The Good News According to Isaiah
This is an essay I wrote 5 years ago while at London Seminary. Given our current sermon series in Isaiah, I thought it appropriate to share it with the Church now. Hopefully some will find it helpful and encouraging. Fortunately, I only have the digital copy I submitted, so cannot remember how it was graded by my teachers.
The prophet Isaiah preached to Judah, but his message contained good news for all people. Isaiah’s prophecies brought immediate good news to the people he spoke to, good news for Israelites in exile, good news already fulfilled (from our point of view today) in Jesus Christ and eschatological good news yet to be fulfilled. For brevity’s sake, this essay will focus on the latter three categories, arguing that the best news Isaiah speaks of is all about a person: the Messiah who is the Suffering Servant and who is God and will accomplish wonderful things for God’s people. Isaiah’s good news revolves around the identity and work of this person and he exhorts his hearers to repent that they might receive the many benefits of the Messiah. Accordingly, the Messiah is the focus of this essay. It will begin by describing the bad news of Isaiah: the sin of Israel and the whole world, which will bring exile and judgment. It will go on to describe the comfort brought to exiled, before honing in on the good news about the Messiah. The Messianic Covenant will still be fulfilled, by one who is called Mighty God. This Messiah is also titled the Suffering Servant and he will accomplish many things for his people. Focusing on the Songs of the Suffering Servant, this essay will outline the good news of all he will achieve.
Isaiah is full of good news, but the start of the book in chapter one contains terrible news. Though the Israelites were brought up as children of God, they are a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly.”(1) They have performed religious activities, like offering incense, but these are “an abomination” to God, because, outside of religious traditions, their deeds are evil.(2) This is “worship… divorced from justice”.(3) Verse 7 describes the consequent punishment which has befallen Israel at the hands of Sennacherib in 701BC.(4) God will ultimately deliver Jerusalem from Sennacherib, but the nation will be punished for her sin. Israel will go into exile.(5) The history of Israel reveals what an absolute disaster this is for the Jews. They will taken away from the promised land that God had given them, where he set out to bless them. The Book of Lamentations reveals just how painful exile was for the Israelites: Jerusalem “weeps bitterly in the night”, “all her majesty has departed” and “I am despised”.(6) Perhaps, even worse than the exile though, Isaiah prophesies that Sheol will open its mouth and swallow up the multitude of Jerusalem.(7) Death and the grave await the sinful people of Judah.
The bad news in Isaiah is not limited to Israel. In Isaiah 1:2, the whole earth and the heavens are called to hear of Israel’s plight, implying there is a lesson here for all the world. Assyria, Babylon, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Cush and Egypt all have judgements against them in chapters 10-19. Isaiah 13:11 says “the world” will be punished for its evil. Tevel in this context is used to mean all the inhabited world; “a visitation in judgment is going to reach all sinners”.(8) The details of this day are terrifying. The sun and moon will be darkened, destruction from the Almighty will come, the proud will be brought low, God will be exalted and many, many people will die.(9) Isaiah 13:12 says “I will make people more rare than fine gold”. Anyone who is proud, anyone who has done seemingly religious things in public, but acted wickedly in private, anyone who is guilty of idolatry, anyone who has ever sinned in any way, all are deserving of the righteous and terrifying judgment of God, who alone is good and just. This bad news of Isaiah must be preached, understood and believed, even now, for the terrifying day of the Lord is yet to come.
