Isaiah's Majestic Prophecy
EDWARD J. YOUNG
THE WRITER: Edward J. Young, Professor of Old Testament, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Young presented the following lectures in the Seminary Chapel in October, 1961. This was the second annual Lectureship of The Cincinnati Bible Seminary, presented each fall in the various fields of Seminary curriculum. Three lectures were given, two of which are published in this issue and the third will appear in the following issue.
IN the New Testament the book of Isaiah is either quoted or referred to more than all of the other Old Testament prophecies combined. It is not without good reason that this particular prophet has been called the Evangelical Prophet, for his messages permeate the whole structure of New Testament thought. For example, although our Lord had performed many mighty miracles among them, the Pharisees did not believe upon Him. This might seem to be strange. Was He not the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, the Messiah who was the desire of nations, the One who would redeem His people? And if anyone should believe upon Him, certainly it should be the Pharisees. They were zealous for the Law and the traditions, and they, it might be expected, would surely welcome the Messiah when He came. Furthermore, He proved that He was the Messiah by performing mighty miracles. Surely these would seal His claims and remove all doubt. And yet, despite all of this; despite the fact that the Son of God actually performed miracles among them, they were blind and did not believe upon Him.
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For this unbelief there was a reason. Long before Christ's ministry the prophet Isaiah had spoken, "Who hath believed our report, and the arm of the Lord to whom hath it been revealed?" (Isa. 53:1). According to the infallible record of John, infallible because God-breathed, the Jews did not believe on Jesus because Isaiah had prophesied that they would not believe. The subject matter of Isaiah's prophecy, in other words, was this particular rejection of Jesus Christ on the part of the Pharisees. John then proceeds to give an explanation, "Therefore," he says, "they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them" (John 12:39,, 40). It will be noted that the first quotation was taken from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, a section which by modern scholarship is denied to the prophet, and attributed either to the so-called "second Isaiah" or else to some unknown writer living at the time of the exile or even later. Yet, John has no hesitation in attributing this quotation to Isaiah. He identifies it as a saying of Isaiah the prophet, by which he not only means that this saying is found in a book bearing the name of Isaiah, but also that this is a saying actually spoken by the prophet himself. This saying John substantiates by appeal to another, one which is generally recognized as genuine, in that it is found in the chapter in which the prophet's call to exercise his ministry is given. This latter chapter, even according to the more radical criticism, is not denied to Isaiah. Rather, it is said to be illustrative of the prophetical call narratives, related in the first person.(1) Here, then, in one breath, as it were, John makes quotations from both the first and the second portion of Isaiah, and both of these he attributes to the man Isaiah. Both are utterances of an individual prophet, and that individual prophet was the son of Amoz.
This is not all. As though having in mind the assertions of modern scholarship John goes on to say, "These things said Isaiah when he saw his glory, and spake of him" (John 12:41). Both of the previously quoted utterances are here attributed to lsaiah and we are even given the Sitz im Leben which gave rise to them. They were uttered, we are told, when the prophet saw Christ's glory and spoke of Christ. It is important to note this emphasis, for here, as clearly as words can state it, we are told that there is such a thing as predictive prophecy, and that in this particular instance Isaiah was not speaking primarily about matters immediately relevant to his own time. Rather, although he lived in the eighth century before Christ, Isaiah was predicting the events which should occur when Christ was here upon earth. He was speaking of Christ.
This passage in the Gospel of John is remarkable and is worth pondering. The dominant school of Old Testament criticism would hold that the message of the prophet must always be primarily relevant to his own day. Indeed, it is being asserted, as a result of the form critics, emphasis, that in studying each individual prophetic oracle, it is necessary first of all to ascertain the Sitz im Le ben in which that particular oracle was uttered.(2) Why did the prophet speak as he did? What were the conditions existing in his day that caused him to utter this oracle? What indeed was the life situation which called it forth? We must abandon, so we are told, the idea that the church used to hold, that the prophets were foretellers. Predictive prophecy, such as orthodoxy would hold, was not known. The prophets were not foretellers, it is said, but they were men with a positive message for their own day.
Yet how differently John speaks. John apparently knows nothing about the need for a Sitz im Le ben for Isaiah's prophecies. Or, to state the matter more accurately, John does give a Sitz im Leben. John says that there were particular circumstances which caused Isaiah to utter his words, and these circumstances were that Isaiah had seen Christ's day and had spoken to him. Not only then, did the prophet foretell Christ, but he actually saw the day of Christ and deliberately spoke of Him.
Such an interpretation of prophecy runs counter to the entire modern viewpoint, and the reason for this is obvious. The Bible approaches prophecy from one standpoint; modern negative criticism approaches it from another, and the two standpoints are diametrically opposed one to another.(3) According to the Bible a prophet was a man raised by God to be a mouthpiece of God to the nation. "I will place my words in his mouth," said the Lord in Deuteronomy 18:18, "and he shall speak unto them all that which I command him." Very different, however, is the modem view. The Biblical position, of course, presupposes Biblical Supernaturalism. The God of whom the Bible speaks is the Creator of heaven and earth, the One who possesses all the treasures of wisdom and power, the eternal triune God. It goes without saying that such a God can reveal His will unto His servants the prophets whenever He desires to do so. Hence, in following the Bible, Bible-believing students have simply asserted that the prophets did predict the future.
