In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, our topic is the book of Isaiah and Pete shares five fun facts that biblical scholars like to talk about that will ruin your life—probably not. We’ll see. Join Pete as he explores the following questions:
- How are the Major/Minor Prophets divided according to Christian tradition?
- What impact did the Assyrian crisis have on Isaiah’s prophetic ministry?
- Why is understanding the context of the prophets key to understanding what they are trying to say?
- Are prophets in the future prediction business?
- Are there clear predictions of Jesus in the book of Isaiah?
- Why does Matthew cite a verse in Isaiah when talking about the birth of Jesus?
- How are throne names used in the Bible?
- Why is there a change in tone when you get to Isaiah 40?
- What are the servant songs in Isaiah?
- Do scholars agree on the necessity of a 3rd Isaiah?
- How did the sense of coherency and unity in the book of Isaiah come to be?
- How can you respect scripture by adding to it?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete Enns you can share.
- “Because the prophets were crisis managers – you know, dealing with the moment, the problem in front of them – prophets were not in the future prediction business. They gave God’s interpretation, let’s say, of the present moment.” @peteenns
- “How the New Testament writers and others apply the Old Testament, how they draw lines connecting the two, doesn’t tell us what the Old Testament writers were saying. It tells us how ancient words were appropriated by a later community of faith.” @peteenns
- “I believe we can actually appreciate the radical Christ-centeredness of the NT writers even more if we first understand the original purpose of an Old Testament passage in its time and place, and then how the New Testament expanded that meaning to now include Jesus.” @peteenns
- “When the editors brought together what we call 1st and 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, they weren’t ‘adding to sacred scripture.’ They were just continuing to tell their story of a people once united, now exiled, and looking to God to give them a future.” @peteenns
- “Isaiah has a context and he is speaking out of it and into it. Getting this is foundational, not just for understanding Isaiah, but really for understanding the nature of biblical prophets as a whole.” @peteenns
- “Much of the book of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah himself, but much else comes to us from this later community who valued Isaiah’s words enough to add to them, to update and expand them, to hear what God is saying to them at a different time and place.” @peteenns
- “Ancient Israelites and later Jews did not think of the sacred tradition as being protected under glass. It continued to grow because they believed God was still active in THEIR time, addressing THEIR concerns, even if the prophets weren’t around anymore.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World
- Book: The Bible Tells Me So
- Book: The Evolution of Adam
- Book: How the Bible Actually Works
- Book: Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
- Book: Inspiration and Incarnation
- Study Bible: The Jewish Study Bible
- Study Bible: The New Interpreters Study Bible
- Study Bible: Harper Collins Study Bible
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the Internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hey folks, welcome to this episode of the podcast, and today’s topic is the Book of Isaiah and five fun facts that biblical scholars like to talk about that will ruin your life. Probably not. Yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see how this goes, okay?
So, to begin, let’s get right into this, shall we? Here is my typical disclaimer: There’s a lot more to this book, the Book of Isaiah, than what we’re going to talk about here. Isaiah is one of the core books of the Hebrew Bible. It’s a masterpiece, simply from a literary point of view and in places its theology, it just, it’s beautiful. It just soars. And it’s a big book with a lot of interlocking and moving parts, some of which we’ll look at, but by no means all. You know, we could do a series on Isaiah, and it would take, you know, 10 to 20 episodes and we’d still be skimming the surface. Of course, I’m going to try to cram in a lot in just one episode, but all I want to do is just touch on a few things that scholars talk about that may be of interest to you or help orient you to the book as a whole, to give the big picture and maybe dispel some assumptions, okay? That’s the deal.
So, first fun fact is this, ready? This will blow your mind. The Book of Isaiah is grouped among the Major Prophets of the Christian canon. Alright, that’s obvious, I know. It’s not ruining your life, but just give me a minute here. The other Major Prophets are Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and they are so called, probably simply on the basis of their length compared to the 12 Minor Prophets, which are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Now, just a quick side note here, this major/minor distinction is Christian and not Jewish. Judaism divides the canon differently, and the Major/Minor Prophets are all together under the title “Latter Prophets” except for Lamentations and Daniel, which are found in another section of the Jewish canon called “The Writings”.
Now, speaking of Lamentations, it’s a mere five chapters long, but it’s grouped in the Christian Bible with the Major Prophets. Well, why? Well, because it was thought to have been written by Jeremiah and maybe so, but who knows? It certainly sounds like him. Now, regarding Daniel, it is included in the Major Prophets, even though it’s only 12 chapters long. While Hosea, a Minor Prophet, is fourteen chapters long. And so, to quote Mike LaFontaine, “Hey, wha’ happened?” Bonus points if you get the movie reference, email us. Anyway, Daniel may have fewer chapters than Hosea, but at about 10,000 words it’s actually a bit more than, well, twice as many words as Hosea. See, you have to count the words, that’s my point, and count them in Hebrew, not English. Can’t count chapters because chapters are sort of arbitrary, right?
So, this brings us back to the Book of Isaiah. It’s the first of the Major Prophets and the longest prophetic book in terms of chapters (66), but the longest prophetic book is actually Jeremiah. Yes, only 52 chapters, but about 4,000 more words than Isaiah. Remember, chapter divisions are arbitrary, and Jeremiah has a lot more narrative portions than Isaiah, and narrative uses more words than poetry – you can see that in any Bible. Just take a minute, leaf through Isaiah and then Jeremiah, and you can see how much empty space poetic lines have. And just, why not? We’re on the topic. If you’re interested, my Bible software, Accordance, maybe you use it, it tells me that Psalms barely edges out Jeremiah for first place as the longest book of the Bible. Both those books are just over 40,000 words. Then comes Genesis (36,000) and Isaiah is fourth at 35,000. Now, I hope this little factoid, that chapters tell us nothing about length, hasn’t burst your bubble, because if it has, this might be a rough podcast for you.
