The name Isaiah means Isai — Yah, "Yahweh is my salvation". Many commentaries say that the book is divided into two or three sections. The first 39 chapters are about Judah under threat from Assyria, which was building an empire at the time. Isaiah himself wrote chapters 1–39, before the exile. The description of his call in Isaiah 6 suggests that he was a high court official who was suddenly called to act as court prophet. In his call he saw God's utter holiness and this theme runs through his prophecy. He seems to have prophesied in court from about 740–690 B.C.E., and according to Jewish tradition he died in the persecution under Manasseh. He was married with two sons. From chapter 40 onwards the Assyrian empire has been taken over by the Babylonians, and those who cannot believe that Isaiah foresaw this are obliged to argue that others continued Isaiah's work during the exile. This argument disregards that fact that certain almost unique phrases such as "the Holy one of Israel" occur throughout the whole book. Some commentators claim to see evidence that chapters 56–66 were added later in which different styles can be seen, perhaps by a school of prophets. It describes events such as the reconstruction of the walls and the rituals in the reconstructed temple indicate in Nehemiah's time (not later, as some say, because Isaiah 64:11 says that the temple was still burned down).
The book of Isaiah spans times of rapid change; not only the political turmoil following the collapse of the northern kingdom and later exile of the south, but also the introduction of money in place of bartering[1 p.78].
Isaiah is acknowledged as a prophet, but there is some disagreement about what prophecy is. Some say "all prophecy is conditional", in other words, a warning about a disaster that can be avoided by heeding the warning; others say that biblical prophecy is simply foretelling of the future. The book contains its own hint in Isaiah 46:10.
Excellent early copies of Isaiah were found a Qumran; the "Great Isaiah" scroll was dated to 100 B.C.E., yet agrees well with the texts from other sources. The book has been in its present form for at least two millennia. The context is the ABC of the Exile: Assyria, Babylon, then Cyrus the Persian.
Chapters 1–39 reflect the concerns of Judah and Israel threatened by the Assyrian empire in 733–701 BCE, promising an ideal king (9:1–6, 16:5, 31:1–8); chapter 40 on relates first to Babylon, in which Israel has been assimilated (45:13), and later to Cyrus God's agent (44:28, 45:1), which was the situation in 550–540 BCE. There is no hint that these events are being predicted; it is assumed that the reader knows they have happened. Lastly, there is trito-Isaiah which foresees a final return to the promised land (60:21), and gentiles serving the Jews (55:5, 61:15). The mountains of Judea will be reclaimed from the marauding Edomites. The "three Isaiahs" speak of differently of The Word. Isaiah son of Amos sees it as something to be obeyed, and the people do well or badly depending on their response. Deutero-Isaiah emphasizes that God is sovereign and his word is all-powerful; what he says will happen, whatever people do. Trito-Isaiah describes God's word as something not as something to be fulfilled but that fertilizes the earth; he re-interprets phrases from Deutero-Isaiah as symbolic rather than literal (see 58:8).[2 p13–6]
Structure partly based on Motyer:
Related thoughts are often used to mark the beginning and ending of sections of text, e.g. "quenched" (Ch 1, 66).
Chapters 1–5: Introduction
The situation to which Isaiah prophesied is explained. Isaiah's ministry spanned the reigns of four Kings, about 739–686 BC (52 or 53 years), a time when national hope was fading into dark despair
Isaiah ceased prophesying 100 years before the exile to Assyria in 586 BC
Chapters 6–12: Isaiah's call
Chapter 6: Isaiah's call
Chapter 7: the western Mediterranean is in crisis, being threatened by Assyria. Judah is attacked by small states nearby, perhaps because King Ahaz (who is compared unfavourably with King David) prefers to pay tribute to Assyria rather than fight
Chapter 10: faith trusts in God's unseen hand rather than worldly strength
Chapter 12: the whole community needs to be cleansed
Chapters 13–27: God's nature
The God of the whole cosmos loves humanity, and wants to give his "chosen people" a special role
Chapter 24: sinful cities will be destroyed ...
