The book of Isaiah is the longest prophetic book of the Holy Bible. In it, the prophet Isaiah speaks at length about the revelations given to him by God about the coming of Jesus Christ. Theologians argue that Isaiah is the cornerstone of the history of the Israelites because it gives the account of Israel's time between the beginning of their exile and the judgment of God over the whole tribe. Its theological range also encompasses all other themes touched on by other prophets and other books in the bible. As the influence of Israel in the region declined and the kingdom of Assyria rose to dominance during the time of Isaiah, the book is marked by extreme volatility and disharmony.
The book of Isaiah contains a message of impending doom as well as a message of hope in the coming Messiah. Prophesies made by Isaiah concerning the coming, ministry, works, and sacrifice of Jesus Christ has made some theologians refer to it as the "Fifth Gospel" (Motyer 9). Denis Bratcher divides the writing of Isaiah into three ages of Israel's history; pre-exile during the time of Isaiah ben Amoz, the time spent in exile when they encountered the king Cyrus, and the post-exilic period when Israel restored temple worship in the holy city of Jerusalem (9). In this paper, we shall discuss the book of Isaiah, loosely based on Alec Motyer's introduction and commentary, focusing on the authorship of the book and the main themes in the book for an all-around critical analysis of the book of Isaiah.
Summary of the book
In the book, Isaiah addressed the people of Israel as well as the kings using mixed styles of verse (poems and songs) and prose. The poetry dominated the book, with chapters 1-35 and chapters 40-66 featuring poetry and songs. Only chapters 36-39 featured prose writings. In a similar manner, the first thirty-five chapters touched on judgment and the law of God while the prose found in chapters 36-39 gave a short historic prelude in which the prophet Isaiah predicts the death of Hezekiah and touches on the impending exile of Israel by the delegation from Babylon. The last part of the book, from chapter 40-66, speaks of salvation and grace, first as the Israelites return from exile and in the promises of the Messianic age.
The message of the book of Isaiah is broken down into six parts by Alec Moyter, starting with the call to prophecy and ending with the promise that Jerusalem will be restored as the center of the earth (17-20). According to Dennis Bratcher, theologians place the coverage of the book of Isaiah to a timespan of about two hundred years from around 720 BC to 510 BC (9).
While scholars differ on the number of people who were involved in the writing of the book of Isaiah as it found in the bible, they agree that the prophet Isaiah was a principal author of the book of Isaiah. According to Ulrich Berges, there could be as many as three contributors to the book of Isaiah, with the prophet Isaiah ben Amoz writing the larger part of the book from chapter 1 to chapter 40 (556). Johann Christoph Doderlin cited by Ulrich Burges attributes the last part of the book, commonly referred to as the 'oratio' (from chapter 40-55) to an unnamed later-day prophet. The hypothesis is based on an evaluation of the Servant Songs in chapters 42, 49, 50, and 53 and the polemics on idols (556). Bernhard Duhm further attributes a third, different author to the last parts of the book of Isaiah from chapters 56-66 (Berges 556). The accepted theory on the writing of the book of Isaiah among theologians is that Isaiah ben Amoz established a literary opus that his students continued.
Nevertheless, the prophet Isaiah ben Amoz is the universally accepted author of the book of Isaiah, as the scripture gives an account of his call and prophecies. According to Alec Motyer, no scholar can authoritatively assert that Isaiah is the sole author of the book in the bible that carried his name (20). Instead, Isaiah the prophet is the visionary who represents the divine inspirations and encounters recorded in the script (Berges 553). What's more, scholars attribute the authors of the last part of the book to being students of Isaiah who would have credited their writings to him just as well. Therefore, when discussing the book of Isaiah, we shall attribute all texts in the book to him, even when there is proof that he did not write some of the material contained therein personally. Edward Young, the Professor of Old Testament at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, continues to show the evidence of the New Testament's constant attribution to Isaiah the prophet parts of the book that, according to the three-author theory, do not belong to him, nor were they written during his lifetime (12). According to Edward Young, critics of the bible go further than just a simple designation of the 'first', 'second', and 'third' Isaiah and say that the "second" one was stronger than the "first" and so on (13).
Keeping in mind that the book of Isaiah covers a timespan of two hundred years (between 700-500 BC), it means that no prophecies that came in the last parts of the book would belong to Isaiah ben Amoz. Yet the New Testament, which relies a great deal on Isaiah's prophecies, attributes all prophecies contained therein to the prophet whose call is recorded in Isaiah 1-5 (Young 12); (Motyer 9). According to Ulrich Berges, the relationship between the book of Isaiah and the prophet Isaiah traces the path of; "from the prophet to the three sections of the book, bound together in one volume to form a single unified prophetic text attributed to one prophet (553). However, Edward Young maintains that the question of the author of the book of Isaiah is overshadowed by the consideration for whose authority the book is written under (11).
It is only after the rise of the era of rationalism in the eighteenth century when the Bible became subject to increasing skepticism and scholars started subjecting it to rigorous analysis that the question of the writers of the book of Isaiah arose. The issue of whether or not Isaiah ben Amoz wrote the whole book is pertinent because the coming of Christ and the writing of the New Testament bears specific reference to him as a man as opposed to the book of Isaiah. The belief during the writing of the New Testament was that Isaiah himself wrote the whole book, as the rationalization of the eighteenth century had not arrived yet (Motyer 39). What, then, are the consequences of questioning the authorship of the book of Isaiah? Does it matter if the prophet Isaiah himself wrote the book himself or some of his students did?
The authority of the book of Isaiah has never been in question (Berges 553). Scholars agree that the book of Isaiah was written according to the divine inspiration and experiences of the prophet Isaiah. Thus, the writers who did so would have done so as a recitation of Isaiah's exploits, rather than as their own experiences. Where the prophecies are given after the time of Isaiah the prophet, scholars agree that these prophecies were made in the spirit of Isaiah (Berges 564); (Moyter 32); (Young 12). It is for the reason that the book of Isaiah stretches over such a wide period of time and features such a wide authority on Israel's history and the coming of the Messiah that it is perceived as an indispensable part of the prophetic books, the Old Testament, and the Bible as a whole.
According to Alec Moyter, holiness is a major theme in the book of Isaiah (28). He addresses the subject of God, holiness, sin, and the salvation that would come through the son of God promised to humankind. Intermixed with the call to holiness are the numerous records of the prophet extolling the people to trust in God (The Holy One of Israel) and the promise of the foretold Messiah and the glory His coming would bring to the people of Israel (Copeland, 4). However, the theme of holiness dominates Isaiah's message, because it would be the outcome of the people trusting in God and the coming of the Messiah would bring about the establishment of the kingdom of God where justice and righteousness would reign.
The prophet touches on the themes of disobedience in the first chapters of his book after his call to prophecy (Moyter 17). It was a time when there was no hope for the Israelites based on their sinful, disobedient nature, but God wanted to establish his Kingdom through them in accordance with the promises made to Abraham. He would, therefore, send his son to restore the kingdom of God on earth -the theme of hope that manifested in the prophecies of the Messiah later on in the book.
Ultimately, the book of Isaiah contains bold demonstrations of God's power to predict the future and His discretion in disclosing his plans for the future to a few chosen people. Isaiah was chosen by God to deliver the message of hope and restoration, in the form of the promised Messiah, long before these events. The message in the book of Isaiah is coherently Isaiah's, and a synthesis rather than an analytic study of the literature of Isaiah is just one of the ways that the prophet's claim to the book is being re-established (Moyter 31).
Berges, Ulrich. The Book of Isaiah as Isaiah's Book: The Latest Developments in the Research of the Prophets 1. OTE, vol. 23, no. 3 2010, pp. 549-573.
Bratcher, Dennis. The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah: A Needless Battle. Christian Research Institute Voice, 2005, Charlotte.
Copeland, Mark A. The Book of Isaiah. A Study Guide with Introductory Comments, Summaries, and Review Questions (Student Edition). Mark A. Copeland Publisher, 2006
Motyer, Alec J. Isaiah: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 20, 2009, pp. 1-39.
Young, Edward J. The Authorship of Isaiah. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992, Grand Rapids
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