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Old Testament: Isaiah

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The first part of this long book contains messages of judgment and warning similar to those of the other eighth-century prophets. Isaiah condemns hypocritical worship, complacency, and the failure to act with justice for the poor. The prophet also speaks resounding words of promise, announcing God's coming messianic kingdom.

The second part of the book brings words of comfort and hope to the exiles in Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E. This section introduces God's suffering servant in passages that have become well known to believers in every generation.

A third part of the book contains both warnings and promises for the community after its return to Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C.E.

So What?

Isaiah is the longest and most important of the prophetic books. It covers a long period of Israel's history (before, during, and after the exile) and offers the full range of God's prophetic message: terrifying words of judgment and comforting words of promise. Isaiah portrays God as the powerful Creator, like no other, and also the gentlest comforter, like an earthly lover or mother. Isaiah is taken up in the New Testament more fully than any other prophet.

Where Do I Find It?

Isaiah is the twenty-third book in the Old Testament and the first of the prophetic books. In present Protestant Bibles it follows the Song of Solomon and precedes the book of Jeremiah.

Who Wrote It?

The first part of the book is ascribed to Isaiah son of Amoz (eighth-century B.C.E.). Other parts were written later, containing prophetic messages addressed to people in the time of the Babylonian exile (587-538 B.C.E.) and then to others back in Jerusalem following the exile. Postexilic biblical editors gathered all these materials into this long and complex book, giving it a cohesive message and purpose despite all its diversity.

When Was It Written?

Isaiah son of Amoz, the prophet behind the first part of the book, preached from about 738 B.C.E. until the early part of the next century, during the Assyrian conquest. The second part of the book is addressed to the exilic community in Babylon in the early part of the sixth century B.C.E. The final section apparently assumes the return to Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C.E. The book contains the collected words of the prophets behind each of these three sections and was put together in its present form by editors sometime during the postexilic period.

What's It About?

Isaiah tells us that God's word endures forever, speaking a message of comfort and challenge to hearers of its own time (eighth to sixth centuries B.C.E.) and memorable promises of messianic hope to every generation.

How Do I Read It?

Like all books of prophecy, Isaiah should be read both with an ear for its message to the present hearer and with recognition of its roots in a particular historical time and place. It was a book addressed to its own time, but because the word of God endures throughout all generations, it speaks to the modern reader as well--not as predictions of the present and future from a distant past, but as a living word of God that brings hope and challenge now just as it has done throughout the ages. Prophetic books like Isaiah are, for the most part, written in poetry and should be read with an appreciation of their figurative and suggestive character rather than as literal blueprints for particular historical eras. Isaiah is a complex book, so some knowledge of its historical background will be of assistance to readers.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

I. Book 1 (Isaiah 1:1-33:24)
The first part of the long book of Isaiah contains oracles of judgment and hope by Isaiah of Jerusalem (eighth-century B.C.E.). Additional prophetic oracles were added when the book was put together at a later date.

1. Words of Judgment, Words of Hope (Isaiah 1:1-12:6)
This section includes strong words of judgment, typical of the eighth-century prophets, and striking, well-known promises of salvation. Isaiah is called and responds, "Here am I; send me!" (6:8).

A. Why Do You Continue to Rebel? (Isaiah 1:1-31)
The book begins with an announcement of judgment against God's rebellious people, a judgment that calls Israel to repentance and produces God's own lament.

B. Words of Hope and Warning (Isaiah 2:1-5:30)
A strong word of promise opens this section, but most of the oracles announce judgment against Judah and Jerusalem because of their own injustice to the neighbor.

C. The Story and Mission of the Prophet (Isaiah 6:1-9:7)
Isaiah is called to be a prophet when he sees a vision of God in the temple. His message is a bitter one, though God's offer of renewal never disappears. Isaiah is a prophet who speaks to kings and also announces the coming of a new king, a Prince of Peace.

D. Judgment Announced and Salvation Promised (Isaiah 9:8-12:6)
The prophet continues to bring God's word of judgment produced by the destructive behavior of God's own people and of Assyria. The promise of a peaceful kingdom remains, however, giving rise to the songs of praise that close this section.

