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Isaiah, The Book of. Isaiah is the first of the Major Prophets in both Jewish and Christian tradition. The book consists of sixty-six chapters that can be divided into five sections of roughly the same length (1–12; 13–27; 28–39; 40–55; 56–66). All except one begin with an attack on arrogance and an appeal for justice and culminate in a hymn or prophecy of salvation, and all except one are addressed to the people of Jerusalem. The one exception is chapters 40–55, which begins “Comfort, O comfort my people,” and is addressed to an exiled community in Babylon during the sixth century BCE. The book is held together by common themes and phrases (e.g., “the Holy One of Israel,” Jerusalem/Zion, justice and righteousness), by quotations from, or allusions to, earlier passages in later ones (e.g., 1.6 in 53.5; 6.1–13 in 40.1–8; 6.1 in 52.13 and 57.15; 11.6–9 in 65.25), and by other kinds of continuity, such as the life and times of the prophet (1.1; 6–9; 14.28; 20; 36–39; 40.1–8) and the downfall of Babylon (13–14; 46–47).
These chapters also contain a memorable account, like those of other prophets (1 Kings 22.19–23; Jer. 23.18), of Isaiah's glimpse into the heavenly court where he was confronted by the awesome holiness of God and commissioned to convey God's judgment to his unhearing and unseeing people (chap. 6). This judgment theme continues into the narrative of his confrontation with King Ahaz during the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (chaps. 7–8; cf. 2 Kings 16). Like other eighth-century prophets, Isaiah prophesies that the Assyrians are the real danger and that they will sweep like a mighty river over the northern kingdoms and into Judah (8.5–8). He calls for faith (7.9; cf. 30.15) and sees beyond present gloom and anguish to future victory (9.1–5). Assyria is a tool in God's hand (10.5–7). Both the terror of a confrontation between human power and God's power, and the hope of the eventual victory of God's people, are expressed in the richly emotive term Immanuel, “God is with us” (7.14; 8.8; 8.10). The section ends with a short hymn of thanksgiving (chap. 12).
Chaps. 13–27 further proclaim God's sovereignty over history. Isaiah's oracles concerning the nations (cf. Jer. 46–51; Ezek. 24–32; Amos 1–2) begin with Babylon (13–14) and end with the entire earth (24–27). In addition to the customary taunts and mock laments (e.g., “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!” 14.12; cf. Amos 5.1–2), this series contains some unusual material: expressions of sympathy for the survivors of Moab (16.3–5), an unexpected blessing for Egypt and Assyria (19.24–5), and another glimpse into the trauma of a prophet's visionary experience (21.1–10).
The oracle concerning Tyre (chap. 23), an international seaport in contact with every part of the world (see Phoenicia), leads logically into the last part of this section in which the subject is the entire earth (24–27). These four chapters are often known as the “Isaiah apocalypse”: although they do not have the literary characteristics of the book of Revelation and other true apocalypses, they do contain apocalyptic language and imagery. The whole earth is depicted as desolate, twisted, despoiled, and polluted; sun and moon are eclipsed (24.23); and the passage pictures an eschatological banquet (25.6), the resurrection of the dead (26.19; cf. 25.8), and God's ultimate victory over the host of heaven (24.21), Leviathan, the “fleeing … twisting serpent,” and the “dragon that is in the sea” (27.1). The passage belongs firmly to Isaianic tradition, however, as is indicated by such recurring motifs as the city (26.1; cf. 1.21–26), the mountain of the Lord (25.6; cf. 2.2; 11.9), and the vineyard (27.2; cf. 5.1–7).