Chapter 26: ...but the heavenly city stands firm
Chapter 27: Judah will be gathered from Assyria and cleansed
Chapters 28–35: How God saw Judah's situation
Judah was trapped between opposing super-powers, and was doomed because it had forsaken God
Chapter 29: God will rescue his people just in time
Chapter 30: making a treaty with Egypt is not only foolish, but also a substitute for trusting God
Chapters 36–39: Defeat by Assyria, and transfer to Babylon
Chapters 36–37: Assyria, a constant threat throughout the first 38 chapters, invades Judah
Chapter 38: God will eventually rescue Judah
Chapter 39: Babylon gains control of Assyria, acquiring its empire, including Judah
Chapters 40–55 are sometimes called "Second Isaiah" and promise rescue from captivity
Chapter 40: God will rescue; Judah's sin will be cancelled
Chapter 44: the first glimpse of Cyrus, the Persian ruler who will send all the exiles home...
Chapter 45: ...but the Jews will still be unhappy, because though at home they are still vassals
Chapter 49: God's servant will redeem Judah
Chapter 53: God's servant will bear our sins
Chapters 56 on are sometimes called "Third Isaiah"
Chapters 56–66: Judah's weakness and God's solution
Chapter 56: Judah's political weakness
Chapter 57: Judah's religious weakness
Chapter 56: Judah's spiritual weakness
Chapter 61: God will dry Judah's tears
Chapter 62: God will destroy Judah's oppressors
Chapter 63: God will wreak vengeance
Chapter 65: God will re-establish Jerusalem
Chapter 66: A new Jerusalem in God's loving care
Sweeney[4 p.78f] sees (by ignoring questions of authorship and date) a simpler structure in the book. He says that the book Isaiah is about the place of Jerusalem in God's plans; chapters 1–33 prophesy judgment and subsequent restoration, while chapters 34 on presuppose that the judgment has happened and the restoration is at hand. Going into more detail:
Thus the theme in Isaiah 6 of Isaiah encountering God in the temple and being cleansed continues throughout the book.
Isaiah chapters 40–55, the Babylonian period, are sometimes called the "Second Isaiah". To the exiles, "Jerusalem" means not only a place but also the concept of freedom. "The turning point in the book of Isaiah, where judgment and despair turn to comfort and hope".40:1
The themes of warfare and iniquity may seem random, but they are related. Iniquity tends to lead to strife; and holiness was God's condition for defending the people within the Promised Land (e.g. Leviticus 25:17–19).40:3
Mark and John considered this verse fulfilled by John the Baptist; Mark quoted it at the start of his Gospel, and John said that John the Baptist himself made the connection (John 1:23). That would mean that most modern translators place the quotes (not present in the original Hebrew) in the wrong place: John was not 'a voice crying in the desert make a straight road' but 'a voice crying in the desert make a straight road'. (Some NIVs confirm in a footnote that this is a valid alternative reading of the Hebrew, and the Gospels quote the Greek version of the verse[5 p.56].) John used the idea of the straight road as a metaphor for preparing our hearts for the gospel; Jesus indicated in Mark 11:23 that sometimes this would require a leap of faith.
A straight road is not the norm in the Judaean desert: firstly it is a rocky desert, with many obstacles to going straight; and secondly, travellers usually go from oasis to oasis via the Fertile Crescent.40:4
On one hand, hills and valleys used to impede the progress of information, and weaken rule, when this depended on transport; the levelling of hills and valleys opens the way for all to see God and for God to rule everywhere.