Modern negative scholarship, it would seem, really seeks to account for the Bible without God. At best it allows us merely to study what the ancient men of Israel thought. And as we study what he thought, we are told by modern scholarship that the prophet was a man who believed that God had spoken to him. Now, at this point, there is an important distinction that needs to be made. There is a vast difference between asserting that a prophet believed that God has spoken to him and in saying that God actually had spoken to him. And modern scholarship, in as far as I understand it, is concerned only with the first. Modern scholars are constantly telling us that the prophets indeed did believe that they were filled with the spirit, and that the word of God had come to them.(4) But from a Christian-theistic standpoint, that is not sufficient. There may be many people who think that God has spoken to them. What we must ask is whether as a matter of fact God has spoken to them.
Hence, we cannot rest satisfied with any interpretation of prophecy which merely holds that the prophets believed that their God had communicated to them and given to them His Word. What we must know is whether the true God did actually speak to the prophets by special revelation. Mohammed also claimed that God had spoken to him, but we do not take his words seriously because we know that they are false. And so with the prophets, we have not really engaaged in a genuine and serious study of prophecy, until we first of all come to grips with the question, "Did God Himself speak to the prophets?" Old Testament prophecy, in other words, cannot be rightly understood nor evaluated save upon the presuppositions of a truly Christian theism.
And let it be asserted with all firmness; we cannot understand the grand and majestic prophecy of Isaiah unless we approach it from the vantage point of the presuppositions of Christian theism. If we do this, we may learn from John's usage of Isaiah, concerning the authorship and trustworthiness of the prophecy. In other words, if the New Testament is indeed the God-breathed Word of God, it is true and trustworthy in all that it says. It is true therefore, when it speaks on questions such as that of the authorship of Old Testament books, just as when it speaks on the matter of our salvation. Whatever the New Testament asserts we are to believe, and if the New Testament speaks in a clear-cut fashion concerning the authorship of the prophecy of Isaiah we are to heed its words.
It is thus that I would approach the subject of our discussion, "Isaiah's Majestic Prophecy." We must first of all establish that the prophecy is truly from Isaiah, and then consider the message itself. And in seeking to establish the authorship of the prophecy, we may very well note what the New Testament has to say. On this particular point, as we have already seen, the New Testament is quite specific. I have elsewhere (Old Testament Introduction, 1954, pp. 219 ff.) gathered the New Testament references on this point. It is well to note that quotations taken from the first part of Isaiah are about the same in number as those taken from the second part. Furthermore, the nature of these quotations makes it clear that the reference is not merely to a book or to a prophecy, but to the man himself. The New Testament introduces its quotations with phrases such as, "Isaiah the prophet," "The prophet Isaiah," "Isaiah prophesied," "Isaiah said again," "Isaiah said . . . saw . . . spoke," "Isaiah cries," "Isaiah says," "As Isaiah said before," "Isaiah becomes bold and says," "Well spake the Holy Ghost through Isaiah the prophet." From these it is clear that the writers of the New Testament believed in the existence of a prophet by the name of Isaiah, and that this prophet spoke those words which they quote. Now the quotations are so varied and taken from so many parts of the prophecy, that it is perfectly clear that the New Testament teaches the Isaianic authorship of the entire work. This fact simply cannot be denied. And if the New Testament speaks thus clearly and positively, we must accept its witness.
The Authorship of the Prophecy
In addition, there are many bits of evidence which support what the New Testament so clearly teaches, and it will be well briefly to note these bits of evidence. First of all there is the witness of tradition, which without any exception has ascribed the entire book to Isaiah. No other name has ever been connected with the prophecy. We may go back as far as Ecclesiasticus in the second century B.C. and we discover that the work is regarded as Isaiah's. Quoting from Ecclesiasticus, we note the following: "He (i.e., Isaiah) comforted them that mourned in Zion. He showed the things that should be to the end of the time and the hidden things or ever they came" (49:17 ff.) It is apparent that the language here reflects the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, and yet Ecclesiasticus attributes this to Isaiah himself. In fact, we read that Isaiah saw "by the spirit of might," a phrase which in Isaiah is used only of the Messiah himself. From this it is clear that the writer of Ecclesiasticus held the prophet in the highest esteem, for he uses of Isaiah a phrase which in the Bible is applied to the Messiah. Ben Sira speaks of Isaiah as prophesying "by the spirit of might" and thus shows in what great estimation he held Isaiah. How can we explain this?
A problem truly emerges at this point. According to much modern criticism, Isaiah, although he was indeed outstanding, was by no means the greatest of the prophets. The greatest of the prophets, we are told, was the author of chapters forty through fifty-five, a man generally designated by the term "second Isaiah." Now, the name of this latter is completely lost. Yet, within the space of four hundred years or less, the writings of the greatest of Israel's prophets have become attached to the writing of a lesser prophet, with the result that the name of the greater is entirely lost. How is this phenomenon to be explained?
