Overview of Isaiah

Occasionally I read Bible chapters to my children. Since I have been writing on Isaiah, a couple days ago I decided his chapters would be good ones to read.

I started in chapter 1, but I jumped straight to 42 the next day.

Here's why.

Proto-Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah

The most brilliant scholars are frightened to draw concrete conclusions, knowing how easy it is to miss some detail or fact. Still, research cannot be done in any field without drawing some conclusions and putting them in front of others to be dealt with.

Scholars have drawn some remarkably strong conclusions about the text of the Hebrew Scriptures based on nothing but their analysis of the text. The JEPD theory of the Law of Moses is an example of one theory that liberal scholars have settled on as definitely true.

I think that's overstretching by a long shot (and I'm told that Rethinking Genesis by Duane Garrett does a good job of refuting the "documentary hypothesis").

In Isaiah, however, even the most casual reader has to notice the difference between the first 39 chapters and the last 27 (ironically coinciding with the numbers of books in the Protestant Bible). The first 39 chapters are very similar to other prophetic books, but the last 27 are breathtaking prophecies of the New Covenant all the way from chapter 40 to 66.

This does not mean Isaiah did not write both parts. There are many reasons we might find a difference like this. One thing I suggested to my wife is that chapters 1-39 were Isaiah's prophecies recorded like the other major and minor prophets, but that 40-66 were one long set of prophecies that he put together all at one time.

I'm sure there are several other possible reasons for the difference, but I am not trying to provide a scholarly analysis of Isaiah in preparation for my commentary series on the book. My goal is to give readers something practical and inspirational, hoping not just to encourage you in your Christian lives but to whet your appetite for reading Isaiah.

In this case, I am especially wanting to whet your appetite for chapters 40-66.

Isaiah 40-66 and Prophecies of Jesus

No matter what explanation you or a scholar chooses for the difference between Isaiah 1-39 and Isaiah 40-66, no one argues that chapters 40-66 were written after, or even close to, the time of Jesus.

This fact alone is enough to make the last section of Isaiah one of the most amazing pieces of literature ever penned because its prophecies of Jesus are startlingly accurate from start to finish.

We'll cover those prophecies in the individual commentaries. They are not due until we are done with chapters 1-39, but I suspect I won't be able to resist jumping to them early.

That is also why I jumped from chapter 1 to chapter 42 in reading to my daughter. I wanted her to get a taste of these tremendous prophecies.

God's Servant and Israel

Another reason for this overview is to provide a reference so that I don't have to explain the following over and over as I write the commentaries.

Isaiah 40-66 can be confusing because of its Messianic references to "Israel." There is a story once well-known that modern Christians have forgotten.

In Genesis 32:24-30, Jacob wrestles with an Angel that turns out to be God. It is there that Jacob received the name Israel in a way which is somewhat odd.

After wrestling all night, the Angel could not defeat Jacob. He touched Jacob's thigh and put it out of joint so that Jacob limped for the rest of his life. Then he asked to be let go.

Jacob didn't want to let go without a blessing, so the Angel changed his name to Israel and told him he would have power as a prince with both God and men.

So far not strange, except for the fact he was wrestling with an Angel.

When Jacob asked the angel's name, however, he gets no answer. Instead, the angel asks him why he's asking. Everyone knows that "Why are you asking?" is another way of saying, "I'm not answering."

The reason the Angel refused to answer is because Israel was the Angel's name. He was God's Prince, who would be revealed as God's King when the Gospel was preached in the future. The Angel, the pre-incarnate Word of God, was giving Jacob his name. Jacob would be called Israel now, and Jacob's descendants, who would become God's people, would bear his name throughout their existence.

"Why is it that you ask my name?" For he reserved the new name for the new people, the Babe, and was as yet unnamed, the Lord God not having yet become man. (Clement of Alexandria. The Instructor I:8. c. AD 190.)

