The key to unlocking the dynamic of Isaiah is to understand that this long and complicated book falls into sections, each of which speaks in very different ways about the King who is coming. Indeed the message of Isaiah is “The King is coming!”
Isaiah 1-12 The commissioning of Isaiah in the face of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant, and King Ahaz’s failure to believe God.
Isaiah 13-27 God’s intervention for his people (through his king) in the context of the failure of the nations.
Isaiah 28-39 Insights into the king’s nature and work; the success and failure of King Hezekiah.
Isaiah 40-55 The great work of the anointed servant King.
Isaiah 56-66 Overview of the intervention and work of the King.
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Steadily read through the whole 66 chapters of Isaiah – that’s about 2 chapters a day for a month.
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1, 6, 9, 11, 12, 24, 25, 26, 33, 34, 35, 40, 42, 44, 49, 53, 61, 65-66.
Study and answer the Bible for Life questions in the different ‘meal courses’.
Suggested verses for meditation …
Isaiah: the prophet of the messiah
Isaiah stands pre-eminent above all other prophetic literature in the Old Testament, not only because this is the first and longest prophetic book, but because of its focus on the Messiah – the anointed, servant, King through whom God will redeem and establish his purposes for humankind.
Isaiah lived at a time of political turmoil, as, from the royal court of the southern kingdom of Judah, he saw the northern kingdom make alliances with neighbouring states before being overrun by the Assyrians, destroyed and its people deported – never to be properly re-established. In the political cauldron of fear, the pressure was for Judah to form expedient alliances with her “super-power” neighbours: first Assyria itself, then Egypt and later, Babylon. Isaiah strongly counsels against any such action, urging the successive monarchs to trust God’s promise that if they are faithful to him, he will deliver and protect them. But Ahaz ignores him, and Hezekiah prevaricates until the very last moment when the Assyrian armies are at the very gates of Jerusalem. God then intervenes dramatically and Isaiah’s prophecy is completely vindicated.
But Isaiah’s prophetic insistence that God will be faithful to his promise that one of David’s sons will always reign in Jerusalem leads him to prophesy far beyond the immediacy of his own political situation. He sees that God himself is going to raise up a divine King of David whose reign will fulfil all that the original promise intended and much more. His Kingdom will never stop growing, and through the ransoming, redeeming work of the anointed Servant-King, God’s purposes for the nation will be achieved, and the nations of the whole earth will be affected. Instead of judgement on humankind, salvation will reach the ends of the earth.
In one true sense, Isaiah is the summary of the whole of salvation history, sweeping in its 66 chapters from the fallen sinfulness of humanity, unable to fulfil the covenant Law’s requirements, through to the coming of the messiah king and his redeeming substitutionary work, and then on into the realm of his Kingdom and the creation of a the new earth and heavens. Alongside these dominant topics run themes about the rise and fall of evil, the response of faith not fear, the establishing of justice and righteous government, and the purification of worship. Throughout Isaiah there is a powerful undergirding tone of hope and victory, of celebration and phenomenal triumph for the people of God as God works redemption because of his grace and love on behalf of humankind and establishes his purposes for ever.
Question 1 -
What do you love about this long and wonderful book?
Question 2 -
Isaiah repeatedly prophesies that God will act with grace towards us despite our failures. If ‘mercy is not retaliating when someone hurts you, and forgiveness is then forgiving them, and grace is buying them an ice cream’, have you ever ‘bought someone an ice cream’ when they have hurt you?
Isaiah 1: Prologue and Summary
Isaiah 8-9: The Messiah's Birth
Isaiah 11-12: Commentary
Isaiah 25-26: Commentary
Isaiah 34-35: Commentary
Isaiah 49: Commentary
Isaiah 58: Commentary
Isaiah 59-60: Commentary
Author and Date: The man ‘Isaiah’ who is introduced in 1:1 is generally referred to as ‘Isaiah of Jerusalem’. From this verse, on the basis of the kings mentioned, we can date his prophetic activity (chapters 1-39) from around 740 to 687BCE. Some view chapters 40-66 (including the specific details about the Emperor Cyrus in chapter 45) as future forth-telling by Isaiah of Jerusalem, of events around 150 years future to him. Others view the chapters 40 onwards as the work of a later prophet, or prophets, continuing the ‘school’ or tradition of Isaiah of Jerusalem. Still others view chapters 56-66 as originating in post-exilic Israel.
Second only to the Psalms, Isaiah is the largest book in the Old Testament. Although it contains many literary genres, the most common are; ‘prophecy’, ‘poetry’, and ‘narrative’. Among many other sub-genres, ‘satire’, ‘metaphor’ and ‘apocalyptic literature’ are prominent. The frequent use of the phrase ‘in that day’ indicates prophetic comment elaborating Isaiah’s leading prophetic messages.
Question 1 -
Isaiah repeatedly argues that the difference between Yahweh and the idols is that while Yahweh foretells the future, the idols that God’s people love to worship are deaf, blind and cannot speak or tell either the past or the future. Isaiah’s primary example is his prophecy that God will use an emperor of Babylon called Cyrus to cause his people to return to their land in a second exodus. This actually happened. Should Christians today expect such specific predictions of the future (see Acts 11:28, 21:11; 1 Corinthians 13:9, 14:24-25)?
Question 2 -
If God is sovereign (6:1-5, 40:10-31), why do bad things happen to ‘good’ Christians?
Question 3 -
What are you doing to establish justice and look after those in extreme poverty (58:6-7; Matthew 24:31-46)?