In chaps. 28–39, the prophet first directs the full force of his rhetoric against Israel and Judah again (28–31), just as Amos does after his oracles concerning the foreign nations (Amos 2.4–16). The whole preceding section (13–27) functions merely as a foil for this final condemnation of his own people. He takes up where he left off in 1–12: “Ah, the proud garland of the drunkards of Ephraim” (28.1; cf. 5.11–12). “The mighty flood” of an Assyrian invasion reappears from chap. 8, and the call for faith and courage in a city under siege is repeated (30.15; cf. 7.4, 9). This time the crisis is that of 701 BCE, when Sennacherib invaded Judah and Hezekiah was tempted to join forces with Egypt (31.1–3). Chaps. 36–37 tell the story of a miraculous victory over the Assyrians in that year, highlighting Isaiah's role. There were two other crises in the same year, Hezekiah's illness, when the prophet performs a solar miracle reminiscent of Joshua's at Gibeon (chap. 38; cf. Josh. 10.12, 14), and the visit of Babylonian ambassadors to Jerusalem, during which he foretells the Babylonian exile (chap. 39). Like chap. 39, the central chapters of this section, especially 34 and 35, point forward to the next section.
Chaps. 40–55 are often known as the “Babylonian chapters.” They constitute the most distinctive and homogeneous part of the book, both stylistically and theologically, and are for that reason commonly referred to as “Second Isaiah” or “Deutero-Isaiah.” Repetition is frequent (e.g., 40.1; 51.9; 52.1). The exiled community in Babylon is described and addressed collectively as “Zion” (feminine singular; e.g., 40.9; 51.17; 52.1–2) and “my servant” (e.g., 41.8; 44.1). The rise of Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, is described (45.1–3), as are the fall of Babylon (chap. 47) and the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in a new Exodus (48.20–21; 51.9–11; 52.11–12). The sheer scale of God's power in history and in creation is another recurring theme in these chapters (e.g., 40.12–20; 42.5–9; 45.9–13), as are explicit monotheism (e.g., 45.5, 6, 14, 21, 22), the ridicule of idolatry (e.g., 40.18–20; 44.9–20; 46.1–2), and feminine images for God (42.14; 46.3; 49.15; 66.9). Finally, the concept of healing and victory through the vicarious suffering of “the servant of the Lord” (52.13–53.12) marks out this section as unique in biblical prophecy.
The final section of the book (chaps. 56–66) is mainly concerned with the return of the exiles to Jerusalem and the building of a new society there. “Justice” and “righteousness” are again key motifs here as they were at the beginning (56.1; 59; 61.8; cf. 1.17). Foreigners and eunuchs will be admitted into the Temple (56.1). The poor and the oppressed will be set free (58.6–7; 61.1–2), and Temple sacrifice is finally rejected in favor of humility and repentance (66.1). The feminine imagery, introduced in chaps. 40–55, is further elaborated (62.1–5; 66.7–14). God is addressed as father (63.16; 64.8), and a striking variation on the God-as-warrior theme is the famous “grapes of wrath” passage (63.1–6) in which he is portrayed as a somewhat reluctant victor, limping home from war, bloodstained and stooping (v. 1; NRSV: “marching”). The last verse of the book, one of the few biblical texts on which a doctrine of hellfire can be based (66.24), is so gruesome that in Jewish custom the preceding verses about “the new heavens and the new earth” are repeated after it, to end the reading on a more hopeful and at the same time more characteristically Isaianic note.
The title informs us that he lived during the reigns of four kings of Judah (Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah), that is to say, during the second half of the eighth century BCE. This was a period during which Judah's fortunes changed from affluence under Uzziah (see 2 Chron. 26) to defeat and humiliation at the hands of the Assyrians in 701 BCE (2 Kings 18). Many passages clearly reflect those traumatic years—the approaching Assyrian army (5.26–30; 10.28–32), the devastation of the land of Judah (1.7–8), the folly of Judah's leaders (chaps. 30–31)—and were probably composed at that time. Perhaps the hopes accompanying the coronation of Hezekiah in 715 BCE are expressed in the dynastic hymn 9.1–7.