Okay, second fun fact: In Christianity, Isaiah has been called the 5th Gospel. Why? Well, a couple reasons. It’s cited in the New Testament over 50 times and no other prophetic book comes close. And the only book that’s cited more often, and only slightly more often, is the book of Psalms. And those citations? Well, that doesn’t include allusions to Isaiah that appear in the New Testament.
And it’s not just that Isaiah is cited a lot or alluded to a lot. Some passages in Isaiah sound very Jesus-y – they seem to be direct predictions of Jesus, at least that’s how they’ve been taken for many in the history of the church. Now remember, I said that we’re just skimming the surface with Isaiah. Well, this one issue, how Isaiah is used by New Testament writers, is complicated and captivating. It would need, I don’t know, a few hundred podcasts to cover well. I’m exaggerating slightly. Now, we’re going to touch on this issue of Jesus and the Book of Isaiah in a few minutes, but bottom line, Isaiah was an important book for the New Testament writers. There’s no question. There’s something about it that helped them understand Jesus in their own world.
Okay. Third fun fact, you think we’re going quickly, but we’re not folks. The last couple are pretty long, okay? Third fun fact: Isaiah lived in a time of crisis. This is very important folks. Now specifically, the time is the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE. By the way, I won’t keep saying BCE because all these dates are before the Common Era, before Christ, okay? So basically, again, the time here, the time that Isaiah lived, the time of crisis, is the late 8th and early 7th centuries. That’s the time, roughly, let’s say if you want years instead of centuries, 740ish to maybe 690ish, 680ish, that’s more or less when Isaiah was around. Now, what is the crisis that he’s dealing with? Well, it’s an Assyrian crisis, not serious crisis, an Assyrian crisis, right?
A little background here, the Kingdom of Israel started back before this time as a united kingdom with Saul, David, and Solomon ruling over all of Israel. After Solomon’s death, it divided into northern and southern kingdoms, and this was around the year 930. The northern kingdom had been dealing with Assyrians and potential problems with the Assyrians since the middle of the 9th century, around 850 (less than 100 years after was founded). This is when the Assyrians started emerging as a force to be reckoned with in that part of the world. And about 100 years later, now we’re in the middle of the 8th century, that’s the time when the Assyrians were seriously flexing their muscles and taking over what is called the Fertile Crescent. And you can probably find this in a map in your Bible on the back of your Bible or something, but the Fertile Crescent, that’s the area that stretches from Babylon in Mesopotamia arching up northwestward along those major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers through Assyria, and then eventually dropping down along the coast through Israel on the way to Egypt in the south.
Now, neither the divided northern or southern kingdoms were major players. They were more caught in the middle of a power grab among the three great superpowers: Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt. And on their way toward Egypt, the Assyrians, who are on the move now, remember? They would need to pass through these two little Israelite kingdoms and of course, the north was the first one to have to deal with them because they’re coming from a northerly direction.
Okay, this is just the backdrop for Isaiah’s prophetic activity: Assyria is king of the hill, and so you know, “what do we do about the Assyrians” comes up quite a bit in Isaiah. Isaiah began prophesying in the 740s and so he was around when the northern kingdom eventually fell to the Assyrians in 721, never to rise again. He was also there when the southern nation, called Judah and its capital is Jerusalem, when Judah and Jerusalem, they survived an Assyrian attack twenty years later in 701.
Isaiah was around for both of those moments; he lived in a time of crisis. And his prophetic ministry was about, let’s call it crisis management. I got that wonderful description from biblical scholar Victor Matthews in his book, The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World. Isaiah’s role was addressing the crisis of the moment for Israel’s survival. See the tone of these prophets, and Isaiah especially, the tone was one of urgency.
If you read Isaiah, and if you keep this one fun fact in mind, that Isaiah is a crisis manager at a time of crisis, I think the Book of Isaiah will make more sense as you read it. Not complete sense always, I’m not suggesting that, but Isaiah’s oracles deal with the political, nationalistic, and religious fallout of the Assyrian war machine upsetting the Fertile Crescent. And so, here’s the vibe: If Israel is God’s people and the land of Israel is God’s land, well, a big active question in facing the Assyrian invasion is, you know, what will happen to us with this, you know, menacing army descending on us from the north. How will this play out? A fair amount of roughly the first two-thirds of the Book of Isaiah deal with this moment directly or indirectly.
In other words, alright folks, and I realize I may be beating a dead horse here, but Isaiah has a context and he is speaking out of it and into it. And I’m beating this dead horse because getting this is foundational, not just for understanding Isaiah, but really for understanding the nature of biblical prophets as a whole. You know, try this sometime. If you were to create a timeline of Israel’s history, and you can start, let’s say, with the time of David, which is around 1000. So, you have this timeline starting around 1000 and then map on to the timeline when the biblical prophets were active, and I mean the Major and Minor Prophets that have books named after them. If you mapped those biblical prophets onto a timeline, you would see a pattern. Biblical prophets don’t even appear on the scene until the middle of the 8th century during the Assyrian crisis. You have a group of prophets that are active then. Another group of prophets clusters around another crisis, this is the Babylonian exile, which happens 100 and some odd years later. Then there’s a third group that clusters around another crisis: Will our nation rebound after the Babylonian exile is over? Three clusters. See, the prophets, they were all crisis managers. It is very hard indeed to understand what they are saying and why they’re saying it if we don’t know when, under what circumstances they are saying what they say. That wasn’t a convoluted sentence at all. This is why you can replay, folks.
Okay, this leads directly to the fourth fun fact. And this is a long one, as is the fifth fun fact, so, just buckle in, okay? Got rid of three relatively quick ones; here’s a fourth one. Because the prophets were crisis managers – you know, dealing with the moment, the problem in front of them – because they were crisis managers, prophets were not in the future prediction business. They interpreted the present times from a God’s eye view. They gave God’s interpretation, let’s say, of the present moment.