Chapter by Chapter
Isaiah: a commentary
The structure of Isaiah:
Prologue, Israel’s failure and Isaiah’s commission (1-6)
Ahaz’s crisis of trust (7-12)
Warning not to trust in Egypt (28-35)
Hezekiah’s trust in Yahweh and deliverance (36-39)
Exhortations: the heart of religion (56-59)
The glory of Zion and the future (60-66)
Comment on the structure:
The outline structure of the book of Isaiah can be grouped reasonably clearly into five sections. In addition, there is a deeper pattern of rhythm and crescendo that runs through each part.
First, each section addresses and teaches a perspective on the unifying theme of Isaiah which is that ‘The anointed Servant-King (the messiah) is coming’.
Second, each section seems to follow a pattern of building to a crescendo which first speaks in apocalyptic language of God’s work affecting the nations, and then closing in overflowing praise of God.
Section 1 Chapters 1 – 12 Isaiah, King Ahaz and the Syro-Ephramite coalition
Title verse (1:1)
Israel is rebellious at heart (1:2-9)
Israel’ religion is rotten (1:10-20)
Israel’s judiciary is corrupt (1:21-31)
Yahweh is committed to fulfilling his purposes (2:1-5)
Judgement is coming because of injustice (2:6-5:30)
Isaiah’s vision and commission (6:1-13)
King Ahaz’s crisis of trust (7-12)
Ahaz’s fears the Syro-Ephramites (7:1-25)
Isaiah prophesies into the crisis (8:1-22)
Isaiah prophesies the child King (9:1-7)
The fall of Samaria is prophesied (9:8-10:4)
The punishment of Assyria (10:5-19)
Israel is protected (10:20-34)
The Davidic King will bless the nations (11:1-16)
Yahweh is praised as King of Zion (12:1-6)
Overview of section 1:
This section begins with a prologue that sets the context for the whole book: God’s Holy people have fallen far short of what he wanted, the Temple system and judiciary are corrupt (1:1-31), but despite this the Lord is committed to establishing his people so all the nations turn to him (2:1-5). Then follows a longer description of the failures of God’s people, their idolatry, their spiritual blindness and the judgement that will fall on them (2:6-5:30). In this context, Isaiah then encounters God in a vision in the Temple and is commissioned to speak to his people (6:1-13). Chapters 7-10 are a narrative with prophetic words that address King Ahaz who courted the help of foreign powers and did not trust God. In two magisterial passages, Isaiah prophesies the birth and youth of a great king, the messiah (9:2-7, 11:1-10). The section reaches a crescendo with the description of the messiah’s influence on the nations (11:1-10), before closing in overflowing praise to the Lord for his glorious intervention.
1:1 – 2:5 This introductory section serves as a prelude to the whole book. Yahweh’s charges against his people Israel are over their idolatry and their injustice against poor and weak. Despite this, 2:1-4 is a climactic statement of Yahweh’s commitment to fulfil his purposes for Israel and through them the entire Creation (specifically through the inclusion of the Gentile nations).
1:2-9 Summary of the nations’ spiritual state
1:10-20 The religious institution is deeply rotten
1:21-31 The judiciary is corrupt
2:1-5 A visionary prophetic message about the end times.
2:6 – 5:30 Isaiah prophesies judgement, first because of Israel’s trust in idols, and second, their injustice treatment of the vulnerable.
4:2-6 Another visionary prophecy of God’s intervention, which is the first time a second exodus is mentioned.
5:1-30 Warnings of judgement (similar to Amos 6).
6:1 – 13 Into this context of the nation’s failure to fulfil God’s calling and purpose, Isaiah is dramatically called and commissioned to prophesy judgement. God’s people have become like the idols they tinker with – without the ability to either hear or see!
7:1 – 8:22 Israel’s failure to trust Yahweh is now applied to Ahaz, Uzzah’s successor (6:1), who is wavering in the face of the Syro-Ephramite alliance against Israel (7:2). Isaiah names his sons to reflect this fear (8:1, 8:3), but he prophesies that the Lord’s son will be called ‘God with us’ (Immanuel – 7:14). Isaiah’s leading exhortation is ‘if you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all’ (7:9). This is the heart of Isaiah’s call to the nation to trust that God will protect and deliver his people.
8:19-22 describes the nation’s pursuit of sorcery to discern the future and seek protection in the face of national calamity. But Isaiah gives a severe warning that those who pursue such ‘enlightenment’ will find themselves so deceived that they will effectively be in a place of utter darkness – completely unable to discern any wisdom or light at all. This functions as a contrast to the magnificent prophecy about God’s intervention in and through the messiah which immediately follows (9:1-7).
9:1 – 12:6 In response to Ahaz’s vacillation and reluctance to trust in Yahweh (7:1-12), Isaiah has begun to prophecy that the Lord will intervene by giving his own sign (7:14) and by using Assyria as an instrument against Israel (8:1-17).