2. Oracles against Foreign Nations (Isaiah 13:1-23:18)
Like many prophets, Isaiah is given messages or oracles against foreign nations. God's judgment, like God's salvation, extends to all peoples. This section includes oracles against major centers of power like Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Tyre, along with lesser regions like the "wilderness of the sea," Dumah, "the desert plain," and "the valley of vision." A few brief words of hope and restoration are scattered through the chapters.

3. The Isaiah "Apocalypse" (Isaiah 24:1-27:13)
These chapters contain themes and images typical of later apocalyptic literature. The texts foresee the desolation of the whole earth, but also God's feast for all peoples on the holy mountain, where God "will swallow up death forever." Judah sings and looks forward to God's ultimate deliverance.

4. Oracles regarding Judah and Israel (Isaiah 28:1-33:24)
The prophet continues to announce God's judgment on the corrupt leaders and practices of Israel and Judah. God's children are seen as rebellious because they rely on foreign nations and military power rather than on God; nevertheless, God holds out a firm promise of deliverance that closes the section.

II. Transition (Isaiah 34:1-39:8)
This section of the book includes material that looks back to the period of Book 1 and anticipates the time of Book 2.

1. The Time to Come: Judgment and Renewal (Isaiah 34:1-35:10)
Together, the two chapters announce that God's coming transformation will involve both total judgment of the wicked and final salvation for the redeemed. Chapter 35 includes themes that anticipate the message of Second Isaiah.

2. Looking Back, Looking Ahead (Isaiah 36:1-39:8)
These chapters provide an historical appendix, using material from 2 Kings 18:13-20:19, that reviews the time during which Isaiah of Jerusalem prophesied and looks forward to the Babylonian era, providing the background for the prophecy of Isaiah of Babylon or Second Isaiah.

III. Book 2 (Isaiah 40:1-55:13)
The second major segment of the book contains messages of comfort and encouragement to the exilic community in Babylon (sixth-century B.C.E.) by an unknown prophet, sometimes called Second Isaiah or Isaiah of Babylon.

1. Comfort My People (Isaiah 40:1-31)
Voices call, valleys are lifted up, good news is announced: God is coming to comfort and rescue the exiles in Babylonian captivity. No power can claim divinity other than God.

2. I Am About To Do a New Thing (Isaiah 41:1-48:22)
These chapters announce the new exodus that God is about to accomplish for God's captive people. It will be like what God has done in the past, yet it will be totally new.

A. Summoning the Victor (Isaiah 41:1-29)
The idols of the nations, however seductive, are finally powerless. God, however, will work through "a victor from the east"--Cyrus of Persia--to transform the political world and free God's people.

B. Introducing the Servant (Isaiah 42:1-12)
Amid all the appeals to power, God introduces "my servant," who will not cry out, but who will bring a gentle justice to Israel and the nations.

C. A New Exodus (Isaiah 42:13-43:28)
God promises to be with Israel in all times of trouble, to break down the bars of Babylonian captivity, and to bring God's people safely home through a desert that has been made fertile and welcoming.

D. God, Not Idols! (Isaiah 44:1-22)
God, who formed Israel in the womb, promises continued care and deliverance, unlike the lifeless and useless idols that are seen to be a fraud.

E. The Call of Cyrus (Isaiah 44:23-45:19)
Cyrus, the Persian ruler, has been chosen by God to free the people. Cyrus is God's "shepherd," even God's "anointed," sent to do God's saving work.

F. Idols Cannot Save; Babylon Cannot Stand (Isaiah 45:20-48:22)
The judgment of the idols and of Babylon is now in progress. Israel is called to turn from its own obstinacy and embrace God's offer of salvation.

3. A Light to the Nations (Isaiah 49:1-55:13)
God calls the servant to be a light to the nations and calls Israel to listen to God's teachings and to prepare for the return to Jerusalem.

A. The Call of the Servant (Isaiah 49:1-50:3)
The servant reports being called by God in language similar to the call of a prophet. The servant is commissioned as a light to the nations that God's salvation might reach to the ends of the earth. God promises to bring home exiles from all directions.

