Struggling to Understand the Book of Isaiah?

By Adam Brown –

Reading and learning about the book of Isaiah has been one of the great joys of my life. And yet, if I am being honest, trying to derive any meaning from this book has also been one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever endured in any context at any time.

When I initially began to read Isaiah, I found the book to be extremely disorienting, fragmented, and beyond my reach. I was never quite sure of the flow or the historical backdrop in any given section. It was difficult to be certain how to bridge from this ancient Israelite prophecy to today’s Canadian context. It was also unclear to me how to close the gap from Old Testament prophecy to appropriate Christian application.

The result of all these struggles was epic boredom. For years, I avoided the book as if it were a fourteenth century plague. Every time I opened the book to try to read it, my brain glossed over, my mind shut down, and my Bible reading became an absolute drudgery.

I knew of many people who claimed that Isaiah was their favourite book in the Bible. Privately, I assumed that these people were total phonies. They must be lying, to me and maybe even to themselves. Why would they lie? Well, thought I, because it sounded good and smart and superior to love a book that most of the world could not understand or enjoy.

It was because of all of my personal difficulties with Isaiah that I decided that I wanted to focus my Ph.D. study in that very book. Now, let it be known, I did not pick Isaiah because I liked it. I picked it because I had to either learn to love it or walk away from it forever.

It was a high-risk/high-reward academic wager. It was entirely possible that I would flame out, and quickly. It was also possible, however (and this was the hope), that I might just come to grasp a little of the very thing that floated just beyond my reach. If I could just get my fingers to the edge of the hem of Isaiah’s robe, then maybe, just maybe, I might get a hold of him, pull him closer, and begin to see what all the fuss was about.

Five years after embarking on this gamble, I walked across the platform to receive my diploma as a Doctor of Philosophy in Christian Theology. I hadn’t dropped out. Yes, I had thought about quitting many times, but could never ultimately do it. Instead, I became a doctor in Isaianic studies.

Now, having said all of this, I still would not say thst I am an expert in this book. Many mysteries and riddles remain far beyond my reach. Nevertheless, I can say this: I have come to treasure Isaiah, both the prophet and the book.

At some point, I finally broke through the wall that had been keeping me on the outside, and the vista was breathtaking. Like a range of mountains all around me, I was dwarfed by the majesty of the revelation. Now, I fall prostrate before Isaiah’s God and marvel at the depth and height and length and breadth of His salvific work.

I want this for you too. If you, like me, have struggled to make sense of the book of Isaiah, then let me give you a key to unlock the door. In a word, this key is Structure. If you can come to an understanding of the structure of the book, then the rest will begin to make sense. Of course, you will still need to walk through the door and have a look around. Nevertheless, I have found that understanding Isaiah’s structure makes all the difference in the world:

Isaiah Mountain Range 586 x 352

Last Summer, I preached the whole book of Isaiah in 5 sermons at Muskoka Bible Centre. With permission, I have posted these sermons on the Southshore website.

While I am hesitant to promote my own preaching, I do think that these sermons are a helpful introduction to a book that, for most of us, is initially sealed shut. Thus, I encourage you to take a few hours to work through these five sermons by following this link:

The Gospel in Isaiah: Sermons

As a teaser – to whet your appetite – I will conclude this brief autobiographical article by attaching structural charts of the major sections of the book. There is much debate in the scholarly world about how to structure the book of Isaiah. These charts are my best effort to date.

If you want an interpretation of these charts, you will have to listen to the sermons!

I sincerely pray that God’s Spirit would help you to see His glory in and through the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah - Major Structural Divisions 586 x 352
Isaiah 1-6 - Structure 586 x 352
Isaiah 7-39 - Structure 586 x 352
Isaiah 40-55 - Structure 586 x 352

Isaiah 56-66 - Structure 586 x 352
Isaiah Mountain Range 586 x 352

Oracle Against Canada

In Isaiah, like many other prophetic books (Jeremiah 46-51, Ezekiel 25-32, Joel 3, Amos 1-2,Obadiah 1-14, Zephaniah 2, and Zechariah 2 and 9), there is a lengthy section, which scholars often call the Oracles Against the Nations (Isaiah 13-23). In many ways, this section is redundant, each nation receiving comparable words of doom and gloom, wrath and judgment. What emerges is a very clear three-fold message: (1) The LORD is sovereign over all nations; (2) All nations will be humbled; and (3) Therefore, put your trust in God, not the nations.

The problem for the modern reader is that the nations listed (Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Syria, Cush, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Tyre & Sidon) don’t resonate with us the way they would have resonated with the original audience. Moreover, we are ignorant of much of the geography alluded to within these broader oracles of judgment. The result is a glazing over of our eyes, a numbing of our brains, and an all too easy drift as we tune out and read without comprehending.

But, what if we could read about Canada or the United States? What if the oracles addressed people and places that we were familiar with rather than ancient societies that are, for the most part, long gone? Fortunately, as Isaiah 14:26 and Isaiah 34:1-3 make explicit, these oracles agains the nations are intended for every nation. Isaiah 14:26 reads:

This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth, and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations.

