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Isaiah, Theology of

Isaiah, Theology of

Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was an eighth-century prophet who appeared at a critical time inJudah's history, proclaiming a message of judgment. However, Isaiah apparently alwaysentertained the hope that the nation would turn back to God and be spared from severepunishment. As Isaiah was beginning his ministry, the Assyrians were in the process ofbuilding an empire that threatened to swallow up Israel unless Yahweh would deliver hispeople. This is why the decision Ahaz was forced to make in Isaiah 7 was so crucial. Hehad to choose between placing his trust in human wisdom and power or in Yahweh to deliverthe nation from war. God even graciously offered to give Ahaz a sign to enhance his faith,but Ahaz would not commit himself to trust in Yahweh. The outcome was the Syro-EphraimiteWar (734-732 b.c.) and Judah's loss of political independence (they became vassalssuccessively to Assyria, Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome). In spite of this,Yahweh promised to one day restore his people—not the entire nation, as he had donein the past, but a remnant. Isaiah was one of the first to prophesy that Yahweh was notlimited by the people's unbelief, but that he could raise up and deliver a believingremnant. This remnant would be comprised of those righteous people of Judah who would turnto Yahweh and thereby be brought through the crisis.

The basis for this deliverance, even though rarely mentioned ( 54:10 ; 55:3-5 ; 56:4-5 ; 59:21 ; 61:8 ), is groundedupon the covenant that Yahweh originally made with Abraham. On several occasions in theBook of Isaiah, Yahweh steps in to deliver a remnant of the nation so that the covenantwould continue. One such occasion was when Assyria, led by Sennacherib in 701 b.c.,marched into Judah with the chief aim of annihilating it ( 10:7 ). They haddestroyed all of Judah except for Jerusalem; the night before Sennacherib was to beginsiege of the city, the text says that "the angel of the Lord" descended andkilled 185, 000 Assyrian soldiers. The Assyrians subsequently returned to Nineveh withoutcapturing the city. On another occasion Yahweh used Cyrus as his servant to deliver thenation from Babylonian captivity and allow them to return to Jerusalem (44:28-45:13).

Early in his ministry Isaiah was warned that his message would go unheeded by the vastmajority of the nation ( 6:9-13 ); however,his call in the year of King Uzziah's death ( 6:1-8 ;approximately 740 b.c.) encouraged him to continue proclaiming his unpopular message. Hewas given a vision of the holiness of God that colored the rest of his ministry. Thus itis no wonder that the key title for Yahweh, "The Holy One of Israel, " is usedtwelve times in the first thirty-nine chapters and fourteen times thereafter.Unfortunately Isaiah was one of the few people in Judah who comprehended the extent of hisunholiness ( 6:5 );if more of the nation had had a similar perspective, they may have lived differently. Godgave the nation extended opportunities to repent and turn back to him so that divinepunishment could be averted, but the message never seemed to penetrate the people'shardened hearts.

Introduction. The first chapter of the book contains important theologyregarding both Yahweh and man. Yahweh is long-suffering and merciful, but he must alsopunish sin. In fact, punishment appears to be administered by Yahweh to encourage thenation to repent (vv. 5-6). Sacrifices and empty prayers do not satisfy or impress Yahweh(vv. 11-15); a change of behavior accompanied by a proper heart attitude is what hedemands (vv. 16-17). The nation needed to turn from their evil deeds and demonstratepractical good deeds, such as seeking after justice, punishing evildoers, and helpingthose in society who have no one else to come to their aid, such as orphans and widows.Yahweh graciously says that if the nation will turn back to him, he will remove their sinsand bestow a blessing (i.e., eating the best of the land, vv. 18-19), but they will bepunished if they rebel (v. 20), which is similar to the blessings and cursings found inDeuteronomy 27-28. In this section man is seen as more rebellious than dumb animals (i.e.,donkeys and oxen) since even these animals know enough not to bite the hand that feedsthem. By contrast, Yahweh's people rebel against him without considering the consequences(v. 3). They have the form of religion (offering sacrifices and prayers), but their heartsare far from Yahweh and therefore he refuses to listen to their prayers. Verse 15 saysthat the people's hands are full of bloodshed, either from their sacrifices or, morelikely, in the literal sense, by allowing orphans, widows, and other poor people to betreated unjustly. In spite of their reprehensible behavior, some of Yahweh's people willbe delivered and become righteous. The names for God, the Lord God of Hosts and the MightyOne of Israel, reinforce the certainty that these things will be accomplished.