A few attempts at explanation have been made, but they are not convincing, for here is a phenomenon that is really without parallel in all the history of literature. It is a phenomenon which stands opposed to the idea that the book is not a unity, and it is a phenomenon which demands explanation. The difficulty has really been increased by the discovery of the Dead Sea manuscript of Isaiah. As is well known, this is an entire manuscript of the prophecy, and it makes no break between chapters thirty-nine and forty. In other words, here is additional evidence that in the second century B.C. the prophecy existed in the form in which we now possess it.
To the witness of tradition other evidence might also be added. This has often been presented, and there is no point in going over it all at the present time. The tradition of Isaianic authorship is very ancient. How did that tradition arise? What caused the scribes of ancient Israel to append to this prophecy the name of Isaiah; indeed, to maintain consistently that the sixty-six chapters of the book were the work of one man? We believe that the answer is to be found in the fact that Isaiah actually was the author of this work. Upon this basis a satisfactory interpretation of the prophecy may be obtained, and, it might be added, only upon this basis. For when this view is adopted, one may note the remarkable unity which underlies the entire work. This is a unity, primarily of message, and it is when we consider this unity that we can truly understand the message of the prophet.
We shall then proceed upon the assumption that the prophecy is the work of one man and that man is none other than the great prophet of the eighth century, Isaiah the son of Amoz. This is the view expressed in the heading, where the work is attributed to Isaiah. The prophecy is there described as a chazon, i.e., a revelation which God gave to the prophet. What is the revelation, and what is its significance for today?
The Message of Isaiah
At the outset a problem arises that has to do with the position of the sixth chapter. How are we to understand this sixth chapter? Is it the account of a call to a specific mission or to a specific or particular aspect of Isaiah's ministry, or is it the inaugural, initial call to the prophetic office itself? This is a question which has often been debated, but it would seem that the latter view is the correct one. In the sixth chapter we have to do with the inaugural call of the prophet. On this interpretation we may easily understand why Isaiah would feel himself condemned as a man of unclean lips. He had not yet prophesied, and he believed that he, himself a man of unclean lips, and dwelling in the midst of similar people, would not be able to speak for the Lord nor to praise the Lord as did the seraphim, beings with pure lips.
If however, the sixth chapter does present the inaugural call, why is this call not given in the first chapter at the beginning of the prophecy; such as is the case, for example, in Jeremiah? At first sight there might appear to be difficulty here, but it is a difficulty that soon vanishes.
If we examine the early chapters of the prophecy, we can perhaps understand why the prophet proceeds in the manner that he does. Isaiah was more interested in his message than in himself. He lived in a crucial time when the kingdoms of men were seeking to establish a world-wide human empire in which the people of God would be insignificant and the kingdom of God wiped out altogether. It was at such a time necessary above all else to make clear to the inhabitants of Judah that Jehovah, the God of Israel, was truly upon the throne, and that He was in control of all things, including even the movements of nations. It was necessary to set Him forth as the only hope of His people, and to plead with them to put their entire reliance in Him. It was this message which needed to be stressed, and the man who proclaimed it must keep in the background. At a later time, Jeremiah would apply this message to the conditions of his own day. He would however, do so in a manner different from that of Isaiah. The message had already been pronounced, and in Jeremiah's day, men could see the force of the message by means of a personal application on the part of Jeremiah. For that reason the man Jeremiah is so prominent in his prophecies. In Isaiah's day, however, when the message must be declared for the first time, it was essential that the man himself retire into the background, in order that all prominence might be devoted to the words of life themselves. This point must be kept in mind in any careful study of Isaiah's prophecy.
For that reason the book begins by calling attention to the Lord Himself. In an introductory chapter Isaiah gives in germ form the entirety of the prophecy which he intends to present. This first chapter is truly remarkable, and it will be well if we devote some attention to it. It divides itself into four parts, each one of which is introduced either by the Lord speaking, or by the prophet calling attention to the speaking of the Lord.
As an example we may note the command of verse two, "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken." The grandeur of this opening command sets the stage for the message of the Lord, indeed, for the message of the whole prophecy. "The Lord hath spoken." Therein is the heart of the proclamation; therein is the comfort to be found that the nation of Judah so direly needed. And the Word of the Lord is then presented succinctly. The Lord has raised up children, but they have rebelled against Him. Israel thus appears, not as a nation with a genius for religion, as Renan put it, but as a nation that has rebelled against the Lord.
It is to this rebellious nation that the message of the prophet is directed, and it is the fact of this rebelliousness that makes the preaching of Isaiah so difficult. Throughout the first chapter the prophet, speaking in the Name of the Lord, pleads with the nation to turn from its evil ways. "Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well" (verses 16b, 17a). Yet. against the dark background of the sinfulness of the people, Isaiah proclaims the grace of God. Because of that grace, the nation has not utterly perished; it has not become as Sodom and Gomorrah, in that a remnant has been preserved. Furthermore, even though the sins of the people are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Repentance is demanded, and the announcement is made that Zion will be redeemed with righteousness. Thus, the prophet, having touched upon the themes which he intends later in the course of his prophecy to dwell upon, brings to a close his first chapter. It is a wonderful chapter, and it gives 'us the whole book in germ form.