Now, that’s going to strike many of you, I’m sure, as a little bit odd but let me explain, and I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here. Prophets actually do make pronouncements about the future. They do it all the time. Things like, you know, if you do not repent, this bad thing will happen, right? Future. If you do repent, things will go well. They’re talking about the future, but here’s the point: it’s the relatively near future, not centuries from now.
Prophets read the times, they had a sense of where the political winds were blowing, and their predictions concerned the months and years ahead, maybe a decade or two. So, if it helps, let me put it this way, okay? Prophets predicted the future in the sense that economists predicted doom in say the next 5 – 10 years if interest rates are not adjusted, right? Those are still predictions and sometimes very wrong. But predictions that can be, let’s say, discerned from a wise insight into a volatile present situation. And their predictions are relevant not to people living a thousand years from now, but to that community either very soon or within a relatively short time.
There’s also a sense of urgency there, right? See, some political disaster is looming such as an enemy attack that threatens Israel’s existence and prophets tell the people why it’s looming and what God wants them to do about it. So, a prophet might say, “Yes, the Assyrians are attacking us. I know… but let me tell you why. This is not a random act on the world stage. God is causing it or, you know, maybe allowing it to happen something like that, but it’s because of your corruption and disobedience to God. This is why the Assyrians are heading South in your direction and if you don’t turn it around, you’re going to be humiliated by your enemies. In fact, you know what? It’s probably already too late. Your fate is sealed.”
Side issue: If you’re ever asked which Old Testament character you’d like to meet, don’t say a prophet. See, they deal with crises and that’s why they tend not to be the cheeriest chaps you’ll want to meet. You’d probably not want to invite them to your church as a guest speaker. They never show up just to check in and see how you’re doing or to tell people – “everything is great, just stay the course, fantastic, love you.” When a prophet comes walking toward your town, you’re about to get an unpleasant surprise.
Anyway, (still on the fourth fun fact), it’s not even on the prophetic radar screen to make predictions about the far distant future. If the crisis being managed is, as it is for Isaiah, the very present possibility of Assyria wiping Israel off the face of the Earth, you know, a prophet like Isaiah is not going to say, “Yeah, this is really pressing, it’s cataclysmic. Our whole story may come to an end very soon! But while I have you here, let me switch subjects entirely and tell you what’s going to happen centuries and centuries from now, a time for which you have absolutely no frame of reference, long after you’ve ceased to exist.”
Maybe this will help. When we hear the word prophet, which brings up the whole prediction idea, maybe just replace the word “prophet” with “anointed preacher.” Right? Speaking God’s word to the people here and now, with imminent future implications, it’s coming soon. And those implications will happen if this word of the prophet is not heeded. Again, don’t think of someone predicting the far-off future that has no bearing on the here and now. Actually, MLK Jr. is a good example of someone whose work mimics the style of biblical prophets. You know, what did he do? He denounced corruption and injustice that was happening here and now. In other words, his message was clearly for the moment. Yes, he voiced a future hope for racial equality that, you know, he knew he himself would probably not see, but maybe the people listening would see it. Or, you know, maybe a very different kind of modern analogy to the ancient prophet, just think of how some American Christians engage politics. And, by the way, I think this is true at either end of the political spectrum. Rhetoric like this, you know: If you don’t vote for this candidate or if you don’t vote to squash this bill, you are out of God’s will. And what will God do? God will bring his wrath down on our nation, maybe right away, maybe soon, maybe in a few years, but it will come. See, that rhetoric is similar to biblical prophets.
Anyway, all this that we’ve been saying is, I think, relevant for Christians and how many Christians read the prophets, sort of as future prediction kinds of people, right? And here’s the thing, you know, that that makes some sense, because there are a few very well-known passages in Isaiah that really sound like they simply have to be talking about a time far off in the future, right? And to get to the point, we read things in Isaiah that sound very much like literal predictions of Jesus.
Now, I want to mention just two of them because to do it right would take forever and two examples are going be fine. And I’m sure you’re familiar, at least many of you are familiar with these examples. I do want to bring up a third, but I want to leave that for later and, hopefully, you’ll see why I think it makes more sense talking about it with the fifth fun fact.
So, let’s look at these Jesus-y passages and let’s just put a different hat on and look at them as if they were written for Isaiah’s time and not for a time that would be hundreds of years off. Let’s just try it out. Let’s resist the reflex to read them as conscious predictions of Jesus, and instead see them as Isaiah speaking to his moment, to his crisis. And, you know, again, we’re not going to go into great detail because you can’t, because you know, exegeting these two passages line by line, though very interesting, would just take us too long. But here’s the gist, and that’s all we need to see at this point.
Okay so, one famous Jesus-y passage is Isaiah 7:14. Here Isaiah is speaking to King Ahaz, he is the king of the southern kingdom of Judah, his throne is in Jerusalem, and Ahaz is completely freaking out. Why? Guess why. There’s a crisis! The Assyrians are coming. And Ahaz, this gets a little complicated with some moving parts here, but Ahaz is freaking out because he’s getting pressure from the northern Kingdom, the ones they split off with, right, and Syria, further to the north, to join them in keeping the Assyrians away from them. So, Ahaz balks at the idea. I mean, he figures, do I really want to irritate the Assyrians? So, he balks at the idea and, as a result, this northern coalition, right of the northern kingdom of Israel and then Syria, they threaten to attack Jerusalem and replace Ahaz with a more compliant king.
