ Baz (8:3), meaning “quick to plunder, swift to spoil.”[7]IDB, “Isaiah.”

It is uncertain how long Isaiah survived after the great crisis of Hezekiah’s reign in 701 B.C. According to tradition, the prophet was mar­tyred in Manasseh’s day by being sawed in two.[8]La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, 366, and S. R. Driver, Isaiah: His Life and Times, and the Writings Which Bear His Name (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1897), 2. See Driver, 2, for a review of the various traditions concerning Isaiah’s death. Though this tradition is compelling and con­sistent with what is known of Manasseh, one cannot say with certainty how and when Isaiah died.

A number of factors must have influenced Isaiah’s words and actions. R. E. Clements has suggested five of these: first, the language and speech of Old Testament wisdom literature; second, the worship of Yahweh in the temple in Jerusalem; third, the royal court and the important traditions of David’s line; fourth, the holy war traditions of early Israel; and fifth, the preaching of Amos.[9]Clements, 14-15. For more on the holy war traditions and their influence on Isaiah, see Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 2:159-61. Skinner, I-XXXIX, xxiii, notes the influence of Hosea on Isaiah.

The event which brought these influences together and gave Isaiah his direction and mission was his call (6:1-13). Concerning that call, J. Skinner has noted that the opening phrase, “In the year that King Uzziah died,” may have been more than a mere chronological reference. Recent events in the northern king­dom may have served as a warning to the prophet of what could happen with the passing of capable leadership. Isaiah may have felt that Uzziah’s death was an omen of an approaching time of chaos.[10]Skinner, I-XXXIX, xxiii-xxiv.  Skinner also stated:

The significance of the vision of chapter vi becomes at least somewhat more intel­ligible to our minds if we regard it as the answer to apprehensions such as these. At a time when his thoughts were occupied with the decease of a sovereign whom he had learned to revere as the embodiment of wise and experienced statesmanship, there was granted to Isaiah a revelation of Him who was the true divine King of Israel; and at the same time he gained a perception of the ultimate issues of Jeho­vah’s dealings with the nation which enabled him to face the dark and threat­ening future with confidence and hope.[11]Ibid.

The spiritual truths in Isaiah’s call directed his entire ministry. First, within the experience there was a strong sense of Yahweh’s overpowering majesty and holiness. The seraphim declared:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.[12]Isa. 6:3. All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New International Version of the Bible.

This sense of God’s greatness and power per­vaded all of Isaiah’s utterances. Second, there was Isaiah’s awareness of his life-long mission to be the messenger of the divine King. While sitting on his throne, Yahweh commanded him to “go and tell” his message to a hard and sinful people (6:9). Third, there was a hope for the return of the remnant of Israel. In spite of God’s fearsome judgment to come, the holy seed, the portion Yahweh had chosen for himself, would remain as a stump in the land (6:13).[13]Skinner, I-XXXIX, xxiii-xxv.

Isaiah’s Prophetic Activities in the Context of the Assyrian Crisis

Directed and energized by his call, Isaiah began an active prophetic life among the people of Judah. Many scholars find it convenient to divide the prophet’s life into three uneven periods. The first begins at the death of Uzziah and extends to the beginning of the reign of Ahaz, the second covers the dangerous period of the Syro-Ephraimitic invasion, and the third includes the time of domination by the Assyr­ians, which culminated in the invasion and deliverance of 701 B.C.[14]Ibid., xxv.

The stage was set for the prophet’s ministry by a number of changes which occurred in his contemporary world. John Bright has observed that for the first five hundred years of its existence, Israel operated in a great vacuum of international power, as no empire existed which was powerful enough to trouble it significantly. All of that changed in the middle of the eighth century B.C., and things would never be the same for the whole region.[15]John Bright, A History of Israel, 3d ed. (Philadelphia: West­ minster Press, 1981), 269.

The kingdom of Judah reached the peak of its size and power under the long reign of Uzziah, whose fame and esteem were second only to Solomon. Uzziah built up his country’s eco­nomic resources and military strength. He con­quered the Philistines and the Arabians, and received tribute from the Ammonites. He built up his country’s fortifications and reorganized and re-equipped his army (2 Chron. 26:1-15).[16]Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Torch­ books, 1962), 1:61.