On the other hand, Psalm 65:10 connects valleys being filled and mountains lowered with fruitful productivity. Hebrews 12:13 uses this as a metaphor for throwing off any "sin that entangles" (Hebrews 12:1) which seems to be the thought behind Proverbs 4:26.41:15
The mountains of Judea were full of marauding Edomites in the fifth century before Christ.[2 p.16]41:25
The imagery of potter and clay also appears in Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 45:9, Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:1–11, and Romans 9:21.42:1–4
Matthew 12:17f tells us that Jesus fulfilled this This servant song, though it may have had other fulfilments as well, such as the Israelite nation in exile. The word "servant" occurs elsewhere in Isaiah and is traditionally interpreted differently there. In the gospels we see that Jesus was always merciful to people he met in the street, except those who were trying to score points by asking him religious trick questions. He only raised his voice (i.e. in anger) in the temple (Matthew 21:12–13, John 7:28, John 7:37). We are called to be followers of Christ, so we must model ourselves on the servant-songs. We must not shout at people, but meet them gently where they are.
Had the Jews read this verse more carefully they might have realised that their hopes for a strong military leader to drive out the Romans were misplaced. (It is said that the Qumran Essene community believed there would be two messiahs, one meek, the other strong. This idea could be compared with the first and second comings of Jesus.)
In all our thinking about servanthood we must not lose sight of the fact that it is God we are serving. The church, like Christ, must obey God rather than the world.[12 p.170]42:1
Verses 1–4: The Messenger
The obvious question is, who is this "servant"? The voice and the Holy Spirit echoes Jesus's baptism in Matthew 3:16–17, Mark 1:11, and Luke 3:22, and the fact that Simeon quoted verse 6 when Jesus was presented at the temple encourages us to think that this passage is about Jesus; but other commentators believe it is all about the Jewish people.42:5–9
Verses 5–9: The Message
cf. Joel 2:11–12.
This verse foretells the Messiah's international mission, cf. Isaiah 49:6.42:10
Verses 10–12: The Response
The mention of "isles" sounds quaint to us, but was a leap of faith. The islands of the Mediterranean (such as Crete and Minos) have left archeological and historical evidence of deep-rooted and brutal religions.42:13–25
cf. Joel 2:11–12.42:13
Verses 13–17: The Task42:18
Verses 18–25: The Reason43:2
See Daniel 3:20–23.43:3
cf. Matthew 2:16–18, a dangerous time for Jesus and his family, and Psalm 91:7. Jesus knows what it is to feel powerless, and he uses his power to help such people.43:5–10
The basic idea here is clearly God bringing back his people after exile, which happened after the exile in Babylon. There is an undercurrent of breaking down national divisions so that the people become united. Similarly the church is international and diverse but should be united (John 17:11).43:11
cf. John 14:6.43:16
cf. Psalm 77:19, Mark 6:49.43:19
The Lord's emphasis on doing "a new thing" should encourage us to forget our 2,000 years of church history, with its persecutions, failures and divisions, and concentrate on the future.44:14–17
The sequence of events from tree to idol via firewood is an indication of human being's priorities: spirituality waits until the necessities of life are met. That is why it is good for mission to begin with meeting people's basic needs.45:1
This verse is very unusual in that it Cyrus who is outside the covenant as "anointed" to act in God's name. "God can use anyone, even an enemy of God's own people, to serve his purposes...God can and does appoint a pagan ruler to act on his behalf".[12 p.171]45:9
The imagery of potter and clay also appears in Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 41:25, Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:1–11, and Romans 9:21.45:23
cf. Isaiah 55:11 which teaches us that God's word will not be returned unopened to the sender, like a letter sent to a non-existent address, or whose recipient rejects it; God's word goes to where it was sent and achieves what he sent it for. Paul quotes this verse in Romans 14:11. cf. also Philippians 2:10.46:10
This verse hints at how the book should be interpreted: prophecy is fore-telling the future, so that God may be shown to be in control and so glorified.48:18–19 48:20–21