Section 2 Chapters 13 – 27 Prophecies to the nations
Prophecy of the fall of Babylon (13:1 – 14:23)
Prophecy of the defeat of Assyria (14:24-27)
A warning of famine for the Philistines (14:28-32)
Prophecy of distress for Moab (15:1 – 16:14)
Oracle against Damascus (17)
Prophecy against the Upper Nile (Cush) (18)
Prophecy about Egypt (19)
Prophecy against Egypt and Cush (20)
Prophecy against Babylon (21:1-10)
Prophecy against Edom (21:11-12)
Prophecy against Arabia (21:13-17)
Prophecy about Jerusalem (22)
Prophecy about Tyre (23)
The Lord speaks to the nations (24)
Praise to the Lord (25)
A song of praise (26)
Final reflections on Israel’s deliverance (27)
Overview of Section 2:
As a relatively small nation in the wider context of hostile imperialistic powers, Israel faced the constant temptation to form alliances with other nations – just as Isaiah had addressed with King Ahaz in the first section – rather than trust that the Lord would protect his people. Section 2 is a collection of prophetic words to the nations in which Isaiah exposes their weakness and vulnerability. Beside 16:5, the references to the coming Messiah are left until the celebration of praise in chapter 25, and, significantly, until after the unifying address to the nations in chapter 24. In Section 1, in two majestic passages, Isaiah prophesied the Messiah’s birth; in Section 2, he prophesies his work of atonement (25:6-9), and follows this with a chapter celebrating several leading results of atonement such as salvation, righteousness, peace and resurrection.
13:1 – 14:23 This prophecy against Babylon comes first because Babylon became a world empire. Isaiah prophesies its complete overthrow. The leading verse in chapter 13 is v19. 14:1-3 are a powerful statement of hope in a section that addresses the heart of the Babylonian emperor, which aspires to the very place of God but is brought to utter ruin (14:20).
14:24 – 27 A prophecy about the destruction of Assyria in Israel and their relief from the Assyrian domination. This mirrors the prophecy of 10:14.
14:28 – 32 The Philistines are warned not to rejoice over the death of Israel’s king Ahaz because God’s purposes will be fulfilled for his people.
15:1 – 16:14 This is a message of warning, a lament for what will happen in Moab, but the spark of hope is the foretelling that the Davidic King is coming (16:5).
17:1 – 14 Verses 1-3 follow a similar warning to that of Moab. Then follows three stanzas of reflection introduced by the refrain ‘In that day’. These reflections are summarised in a final comment (v12-14) which looks at the blind raging of the nations.
18:1 – 20:6 Prophecies against South Egypt (Cush) and Northern Egypt. These prophecies speak of the coming judgements on Egypt, not the reasons for them. 18:7 states that Cush will bring gifts to the Lord. Similarly, the result of God’s judgements on Egypt is that there will come a day when, because of the work of a saviour (19:20), there will be an altar in Egypt (19:19) and they will worship the Lord (19:21), resulting in peace, co-operation and blessing (19:23-25).
20:1 – 6 is a penetrating warning against trusting in the foreign countries – which was the great temptation for Israel (7:1-14)! Here is the end of it all: ruin, embarrassment and fear for those who trusted in man, and not God. But these verses also describe Isaiah’s own prophetic training – he was to live naked for three whole years! This prophetic warning against those who trust in man and not God was also the means (the Holy Habit) that God used to crucify any vestige of loyalty to man in the heart of Isaiah, Yahweh’s mouthpiece. Only then could this man prophesy about the anointed Davidic King and the atoning work he would fulfil for humankind.
21:1 – 23:18 These three chapters prophecy judgement on Babylon and her allies and chapter 22 about Jerusalem is included because of their failure to follow Yahweh. There is a hint of hope in 22:20-24, which describes a proto-type Davidic character as God’s servant for his purposes. John adopts some of this description in the early part of Revelation.
24:1 – 27:13 Chapter 24 summarises chapters 13-23 in a climactic apocalyptic description of God’s judgement on the whole of humankind. But no sooner has Isaiah described the effect of God’s judgements on the earth than he breaks into overflowing praise, because ‘from the ends of the earth we hear singing: “Glory to the Righteous One”. As God intervenes to punish and ruin the destroyers, so God also acts through the Righteous One who is triumphing in God’s purposes.
25:1 – 12 Similarly, this chapter overflows with joy and praise for the intervention of God. There are strong atonement themes here. The destruction of the destroyers and the work of the Righteous One bring the people into restoration with God (25:8), and the result is an overflow of praise, and joy and worship.
26:1 – 21 The songs of praise and celebration overflow into a lovely description of different features of God’s salvation: a strong, stable place (26:1), peace (26:3,12), the defeat of the evil powers (26:13-14), and even the future resurrection of the dead (26:19).
27:1 – 13 This celebration continues with a prophetic statement of the defeat of Satan himself (27:1), a description of the Church (27:3), and its growth (27:6). All this is in the context of prophetic reflection on the judgements of God and the need for the people to throw out their idols.
Section 3 Chapters 28 – 39 King Hezekiah and the Assyrian and Babylonian threats
Warning not to trust in Egypt (28-35)
Prophecies directed to Ephraim (28)
Prophecy to Ariel (Jerusalem) (29)
Woe to the obstinate nation (Israel) (30)
Woe to those who rely on Egypt (31)
The Kingdom of righteousness (32:1-8)
Warning to the women of Jerusalem (32:9-20)
Warnings not to fear – the King is coming (33)
The Lord addresses the nations (34)
Great joy over God’s saving intervention (35)
Hezekiah’s trust in Yahweh and deliverance (36-39)
Sennecherib threatens Jerusalem (36)
Isaiah prophesies Jerusalem’s deliverance (37:1-13)
Hezekiah prays (37:14-20)
Jerusalem’s deliverance (37:21-38)
Hezekiah’s illness and healing (38)
Hezekiah is deceived by the Babylonian envoys (39)
Overview of Section 3:
This third section has two parts: the first (chapters 28-35) returns to the themes of the first section, and both warns God’s people of their deafness to God’s voice, while exhorting them to trust in him: ‘in quietness and confidence will be your strength’ (30:15). The coming of the messianic King is prophesied before Isaiah, in his usual structural literary pattern, broadens his message to the nations (chapter 34), and then celebrates the messiah’s atoning work by describing the lifestyle of the messiah’s followers – the Way of Holiness (35:8-10). Then follows a long narrative describing a king who, unlike Ahaz, did put his faith in the Lord. In response to Hezekiah’s faith, the Lord worked a great act of deliverance for his people (chapters 36-39).
