Importance

‘Our church calendar—indeed, our very salvation—hinges on the promises of Isaiah. We turn during Christmas to worshiping God with Us (Is. 7:14), the child called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6-7). We turn on Good Friday and Easter to remembering the Suffering Servant (Is. 52:13-53:12). Every day we give thanks to the preacher who brings good news to the poor (Is. 61:1-3). And by the power of Jesus’ Resurrection all who believe will one day enjoy fellowship with him in the new heavens and new earth (Is. 65:17-25).’ (Collin Hansen)

Historical Background

‘Isaiah’s ministry spanned the period from his call vision (about 740 B.C.) until the last years of Hezekiah (716-687) or the early years of Manasseh (687-642). The prophet lived during the reigns of the Judean kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, and perhaps the first years of Manasseh. He was contemporary with the last five kings of Israel: Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah, and Hosea.’ (Holman)

‘In Isaiah’s time the great military power that threatened the Palestinian states was Assyria. In much of the book that now bears the name of Isaiah, the reigning power was Babylon, which did not rise to power until after 625 B.C., over 50 years after Isaiah’s death. Some Bible students think that the writings that reflect the Babylonian period may be the work of the disciples of Isaiah, who projected his thought into the new and changed situation of the Babylonian world. Others would say in the Spirit Isaiah was projected supernaturally into the future, thus able to know even the name of Cyrus, King of Persia (44:28; 45:1).’ (Holman)

Isaiah the Prophet

‘Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was born in Judah, no doubt in Jerusalem, about 760 B.C. He enjoyed a significant position in the contemporary society and had a close relationship with the reigning monarchs. His education is clearly evident in his superb writing that has gained him an eminence in Hebrew literature hardly surpassed by any other. He had a thorough grasp of political history and dared to voice unpopular minority views regarding the state and the economy. His knowledge of the religious heritage of Israel and his unique theological contributions inspire awe. He was alive to what was transpiring in the court, in the marketplace, in high society with its shallowness, and in the political frustrations of the nation.’ (Holman)

‘The prophet was married and was the father of two sons whose names symbolized Isaiah’s public preaching: Mahershalalhashbaz (= the spoil speeds; the prey hastes), a conviction that Assyria would invade Syria and Israel about 734 B.C., and Sherajashub (a remnant shall return), a name that publicized his belief in the survival and conversion of a faithful remnant in Israel (Isa.1:9; 7:3; 8:1,4; 10:20-23).’ (Holman)

Isaiah’s Message

‘Isaiah inveighed against the errant nation of Judah (Isa.1:2-9; 2:6-22; 3:1-4:1) even using the guise of a love song (5:1-7). He pronounced six “woes” on the immoral nation. His wrath also attacked Israel (Isa. 9:8-21; 28:1-29). Among other travesties, Judah was rebellious, evil, iniquitous, alienated, corrupters, a sick people, unfilial in attitude, purposeless in their excessive religiosity, idolaters, proud ones whose land was filled with esoteric charlatans, brass in their defection, thankless and unappreciative, drunkards, monopolists of real estate, wise in their own eyes, morally indiscriminate. The character of true religion was absent; they needed to desist from evil, to learn to do good, to seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isa. 1:17).’ (Holman)

‘Though the indictments were severe, Isaiah still held out the hope of forgiveness to the penitent (Isa.1:18-31) and pointed to days coming when God would establish peace (Isa. 2:1-4; 4:2-6). He promised the Messiah, the son of David, who would assume the chief role in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic-Davidic covenantal promises (Isa. 9:2-7; 11:1-9).’ (Holman)

‘Isaiah is remembered for his magnificent conception of God. The thrice-repeated term “holy” is equivalent to holiness to the nth or infinite degree (6:3). Yahweh is Lord of all, King of the universe, the Lord of history who exhibits His character in righteousness, that is, in self-consistent acts of rightness (Isa. 5:16). The prophet criticized the vanity and meaninglessness of religion’s pride. He demanded social and religious righteousness practiced in humility and faith. He strongly affirmed God’s plans that would not lack fulfillment, announcing that the Assyrian king was but the instrument of God and accountable to Him. He stressed, too, the Day of Yahweh, a time when the presence of God would be readily discoverable in human history. Isaiah was certain that a faithful remnant would always carry on the divine mission (Shearjashub, Isa.1:9). The messianic hope was considered the blueprint of history fulfilled, the hope of humankind toward which all creation moves.’ (Holman)

The theological emphases of Isaiah have been identified as follows:-

1.  God as the Holy One of Israel.  This is a favourite designation for God.  God’s command to his people was to ‘be holy as I am holy.’  Isaiah’s attitude was no doubt shaped by his own overwhelming experience when he received his call, Isa 6.
2.  God as Saviour and Redeemer.  It is the very moral perfection of God that means that he will be faithful to his promises.  He will not utterly abandon his people, but will be their Saviour and Redeemer.  Isaiah’s own name (‘Yahweh will save’) reflects this emphasis.  The Lord deliver his people from their enemies.  More of a father to them than Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, the Lord would have compassion on his children, Isa 63:16.
3.  The Remnant Theme.  How can God be both the Holy One of Israel and her Saviour and Redeemer?  How can justice and mercy be reconciled?  This tension is addressed through the remnant theme.  The remnant is the group of people that who pass through the God’s judgement on sin and, purged and purified, inherit the promises afresh.
4.  The Servant of the Lord.  Debate has centred on whether the Servant is a group (such the nation of Israel) or an individual (such as the prophet himself, or Cyrus, or the Messiah).  Perhaps the debate is a dead-end.  The remnant theme itself points forward to the restoration period.  But even the remnant was guilty and faithless in many ways.  As Christians, we can readily identify Christ as a remnant of one: he committed no sin (Isa 53:9/1 Pet 2:22); he underwent divine judgement for sin (on the cross); endured an exile (three days forsaken by God in the grave); and experienced a restoration (resurrection) to life as the foundation of a renewed Israel, inheriting the promises of God afresh.  ‘As the remnant restored to life, he becomes the focus of the hopes for the continued existence of the people of God in a new kingdom, a new Israel of Jew and Gentile alike.  As the nucleus of a renewed Israel, Christ summons the “little flock” that will receive the kingdom (Dan 7:22,27; Lk 12:32) and appoints judges for the twelve trbes of Israel in the new age (Mt 19:28; Lk 22:30).  The church is viewed as the Israel of that new age (Gal 6:16), the twelve tribes (Jam 1:1), “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9).’
5.  The Spirit of the Lord.  As in the rest of the OT, the Spirit of the Lord is the spirit that inspires and enables the prophets.  But the Spirit also brings order to chaos; re-creation to a desolate land.
6.  God’s Rule Over History.  The Lord who reveals his plans to his prophets rules over the course of history to achieve his purposes.  Just as he has announced and fulfilled his purposes in the past, so he can be trusted to do so in the future.  His wise and effective rule is in sharp contrast to pathetic schemes of the gods and idols of the nations.

‘Two primary motifs-the Holy One of Israel (the King) and Zion (his intended royal habitation)-permeate the book and bring order to its complexity. The Holy One of Israel desires to dwell in Zion (Isa 7:14); but in order to do so, he must first purify not only her (Isa 1:24-26) but the surrounding nations (Isa 13-23) and even the entirety of the created order (Isa 24:1-6). The process of purification, embracing cleansing and healing, structures both halves of the book in ever-expanding concentric circles. In the first half of the book, judgment spreads from Zion (Isa 1-12) to the surrounding nations (Isa 13-23) until finally all of creation is involved (Isa 24-27). Then the process is repeated, this time describing restoration rather than judgment, which expands outward from Zion (Isa 40-59) to the nations (Isa 60-64) and ultimately embraces the entire heavens and earth (Isa 65-66).’ (DBI)

Authorship

The traditional view is that the entire book was written by Isaiah.  As Lk 4:17 and other, non-biblical, sources confirm, the book was contained on a single scroll.  Ecclus. 48:22–25, which dates from 200 BC  assumes the unity of Isaiah’s prophecy.  So also Jn. 12:37–41; Rom. 9:27–29; 10:20–21.

The two main grounds on which the accepted view has been questioned have been: (a) prophets generally addressed their own contemporaries, whereas Isa 40-66 assume the Babylonian exile; and (b) various linguistic, stylistic and theological aspects of the later chapters.  In fact, many scholars think that up to a dozen different authors contributed to the book as we have it, with only chapters 40-55 (by an unknown ‘Deutero-Isaiah’) constituting a unity.

By proposing one or more Isaianic ‘schools’ prophecy, scholars have been able to retain some kind of emphasis on the unity that may be found within this diversity of authorship.

Rationalistic scholars may deny that prophecy can be predictive.  But accurate prediction is held to be a cardinal test of the authority of the divine authority of a prophet, (cf. Isa 41:21–23, 26–29; 44:7–8, 25–28; 46:10–11; 48:3–8).  Even the naming of Cyrus 150 years in advance has a parallel in the predicting of Josiah, 1 Kings 13:2.

Literary style

‘The difference in the style of chapters 40–55 was an early argument for separating them from chapters 1–39, and it is still used21 as a means of distinguishing authors, even though widely discredited. It is and always has been a nonsense. The Lord of the Rings, for example, evidences a narrative style, a dialogue style and a poetic style. Must it have had three authors? Could not Milton have written in the jolly rhythms of L’Allegro, in the sonorous tones of Paradise Lost and also in the measured prose of Areopagitica? When Isaiah of Jerusalem is presumed to be the author, a scenario for the two main styles of the book is simplicity itself. Most of chapters 1–35 are a sort of rhythmic prose, Isaiah’s ‘record of preaching’ style. The messages of the prophets as they stand could not have been preached: they are too brief, too quickly come and gone; they do not have the repetitions and elaborations essential to allow hearers to fix their minds on what is being said. Like all the prophets, Isaiah filed for the future carefully crafted encapsulations of his preaching. But the days of Hezekiah were followed by the ‘police state’ days of Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:1–18), and maybe in such a time the now elderly prophet would turn exclusively to writing: this is the real contrast between the two styles, the one primarily a record of sermons, the other a solely literary product.’ (Motyer)

The case against unity of authorship

H.G.M. Williamson summarises the case against unity of authorship:-

I do not find the idea of unity of authorship to be either plausible or necessary. Despite frequent claims to the contrary by conservative scholars, this conclusion has nothing to do with belief or not in the power of predictive prophecy; after all, there is still predictive prophecy included in all parts of the book even on the most radical of critical positions.

The issue turns rather on three considerations.

(1) The setting presupposed by different parts of the book varies considerably. Much of Isaiah 40–55, for instance, takes its standpoint with those who have suffered judgment in the past and should now be anticipating deliverance; what sense would that make in the eighth century BC? If a concept of divine inspiration lies behind the view that all of this material was written at that earlier date, it would mean that God did not speak in a way that was intelligible to its audience at the time of delivery, so that this flies in the face of Christian understandings of the word of God, seen ultimately in incarnation.

(2) The messages of the different parts of the book are so diverse that they cannot be understood as other than accompanying historical change. If all of them were delivered and considered together in the eighth century BC, they would be contradictory; it is only as they are related to different periods that the underlying unity becomes meaningful. Thus, to deny the probability that the book grew over a considerable period of time is to empty it of a major hermeneutical key.

(3) The NT references do not alter this conclusion, since the use in those contexts of “Isaiah” may be perfectly well understood as a reference to the book, not the author. The only passage where the prophet himself is involved in action rather than as speaker or author in the argument is at John 12:41 (“Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him” [NRSV]), and there the citation from Isaiah 6 poses no difficulty.

(Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, art. ‘Isaiah, Book of’)

Date and authorship of Isaiah – critical and conservative perspectives

At first sight – and perhaps at second sight too – the book of the Isaiah is a unified piece of work by the prophet whose name is given in the superscript (Isa 1:1): ‘Isaiah son of Amoz’.  The superscript also fixes the timescale of this prophet and his ministry: ‘during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah’: the later years of the 8th century BC.

This view of the unity of authorship was held by virtually all Jewish and Christian scholars until about 200 years ago.  It is maintained to this day by more conservative scholars, who believe that there are good reasons for thinking that this material was composed by Isaiah himself in the 8th century, and the presence of material more relevant to the exilic and post-exilic periods is due to the predictive nature of the prophecy.

Over the past 200 years, however, critical scholarship has reached and settled upon a consensus that divides the book of Isaiah up into two or more separate volumes, each with a different date and author.  Typically, the book is divided into:

chapters 1-39 (pre-exilic, with some, most, or all of this material coming from Isaiah son of Amoz)

chapters 40-66 (exilic, with some, most or all of this material coming from an unknown prophet, ‘DeuteroIsaiah’)

However, chapters 55-66 are often regarded as a third separate section (postexilic, with some, most or all of this material coming from an unknown prophet, ‘TritoIsaiah’)

Among the methods and arguments used by critical scholars to support their case are: form criticism, redaction criticism, linguistic and stylistic analysis, implied geographical context, implied historical context, and theological considerations.

The arguments used in favour of unity of authorship, or to counter the claims of critical scholarship, include:-

It is claimed that there is very little material in the second part of Isaiah (chapter 40-66) that clearly suggests a Babylonian context.  In fact, the references to Babylon are so few and so generalised as to suggest a non-Babylonion context.

It is pointed out that when Christ and the apostles refer to this book (as they quite frequently do), they attribute everything to ‘Isaiah’.  Christ referred to Isaiah 56:1f. (Matthew 5:3); Isaiah 42:1-4 and 41:8f. (Matthew 12 :17f.); Isaiah 56:7 (Matthew 21:13); Isaiah 66:24 (Mark 9:48); and Isaiah  61:1-2 (Luke 4:17-21), seeming to explicitly or implicitly ascribed the texts quoted to Isaiah.  However, this argument is not as conclusive as it might seem, because it not reasonable to suppose that even Jesus, in the days of his flesh, had perfect knowledge of the date, provenance and authorship of the books of the Old Testament.  Moroever, it is  reasonable to suppose that Jesus and the apostles (and other extra-biblical writers) identified the book by its usual name without thereby offering any opinion as to its authorship.

As the suggestion that the writings of an anonymous author could become attached to those of a known author, Dillard and Longman cite the example of Deuteronomy, which is ascribed to Moses, although the final chapter cannot have been written by him, since it records his death.  Moreover, if surpise is expressed that an author as great as the  writer of Isaiah 40-66 could remain anonymous, then this is scarcely more surprising than the fact that the equally remarkable writer to the Hebrews has remained anonymous.

Motyer offers a plausible explanation for the differences in language and style between the two parts of Isaiah.  He suggests that in the earlier part of his ministry, Isaiah’s teaching was oral, and his spoken messages were written down by his disciples, as was the practice of the times.  Later, he turned for various reasons to a written ministry, and this accounts for the more flowing style of chapters 40-66.

It is pointed out that according to the doctrine of inspiration prophets speaking the word of God are well able to predict the future accurately.  And, if it is thought that the prediction by name of Cyrus in chapters 44 and 45 more than a century beforehand seems too specific, a few similar cases can be identified, such as the naming beforehand of Josiah, and the naming of Bethlehem as the Messiah’s place of birth.

Theological considerations.

Critical scholars point out that the prophets spoke primarily for and to their own generation.  The idea of detailed predictions that would not come to pass until well after the lifetimes of their hearers would not be consistent with this.  On this ground, it would have made little sense (in their view) for Cyrus to have been named 150 before the event.

Questions of date and authorship do not per se have direct implications for our belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture.  Where these questions seem to impact on the trustworthiness of the biblical text, however, there are theological and pastoral implications, and further enquiry is necessary.

A key concern for those who hold a strong doctrine of inspiration is that the claim in chapter 40ff that the Lord is able to predict the future (whereas the false gods are not able to do so) would seem to be seriously undermined if the specific claim of these chapters (that the rise of Cyrus had been predicted) post-dated, rather than pre-dated the events themselves.

One book or many?

Given the general scholarly consensus regarding the division of the book, it became common practice to treat the two or more parts of the book separately and independently.  In 1941 Pfeiffer, for example, hypothesised that a scribe who had copied chapters 1-39 had room on his scroll and copied the writings of an anonymous later prophet; because these writings carried no title or superscription, they became attached to the earier work.  However, one important trend in scholarship is to continue to hold to multiple authorship of the book, but to recognise a degree of coherence within the whole.  Williamson, for example, sees the book not as an assemblage of disparate materials, but rather as the product of a conscious process of development, as later authors valued and built upon the work of the earlier authors.

Although there are notable textual differences between chapters 1-39 and 40-66, there are also striking similarities, including the almost equal use of the phrase ‘the Holy One of Israel’.  In recognition of this, recent scholarship has often emphasised a ‘one book’ approach, while rejecting the earlier ‘one author’ interpretation.

In terms of vocabulary, style and content, it is achowledged on all sides that the setting of chapters 40-55 of Isaiah appears to be that of the Babylonian exile in the second half of the 6th century B.C.  Motyer, however, says that these chapters are Babylonian in orientiation, but not in setting.

It may be that the geographical and cultural background of chapters 40-66 is not so ‘Babylonian’ and ‘exilic’ as is sometimes supposed.  There are, in fact, only a handful explicit references to Babylon (Isa 43:14; 47:1; 48:14, 20).  Moreover, these references are broad, rather than specific (consistent, according to Motyer, with prediction rather than reportage).  The geography (mountains, forests, sea, snow, rain) is that of the west, not of the east.

With regard to external evidence, there is nothing to suggest that the book ever existed as anything other than a unity.  Motyer informs us that in the earliest known manuscript (which dates from about 100 BC) the opening of chapter 40 (where DeuteroIsaiah is purported to begin) continues from the close of the preceding chapter without any break in the text.

Whereas ‘Isaiah’ is named in chapters 1-39, he is not named in chapters 40-66.  It could be argued, therefore, that there is no explicit internal ‘claim’ that these later chapters were written by that prophet.  However, the fact that Isaiah is named in the superscription (1:1) is understood by some to affirm authorship of the entire book by the prophet of that name.

There is no memory of a 6th-century ‘Deutero-Isaiah’.  This is striking, given the acknowledged genius and eloquence of this hypothesised figure.  We have, however, already noted the fact that the equally-remarkable author to the Hebrews remains anonymous.

Although there is a degree of polarisation between critical and evangelical views, some scholars on each ‘side’ have adopted more mediating views.  For example, some critical scholars allow for the element of prediction, and some evangelical scholars allow for dual or triple authorship.  Critical scholarship has, for the most part, ignored the work of conservative scholars.

Among conservative scholars, some nuances may be detected.  Some, such as Alexander, Young and Allis, maintain that all the material in the book should be credited to Isaiah son of Amoz.  Others, such as Ridderbos, Harrison, and Oswalt, consider that most or almost all of the book is by Isaiah, but allow for some additonal editorial work or glosses (Harrison, for example, thinks that the celebrated introduction of the name ‘Cyrus’ in chapters 44 and 45 is likely due to a later scribe who was seeking to clarify Isaiah’s much earlier prophecy.

From a moderately critical perspective, Clifford (Harper Bible Commentary) agrees that Isaiah 41:21ff affirms that Yahweh is the one who had predicted (and therefore brought about) Cyrus’s conquests, whereas the pagan gods have done nothing.  Clifford thinks that the actual mention of Cyrus’s name in chapters 44 and 45 clinches the matter with regard to the late dating of this material.  However, he still recognises that there had been an earlier prediction of the rise of Cyrus, and thinks it likely that this is found in passages such as Isaiah 10:5-19 (which speaks of Yahweh’s control of the king of Assyria).

The issue for a number of moderately critical scholars is not with predictive prophecy as such, but with the suggestion that God would predict in such detail so far in advance.  Following S.R. Driver, they insist that prophets wrote primarily for the encouragement and warning of their contemporaries.

Driver did not deny the possibility of predictive prophecy.  However, he did limit it in scope and timescale.  He found no prophecy of an exile in chapter 40-66, because the exile had already occurred.  What he found, rather, was a prediction of return from exile.

Williamson, Breugemann, Childs, Clements, and others argue for the essential unity of the book, notwithstanding what they regard as its multiple authorship.  Williamson, for example, thinks that an anonymous prophet penned chapters 40-66 as a supplement to chapters 1-39, and, in the process, wrote parts of those earlier chapters and edited the material as a whole.

Consistent with his commitment to ‘canonical criticism’ Childs wishes to deflect attention away from theories of sources and editors, towards a consideration of the final form of the text as Christian scripture.  Nevertheless, Child’s approach is characterised by a greater emphasis on scripture as the church has recognised and received it, than on scripture as the Lord has given and inspired it.

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