Apparently, Uzziah’s great power led him to great pride. In his pride, he sought to usurp the authority of the priesthood, even to the point of entering the temple to burn incense on the altar. The chief priest, accompanied by eighty priests, begged him not to do so, but without success. Uzziah raged at the priests while he held a censer in his hand, ready to burn the incense. Suddenly, leprosy broke out on his forehead, and the priests, with Uzziah’s full cooperation, hurried him out of the temple (2 Chron. 26:16-20).[17]Ibid.

Uzziah was stricken with leprosy in about 750 B.C., and his son Jotham took over his public responsibilities. Under Jotham, Judah continued to be the most stable, prosperous, and powerful state in the region. Unfortunately for Judah, things were about to change radically. In less than thirty years, the northern kingdom would be destroyed, and Judah’s future would be in grave doubt.

At about the time of Uzziah’s death, the powerful Assyrian empire began to flex its muscles. The northern kingdom of Israel would feel the effects of its rise to power before Judah. Great wisdom and skill might have preserved Israel in those days, but its leaders seemed unable to grasp the realities of the situation.[18]Bright, 273. In the first phase of Isaiah’s career, which began in the year of Uzziah’s death, the prophet seems primarily to have preached messages which called the people to see Yahweh’s impending judgment and to live in a righteous manner (Isa. 1:1-6:13). He told the people that they had sinned against the Lord, and called them to repent and receive cleansing (1:18-20). There is no indication that during this time he had any direct interactions with the royal court.[19]Skinner, I-XXXIX, xxv.

In the second phase of his ministry, Isaiah played the role of political advisor. In Judah’s crisis of 735-733 B.C., a coalition of Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel marched on Jerusalem in an effort to get Ahaz and Judah to join them in a rebellion against Assyria (2 Kings 16:1-5; Isa. 7:1). When Jotham of Judah refused to participate in the rebellion, Pekah and Rezin tried to pressure him to change his mind. At that point, Jotham died and was succeeded by his son, Ahaz. In an effort to depose the new king, Pekah and Rezin invaded Judah (2 Kings 15:27-16:6). In desperation, Ahaz decided that his best course of action was to appeal to Tiglath-pileser of Assyria for help.

Knowing that Ahaz intended to take this course of action, Isaiah, accompanied by his son Shear-Jashub, confronted Judah’s king and assured him that Pekah and Rezin would not be allowed to fulfill their plans. Furthermore, he urged Ahaz not to rely on Assyria, but on the Lord.[20]Bright, 291. While the king wavered in his decision, Isaiah made his famous prophecy of Immanuel (Isa. 7:2-25).

Despite the eloquence and the inspiration of Isaiah’s plea, Azah rejected the prophet’s advice and appealed to Assyria for aid. Tiglath-pileser responded by attacking Damascus, capturing it, deporting its inhabitants to Kir, and putting Rezin to death (2 Kings 16:7-9). The Assyrian king then turned his attention to Israel, and probably would have completely destroyed it, had not Hoshea ben Elam assassinated Pekah and sent tribute to him (2 Kings 15:30).[21]Ibid., 275.

It appears that after Ahaz rejected Isaiah’s counsel, the prophet made no further attempt to influence national policy as long as Ahaz ruled.[22]Ibid., 292. In fact, one cannot identify with any certainty any public proclamations made by the prophet between 734 B.C. and the death of Ahaz in 715.[23]IDB, “Isaiah.”

Apparently Hoshea of Israel was not sincere in his earlier surrender to the Assyrians, for not long after Tiglath-pileser was succeeded by his son Shalmaneser, the king of Israel tried to form an alliance with the Egyptians and withheld tribute from the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:1-4). Bright has described this terribly ill-advised decision as “Israel’s suicide.”[24]Bright, 275.

Hoshea’s action only angered the Assyrians, and Egypt was in no condition to help anyone. The Assyrians responded by invading Israel and laying siege to Samaria for three years. In Hoshea’s ninth year, or sometime in the late summer of 722/21 B.C., Samaria fell. Thousands of Israelites were deported to Upper Mesopo­tamia and Media, where they would be lost from history (2 Kings 17:5-6).[25]There is some controversy over which Assyrian king actually conquered Samaria. Sargon II is traditionally credited with the conquest, but there is some evidence that the Assyrian records may have been altered. It is possible that Shalmaneser began the campaign and Sargon completed it. For more information see George A. Buttrick, ed. , The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplemen­ tary Edition, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), s.v. ”.Assyria,” and W. H. Boulton, Assyria (London: Low, Marston, and Co., Ltd., n.d.), 57-61.