Of course, not every detail is intended for every nation. However, the broader point of each oracle, which is that the LORD is God of all nations and that He will humble each nation in judgment, is a message that stands for all nations, including Canada. With this in mind, let us look at the Oracle concerning Egypt (Isaiah 19:1-15) in light of our context today. We may be surprised to see how appropriate it is.

To summarize, this oracle promises that God will condemn Egypt for idol worship (Isaiah 19:1) and, this judgment will have a number of consequences, which are relational (Isaiah 19:2), religious (Isaiah 19:3), political (Isaiah 19:4), ecological (Isaiah 19:5-7), economic (Isaiah 19:8-10), and social-moral (Isaiah 19:11-15).

It is remarkable to recognize how many of these consequences are evident in Canadian society today. Might this be the result of our idol worship and faithlessness as a nation?

Relational strife is rampant in Canada (Isaiah 19:2). Canadian rises up against Canadian. We see this in our divorce rate and the number of broken families that are suffering. We see this in the violent crime that is reported every day on the nightly news. City rises against city, and kingdom against kingdom. War is now a constant reality, even in so-called peaceful Canada. CSIS works around the clock to try to keep Canada safe from attack. Millions of refugees are roaming all over the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Canada is rightly responding to this need by inviting some refugees into our country. Nevertheless, in so doing Canada is part of relational strife that covers the globe.

Religious plurality and deviancy is a hallmark of Canadian multiculturalism (Isaiah 19:3). We live in a society that laughs at the supernatural claims of the Bible. And yet, many Canadians consider themselves to be spiritual people. Though Christianity and the Bible are increasingly scoffed at, Canadians inquire of idols and sorcerers, mediums and necromancers. It seems that all religions are accepted in Canada except for Christianity, which is increasinly mocked by the mainstream.

Perhaps the one exception to our sharing in the Oracle Against Egypt is with regards to political oppression (Isaiah 19:4). For all the faults of our political system (think Senate scandal) and politial players (which politicians are sincerely mining the wisdom of Scripture in decision making?), we still enjoy remarkable political freedoms in this country. Because of God’s great patience and grace, we do not yet have a fierce king ruling over us and for this we ought to be abundantly grateful.

Ecological destruction, however, is a reality in Canada (Isaiah 19:5-7). It is common for evangelical Christians to ignore or deny the reality that though we are rich in natural resources, it is likely true that we are seeing a slow and steady decline in our natural world.
For example, fishing and hunting is not nearly as plentiful as it once was, air quality in cities is measured daily, climate change is supported by many of our top scientists, and natural disasters are a constant threat.

Nor can we deny that we are not immune from economic collapse in Canada (Isaiah 19:8-10).Since we are integrated into the world economy, we are dependant on foreign markets and will always thus be relatively fragile economically. We have seen evidence of this recently. Some examples include the Great Recession of 2008, ever inflating housing prices, especially in our Big Cities, and, with the election of the Liberal Governement, a near absolute commitment to raise our Debt to GDP ratio over the next four years.

Finally, we come to moral confusion (Isaiah 19: 11-15). In Egypt it was said that the Princes of Zoan have become fools and the princes of Memphis are deluded. That is, moral confusion trickled down in society from the top. We see this very same thing in Canada. Abortion, the legalization of marijuana, the legalization of prostitution, same sex marriage, the Ontario sex curriculum, gender blindness, doctor assisted suicide, and our entertainment bloated culture are but the beginning of a long list of examples in this regard. In Canada we call darkness light and light darkness. We celebrate the very things that the Bible calls sin and we revel in our apostasy.

In Isaiah 19:1-15 the very things we see happening in Canada today are characterized as aspects of God’s wrath against an idol-worshipping Egypt. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul describes the wrath of God as an ever receding presence of God that would inhibit the full expression of our depravity. When God gives us over to our depravity we are recipients of His wrath. It seems clear, therefore, that Canada is beginning to feel the wrath of God. As we continue to keep Him out of our life as a nation we can expect Him to continue to respond in kind, by stepping back from us. This means that for all our self-congratulatory sense of enlightenment, we will sink deeper into the blindness of our depravity and the consequences outlined to Egypt so many centuries ago will become our increasing reality.

As the Church, therefore, we must continue to confess the truth and walk in the light. For the days are about to get much darker in this country.

Kindness and Severity of God

In the book of Isaiah two portraits of two kings, Ahaz and Hezekiah, work together to teach us about the Gospel. Among a great many other parallels, both accounts share five elements in common.

One: Both kings face a serious political and military problem. Ahaz is troubled by the potential invasion of Syria and Israel to his north. He is also unsure about the strength of his alliance with the ever growing Assyrian Empire (Isaiah 7:1-6). Hezekiah is, arguably, faced with an even graver problem. Jerusalem is surrounded by the Assyrian army, which has just overtaken Syria, Israel, Philistia, and all of Judah except for Jerusalem (Isaiah 8:5-8).

Two: Both kings are encouraged, by signs from God, to trust the LORD. Ahaz is given the sign of Immanuel, which we explored at length in a previous post (Isaiah 7:14). Hezekiah is given two signs. The first is an agricultural sign, which had many similarities to the original intent of the Immanuel sign to Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14. This sign was that Hezekiah was to plant and harvest crops in Jerusalem for three years. Before the end of three years, the LORD would resolve his problem and send the Assyrians home (Isaiah 37:30-32). The second sign was a celestial sign. The LORD would make the shadow go back ten steps on the stairs of Ahaz, effectively reversing time for a little more than three hours. This was to show that God would heal Hezekiah and add 15 years to his life.

Three: Both kings had to respond to the prophetic exhortation for faith. Ahaz remained faithless and fearful (Isaiah 7:2; 7:10-13; 8:5-8). Hezekiah, on the other hand, demonstrated great faith, humbling himself by prayer in the Temple on multiple occasions (Isaiah 37:1; 37:14-20).

Four: God acted according to the response of each king. Though the LORD spared Jerusalem, He sent the Assyrians into Judah because of the lack of faith of Ahaz and the people of Judah, who followed after their king (Isaiah 8:5-8, 7:2). Likewise, the LORD saved Hezekiah and Jerusalem, miraculously slaughtering 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a night and sending Sennacherib home to be assassinated by his own sons (Isaiah 37:21-29).

Five: God introduced a twist to this otherwise straightforward contrast. Though Ahaz had been faithless, God did extend grace to him by saving Jerusalem (Isaiah 1:7-9) on account of his unconditional promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and especially David (2 Samuel 7:14-21). On the other hand, though Hezekiah had been faithful, and though God did save Hezekiah from the immediate threats surrounding him, God nevertheless found him to be lacking in perfect righteousness. For all his good, Hezekiah was not able to save his city or his people forever. The LORD promised certain exile and castration for Hezekiah’s descendents (Isaiah 39:1-8).

In a paradigmatic way, you might say that Ahaz represents the worst of the worst. He, like Adolph Hitler and Paul Bernardo, has come to represent the evil extreme of fallen humanity. On the other side of the scale, Hezekiah represents the best of the best. He, like the apostle Paul or even Mother Teresa, has come to represent the best that we, as a race of creatures, has to offer. And yet, Ahaz was not so vile that he was out of the reach of God’s grace. Likewise, Hezekiah was not so good that he was able to earn a right standing before God in his own strength, nor was he a sufficient saviour for his people.

Oh the kindness and the severity of God! Ahaz and Hezekiah stand as eternal reminders that no person is beyond the reach of the Gospel and no person is without need of the Gospel. All of us, from one extreme to the other, desperately need a truly righteous king, the Lord Jesus Christ, to save us from our sin.

Immanuel

One of the most familiar-unfamiliar stretches of Scripture in all the Bible is Isaiah 7-12. We are all familiar with Isaiah 7:14, which reads, “A virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” Matthew cites this verse at the beginning of his Gospel account, attributes it to the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus, and then promptly moves on. As do we. After all, its an open and shut case, isn’t it? What other virgin has given birth to a son? What other virgin has given birth to a son who merits the name, or title, Immanuel (God-with-us)? And, of course, there is that pesky reality that the Bible clearly says that the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy (Matthew 1:22-23).

And yet, any careful reader of Scripture can attest to the puzzlement that arises when we keep reading:

He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7:15-16)

Thrree observations:

One. The “He” who shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good is the sign-child, Immanuel.

Two. Before Immanuel is weaned and morally accountable, the political problems of King Ahaz, namely the threat of invasion from Syria and Israel, will be decively dealt with. That is, Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the king of Israel, will no longer pose a military threat to Ahaz, the king of Judah. All of this is happening in the 8th century B.C.E.

Three. We cannot, therefore, wait more than 700 years for Jesus to be born before this prophecy is fulfilled. Even while we acknowledge that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment to this prophecy (Matthew 1:22-23), we must also affirm that there is an additional initial fulfillment.

So then, if Jesus is the ultimate Immanuel, who is the initial Immanuel?

To answer this riddle, we need go no further than Isaiah 8:18: “Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.” Quite bluntly, Isaiah tells us that his sons are the sign-children.

Sign-child number one: Maher-halal-hash-baz, which means “Quick-to-the-plunder-fast-to-the-spoil.” Immediately following Isaiah’s rendezvous with King Ahaz, God instructs Isaiah to write “Belonging to Quick-to-the-plunder-fast-to-the-spoil” on a tablet and to verify this act with witnesses. He then “visits” his wife, she conceives, and a son is born. He is promptly named Quick-to-the-plunder-fast-to-the-spoil. Then the LORD announces that before this child can say, “Momma,” or, “Dadda,” Syria and Israel will fall to Assyria (Isaiah 8:1-4). Moreover, on account of the faithlessness of King Ahaz and the sin of the people of Judah, God will send Assyria into Judah, destroying everything except for Jerusalem (Isaiah 8:5-8). When this destruction takes place, just as it was announced ahead of time, the people of Israel and Judah will learn the hard way thatImmanuel, God-is-with-us.

So Maher-halal-hash-baz is Immanuel 1.0. And yet, Isaiah said that he and his children, plural, are signs and portents in Israel. Who is the second child?

Sign-child number two: Shear-Jashub, which means “A-remnant-shall-return.” When God commissioned Isaiah to meet with Ahaz and to deliver words of comfort to the king, He also instructed the prophet to take his son with him (Isaiah 7:3). Why? Was this just another take-your-kid-to-work day? Or, did God have something else in mind? A sign perhaps? May I suggest that Shear-jashub was Isaiah’s infant son, that he had not yet been weaned and he could not yet tell the difference between good and evil. Therefore, as the prophet gives King Ahaz a sign, in his very arms is that sign-child. Before “this” child is weaned and is morally accountable, says Isaiah, Syria and Israel will be defeated by Assyria. A-remnant-shall-return was the sign of comfort and hope that would reassure Ahaz that Immanuel, God-is-with-us.

Of course, Ahaz lacked faith, and therefore, a second sign-child was needed to complement the first. And, since the king refused to repent and rely on the LORD, the second sign-child, Quick-to-the-plunder-fast-to-the-spoil, had to become the first, preceding the message of hope intended by the first sign-child, who had now become the second, namely, A-remnant-shall-return.

So, how is this about Jesus? There are two answers to this question.

First, the total destruction of Syria, Israel, and Judah – save Jerusalem – is a very unsatisfying expression of Immanuel, God-with-us. Therefore, on the heals of Maher-halal-hash-baz and Shear-jashub, Isaiah prophesies of a future Davidic king who will more fully embody the hope of Immanuel (Isaiah 9:1-7). He will be filled with the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:1-3), His reign will be characterized by perfect righteousness (Isaiah 11:4-5), and His kingdom will be glorious (Isaiah 11:6-9). Just as the short-term prophecy came to pass, so too shall this long-range prophecy shall come to pass.

Second, the historical realities of the 8th century B.C.E. provide us with a perfect picture of the Gospel. The invading Assyrian army is the sure to come final judgment of God, which no one can escape. Ahaz, the idol-worshipping, child-sacrificing, faithless, man-fearing, God-ignoring king of Judah, is a perfect representative for unsaved sinful humanity. Finally, Isaiah’s two sons capture the two-fold mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus will be Maher-halal-hash-baz, destroying all who continue in sinful rebellion against God. But, Jesus will also be Shear-jashub, saving a faithful remnant of humanity from all nations for eternal life by the blood of His Cross.

Indeed, Isaiah has solved the riddle for us: “I and the children the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel.” Incidentally, Isaiah means “The LORD is salvation.” What a Gospel!

The Isaiah Apocalypse

In a previous post I gave a broad subdivision to the book of Isaiah. The book itself can be divided into three parts: First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39), Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), and Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). In the centre of First Isaiah are chapters that are often referred to as the “Isaiah Apocalypse” (Isaiah 24-27). They are so called because, in contrast to much of the surrounding material, they seem to break into the eternal future.

Isaiah 24:1-20 introduces this section with cataclysmic judgment. This is the much talked about Day of the LORD. On this day, everyone will be called to give an account of their life. No one escapes (Isaiah 24:1-3). The earth is cursed (Isaiah 24:4-6), people suffer and mourn for themselves as all joy disappears from one-time revelers (Isaiah 24:7-13). Yet, for the redeemed of all nations, this day of tumolt is a time for celebration, joy, and worship, even while there is grief for the unrepentant (Isaiah 24:14-16). Finally, like a new Noah, the prophet warns of the surety of the impending judgment to come (Isaiah 24:17-20).

The rest of these chapters can be divided into seven sub-sections by looking for the textual marker, “In that day…”

One: “On that day…” God will punish and imprison the host of heaven (demons) and the unrepentant kings of the earth (Isaiah 24:21-23).

Two: “On that day…” God will host a banquet for all the redeemed on mount Zion. At that feast, God will swallow up death forever (Isaiah 25:6-9). While the redeemed are reclining with the Lord, the unrepentant (represented here by Moab) will be cast down and condemned (Isaiah 25:10-12).

Three: “In that day…” God will be worshipped by all the resurrected saints in the land of Judah (Isaiah 26:1). The anthem that will be sung is written in anticipation, reminding those gathered of all that God has accomplished on their behalf. The culminating victory shall be our resurrection from the dead (Isaiah 26:19).

Four: “In that day…” God will deal the final death blow to Satan, here named Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, the dragon that is in the sea (Isaiah 27:1).

Five: “In that day…” God will replant His vineyard. This vineyard is the resurrected people of God living in the glorified Creation. There will never again be pain and toil on account of the sin of humanity, for God will have spent all His wrath and the curse will be over. We are, here, on the other side of judgment (Isaiah 27:2-6)!

Six: “In that day…” God will gather all of True Israel from within the Promised Land (Isaiah 27:12).

Seven: “In that day…” God will gather all of  True Israel from every corner of the earth (Isaiah 27:13).

These are remarkable chapters, which help us to understand the intention for all that surrounds them. The recounting of the reigns of Ahaz (Isaiah 7-12) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 36-39), as well as the oracles against the nations (Isaiah 13-23) and the woes against Ephraim and Jerusalem (Isaiah 28-33), and even the summations of God’s judgment (Isaiah 34) and promised salvation (Isaiah 35) all find their deepest meaning in the shadow of the “Isaiah Apocalypse.” More will be said about all of this in future posts.

Atonement

With the exception of Isaiah 1:18-19, Isaiah 1:25-27,Isaiah 2:2-4, and Isaiah 4:2-6, the first five chapters of the book of Isaiah emphasize sin and wrath. Needless to say, this is a bleak way to start a book. So, finally, we come to Isaiah 6, a chapter that shows us how God will atone for the sin of His people.

Though this chapter too has its share of bad news (see Isaiah 6:8-13), the predominate message is hopeful. For example, look at the words of the seraphim to Isaiah: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7)! This chapter outlines the full countours of the Gospel in a four-fold pattern that is paradigmatic for Judah and all humanity.

(1) King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6:1a). As far as kings go, Uzziah was a good king. He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD (2 Kings 15:3). Therefore, God blessed him by expanding his borders, giving relative peace, and sustaining his reign for 52 years. However, the high places were not taken away (2 Kings 15:4). Therefore, God cursed him with leprosy and isolation. The portrait of King Uzziah is a picture of the institution of the Davidic monarchy. On the whole, it was a God-intended office (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) that would lead to the eternal reign of the Son of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Therefore, it was sanctioned and blessed by God.

However, for all of its potential good, and in spite of its “good kings,” the institution itself had spiritual leprosy. Therefore, in 586 B.C.E. God put an end to the throne of David at the hands of the Babylonians (2 Kings 25:1-21). Though Jehoiachin was released from prison in Babylon (2 Kings 25:27-30), and though Zerubbabel returned from exile to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 3:1-3, Ezra 3:8,Haggai 1:12-15), both heirs failed to sit on the throne of David their father.

The reign and death of Uzziah is a picture of the rise and fall of the Davidic monarchy.

(2) The LORD of hosts is King (Isaiah 6:1b-4). In contrast to the dead King Uzziah is the True King of Israel, the Lord of hosts. Isaiah was here reminded that the Rightful King of Israel is God Almighty. Whereas the seraphim sing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory,” we can imagine that the song for Uzziah and the Davidic kings would go something like this: “Leprous, Leprous, Leprous is the king of Judah; the whole kingdom is full of his leprosy!”

We are here reminded that God is the Ultimate King and that the Davidic seed is not. And yet, this introduces a serious theological problem. Did God not promise to install David’s son as King forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16)? Herein is the wonder and awe of this chapter. When Isaiah looked upon the LORD of hosts in heaven, he was gazing upon THE Davidic King, the preincarnate Lord Jesus Christ (John 12:41). So it is that God both condemned the Davidic kings and preserved the Davidic throne by becoming THE Davidic King, an heir of David according to the flesh through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1-6, 2 Timothy 2:8).

(3) Isaiah confesses his sin and repents (Isaiah 6:5). We do not know how aware Isaiah was of his sin before this moment. He may have been painfully aware or he might have lacked a full awareness of his sinful heart. Regardless, when he came face to face with the TRUE Davidic King, the three-times Holy LORD of hosts, Isaiah saw himself for who he truly was, a man of unclean lips. Consequently, he issued a damning woe oracle against himself and fell prostrate before the King.

Unlike Isaiah, however, Judah neither recognized the LORD’s kingship over them, nor did they repent of their sin, for the LORD had hardened their hearts against Him (Isaiah 6:8-10). Indeed, we know that this rejection of God and unrepentant spirit continued right up until and during the Incarnation of their True King, the Lord Christ Jesus (John 1:11).

(4) Isaiah’s sin is atoned for (Isaiah 6:6-7). Isaiah knew that he was in a place that he should not be and that he had looked upon One whom he should not have seen. And, therefore, he was scared for his life. His fear was not quickly abated, as one of the burning ones (seraphim) flew toward him with fire in his hand (Isaiah 6:6). Surely, Isaiah must have been bracing himself for immediate death by fire. Instead, however, the burning one touched the burning coal against Isaiah’s lips and atoned for his sin. His sins were covered as God symbolically burned them away.

