Isaiah: The Poet of Salvation
The Book of Isaiah the prophet is the longest book in the Bible except for the entire collection of the Psalms. It is also arguably the most beautifully poetic book apart from the Psalms. In one inspiring passage after another, the prophet faithfully pronounces God’s judgment on Israel along with His great love and desire to redeem. Moreover, these themes sweep across all ages, past, present and future. Many of the most striking promises of a definitive redemption are in the book of Isaiah—most notably the famous suffering servant of chapters 50 through 53.
The book is precisely situated in history, for Isaiah was of the noble class, and he exercised considerable influence during the reign of King Hezekiah. Chapters 36 though 39 provide this historical context. The period is the latter part of the eighth century before Christ, and the immediate threat comes from the Assyrians, but again the prophetic utterances frequently conflate all times into one. The alternation between God’s disgust with Israel and His promises of a glorious future for those who are faithful is clearly an intended literary rhythm. It is constant throughout the book.
Thus in the first chapter, Isaiah prophesies: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (1:18). And already in chapter 2, the universal reign of God is proclaimed: “He shall judge between the nations…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and…neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). Yet God pronounces a great judgment against His people in chapter 3. Similarly, in the vineyard parable of chapter 5, He proclaims:
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste….
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are his pleasant planting;
And he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry! [5:5-7]
Again, this mixture of judgment and punishment, the desire of God to redeem, and the promise of a glorious future can be illustrated from a wide variety of passages. In chapter 6, we have a vision of God destroying Israel except for a stump, yet in chapter 11:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. [11:1-3]
A Messianic Book
As far as the hazy future is concerned, Isaiah is full of Messianic prophesies. When Ahaz would not trust in God, and so would not ask for a sign, God says the only sign He will give will be Immanuel, born of a virgin (7:14). Moreover, the first half of chapter 9 refers to the Messianic reign:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
Upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it
With justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. [9:6-7]
In Chapter 40, we get the famous “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” followed by the foretelling of John the Baptist to make straight the way of the LORD (40:1-5). And in Chapter 42 we find fresh references to the Messianic servant of God:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
he will bring forth justice to the nations…
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. [42:1-3]
Then, in chapters 50 through 53, we are given the details of the suffering servant. Chapter 53 is the clearest foretelling of the redeemer in all of Scripture: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” We should reread this whole chapter frequently!
We also learn that God’s salvation will be universal. The LORD says that all who keep His commandments will receive an everlasting name; eunuchs and foreigners will “in my house and within my walls” receive “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters” (56:5). Therefore, in chapter 61, we find one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture for the Christian:
The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God. [61:1-2]
But punishment as well
As we see above, even the most comforting passages can include the threat of judgment for those who do not respond to the LORD’s appeals. God repeatedly proclaims his complete power and authority over all things, warning that there is no salvation apart from Him: Idols cannot save. Israel has sinned, and punishment is inescapable without repentance (see, for example, chapters 41—46). In terms of a single teaching point, in fact, it is clear that the primary lesson of Isaiah is: “I am the LORD. There is no other.”
This is proclaimed no fewer than six times in chapters 45 and 46, or roughly as often as the point is made in a similar way throughout all the rest of the Bible.
The Book contains specific oracles against many of the historic powers of that period (see chapters 15—24), but also general condemnations of all who refuse to turn to the LORD and be saved. The condemnation of idolatry in chapter 57 could be aimed directly at us today: “When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away” (v. 13). The LORD also condemns those for whom the will of God is dismissed as mere rules, “precept upon precept and line upon line” (proclaimed twice, cf. 28:10 and 28:13).
With remarkable human insight, Isaiah denounces in the name of the LORD all whose “hearts are far from me”, asserting with remarkable prescience (considering our situation today) that “their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote” (29:13). The prophetic denunciations are phrased to shake not only historical Israel but all of us out of moral and spiritual idiocy, so that we can recognize what it means—in comparison with everything else—when God says “I am the LORD.” For example, consider this striking passage which so justly describes the folly of human self-esteem in comparison with God:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
Who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing….
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him?
says the Holy One. [40:21-25]
Again, the alternation between condemnation and redemption, punishment and reward, previous times and future times: all of this is dramatically interwoven throughout the book. There is so much truth-laden dramatic poetry here that it could hardly have come from a source less than the Creator of all. But I will close with just one final special example, from the last chapter of the book:
Before she was in labor she gave birth;
Before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son.
Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such a thing?
Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her sons.
Shall I bring to the birth and not cause to bring forth? Says the LORD;
Shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb? Says your God. [66:7-9]
Everything is here: Mary, Christ, Israel, the Church. And if we ask what ties it all together, I think we would have to say that the Book of Isaiah is about the LORD’s power to save—and that He alone has this power. He alone is the creator and mover of all things; He alone can destroy; He alone can restore; He alone can make all things new. Perhaps this is why the book closes with a vision of the new heavens and the new earth.
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