These verses refer to the end of exile in Babylon and the end of slavery in Egypt. The phrase about "beginning and end" is repeated in Revelation 21:6 in connection with the ultimate release from earth to heaven.49:1–6
This servant song (verses 1–4) is often taken to represent Christ, though it may have had other fulfilments as well, such as the Israelite nation in exile. The word "servant" occurs elsewhere in Isaiah and is traditionally interpreted differently there.49:1
The word translated nations is also the one translated in other places gentiles. Therefore this verse indicates that the good news (Gospel) is for all people everywhere.49:2
This verse says, twice, that the Servant's ministry is highly effective yet hidden. The idea of words being like a sword also appears in Revelation 1:16, and shows how mighty is God's word ("releasing captives"). Verses 1 and 6 say that God's word will reach nations far away (in other words, gentiles) and the letters to the churches in Revelation are part of the fulfilment of that prophecy.49:3
Comparison with verse 5 shows that this verse does not address the whole of Israel, but someone called to be a prophet or leader to bring it back to God, and answerable for it.49:4
Following on from the idea of verse 2, the effectiveness of the Servant's ministry is hidden even from the Servant himself.49:5–6
The Nunc dimittis appears to quote these verses; see comment on Luke 2:29–32.49:6
A lamp affects things at a distance; the Servant did not have to go to the ends of the Earth in order to have an effect there. This prophecy was fulfilled in Matthew 15:28 (and perhaps on other occasions too); cf. Revelation 7:9.49:7
This verse combines the ideas of the previous four; the Servant is honoured (:3,5) at a distance (:6). cf. Matthew 2:1.49:9
This verse might support the idea that between his burial and resurrection Jesus preached to those who had already died, giving them the opportunuity to accept the gospel, cf. 1 Peter 3:19f.49:10
cf. Revelation 7:16–17.49:11
The mountains of Judea were full of marauding Edomites in the fifth century before Christ.[2 p.16]49:13
cf. Isaiah 55:12.50:2
God shows the Jews the folly of turning from him to Egypt by reminding them to the time he defeated the Egyptian army when they crossed the sea (Exodus 14:21–31).50:4–9
This servant song is often taken to represent Christ, though it may have had other fulfilments as well, such as the Israelite nation in exile. The word "servant" occurs elsewhere in Isaiah and is traditionally interpreted differently there.50:8
cf. Romans 8:33.51:16
cf. Exodus 33:22.52:7
cf. Romans 10:15.52:13
This servant song is often taken to represent Christ (see comment on John 12:32), though it may have had other fulfilments as well, such as the Israelite nation in exile. The word "servant" occurs elsewhere in Isaiah and is traditionally interpreted differently there.53
Verse 4 says that the idea that Jesus was punished on our behalf is a human construct:
"Greek words (such as Ekdikesis, timoria) for penalty, punishment and retribution were available to the New Testament authors, as they were to the Greek translators of Isaiah 53 (as were Hebrew ones to the original author); but they were not used. Is it too late to allow — gratefully and faithfully — that their avoidance of such terminology is significant?" 
This chapter is full of sadness; the resurrection that Christians know (cf. Romans 4:25 for example) was not revealed in this passage. See comment on Luke 24:25–27.53:1
This verse is quoted in John 12:38. "Arm" often means strength or victory, but may follow on from Isaiah 52:10 where God has rolled up his sleeves for action, in which case it would mean God or his agent.53:3
This quality of the Messiah was previously modelled by Joseph in prison in Egypt, and perhaps meditation on that passage helped the prophet write these words.53:4–6
Isaiah has been called the "evangelical" prophet because his message contains so much of what we call the "gospel". The apostle John notes that Isaiah "saw Jesus' glory and spoke about him" (John 12:41). Here we have what many would consider an amazing example of the prophet's ability to see into the future, for this chapter contains a graphic and accurate description of the death of Jesus and its significance.
What stands out here is that his death would be a substitutionary one, on behalf of others. Once again we are faced with our sinfulness. We have transgressed God's laws; we have committed iniquities; we have gone astray in self-centred wandering. Yet, God has acted on our behalf, sending his Son to die in our place.