A few sections of narrative, however, clearly reflect later ideas and attitudes. The story of Jerusalem's miraculous deliverance from the Assyrian army under Sennacherib in 701 (chaps. 36–37), for example, though based on the fact that Jerusalem was not destroyed on that occasion, probably owes much to an upsurge of national confidence during the reign of Josiah (626–609) when the Assyrian empire collapsed. The annals of Sennacherib, and 2 Kings 18.14–16 (omitted from the Isaianic version), suggest that the reality was very different.
Some passages, mainly in chaps. 40–66, contain no references at all to the Assyrians, but frequently allude to events and conditions in the Babylonian period (605–538 BCE): Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins (44.28; 49.17); Babylonian idols (46.1–2); a Jewish colony at Syene (Elephantine) in Egypt (49.12); Cyrus (45.1). The bulk of the book was thus probably composed more than a century after the lifetime of Isaiah. The popular division into three sections, First Isaiah (chaps. 1–39) dated to the eighth century BCE, Second (Deutero-) Isaiah (chaps. 40–55) to the sixth, and Third Isaiah (chaps. 56–66) to the fifth, is a crude oversimplification. The literary and theological unity of the whole book is unmistakable; and some parts of First Isaiah, notably the two Babylonian chapters (13–14) and the Isaiah apocalypse (24–27), manifestly belong to the sixth century or later. Chaps. 24–27 should probably be dated to the fourth century BCE, contemporary with Joel. Each passage must be handled on its own, though both as a product of its age and in the context of the Isaianic corpus as a whole.
Many of the most elaborate visions of a new age focus on an individual savior figure, champion of justice and righteousness. In some he is explicitly identified as a king from the royal lineage of David (9.2–7; 11.1–5), and this is no doubt implied in others (32.1–2; 42.1–4; cf. 55.3). In the context of the Babylonian exile, Cyrus is hailed as the Lord's anointed (45.1–7; cf. 41.2–3), and in one passage the savior figure is represented as a prophet, anointed to “bring good news to the oppressed” (61.1–4; cf. Luke 4.18–19). This prophetic model seems to underlie two others, in which he is described as “the servant of the Lord” (49.1–6; 50.4–9), though in both these cases the story of the “servant” may be understood to refer to the experience of Israel rather than any individual (cf. 49.3).
Finally, there is the celebrated “suffering servant” passage, which seems to tell the story of an individual who heals and redeems by vicarious suffering (52.13–53.12). At one time considered the last of four autonomous “servant songs” (42.1–4; 49.1–6; 50.4–9; 52.13–53.12), it is rather to be understood as an independent hymn of thanksgiving expressing the people's confidence in the power of God to intervene on their behalf, to heal their wounds, and to forgive their sins. There is no answer to the question of who the servant is or how he achieves this. The emphasis, here as elsewhere in the Isaianic tradition (1.21–26; 9.2–7; 35; 41.14–16; 49.14–26; 52.1–2), is on a transformation from humiliation to exaltation, defeat to victory. If it reflects the release of Jehoiachin from prison in Babylon in 660 BCE (2 Kings 25.27–30; Jer. 52.31–34), or the unexpected military successes of Cyrus that eventually led to the fall of Babylon in 538 BCE; it also draws on traditional religious ideas, such as the scapegoat ritual on the Day of Atonement (53.4, 6, 12; cf. Lev. 16.20–22; see Azazel) and the figure of Moses, the “servant of the Lord” (Deut. 34.5; Josh. 1.1, 2, 13; etc.), who offered to die for his people (53.7–9, 12; cf. Exod. 32.32). The Exodus and wilderness motifs are prominent throughout these chapters (e.g., 43.15–21; 48.20–21; 51.9–11; 52.11–12; 55.12–13).
Isaiah is prominent in synagogue lectionaries, and has made a profound and distinctive impression on Jewish literary and religious tradition, in particular its Zion-centered visions of justice and peace (e.g., 2.2–4; 11.6–9).
John F. A. Sawyer
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