Judgment. Chapters 2-4 are in the form of an inclusio: The beginning ( 2:1-4 ) and end ( 4:2-6 ) deal withthe future prospects of Judah and Jerusalem, whereas the middle section (2:5-4:1) concernsthe present, disgraceful condition of Jerusalem. The land is filled with influences fromthe East (v. 6); there are soothsayers (v. 6) and idol worshipers (v. 8). God will bringdestruction and punishment so that the people will finally turn to him. The key verse inthis section on restoration is 4:4, which states that Yahweh will purge Jerusalem of filthand bloodshed by the spirit of judgment and burning.

Chapters 5-12 contain a message very similar to the preceding one, but describe in moredetail the series of purgings and deliverances that will result in the final restorationof the nation. These chapters form a palistrophe (a literary structure in which thefeatures in the first half of the story correspond to features in the second half),arranged as follows:

a) The Song of the Vineyard [essentially destruction] ( 5:1-7 )
b) Six "woe" oracles pronounced upon the wicked ( 5:8-24 )
c) "The raised hand of God" oracles culminating in destruction by Assyria( 5:25-30 )
d) The Isaianic Memoir (6:1-9:6)
c) Four "the raised hand of God" oracles culminating in destruction by Assyria(9:7-10:4)
b) "Woe" oracles pronounced upon Assyria, which give rise to the restoration ofJudah (10:5-11:16)

The structure of this section emphasizes the central portion of the polystrophe, whichcontains Isaiah's call and commissioning (chap. 6). God used Isaiah as his spokesman tothe nation. His message contains both judgment and subsequent restoration if the nationwill trust in Yahweh. In actuality, however, only a remnant will turn back to Yahweh. Thekey verses of the Isaianic Memoir are 6:12-13, which mention two different purgings(namely, the Syro-Ephraimite War in 734-732 b.c. and the destruction by Sennacherib in 701b.c.), from which will emerge a remnant called, in verse 13, the "holy seed."This remnant will be led by a future deliverer who, in the course of history, turns out tobe the Messiah, the one of whom Christ claims to be the fulfillment. It would appear,according to the Isaianic Memoir, that restoration will immediately follow Assyria'sdefeat, but in actual fact the entire program, to be concluded by the rule of a futuredeliverer from the line of David, is still futuristic, even from our perspective.

The theme of judgment is continued in chapters 13-27, which contain oracles against theforeign nations. Isaiah 11:10 mentions that nations will rally to the Root of Jesse, butbefore this can happen they need to undergo a cleansing process similar to that of Judah.Chapters 13-27 specify that a cleansing will occur among the foreign nations so that theywill turn to Yahweh. This section concludes with what is generally known as "TheLittle Apocalypse" (chaps. 24-27), in which Yahweh is pictured as pouring outjudgment upon the whole earth, following which he prepares a banquet for those who areleft ( 25:6 ) andestablishes a kingdom of peace and safety for the righteous ones.

Chapters 28-35 contain a mixture of oracles of judgment and deliverance, warninglisteners that even though Yahweh's people (both Israel and Judah) enjoy specialconsideration as a result of his covenant with them, they nevertheless will be purgedthrough punishment, just like the other nations. The message of punishment and restorationis repeated again and again, emphasizing that only a remnant will be delivered ( Isaiah 28:5 Isaiah 28:16 Isaiah 28:23-29 ; 35:10 ).The idea of a remnant had to have been a new theological concept for the nation of Israel.In the past Yahweh had worked with the people as a national unity, but now each person wasrequired to maintain a proper inward attitude in order to be pleasing to Yahweh. Merenationality could not guarantee favor with God; a new heart was necessary, one whose trustand belief in Yahweh would result in changed behavior. This is why Yahweh repeatedlydirects them to look after the poor orphans and widows, for this would demonstrate agenuinely changed life.

Though there have been many suggestions as to why chapters 36-39 were added here, itseems most reasonable, in accordance with the theology of the book, that it provides asuitable illustration of dependence upon Yahweh that would be required of the remnantmentioned so often by Isaiah. Hezekiah both positively and negatively exemplifies thisdependence upon Yahweh. As a positive example, Hezekiah trusts in Yahweh to deliverJerusalem from the armies of Sennacherib (chaps. 36-37). This is almost certainly why theauthor carefully omits Hezekiah's attempts to pay off Sennacherib ( 2 Kings 18:13-16 )and, instead, emphasizes Hezekiah's prayer and Yahweh's answer of deliverance forJerusalem. The second illustration of dependence upon Yahweh is seen in chapter 38, whenHezekiah prays for deliverance from his illness and God graciously does so. As a negativeexample, however, Hezekiah demonstrates a lack of dependence upon Yahweh when he becameproud and sought to impress the emissaries from Babylon. Hezekiah's punishment appearsparticularly harsh, except when we realize that it is representative of the severeconsequences for all those who do not place their trust in Yahweh. If the nation of Israelat first thought that Hezekiah was their future deliverer, in retrospect they must haverealized that he would not bring in this kingdom of peace, prosperity, and righteousness,and that they must look for another.