(Fortunately, in the midst of this bad news, God, through Isaiah, brings good news too. The narrative section from Isaiah 36-39 ends with Isaiah’s pronouncement that Babylon will carry away Jerusalem’s possessions and people into exile. Sadly, Hezekiah takes a selfish attitude and is pleased because he, himself, will enjoy “peace and security”.(10) It is appropriate, then, that chapter 40, which is once more poetic in form, should bring good news to the Israelites who go into exile. The chapter begins with the repeated imperative “Comfort, comfort”.(11) Who precisely is being commanded here is not clear, perhaps prophets in general.(12) But the good news being proclaimed is clear. Isaiah declares that there will be an end to Israel’s hardship in exile.(13) A temporary exile was sufficient punishment for the sins of Israel, that’s why Isaiah can say she “has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins”, not because God punished her twice as harshly as she deserved.(14) The rest of the chapter is about God’s greatness in comparison to people’s weakness. God can measure all the waters of the earth in the hollow of his hand in verse 12, he takes counsel from no one in verse 14 and he is the everlasting God, creator of the ends of the earth. This language is designed to comfort and encourage the exiles that God’s word will not fail and the exile will end. It also greatly encourages us, God’s promises throughout scripture will not fail; he is mighty to accomplish his purposes. Isaiah 35 also prophecies of Israel’s return from exile, so either side of the narrative section the Israelites have wonderful good news of their return to the LORD.(15)
In Isaiah 10, God tells his people again that after the exile a remnant will return.(16) But, this chapter is bookended by two chapters with even better news, assuring the Israelites that the Davidic Covenant will still be fulfilled. In chapter 11, it says “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse”.(17) This is undoubtedly a reference to the descendant of David, but it is surprisingly that Isaiah uses Jesse’s name, rather than David’s. Edward Young postulates that this decision emphasizes Israel’s mean condition.(18) But it is also possible that God wanted to encourage the Israelites that though the Davidic line of Kings would seemingly end, ancestors of Jesse (and David) would survive, from which the Messiah would arise. Chapter 9 explicitly mentions the throne of David and is therefore explicitly a reference to the Messianic Covenant.(19) Astonishingly, Isaiah says the child born would be called “Mighty God”.(20) Some refuse to see this as a genuine attribution of deity.(21) They make reference to Genesis 33:10, where Esau appeared to Jacob and it was “like seeing the face of God”, saying Isaiah 9:7 is similar.(22) Young disagrees, noting that el is used exclusively in Isaiah to refer to God himself. 10:21 is a particularly important reference because Mighty God seems to be in parallel with the LORD, the Holy One of Israel in 10:20.(23) This, then, is good news indeed! Though exile is on the horizon, one day the offspring of David will rule over Israel forever. Not only this, but the one who will reign will be God himself. He will be a righteous, eternal, unchanging King. Isaiah is not describing a spiritual reign as opposed to a physical one either. What is astonishing about this chapter is that the Mighty God would be born a child.(24) God would be born in human flesh to reign as Messiah. This teaching surely helps interpret Isaiah 40:5. The glory of the LORD will be revealed, such that all flesh will see, in the Messiah who will reign in David’s throne forever.
Isaiah does not just speak about the Messiah, who is God. He also speaks of the Suffering Servant, whose work is outlined in 4 songs.(25) It is necessary to show that the suffering servant is a person, not as some scholars have thought the nation Israel. The nation interpretation is compelling is because there are a number of places where Isaiah describes Israel and the Suffering Servant in similar ways. For example, in Isaiah 42, God says regarding the Suffering Servant “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights”.(26) This bares a lot of resemblance to Isaiah 41:8 – “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham my friend”.(27) In addition, the Suffering Servant dies in Isaiah 53:8, yet seemingly lives and prolongs his days in 53:10. There are moments in the Old Testament where Israel also dies and yet continues to live, for example in Ezekiel 37.(28) Surely then, the Suffering Servant is Israel. However, on closer inspection this conclusion is impossible. There are a huge number of other verses which show stark contrast between Israel and the way the Suffering Servant is described. Israel is described as “stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness”, whereas the Suffering Servant is described as “my righteous servant”.(29) Of Israel, God says “You have neither heard nor understood; from of old your ear has not been open”, but of the Servant God says “Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear those who are taught”.(30) The clinching argument is this: in Ezekiel, Israel’s death refers to the exile, which came about as a consequence of Israel’s sin, but the suffering servant will die even though “he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth”.(31) The death of Israel in Ezekiel 37 can therefore not be the death of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. And since Israel has done violence (see Isaiah 5:7), she cannot be the Suffering Servant.