Again, by contrast, just as Judah did not recognize their King, they did not repent of their sin. Therefore, their atonement was to be much more severe. God prophecied that he would burn away their sin by destroying their land and by carrying them into exile (Isaiah 6:11-12). But even this would not be sufficient. Though a remnant was to return, this “tenth” would have to be burned again (Isaiah 6:13a-13b). How far down would God be compelled to burn His people? Until there remained but a remnant of One; one righteous man, the holy seed. This “holy seed” was to be their King, the Lord Jesus Christ (Genesis 12:7, Galatians 3:16). Yes, the sin of Judah was so great that their atonement required that this remnant of One, the holy seed, a sinless man who kept covenant perfectly with God without exception, would have to be burned. And, in so burning the holy seed, atonement was to be made for Judah. O the cost of the sin of God’s people, that their God must become their King to be burned for them!

This leaves one crucial question: What about the nations? What about us? Are we left outside of God’s severe mercy? Is there atonement for us? Of course, Judah is a picture-lesson for the nations. As God deals with Judah, so God deals with all nations and all peoples. The holy seed is not only the King of Judah. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. And therefore, the burning of Judah’s King is an offer of atonement for all who might believe (John 3:16).

Isaiah saw the King and kissed a burning coal and was healed. The King became a burning coal as He hung bleeding on the Cross. Therefore, we kiss the crucified, bloody, burning feet of our King by faith and are healed.

Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him. (Psalm 2:12)

Growing Weary of Sin and Punishment?

One of the most difficult aspects of the Bible is its abundant focus on sin and punishment. This may not be evident to many Christians, since our preaching, by and large, does not seem to emphasize sin and punishment as much as the Bible does.

It struck me this week that the Bible spends more time describing our sin and God’s wrath than I would like. It struck me because I am growing weary of preaching it. I am just trying to lead my congregation through the great book of Isaiah and one would think that this should be an uplifting exercise. Yet, it seems like the last six weeks have been one giant workshop on our sinful wretchedness in light of God’s perfect holiness. Of course, there are glimmers of grace, but only after everyone is reminded seven times over that they are sinners deserving of hell. Israel was sinful and punished. Judah was sinful and punished. Jerusalem was sinful and punished (though spared for a time). Hoshea was sinful and punished. Ahaz was sinful and punished (though shown remarkable mercy in light of his idolatrous faithlessness). Hezekiah was faithful to a point, but eventually he sinned, and was punished. Humanity is sinful and will be punished. Yes, we get it!

Or do we? Do we really get it? As I took a big breath before ascending to the pulpit this week I was reminded that God spoke His Word into existence through the prophets and apostles with perfection. The content is perfect. The progressive nature of revelation is perfect. The emphasis is perfect. If we, or I, are growing weary of that which God has decided to emphasize, then we, or I, simply do not yet get it.

The emphasis is perfect? What in the world does this mean? It means that God definitively decided how He wanted to emphasize each and every theme in the Bible. God alone has authority to accent His Word. If God wants to put a heavy emphasis on sin and punishment, then God wants to put a heavy emphasis on sin and punishment. Who am I to change that emphasis? As a preacher of God’s Word, who am I to grow weary of what God has said or how God has said it?

If God emphasizes sin and punishment in Isaiah 1-5, then as His preacher, I must emphasize sin and punishment as I preach Isaiah 1-5. Perhaps, yes certainly, God is repeating and emphasizing our sin and His punishment because we need to be told, retold, reminded, and then reminded again, that we have sinned and deserve nothing from God. God must continually emphasize this difficult reality because in our sinfulness we are prone to be forgetful of our sinfulness. And, when we are forgetful of our sinfulness, then we cease crying out to God for His mercy and His grace. The Gospel is nonsensical without a clear understanding of our situation, and that situation is dire. Reminding us of our sin and His punishment until we have grown weary of hearing it is God’s way of loving us by warning us of the consequences of an unrepentant life.

God’s Word, then, is perfectly accented in order to give God maximum glory and us maximum assistance. When we preach with the same emphasis that God has given in His Word, then He will be glorified and we will be edified in the greatest possible measure. As an example of this, Isaiah 40:1 (Comfort, comfort my people, says your God…) just does not penetrate as deeply without persevering through the 39 chapters of sin and punishment that precede it. When we make our way through Isaiah 1-39 one verse at a time, then Isaiah 40 embraces our weary souls in a way that is simply not possible without the former chapters.

Preaching Isaiah 2-5 was a heavy assignment for me. But against the darkness of these chapters God also spoke Isaiah 2:2-4 and Isaiah 4:2-6. The emphasis is perfect just as God is perfect. And so we must continue to preach God’s Word as it is, trusting Him to do a mighty work by His Spirit.

Our Day in Court

What would happen if God took you to court?  When God called heaven and earth to bear witness against you, what would their testimony be? What would be exposed and laid bare? How would you plead? Could you, would you, dare to stand before the righteous Judge of all Creation and utter the words, “Not Guilty”? The book of Isaiah opens with a chapter that shows God calling His people to court.