Something of the horror of the cross is glimpsed in such words as 'stricken', 'smitten', 'pierced' and 'crushed'. The just demands of the law are satisfied because Jesus died in our place, taking the punishment that our sins deserved. In merciful exchange, our iniquities were laid on him so that we might be pardoned.
Two main benefits flow from the cross. The first is peace, for we are now reconciled to God. The law's demands have been satisfied, the condemning voice of conscience silenced. The second is healing, for the broken relationship with God is restored. The self-inflicted wounds of sinful ways can begin to mend.
No truth inspires love and gratitude in our hearts more than this-that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We stand beneath the cross of Jesus and allow its shadow to fall over us. Peace and healing flow towards us as we reach out in faith; worship and thanksgiving flow from us as we bow in silent adoration.53:7
Jesus was identified as the lamb of God by John the Baptist in John 1:29. The Messiah's silence was fulfilled in Matthew 26:63 and Mark 14:61. By keeping silent Jesus was neither obstructing his accusers' calls for his death (as Job said he would, if his guilt were proved, in Job 13:19), nor using his divine power to stop his death directly, because he went to his death voluntarily. Everything that need be said had already been said. These thoughts are summed up in Mark 14:49. More positively, he was allowing those around him to be themselves without using his superior power to over-rule them.
This was the passage being read by the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:32.53:8–10
Tony Horsfall wrote in New Daylight 14 October 2010:
We return once more to Isaiah's temple experience and the moment of his commissioning. He has been given a glimpse of God in his glory and of himself in his need. Now he is given a glimpse of what lies ahead of him.
The dilemma of heaven is a simple one. There are things that God wishes to accomplish on earth and he chooses to work through human beings to achieve his purposes. Someone is needed who will willingly embrace the heavenly vision. It seems a very risky strategy, given human nature, but it is the one God has chosen. He is able to draw a straight line even with a crooked stick!
The prophet responds with whole-hearted obedience: 'Here I am. Send me!' Nothing delights the heart of God more than the absolute surrender indicated by these words, for they represent the highest expression of faith and love possible between God and his people. It is an unconditional offer, made in the belief that God's will is best (Romans 12:2) and his placement of us will be for our good.
That is not to say the task before us will be easy. Isaiah is informed that his message will fall on deaf ears. His oft-repeated call to repentance and offer of forgiveness will be rejected, serving to harden their hearts even more. Repeated resistance to the word of God eventually makes us insensitive and deaf to his voice.
This is one of the most quoted parts of Isaiah in the New Testament (Mark 4:12; John 12:39–41; Acts 28:26–27). Resistance to the word of God is an ever-present danger. God will never force his will on us, but waits for us to offer ourselves freely and willingly.53:8
Sawyer translates Isaiah 53:8 "who can explain how he was generated?"[5 p.52]53:10
The idea that injustice is God's will seems extraordinary; mercy is triumphing over justice.53:11
There is only one difference in meaning between the Dead Sea Scrolls text for this chapter and the traditional sources, and it is shown in the footnote. All the other differences are in spelling or conjunctions.53:12
This servant song is often taken to represent Christ, though it may have had other fulfilments as well, such as the Hebrew nation in exile. The word "servant" occurs elsewhere in Isaiah and is traditionally interpreted differently there. This particular verse is said to be fulfilled by Luke 22:38.54 54:3
Desolate cities are re-occupied when the problem that caused their desolation (which might be economics, health, politics, security) is solved. Yet it is clear that those who built the cities never found salvation from those problems, so newcomers occupy the ruins. This picture could refer to one individual taking another's place (like David being anointed King during Saul's lifetime), one generation superseding another (like Joshua entering the promised land while Moses only saw it from a distance), one nation taking new territory (as in the book of Joshua, and more recently in 1948), or the New Covenant superseding the Old.54:10
The mountains of Judea were full of marauding Edomites in the fifth century before Christ.[2 p.16]54:12
cf. Revelation 21:19–20.55
The word goes out, (1) sows seeds and (2) feeds people.55:1–2
cf. Luke 10:42, John 4:10, John 7:37. "Wine without price" does not mean worthless plonk. Consider the bar at a wedding reception; the bridegroom may, as I did for my own wedding, place a sum of money behind the bar so that guests may drink freely. The wine is not really free, but guests need not pay because the price has already been paid by someone else. This recalls the wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1–11).