B. To Listen and to Teach (Isaiah 50:4-51:8)
The servant is confidant of God's vindication despite being struck and insulted for his fidelity to God's call. The people are called to listen to God and not to fear the reproach of others.

C. Awake, Awake (Isaiah 51:9-52:12)
Israel calls upon God to "awake" and to help them, but God calls Israel to awake and put on strength for the journey out of Babylon.

D. The Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)
The servant is introduced as "a man of suffering"; surprisingly, he suffers not for his own iniquity but for the sake of others. He will be honored by God because he "bore the sin of many."

E. Life Made New (Isaiah 54:1-55:13)
God calls Israel to sing for joy and to enjoy God's own feast, eating at last "what is good." God's word will do its work as surely as the rain and snow water the earth.

IV. Book 3 (Isaiah 56:1-66:24)
The third portion of Isaiah contains messages of hope and warning to the people of God back in Jerusalem following the release from captivity in Babylon (538 B.C.E.).

1. Maintain Justice (Isaiah 56:1-59:21)
Through the prophet, God invites all to enter into God's salvation, while calling on Israel to turn from idolatry and inauthentic worship, to share their food with the hungry, and to repent of their oppression of others and their revolt against God.

2. Your Light Has Come (Isaiah 60:1-62:12)
These central chapters of the third part of Isaiah are very similar to Book 2 (Second Isaiah). God promises renewal and restoration of Israel, liberty to the captives, and comfort for those who mourn.

3. Announcing Vindication (Isaiah 63:1-66:24)
The people hear God's accusation and appeal for divine mercy. God promises again to make things new and to nourish Israel like a nursing mother.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

The first part of the book assumes the background of conflicts among Israel, Judah, Syria, and Assyria. Chapters 7 and 8 especially reflect the Syro-Ephraimite war in which Syria and Israel (Ephraim) attacked Judah, perhaps in an attempt to remove King Ahaz (735-715 B.C.E.) and force Judah to join a coalition against the expanding kingdom of Assyria. Isaiah urged Ahaz to "stand firm in faith" (Isaiah 7:9), relying on God's promises to protect the Davidic throne, rather than allying himself with Assyria, but Ahaz rejected this counsel (2 Kings 16:5-9). Assyria came to the aid of Judah, but success was short-lived. After Assyria had conquered Damascus (Syria) in 732 B.C.E., it moved against Israel, destroying Samaria in 722/721 B.C.E. (the fall of the northern kingdom). Judah, the southern kingdom, then became a vassal state of the Assyrian empire.

Later, Isaiah again urges reliance on God when Hezekiah revolts against Sennacherib, the Assyrian king (about 705-701 B.C.E.), and seeks an alliance with Egypt (Isaiah 30:15b, 18; 31:1). Sennacherib is, in fact, defeated, and Jerusalem is spared (Isaiah 37:36-38). In all these events, Israel and Judah are buffeted between the great powers of the day, Egypt to the south and west, Assyria and Babylon to the north and east. The two kingdoms of God's people seek advantage in one way or another, but the prophets, including Isaiah, recognize that the only advantage for such politically insignificant states is their reliance on the promises and protection of God. For the prophets, these promises include the coming messianic kingdom when God's rule will be complete (see, for example, Isaiah 2:1-4; 9:2-7; 11:1-9).

In the second part of the book, Babylon has become the great power, and has destroyed Jerusalem and taken many of its people captive (597 and 587 B.C.E.). Now a new prophet, sometimes called "Second Isaiah," preaches words of comfort, promising that God will bring release to the exiles (chapters 40-55). This happens in 538 B.C.E., when the Persian ruler, Cyrus, captures Babylon. The exiles' return and the reestablishment of a new life in Jerusalem form the background of the final part of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56-66).

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

The Cyrus edict and Cyrus cylinder. Israel's return from exile was permitted when Cyrus, the Persian ruler, conquered Babylon in 538 B.C.E. and initiated a new policy, permitting and even financing the repatriation of the exiles taken from throughout the ancient Near East in Babylon's conquests. Cyrus's edict that freed the Israelite captives appears in two versions in the book of Ezra (1:1-4; 6:3-5). Cyrus provides his own account of the freeing of all the foreign captives on the famous "Cyrus cylinder," with the text inscribed in cuneiform. This important 23-centimeter clay cylinder was discovered in 1879 and is now housed in the British Museum in London. Because Cyrus's freeing the captives is regarded as an important early event in the development of human rights, a replica of the cylinder is kept in the headquarters of the United Nations in New York.