Comfort. There has been much disagreement as to whether the Book of Isaiah waswritten by two or more authors, primarily because of the mention of Cyrus about 150 yearsbefore his birth. To further support dual authorship, it has been argued that the basicnature of prophetic material is to call for repentance or to warn against judgment in theimmediate future, since calling for action in the present against some distant judgmentwould be of little value. It is a mistake, however, to define prophecy so narrowly, forunless the prophet is able to pronounce the ultimate consequences of the people's actions,his message is of little value. In any case, there is no question that the final form ofthe book was intended to be understood as a unity. In fact, the strongest theologicalpoint supporting unity can be found in 41:21-29, where Yahweh argues that the real test ofdivinity is whether he is able to control and predict the future. Yahweh claims that he isthe only true God because he is the one who planned history from the beginning and isthereby able to tell the Israelites what will transpire in the future. Yahweh forces theissue even further: If he is not able to announce future events, he is no different thanthe other false gods.

It seems best to divide chapters 40-66 into three units of eight chapters (40-48,49-57, 58-66), according to the recurring refrain at the end of each, "There is nopeace, says the Lord, for the wicked" ( 48:22 , and cf. 57:21 ; thisrefrain is greatly expanded at the end of the book, 66:24 ).

Chapters 40-48 offer promise of deliverance. Beyond the statement in 39:6that Israel would be taken captive to Babylon, there is little information given. Insteadthe author emphasizes that Yahweh will bring them back to their land through his servantCyrus (44:28-45:7). During the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites no doubt feltabandoned by Yahweh and fearful that the covenant with him had been annulled because oftheir wickedness. Isaiah 40-48 therefore begins with Yahweh's assurance that Israel hadbeen punished sufficiently for her sins ( 40:2 ) and that heis willing ( 41:8-16 )and able ( 40:12-31 )to bring his people back to the promised land. Yahweh draws a very strong contrast betweenthe "former things" (punishment and exile) and the "latter things"(deliverance from exile). He claims that he alone directed history to prepare the way forIsrael's emergence from captivity, in a manner that no one would have ever imagined ( 48:7 )—byguiding a Persian king named Cyrus to do Yahweh's will ( Isaiah 41:2-4 Isaiah 41:25 ;44:28-45:7; 45:13 ; 46:11 ; 48:14-15 ). Itis plausible that Yahweh's servant described in the first servant song (42:1-9) is Cyrusbut, once again, he is only Yahweh's tool, not the future deliverer whom the people shouldcontinue to expect. According to 48:4-11, Yahweh foretold events far in advance anddirected history in such a way that the hard-hearted Israelites could not claim to havebeen delivered by their idols; the people were instead to serve as his witnesses ( Isaiah 43:10 Isaiah 43:12 ; 44:8 ). One of themajor theological concepts Yahweh wished to convey to the Israelites is that he will notshare his glory with another, for Yahweh, and no one else, had delivered his people ( Isaiah 43:11 Isaiah 43:13 ; 44:8 ; 45:5 ; 47:10 ).

Chapters 49-57 make it clear that Zion will be restored through Yahweh's servant. Threeof the four "servant songs" are recorded here ( 49:1-7 ; 50:4-9 ;52:13-53:12). The key to understanding the flow of thought in this passage, 51:18, statesthat Yahweh looked among all the sons of Israel and could find no one to lead the nation,to take her by the hand and lead her to victory. To accomplish this, Yahweh must raise uphis own servant, before whom will appear a forerunner to announce the coming deliverance.This servant, a suffering servant, will apparently have a part in their purification. Hewill be the long awaited future deliverer described in chapters 9, 11, and 32 andultimately fulfilled in Christ, the Messiah. Israel was intended to be a light to thenations but had failed miserably. Yahweh will use this servant to bring light to thenations ( Isaiah 49:6 Isaiah 49:26 ; 52:10 ); throughIsrael's deliverance Yahweh will be glorified and the nations will finally learn how trulyawesome and powerful he is. After the final "servant song, " there is asignificant change in the flow of the passage; the emphasis hereafter is on therestoration and glorification of the nation of Israel. The author continues to emphasizethat the promised deliverance is only for those who have a personal belief and trust inYahweh ( 49:23 ; 50:10 ; 51:7-11 ; 55:1-11 ; 56:1-8 ). Isaiah54:7-8 stresses the fact that Yahweh turned away from Israel only for a brief moment andthen, with great compassion, delivered her and brought her back to himself. The sectioncloses with a plea to accept Yahweh's salvation and come to him while he may be found.This invitation is open to anyone who is willing to trust in Yahweh and live righteously,but for those who are not willing to live righteously there will be no peace.