Spiritual Israel

God chose Jacob, and Jesus—in his pre-incarnate form as the Angel of God—gave Jacob his name Israel or "Prince with God." That name passed on to Jacob's descendants, but they were unable to keep it.

You didn't know they couldn't keep it?

It's amazing to me how many of us don't realize that Jesus directly said that he was taking the kingdom of God away from earthly Israel.

In Matthew 21:33-39, Jesus tells a parable of a homeowner who plants a vineyard, then went off on business. He leased it to vinedressers, but those vinedressers refused to present him his fruit when it was due. Instead, they drove off his servants who were sent to collect the homeowner's portion.

In the end, they killed the homeowner's son, hoping to keep the vineyard.

In the next four verses (40-43), Jesus applies that parable directly to the leaders of Israel, then ends by telling them, "The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation that will bring forth its fruit."

That nation is the church, and the church has inherited not just the kingdom, but it has inherited the name Jesus' once gave to Jacob: Israel.

That is why Paul makes reference to "the Israel of God," and that is why he puts such strong emphasis on the church as the true Jews (Rom. 2:28-29; Php. 3:3).

Isaiah 40-66 and Messianic Israel

It is for this reason that so many Messianic passages in the last half of Isaiah mention Israel. Israel is not just the name of God's people. It is first the name of God's Son.

In the case of fleshly Israel, they obtained the name as a blessing directly from the Word of God, who appeared as an Angel and wrestled with Jacob. In the case of the church, we received the name because a person's head cannot bear a different name than his body.

Jesus in His Body

We tend to think of Jesus in his "individual" state. He is seated in the heavens at the right hand of God.

Things are not that simple, however. The church is Jesus' body in a far more literal sense than we are used to thinking of it. Paul wrote:

For as the body is one, yet has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is the King (Christ*). (1 Cor. 12:12)

* I almost always translate christos as "King," "the Anointed," or "Messiah" (another untranslated word) rather than leaving it untranslated as "Christ."

Notice that this says that the King (Jesus) is a many-membered body, not just his church.

It would be easy for us to understand the church being called a many-membered body because we are used to thinking of "the body of Christ." However, we are used to thinking about ...

"the body of Christ,"

not

"the body of Christ."

Selah. This is a pause so you can sound out that emphasis and think about it a moment. I am about to explain further, though.

That Jesus himself would be not just a head in the heavens, but a combined head in the heavens with a body on earth ... we are not use to thinking that way.

When my body shows up somewhere, I am there. Until I am dead, the presence of my body means I am present. Even so, wherever the King's body is, there is the King. You cannot separate King Jesus from his body.

With some effort to avoid being sucked into a really long, really important rabbit trail, let me just give one example of how important this can be.

In evangelical circles, where the unscriptural sinner's prayer has replaced scriptural baptism, we are taught to say things like: "Jesus is here right now. He can hear everything you are saying. You can bow your head right now and ask him to come into your heart."

The problem is this is the exact opposite of what Jesus himself did. When Jesus was not only "here right now," but actually speaking out loud to Saul on the road to Damascus, he did not ask Saul to ask him anything. Instead, Jesus, the head in the heavens, sent Saul to his body on earth. He sent him to Damascus, then sent Ananias to baptize him (Acts 9:1-19).

You might want to catch your breath and meditate on that a bit before you go on.

The Church as the Israel of God

We really are Jesus' body. Just as the way to find me is to find my body, so the way to find Jesus is to find his body.

And since Israel is a name that belongs to Jesus first, then that name belongs to the church as well because it is Jesus' body. If the head bears the name Israel, so does the body.

That's my essential introduction my own commentaries on Isaiah. I may add things as I go through the book.

Where To Go Next

Since this is written as a reference, so I can send you here rather than repeat the idea of the church as spiritual Israel or Israel as a name Jesus' shared, then the best thing to do is hit your back button and return where you were.

The Isaiah Commentaries are the pages that reference this one most, of course.