The surprise of the biblical form of the edict in Ezra 1:1-4, that Cyrus would credit "the LORD" (Israel's name for God) as the one who called him to set Israel free, is supported by the Cyrus cylinder's naming of Marduk, the God of Babylon, as the one who called Cyrus to his work of liberation in that country.

Disciples of Isaiah. Isaiah commands that his testimony be bound up and sealed "among my disciples" (8:16). Apparently, Isaiah attracted a circle of followers who shared his vision of God's will for Israel. Some have suggested that this gathered "testimony" may have provided the core for the eventual book of Isaiah, which could be true. Others have thought that such an "Isaiah school" may have persisted through the generations and provided the source of the prophetic preaching that comprises the material sometimes called "Second" or "Third" Isaiah--although there is no direct evidence that this is the case.

The eighth-century prophets. Isaiah son of Amoz, or "First Isaiah," is included among the eighth-century prophets (along with Amos, Hosea, and Micah)--preachers who boldly proclaimed God's word of judgment against the economic, social, and religious disorders of their time. Their example is what lies behind calling contemporary figures like Martin Luther King Jr. "prophets."

The eighth-century prophets denounced Israel's apostasy or turning away from God (Isaiah 17:10-11), their false sense of security (1:10-17), and their acts of injustice and oppression (5:8-10). Biblical scholar Roland de Vaux describes the problem by pointing to discoveries at the village of Tirsah: "The houses of the tenth century B.C. are all of the same size and arrangement. Each represents the dwelling of a family which lived in the same way as its neighbours. The contrast is striking when we pass to the eighth century houses on the same site: the rich houses are bigger and better built and in a different quarter from that where the poor houses are huddled together" (Ancient Israel [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961] 72-73). That growing inequality, according to de Vaux, was what motivated God's anger and the message of the eighth-century prophets.

The historical appendix. Chapters 36-39 of the book of Isaiah reproduce, with only minor changes, the historical record found in 2 Kings 18:13-20:19. This material is significant for the book of Isaiah, since it relates the historical background for the early chapters of the book--the encounter between King Sennacherib of Assyria and King Hezekiah of Judah, in which Isaiah played an important role, urging Hezekiah to rely for protection on God rather than on political alliances.

The appendix also has important structural significance for the book. It neatly separates "First Isaiah" from "Second Isaiah," thus indicating an original understanding of the difference in historical setting for these two parts of the book. More, it functions as a literary device to point "backward" to First Isaiah, with its historical account of that period, and "forward" to Second Isaiah, with its closing reference to the coming Babylonian destruction (39:5-7).

How many Isaiahs? Isaiah is a complex book, encompassing several centuries of the history of God's people. Some readers have argued that the original prophet Isaiah was given miraculous foresight to speak to times far in advance of his own; others understand the book to have been put together over centuries, gathering material from several authors.

Since the nineteenth century, biblical scholars have often spoken of a "First," "Second," and "Third" Isaiah, suggesting that a different author was primarily responsible for the material of the three major sections of the book (traditionally, chapters 1-39, 40-55, 56-66). These designations often remain, though most now see the questions of structure and authorship to be even more complicated.

No matter how many prophetic voices lie behind the material, there is, of course, one book of Isaiah. There is ample evidence that the book is not merely a haphazard collection, but has its own careful structure and integrity. For example, the "all the outs are in free" openness of the second part of the book (35:1-7; 40:1-2; 52:11-12) is an answer to the terrible word of judgment given to Isaiah at his call in which everything is closed up (6:9-13).