And so, as I said, Ahaz is freaking out, but Isaiah calms him down. See, Isaiah is reading the times and he says to Ahaz, and this is Isaiah 7:14, very familiar, he says, Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Right? A sign that you’re going to be safe. He’ll give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. That’s Isaiah 7:14. And as you may probably know, this very verse is cited by Matthew, right, one of the Gospel writers, as referring to the circumstances of Jesus’s birth. So, this sounds like a clear prediction of Jesus in the Book of Isaiah. Now, this is one of these issues when you start talking about anything you wind up talking about everything. We can’t do that and I don’t want to open up a can of worms, but just give me two seconds here. Even Matthew, when we put it that way, even Matthew doesn’t really mean this as a simple black and white prediction. In fact, what Matthew does generally with the Old Testament, is far more complicated than our English Bibles let on and there are sections in decent theological libraries that are dedicated to making sense of this sort of thing. Okay?
So, I know what Matthew saying, but let’s leave Matthew to the side for a moment and let’s just look carefully at what this passage does and doesn’t say. Right? The young woman is with child and shall bear son and shall name him Immanuel. First, the Hebrew says, “young woman,” not virgin. And if you can just find a decent study Bible, you’ll find that pretty quickly. It also says that she is with child not she will have a child, or she will be with child at some point in the future. Isaiah is simply saying to Ahaz, “Hey, hey pal, look at the young pregnant woman. She’s going drop a kid really soon.” See, she’s not a virgin. It’s a normal pregnancy and it’s not a prediction. It’s an observation. The young woman is with child and shall bear a son. Now, the sons name, of course, will be Immanuel. Im-anu-El in Hebrew, which means literally “with us, God”, “God with us.” Well, that must be a divine being. That absolutely doesn’t mean that Isaiah is saying the child is divine.
“But it says God with us!”
I know it says God with us. This is a big issue, but think of the biblical names that are sort of like mini-sentences that we find in the Bible that include this generic name for God in Hebrew, which is “El,” right? Immanuel, right? There are other names that have this “El” component. Ezekiel is an example. Ezekiel is like a mini-sentence. Ezekiel means “God will give strength”. Immanuel means “God is with us”. See, in neither case is the named person divine.
See, the boy is a sign that God is with us, and specifically, with Ahaz. And this is how the boy is a sign. And if you keep reading, you’ll see this. By the time the child is old enough to know right from wrong, which is a relatively short time, this political threat, Ahaz, will no longer exist. See, you’re safe.
See, that’s the relevance of Isaiah’s words at his moment. He is addressing Ahaz’s fears amid the Assyrian crisis. He is not predicting Jesus. Now, I believe in Jesus, I love the Bible, I love Matthew, I love the New Testament. All I’m saying is that in the book of Isaiah, Jesus is not being predicted. What Matthew does with this verse, and he’s the only one who touches this verse in the New Testament, by the way. But what Matthew does with it, as I said, a lot to go into, but briefly put, let me just put it this way: Matthew is really intent on connecting Jesus with Israel’s story. He’s probably writing to a largely Jewish audience. And what he’s doing is he’s finding patterns in the story of Israel that he connects to Jesus, because Matthew is all about how Jesus embodies Israel’s journey. He’s like, almost, he’s an embodiment of Israel itself. And, okay, if I say more we’ll be here for days, but if you’ve got the time and inclination, I do talk about this issue, how the New Testament writers use the Old Testament, in most of my books, frankly, because I think it is so central an issue. So, you can look at, like, The Bible Tells Me So, The Evolution of Adam, How the Bible Actually Works, and Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (I wrote that with two other people). And also, Inspiration and Incarnation, which you can find all this stuff on the website. You can also just go to our blogs and just search “New Testament use of Old Testament,” and you’re going to find a lot of fleshing out of some of these more complex issues.
But simply put, Isaiah’s words are directed to his time, not a time 750 years into the future, he’s managing a crisis. Now, more briefly, the other famous passage I want to peek at with you is chapter 9 verse 6, it’s really well known. Isaiah speaking, For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
So, first of all, it’s sort of like what was saw in chapter 7. Here we have a child who has already been born. No birth is being predicted. It says, For a child has been born for us. Now, many think, this is up in the air, it makes sense to me, but many think the child is Hezekiah, right. Again, we’re not sure, but it makes sense to me and I mentioned him earlier. He is the king who ruled in Jerusalem in 701 when the Assyrians attacked but were repelled. And Hezekiah, he’s a good candidate for the identification of this child because he is a big deal in the OT, he’s one of only a very few kings of the 40-something kings of Israel who gets a good evaluation at his death. Now, by all accounts, he was a good king, and so he is praised by Isaiah: authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Here’s the thing though, and of course, you will notice this is a rather lofty description, isn’t it? Right? And in fact, it is so lofty that I understand why Christians would see this is a prediction of really the only man who could possibly bear these titles: Jesus. No mere human can have these names, right? Well, maybe they can. See, kings can have these sort of lofty titles. These lofty descriptions are known in scholarship as throne names. They’re bestowed on kings at their, when they become king, at their time of coronation let’s say. Israel’s kings, they weren’t divine, but they ruled for God. And so, these rather lofty throne names, they describe the God who is actually in charge, not the kings themselves. In other words, contextually, it’s not correct to say that Isaiah 9:6 must be speaking of a divine king, and therefore that must be Jesus. These are throne names of a real human king and he is being described in ways that make sense in that ancient context. There’s actually nothing controversial about this.
So, okay, these are two examples of how Isaiah is addressing his own political realities, which are also religious realities. Don’t, you know, don’t be mistaken. There’s no religious and political dichotomy in the ancient world. Politics and religion – they’re all mixed together. So, he’s addressing his own political realities, but he’s not making predictions about what will happen 700 or so years later. Now oddly enough, I found this interesting, Isaiah 9:6, those throne names, that’s not cited explicitly in the New Testament. That’s always surprised me, you think it would be. I’d have thought Paul, let’s say, and others would be all over that, but you know, it is what it is. Verses 1-2, Isaiah 9, verses 1-2, they are cited in Matthew 4 but nothing else. And of course, Isaiah 7:14 is cited in Matthew, but again this tells us how that passage came to be understood by at least one Christian community, it doesn’t tell us what Isaiah meant when he said it. He was a crisis manager.