28:1 – 33 This section returns to the themes of the first (Chapters 1-12) where the central warning is the foolishness of relying on Egypt for military help and protection (30:1-5), rather than on the Lord (30:15). The rich and powerful are again warned of judgement because of their abuse of the poor (28:7f). Occasionally there are references to the anointed King that God will one day send (28:16).
31:1 – 9 This is a very clear statement of Isaiah’s prophetic message to Israel: don’t trust in Egypt to deliver you from the Assyrians, trust in Yahweh! The image of the lion fearless before its prey (v4-5) is graphic. Isaiah’s message is pointing towards the astonishing deliverance of 37:36.
32:1 is the leading verse in this chapter describing the future King established by God. He will stand in marked contrast to the foolish and evil stupidity of those who make alliances with foreign powers in order to be defended (from Assyria). 32:9-20 is addressed to the (leading) women, warning them of the fragility of their situation which will come to ruin. But a day is coming when the Spirit of God will act (v15-20), and then there will be true and secure peace, quietness and confidence.
Chapter 33 begins to summarise the prophetic messages from 28:1 onwards, ahead of the ‘apocalyptic’ summary in chapter 34 and the celebration of chapter 35. Once again, the destroyer is condemned (33:1) and the failure of the present political alliances and the general weakness of Israel is prophetically contrasted with the power and wonder of the new order established by the new King (33:17, 20-22, 24). 33:23 graphically describes the weakness of the people’s spiritual disciplines – they are floppy, they do not know what to do to engage and participate in the Kingdom.
Chapter 34 is the penultimate section before the crescendo (chapter 35) and as such parallels chapter 11, the penultimate chapter of the first section (1-12). In both chapters (11 and 34), the author steps back and relates his message to the nations, indeed the universe itself (34:4). Throughout, there is a perspective of God’s final settling of all accounts, a victory and peace and overruling. Both chapters express this in terms of wild animals.
Chapter 35 is one of the very great expressions of God’s victorious purposes. The anointed King has brought in his Kingdom, and the results are utterly wonderful. In a way that again mirrors the final chapter of the first section (chapter 12) and the celebration at the end of the second section (Chapters 25-26), the prophet searches for words to describe what the Spirit illuminates about the wonder and victory and shalom that will be established by the anointed servant-king. These are the pictures of the Kingdom – and unsurprisingly, Jesus answers John’s question with these verses.
Chapter 36 – 39 This dramatic story of supernatural intervention and deliverance granted by Yahweh because of Hezekiah’s trust in him is also told in 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 32. In terms of the first part of Isaiah, Hezekiah trusts in Yahweh in contrast to Ahaz (who failed to). Nevertheless, the story finishes on a disappointing note with Hezekiah showing off his wealth to the Babylonian envoys who subsequently become Judah’s oppressors. This story is therefore a vindication of all that Isaiah has hitherto prophesied throughout the first 35 chapters. But while Hezekiah is highlighted as a great king for God’s people, both Ahaz and Hezekiah serve as foils for the truly great anointed servant King that Isaiah prophetically sees coming to lead God’s people (25, 33, 35). In this light, Hezekiah’s trust is good, and to a certain extent an example to God’s people, but in the perspective of salvation-history it is feeble and patchy.
Section 4 Chapters 40 – 55 The anointed servant King
A message of Comfort from God for his people (Chapter 40)
God, his people as his servant, and the nations (Chapter 41)
God’s true servant (42:1-9)
A response of triumphant Praise (42:10-17)
God’s people are a blind and deaf servant (42:18-25)
A message of encouragement to God’s people, his servant (43:1-44:5)
Idolatry is blind and deluded (44:6-23)
God will use Cyrus to fulfil his purposes (45:1-13)
God is Saviour and Lord (45:14-25)
The Babylonian gods are powerless (46:1-13)
Babylon will fall; despite its sorceries (Chapter 47)
Israel will come out of Babylon in a second exodus (Chapter 48)
Israel God’s servant will bring salvation to the nations (49:1-13)
Zion will be restored (49:14-50:3)
God’s servant (50:4-11)
Be prepared for the Servant to work (51:1-52:6)
The servant comes to do God’s work (52:7-12)
God’s servant suffers and is glorified (52:13-53:12)
The glorious results of the Servant’s work (Chapter 54)
Invitation to receive the full results of the new covenant (Chapter 55)
Overview of Section 4:
This section is the heart of Isaiah. In the first three sections, against a background of Israel’s failure to live as God’s holy people, Isaiah has exhorted God’s people to trust in the Lord and not make political alliances with other nations. Although Isaiah has prophesied the messiah’s coming, his work of redemption and the results of redemption, much has been left unsaid. This fourth section is a focused examination of what the messiah, Israel’s anointed servant King, will do and will achieve. Whereas Israel as the servant of God has failed badly (42:18-22, 44:6-20), Israel’s coming anointed King will establish all God’s purposes (49:5-12). This tension between the community and the individual who embodies the nation is at the heart of substitutionary atonement which is expressed in 53:4-6. The passage 52:13 – 53:12 is the crescendo of this section and therefore the heart of not only of Isaiah, but of all the Old Testament. But its teaching that the Messiah is to suffer is unexpected. The final two chapters combine Isaiah’s pattern as they celebrate and describe the resulting blessings that will flow to the nations.