Trial: Heaven and earth are brought in as witnesses (Isaiah 1:2). The charges are read aloud by the Judge, God almighty: My people have broken covenant and they do not know me (Isaiah 1:2b-3). Before the trial begins in earnest, the prophet, acting as the defence attorney, turns and urges his client to consider the evidence at hand and plead guilty with the hope of mercy (Isaiah 1:4-9). The defendant, Judah and Jerusalem, is finally hauled in under the alias of Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:10). And then, a perhaps surprising accusation is leveled: My people offer hypocritical worship (Isaiah 1:11-15). And this is the crux of it all, hypocritical worship. Judah and Jerusalem stand accused of worship that does all the right things but is polluted by unresolved, unrepented, sin. Sins of commission and sins of omission are brought before the court and then, before the gavel falls and the trial ends, the Judge does something unexpected. He calls for repentance (Isaiah 1:16-17) and offers terms for an ancient equivalent of a plea bargain (Isaiah 1:18-20). Repent, says the Judge, and though your sins ar like scarlet they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool (Isaiah 1:18). On the other hand, the Judge continues, if you persist in your plea of “Not Guilty” then you shall be eaten by the sword (Isaiah 1:19).

The trial is now over and we wait. We wait for the verdict and sentencing.

Verdict: How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers (Isaiah 1:21). And the Judge continues (Isaiah 1:22-23), Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water (economic corruption). Your princes are rebels and companions of theives (abuse of power). Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts(materialistic selling out). They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them (lack of concern for the most vulnerable). Translation: Guilty as charged.

Sentencing: God will punish all sin (Isaiah 1:24). Yet, the repentant shall be spared, purified, and restored (Isaiah 1:25-27). The unrepentant shall be broken together, they shall burn with none to quench them (Isaiah 1:28-31).

Just like Judah and Jerusalem in Hezekiah’s day, we all will have our day in court. Scoffers may deny this, but it remains a most certain fact (2 Peter 3:1-10). Peter reminds us that heaven and earth will be burned up  and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (2 Peter 3:10). There is no secret place to sin. On that day, what will be exposed and laid bare from your life? What will be exposed and laid bare from my life? How will we plead? How do we plead? I, for one, have already entered my plea, and this shall remain my plea for all eternity. My plea is this, “Guilty as charged, Lord have mercy.” And He shall because of Jesus Christ.

Reflecting on all of this, Peter extends the most serious and important of exhortations: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissovled, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we (who have pleaded guilty in repentance) are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11-13).

Let us worship God for this Gospel of grace, not as unrepentant hypocrits, but as repentant sinners who have been saved by grace through faith by the death, resurrection, and advocacy of our High Priest, the Lord Jesus. To Him be glory forever and ever, for we are guilty, but He has taken our guilt away. And so we live for Him, repenting of sin and growing, yes ever growing, in sincere godliness and holiness. Amen.

Isaiah’s Intentional Structure

One of the most difficult aspects to understanding the book of Isaiah is that, though it is very intentionally organized, its structure is not always self-evident. Indeed, any scholar, Sunday school teacher, or casual Bible reader will tell you, it takes special scrutiny to identify its shape. To the casual reader, the book is a mess, careening from wrath to comfort and back again, over and over. What’s more, the book does not unfold in a linear fashion with a clear plot that demonstrates a distinguishable beginning, middle, and end. At many points it is not entirely clear when in Jerusalem’s history the reader should be contextually anchored.

In light of all this, it is helpful to orientate oneself before beginning to read. Perhaps the most obvious place to begin is the three main sections, which are chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. Scholars often refer to these sections as First Isaiah or Proto-Isaiah (1-39), Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah (40-55), and Third Isaiah or Trito-Isaiah (56-66). Great debate swirls around who is responsible for the composition of these three sections. Some argue that Isaiah, the son of Amoz, wrote all 66 chapters. Others suggest that many hands over many years contributed in their own time and way to the theological legacy of Isaiah, the son of Amoz. All camps agree that First Isaiah (1-39) is originally addressed to pre-exilic Judah, Second Isaiah (40-55) is originally addressed to the exilic community in Babylon, and Third Isaiah (56-66) is originally addressed to the remnant that returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem.

If we look at First Isaiah (1-39) more closely we will see seven principle parts, which are chapters (a) 1-6, (b) 7-12, (c) 13-23, (d) 24-27, (e) 28-33, (f) 34-35, and (g) 36-39. The first of these principal parts (1-6) ought to be set apart as a block that introduces the three main sections of the entire book (1-39, 40-55, and 56-66). The remaining six principle parts then create a symmetrical structure, with chapters 24-27 in the middle. This structure can be understood metaphorically as a mountain, with chapters 24-27 representing the summit:

structure isaiah 1-39

The summit (Isaiah 24-27) represents the end, the goal of history. These chapters describe the cataclysmic transition to a world ruled by God from Mount Zion. On this mountain God hosts a banquet (Isaiah 25:6), swallows up death (Isaiah 25:7-8), and raises people back to life from the dust of the earth (Isaiah 26:19).

