Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Isaiah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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