Since Ahaz refused to join the coalition against Assyria, Judah was spared, but never again would it exist as an independent, free nation. By appealing for aid, Judah became a vassal of Assyria. Throughout his reign, Ahaz remained obedient to that country.[26]Bright, 278-79.

The third period of Isaiah’s prophetic activity corresponds to the succession of Hezekiah to Judah’s throne. It seems that Hezekiah joined in the general rebellion against Assyria that took place upon the death of Sargon (Isa. 20:1-6). Isaiah passionately denounced this rebellion and spoke of great disasters to come (28:14-22; 30:1-7; 31:1-3).[27]Ibid., 292. It is not known what Judah decided to do, but since Judah escaped destruction when Assyria crushed the rebellion, it is reasonable to assume that the king followed the prophet’s advice.[28]Ivid., 281-82.

If Hezekiah heeded Isaiah’s warnings early in his reign, apparently he did not do so later on. As long as Sargon ruled Assyria, the king of Judah did not try to rebel. But when Sargon was succeeded by his son Sennacherib, Hezekiah must have felt that the time was ripe to throw off Assyrian control. He refused to pay tribute, and took steps to defend his country (2 Kings 18:7).[29]Ibid., 284. Unfortunately for Hezekiah, Assyria was not as weak as he supposed, and in 701 B.C., Sennacherib moved against him. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the king of Judah sent a message to Sennacherib while the Assy­rian was besieging Lachish, and asked for terms for peace (2 Kings 18:14).[30]For Sennacherib’s account of the events of this period, see James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 288. These terms were heavy, as Judah lost portions of its territory and had to pay a drastically increased tribute, forcing Hezekiah to strip gold from the temple of the Lord (2 Kings 18:16).

At some point after 701 B.C., Sennacherib moved against Jerusalem again, apparently after some further rebellious acts on Judah’s part.[31]For a discussion of the historical problem of the relationship between the invasions of Sennacherib, see the excursus in Bright, 298-309. It appears that by this time, Isaiah had reached the conclusion that Assyria, which had been called to be God’s instrument of judgment, had exhausted God’s patience because of its sinful pride (Isa. 10:15-19). Because of Assyria’s sin, God was about to show his sovereignty by defeating Assyria in Judah (14:24-27) and by rescuing his people (10:24-27). In the midst of this crisis; Isaiah prophesied that Yahweh would deliver Jerusalem and rout the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:5-7, 20-34).[32]Ibid., 293.

The Scripture account states that true to Isaiah’s prophecy, the angel of the Lord went out by night and put to death 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. On the next morning, Senna­cherib hastily returned to Nineveh, where he was assassinated by his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer (2 Kings 19:35-37).

After this courageous prophecy in an hour of great crisis, Isaiah seems to have dropped out of the national spotlight. As mentioned previ­ously, some traditions indicate that Manesseh put him to death, but the sources of these accounts are late and have little support.

Isaiah’s Personal Qualities

The bold prophet who carried forth his prophetic ministry in the swirling events of the Assyrian crisis was a real, living, breathing human being. Even though there are not many details of Isaiah’s life available from history, one can glean a number of his personal qualities from his activities and utterances. S. R. Driver has suggested that the prophet was a statesman, reformer, theologian, and poet.[33]Driver, 107.

Isaiah’s statesmanlike quality can be seen in his intervention in the Syro-Ephraimitic invasion. He entered the king’s court and boldly spoke a message from God, which related to the contemporary international crisis. The prophet’s work as a reformer was demonstrated in his work to correct the political and social abuses in the kingdom of Judah. For him, a vital faith in Yahweh meant calling for justice and rescue for the oppressed (Isa. 1:17).[34]Ibid., 107-8 and IDB, “Isaiah.”