Chapter 40 introduces a completely new work of grace by Yahweh for his people. It is one of the most majestic chapters in the Old Testament and it focuses on who Yahweh is, and what he does in contrast to the pitiful idols. This chapter describes a second exodus that God will work for his people as he brings them from their place of punishment (40:2) through the desert (40:3) to a place where all humanity sees his glory (40:5). The remainder of the chapter describes the glorious, gracious wonder of God, in contrast to the useless idols.
Chapter 41 begins to address the subject of ‘the servant’ – and this is deliberately ambiguous. This chapter is full of encouragement and compassion. God is about to work very powerfully and Israel – God’s corporate people – are his servant (41:8-10). Once again, the powerlessness of the idols is exposed (41:7, 21-29): they can tell neither the past or prophesy the future.
Chapter 42 starts with the first clear servant prophecy (42:1-9): God will work powerfully, quietly, and clearly through his servant – an individual. He will be ‘a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles’ (42:6). Then, in a way that is profoundly Isaianic, the prophet overflows with joy and celebration at all that Yahweh will achieve through his servant (42:10-17). Then follows a reflection on God’s people: although they are corporately ‘God’s servant’, they have become as blind and useless as the idols they turned and worshipped (42:18-22; compare 6:9-10), and even when punished by war they could not understand the reality and cause of their fractured fellowship with Yahweh (42:23-25).
Chapter 43 These moving promises describe God’s intervention on behalf of his people to work a new exodus through the water (the Red Sea) and the desert (43:2,16). This is despite Israel’s continued ignorance, disobedience, indifference to Yahweh and their pursuit of lifeless idols.
Chapter 44 opens with another outstanding prophetic statement about what Yahweh will achieve through his servant. Again, the nation, God’s family, is the servant. Then follows a long and detailed description of the silly and pathetic stupidity of worshipping a dumb piece of dressed wood, in contrast to the life-giving creator of the universe. The section v21-23 is a summary periscope expressing the leading themes: Israel is God’s servant; Yahweh is forgiving; joy. The last section expresses the grace in God’s heart; God is the redeemer, who works with his prophets to fulfil their words, who establishes Jerusalem, and even uses the imperial emperor of Babylon as his servant to establish his people.
Chapter 45 God states his intention to use Cyrus to establish his purposes for Israel. The rest of the chapter continues the themes of Yahweh being the sovereign creator who knows the past and the future, in complete contrast to the dumb idols, and who will fulfil his purposes for Israel despite their stubborn ignorance and rebellion.
Chapter 46 The prophet once again exposes the impotence of idols – they are simply gold-covered blocks of wood (46:6-7). But, in this section, his attention is for the first time on the Babylonian gods, Bel and Bebo (v1-2). In contrast, Yahweh has both made and carried the house of Jacob (v3-4), he knows the past and makes the end known from the beginning (v9-10). But with a surprising twist of grace, God is about to come and bring salvation to Israel who is ‘far from righteousness’ (v12).
Chapter 47 is a serious chapter because here the prophet addresses the practice of sorcery, which is the hidden power of idolatry (v9, 12-13; see Galatians 5:20). In contrast to their no doubt powerful occult powers (v12), they are utterly impotent in the face of Yahweh’s judgement which will come on Babylon suddenly, completely and finally (v8-11, 14). Absolutely no one will be able to save Babylon when Yahweh acts (v15, v1-3). It is both chilling and sobering that the city of Babylon is today a pile of ruins – it was never rebuilt! The other settlement that is a pile of ruins is Capernaum – see Matthew 11:23-24.
Chapter 48 The first section (v1-11) contrasts Israel’s iron stubborn resistance to Yahweh (v1-5) and their pride in their idols (v5-6) with Yahweh’s determination to act for the sake of his own honour (glory) (v6b-11). The second section (v12-22) begins by repeating the familiar argument of the powerlessness of dumb idols contrasted with the vibrant life and power of Yahweh. By their disobedience, his people have forfeited the peace and the abundance that could have been theirs. But once again the sheer joy in the prophet’s spirit breaks out (v20) and as usual he can’t stop shouting/singing about the very great work of grace and salvation that Yahweh is going to work for his people and for his name.
Chapter 49 starts with another great description of the servant, but now there is a development. Whereas the focus has been on the corporate nature of the servant, Israel personified (v3), now the focus shifts to an individual (v5-7), but the astonishing addition is the fact that God’s work through his servant will be a light for the Gentiles, so that God’s salvation extends through all the nations of the earth (v6). There will be a new covenant made by the servant resulting in great blessing. Then Isaiah very typically explodes into joyful exaltation (v13). God’s people are, however, lost in their own despondency (v14), believing that God has left them. So through a series of moving images, the prophet assures them that Yahweh has definitely not forgotten them (v15-18). Great expansion will be given to God’s people (v19-21) which could refer to the incoming of the Gentiles into God’s people. Great honour will come to Israel when the Gentiles come into the realisation that they are the main agents of the saving work of God (v22-23). The final verses assure Israel that God himself will defend them from their oppressors.
