The day would come when the Israelites would be plunged into existential doubt. They would be in exile in Babylon, always conscious of their status as a defeated people, forced to watch the gods of their enemies paraded around in triumph. Was YHWH defeated or incapable of saving them, as their enemies alleged? What hope was left? Isaiah provided an answer.
Isaiah is the twenty-third book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible, it is part of the Nevi’im, the “Prophets.” Isaiah is also considered the first of the “major prophets.” The book of Isaiah is the collection of God’s visions and words to Isaiah son of Amoz from the days of Uzziah through Hezekiah kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1; ca. 750-690 BCE). The material found in Isaiah 40:1-66:24 is written for a future audience: the Jews in exile in Babylon and perhaps immediately after the return to Judah (ca. 540-510 BCE). Many in scholarship have suggested that the material was written by contemporary anonymous prophets spoken of as “Deutero-Isaiah” and/or “Trito-Isaiah”. Most such persons do not believe the historical Isaiah would have been informed of events in the future, yet Isaiah spoke of sealing up at least some of his prophecies in Isaiah 8:16, and the authors of the New Testament attributed material in Isaiah 40-66 to Isaiah (Matthew 3:3, John 12:38, Romans 10:16). Isaiah 40-66 present the word of YHWH through Isaiah affirming YHWH as the Creator God over all the nations, providing hope and confidence of Israel’s restoration, and speaking of a day when God will make all things new.
“Deutero-Isaiah” is Isaiah 40:1-55:13, prophecy directed to the Israelites in the Babylonian exile to maintain confidence in YHWH and His love for Israel. Isaiah begins this message with words of comfort and encouragement: God will provide a way back to Israel, God’s Word will remain forever, YHWH is God and there is no other (Isaiah 40:1-41:29). Isaiah 42:1-25 introduces the “servant”, a righteous person, and proclaims a new song of God regarding His victory over the idols. Jacob need not fear, for God will lead them out and leave the Babylonians homeless, doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:1-28). God has chosen Israel, will pour out His Spirit on His people, for there is no other God than YHWH, and Isaiah parodies the folly of idolatry (Isaiah 44:1-23). YHWH, the Creator, will raise up Cyrus the Persian as His anointed to do His will and restore Israel to its land; YHWH is Israel’s only Savior, for idols are nothing (Isaiah 44:24-45:25). The gods of Babylon will fall; Babylon will be humiliated; yet Israel must know that YHWH is God and salvation is in Zion, that the former things have passed and God is bringing forth new things (Isaiah 46:1-48:22). Isaiah then speaks in terms of the servant as well as expecting the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem and Judah, having been forgiven of sin and thus comforting Jerusalem/Zion (Isaiah 49:1-52:12). Isaiah then writes the famous servant song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 speaking of the servant dying for the people. God then speaks to Israel as a husband who seeks to be restored to his wife, comforting her, calling for Israel to draw near to Him while He is near, assured that His Word accomplishes His purposes (Isaiah 54:1-55:13).
“Trito-Isaiah” is Isaiah 56:1-66:24, prophecy perhaps directed to the exiles after they have returned to Jerusalem, establishing God’s purposes for restored Israel. YHWH expects justice to be done and will draw near foreigners and others who have been cast out (Isaiah 56:1-8). Israel’s sinful leaders and the remnants of idolatry are condemned; comfort is given to the contrite (Isaiah 56:9-57:21). YHWH would rather see righteousness and correction of injustice than fasting (Isaiah 58:1-14). Isaiah laments Israel’s sinfulness and glorifies YHWH’s redemption and salvation (Isaiah 59:1-21). Isaiah then speaks of the glory YHWH will give Israel: Israelites will return, foreigners will assist and be contrite, Israel will have great wealth, and the Jubilee will be decreed so as to rebuild, restore, and return in righteousness forevermore (Isaiah 60:1-62:12). YHWH will have His day of vengeance on Edom; Isaiah praises YHWH for His goodness despite Israel’s sinfulness, and prays to God for mercy, to pour out blessings upon His people who have turned back to Him (Isaiah 63:1-64:12). Isaiah’s prophecies conclude with a view to a new heavens and new earth in which many come to Jerusalem rejoicing in her, the people of God, both of Israel and among foreigners, will stand firm in righteousness, and all those who turn away from righteousness will receive due recompense (Isaiah 65:1-66:24).
Isaiah 40-66 feature some of the most profound, compelling, and encouraging messages in Scripture. YHWH as the Creator, the One True God, is powerfully affirmed; the work of His Anointed Servant to come is described; a beautiful future of redemption and restoration is envisioned. That the heart of the prophecies have been fulfilled cannot be denied: during the exile Babylon might have seemed ascendant and its claims true, yet Babylon and its gods fell and were abandoned, only to be uncovered much later from the sand by people who confessed YHWH the God of Israel as the Creator. God sent His Servant to die for His people; His Servant now reigns; we look forward to the day when the Servant will return and we can share in the resurrection of life in the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11-13, Revelation 21:1). Let us take strength and comfort from Isaiah’s prophecies and serve YHWH the Creator God and His Servant the Lord Jesus Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry