The book of Isaiah opens with a simple statement attributing the visions contained in it to “Isaiah the son of Amoz” (1:1). This affirmation has been attacked over the years by scholars who insist the book is the product of (at least) several authors (Isaiah II, Isaiah III, a team of writers). The basis of their rejection of the book’s claim of authorship are generally two-fold (with one deeper world-view objection at its foundation): 1) stylistic difference between chapters 1-39, 40-55, 56-66) and 2) the fact that a large section of the book is addressed to a future audience, hundreds of years removed from Isaiah’s time. This leads to the worldview objection that underlies much of the opposition to a single author: many scholars do not believe in the validity of accurate, predictive prophecy. They approach the text with a naturalistic, anti-supernatural bias that precludes the option that a prophet can accurately address future realities.
In my view, this worldview objection is the root of the problem. Those of us who believe that the God who created and oversees all things can reveal future realities to His prophets have no problem with the critic’s second objection (addressing a future audience). Once that is settled, the first objection (stylistic differences) fades as a major issue. After all, authors are able to shift tone and vocabulary as their material warrants; for example, John the apostle uses a significantly different writing style and vocabulary when shifting from writing a gospel (book of John) to writing the Revelation.
John Oswalt, whose commentary will be my companion in this study, offers a helpful way to understand the book of Isaiah. He sees the book as an anthology of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry rather than one long narrative. Isaiah’s various visions and messages have been compiled (by Isaiah or those close to him) into a book in order to communicate the message God wanted for His people. Still, the book has a “storyline” or narrative arc from start to finish. The visions are arranged to speak powerfully both to Isaiah’s contemporaries and those to come.
The historical backstory for the book revolves around the increasingly frightening time for the people and leadership of Judah. Isaiah served under the reigns of several kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (1:1). His commission came “in the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1). These were troubling times for the nation. Israel and Syria were threatening to attack Judah. On the larger world scene, Assyria was re-asserting its dominance as the reigning world power. The leaders of Judah (especially Ahaz) were tempted to look for stability in reliance on foreign powers (Assyria, Egypt or Babylon). Isaiah speaks in order to point them back to the only One able to guard and guide the nation: the Lord God.
Chapter 1 gives us God’s perspective on the spiritual and moral condition of the leaders and people, particularly of those in Jerusalem (“daughter of Zion”—8). The nation’s spiritual and moral leaders (judges and princes—10, 23) have forsaken the Lord. Like rebellious children, they have rebelled against the Father who raised and cared for them (2-4). Their spiritual defection has led to a host of evils: misuse of power (23), lack of justice and compassion for the fatherless and widows (23), and spiritual adultery and idolatry (29-30).
Ironically, there is still an active show of true spiritual devotion: a “multitude of . . . sacrifices” (11), convocations and solemn assemblies (13), and prayer times (15). However, due to their underlying rebellion and disobedience to God’s ways and laws, their spiritual show only aggravates and angers the Lord (“my soul hates”; I am weary of bearing them”—14).
Spiritual compromise has led to national demise. Foreign powers have devoured the land, overrunning smaller cities throughout the country (7). Jerusalem is left lonely, like a “booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city” (8). Unless they repent, further destruction is coming: “you shall be eaten by the sword” (20).
Yet, because of God’s loyal, covenantal love, there is hope. Their sins can be forgiven if they are willing to turn to Him in repentance and obedience (27). God’s heart for His people comes through in His plea: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (18). If they fail to repent and return to the Lord, He will act decisively to root out the rebellious and redeem the repentant (26-28).
Behold Your God
The LORD is a father who sees His people as His children. I’m moved that God, the perfect Father, knows what it’s like to have wayward children. Fathers cannot ensure their children walk in God’s ways (see John 1:12-13). As I am concerned for the spiritual health of my own children, I have a Father who has the same concern for me.
The LORD detests spiritual posturing and posing. God knows what’s in our hearts and sees what is done through our actions. When our hearts and lives are wayward, all our sacrifices and formal prayers are meaningless—they are a “burden” to Him (14). I must keep watch over my heart (Prov 4:23) and “learn to do good” (17) or my religious acts are an “abomination” to my God (13).
The LORD is willing to forgive and cleanse the repentant but will purge the rebellious. Despite their sinfulness, the Lord offers complete cleansing (white like snow—18) to those who will repent and return to Him. If they refuse to return to Him, He will turn His hand of judgment against them (24-26). God is patient and slow to anger but will not be mocked.
Here Am I
I must keep my heart and conduct congruent with my formal worship. The Lord is looking for a combination of a willing heart and obedient life (19). The inclination of the heart (willing—19 vs refusing—20) is revealed by our conduct (obedient—19 vs rebellious—20). Thankfully, God is able to work in us both to will and do his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
I can find forgiveness for my sins through repentance and returning. God invites his wayward people to “reason” (or “dispute”) with Him. He offers to remove the bloodguilt and stain of their souls and make them clean: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (18).
As one given the responsibility of leadership, I must use it to serve others not myself. Judah’s leaders used their power to enrich themselves at the expense of others (23). The Lord was angry with those who failed to care for the most vulnerable (fatherless, widows). As one with a leadership position, I must use the power that comes with this role to serve His people well. Otherwise, I will be judged by the Leader of All.