The time for introducing himself has not yet arrived, however. There are further themes which must be presented before Isaiah speaks of himself. Under the reign of Uzziah and Jotham, he uttered some messages which lay the. foundation for his subsequent prophecies. Beginning with chapter two and continuing through chapter four, the prophet lays the basis for his denunciation of sin.
He begins with a remarkable picture of the day when the mount of the house of the Lord will be established at the top of the hills, when men will flow unto that house, for from Zion the law will go. forth and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Turning from this remarkable picture to the situation of his own day, the prophet pleads with his people, "O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD" (2:5) Then follows a description of the sinful condition of the nation and the announcement that a day will come which belongs to the Lord alone, and in which the Lord will be exalted and all that in which man exalts will be abased.
Following this Isaiah again announces the coming of a judgment, although at this point he does not state how that judgment will take place. In the fourth chapter he reverts to the picture of the future and announces the Branch of the Lord, the first intimation in the book of the work of the Messiah. Thus, this little section closes, and in the fifth chapter the prophet speaks again of the same themes, but developing them further. Now he also points out that a destruction is to come, and hints that this will be brought about by means of an army. It is one of the first clear references to the exile in the book. All of this lays the background, and Isaiah is now ready to speak of himself. The situation is a serious one; the nation lies in the danger of an oncoming foe. Its own sinfulness has been great, and it has shown a lack of willingness to repent. Now, Isaiah must point out that the message which he has been declaring is one that has been given to him by the Lord of hosts Himself.
It is thus that we approach the vision, for the vision is really the heart of the entire prophecy. Yet how is this vision to be understood? Often it is said that Isaiah entered the outer court of the Temple, and approach the Temple itself, his eyes looked to the altar, and he believed that he saw the Lord seated upon a throne. The experience is thus to be explained upon the basis of the intensity of Isaiah's spiritual perception and feeling. The outward world receded from his sight, and he was taken up, as it were, in a trance, so that he beheld God! Upon this interpretation the prophet beheld the Lord as the prophet himself was actually in the Temple.
If, however, we are to regard the experience as actually having taken place in vision, then we cannot really say where the prophet was when the vision occurred. It is of course quite possible that he was in the Temple, but the Bible does not say that. For that matter, he may have been in his own home. We simply do not know. A vision was a strange experience in which the body appeared to the outside world as though it were unconscious, yet at this time the man who was experiencing the vision was able to see what God revealed to him. This seeing was not with the physical, bodily eyes, but with an inner eye. We enter here the realm of mystery, and its goes without saying that we today cannot fully explain or understand the nature of these strange experiences which came upon the prophets.
While, therefore, there is much about a vision that we are unable to explain, there are certain facts which we must insist upon. Even though Isaiah saw the Lord, not with physical eyes, but with the inner eye - whatever that designation may actually mean - it was a real and genuine seeing. It was no mere dream that Isaiah experienced, nor did he himself imagine the events which transpired. Rather, the prophet actually saw the Lord in the manner which he himself describes.
Yet the prophet's condition may not simply be dismissed as that of ecstasy.(6) It was not a self-induced condition, but one which God Himself brought on Isaiah. The content of the vision is therefore to be understood as objective to the prophet; it was not the product of his own mind, but was truly a revelation granted to him from God Himself. In genuine vision, therefore, Isaiah saw the God of Israel.
The One who sat upon the throne is identified as Adhonai. The prophet uses a word which designates God as the sovereign One, the One who possesses all power. It is not the covenant name which is here employed, but a different word. Might it not seem, however, that at this particular time, there would be need for a stress upon the God of the covenant, the God who in a peculiar sense was Israel's God? So it might indeed seem until we consider the background against which all of Isaiah's prophecies were uttered. We must ever keep in mind that in Isaiah's day men were attracted, as they are today also, by power. On the horizon of history there was arising a powerful Assyrian kingdom. In opposition to trust in this kingdom, the prophet must set forth the God of Judah as One who is able to carry out His purposes. He therefore speaks of Him as Adhonai, the sovereign One. It is this one who appeared to the prophet, and it is this one who could give to that prophet a message to preach to his people.
We for our part cannot agree with those modern scholars who see in the sixth chapter of Isaiah an example of the so-called enthronement festival.(7) Those who believe that such a festival was actually celebrated in ancient Israel hold that annually the king was believed to ascend the throne in connection with the god himself ascending the throne and beginning to reign. But it must be pointed out clearly that nothing like that is found in this chapter. For that matter there really is no evidence whatever that such an annual enthronement festival was ever held in ancient Israel. Surely there is not a word in this present chapter which speaks of any ascension of the throne! Such an interpretation does not do justice to the text.