As a theologian, Isaiah had much in common with his prophetic predecessors. He strongly emphasized Yahweh’s majesty and holiness, which were prominent in his call experience.[35]Driver, 109. To a nation that was being unfaithful to Yahweh by engaging in idol worship, Isaiah proclaimed that Yahweh alone was the living God who was sovereign over history.

In addition to all these, Isaiah could be de­scribed as a poet. R. E. Clements has observed that Isaiah must have been a highly educated man with a supreme mastery of rhetoric and persuasion. No other Old Testament figure dem­onstrated such a great control of irony and subtle wordplay. Furthermore, Isaiah was a master of hyperbole and circumlocution.[36]Clements, 13. Driver has said that Isaiah was preeminent among the prophets in the variety and grandeur of his images.[37]Driver, 115. Thus, Isaiah’s prophecies were important both in content and literary artistry.


Critical Questions Concerning Isaiah’s Book

Indictment of Isaiah’s Unity

The book of Isaiah is great not only in size, scope, content, and inspiration, but also in controversy. In fact, one of the most well known of all controversies in Old Testament studies concerns whether the book was written entirely by Isaiah ben Amoz, or by two or more authors who wrote under his name.

The roots of the controversy may go all the way back to the Jewish Talmud, as Baba Bathra 15:1a stated that “Hezekiah and his company wrote Isaiah, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.” R. K. Harrison has argued that the verb “wrote” was used in the sense of “edited,” or “compiled.”[38]R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 765. Thus this reference may sug­gest that Isaiah composed the various oracles, but that his disciples arranged them in their cur­ rent form at a later time.

The general tendency of the early church was to regard the whole book as written by the named author. In other quarters, Moses ben Samuel Ibn Gekatilla, a Jewish author of the second century A.D., wrote a commentary on Isaiah in which he contended that the proph­ecies of the early chapters were uttered by Isaiah himself, but that subsequent sections of the book were written during the period of the second temple. His statement was preserved by the Jewish scholar Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), who agreed with his view.[39]Ibid. See also Schmitt, 9.

Such statements notwithstanding, the contro­versy over Isaiah did not become intense until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The first modern scholar to challenge the traditional view of the unity of Isaiah and to assign chapters 40-66 to an anonymous writer living in Baby­lonia near the close of the exilic period was C. Doderlein, who published his book in 1775.[40]J.Skinner, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapters XL-LXVI, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, ed. A. F. Kirkpatrick (Cambridge: University Press, 1960), xvi. This unknown prophet was named “Deutero-Isaiah.” Skinner has suggested that this view gained such predominance in Old Testament studies, that in the fourth edition (1890) of Franz Delitzsch’s commentary on Isaiah, the conservative scholar abandoned his defense of the unity of the book.[41]Ibid. Harrison, 771, notes that in spite of the fact that Delitzsch bowed to the critical pressure of his age, he always held that Isaiah might have written the entire work attributed to him, and he never gave unqualified approval to the idea of a Deutero-Isaiah.

The arguments which produced such wide­ spread agreement in the scholarly community were all based on internal evidence, and could be divided into three main categories: historical presuppositions, theological ideas, and language and style.

The first, and for many, the most decisive area of internal evidence for the multiple authorship of Isaiah is that of the varied historical settings found in the book. The historical milieu as­sumed by the author of chapters 40-66 fits most closely with that of the exile of the Jews in Babylonia and the time of Cyrus, who con­quered Babylon around 539 B.C. In those chap­ters, the prophet seems to have in view a situa­tion in his present day, not in the distant future. Critics of the traditional view of Isaiah question the supposition that Isaiah projected his pro­phetic perspective 160 years into the future and then maintained it for so many chapters.[42]Skinner, XL-LXVI, xvi-xviii.

While it is true that some prophets looked to eras which were far in the future from them­ selves, such instances were rare, and none of them paralleled the length and breadth of Isaiah 40-66. Skinner summarized by saying that if Isaiah ben Amoz wrote those latter chapters, he absolutely ignored his contemporaries, as he referred to events of which they were not aware, and used arguments which would have had no weight with them.[43]Ibid., xviii.

