I didn’t know what to expect when reading Isaiah. A few chapters in, I was asking myself how people ever made sense of prophecy. For example, Isaiah 7:14 tells of a virgin giving birth to a son, which Matthew 1:23 points out as a prophecy fulfilled in Christ. However, Isaiah 7 is about Ahaz, king of Judah and it would seem that the prophecy is something that should come into fruition in Ahaz’s lifetime. In the rest of the book, there are oracles that swing from Isaiah’s present-day to “that day” all within the space of a few verses: for example, in chapter 16, verse 5 is about the coming Messiah’s reign, and verse 14 is about an event 3 years away. My mind kept going back to 1 Peter 1:10-12. The prophet was even more clueless than I am, but thank God he faithfully wrote it down for us future generations!
Bible scholars (or at least the ones I consulted) divide the book of Isaiah in 3 parts:
- Chapters 1-35, composed of prophecy and poetry. This portion has more doom than hope in it.
- Chapters 36-39, made up of a historical recounting of the siege of Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah
- Chapters 40-66, more prophecy and poetry with a greater accent on hope than on doom.
Additionally, there are three main characters that the prophetic bits look forward to: the King (1-37), the Suffering Servant (38-55) and the Anointed Conqueror (56-66). God says of each of these three individuals that He will put His Spirit on them (Isaiah 11:2, 42:1, 59:21). We know what Isaiah didn’t, namely that these three people are actually one Person.
What about the themes in Isaiah? They can be summarised as follows:
- Your trust belongs in God alone
- God will judge (e.g. chapters 13-27)
- God will save and forgive (e.g. chapters 40-42)
- God is greater than idols (e.g. chapters 40-49)
- We are awaiting Messiah’s promised reign (e.g. chapters 56-61)
Now for my miscellaneous observations. Did Isaiah and his readers scratch their heads on passages like 19:24-25? What should we make of 45:1? Cyrus, a pagan ruler yet to be born, is God’s anointed?? Isn’t 39:8 really sad and selfish? And don’t we also do that sometimes? Does 25:6-9 describe the Wedding Supper of the Lamb in Revelation?
I shall close this reflection on Isaiah with a sort-of rant. Over a decade ago, I heard Isaiah 6:1 explained as follows: “Sometimes your Uzziah has to die before you can see the Lord.” The implication was that Uzziah had been a sort of hindrance to Isaiah’s ability to receive from God. I heard it over and over, never questioning its validity. Some time in the past year or year and a half, I was curious to find out exactly what kind of king Uzziah had been. Turns out he was one of the good guys, even though later in life he became proud. However, his sin was more of a personal one, rather than one of leading the nation into idolatry and worse, so how it would affect Isaiah was doubtful in my mind. As I thought on it, I realised that if a wicked king was detrimental to God’s prophet, then surely Elijah wouldn’t have been around during Ahab’s reign to trouble him.
Months later, in reading Nehemiah, I came across the same formula of using a king’s reign to place an event in time (Neh 1:1. 2:1). Isaiah uses it again in 14:28 and 36:1, as do the writers of 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles in various places. Uzziah had reigned 52 years, and the year he died must have been memorable for all who were alive then, Isaiah included. Incidentally, the Bereans were commended for their going to check for themselves from the Scriptures to see if what the apostle Paul was telling them was true. It is unfortunate that this skill is lacking in many today…
Sources: FBC Durham, Capitol Hill Baptist Church