Isaiah Introduction

The historical context

Isaiah lived through a pivotal period of his nation’s history, the second half of the eighth century bc, which saw the rise of written prophecy in the work of Amos, Hosea, Micah and himself, but also the downfall and disappearance of the greater part of Israel, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom. (See The Prophets in The Song of Songs)

In 740 bc the death of King Uzziah (6:1) marked the end of an ‘Indian Summer’ in which both Judah and Israel had enjoyed some fifty years’ respite from large-scale aggression. This would soon be only a memory. The rest of the century was to be dominated by predatory Assyrian kings: Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727), Shalmaneser V (726–722), Sargon II (721–705) and Sennacherib (705–681). Their ambitions were for empire, not for plunder alone; and in pursuit of it they uprooted and transplanted whole populations, punishing any sign of rebellion with prompt and hideous reprisals.

In 735 Jerusalem felt the shock-wave of their approach, when the armies of Israel and Syria arrived to force King Ahaz into an anti-Assyrian coalition. Isaiah’s confrontation of the king (ch. 7) brought to light the real issue of this period, the choice between quiet faith and desperate alliances. The king’s decision to stake all, not on God but on Assyria itself, called forth an implied rejection of him and his kind, and the prophecy of a perfect king, Immanuel, to arise out of the felled stock of the Davidic dynasty.

Israel paid for her rebellion with the loss of her northern regions (‘Galilee’; 9:1) in c. 734 and of her national existence in 722. For Judah, bordered now by a cosmopolitan Assyrian province (2 Ki. 17:24) in the territory where Israel had stood, there was every discouragement to patriotic gestures.

But it was a patriot who followed King Ahaz. Hezekiah (for whose chronology see on 2 Ki. 18:1) was a firebrand in whom faith and impatience took turns to kindle the flame. Much of Isaiah’s energy was devoted to keeping him out of intrigues against Assyria (see on 14:28–32; 18:1–7; 20:1–6). In the end this struggle came to a head in a bitter conflict between the prophet and a pro-Egypt faction at court, implicit in chs. 28–31. The sequel was Hezekiah’s revolt against Assyria (chs. 36, 37), which brought the might of Sennacherib down upon him in 701 bc and left the little kingdom of Judah almost prostrate in spite of the miraculous rescue of Jerusalem.

Isaiah’s dealings with Hezekiah were never confined to questions of political prudence, nor to the immediate future; and his last encounter with the king pinpoints the difference between these two men of faith. In 39:5–7 Isaiah looks far ahead to the Babylonian captivity, the fruit of the king’s disobedience, but the king’s only reaction is relief: ‘There will be peace and security in my lifetime.’ It was an understandable horizon for a monarch; unthinkable for a prophet. So the prophecy goes on to completion in the final section.

The events implied in chs. 40–55 are identified beyond doubt by the name of Cyrus (44:28; 45:1), which carries us at once into the world of the sixth century. Cyrus, king of Anshan in southern Persia, had seized control of the Median Empire by 550 bc and most of Asia Minor by 547. This put him in a commanding position against the Babylonian Empire (where the Jews had been captive since before the fall of Jerusalem in 587). This empire was itself weak and divided by now, the king, Nabonidus, being absent from the capital (where his son Belshazzar deputized for him) and at odds with the priests. In 539 Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army in the field and his forces entered Babylon without a fight. True to God’s prophecy in Is. 44:28, he repatriated the Jews (among other subject peoples) with instructions to rebuild their temple (Ezr. 1:2–4; 6:2–5). His own inscription on the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ (now in the British Museum) reveals that this was his general policy, in order to enlist the good offices of the gods whom he restored to their sanctuaries (see on 41:25).

A considerable number of Jews returned, but soon fell foul of the ‘people of the land’ by rejecting their help in rebuilding the temple (Ezr. 4:3). The whole work came to a halt for nearly twenty years, until Haggai and Zechariah inspired a new attempt in 520, which was completed in 516. Many commentators see this situation, with its human tensions and its preoccupation with Jerusalem and the temple, as the background presupposed in chs. 56–66. In this commentary, however, the thread that binds the last chapters together is taken to be thematic rather than historical, a preoccupation no longer with Babylon but with the homeland and the mother-city, both as they were in their imperfection and as they pointed beyond themselves to the new heavens and earth, and to the ‘Jerusalem above’.


The traditional and New Testament view

Until modern times the book of Isaiah was universally regarded as a unity, the product of the eighth-century prophet of the same name. A single scroll was used for the whole of it, as we learn not only from Qumran but from Lk. 4:17 (where the chosen reading was from one of the latest chapters). The same assumption of unity is already evident in Ecclus. 48:22–25, written some 200 years before the NT period. The NT fully concurs: see e.g. Jn. 12:37–41; Rom. 9:27–29; 10:20–21.

Modern criticism

Apart from a tentative query by the medieval Jewish scholar Ibn Ezra (whose remarks elsewhere, however, endorse the traditional view), the idea of a multiple authorship of Isaiah has arisen only in the last two centuries. Its simplest, most persuasive form is the ascription of chs. 1–39 to Isaiah and 40–66 to an anonymous prophet living among the sixth-century exiles in Babylonia. It is suggested that as an appropriate sequel to Isaiah, this work came to be appended to Isaiah’s, and being anonymous, eventually lost its separate identity.

The chief grounds of this view and of its main variants are, first, what has been called the ‘analogy of prophecy’, i.e. the fact that prophets usually address their contemporaries (and the people addressed in chs. 40–66 are predominantly the exiles); and second, the distinctive style, vocabulary and theological emphasis of chs. 40–66. These will be considered later.

But in fact no scholar holds the theory in this simple form, for by its own principles it demands to be carried much further. A typical analysis shows chs. 1–39 (Isaiah’s portion of the book) subdivided into a basic collection of eighth-century oracles by the prophet, supplemented by material from later disciples of various periods (e.g. chs. 13, 14 from the Babylonian exile in the sixth century; chs. 24–27 from perhaps the end of the Persian regime, in the fourth century). This added material, including many shorter contributions, may amount to some 250 verses of chs. 1–39 (i.e. about one-third); and some of the longer insertions are themselves analysed as composite, with their own history of growth.

Chs. 40–66 are usually divided into two main parts: Deutero- (i.e. Second-) Isaiah (40–55; exilic; say c. 545 bc) and Trito- (Third-) Isaiah (56–66; post-exilic; say c. 520 bc). The former of these is generally considered a unity, the work of a ‘great unknown’ disciple of Isaiah; but the latter part (chs. 56–66) is most often thought to come from the second prophet’s own followers, of several schools of thought, who interpreted his message to the next generation. Commentators differ over the number of historical situations and of parties (e.g. moralist, institutionalist, patriotic, universalist) discoverable here, and consequently in their analysis of Trito-Isaiah; but at least four sources are commonly isolated in its eleven chapters.

It is important to realize that this suggested galaxy of authors and supplementers is not wholly arbitrary. Once the initial criteria for dividing the book are accepted, they cannot simply be discarded after the first cut; they must be used consistently (with the results we have seen) or not at all. So despite the attractive simplicity of a supposed two-volume work (by Isaiah and a successor), the only viable alternative to a single author is not two authors but something like a dozen.

It is only fair to add that the emphasis of critical scholars has recently been on the unity in this diversity. The supplementers are seen as a school of disciples, steeped in Isaiah’s thought and prophesying in his spirit to new generations. So his teaching, on this view, continued to put out offshoots of new growth for centuries after his death, and his name was appropriately attached to the family of writings fathered by his oracles.

An assessment of the arguments for multiple authorship

In face of the strong tradition of unity of authorship, the onus of proof is on those who divide the book. Their chief criteria are not invulnerable.

1. ‘The analogy of prophecy’. There is no denying that if chs. 40–66 are Isaiah’s own, the depth and length of his immersion in a distant age make his experience highly exceptional. But, in the first place, to disallow whatever transcends known analogies is to exalt analogy above reason, and incidentally to accord ill with the innovative God of these chapters (43:18). Secondly, it exaggerates in this instance what is a difference in degree rather than in kind between these chapters and the rest. Chs. 1–39 contain many excursions into a recognizable future which have been critically attributed, in most cases, to later editors rather than to Isaiah on this same ‘analogy of prophecy’ (which thus turns out to be based on texts trimmed to support it). Moreover, some of these prophecies speak (as do chs. 40–66.) as if from within the future they describe, e.g. in the perfect tenses of the well-known birth-oracle of 9:2–6, or in the vision of captivity and judgment in 5:13–16 (despite the niv’s futures). At greater length Jeremiah celebrates Babylon’s doom as if from the standpoint of the final generation of captives, now urging them to escape (Je. 50:8; 51:45; cf. Is. 48:20)—whereas he had forbidden such thoughts to his literal contemporaries in their different time and role (Je. 29:4–14).

Still more to our point, 13:1–14:23 (a named oracle by ‘Isaiah son of Amoz’) sees Babylon, as chs. 40–66 see her, not as the unruly Assyrian province of Isaiah’s day, but as a world power whose impending fall will mean the end of Israel’s exile. To this oracle we must add the dreamlike vision of 21:1–10, where the reported fall of Babylon throws Isaiah into a state of shock.

In the light of all this, the intense involvement of chs. 40–66 with the Babylonian exile, its lessons and its aftermath, may transcend the reader’s expectation, but hardly Isaiah’s. For him it could well be the final flowering of his preoccupation with the interplay between those opposites, Babylon and Israel, in the long purposes of God, and represent the fulfilment of his ministry.

It may be worth adding that even the supreme anomaly, the naming of Cyrus a century-and-a-half before his time (44:28; 45:1), is not unparalleled (see the predicting of Josiah, at twice this interval, in 1 Ki. 13:2). Secondly, the power to predict is precisely the proof paraded here that Yahweh alone is God (cf. 41:21–23, 26–29; 44:7–8, 25–28; 46:10–11; 48:3–8. Note that 48:8 blames Israel’s deafness, not God’s silence, for her ignorance of the new things that were to happen at the end of the exile).

2. The distinctive style of chs. 40–66. This would only be a valid argument against Isaiah’s authorship if these chapters were addressed to a comparable situation and audience to those of 1–39. But if they are indeed Isaiah’s, they are the product of his old age, a message written, not preached, concerned to comfort rather than warn, and directed to a future generation with scarcely a glance at his own. These are immense differences. Such prophesying may seem an intrinsic improbability (see above), but one cannot have the objection both ways. For it would be still more extraordinary (granted that Isaiah was the author) if so radical a shift of situation, method and object were to produce no great change of thought and expression.

Certainly one might expect in chs. 1–39, if the whole book is Isaiah’s, an occasional foretaste of 40–66, when the latter’s themes were momentarily anticipated; and this is so. God’s sovereignty in history (a major theme of 40–66) is expressed to Sennacherib in 37:26 (701 bc) in the very tone and terms of the later chapters: ‘Have you not heard?’ (cf. 40:28); ‘Long ago I ordained it’ (cf. 41:4; Heb.); ‘In days of old’ (cf. 45:21; 46:10); ‘I planned it’ (cf. 46:11); ‘now I have brought it to pass’ (cf. 48:3). There is similar language on this theme in 22:11. On the ‘greater exodus’, ch. 35 not only matches the finest eloquence of chs. 40–66 (with which it has to be grouped to save the theory of multiple authorship) but also, in almost every verse, uses the special idioms of 1–39. Again, in the visions of ultimate concord, the passages 11:6–9 and 65:25 can scarcely be told apart. These may be comparative rarities, but they are recognizable firstfruits of the total crop.