The second major area of internal evidence used to indict the unity of Isaiah is that of theology. A first theological problem is that there appears to be some difference in the con­ception of God between the sections, as 40-66 refers to the infinity and eternal nature of God, while these attributes are not extensively ex­plored in 1-39. Second, in 1-39 the doctrine of the remnant occupies a predominant place, while it is of secondary interest in 40-66. Third, there are differences in the view of the mission and destiny of Israel. Fourth, the central position of the Messianic king in 1-39 changes to that of the servant of Yahweh in 40-66.[44]Ibid., xx-xxi.

The third area of internal evidence arrayed against the unity of Isaiah is that of language and style. Skinner has noted that the general style of 40-66 strongly contrasts with that of the first sections of the book. In a broad sense, Isaiah’s style was characterized by ”compression and force,” while Deutero-Isaiah’s style was typified by fluidity, with a “tendency to amplification and repetition.”[45]Ibid., xxii. For details of stylistic and linguistic differences, see Ibid., xxii-xxviii.

While this view of Deutero-Isaiah gained great predominance, there were still a number of unanswered questions. Conservative scholars noted that portions of Isaiah 40-66 seemed to fit a preexilic background, primarily because they presupposed a functioning temple in Jeru­salem. In light of these problems, in 1892 B. Duhm suggested that 56-66 was written by a postexilic prophet whom he called “Trito­ Isaiah.” The reasons for his position were based upon historical allusions, theological concep­tions, and differences in language and style.[46]Ibid., xxix. For the details of the arguments Duhm presented for his position, see Ibid., xxix-xxx.

On the contemporary scene in biblical schol­arship, the view is widely accepted that at least three writers produced the book we now know as Isaiah, though some would raise questions about the unity of chapters 1-39.[47]For a discussion of the unity of 1-39, see John H. Hayes and Stuart A. Irvine, Isaiah, the Eighth-Century Prophet: His Times and His Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987). For a twentieth­ century approach to the unity of Isaiah, see Yehunda T. Radday, The Unity of Isaiah in Light of Statistical Linguistics, Publications de l’Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes (Hildescheim: H. A.Geistenberg, 1973). Yadday was a conservative Jewish scholar who sought to use computer analysis to prove the unity of Isaiah. His statistical analysis indicated that there are two distinct portions of Isaiah, 1-35 and 40-66, with the greatest differences existing between 1-12 and 40-48.

Defense of Isaiah’s Unity

As predominant as the view of the multiple authorship of Isaiah has become, it would be wrong to conclude that it has not met consid­erable conservative opposition. One of the early critics of the multiple-Isaiah theory was J. A. Alexander, who in 1865 defended the unity of the book.[48]Schmitt, 26. Alexander argued first that it ap­peared unlikely that a figure as great as the author of 40-66 could have disappeared with­ out a trace. Taking up Alexander’s arguments, E. J. Young has posed the question: If indeed the author of 40-66 is one of the greatest prophets of Israel, how was it that he vanished from history without leaving some evidence of his existence?[49]E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), 3:539.

Second, Alexander argued that there had been a long tradition of the unity of Isaiah. No serious suggestion had ever been made that there was more than one author of the book until rela­tively modern times. More recent scholars have added that the Septuagint gives no evidence of a Deutero- or Trito-Isaiah, though it does divide other books.[50]La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, 369. Furthermore, the first Qumran scroll, which dates from about 12 5 B.c., made no break between chapters 39 and 40, and since the copier probably worked from an earlier scroll, it is reasonable to suppose that the tra­dition of a single Isaiah had been firmly estab­lished by the third century B.C.[51]Young, 539.

A third argument which Alexander proposed was that if indeed the utterances of these pro­phets were so different in theme, theology, and literary style, it is difficult to understand how all of them came to be attached to Isaiah ben Amoz.[52]Schmitt, 26-7, and Harrison, 769. Fourth, the conservative scholar argued that when the New Testament cited various por­tions of Isaiah, it made no distinction between passages from 1-39 and 40-66. All were cited as “Isaiah.”[53]Schmitt, 26-7. See Matt. 3:3; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14; 15:7; Mark 1:2; 7:6; Luke 3:4; 4:17; John 1:23; 12:38-39, 41; Acts 8:28, 30, 32-33; 28:25; and Rom. 9:27, 29; 10:16, 20. Fifth, Alexander contended that the book of Ecclesiasticus saw Isaiah as a whole, and sixth, he pointed out that portions of 40-66, particularly 56-66, fit well in an eighth century B.C. context.[54]Schmitt, 27.