Chapter 50 Verses 1-3 state that Israel was banished for her sin. Then follows another prophetic insight into Yahweh’s anointed servant, and this speaks of the servant suffering and being vindicated (v4-9). But the final verses are a very severe warning that we must not live (walk) in the light of occult sorcery. This is a deliberate parallel to 8:18-22 and 47:9-13.
Chapter 51 From chapter 40 onwards, and indeed throughout the whole book, there has been a growing sense of crescendo. Up to this point, several different facets of the anointed servant have been described, but not until 50:4-9 was the subject of suffering introduced. While we sense it coming and wait for it, this chapter (and the first part of 52) serve as the pause before the storm. There are six sections each introduced by a leading imperative: listen (51:1, 51:4), hear (51:7), awake (51:9, 51:17, 52:1). 51:1-3 assures Israel that God will certainly work very powerfully for them, just as he did in the past. 51:4-6 states that God will work to establish his law, his salvation, his light and his righteousness to the ends of the earth. In 51:7-8, the Lord tells his people not to fear, and in 51:9-11, his people metaphorically call on Yahweh to do the very things the prophet has been foretelling and work a very great second exodus for his people. God responds with a word of assurance that his people must not fear their oppressors – he will act. 51:17-20 states that God’s people have borne the wrath of the Lord and none of her sons (her kings – Psalm 2) were able to lead her. God will pour out his wrath on his people’s oppressors (51:21-23).
Isaiah 52 This chapter starts with the sixth appeal to listen and prepare for what the Lord is about to do: Jerusalem will be redeemed (52:1-3). We should note that in the past few chapters, the author has been employing the literary device of stanzas – an idea is propounded over 2 or three verses.
52:4-6 For two historical periods, God’s people have been oppressed by foreign powers (Egypt and then Assyria), with the result that God’s name has been mocked. But God is about to act, and when deliverance comes, his people will know for certain that he predicted it because of this prophecy.
52:7-10 These verses herald the very great intervention of God that he is about to work. They are some of the most majestic verses of faith-filled praise in the Bible. Once again, they speak out the exuberant joy that Isaiah simply cannot contain within himself. Because the conviction in the Spirit is so certain, Isaiah uses the prophetic technique of writing in the past tense what God will do in the future (52:9). God’s decisive intervention and salvation will be seen by every nation on earth – which is why Jesus said that the end cannot come until the gospel has been preached to all nations (Matthew 24:14).
52:11-12 These verses describe Israel’s future departure from Babylon, which will not be like the urgent rush at night time out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. They continue to describe the second exodus that God is going to work for his people (48:20f). But this exodus is far more than a geographical one; it involves leaving the polluted, unclean sinfulness of the Babylonian culture.
52:13-15 This stanza opens the very greatest prophecy in the Old Testament, and whose spirit does not leap at the sound of these words. Here begins the titanic prophecy to which the entire book of Isaiah has been driving. The servant is specifically an individual. Although he is wise, what happens to him will shock, appal and silence everyone, for despite their blindness and inability to hear (6:9-10), they will see and understand perfectly through what happens to him. The effect will be worldwide, and the nations will be stunned into utter silence as they are cleansed and purified by his blood – his death.
53:1 – 3 From a human perspective, he was vulnerable, despised and he suffered; there was nothing particularly impressive about God’s servant.
53:4 – 6 This middle stanza contains the greatest words in Isaiah, and arguably the Old Testament. A literary structural study demonstrates that this is the pinnacle of Isaiah. Although it appeared that the servant was being punished for his own sin, in fact he was bearing the sin of the whole nation. He went through punishment so peace could come to all Israel. He bore and carried the iniquity ‘of us all’. These verses are profoundly and absolutely substitutionary, not in the sense that the moral guilt was passed to an innocent person, but in the sense that he represented, took responsibility for, and carried on his own the guilt of all God’s people. Our Saviour went ahead of us and passed through the punishment for all Israel and humanity because he is Israel’s true King and he could see what we could not see.
53:7-9 These verses describe the death of the Servant. They elaborate the words ‘smitten…afflicted…pierced…crushed…and punishment’ in v4 and v5.
53:10-12 This stanza elaborates on the substitutionary statements of v4-6 by describing the truths of ‘guilt offering, justification, intercession’. The theme of resurrection from death is stated, along with the satisfaction of a work completed well.
Chapter 54 Isaiah’s only possible exhortation is to ‘sing’, as with 42:10, 44:23, 49:13, as he ‘sings his head off’ in excitement at the prospect of all that Yahweh will achieve.
54:2-3 God’s people will grow and dispossess nations – not with violent means, but through proclaiming and living the message of the Servant.
54:4-8 So Israel, ‘do not be afraid’, because Yahweh is going to intervene and comfort and restore his people.
54:9-10 The promise of a new covenant of peace. See Ephesians 2:14-18.
11-17 Here, Isaiah speaks to comfort God’s people. Despite the ongoing distress of being overrun by Assyria and Babylon and failing so badly to be what the Lord wants his people to be, God is going to act and the effect and results of the Servant’s work will bring a level of blessing that far surpasses anything that Israel has so far experienced.
Chapter 55 continues describing both the results of the Servant’s achievements for Israel, as well as prophetically instructing Israel as to how to respond. Many of the themes that have run through the fourth section are brought to a crescendo in this chapter. The stanza pattern continues with clear imperatives:
V1-3 begins with the invitation to come and participate in a feast of blessings established in a new covenant which has the characteristics of the Davidic covenant.