We must of course acknowledge that the imagery employed may remind us at times of certain ancient phenomena of the Near Eastern world.(8) But this chapter in which Isaiah's call is related must be interpreted on its own merits. In vision, then, Isaiah sees the holy God. The holiness of God is not simply a quality which He shares in common with other objects or beings. God is holy in that He is unapproachable; He is entirely separate not only from His creation, but also from sin. When we speak of the holiness of God, theref6re, we must note also the ethical aspect of the matter. To speak of God as Holy, as the seraphim do, is simply to say that He is God. It is to proclaim His distinguishableness from all created beings, as well as to emphasize His ethical purity.
The sight of the holy God and of beings with pure lips praising that God causes Isaiah to exclaim with respect to his own undone condition, for one who is to serve God must indeed recognize his own true state. To Isaiah there is then vouchsafed the forgiveness of his sin and thus he is prepared for the service of the Lord. In response to the rhetorical question, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Isaiah responds readily, "Here am I, send me." It is a wondrous response, and it tells us much concerning the man who is to proclaim God's Word. Without knowing what the message was or what its proclamation would involve, Isaiah expresses his readiness to go for the Lord. So it must always be. When one's sins are forgiven, then he should be ready to serve God.
Thus it is that Isaiah receives his commission. It is a message that begins with the word "Go" and it is a message, the proclamation of which will simply result in the hardening of the hearts and the blinding of the eyes of those to whom it is addressed. This must be kept in mind as we consider the totality of Isaiah's preaching. This prophet must go to a people that is willing to turn away from the Lord and to trust in the arm of flesh. A decisive hour has come to Israel. Her future is truly hanging in the balances. The decision which she now makes is one which will effect her for years to come. If she makes a wrong choice, she will bring upon her the power of Mesopotamia, a power that will ultimately culminate in Rome and the Antichrist. It would of course, be very tempting to trust in Assyria, and to rely entirely upon man. Isaiah, however, must point out the folly of such action. Yet, he must present his words to a people that has no desire to hear those words. His entire ministry, so it would appear, will be fruitless. The king and the great majority of the nation will not listen to him. To them he will appear at best merely as an idle dreamer, to whom they will not pay attention.
Thus, Isaiah receives his call. He is told in advance that his preaching will only produce hardness of heart, and that the nation before him is one that is not ready to listen. It must have been a time of great inner distress of soul to the prophet. Well did he know that to place one's trust in Assyria was tantamount to rejection of the Word of the Lord and was to do that very thing that would bring ultimate destruction to the nation. Yet Isaiah did not shrink from his task. He did not turn back nor did he complain. To this nation he went, faithful and confident that his God was truly the sovereign One.
Almost immediately we see the prophet in action. When the faithless Ahaz is ready to place his hope in the nearby Assyrian. Isaiah is sent to meet him, and with Ahaz, he encounters the first serious opposition to his proclamation of the Word of God. At this point we may learn a lesson of tremendous importance and significance for ourselves in this present day. It is simply that we must not be weary in well-doing. Isaiah may have been discouraged; it is difficult to see how he might not have been. Be that as it may, however, Isaiah kept at his work of proclaiming the truth of God.
He begins his message with the declaration that God will send the Messiah. In the seventh chapter he speaks of the birth of that Messiah and then in chapter nine sets forth the Person of the Messiah in language of unmatched force and beauty. In the midst of the gloom and halfheartedness of the nation, Isaiah declares with remarkable confidence that the Messiah will be born and that He will sit upon the throne of David, there to reign eternally.
In a glorious burst of triumph the prophet identifies the Messiah. His name shall be called "Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." These wondrous words place in the foreground Him who is to be the Hope of the nation. When this King sits upon the throne, it is but folly to place over-confidence in Assyria. In this wondrous description of the Messiah, we find four names given. Each of these names consists of two parts. The first two names are composed of two elements which stand in the relationship of appositional genitive. The second two names are composed of two parts standing in the construct relationship. In the first two names the first element of each name points to the deity of the Messiah, and in the second two names, the second element of each name points to His deity. In the first two names, the second element of each name points to the work of the Messiah and in the second two names the first element points to His work. Thus, these four names raise aloft and exalt both the true deity and humanity of the Child that is to be born. This is Immanuel, and this is the one who is to sit upon David's throne. Well will it be with Judah if she puts her trust in this one and turns from the Assyrian king.
Isaiah does not content himself with the mere announcement of the Child's birth. More than that, he makes clear that this Child is the one who will bring about the restoration of his people and will be the hope of the Gentiles. "And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea" (Isaiah 11:10,11). Here is a clear description of the exile, and here also we are told that there will be a return from that exile. This section of the prophecy Isaiah then brings to a close with a doxology.
The foundation has now been laid. In the first twelve chapters of the book, the prophet has gone to the heart of the matter. He has stressed the sinfulness of the nation as the cause of the disaster that is to overtake it; he has pointed to that disaster and even named the one who will execute it and bring it about. He has not for a moment minimized the nature of that disaster, but he has shown that God will not be inactive. God will place upon the throne of David a child, who is really God's Son, and this Child is the one in whom the nation is to trust. Well indeed it is that Isaiah concludes this first portion of his book with a doxology.