OK, enough of that. We have one more fun fact to go, and it’s got some moving parts, it’s also been controversial in conservative circles, and I left it for last.
Okay, the fifth fun fact is that Isaiah is not a book written by one person. Folks, many of you know this, but if you say this in the wrong circles, you know, you could lose your job very quickly. This is a very controversial point. Of course, this doesn’t affect me, because my job is ruining things for you, so I probably won’t get a raise for saying this, but who knows? Okay, so here’s the thing: Scholars typically divide Isaiah into 2 or 3 distinct parts, AND each part was written by a different person, or maybe group of people, living at different times.
Now, many scholars favor a two part division, and they put the break at chapter 40. Chapters 1-39, right, they’re typically referred to in biblical scholarship as 1st Isaiah, or Isaiah of Jerusalem, and this section, Chapters 1-39, they’re dated to the time of Isaiah, right, the 8th and 7th centuries. Part two, which is cleverly called 2nd Isaiah, is the rest of the book, chapters 40-66, and they’re dated to the late exilic period. You know, the exile began in 586 and ended in 539. So, what’s typically said is shortly before 539, shortly before they came home. We’ll see why in a second.
Now, some scholars prefer a three part division, which just means they divide the second part, chapters 40-66, into two parts. So, they make the division at chapter 46. Right, so this is a lot of math folks, I’m sorry. But chapters 40-55 in this three part scheme, chapters 40-55 are now 2nd Isaiah, and 56-66 are 3rd Isaiah and that part dates to a few decades or more after the return from exile, so maybe around 500 or maybe into the 400s. And again, we’ll see why in a bit. Now, there is some scholarly debate about whether there really is a third part at all and I don’t lose sleep over it. The only thing I want to point out here is that scholars do see a major break at 40, and this is not arbitrary, but based on the words of the book itself.
All right, so, let’s just do a quick overview here. What’s in 1st Isaiah, chapters 1-39? Well, most of these chapters, I mentioned this before, they deal with the period of the Assyrian crisis. Not all of 1st Isaiah is about the Assyrians specifically, but most all of it, at least a very good portion of it concerns that time period. That’s at least true for the first 23 chapters. But chapters 24-27 are tricky, but they’re important for us to try to understand the big picture here. These chapters, 24-27, are written in a different style. They’re written in an apocalyptic style. And we might know that word best from the book of Revelation, which uses images of you know, like, earthly and cosmic destruction as symbols. You see, That’s the thing about apocalyptic literature, it’s highly symbolic. No, the earth isn’t going to blow up. That language is just used to talk about political upheavals that change the course of history, like a drastic regime change where the superpower bad guys have lost, and God is giving victory to his oppressed people. See, the world is turned upside down, as we would put it. As they would put it, the earth is “destroyed.”
So, okay, here’s the thing. Scholars routinely say, for a variety of reasons that this section really seems to be out of place in Isaiah’s time. This section was probably written in the 6th century, about 150-200 years after the Assyrian crisis. That’s when the mighty Babylonians who exiled Judah met their end at the hands of the Persians, who allowed the captives to go home. See, this was an apocalyptic moment, a real sea change, a real change in the weather, a real change of fortunes, a real change in the political climate.
OK, just rounding out 1st Isaiah, and this gets a little complicated so we’re just going to skim here. But, chapters 28-33, that’s the next part, well, that takes us back to the days of King Hezekiah and the Assyrian crisis. And then to give us whiplash, chapters 34-35, they take us forward in time again the end of the Babylonian exile. And then the last four chapters, forgive me folks, I didn’t write this stuff. The last four chapters, 36-39, take us back once again to the days of Hezekiah. See, there’s a lot of back and forth here. It really seems like 1st Isaiah, though largely taking place in the 8th c, it actually, it’s a weaving together of scenes from two different time periods 150-200 years apart.
And another thing, see, just to make things more complicated, this is stuff if I felt like it, we could go into a lot of details here, but that’s again, a lot of podcast. But just to make things more complicated, chapters 36-39, the ending of 1st Isaiah, that story of Hezekiah that 1st Isaiah ends with? Well, probably 1st Isaiah didn’t write that at all. That seems to be cut and pasted from 2 Kings 18-20, almost in its entirety, just a few verses are missing and some other small changes. Okay, well, who did the cut and paste, and when did they do it? These are good questions we can’t stop to try and answer, but all of that is to say that, see, one person living in the 8th or 7th century did not sit down and write this entire what we call 1st Isaiah, chapters 1-39. These were edited together. When? Good question. Don’t worry about it. But just knowing that may help the book make more sense to you without getting this whiplash. You’re sort of expecting the unevenness at the end, the back and forth between Isaiah’s context and then the Babylonian context.
Okay, so that’s 1st Isaiah. Let’s move now to 2nd Isaiah. See, here’s the thing. And I’ve actually known people, like normal people that this has happened to. They start reading the book of Isaiah because they love it, right? And they read from the beginning, but when they got to chapter 40, they noticed a change in tone. And as one person put it to me a few years ago, he said, you know, “I’m reading in Isaiah, I get to chapter 40, it’s like I’m reading a different book.” Right? Well, here’s the reason why you feel that way. You probably are reading something very different.