V4-5 enjoin God’s people to see what he has done, because it will affect the world.
V6-11 begin with the imperative to seek the Lord. God is working and although his plans and ways are beyond our ability to understand, we must trust that he will work his purposes out.
V12-13 The glorious results of the new covenant will be everlasting peace and joy.
Section 5 Chapters 56 – 66 Present difficulties; the future of Zion
Exhortations: the heart of religion (56-59)
Practice essential religion (56:1-8)
God’s accusation against the wicked (56:9-57:21)
True fasting and Sabbath keeping (Chapter 58)
Summary of Israel’s situation (59: 1-15b)
God, the redeemer, comes (59:15b-21)
The glory of Zion and the future (60-66)
Celebration of the salvation brought by the redeemer (Chapter 60)
The redeemer speaks (Chapter 61)
Isaiah describes the high future for God’s people (Chapter 62)
Further descriptions of the Saviour’s great work (63:1-6)
Praise, prayer and celebration (63:7 – 64:12)
Isaiah explains God’s interventions (65:1-16)
The new heaven and new earth: Isaiah 2:1-5 fulfilled (65:17 – 66:24)
Overview of section 5:
The perspective of this final section is not immediately discernible because the first part, chapters 56-59:15, describes the practice of religion before the messiah comes, while the remainder describes and celebrates the messiah’s work of redemption and salvation. In addition, the progression from the first part into the second is seamless; it is the very failure of God’s people in the first four chapters that promotes the messiah’s intervention at the end of chapter 59 which leads directly into the description of his redemption which affects the world and humanity. So, in one sense, this last section is a mini version, a summary, of the whole book, while the perspective goes beyond what has been written so far and looks into the ultimate future where the new heavens and new earth come into being.
Chapter 56 Having described the Servant and all he will accomplish (in section 4), the prophet now ‘returns’ to the present (his own living situation) and this final section speaks to God’s people as they wait for the coming of the Servant. There are strong parallels between chapters 56-59 and Isaiah 1:2-2:5.
56:1-8 appeals for justice and the observance of the Law – especially the Sabbath – while God’s people wait for God to intervene (v2). The prophet assures the foreigner and the Eunuch that, despite their prohibition from the inner and second Temple courts, their sacrifices will be accepted. This points towards their ultimate acceptance by Yahweh.
56:9 – 57:2 The prophet speaks of the utter blindness of Israel’s spiritual leaders (the watchmen – their priests and prophets). They are drunk, mute and ignorant.
57:3-13 A strong criticism of Israel’s pursuit of idolatry.
57:14-21 A message of encouragement and hope for those who are humble and sincerely seek God. God will revive, restore them and give them peace. But the wicked will have no peace.
58:1-12 Fasting – how to practice fasting well
58:13-14 Sabbath – how to practice ‘sabbath’ well
Chapter 59 in itself serves as a short summary of Israel’s situation and redemption.
V1-8 state that Israel’s sin has distanced God’s people from him, although we should be careful to add that God himself is not distanced from them. There is a long catalogue of Israel’s faults which have brought them to a ‘lost’ place where there is no peace.
V9-15a describe the loss of justice, their blindness, the revolt, the lack of truth. Israel acknowledges (v12) and confesses their sin.
V15b-21 describe the Lord’s response which is directed towards injustice, his intervention, redemption (v20), and the new covenant of the word and the Spirit (v21).
Chapter 60 Once again, Isaiah’s spirit exalts in joyful praise and celebration at what Yahweh will achieve when he comes to redeem (59:20-21). This chapter describes different cameos of the salvation that the redeemer will establish.
V1-3 Great light is coming to God’s people; parallel to 9:2-7.
V4-7 The wonderful effect of redemption is described in terms of abundance in the old covenant context.
V8-9 describe the return of God’s people from the nations to their homeland.
V10-12 It will be the foreigners, even the kings who will come to rebuild Zion.
V13-14 When God’s people are re-established in their homeland, their enemies and oppressors will bring abundance to them.
V15-21 continue to describe the astonishing features of blessing that will come to God’s people as a result of the redemption worked by the Lord (59:20-21).
Chapter 61 In this magisterial chapter the redemeer, (who in this section was first introduced in 59:20-21) now speaks. Chapter 60 has already described in joyful and overflowing terms many of the different features resulting from this redemption, but now we hear directly from the redeemer himself. The chapter resonates with all the key features of the messianic era and reign: the prisoners are released, the broken-hearted are healed, the captives are freed (25:7-8, 35:5-6, 42:7, 49:9). Instead of sin and guilt and religious failure, there is now a double blessing where God’s redeemed are all priests, and the dominant messianic themes of everlasting covenant (42:6, 49:8, 55:3), the empowerment of the Spirit (11:2, 42:1) and its overflow affecting all humanity (2:2, 9:7, 11:9, 49:6, 49:22, 54:3, 55:5) are celebrated. Instead of a great king who failed (36-39), there is a servant King who is eternally righteous and victorious.
V1-3 These wonderful words are the words of the redeemer himself (59:20-21), which exactly explains why Jesus read them at the inauguration of his ministry in Luke 4:16-21. (One wonders if any other passage on Old Testament scripture would have better fitted that occasion than these very words.) Isaiah’s prophecy focuses (unsurprisingly) on the social effects of the redeemer’s work: justice for the poor and the captives, freedom, jubilee, joy.