Some people, agreeing that the Suffering Servant must be an individual, not Israel, try to identify him with Old Testament characters. One weakness of this argument, shows Henri Blocher, is that there is a large number of different names suggested, but no consensus. Moses, Job, Josiah, Jeremiah, Hezekiah, Zerubabbel and others have all been put forward as possible servants.(32)
Ultimately, though, it is positive arguments and comparisons which reveal the Servant to be the same person as the Messiah. Firstly, the Messiah, in view in chapter 11, is described as the “the root of Jesse”.(33) Then in Isaiah 53:2, the Servant is described as a “root” growing out of dry ground, which instantly brings to mind the Messianic reference earlier. Secondly, in Isaiah 55:3, God speaks of his “steadfast, sure love for David” in reference to the Suffering Servant which seems to imply that the suffering Servant is in some sense a fulfilment of The Davidic Covenant. Peter Gentry has certainly argued as such.(34) Finally and decisively, the description of the servant’s righteousness and faithfulness match what was required to fulfil the Davidic Covenant when God spoke to Solomon. In 1 Kings 2:4 David tells Solomon that God said “If your sons take heed to their ways, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a man on the throne of Israel.”(35) The Israelites were therefore expecting a Messiah who would rule with justice, be faithful to God and obey his commands. These match the descriptions of the servant in Isaiah. He is described as one who will “bring forth justice to the nations”, who will not be rebellious or turn backwards and who fears the LORD.(36)
One argument against this conclusion is worth mentioning. Hugenberger rightly sees that there is an absence of Davidic royal imagery throughout Isaiah 40-66, as opposed to the abundance of imagery in Isaiah 1-39.(37) I think Hugenberger answers his own objection though, when he sets these chapters in their exilic context. It would not be comforting to the exiled Israelites for Israel’s Saviour to be described primarily as a King. So, he is given a new title, The Suffering Servant.(38) But this does not exclude the idea that he and the Messiah are the same person. The references in 53 and 55, as well as the similarity between the Servant’s achievements and Messianic expectation, as described above, are still convincing. He has been repackaged with a new title to comfort the exiles, but their work is too similar for them to be two different people. This conclusion is supported by Alec Motyer who shows in greater detail the similarities between the Messiah and the Suffering Servant, adding the endowment of the Spirit and the “enigma” of one who is plainly man and truly God.(39)
So, the good news of Isaiah will be fulfilled in one person, who is the Messiah, the Suffering Servant and Mighty God. The four songs describe the things he will achieve. He will die for the sins of the people that they might be forgiven, he will rise from the dead, he will restore Israel, he will bring judgement on wicked nations and be a light to the Gentiles. For Israelites then and for us now, this is good news.
Isaiah 1 begins with the terrible news of Israel’s sin, but verse 18 brings a burst of hope. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow”.(40) In chapter 1 forgiveness is conditional on obedience.(41) It’s not until chapter 53 that we discover how a just God can forgive the sins of the Israelites. The answer is that the Servant will be “cut off from the land of living” for “our iniquities”.(42) The death of the servant is amazingly good news for us and the Israelites; by this man’s death, many, who had sinned, will be counted as righteous, for in his death he bore their sins.(43) The Messiah, the Suffering Servant, God himself dies for our sins that we might be forgiven and counted righteous. We rejoice and proclaim that this prophecy was fulfilled over 700 years later by Jesus Christ and we marvel at his love and sacrifice on our behalf, knowing that by his death we are forgiven.
But strangely, Isaiah 53, having prophesied of the Servant’s death, in the same chapter, speaks of prolonging his days.(44) This song tells us that the Servant dies, but therefore must also rise from the dead. This is fitting with our previous conclusion that the Servant is the Messiah. For if the Messiah dies, how else can he reign forever on David’s throne without a resurrection? Ridderbos writes of verse 11 “Not only the cross but also the open tomb is clearly shown in this wonderful prophecy”.(45)
The Servant will also restore Israel to God. In Isaiah 49, after speaking of the Servant’s calling and preparation, God reveals the mission of his servant; to restore Jacob, to gather Israel.(46) Once more there are echoes of God’s promise to end the exile and return the Israelites, but in chapter 49 something more is meant. The Suffering Servant will not return the people to the land, but to God himself. Verse 5 speaks of a reconciliation between Jacob and God. And this reconciliation will include the Spirit being poured out upon God’s people. Isaiah 44:3 reads “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring”. This wonderful blessing will result in Israelite people declaring and knowing that they belong to God in a glorious, intimate way, since each Israelite will have genuine relationship with God.(47)
Isaiah 62 and 63, according to Alexander, describe “the most intimate union with Jehovah and the full fruition of his favour, but this anticipation is inseparably blended with that of vengeance on the enemies of God”.(48) This is an appropriate description. In Isaiah 62:3, Israel is described as “a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD”.(49) But in chapter 63, the one who is mighty to save (Alexander is unsure whether this is the LORD or the Messiah,(50) but his vengeful destruction of the wicked fits the Messianic description in 11:4) comes in wrath. “The day of vengeance was in my heart” he says and “”I trampled down peoples in my anger”.(51) Why is this considered good news? Because Edom in verse 1 is representative of Israel’s “most inveterate enemies”.(52) And so, for the Israelites, this means they will no longer be subject to a foreign people, having to give them food as 62:8 describes. It is also good news because God has been shown to be a God of Justice. Though now we struggle to proclaim a God of Wrath as good news (because we do not see sin as wicked and evil and worthy of death like we should), it is good news. The Israelites in Isaiah’s day would have celebrated this wonderful victory to come with much joy and worship.
