Biblcal Theology and Isaiah

Biblical Theology helps us to see God’s big story of redemption unfolding on the pages of Scripture.  There are a couple of aspects to this.  First of all, authors such as Graeme Goldsworthy and Christopher Wright have identified three themes running through Scripture.  We can talk about

  1. God
  2. People
  3. Land

The story that the Bible tells us the story of God’s people living in God’s land, under God’s reign and rule under his blessing.   The other aspects tie into these themes as well as to each other.  The story presents a picture of creation and de-creation, exile, exodus and return and death and resurrection.  These images give us different insights into what God is doing.  They seem cyclical, death and resurrection or exile and return are repeated through the Old Testament. However, there is linear progression, the cycle does not go on for ever.  So, we also talk about the story being comedy rather than tragedy. There is a goal or ending in sight and the ending is a happy one. 

Let’s have a look at how those themes unfold in Isaiah.

God, People and land

The book of Isaiah is a prophecy to and concerning God’s people. Whilst they are now divided into two nations, Israel or Ephraim in the north and Judah in the South and although they are rebellious, they are still meant to be God’s people, his children worshipping and serving him (1:1-4).  However, in reality, they are often seen to be far from him.  They identify more with the Gentiles, those who are far off from God.  This is forcibly brought home to us when we see Jerusalem listed among the pagan, gentile cities which are subject to judgement (ch22).  The consequence is that instead of God speaking through his own people in their own language, he will speak through foreigners and strangers (28:11-12).

Isaiah therefore asks the question “What does it really mean to be the people of God?”  The answer is to do with true worship and honour of God.  Therefore, the label “God’s people” cannot be applied to every descendant of Abraham and Jacob indiscriminately. God’s true people are a remnant or stump of survivors who continue to honour him when those around turn their backs on him (6:13).  To be part of God’s people is to love and seek righteousness, it is to be filled with his Holy Spirit (11:2, 42:1). In fact, before we can consider including others, we must narrow down that definition further from the remnant to one person, the one who is God’s righteous king (11:1) and also his suffering servant.  This servant king stands in the place of the people bearing their sin, shame and judgement (ch 53).  

They are in the land and so the prophecies consider the fate of this land. Hence if the Torah described how God’s people were meant to live in the land under his rule and reign, prophets like Isaiah show what happen when they fail to do so.  For example, in Deuteronomy 7, the people are told that when they go into the land, they are to devote the idols they find to destruction so that the land is not polluted by them. Instead, God’s people have filled the land with idolatry and become like their idols. The polluted land needs purification and the fate of the people is tied up with the fate of the land (6:9-12). Notice that the whole earth is God’s place, God’s land so that the land of Israel ats representatively for it.  This means at times there appears to be a blurring of distinctions.  Is the description of a future paradise pointing us just to Israel after the return from exile (ch 11) or to a

future new creation?  Is the description of destruction upon the earth speaking of the land of Canaan or the whole planet (ch24).

Throughout all of this, it would be tempting to see God as weak, distance and failing.  Not so, argues Isaiah.  God is the high and exalted one, his temple little more than footstool.  If his people will not worship him, that does not mean he is devoid of honour and glory, the angelical beings will praise him and declare him holy.  God is the one who acts. He is the one who judges. The people should fear him not the immediate enemies around and about (6:1-7). Not only that but it is God who acts, to save, giving signs (ch 7) raising up a good and righteous king (11:1-2) , speaking comfort (40:1) sending and upholding his servant (40:2) and even raising up Gentile rulers to do his bidding in salvation ands restoration as much as in judgement (44:25,45:1).

Death and Resurrection

We might suggest that creation, de-creation and recreation along with exile and return are aspects of death and resurrection.  The theme of dying and death leading to rising and life is stitched into the fabric of the Old Testament and so, when Jesus shows the disciples on the Emmaus Road how the Scriptures point to him, it is probably not that he picks out a few proof texts. Rather, he will have been showing how the whole pattern of the story points to the one who will die and rise.  Before Christ, people experienced mini deaths and mini resurrections pointing to the great death and resurrection to come. We may also then say that we experience mini death and resurrection moments that point us back to his death and resurrection as well as forward to the great resurrection day to come. I suspect that when Jesus started with Moses and worked his way through the Law and Prophets, he would have settled for quite some time in Isaiah, not just because it contains so many individual predictions but because it is a book about death and resurrection.

So the book is most obviously and overtly about exile.  We can see how exile is a type of death from the way in which Genesis 3 ends with Adam and Eve exiled from Eden.  Just as Adam and Eve were subject to death, separated from the Tree of Life, sent into exile, so too would the people be exiled. Those in the north would be removed to Assyria and those in the south to Babylon (6:11; 39:5-7).  The land would be depopulated but this also speaks of de-creation.  Cultivated parts of the land are taking over with brambles and the country becomes barren (ch5; 7:23-25). This is a reversal of the mandate to fill and subdue. 

There is death and resurrection because Israel is under the just penalty of God’s wrath, the people will die with their idols (6:7-12).  However, resurrection is to follow.  God’s light will shine where there was darkness (9:2), the people are called to arise, to shine (60:1).  This is possible because the servant comes as their representative, taking their place and dying, yet with that paradoxical hope of many days and offspring ahead (ch53).  Exile will be followed by return, a mirroring of the Exodus journey through fire and water (ch 43).  God will draw the people back and even the nations to himself on Mount Zion (2:2-5;11:10-11)  There is a paradise new creation with Edenic qualities to look forward to (ch 11).

Deep comedy

There are two main genres of Greek and Shakespearean plays.  A tragedy is a story that may begin well and have lighter moments throughout but ultimately ends in disaster and death.  A comedy in contrast is not to do with stand up and jokes but indicates a happy ending with fortunes restored, a hero victorious and life better at the end than the beginning.

Isaiah belongs in the comedy category.  There is much to lament and many warnings to heed but stitched through the book are little glimmers of hope.  Israel will go through de-creation, death and exile.  However, there is a turning point, the coming of the suffering servant (Isaiah 40 onwarfds) that brings comfort and hope. This is the basis for the promise of new life, of righteousness, of peace and prosperity.  The final chapters of the book are dominated by this positive theme of light, life and hope.  Isaiah is ultimately good news because it points to Christ.  It speaks the Gospel.

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