What about the nation that is to be used by God to bring about the exile? Concerning this and other nations foreign to Judah, Isaiah must speak a word, in order that his own people may learn the lesson that these nations are being used by Jehovah to bring about chastisement to a disobedient people of God. In chapters thirteen through twenty-seven therefore, we have a section which deals with the foreign nations. The heart of this section is found in the expressive words, "Woe to the multitude of many people, which make a noise like the noise of the seas; and to the rushing of nations, that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters! The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind" (Isa. 17:12,13).
At the head of all those nations which oppose the kingdom of God is Babylon, and to that nation Isaiah first turns his attention. His prophecy is headed, "The vision of Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see" (Isaiah 13:1). Gray calls this the unfortunate guess of a redactor, but such a judgment is superficial.(9) This is actually a vision concerning Babylon, and Isaiah himself beheld that vision. For one thing the chapter is written in a pure Isaianic style; the characteristics of Isaiah's writing are found throughout. Furthermore, the description of the ruined Babylon which Isaiah here gives, is strikingly similar to a description of Babylon which was found in the excavations of Nimrud in 1952-3 and which comes from Sargon II. We may render part of the inscription as follows:
There was no path existing; as for the inaccessible parts thorns thistles and jungle had prevailed over them, and dogs and jackals in their recesses gathered together like lambs. In that desert country Arameans and Suti, dwellers in tents-had pitched their dwellings." This will suffice to show the similarity of language to Isaiah.
Isaiah singles out Babylonia as the culmination of that power of man which opposes itself to God and therefore mentions it at the head of the list of foreign power of some significance, but it goes without saying that Isaiah as a true prophet could have predicted the future concerning Babylon. In his own strength however; and limited to his own abilities he obviously could not have foreseen the future. Not even a shrewd guesser could have divined the future course of Babylon as we find it set forth in the prophecy. Isaiah, however, was not a shrewd guesser; he was a true prophet of the Lord, a man to whom God by means of special revelation granted his messages. In speaking thus of Babylon, therefore, Isaiah is not relying upon shrewd insight but upon a revelation of God.
That the Babylonian kingdom will grow in power but will finally be. overthrown is the theme of chapters thirteen and fourteen. Having dealt clearly with the downfall of the Babylonian King-and Isaiah has in mind not so much one specific king as he does the Babylonian royalty as such-the prophet then reverts to his own time and describes how the conquests of the Mesopotamian power will effect the nations contemporary to himself. One by one he casts his glance over them, at times even expressing sympathy for them, as he does in the case of Moab. The sections of the prophecy are often extremely difficult .to interpret in detail, but the general message of the prophet is clear. The widespread arm of conquering Assyria was more and more reaching out and taking over more and more territory.
As the first section of the book closed with a doxology so this second part likewise. Four chapters, namely, twenty-four through twenty-seven, form the conclusion, and with these chapters we face many questions. Most modern scholars simply assert that these four chapters are apocalyptic, and that they could not possibly be the work of Isaiah.(10) This, of course, is strange, for if there is any section of the book that is filled with Isaianic expression and characteristics, it is this one. In fact, S. B. Frost in his book, Old Testament Apocalyptic (1952, pp. 143ff.) maintains that these chapters were the work of a man who deliberately posed as Isaiah.
If then these chapters are so strikingly Isaianic, why is their authorship denied to Isaiah? The answer is that they are said to contain ideas which are similar to those of later apocalyptic and too advanced for the eighth century B.C. A careful examination of these chapters, however, will show that they really are not apocalyptic at all. In fact, if these chapters be denied to Isaiah and treated as a separate, independent unity, they do not yield a good sense. We are then at a loss to understand them and their import. Here in these chapters is mention of a city or cities and of a corrupted world. Here is mention of judgment, but what is the significance of it all? If we look at these four chapters as summing up all that has been said in chapters thirteen through twenty-three about individual nations we find that they yield a very good sense. In the previous chapters Isaiah has spoken about individual nations and cities. He has mentioned the punishment of the exile. Now he sums everything up and puts it all in one. Here then in these chapters is the statement of the universality of the punishing judgment to come. Here also is the declaration that there will be a remnant, and here too is a song of praise to the Redeemer. Fittingly indeed do these chapters close the previous section.
The Historical Bridge
When we leave them and proceed, we find that Isaiah speaks of the northern kingdom, Israel, which was soon to suffer from the conquering hand of Shalmanezer of Assyria. We are back again in the Assyrian period, the situation contemporary with Isaiah himself, Ahaz has passed from the scene and on the throne of Judah there sits a man who sought to be obedient to the Lord God. Yet he too must face the consequences of Ahaz' foolish acts. Sennacherib comes to Palestine and according to his own words, "shuts up Hezekiah like a bird in a cage." Then come the Babylonian envoys to whom Hezekiah foolishly shows the treasures of the temple. Thus we are prepared for the Babylonian period.