Chapters 58-66 begin with a description of the proper way to come to Yahweh. For him toheed prayers and fastings and move into action, the people's hearts must be open andobedient to him, and their lives must demonstrate true righteousness, without which,ritual fastings will accomplish nothing. Yahweh makes it clear that it is sin thatseparates the people from him, and that he is in no way lacking in power ( 59:1-2 ). The flowof thought changes abruptly in 59:15, when Yahweh sees the desperate conditions of hispeople and decides it is time to intervene. However, Yahweh will not deliver everyone;according to verse 20, only those who turn from their transgressions will be delivered.Yahweh is pictured as the divine warrior coming powerfully to the aid of his people. Thenext several chapters look forward to Zion's restoration, during which time the prosperityand glory of Jerusalem will be evident to all. The inhabitants of Jerusalem will no longerremember their former rejection, but will rejoice in their new status. Yahweh will protecthis servants ( 65:13-16 )and create new heavens and a new earth ( 65:17-20 ), inwhich there will be peace and safety. Yahweh's original intention of letting Israel serveas a light to the nations will now finally be fulfilled; nations will come to learn aboutYahweh's glory and will declare it to yet other nations. It is interesting to note thatthe book ends almost as it began: The commencement announces judgment upon those who rebelagainst Yahweh and the conclusion pictures the punishment of transgressors against Yahweh.

The New Testament's Use of the Book of Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is quoted oralluded to approximately 419 times in the New Testament, which is more than any other book(the psalms are next closest, about 414 times). It appears that most of the New Testamentauthors use either the Septuagint's translation of Isaiah, or some form or slightmodification of it. Two New Testament authors who are noteworthy for either not using theSeptuagint's translation or modifying it significantly are Matthew ( 1:23 ; 8:17 ; 11:5 ; 12:18-21 ; 15:8-9 ; 24:29 ) and John ( 1:23 ; 6:45 ; 12:40 ). Thepassage from the Book of Isaiah that is quoted most often in the New Testament, in full orin part, is Isaiah 6:9-10 ( Matt 13:14-15 ; Mark 4:12 ; Luke 8:10 ; John 12:40 ; Acts 28:26- ; 27 ).It refers to the hard hearts of the people of Israel, a condition apparently littlechanged in the seven hundred years until the time of Jesus, who was able to quote thispassage from Isaiah with equal relevance. The next most quoted passages from Isaiah are40:3 ( Matt 3:3 ; Mark 1:3 ; John 1:23 ) and 56:7( Matt 21:13 ; Mark 11:17 ; Luke 19:46 ). Theformer is used by the Gospel writers to refer to John the Baptist, who preceded Jesus andprepared the way for him. In the Old Testament this verse specifically proclaims God'sdeliverance of the exiles from Babylon, but it was easily applied to the spiritualdeliverance Jesus was to accomplish. Isaiah 56:7 foresees a time when people from allnations will come and worship the one true God, and their worship will be acceptable toYahweh. The New Testament authors announce that salvation is open to every one, no mattertheir nationality or background, which is a decisive fulfillment of this promise. Ingeneral these three examples ( 6:9-10 ; 40:3 ; 56:7 ) indicate thevarious ways New Testament writers employ an Old Testament passage: (1) it speaks to asituation that has remained unchanged through history and thus is still applicable to theNew Testament audience ( 6:9-10 ); (2) itspeaks to significantly different circumstances, but the New Testament writer seesconnections between the two occasions and reapplies the Old Testament passage to thepresent ( 40:3 );(3) it is not fulfilled in the historical context of the author but is expected to have afuture fulfillment ( 56:7 ).

Paul D. Wegner

See also Israel;Prophet,Prophetess, Prophecy

Bibliography. R. E. Clements, Int36 (1982): 117-29; idem, Isaiah1-39;idem, JSOT 31 (1985): 95-113; W. J. Dumbrell, Tyn Bul36 (1985): 111-28; W.S. LaSor, et al., Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the OldTestament; J. N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39; J. J. M. Roberts, Int36 (1982): 130-43; N. Whybray, Isaiah40-66; H. Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12;J. T. Willis, Isaiah.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Isaiah, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.