Israel's monotheism. At Sinai, God commanded Israel to "have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Although this makes clear that God is the only God for Israel, it is not yet a denial that other nations may have other gods. In its hymns and prayers, Israel began to sing its confession that there are no other gods (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:2-8). This confession is made as a firm theological assertion in Second Isaiah: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god" (44:6); "I am the LORD, and there is no other" (45:5, 6, 18); "I am, and there is no one besides me" (47:8). No other book of the Bible contains such clear assertions of monotheism, which is one of the reasons that Second Isaiah is sometimes said to mark the high point of Israel's theological development.

This confession is more than a theological abstraction; it is a promise, for God is not just an unknown supreme power, God is the Savior of Israel and of all the world (45:15, 22). God is a God who loves (43:4) and comforts (51:12) and forgives: "I," says God, "I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (43:25). Now Israel's monotheism takes on content and personality. This is what gives it its unique character in the Bible.

The oracle of salvation. An important genre or form used by Second Isaiah to announce good news to Israel has been called by scholars the "oracle of salvation" (for example, 41:8-13, 14-16; 43:1-4, 5-7; 44:1-5). This brief prophetic oracle or sermon seems to be God's response to the laments that have characterized Israel's prayer in the dark hours of exile. Israel had cried out to God regarding its own pain, the power of the enemies, and the seeming absence of God. Now all of that is turned around. An absent God? "Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God" (41:10). Powerful enemies? "Those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish" (41:11). Your own distress? "I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand" (41:10). The language of promise in these oracles of salvation is as intimate and personal as had been the language of the laments of a suffering Israel.

The productivity of exile. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came up against Jerusalem with his mighty army in 597 and again in 587 B.C.E., eventually conquering and destroying the city and taking many of its people--especially the leaders--back to Babylon as captives. This destructive experience--while devastating to Israel, as it would be to any people--had many unintended consequences. The loss of Jerusalem and its eventual restoration has sometimes been called a "death and resurrection" of Israel that fed the rich notion of "old" and "new" so essential to biblical theology. Given the loss of the old institutions and traditions (land, temple, king, a "great nation"), Israel had to look to a God who would "do a new thing" (43:19)--in continuity with the promises of old, but new and surprising, forward looking and open. (One-fifth of all the occurrences of the word "new" [hadash] in the Old Testament appear in the sixteen chapters of Second Isaiah, 40-55.)

The exile was also a time of unprecedented literary productivity, giving rise to large portions of what would eventually become the Hebrew Bible. Now that the religious life and traditions of the people were not being reenacted and retold daily in temple worship or annually in the great festivals (see Psalm 137:4), it became all the more important to write them down, to record them for present use and future memory. Scholars believe that much of the Pentateuch and the historical record, along with many of the psalms and early prophetic utterances, for example, found written expression during this period.

Prophecy and apocalyptic. Isaiah 24-27 has often been called the "Isaiah Apocalypse" due to its inclusion of themes often found in apocalyptic literature (for example, references to "laying waste the earth," universal judgment, universal recognition of the reign of God, God's banquet for all peoples, the end of death, and the defeat of Leviathan and the dragon--mythic symbols of chaos and destruction). Many scholars understand chapters 24-27 and other apocalyptic references to be quite late additions to the book, though other recent studies have pointed out thematic similarities that relate these chapters to the rest of Isaiah.

The relation between prophecy and apocalyptic has been debated often, and no firm agreement exists. A distinction employed by some is to say that prophecy remains within the realm of history as we know it, while apocalyptic looks beyond that history to a new world that includes things impossible in the present order (such as the eradication of death). That distinction has some validity but often remains neater than actual biblical texts. The Isaiah "Apocalypse," for example, despite its other-worldly elements, is related to the book's emphasis on the judgment of actual historical nations (chapters 13-23) and contains none of the hidden mysteries or number imagery of full-blown apocalyptic.

By the inclusion of materials like this in the book of Isaiah, the biblical editors clearly acknowledge some relation between apocalyptic and prophecy; still, Isaiah and the other writing prophets of the Old Testament remain primarily committed to God's actions for and within this world.

The prophetic call. Most biblical prophets have a story of their call into the service of God. These call narratives have common features that mark them as a particular literary genre. A classic example is the call of Isaiah (6:1-13) with its typical elements: description of the situation ("In the year that King Uzziah died…"); vision or audition ("I saw the Lord....Then I heard the voice of the Lord"); commissioning ("Go and say to this people…"); objection ("Woe is me!...for I am a man of unclean lips"); overcoming the objection ("The seraph touched my mouth with [a live coal]…"); acceptance ("Here am I; send me!"); and the giving of the word itself ("Keep listening, but do not comprehend…").