See, specifically, the topic in chapter 40 shifts to the Babylonian exile – that’s, again, in the 6th century. In fact, see, here’s the thing, this is what gives it such a different tone, this section, what we call 2nd Isaiah, whether it goes to chapter 55 or all the way to the end it doesn’t matter. 2nd Isaiah assumes the reality of the exile, it assumes that it’s already a thing. The exile isn’t in the future, it’s a present reality. Right? This writer, who is anonymous, we call him 2nd Isaiah, is dealing with the crisis of Babylonian captivity and announcing, he’s reading the times, he’s announcing that God is on the move to bring them all back home. God is about to do a wonderful and glorious thing for these captives. And see, that’s announced already at the very beginning of this section, this is why it seems so odd. Chapter 40:1-2, these are words that many of us will probably recognize, especially if we’re into Handel’s Messiah.
So, this is how it goes:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.
See, a word of comfort like this, telling Jerusalem, which really means the residents who are now captive in Babylon, but telling Jerusalem that her penalty has been paid, her time of punishment in Babylon is over—that is out of place in the 8th century. It would have no meaning. And note what comes right after this. This is in verses 3-5, and again, we know this too.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Again, you probably recognize these verses that come from the Gospels too. This is where John the Baptist announces Jesus, you know, “prepare the way of the Lord.” He’s quoting Isaiah. And that’s wonderful, and actually, that’s a topic worthy of very serious and lengthy discussion, and I’m pretty sure I have a blog post on this someplace, but for here, it’s beside the point. These verses are basically doing this, they’re announcing the travel plans to bring back the captives. Judah’s return home will be like a parade for all the world to see, and a path will be cleared in the wilderness—the mountains and valleys will be leveled to create a flat highway, which is all very symbolic—and this act will be so great, so clearly a God-thing, that God’s glory will be revealed to all people. God is on the move. An abandoned people have hope. They’re coming home.
Now, the rest of 2nd Isaiah, at least through chapter 55, it maintains this vibe that the exile is a present reality and Judah’s rescue is coming soon. The Babylonians will meet their end at the hands of the Persians, that’s basically what’s going to happen. The political maneuverings of these two superpowers, they’re read by this prophet as God’s design. God is using the Persians to punish the Babylonians, and the people are coming home.
And speaking of Persians, another reason why scholars think 2nd Isaiah is 6th century or even later is the fact that the 6th century Persian king who defeated the Babylonians is mentioned by name in 2nd Isaiah: Cyrus. Now, I’m being descriptive here by the way, folks. So, I’m not being negative, I’m trying to get to the point here as quickly as I can. Conservatives have tended to dig their heels in here on this point, saying that God could have inspired 8th century Isaiah to mention Cyrus by name, and in fact, if you don’t believe that God can do that, you’re limiting God. And I say, sure, I guess in the abstract it’s possible that God could reveal someone’s name way ahead of time. But, again, what would a named 6th century Persian king mean to those living in the middle of an 8th century and early 7th century in the Assyrian crisis? Is it just to sort of throw in a bit of information and prove to future people that God can tell the future? See, this is just not an appealing hypothesis to me, nor to most anyone else. And also, that doesn’t even deal with the fact that the exile, this is the more foundational point, the exile is a present reality for this writer. See, the setting of the exile, assuming that the exile is a thing and the reference to Cyrus, they really seem to be big clues that this portion of Isaiah comes from no earlier than the 6th century.
Now side note, because somebody is going to email me. Conservatives had tended to argue that, well, okay, yes, the exile is assumed from chapter 40 on, but it is still written in the 8th century and it’s still prophetic. Well, how can that be? Right, how can the 8th century prophet talk about the 6th century IN THE PAST TENSE? Right, you see that? The exile is already a thing, in fact, it already happened. They were carted off a long time ago.
How can the writer, living in the 8th century, talk about a future event in the past tense? Now folks, this is not the easiest thing, but this is the nature of the argument, it’s a bit convoluted. See, here’s the response. Here’s how an 8th century prophet can talk about a future even in the past tense. The 8th century prophet Isaiah, he spoke about a far-off future event in the past tense because it was so certain of happening that it could be referred to as already having happened. See folks, if you learn anything here, this is why you can’t listen to this podcast at 1.5 or 2x speed. It just, too much stuff is happening. Too many loose ends, like I just read. See, for me, this argument, it’s asking a lot, I think, of readers and I don’t think it’s an attempt to understand Isaiah, I think it seems to be more geared towards convincing those who need to retain the idea that Isaiah was long range predictive prophet, because if he’s not, then some key predictors of Jesus are lost, and that would be a hard pill to swallow. I understand what’s at stake here, I just don’t think that it is then an excuse to really say things that just aren’t very convincing about the text. It’s much easier to say, and easier isn’t always right, but in this case, I think it is—Occam’s razor and all that sort of thing—I think it’s easier to say that, listen, the clues for 6th century or even later authorship in 2nd Isaiah seem to be pretty clear and making up an explanation to make the pieces fit together in ways we’re used to seeing them is, to me, not an open minded position that takes into account what the text is actually doing. So, that’s my point of view.
Okay, one more thing I want to mention about 2nd Isaiah—again, I told you this fifth fun fact was long. We find in 2nd Isaiah one of the best-known passages in the Old Testament, and this is chapter 52:13-53:12. So basically, it’s 15 verses long, it’s the very end of chapter 52 and then all of chapter 53. This passage, which again, is one of these things that you’ve heard of, but this passage describes a “servant” of God and this servant suffers on behalf of others. And some of the more quoted, more famous lines of this section of 2nd Isaiah, are again, ones that I think many of you will be familiar with in some way. So, for example, talking about the servant, the prophet says:
He (the servant) was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
Or another part says:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Much more we could read, but that’s, you know, this is a very moving – literarily, theologically, whatever – section. And so, the question is who can this servant be who suffers on behalf of others, who bears God’s punishment to make others whole, who was wounded for our transgressions, whose bruises heal us, on whom God has laid the iniquity of us all? Who is this person? It seems to be, well, it’s got be Jesus. Who else?