One of the strongest evidences for the unity of the book is found in the little historical section, chapters 36-39. These chapters form as it were, a bridge, to connect the Assyrian with the Babylonian periods. It is necessary that we understand the nature of the relationship of these two periods. Isaiah, himself, as is well known, was a prophet of the Assyrian period, and his messages have much to say about that period. Nevertheless, he goes on beyond his own day, to point to the time when his people will be in bondage. He rises above the Assyrian period and then again reverts to it. The first thirty-nine chapters form, as it were, a staircase, leading up to the Babylonian period. And without the latter half of the book the first half is not really understandable. Isaiah has clearly presented the foe and the background of threat that stand before Judah. He has also pictured the King of glory, but he has said very little about what that King of glory would do. The first portion of the prophecy, in itself, is not sufficient. It does not really tell us what the future of the people of God will be. For that we need the last twenty-seven chapters of the prophecy.
On the other hand, if we take these twenty-seven chapters by themselves, they are very difficult to understand. It is surprising how much we are dependent upon the first thirty-nine chapters for a proper understanding of them. Indeed, take away those first thirty-nine chapters, and one would really have difficulty in understanding the twenty-seven chapters that remain, for these latter chapters presuppose the former thirty-nine. This fact becomes clearer the more one reads the prophecy. And the connecting link between these two mighty sections of the book is to be found in the little historical section 36-39. Here is the bridge, as it were, over which we walk from the eighth century, the time in which Isaiah himself actually lived, to the period in the future when the people of God should be exiles in a foreign land. In the first part the threat had been given and in the background, hanging over the horizon like a dark and black cloud, was the enemy. Now the period of fulfillment has come. Israel has been taken away captive to a distant land, and she must now look for deliverance to the Lord who is her God.
What then is the message which Isaiah wishes to give through these last chapters of the prophecy? To this question many answers have been given, answers which in large measure depend upon the viewpoint adopted with respect to the authorship of the chapters themselves. It goes without saying that if we consider these chapters to be the work of someone other than Isaiah, someone living at the time of the Babylonian exile and in Babylonia itself, our attitude toward them and our interpretation of them will differ considerably from what it would be if we held that Isaiah himself was their author.
The Work of the Messiah
Following then the New Testament and maintaining the Isaianic authorship of these chapters what may we say? First of all, there is no reason why we may not hold that in the later years of his life, when he had retired from active ministry and when he no longer delivered his messages orally, Isaiah in the quiet of his study, wrote out under divine inspiration, the wondrous messages which are found in the last chapters of this book.
In these chapters he sets forth in a remarkable way the vicissitudes of God's people. There would seem to be little doubt but that the background of these chapters is, at least to some extent, that of Babylonia. In Babylonia the people will be in bondage, and deliverance from that bondage will come as a result of the work of Cyrus. Cyrus is set forth as the deliverer, and his work is made prominent. It is of course the mention of Cyrus which has caused some to assert that these chapters cannot be the work of Isaiah. And of course, Isaiah alone without the aid of the supernatural work of God, could not have foretold the advent of Cyrus. If, however, Isaiah was speaking as a true prophet, and so as one who had received the Word of God, then Isaiah might very easily speak of the coming of Cyrus.
Interesting and striking is the manner in which the prophet introduces Cyrus. Isaiah has said much about the sinfulness of Israel, and about the hardheartedness and recalcitrant character of the nation. At the same time he points out that a deliverance is to come, and this deliverance he centers in the work of the Persian king. It is after a remarkable announcement of the forgiveness of sin, that Isaiah brings in the future deliverance. The declaration is introduced with a "Thus saith the Lord," for it is the language of true prophecy. Indeed, the message is couched in three strophes, and these three strophes are of great interest for its interpretation.
In the first strophe, Isaiah describes those things which have to do with the past, even with the more remote past. "I am the Lord, that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself" (Isaiah 44: 24b). Clearly these words refer to the creation They bring before us the Lord as the true creator of heaven and earth. With this first strophe, Isaiah takes our thoughts back to the very beginning. The words which he is about to declare are words of supreme importance, for they are undergirded with a reference to the absolute beginning of all created things. When we read this introduction we are ready to listen to the further message of the prophets.
In the second strophe, Isaiah continues, "That frustrateth the tokens of the liars, and maketh diviners mad; that turneth wise men backward, and maketh their knowledge foolish; that confirmeth the word of his servant, and performeth the counsel of his messengers" (Isaiah 44: 25, 26a). With this thought the prophet now turns to events or situations that are contemporary. In the midst of Babylonia there was the tremendous opposition of the heathen soothsayers and diviners. These were the ones who by their practices were opposing the God of Israel. Yet, their practices could not frustrate the workings of God. The spirit of Babylon, the spirit of evil, which was animating men to oppose God's purposes, must indeed be stopped. Here in words of great comfort to His people the Lord announces that He frustrates or makes void the signs which are performed by the diviners, the so-called wise men of antiquity.
On the other hand, He does confirm the word of His servants. Isaiah was one of these servants; one who spoke vigorously the Word of God. There was much opposition to that Word, much inclination to hearken unto the signs that were performed by the diviners. Nevertheless, inasmuch as the Lord was truly the God of creation, He could not only make void and of none effect the signs which the diviners performed, but He could substantiate and support the word which had been spoken by His own servants. At this time it would be well for the people of God to hearken to this message of the prophet.
