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Reconsidering Isaiah

Isaiah of Jerusalem is a towering figure. Known best for his prophetic book (Isa. 1:1; 13:1; 2 Chron. 32:32) and New Testament quotations of it (e.g. Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:2; Luke 3:4; John 1:23; 1 Pet. 1:24-25), he also wrote historical and biographical material (see 2 Chron. 26:22). He was a brilliant poet capable of composing Hebrew pieces that do work we generally assign solely to prose: narratives, essays, sermons, and parodies. His artistic and theological contributions are, as John Oswalt once told me, “bottomless.” Thus, as John Watts once suggested to me, Isaiah offers “endless creative possibilities.” Commentators can and have considered and reconsidered these contributions and possibilities productively for decades. This work should and likely will continue.

To continue with maximum effectiveness, however, some ground should be plowed in nearly-abandoned fields. Specifically, Isaiah’s prophetic nature, structure, and settings need attention. My two-volume Isaiah commentary seeks to make a small, horse-drawn contribution to that plowing.

Reconsidering Isaiah’s Structure

Isaiah wrote prophetic literature. This means his book criticizes current sin that betrays God’s past kindnesses, promises divine intervention in time and at the end of time to restore justice, shows God including his servants in his redemptive work, and reveals a future, final renewal of people and places. Israel, Judah, and David’s everlasting kingship are focal points in this message that includes the world’s peoples.

Isaiah’s structure reflects this prophetic genre. It emerges from the book’s seven movements from corrupted creation represented by tainted Jerusalem, to flawless new creation represented by spotless Zion, through God’s redeeming work that he shares with his people. These movements are as follows:1:1–4:6; 5:1–12:6; 13:1–27:13; 28:1–35:10; 36:1–56:8; 56:9–62:12; and 63:1–66:24. Returning to sin passages after soaring Zion texts is jarring. It is therefore good to know that the book always heads towards profoundly good news. The book is therefore gospel shaped. Indeed, Isaiah (and other books) introduced the term translated “gospel” to New Testament writers (see 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 60:6; and 61:1). Hopefully, the commentary’s analysis of Isaiah’s contents makes this structure plausible. One could reconsider and reshape into more cycles, but the path to Zion and new creation should remain a crucial end point.

The most obvious change to the majority of current commentaries is that chs. 39-40 do not constitute a major structural break. Rather, ch. 40 reflects the troubles and needed comfort that chs. 38-39 introduce in tandem with chs. 36-37. Isaiah 40:1 does not usher readers into the final years of the Babylonian Empire. This conclusion begins with structural observations, yet it requires some historical reconsiderations.

Reconsidering Isaiah’s Settings

Since Duhm’s 1892 commentary, multiple authorship of Isaiah has slowly virtually become scholarly orthodoxy. My commentary contends that Isaiah wrote the entire book during a long ministry (c. 745-680 B.C.) during the era of Assyrian dominance (c. 745–612 B.C.), and that he wrote accurately and imaginatively about the past and the future. Therefore, I agree with J.A. Alexander, E.J. Young, J.A. Motyer, and John Oswalt that the book comes from the individual 1:1 introduces, and that the book includes predictive prophecy. Unlike them, however, I do not think that Isaiah 40–66 almost solely addresses the post-587 B.C. period in Judah and Israel. Rather, I believe that focusing on the whole era of Assyrian supremacy, not just the parts leading up to the Sennacherib invasion of 701 B.C., yields fruitful possibilities for understanding the settings of passages usually considered post-exilic (e.g. Isaiah 24–27; 34–66). Therefore, I follow  the direction Hayes and Irvine take in their commentary on Isaiah 1–39, and G.V. Smith moves in his commentary on Isaiah 40–66, though with some different conclusions.

To ascertain potential Assyrian-era settings in Isaiah, I reconsidered Isaiah’s settings by utilizing biblical texts, English translations of primary materials from Assyria, Babylon, and other lands, and histories of those lands. I sought to present  Assyria’s complicated history with Babylon, Egypt, Elam, Judah, Israel, and other peoples in more detail than most commentaries.