Some readers have found another call narrative suggested in Isaiah 40:6-8, seeing in that text a commissioning of an anonymous "Second Isaiah." The servant of God, so important in the book of Isaiah, tells his own call narrative in Isaiah 49:1-6. Another commissioning is described in Isaiah 61:1-4, referring either to the prophet (some have said a "Third Isaiah") or to the servant depicted by the prophet in these chapters of the book.

Trial speeches. One of the genres or literary forms used frequently in Isaiah is the trial speech, texts that metaphorically portray a trial or lawsuit, generally involving some combination of God, Israel, the nations, and their gods. Many find such a trial speech at the beginning of the book (1:2-20), in which God calls upon the heavens and the earth as witnesses to the divine good intentions regarding Israel and to Israel's failures that now justify a harsh word of judgment (but see the entry on the divine lament, below). As always with regard to Israel, the purpose of the lawsuit is not merely to condemn but to call Israel to repentance in order that they not suffer the just consequences of their sinful actions.

More daring are the trial speeches (or related texts) in the second part of the book in which God confronts the nations and the gods, challenging them to defend their own claims to divinity and sovereignty (for example, 41:1-5; 21-29; 43:8-13; 44:6-8; 45:20-25). Who really is God? The nations are invited to make their best case, and God is willing and ready to respond. Who sent Cyrus to free Israel (41:2-3)? Who is the first and the last (44:6)? Who alone has the will and the grace to save all peoples, not just one people (45:22)? Even more important, which God keeps no secrets but reveals his will to all and is completely faithful to his word (41:22-23; 43:9; 44:7-8; 45:21; see 45:18-19)? Only God announces what God will do and then does it. This allows God's assertion that "I am the LORD, and there is no other" (45:6).

What is a prophet? In our present Bibles, Isaiah comes first among the books of the prophets, although Isaiah was not the first prophet chronologically. The notion of prophecy grew and developed over Israel's history. Early on, Abraham (Genesis 20:7), Aaron (Exodus 7:10), Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15; 34:10), and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:20) are called prophets, serving as mediators between God and Israel in important ways. Among the earliest prophets were those who spoke in ecstatic utterance (Numbers 11:27) and who functioned as "men of God," such as Elijah and Elisha--not altogether unlike shamans in other cultures. Israel's kings were often in conversation with prophets who interpreted to them God's will for their royal actions, including, for example, David's relationship with Nathan (see especially 2 Samuel 7:4-16; 12:1-15) and Hezekiah's conversations with Isaiah (Isaiah 36-39).

The prophets whose names are associated with biblical books (the so-called "writing prophets") continue to claim to speak for God, but their messages or oracles are longer and more complicated and clearly demonstrate the prophet's own significant role in putting God's word into its present form. They become preachers and teachers who speak and interpret the word of God to the context into which they are called.

The prophets' use of the so-called "messenger formula" ("Thus says the LORD…") makes clear that they speak for and from another. They are ambassadors for their king (God), just as the Assyrian ambassador speaks for his king (2 Kings 18:28-29). Still, the prophets have their own role to play; they are called to "go and tell" (Exodus 6:11 and often)--to take God's word to a particular place or particular audience and to interpret it for that context. Isaiah makes clear that prophets are not soothsayers or crystal-ball gazers, nor are they wisdom teachers, but rather faithful servants of God's word (Isaiah 44:24-28). They combine a firm fidelity to God's word with their own God-given talents to give it literary and poetic form.