3. Vocabulary. Isaiah’s early task of denunciation called for such terms as ‘briers and thorns’, the ‘scourge’, the ‘storm’, the ‘remnant’; but the later work of reassurance and vocation emphasized God’s initiative to ‘create’, ‘choose’ and ‘redeem’. His ‘purpose’ is seen to embrace the distant ‘islands’, the ‘ends of the earth’ and ‘all flesh’; this naturally calls forth the invitation to ‘praise’, ‘rejoice’ and ‘break forth into singing’. Even the subsidiary parts of speech reflect the change of subject, for the later chapters abound in those that give warmth and emphasis to an utterance.

Alongside the variations, however, must be put the significant number of terms which are common to both parts of Isaiah but seldom or never encountered elsewhere in the OT. ‘The Holy One of Israel’ (twelve times in 1–39, thirteen in 40–66) is the best-known example, but several other expressions for God add their smaller testimony: e.g. the term for ‘one who forms or designs’ used with a possessive pronoun (22:11; 29:16; 44:2); ‘the Mighty One of Jacob/Israel’ (1:24; 49:26; 60:16). There are also rare or unique designations of Israel that occur in both parts such as ‘blind’ (29:18; 35:5; 42:16–18), ‘deaf’ (29:18; 35:5; 42:18; 43:8), ‘forsakers of the Lord’ (1:28; 65:11), ‘ransomed of the Lord’ (35:10; 51:11), ‘the work of my hands’ (29:23; 60:21). (These examples are taken from the fuller list of R. Margalioth, The Indivisible Isaiah, 1964.) It is this large stock of Isaianic expressions that has called forth the theory (for which there is very little supporting evidence) that a circle of disciples perpetuated Isaiah’s thought-forms through the centuries. It is simpler to suppose a single mind.

4. Theology. It should now be clear that these two main parts of the book face different situations and give complementary teaching. But there is more than this. As J. A. Motyer has shown (‘The “Servant Songs” in the Unity of Isaiah’, TSF Bulletin, Spring 1957, pp. 3–7), the prophecies of 1–39 lead up to the prediction of a devastating historical punishment, which poses serious theological problems in view of the doctrines and promises set out elsewhere in those chapters. Chs. 40–66 are therefore more than a completion; they are a solution without which chs. 1–39 would end in unresolved discord. And ‘if a prophet can be inspired to declare God’s truth in the context of history … it is no great demand that he should also be inspired to find the solutions to the theological problems raised by those revelations … ’

To sum up: the theory of multiple authorship (since dual authorship breaks down into this) creates at least as many difficulties as it appears to settle. (It also raises questions elsewhere in the OT, where pre-exilic prophets appear to use material from this book; but this cannot be pursued here.) It makes Isaiah the author of a torso; it admits a criterion of analysis which leaves few of the prophets the sole authors of their writings; it envisages centuries of creative activity by not only an ‘Isaiah-school’ but similar groups revering other prophets, whose freedom to expand or adjust their masters’ work compares strangely with the care, at a not much later date, to transmit it unaltered, and whose very existence is no more than an inference. It also has to account for the unbroken early tradition of Isaiah’s unity, and to come to terms with the NT’s evident endorsement of that view.

Certainly it may be argued that the NT is not pronouncing on this question, but quoting without digressing; this is the opinion of many who wholeheartedly accept its authority. None the less it is a more direct exegesis, unless the objections are overwhelming, to take it that ‘Isaiah’ there does mean ‘Isaiah’; and at every point this approach seems to offer a similar simplicity. The alternatives (of which there are more than we have mentioned) tend to grow more elaborate the more they are followed through; and this is not a reassuring symptom. When this happens, it is usually time to look for a different centre and a tighter, more integrated scheme.

Further reading

G. W. Grogan, Isaiah, EBC (Zondervan, 1990).

J. N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, NICOT, vol. 1 (chs. 1–39) (Eerdmans, 1986; vol. 2 forthcoming).

J. A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (IVP, 1993).

c. circa, about (with dates)

NT New Testament

niv New International Version

cf. compare

OT Old Testament

EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary

NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Is 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.