I believe that Isaiah’s superscriptions and brief historical notations (1:1; 2:1; 6:1; 13:1; 14:28; 20:1-6; 36:1; 37:9; 38:1; 39:1; 52:4), strategically placed narrative segments (6:1–8:22; 20:1-6; 22:15-25; and 36:1–39:8), references to times when Babylon fell to Assyria or another nation (13:1-22; 21:1-10; 46:1–47:15), and references to Assyrian threats and incursions into Judah, Israel, and their region (1:2-9; 6:1–10:34; 15:1–17:14; 20:1-6; 36:1–37:38; 41:1-29; 52:4; 63:1-6) provide the book with a consecutive historical framework linked to Isaiah’s lifetime. This framework coincides with Isaiah’s prophetic plot. Reconsidering Isaiah may well lead to more Christ-formed discipleship. Click To Tweet

The famous references to Cyrus II in 44:28 and 45:1 are what they seem to be in context: startling early seventh-century B.C. statements about a person from the household of an Assyrian vassal. Thus, these two Cyrus texts parallel passages that feature the coming son from David’s household (e.g. 11:1-16; 42:1-13). Both households have a future prominent son. One will rule part of the earth for a while. The other will rule the whole earth forever. Isaiah predicts these things well before the respective kings’ births. Again, the analysis of contents will hopefully help make this case.

It is important to recall that in Isaiah’s day, Israel and Judah were separate political entities that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve promise Yahweh will reunite. After they separated when Solomon died in c. 930 B.C., Yahweh sent prophets to both Israel (e.g. Hosea and Amos) and Judah (e.g. Isaiah and Jeremiah) to effect repentance as time passed and covenant infidelity grew. Both nations faced exiles due to stubborn sin.

Israel suffered a series of exiles (c. 732, 722, 720, 713–711, 701, and 670 B.C.) before Judah experienced their own in c. 701, 605, 597, 587, and 582 B.C. Thus, there was not just one exile (or return) for Israel or Judah. Scholars tend to emphasize the fall of Samaria in 722 and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 to the exclusion of all other instances of exile. I have done so in the past. Some refer to the exile, or the Babylonian exile, as if there were only one. Assyria took exiles from both nations in 701 B.C., a fact that needs more attention. Reconsidering the use of exile in Isaiah requires avoiding automatically plugging in one particular Babylonian exile every time the concept appears.

Israel and Judah were never empty, so residents and exiles alike needed Yahweh’s word. Yahweh promised return, repopulation, and reuniting through what Jeremiah called the “new covenant” (Jer. 30:1–31:40), which Isaiah and Ezekiel call the “everlasting covenant” (Isa. 55; 56:4-5; 61:8; Ezek. 16:60; 37:26), or the “covenant of peace” (Ezek. 34:25; 37:26). In each of these prophets, the Davidic covenant is central to the reuniting and international ministry of God’s people. Isaiah presents several clear messianic promises. The New Testament then cites these passages contextually and historically.

Given these shared components of prophetic writing, it is understandable for Isaiah to focus on Israel in 40:27–49:13, and then on Judah in 49:14–56:8. It is understandable for Isaiah to place the Davidic king and servant at the heart of the comforting future he offers in 11:1-12:6; 42:1-13; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; and 52:13–53:12. Thus, it is understandable for Jesus to declare a new covenant in his blood made with eleven Jews representing reunited Israel on the night before he died (Luke 22:20). It is not odd for Jesus to send Jews to the ends of the earth, which Isaiah calls ‘the coastlands’ (41:1; 66:18-21), with his gospel (Matt. 28:16-20; see Isa. 66:18-21).


Isaiah was a real person who lived and wrote for a long time under difficult circumstances. His wife and sons stood with him, and he made some disciples (see 8:1-22). History vindicated his perspective on reality. Jesus of Nazareth depended on Isaiah (see Luke 4:16-21) and fulfilled Isaiah’s loftiest expectations. Thus, reconsidering Isaiah may well lead to more Christ-formed discipleship. If so, Isaiah’s work goes on.

Paul R. House

Paul House (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) teaches Old Testament Theology and Hebrew at Beeson Divinity School. Previously, he taught at Taylor University, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and Wheaton College. He is the author of several books including The Unity of the TwelveOld Testament SurveyOld Testament TheologyLamentations, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision, and Isaiah: A Mentor Commentary. He has been pastor of churches in Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky. He and his wife, Heather, are members of Briarwood Presbyterian Church.

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