God's word creates new realities (Genesis 1:3!); it is an effective word, accomplishing God's purpose (Isaiah 55:1-11). God sends prophets or preachers of this word first and foremost for the sake of the immediate hearers, that they might live; but since God's word "will stand forever" (Isaiah 40:8), it is recorded and passed on so that future generations too might hear it and live.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

Democratization of the Davidic covenant. Second Isaiah anticipates God's coming to restore Israel, but does not make direct use of messianic images. The temple and palace stand in ruins, and the prophet uses other traditions (especially relating to Zion and exodus) to define God's new plan. In fact, in one of Second Isaiah's bold moves to open God's work to all, the prophet announces that the everlasting covenant with David is now made with all Israel (55:3-4), anticipating the coming of not just one new king, but the identification of all believers as God's royal people (see 1 Peter 2:9).

Divine image and agency. "To whom then will you compare me?" asks God in 40:25 (see 40:18; 46:5); and the answer is clear: nothing and no one--that is, nothing and no one among the heavens and the gods, for, as Isaiah makes clear, "I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god" (45:5). Still, in Isaiah's preaching, this God who will allow no other claimants to deity, is remarkably ready to be compared to a striking variety of earthly images: potter, rock, warrior, woman in labor, mother, father, shepherd, friend, helper, husband, hawker, and many others. God uses these images to describe the work to which God is committed and that will be accomplished through the prophet, Israel, Babylon, Cyrus, creation itself, and, above all, God's chosen servant.

Female imagery for God. The second half of the book of Isaiah contains a large number of female images for God. God is compared to a woman in labor (42:14; 45:10), a nursing mother (49:15; 66:13), and possibly a midwife (46:3-4). Perhaps these surprising images of comfort and intimacy were given through the prophet as part of the "new thing" (43:19) God was doing to break Israel out of the despair produced by years of exile.

Holy One of Israel. Particularly in Isaiah, God is seen as the "Holy One of Israel" (twenty-five of thirty-one biblical uses of the title occur in Isaiah). Perhaps deriving from Israel's worship (Psalms 71:22; 78:41; 89:18), the term's usage in Psalm 78:41 is especially interesting, since the following verses (41-55) link the "Holy One of Israel" with the mighty signs done by God against Egypt in the exodus--a tradition particularly important for Isaiah. Second Isaiah frequently connects "Holy One of Israel" and "Redeemer" in close proximity.

"I am." Second Isaiah contains several "I am" statements in the mouth of God, ranging from the grand and glorious assertion of 48:12-13 ("Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called: I am He; I am the first, and I am the last. My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they stand at attention.") to the intimate and personal assurance of 51:12 ("I, I am he who comforts you; why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die, a human being who fades like grass?"). Such self-predications or self-descriptions of God have great theological significance, emphasizing, as seen in these two examples, not only the power and glory of God but also God's loving and personal care. Many of Jesus' "I am" statements in the Gospel of John recall themes and images from the divine self-introductions in Second Isaiah.

The idols. Isaiah often condemns the idols of Israel (2:8, 18, 20) and challenges the idols of the nations (19:1, 3). Second Isaiah will turn the challenges into taunts, ridiculing the absurdity of idol worship (41:6-7; 44:9-20; 46:1-2) and declaring the idols and their makers to have no power at all (41:29; 42:17; 44:9). The nations did not think that idols were themselves gods, but rather representatives or symbols of the gods; but Second Isaiah makes clear there is nothing behind the idols for them to represent.

Isaiah and Jesus. Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament more than any other prophetic book. Some have equated Isaiah with one of the New Testament evangelists in their role of telling the good news of the gospel (Isaiah 40:9). This Christian use reflects the New Testament confession that all God's promises "find their Yes" in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20 RSV). The same promises that kindled the faith of Israel throughout the generations are now seen pointing to the fullness of God's work in Christ.

The messianic kingdom. Several of Isaiah's promises relate back to God's pledge to "establish the throne of [David's] kingdom forever" (2 Samuel 7:13). Thus, Isaiah looks for the birth of a new king (an anointed one or messiah) who will be given throne names like "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6); despite the coming loss of the monarchy, renewal will come: "a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse [David's father]" and establish at last the peaceable kingdom (11:1-9). As time goes on, especially following the exile, Israel continues to long for and await the coming messianic kingdom where all will be made right at last--a hope fulfilled in surprising ways, according to the New Testament, in the birth of Jesus, a new and different kind of king.