Well, the identity of this servant this actually a really interesting and sort of a winding issue, believe it or not, and the answer to this question is not obvious. You have disagreements even apart from Christianity, within Judaism, who might this be?
And I only want to dip our toes into it to make a point, the same point I made with Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 9: that this passage can be read, and I’m going to suggest rather easily, as 2nd Isaiah addressing a moment in his time, not predicting something hundreds of years in the future. And if you want to see this fleshed out more, I really suggest that you look at a good study Bible or two, they’ll all sort of lay out some of the issues here. And preferably, and again, I say this gently because I have many conservative friends, believe it or not, they don’t all hate me. But preferable not one marketed to conservative Protestant Christians. So, for example, I would suggest the Jewish Study Bible, the New Interpreters Study Bible, the Harper Collins Study Bible, to name just three. Now, I’m not saying that to be antagonistic, it’s just my experience that conservative study Bibles will tend not to upset the cart on touchy issues, and this is a touchy issue for many people.
OK, so just briefly, right. This passage that talks about a servant is the fourth servant song. There are four total in 2nd Isaiah, so this is the fourth one. And these songs are called servant songs because they all refer to a servant through whom God is doing something. The other servant songs are all in 2nd Isaiah—so they all appear in that section of Isaiah that deals with the exile and the return from exile. And these other places are in chapters 49, actually the first one is in chapter 42, then 49, and then 50. And now, of course, we’re in chapter 53. The identity of the servant, see, 2nd Isaiah keeps us hanging here. The identity of the servant is not made explicit. It’s not really revealed to the readers—except in the second servant song, that’s in chapter 49. And I’m going to be careful, I don’t want to make too much of this, but I’m going to run with this just a little bit, right? There in verse 3, God’s servant is not a person, but it’s Israel, it’s a people. So, the people are thought of as a collective “he,” a collective one, a collective person, a servant. This sort of thing happens a lot in the Bible where the many are referred to as one for symbolic, literary, metaphorical, whatever reason. It’s just not that big of a deal in principle.
Now again, to be absolutely clear, there is no complete agreement about how to understand the identity of the servant in 2nd Isaiah, despite the fact that it is “Israel” in chapter 49. And you know, good, equipped, competent people throughout history have disagreed on all of these kinds of issues. But here is the snapshot of where I and others land. The servant who suffers in chapter 53 is not a person, but it represents a people. Okay, which people? Here’s the punchline folks, you ready? The servant who suffers in chapter 53 is those people, plural, who went into exile. Even though, I mean, wrap your head around this because it might seem strange, especially in this passage. But even though the servant is a “he” or a man, it says, and that’s the way he’s referred to throughout, the “he” represents a collection of people.
So, remember, right, the exile is God’s punishment on Judah and Jerusalem, chapter 40. They had to pay for their sins, so they were exiled. But here’s the thing—not everyone who sinned was exiled. Who was exiled? Really just a rather limited population in and around Jerusalem. But if the sin belongs to all the people, but only some were punished, well, it seems like the few were punished (that’s the servant) for the sake of the whole. As this passage says, the last thing I read when I quoted above,
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,
Read that as all of Judah. The northern kingdom is gone, right, they went into exile in 721 never to return. This is the south, this is Judah. All Judahites, all of us like sheep have gone astray. We have all turned to our own way, and the Lord—what has he done? He has laid on him the iniquity of us all. The problem lies with the sin of all and the solution is to place the sin of all onto him, the servant, the exiled Judahites.
Now like I said, read it for yourself with a good study Bible or two next to you. I think seeing the servant as the exiled Judahites makes sense, and I am not making it up out of thin air. My point is that this passage, even this passage, even this sort of like, queen mother of Jesus-y passages in the prophet Isaiah, even this passage can be read as words of the prophet to his time and place. And you know, even if my take isn’t convincing to you (how dare you, by the way), but even if it’s not here’s my challenge: you’d still need to find a way of making sense of this fourth servant song for 2nd Isaiah’s time. I mean the other servant songs fit. I don’t think that, you know, in a long section of Isaiah that is clearly devoted to the end of Babylonian captivity, we can say there is one passage wholly disconnected from that theme and instead speaks to a time that the readers have no clue about whatsoever. I’m just not sure that’s a good reading of the Bible.
Now I’ll be the first to say that, well, yeah, we can see why early followers of Jesus would jump all over this passage and apply it to Jesus. But—if I may restate my point—how the New Testament writers and others apply the Old Testament, how they draw lines connecting the two, doesn’t tell us what the Old Testament writers were saying. It tells us how ancient words were, let’s say appropriated by a later community of faith, in this case, followers of Jesus. And the thing is, I believe we can actually appreciate the radical Christ-centeredness of the New Testament writers even more if we first understand the original purpose of an Old Testament passage in its time and place, and then how the New Testament, let’s say, expanded that meaning to now include Jesus. The New Testament writers, they weren’t prooftexting. They weren’t saying—oh here’s a verse that proves Jesus. They were actually finding patterns in the Old Testament helped them understand Jesus. Or they were reflecting on their own experience of Jesus, remember these were Jews writing this stuff, right? They were reflecting on their own experience of Jesus that reminded them of Old Testament moments or stories and so they wanted to connect them. They weren’t prooftexting. They were doing theology. That’s a beautiful thing to study, folks, that’s gonna take the words of the New Testament writers and what they meant to say seriously, and take the words of the Old Testament writers and what they were saying and take that seriously too. I don’t know, maybe what I just said is as clear as mud, but, as I mentioned, this whole topic of how the New Testament uses the Old Testament is complicated and if you want more, you can at least get started with the books I mentioned or searching our website. See, you want all the answers. It’s not happening here today folks. Okay?