On the subject of the varieties of literary styles found in the book of Isaiah, conservative schol­ars responded by saying that arguments based on varieties of literary style are precarious and sometimes subjective. Isaiah ministered over a number of years, and it would have been natural for his style to have changed in accordance with his purpose, audience, mood, and age.[55]La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, 374.


Before one comes to a conclusion on the question of the unity of the book of Isaiah, one must make several preliminary observations. First, this question does not necessarily involve the subject of the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Many fine scholars would affirm the God-breathed quality of all Isaiah, but at the same time would question the position that all of it was given through Isaiah ben Amoz.

Second, those who question the authorship of the book do not necessarily believe that God could not have used a prophet to speak to an audience many generations in the future. Obviously, those who believe in God’s power believe that he can do whatever he chooses to do. Thus the question is not, “Could God have done it?” but, “Did God do it?”

Third, one’s position on the unity of Isaiah should not be a test of faith. As has already been observed, it is possible to affirm the inspired quality of the Scripture, and the power of God, while at the same time asking questions about which particular instrument he used to produce a particular passage.

With these three preliminary statements in mind, one can say that the question of the unity of Isaiah is still an open one. Those who affirm that all of it was uttered by Isaiah ben Amoz have a difficult time accounting for the obvious changes in assumed historical backgrounds in the book. Those who question that unity have a difficult time explaining how such a towering figure like Deutero-Isaiah disappeared from historical records without a trace, and how his work came to be attached to that of the earlier prophet.

Even though the question is still an open one, one must say that the burden of proof lies with those who would question the traditional approach to the book. At this point, one would have to conclude that the case for three Isaiahs has not been proven beyond all reasonable doubt.


The Suffering Servant

A second major critical question in the study of Isaiah concerns the nature of some special sections in the book which speak of the servant of Yahweh. In the first edition of his commen­tary, Duhm separated certain passages from the rest of the prophecy and called them “Servant Songs.” They were 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:44-9; and 52:13-53:12. Since that time it has been com­mon to consider these as independent poems.[56]La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, 392. For a discussion of the independence of these songs, see J. Alberto Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 313-16. Most contemporary scholars believe that they were written by Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah himself, though some suggest that they might have been uttered later than the remainder of the prophe­cy.[57]George A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), s. v. “Servant of the Lord,” by C. R. North. Henceforth referred to as IDB, “Servant.”

Though the New Testament did not identify these passages as a group, it gave them special recognition as prophecies of Christ. Interestingly, there is no evidence that Jesus ever linked himself directly to any of these passages, though in Luke 4:21 he related his mission to Isa. 61:1-2a, a passage so similar in spirit to the ser­vant songs that some scholars include it among them.[58]Ibid.  At the beginning of the Christian era there were also Jews who thought that the ser­vant described in Isaiah was the Messiah, but since they had difficulty believing that the Mes­siah would suffer, they usually qualified their interpretation. In the Targum of Isaiah, the ex­altation of the servant was applied to the Mes­siah, while the sufferings were applied to Israel and to the Gentiles. Later, as Christians pressed their Messianic interpretation, most Jews con­ tended that the servant stood for collective Israel.[59]Ibid.

Few Christians departed from the Messianic interpretation of these passages until the eigh­teenth century, when the collective approach became popular. Then, a reaction against the collective view began at the end of the nine­teenth century. Many writers had difficulty iden­tifying the servant with collective Israel, because the character of the servant in the songs is quite different from the character of Israel found elsewhere in Isaiah. Thus it seemed more likely that the song referred to an ideal individual. Candidates for this model servant included Hezekiah, Uzziah, Jehoiachin, Zerubbabel, Cy­ rus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah. Today, none of these candidates enjoys a wide follow­ing.[60]Ibid. See also La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, 393.

How then are these passages to be interpreted? Since Israel is called God’s servant (Isa. 41:8), one must assume that at least in the first of the songs, the servant is the nation. But as one con­tinues through the songs, it seems that the individual dimension becomes more profound. By the time one arrives at 52:13-53:12, it seems that a special individual is definitely in view.[61]La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush,. 393-94, and IDB, “Servant.