A new exodus. Isaiah reaches back to the exodus as a "text" for his proclamation of the new saving work of God. Just as God once delivered Israel from Egypt, God will provide new highways to bring home the people who survived the Assyrian conquest of the eighth century B.C.E. (11:16) and the Babylonian conquest of the sixth century (35:8-10; 40:3-5). God's former work was a dry way in the sea, but the new work is a wet way in the desert (43:16-21)--the "new thing" building on yet surpassing the old, a reminder that God is always taking God's people somewhere new.

Oracles against the nations. Like many prophets, Isaiah is given messages or oracles against foreign nations (especially chapters 13-23). Though oracles of judgment, these announcements make clear that God is Lord not only of Israel and Judah, but of all peoples. They dismiss false claims to power and even divinity (see 47:1-11) and set up the possibility that even the nations can turn to God and be saved (45:22).

Redeemer. Far more than any other book of the Bible, the latter part of Isaiah uses the term "Redeemer" for God (thirteen out of nineteen biblical uses occur here). In Old Testament civil law, the redeemer (Hebrew go'el) was one who bought back or rescued a relative's property that had been sold or a family member who had been forced into slavery (Leviticus 25:25-55). With this background, God was seen as the one who "redeemed" Israel from slavery in Egypt at the first exodus (Exodus 6:6; 15:13) and who would now be Israel's Redeemer from Babylonian captivity in a new exodus. The New Testament never names Jesus the "Redeemer," but does speak of the "redemption" that Christ has won.

The remnant. Despite the harsh word of judgment brought by First Isaiah and the total destruction that results from the Assyrian and Babylonian campaigns, the prophet promises that a "remnant" will be spared and will return to serve and worship God (10:21; 37:31-32). This faithful remnant (see also Ezekiel 11:13-20) has come to symbolize God's commitment never to allow the blessing of the world begun in Israel to come to an end; come what may, God will always provide a witness in the world to God's saving work on behalf of all.

The servant of God. In four well-known passages, Second Isaiah describes the work of God's chosen servant (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). God's servant is chosen by God to bring God's teaching and justice to all the world, to proclaim God's word to sustain the weary, and to suffer on behalf of others, "wounded" for their transgressions. Read in context, as they must be, these powerful poems first describe the work of God's people Israel for the sake of the world, but that work is then personified in this particular servant, preacher, and prophet. Christian interpretation has seen Jesus as the fulfillment of God's chosen, faithful, and suffering servant.

The sign of Immanuel. Through Isaiah, God announces the coming birth to a "young woman" of a child named "Immanuel" ("God with us") as a sign to King Ahaz that God will come in Ahaz's own day ("by the time [the child] knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good") with mighty acts of judgment and mercy (7:10-25). Isaiah continues to apply the name Immanuel to one doing God's work (8:8); and Second Isaiah, too, announces that God will "be with" Israel as helper and savior (41:10; 43:2, 5). The later Greek translation of the Old Testament will render "young woman" in Isaiah 7 as "virgin," and the New Testament will pick up this translation to announce the birth of Jesus, who will also be called "Emmanuel" (Matthew 1:23), building on Isaiah's promises to Israel.

Universalism. The second part of Isaiah often moves toward a surprising universalistic understanding of God's saving work. Israel is sent as a "light to the nations" (49:6); foreigners and eunuchs are welcomed where they were once denied (56:3-8); the place and agency of women is affirmed in new ways (see "Female Imagery," above); and "all the ends of the earth" are invited by God to "turn to me and be saved" (45:22). Second Isaiah's expansive vision instructs and anticipates Paul's assertion that in Christ all human divisions are overcome (Galatians 3:28).

Zion tradition. Throughout, the book of Isaiah makes strong use of what has been called the "Zion tradition"--the understanding that God has chosen Mount Zion as the divine dwelling place; that it will finally prove sound and impregnable, even when everything, even the earth itself, shakes and quakes; and that a light will go out from Zion, made the highest of all hills, that will attract the nations to come and dedicate themselves to God (see especially 2:2-4; 60:1-7). This tradition of a sacred mountain was adopted by Israel from the surrounding culture and given its own significance in Yahwistic faith; it lies behind the images of the "city built on a hill" and "light of the world" used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14).

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

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