Isaiah

Promising good news to the poor, a virgin birth, and the downfall of Babylon, the prophet Isaiah has left a powerful legacy for Jews and Christians. But who was that prophet? And was there just one Isaiah?

The book of Isaiah is traditionally attributed to the prophet Isaiah ben Amoz (in the latter half of the 8th century BCE), from whom it takes its name. In Hebrew, the name means ‘God (Yah) saves.’

The book presents Isaiah’s ‘vision . . . about Judah and Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 1:1). The book is complete in itself, but includes a wide range of different material. The larger part consists of poetry which expresses God’s speech (oracles) through the prophet. The central theme is the city of Jerusalem.

Date and authorship

The book is unlikely to have been written by the prophet Isaiah. Instead, most scholars see it as the work of several authors, written over a long period of time.

Scholars differentiate between ‘pre-exilic texts,’ i.e., material which was composed before Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Neo-Babylonians and when a significant part of its population was exiled to Babylon. Later texts are ‘post-monarchic’ in the sense that they are written at the time when Judah was no longer an independent kingdom.

It was commonplace in 20th-century biblical scholarship to make more forceful divisions between the parts of Isaiah. For this reason, commentators have often referred to First, Second (or Deutero-) and even Third (or Trito-) Isaiah, corresponding to chapters 1–39, 40–55, and 56–66, respectively. More recently scholars have given attention to the final form of the book, noting that some passages in the first part also concern Babylon, although it does not become the dominant setting until chapter 40.

Interpretation

Most scholars maintain that Isaiah 6–8 contains the earliest texts in the book. Chapter 6 opens with a first person description where Isaiah tells the readers how he finds himself in the heavenly court where YHWH (God) calls him to be a prophet. Likewise, chapter 8 features the prophet’s description of God’s communication to him about his family and about the future of Judah. The rest of Isaiah 1–11 consists of a collection of words spoken by God (‘oracles’), via the prophet, to the people of Judah. Many of these texts probably also stem from the prophet Isaiah. These oracles commonly concern God’s judgement upon his people due to their lack of social justice (e.g., Isaiah 3:1-15) and their ostentatious wealth (e.g., Isaiah 3:16–4:1). Other oracles promise a new and different future where peace and justice will reign (e.g., Isaiah 9:1-7).

Isaiah 13–23 is devoted to what is often called ‘oracles against the nations,’ i.e., God’s declarations (of doom) against Judah’s neighbouring states. For example, chapters 13–14 and 21 predict the downfall of Babylon, one of the superpowers of the ancient world. Other chapters are concerned with smaller nations in Judah’s immediate surroundings. The next section (Isaiah 24–27) is often called ‘the Isaiah Apocalypse,’ a name inspired by its content. These four chapters describe God as acting on a cosmic level, and they declare that the whole universe is going to observe his deeds. Most scholars regard these chapters to be among the latest texts in the book of Isaiah.

The next six chapters (Isaiah 28–33) are held together by the fact that nearly all of them (with the exception of Isaiah 32) begin with the word ‘woe.’ They interact with a wide range of topics that would have been of interest in the 8th century BCE, so many scholars argue that they were written by Isaiah ben Amoz who was active at that time.

Isaiah 34–35 is often called ‘the Little Apocalypse’—for the simple reason that it is shorter than Isaiah 24–27. Both sections share a universal scope and address ‘all people’ (Isaiah 34:1). These two chapters were probably written in the 6th century or later.

The passage of Isaiah 36–39 stand out insofar as it is mostly written in prose. It speaks of Isaiah in the third person and tells of the events before, during, and after the siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE by the Neo-Assyrian king Sennacherib. 2 Kings 18:13–20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32 tell of the same event. The three narratives draw from each other but it is unclear which of the three versions is oldest.

The style and content of the book of Isaiah changes in Isaiah 40:1. The reader is brought forward to a time when Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian armies and when many of its inhabitants have been deported. This change has led scholars to date Isaiah 40–55 to a time after 586 BCE. In addition, as Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1 mention the Persian king Cyrus by name, these passages are unlikely to be much older than 539 BCE which was when Cyrus defeated the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Chapters 40–55 speak of God’s imminent return to Jerusalem and they convey the hope that the city will be rebuilt and that the exiles will return to it.

In Isaiah 56:1, the readers find themselves again in a new situation. Chapters 56–66 criticize poor leadership, social injustice, the people’s sins, but they also speak of Jerusalem’s future glory. We hear the people of Judah complaining about their suffering and pleading with God to act on their behalf. In view of the topics addressed, it makes sense to date these chapters sometime between 520 BCE and 450 BCE, or possibly a little earlier or later.

As a whole, the book of Isaiah sees YHWH’s involvement in all of the community’s experiences good and bad. Parts also entertain a universal theology, seeing YHWH’s independent involvement with other nations. Justice is a major theme.

Reception history

The book of Isaiah has been very influential in the history of interpretation among both Jews and Christians.

The promise that the exiles can return to Jerusalem in Isaiah 40–55 has had significant impact upon Jewish tradition. In addition, the four so-called Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12) in the same chapters have often been understood as speaking about the suffering of the Jewish people, as well as pointing forward to a time when this suffering will be over.

In Christian tradition, the promise in Isaiah 7:14 that the young woman will bear a son who will be called ‘Emmanuel’ (a name that can be translated into English as ‘God is with us’), the promise in Isaiah 9:1-7 of a future child who will rule the world in peace, and the prediction in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that ‘God’s Servant’ will suffer because of the speakers’ sins, have all been understood to predict Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. The words of Isaiah feature prominently throughout the libretto of Handel’s Messiah which begins, “Comfort, Comfort ye my people” (Isaiah 40:1).

The closing verses of Isaiah 40 are used in liturgy remembering those who have died in war, particularly on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday: “they that wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint” (vv. 30-31).

Further reading

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah. 3 vols. AB 19, 19A, 19B. New York: Doubleday, 2000-2003.
Childs, Brevard S. The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.
Firth, David G., and H. G. M. Williamson, eds. Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches. Nottingham, England: Apollos; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009.
Goldingay, John. The Theology of the Book of Isaiah. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014.
Stromberg, Jacob. An Introduction to the Study of Isaiah. T&T Clark Approaches To Biblical Studies. London: T&T Clark International, 2011.