“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw . . . “ – Isaiah 2:1.
Isaiah is one of the most important and influential books of our Bible. It has great significance, not just to the Jews of the past and of today, but also to those of us who belong to the Body of Christ. I want to present a brief summary to more-or-less wet your appetite for this awesome book.
Isaiah was truly a major prophet—his prophecy is major in size and major in significance. Best of all, it is a book that gives us major insights into the Person and Work of Christ. No wonder some have suggested the alternative title ‘The Gospel According to Isaiah’ and have christened him ‘the evangelical prophet’.
Now here are a couple of interesting facts about this wonderful book:
It is striking that the book’s structure parallels that of the whole Bible itself, being divided into sixty-six chapters and having a clear break between the first thirty-nine chapters and the last twenty-seven. The dominant note of judgement in the first part, with grace typifying the second section, means that we can think of Isaiah as a kind of mini-Bible.
As to Isaiah, himself, his ministry came at a most significant time for the people of Judah. Despite the relative prosperity of Uzziah’s reign, a new world power was in the ascendancy: the Assyrians were coming! As a result, the Northern Kingdom would be going into exile. But the Assyrians’ advance didn’t end there. They continued south into Judah, right up to the walls of Jerusalem. A wonderful deliverance followed, only for a new superpower to appear on the horizon—the Babylonians! They would succeed where the Assyrians failed, and Judah would follow their neighbors into captivity. But Isaiah was able to reassure his hearers that God’s people would one day return to their land. Even that, though, would not be the end of the story. Isaiah’s vision went well beyond the next couple of centuries. As we well know now, there is an ultimate deliverance by an ultimate Deliverer that he tells us about. That story really does have a happy-ever-after ending, and it’s one that we can all be part of.
Within his prophecy Isaiah includes accounts of two defining moments in Judah’s history. They take place in the two key reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah. At both points the question is the same: Will the king trust God? Ahaz won’t. Faced with an alliance between Syria and Ephraim, he looks for help not to the Lord, but to Assyria. This help never comes. We know from 2 Chronicles that he subsequently looked to the gods of the kings of Syria for help. That help never materialized either.
We are told that “in the time of his distress King Ahaz became increasingly unfaithful to the LORD.” – 2 Chronicles 28:22. However, with Hezekiah it is, thankfully, a different story. Faced not with an alliance but an invasion, in the day of his distress (Isaiah 37:3) he turns to the Lord in prayer. Ahaz is offered a sign, only for him to refuse it. Hezekiah asks for a sign (2 Kings 20:8) that is granted. The contrast could not be clearer. One trusts, the other doesn’t. One is helped, the other isn’t. Isaiah wants us to follow in Hezekiah’s footsteps, not Ahaz’s.
Throughout the book, there are occasional glimpses into the distant future. What Isaiah sees is a kingdom that surpasses even that of David and Solomon. More importantly, he catches sight of the Ruler of this remarkable kingdom. We are given some tantalizing but puzzling facts about this figure. How can he be called, “Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6)? How can there be “no end” to his kingdom (Isaiah 9:7)? How will he “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth” (Isaiah 11:4)? Then there is the “servant” he keeps mentioning in the latter part of the book. How will he “bring forth justice to the Gentiles [nations]” (Isaiah 42:1)? How could he have been named by the Lord before birth (Isaiah 49:1)? Why would he give his “cheeks to those who plucked out His beard” (Isaiah 50:6)? Why would he be “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5)? A king and a servant: without the New Testament, who would ever have guessed they were one and the same person?
There are significant difficulties that have to be faced in trying to understand Isaiah’s prophecy. Peter tells us that the prophets “inquired and searched carefully . . . searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating.” – 1 Peter 1:10–11. If they didn’t know, it’s hardly surprising if we struggle to know whom a particular passage applies to, or when in history a certain section was to be fulfilled.
However, understanding Isaiah becomes significantly easier with a New Testament to consult. We can be reassured that we are on the right track if, when we come to a verse quoted in the New Testament, our understanding of it fits with the interpretation given there.
Isaiah is a book of convicting and comforting words that we need to hear every bit as much as did its original audience. The Lord Jesus took up the words of Isaiah to lament the state of the people of God in his day, and sadly we could do the same. Jesus saw outward religious observance but all too little heartfelt obedience. We might not be tempted to trust other nations’ ‘gods’, but military strength and financial security sum up the concerns of nations large and small. We are constantly being exhorted to believe in ourselves and to trust in our own wisdom, goodness, feelings and abilities. The invitation to worship at the shrine of ‘self’ is everywhere. It is all too easy for our approach to the Christian life and the local church to become self-centered and self-serving. A vision like Isaiah’s can shake us out of our complacency, fixing our eyes on the glory of Christ and restoring the Lord to his rightful place in our lives.