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Old Testament | Isaiah | Summary

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Summary

Isaiah of Jerusalem (Chapters 1–39)

  • Isaiah is introduced as "the vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah" (1:1).
  • Several opening oracles express Yahweh's dissatisfaction with the status quo in Judah.
  • Chapter 6 relates Isaiah's prophetic commission. Isaiah has a vision of Yahweh enthroned in the temple, surrounded by seraphs. When Yahweh asks who will be sent to speak to the people, Isaiah responds "Here am I; send me!" (6:8).
  • During the Syro-Ephraimite War in the 730s BCE, in which Israel and Aram allied against Judah, Isaiah counsels King Ahaz of Judah to trust Yahweh for deliverance.
  • Isaiah prophesies that Yahweh will use Assyria to judge both Israel and Judah, but when this is finished Assyria's arrogance will also be judged and Judah will enjoyed renewed peace and prosperity (Chapters 11–12).
  • Chapters 13–23 present a series of oracles against foreign nations, including Babylonia, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Cush, Egypt, Edom, Arabia, and Tyre, each of which will receive its own judgment in due course.
  • Chapters 24–27 resemble the "apocalyptic" genre of some later prophet texts, describing judgment for all the earth and a future renewal for all people centered in Jerusalem.
  • Chapters 28–35 present further oracles of woe against Israel, Judah, Assyria, Egypt, and Edom, as well as visions of restored peace and righteous rule in Jerusalem.
  • Chapters 36–39 reproduce narratives about the reign of Hezekiah from 2 Kings 18–20.
    • Isaiah reassures Hezekiah that Jerusalem will withstand an Assyrian siege. The Assyrian army withdraws soon after.
    • Isaiah informs Hezekiah that he will die of an illness, but after fervent prayer, Yahweh adds 15 years to Hezekiah's life.
    • Isaiah warns Hezekiah that Jerusalem's wealth will be taken away to Babylon in the future.

Second Isaiah (Chapters 40–55)

  • In Chapter 40 the context abruptly shifts to Judah's exile in the 6th century, and the oracles proclaim a message of comfort to the conquered Judahites.
  • Four passages in Second Isaiah focus on an unidentified "servant" of Yahweh (42:14; 49:1–6; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12) who will "bring forth justice," be "a light to the nations," and prosper after having suffered greatly. In the context of this section of Isaiah, these statements most likely refer to Israel collectively.
  • The prophet compares the return of Judah from exile in Babylon is likened to a new exodus.

Third Isaiah (Chapters 56–66)

  • Third Isaiah presents a group of oracles that appear to address the people of Judah after the exile has ended and life in Jerusalem is being rebuilt.
  • Several passages suggest that not all is well: "The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart" (57:1).
  • Chapters 60–62 and 66 prophesy a glorious future for Jerusalem, where all humanity will assemble to worship Yahweh.

Analysis

Isaiah is a lengthy and complex book of dense prophetic poetry, with a number of historically significant interpretive cruxes. It was one of the most significant books of the Hebrew Bible for early Christianity and is frequently cited in the New Testament. However, several famous traditional Christian interpretations of portions of Isaiah have little to do with the book's original meaning.

In its original context, the announcement of the birth of a child named Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 was clearly meant to assure King Ahaz that the threat from Israel and Damascus would soon pass, and most likely anticipates the birth of his son Hezekiah who would reign after him. However, early Christian readers of Isaiah read the text instead as a messianic prediction of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:22–23). An oracle about an ideal future Davidic king in Isaiah 9:1–7, and the unidentified "suffering servant" of Isaiah 52–53 were also read as messianic prophecies in early Christianity.

These and other well-known interpretations of passages in Isaiah have little to do with the original significance of the book itself, and arguably do much to obscure it. Read in its original context, the composite work of Isaiah showcases sustained theological reflection on Yahweh's sovereignty over the history of the people of Israel and Judah through the political crises of the 8th century BCE, the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, and the challenge of rebuilding life in Jerusalem after the exile had ended. Isaiah's repeated message to the kings of Judah in the 8th century BCE was to resist the temptation to form alliances with foreign nations and instead rely on Yahweh's continued provision for Judah to stand on its own. Addressing the context of the Babylonian exile of Judah in the 6th century BCE and its aftermath, the latter half of Isaiah assures that Yahweh is in control of international events and has a plan to restore Judah after it has served its time of punishment for past mistakes.

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