All right. Moving on, and briefly, the reason some scholars have a 3rd Isaiah in chapters 56-66 is because, once again, there seems to be another change in tone at chapter 56. Rather than encouraging the soon to be released captives, this is what we have in 40-55, these chapters, they assume the return has already happened, but things are not as they should be. At least they seem to assume that. See, something is still wrong, another crisis has to be managed, and that crisis seems to be, now we read this in these sections—the corruption of the leaders, injustice, false worship to God, things like that. These things are keeping the people from fully realizing God’s deliverance and God’s salvation—it’s about more than simply getting out of Babylon, but it’s returning home and then acting like a people that has been redeemed by God. So, at least as compared to 2nd Isaiah, there is an angry tone woven throughout these chapters, but with also a ray of hope that God will soon set things right. Anyway, like I said, not all scholars see the necessity of a 3rd Isaiah, but those who do date it several decades after the return from Babylon which happened in 539.
In other words, again, I said this before, but we’re looking at like the 5th century sometime. And in case you’re wondering, yes, 3rd Isaiah, that does make sense to me, though again, it is not a hill to die on. A 2nd Isaiah, wherever you make the division, but a 2nd Isaiah, academically speaking, is a hill for me to die on because I think to miss it is to really fundamentally misread the book.
Okay, one last comment here to tie some of this together. It’s common in recent academic discussions to speak of the “unity” of Isaiah, meaning that despite that there are 2 or 3 parts, which there are, great care was given at some point to bring the parts together and to tell a big story of God and Israel. In other words, Isaiah as a book is coherent. I like that word—coherent. It hangs together; I agree with that. But the problem though is this, right, as soon as you introduce the idea of Isaiah as a unity, some conservatives have seized this idea as sort of justification for a conservative view. Because conservatives have always believed that Isaiah is a unity, but what conservatives mean is that all of Isaiah was written in the 8th or 7th c., with maybe a few minor places where it was updated later. See, recent scholars say, ah, look at the unity, and conservatives say, we’ve been telling you that all along. There is only one Isaiah, that’s the 8th century one. But what scholars mean when they say “unity” of Isaiah is that an editor unified the parts and made them flow. In other words, the “unity” of Isaiah doesn’t come from the 8th century, but from a 6th. In other words, Isaiah is not an authorial unity, it is an editorial unity.
Now, knowing this may have some practical significance for us because when we read Isaiah, I think our task is not to do what we’ve been doing for most of this podcast, frankly. I think when we read Isaiah just as normal people, like we’re going to get something out of it, blah blah blah, our task is not to ferret out all the places where you get whiplash and changes in tone and leave the parts scattered. Because the parts aren’t scattered, even in 1st Isaiah with that whiplash, there’s probably a reason for the whiplash. There’s probably a reason for that arrangement. Our task, rather, is to read the book, and noticing these things when they happen, but then also asking why this edited book looks the way that it does and what this editor is trying to do—which, by the way, is not an easy question to answer about any biblical book, let alone Isaiah. But welcome to the fun world of biblical scholarship and biblical theology and theology and all that other kind of stuff. But to understand the theology of the book of Isaiah, I think we really need to embrace the fact that there are three parts that were written over a long period of time in different times of crisis. To embrace that AND along with it the fact that an editor(s) created a book out of all that, which then was intended to speak to the time of the editor, to ancient Jews living long after the time of the 8th century prophet Isaiah.
To put it another way, the book of Isaiah grew over time so that Isaiah could keep speaking. The 6th century was a time of crisis for the southern kingdom that resulted in exile—just like the 8th century was for the north, a time of crisis that ended in exile. Same story, only the characters have changed. So, what will God do? What will he do? Will we, like our northern brothers, be lost forever, or will God rescue us and bring us home? Much of the book of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah himself, but much else comes to us from this later community who valued Isaiah’s words enough to add to them, to update and expand them, to hear what God is saying to them at a different time and place, who didn’t just add a bunch of chapters at the end, but went back and arranged the first 39 chapters.
I know that may sound odd or even sacrilegious to some—you know, how can you respect Scripture by adding to it? But remember, again, this is so important, but you can’t talk about anything without talking about everything, right? Remember, there was no concept of “Scripture” as we know it or as Jews later came to know it back in the 8th century. The notion of a Bible—a closed set of authoritative books that you don’t change and you don’t touch—that didn’t happen until long after the Babylonian exile. See, the editors, when they brought together what we call 1st and 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, they weren’t “adding to sacred scripture.” They were just continuing to tell their story of a people once united, now exiled, and looking to God to give them a future.
Now this is opening a big can of worms at the end of a podcast, but I think it’s important to point out that ancient Israelites and later Jews did not think of the sacred tradition as being protected under glass. It continued to grow because they believed God was still active in THEIR time, addressing THEIR concerns, even if the prophets weren’t around anymore. And not just Isaiah, but you see, this gets into much bigger issues. The Old Testament as a whole betrays these, maybe betrays is the wrong word. It exhibits, the Old Testament as a whole exhibits these “layers over time” that were woven together at some point—we see it in the Pentateuch, we see it in the Historical Books, the Psalms, Proverbs, and in other prophetic books. What we see happening in Isaiah—a biblical book growing over time—is just a particularly clear snapshot of how the Bible as a whole came to be.
OK, so just, let’s recap our five fun facts because I’m sure you forgotten 4 ½ of them:
- Isaiah is a major prophet through not the longest prophet despite the 66 chapters.
- Isaiah has been called the 5th Gospel by Christians because of how often it was cited and how Jesus-y it sounds.
- Isaiah lived in a time of crisis, namely the Assyrian crisis of the 8th century.
- Isaiah was not in the future prediction business, but he was an interpreter of his times.
- The book of Isaiah was written in two or three parts that reflect different crises about 200 or so years apart.
OK folks, know that was a long one. I hope that this was helpful and ruined Isaiah for you just enough to motivate you to read it with fresh eyes. All right, see you next time.
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