Wine without price parallels the water without price of Revelation 21:6. The New Covenant made the images used in the Temple superfluous; we no longer sacrifice animals because one sufficient sacrifice has now been made (though modern Jews talk of sacrifice having been superseded by prayer); similarly we should remember that the Bread and Wine at Holy Communion are themselves only images or reminders, and will be unnecessary in heaven, where Jesus is in person.55:12
cf. Isaiah 49:13. This verse promises a reversal of being led out as captives to exile in Babylon. The mountains of Judea were full of marauding Edomites in the fifth century before Christ.[2 p.16]55:13
This verse promises a reversal of the curse on the ground in Genesis 3:17–18.
Isaiah chapters 56–66, known as "Trito-Isaiah" or the "Third Isaiah" school56
This chapter continues the theme of chapter 55, looking forward to a new world order; a new covenant, we might say. The features of this new covenant include the fact that all nations can participate.56:7 58
This passage was apparently addressed to the first group of Jews to return from Exile under Cyrus. Their work on restoring the temple soon ground to a halt. Verse 12 is therefore a particularly appropriate promise of help.58:6
See comment on Luke 4:18.58:7 58:8
Rofe sees this as a re-statement by Trito-Isaiah of Isaiah 52:12 from Deutero-Isaiah as a symbolic rather than literal prophecy.[2 p.19]58:11
cf. John 4:13–14.59:2 59:17 60:1–6 60:3 60:5
cf. Revelation 21:24. The context suggests that the reference to the riches of the sea indicates not the creatures that live in it but the goods that are carried on ships.60:6
cf. Matthew 2:11.60:11
cf. Revelation 21:25. Gold befits a king, incense a priest.60:19 61:1–4 61:1
The meek: those who are humble enough to hear the preaching. Bind up the brokenhearted: give hope to those who’ve lost hope. Liberty to captives: Jesus didn’t release anyone from prison, but he made cripples whole, released the demoniac, and broke the power of evil.61:2
Acceptable year: Jesus said “the kingdom of God has come near you” as he toured Judea and Galilee. In other words, here is a golden opportunity, the acceptable time, to put right your relationship with God. Comfort all that mourn: Jesus raised the dead, and showed the way to heaven.61:3–4
The prophet describes the results of God's intervention in Old Covenant terms: a prosperous and honourable land.61:5–6
At first sight, these verses seem to say that foreigners can be saved but will always be second class! But verse 6 appears to anticipate the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9).61:10 62:2
New name: cf. Revelation 2:17, Revelation 3:12.62:11
cf. Zechariah 9:9.63:16
The prophet addresses God as "Our Father", cf. Matthew 6:9.64:7
Saying that they do not seek God because he has hidden his face sounds like blaming God for the sins of the people. The curse of not finding God is removed in Jeremiah 29:13.64:8
The imagery of potter and clay also appears in Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 41:25, Isaiah 45:9, Jeremiah 18:1–11, and Romans 9:21.64:11
By mentioning that the temple was burned down, this verse shows its date was no later than Nehemiah.65:10 65:17
cf. Revelation 21:1, though since verse 20 mentions death this cannot be a vision of heaven.65:24
cf. Psalm 139:4; God knows our thoughts before we express them, which is why the experience of many Christians is that prayer is often answered before we have finished the sentence.66:7
Isaiah 66:7 only makes sense if you assume that the first and second clauses, and likewise the third and fourth, have different subjects: before Mary was in labour, God gave birth to a son.[5 p.52]66:24
Sawyer says that the concept of hell-fire is based on this verse and Isaiah 33:14, and that Jesus is quoting this verse in Mark 9:48.[5 p.52]
© David Billin 2002–2020