In the third strophe we receive the words concerning Cyrus. "That saith to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be inhabited; and to the cities of Judah, Ye shall be built, and I will raise up the decayed places thereof; That saith to the deep, Be dry, and I will dry up thy rivers; That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasures: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid" (Isaiah 44: 26b-27). A mere reading of these words shows us that the prophet now casts his eyes upon the future. And if we compare this strophe with the first we may say that, inasmuch as the emphasis in the first strophe was upon the distant past, so here it is to be upon the distant future. As he had looked far back to the very creation, he now looks ahead to the far future when the Persian king will be upon the scene of history.
Obviously a difficulty is here created. If these words are the words of Isaiah, the difficulty vanishes, for then we have true predictive prophecy. Then we have what we should expect, namely, a true prophet of Jehovah, looking forward to the future. On the other hand, if these words are not those of Isaiah, but rather those of a contemporary, why does this contemporary speak of Cyrus as though he were speaking of one who would not appear upon the scene of history for years to come? If a contemporary of Cyrus speaks here, then he knows of Cyrus, for Cyrus is already upon the scene of history. Why then does he speak of the king, as though the king had not yet appeared, but would only appear in the future? This is a problem which is glossed over by many. It is, nevertheless, a very real problem.
Isaiah then points out that there will come in the future a deliverance, and this deliverance will be the work of Cyrus, the king of Persia. But this does not exhaust his message. The people of God will go through many vicissitudes; they will be in bondage to Babylonia. There is, however, a deeper bondage which enslaves them and this bondage is spiritual in nature. From this servitude Cyrus cannot set them free. The delivery under Cyrus will be a prelude to a far greater deliverance, but it will be only that, nothing more. From the spiritual bondage which is enslaving the people of God and holding them captive, there is need of a greater victory and deliverance than Cyrus can possibly achieve. And this deliverance is the work of the Servant of the Lord.
This strange figure is introduced first in chapter forty-two. Concerning him literally volumes have been written. There is however, one point which must be noted, and which, all too often, is overlooked in discussions of the question. The work which the Servant performs is spiritual in nature. The bondage from which He delivers is one caused by human sin, and the deliverance which He accomplishes is of such nature that it frees the soul from this bondage and brings the soul again into peace with God. In all history there is only One who can accomplish such a redemption, and that is the Messiah, even Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Redeemer.
Here then is the crown and culmination of all Isaiah's prophecies. In the first part he had set forth a King, for in opposition to the human king to whom men were turning and in whom they were willing to put their trust, Isaiah must place the true king, the Messiah. This Messiah is also a mighty Ruler. He will sit upon the throne of David, and He will build up His kingdom in justice and in righteousness. Wonderous and magnificent is the picture of the Messiah which the prophet gives.
Wonderous as it is however, it would be incomplete, if the prophet did not go to the heart of the matter and tell us what the Messiah did to save His people. For the Servant of the Lord, despite all that is written to the contrary, is really the Davidic Messiah. He is a true king, not in the weak, modern sense of a king in the enthronement ritual, but as One who has all power and who lays down His life and takes it up again. He delivers His people from the thraldom and dominion of sin, and that is the work of God alone. No mere human king can accomplish what this King accomplishes. It is necessary then that the men of Isaiah's day as the men of every day shall know both who the Messiah is and what He does. Merely to state who the Messiah is will not bring comfort to the soul, for there is a deep need, even deliverance from sin, which hangs over each one. Arid merely to be told of the saving work is not sufficient. How do we know that we are saved unless the One who is presented to us as a Savior can really save? We must know who He is. In this time of great need Isaiah comes forth with the answers to the two all significant questions. It is his to tell us of the Redeemer, the Messiah. In the simplest of terms, the message of Isaiah is just this, the Person and the Work of the glorious Redeemer.
Endnotes1. Balla, e.g., regards chapter six as similar to accounts of heroes of religion who have had ecstatic experience (Die Botschaft der Propheten, Tubingen, 1958).
2. This position has received classic expression in the writings of Hermann Gunkel.
3. These are clearly distinguished in 0. T. Allis: The Unity of Isaiah, Philadelphia, 1950, pp. 1-38.
4. A modern exposition of the prophetic movement may be found in Curt Kuhl: The Prophets of Israel, Richmond, 1960.
5. Cf. Engnell: The Call of Isaiah. Uppsala and Leipzig, 1949.
6. Gustav Holscher: Die Propheten, 1914.
7. Cf. Engnell, op. cit., and the commentary of Aage Bentzen.
8. I have tried to adduce the evidence in my forthcoming commentary The Prophecy of Isaiah, Vol. I.
9. Gray, com. in loc.
10. The work of J. Lindblom may serve as an introduction to some of the problems of these chapters, although the conclusions to which this work comes are not satisfactory, from the standpoint of one who accepts the Isaianic authorship of the chapter. Cf. Joh. Lindblom: Die Jesaja-Apohalypse, Lund, Leipzig, 1938.
Scanned: Michael Riggs
Corrected: Daniel Dyke