Thus, the best solution to the question of the servant songs may be to say that they began with collective Israel in view, but by the end they looked to one who would be the individual em­bodiment of what Israel should have been, and who would provide for its redemption. In the eyes of Christian faith, these passages were ful­filled in the suffering, death, burial, and resur­rection of Jesus Christ.


The Structure of Isaiah’s Book

Even though Isaiah’s book has been the subject of complex and confusing argument, its basic structure is relatively simple. Even those who contend that Isaiah ben Amoz wrote all of the book divide it into three major sections, made up of chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. The first section focuses on the judgment that was about to fall on Judah and the nations sur­rounding it. One could further subdivide the first section by saying that chapters 1-5 focus on internal, domestic issues within Judah, while chapters 6-39 focus almost exclusively on international affairs.[62]Hayes and Irvine, 52. The second major section of Isaiah deals with the restoration of God’s people from their exile in Babylonia, while the third focuses on their ultimate salvation. One can outline the entire book as follows:

  1. The Restoration of God’s People (40-55)
    1. God’s assurances to his people (40-45)
    2. Pronouncements against Babylon (46-48)
    3. Redemption through the suffering ser­vant (48-55)
  2. Judgment on God’s People (1-39)
    1. The ruin and renewal of Judah (1-5)
    2. Isaiah’s call and biographical informa­tion (6-8)
    3. Judgment and hope (9-12)
    4. Oracles concerning foreign nations (13-23)
    5. Judgment of the world and Israel’s deliverance (24-27)
    6. Woes on God’s people (28-31)
    7. Restoration of the kingdom (32-36)
    8. Jerusalem’s deliverance in Hezekiah’s time (37-39)
  3. Ultimate Salvation of God’s People (56-66)
    1. Demands for right living (56-59)
    2. Life in restored Zion (60-66)

Isaiah’s Major Themes

In the limited confines of this article it is impossible to explore at any length the content of Isaiah’s work, but it is possible to highlight some of its important themes.

A first major theme is the redemption of God’s people. Indeed, this may be the central idea in all the book, especially in 40-55.[63]Skinner, XL-LXVI, xiv. Isaiah spoke strong words of judgment against his people, especially in the beginning of the book, but he still uttered expressions of hope (7:3-25; 9:2-7; and 11:1-9). In the second portion of the book, the prophet wrote that God would deliver his people from their exile, purge them of their idolatry, and transform them inwardly (43:1-44:23).[64]Ibid.

A second important theme in Isaiah’s prophecy is God’s sovereignty. The prophet denied that other gods were real. Idols were only man’s creation, worthless things (2:8). In Isa. 6:3 the seraphim proclaimed that the whole earth was full of God’s glory, and in 10:5-19 the prophet proclaimed that God held the course of history in his hands.[65]IDB, “Isaiah.”

Third among significant themes in the book is God’s holiness. In his own call experience, Isaiah was deeply impressed with this quality of God (6:3). Throughout the book, holiness transcends all of God’s work in the world.

Fourth, in contrast to God’s holiness, there is human sin. God’s purity and transcendency in his holiness expressed itself in judgment on human sin. When Isaiah was in God’s presence, he was immediately aware of his own sins, his own unworthiness to stand before God (6:5). Man’s sin was in need of cleansing (1:18), and the means by which that cleansing was achieved was through faith in God (7:9; 28:16).[66]Ibid.

Fifth, there is the theme of messianic hope. There would come an age of deliverance and hope, and God would use a special person to usher in that age (7:3-25; 9:2-7; 28:16; 52:13-53:12).[67]Ibid.


Isaiah for Today

Isaiah has much to say to our generation. In a time when morals are determined by relativ­istic norms, Isaiah says that there is a holy God who cares about human action. In a time when many are turning to “New Age” movements which are based by and large on ancient pagan faiths, the prophet says that there is only one God, the creator of the universe and the Lord of all, who has any real existence. In a time when many within the Christian faith are turning to a materialistic gospel which validates human greed, Isaiah reminds us that God is a God who cares for the poor, the needy, and the hungry, and who demands social justice.

Above all, to a generation in which many have lost hope, Isaiah says that God is a loving and redeeming God, who is sovereign over creation and provides for salvation. The prophet points the weary and oppressed to a time when:

The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them . . . . They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (11:6, 9).


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