We have no problem, however, proclaiming this good news: that the Suffering servant will be a light to the nations. He will reveal truth to Gentile nations, who otherwise walked in ignorance. This theme comes through clearly in chapter 45:14. The nations of Egypt, Cush and others will surrender their wealth to Israel, they will follow and submit to the Israelites, but their submission ends with a confession of faith “Surely God is in you.”(53) This same theme is developed further in verse 22 where all the ends of the Earth are called to turn to God and be saved.(54) In fact, this promise is repeated a number of times in the Songs of the Suffering Servant.(55)
So, Israel and all the world, everyone who repents and turns to God rejoices in the good news of Isaiah, that the Messiah, who is the Suffering Servant, who is God, will die to obtain forgiveness for sins, will rise again from the dead and will reign forever in truth and justice and righteousness restoring Israel to God, defeating evil and shining a light into the dark nations of the world. This prophetic news, we know and celebrate, for it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We repent and turn to him and rejoice in the blessings he has won and will deliver to us.
1 Isaiah 1:2-4 ESV
2 Isaiah 1:13, 16
3 Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah, IVP, Nottingham, 1996, p. 43
4 Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah, IVP, Nottingham, 1996, p. 42
5 Isaiah 5:13
6 Lamentations 1:2,6,11 ESV
7 Isaiah 5:14
8 Allan Harman, Isaiah, Christian Focus, 2005, p.120
9 Isaiah 2:12,17; 13:6, 10
10 Isaiah 39:8 ESV
11 Isaiah 40:1
12 Allan Harman, Isaiah, Christian Focus, 2005, p.268
13 Harman makes the case that hardship is an appropriate translation of tsav’a though it is often rendered “military, Allan Harman, Isaiah, Christian Focus, 2005, p.268
14 Isaiah 40: 2 ESV, Allan Harman, Isaiah, Christian Focus, 2005, p.268
15 Isaiah 35:10
16 Isaiah 10:11, 12, 20
17 Isaiah 11:1 ESV
18 Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah Volume 1, Eerdmans, 1965, p.378
19 Isaiah 9:7
20 Isaiah 9:7
21 George Adam Smith, Ilgen, as quoted by Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah Volume 1, Eerdmans, 1965, p.335
22 Genesis 33:10 ESV
23 Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah Volume 1, Eerdmans, 1965, p.336
24 Isaiah 9:6
25 Henri Blocher, Songs of the Servant, IVP, 1975, p. 21
26 Isaiah 42:1 ESV
27 Isaiah 41:8 ESV
28 Ezekiel 37:11-12, G.P. Hugenberger, “The Servant of The Lord”, The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts, Edited by Philip E. Satterthwaite, Richard S. Hess & Gordon J. Wenham, Carlisle, 1995, p. 108
29 Isaiah 46:12, 53:11 ESV
30 Isaiah 48:8, 50:4b
31 Isaiah 53:9 ESV
32 Henri Blocher, Songs of the Servant, IVP, 1975, p. 19
33 Isaiah 11:10 ESV
34 Peter J. Gentry, “Rethinking the Sure Mercies of David”, The Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 69, No. 2, 2007, p. 301
35 1 Kings 2:4 ESV
36 Isaiah 42:1, Isaiah 50:5, Isaiah 50:10 ESV
37 G.P. Hugenberger, “The Servant of The Lord”, The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts, Edited by Philip E. Satterthwaite, Richard S. Hess & Gordon J. Wenham, Carlisle, 1995, p. 117
38 G.P. Hugenberger, “The Servant of The Lord”, The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts, Edited by Philip E. Satterthwaite, Richard S. Hess & Gordon J. Wenham, Carlisle, 1995, p. 117
39 J.A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, Leceister, IVP, 1993, pp. 13-16
40 Isaiah 1:18 ESV
41 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, Eerdmans, 1986, pp.101-102
42 Isaiah 53:5,8
43 Isaiah 53:11
44 Isaiah 53:10
45 J. Ridderbos, Isaiah, Zondervan, 1985, p.484
46 Isaiah 49:5, John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, William B. Eerdmans, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 292-293
47 Isaiah 44:5
48 Joseph Addison Alexander, Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1953, p.78
49 Isaiah 62:3 ESV
50 Joseph Addison Alexander, Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1953, p.413
51 Isaiah 63:4, 6 ESV
52 Joseph Addison Alexander, Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1953, p.414
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