V4-7 continue the restoration themes already described in chapter. There will be civil restoration (v4), the help of foreigners (v5), and God’s people will be priests before him (v6, see 1 Peter 2:9), and blessing (v7).
V8-9 Here, the prophet returns to prophesying the very voice of God. God himself will establish a new covenant that will differentiate God’s people from the nations.
V10-11 This stanza is a response to all that God himself has spoken in this chapter. Once again, Isaiah verbalises the very great joy and celebration in the hearts of all who understand the riches that are coming: salvation, righteousness and praise to God.
Chapter 62 This chapter continues the high prophetic description of God’s future for his people. The prophet follows his usual practice of describing this future, and how it will be established, by articulating different features in successive stanzas.
V1-5 God states that he will not stop working until the righteousness of God’s people shines out like a blazing torch so that all the nations see it. God’s people will be truly glorious and this is described in terms of new name, of being like an exceptionally well crafted work of art, of being a delight that the greatest people commit themselves to, and something that God himself rejoices over.
V6-7 is an exhortation to intercessors to pray day and night for God to fulfil his purposes expressed in v1-5.
V8-9 address the way that foreigners have taken away the food that God’s people worked for.
V10 exhorts God’s people to do everything in their power to prepare for God’s work so that he fulfils the very things he has been speaking about.
V11-12 Majestic verses. The Saviour is coming! The result of his saving work will be that God’s people are holy, redeemed and ‘sought after’.
Chapter 63 continues the same literary strategy with three more stanzas, each describing facets and perspectives of the work of the Saviour (specifically mentioned in 62:11).
V1-6 This prophetic passages seems to describe the atoning work of the Saviour (62:11, and the servant passages of 52-53) in terms of ‘propitiation’. Words such as ‘righteousness’, ‘wrath’, ‘treading the winepress’, ‘blood splattered’, ‘vengeance’, ‘redemption’ and ‘working salvation’ are used – in fact, the passage is replete with images and words of atonement. This metaphor as a theory of atonement is not popular today, these concepts are often (wrongly) considered to be pagan. But the Biblical perspective on propitiation is anything but pagan.
63:7 – 64:12 is a prayer for God to come and help his people. It is a deep cry in response to the high prophetic promises of the past four chapters. Israel’s situation is actually desperate – the Temple is in ruins (63:18, 64:11) and it seems that the Lord himself causes his people to wander from him (63:17).
V7-14 have the tone of a psalm that reflects on the nation’s past – specifically the first exodus – such as Psalms 106 and 107, but as such it is a psalm that is full of Isaianic perspectives and concepts. In this stanza, the prophet both reflects on God’s compassionate mercy, but also his punishment of their sin (v10). The Saviour is mentioned (v8) and his redeeming work (v9) and the Holy Spirit is mentioned three times.
V15-19 voice a cry from Israel’s heart for God to come and intervene. The people acknowledge their failing and their inability to follow God. They appeal to their Father for his intervening redeeming help.
64:1-12 continues the cry from the heart of God’s people. It is a cry for God to intervene. His people are completely helpless until he does intervene because they are trapped in spiritual bankruptcy because of their ‘many sins’ (64:7). The prophet holds onto the truth that God is their Father (v8) and he appeals for the Lord to intervene (v12).
Chapter 65 begins with God’s response to his people’s desperate cry for help (63:8 – 64:12). Actually, God both did and does intervene in the way the writer longs for, but it was those who were not looking who found him, while those who persisted in the pursuit of idols were like a nasty bad odour (v1-5).
V6-7 Idolatry will be punished. If you worship a demon, you get a demon (Revelation 9:13-21).
V8-10 Nevertheless there are some Jews who will come into salvation and inherit the blessings (achieved by the saviour).
V11-12 But in contrast, those who disobeyed the call of the Lord will be punished. Those who chose not to listen, and chose evil instead will be destined to death.
V13-15 There will be a clear division. My servants will be abundantly blessed and will receive a new name (John 17:11), but those who rebelled will be punished with death.
Isaiah 65:17 – 66:24 These final sections speak of a new heaven and earth where the bold prophecy of 2:1-5 is finally established. They reflect on a collection of themes and seem to come from the heart of the Father himself. The Father who creates (64:8), who reveals (65:1), who rewards his servants (65:13f), who has in plan this new heaven and earth (65:17f) where even the memory of evil will be gone for ever (65:17), where the humble family of servants (65:13, 66:14) live with God. Where prayers are instantly answered (65:24), where the initiatives of God are born in a moment (66:7). Where the promises of 2:2 and 11:9 are the reality of existence, and where the victorious life of God flows out to all nations (66:19f). The book closes with a sense of peace, of victory perfectly won, finished, complete and at rest.
Question 1 -
Isaiah’s vision of God’s transcendence, holiness and sovereignty (chapter 6) makes Isaiah trust God even when the Assyrian armies are surrounding Jerusalem (chapters 36-38), and this was the root of his exhortation ‘in quietness and trust is your strength’ (30:15) which summarises the first 39 chapters of the book. In the face of today’s challenges of atheistic secularism, imperialistic expansionism and totalitarian liberalism, what is the Christian faith rooted in?
Question 2 -
Should we expect all nations to become Christian (2:2-3, 11:9, 60:3, 66:20)?
Question 3 -
Jesus understood his own ministry and messiahship from what Isaiah had written, but he warned that in the last days many false “messiahs” would come and deceive people (Matthew 24:23-24). What features identify Jesus’ messiahship and distinguish him from all false messiahs?