Isaiah: Judgment, Hope, and the Call to Faithfulness
The Old Testament Book of Isaiah was one of the most important source documents for the Jesus movement. In it, Jesus’ followers and the generations afterward found prophetic calls to justice, hope in times of oppression, God’s promise to restore the people, and God’s demand of faithful living by those who received the gift of new life. In these patterns from their people’s history, Jesus’ followers saw God at work in their own time, too, calling them to do justice, to embrace the gift of salvation, and to align their lives with the reign and rule of the King whom God would send to redeem them. And now, two millennia after that, Christians still hear in Isaiah the call to justice, the promised coming of a King who will heal our separation from God, and the call always to be vigilant in following God’s ways.
From Oct. 31 through Feb. 21, 2023 – as we journey from the end of the season after Pentecost, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphanytide – the Good Book Club will explore this great paradigm for our faith as we experience God’s judgment, hope, and call to faithful living through the words of Isaiah. To sign up for the Good Book Club, email Fr. John Spicer. Each day, you’ll receive a text or email with a brief summary of the reading, along with a link to that day’s verses. You can also download the complete list of the daily readings with links to the text.
In our Bibles, Isaiah is a single book. But scholars agree that Isaiah is actually a compilation of three documents from three different moments in the life of the people of Israel. “First Isaiah,” most of the material in chapters 1 through 39, comes from Isaiah of Jerusalem, who prophesied in Judah (the Southern Kingdom) from about 738 BCE to perhaps about 701 BCE. It contains many warnings to the kings and leaders of Judah not to make mistakes similar to those of the leaders of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), which came to be under foreign control and would be conquered about 721 BCE. The writer of First Isaiah saw Judah’s capital of Jerusalem as Yahweh’s dwelling place on earth, and he saw David’s line of kings as God’s viceroys. But First Isaiah calls Judah and its rulers to repent from their moral failings so that God would not bring them down in judgment. Of course, the leaders didn’t heed First Isaiah’s call. Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and taken into exile about 586 BCE.
“Second Isaiah,” chapters 40-55, was written around 540 BCE, near the end of the Babylonian exile. In the Ancient Near East, people understood gods to be in control of certain lands; so, if you were no longer in Israel or Judah, how could you be sure Yahweh would be there with you in a land of other gods? And if Yahweh weren’t with you, where was your hope for the future? The prophet offers that hope, giving assurance that Yahweh remains in control of history and that the people’s suffering in exile will soon come to an end – that Yahweh will intervene to bring the people back home and restore them in Judah. On their return, they will find a very different existence, living without their own king and as subject people of a foreign ruler. But the people themselves will be God’s agents on earth, the “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) drawing all people to see and honor Yahweh’s majesty.
The final 10 chapters are known as “Third Isaiah” because they come from a still-later time, when new issues were arising among the returned exiles in Judah. Life there was harder than the prophet or the people had imagined, and some of the people are abandoning worship of Yahweh for other local deities. Third Isaiah promises judgment on those who turn from Yahweh or who oppress his people. The prophet also sees a glorious future in which prosperity, joy, and the wealth of the nations will come to Judah, fulfilling the promises of Second Isaiah, if the people walk in faithfulness to God and in justice for the poor and vulnerable.