On either side of the summit are the rocky cliffs. To the left (Isaiah 13-23), Isaiah provides oracles against the nations, showing that no mere mortal, no matter how powerful, is equal to God. The proud will be humbled. To the right (Isaiah 28-33), Isaiah makes it clear that, just like the other nations, Ephraim (Israel) and Judah have also failed to achieve a right standing before God. In short, “Are Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9).

We then have an asymmetrical piece (Isaiah 34-35), which summarizes the cascading message of wrath and salvation throughout Isaiah. Chapter 34 reminds us that we are all subject to the wrath of God. However, chapter 35 mercifully promises salvation and restoration for “the ransomed of the LORD” (Isaiah 35:10).

Finally, we come to the foothills, which establish twin historical object lessons from the reigns of kings Ahaz (Isaiah 7-12) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 36-39). Both kings are embroiled in knee-knocking tests of faith. Whereas Ahaz, a first class idolater (2 Kings 16:1-20), fails miserably, Hezekiah, his son, triumphs by faith against inconceivable odds (2 Kings 18:1-19:37). And yet, God shows Ahaz mercy and grace, sustaining Jerusalem in spite of his stark faithlessness by promising an heir to reign “with justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 9:7). By contrast, though Jerusalem and Judah enter into a temporary peace, God promises certain exile for the descendants of Hezekiah (Isaiah 39:5-7). Unwrapping this riddle will be the goal of future posts.

The Heavy Lifting

Jeroboam II, Uzziah, Menahem, Jotham, Tiglath-pilesar, Pekah, Ahaz, Shalmaneser, Hoshea, Sargon, Hezekiah, Sennacherib, Eliakim, Shebna, Joah, the Rabshakeh.

Somehow these names don’t seem to matter much to most Christians today. Indeed, it is very difficult to figure out how any of them factor in to the day-to-day decision making of our busy lives. What practical application can we glean from these ancient biographies that will help us to achieve greater [fill in the blank here] in life? How will the lessons learned from a paragraph here or a paragraph there from within the biblical record change my approach to standing in line, bleary eyed on Monday morning, at the local Tim Horton’s coffee shop?

Well, quite frankly, Sennacherib did not really help me that much this morning. My day probably would have unfolded much the same way whether or not Sennacherib had devestated Judah and forced Hezekiah into a nail-biting test of faith in the eighth century BCE.

Herein lies the great challenge of preaching, or receiving the preaching, of much of the Bible. The form of the evangelical sermon requires managable bite-sized preaching texts tagged with clear life shaking application. This happens to work well with Paul’s epistles. And yet, I doubt that the author of 2 Kings was too concerned to make sure that every paragraph of his historiography ought to be super relevant for the average evangelical in 2015 Canada.

At this point it is helpful to remind ourselves that man does not live by bread alone but by EVERY Word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4). Is 2 Kings 18 any less the Word of God than Romans 5? By our approach to reading and preaching the Bible, it might seem as though we should say that it is. And yet, we know better. Moreover, lest we forget or are unaware, the history of 2 Kings 18 seems to be very important to God. After all, He repeats it no less than three times in the Old Testament: 2 Kings 16-20, Isaiah 36-39, and 2 Chronicles 28-32.

I am thankful that I preach to a local church that is hungry for the Word of God. They permit me to take 65 minutes to read to them five chapters from 2 Kings on a Sunday morning. Why? Because they want to understand and apply the book of Isaiah to their lives and they trust that without the political-historical background of 2 Kings 16-20, Isaiah remains a sealed book that is impossible to understand. They are willing to do the heavy lifting because they trust that the end is more than worth the work. And for that, among a great many other things, I dearly love them.

Reading and Understanding Isaiah

Since the earliest days of the Church, Isaiah has been treasured by Christians as a sacred book that clearly articulates a full-bodied biblical theology. It has been called the Fifth Gospel because of the clarity with which it points forward to the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. And yet, in spite of its privileged position within the Christian canon, it has always been a difficult book to read and understand.

When trying to understand Isaiah, I am consistently encouraged by the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. While reading Isaiah 52:13-53:12 the eunuch struggled to interpret its meaning. Therefore God commissioned Philip to find him in the desert in order that he might teach him about the Gospel . When Philip explained to him that the Suffering Servant was Jesus Christ, the eunuch believed and was saved. It is interesting to note that the eunuch was a high ranking official in the Ethiopian court (Acts 8:27). Therefore, it is very likely that this man was the beginning of the Christian church in Ethiopia, as he used his influence to preach the Gospel upon returning home.

This epidode in Acts 8 reminds us of three important facts. First, God preached the Gospel through Isaiah and the prophets. Second, the prophets can be difficult to understand without instruction. Third, with instruction, the Old Testament prophets are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Therefore, we must do the work required to read and understand this often neglected section of our Bibles.

From now until Christmas we will endeavour to read, explain, and understand Isaiah 1-39 as we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the Rock.