Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Great Big Book of Isaiah

I’ve been asked to preach on Isaiah 55. It was probably foolish to accept the invitation to do so! In preparing for a sermon, I always try to take account of what comes before and after the passage I’m looking at. That’s one thing when it’s part of a New Testament letter, or even one of the gospels, but what about a huge book like Isaiah?

Maybe it’s too much to hope for, but I’ve been trying to get a fix on the whole prophecy, so I can best understand the full force of the invitation that starts in Isaiah 55:1, ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!’

As always, I’ve been helped by the overviews produced by The Bible Project, who devote two videos to Isaiah, here and here (totalling just over 16 minutes, and well worth the time).

I’ve also been checking out the introductions to the prophecy in standard mid-level commentaries (such as the one by John Goldingay in the New International Biblical Commentary series, and the one by Barry Webb in the Bible Speaks Today series).

Also helpful have been some overviews of the prophets and standard one-volume surveys and introductions to the Bible. For instance, I read the chapter on Isaiah in Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). Rather than going through Isaiah section by section, Schreiner looks at some of the main theological dimensions of the book – judgment of Israel, Jerusalem’s salvation, the remnant, the new David, the new exodus and the new creation, the servant of the Lord, the Spirit, salvation to the ends of the earth. Here are a few sentences from his conclusion:

‘Both Israel and Judah are sent into exile for their sins, facing judgment from Yahweh for their failure to abide by covenant stipulations. The message of Isaiah is that God has not abandoned his promises. A new David is coming, and there will be a new exodus and a new creation. Yahweh will pour out his Spirit, especially upon his servant, and this servant will bring in the new creation and the new exodus. But he will do so in a most unusual way. He will suffer for the sins of the nation and secure forgiveness of sins through suffering... The salvation accomplished by the servant extends to the entire world’ (348-49).

I’ve found particularly helpful the overview of Isaiah in William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: Its Expression in the Books of the Old Testament (Leicester: Apollos, 1989). This chapter essentially repeats the guts of an earlier article, ‘The Purpose of the Book of Isaiah’, Tyndale Bulletin 36 (1985), 111-28, available online here. To my mind, Dumbrell makes a compelling case for seeing Jerusalem as the ‘overmastering theme’ of the prophecy:

‘[I]nterest in the fate of the historical Jerusalem and the eschatological hopes bound up with the notion of Jerusalem... can be seen to be the factor which provides the theological cohesion of this work and gives it its unitary stamp’ (112).

‘The book of Isaiah moves from the perverse worship offered by physical Jerusalem under judgment arising from the neglect of Yahweh’s kingship, to the worship of Yahweh in the new Jerusalem. Gradually, in the course of this book, Jerusalem becomes a major biblical symbol uniting city and saved community, combining sacred space and sanctified people... His Zion is an ideal – the perfect community, the righteous people of God’ (128).

A later edition of Tyndale Bulletin includes an essay by Robin Routledge, ‘Is There a Narrative Substructure Underlying the Book of Isaiah?’, Tyndale Bulletin 55.2 (2004), 183-204, available here. In short, the answer to the question posed in the title is ‘yes’, pointing to the structural unity of the book and helping identify the main theme – ‘in terms of the relationship between God, Israel and the nations, and the role of the Servant of the Lord’ (183).

‘Isaiah 1–39 focuses on Israel’s call, rebellion and failure – and opens up the need for, and possibility of, restoration. Isaiah 40–55 is addressed to Israel in exile; it reaffirms her call as God’s servant and promises restoration in the form of a second Exodus. The restoration and renewal of the people is closely linked with the ministry of the Servant. This moves the narrative on to Isaiah 56–66, which includes the promise that a renewed and restored Israel will reveal God’s glory to the nations – and so fulfil her mandate’ (204).

A friend of mine, Richard Briggs, provides a great way in to Isaiah in his Grove Booklet, Reading Isaiah: A Beginner’s Guide (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2010). Richard covers different and complementary approaches to the book (historical, literary, canonical), looks at the issue of how many Isaiahs there were and what difference it makes, overviews the book as ‘a symphony in (at least) three movements’, concluding with some reflections on preaching Isaiah.

A recently-published volume in the ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’ series is devoted to Isaiah: Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (London: Apollos, 2016). I’ve not yet read it, but the focus is clear from the title and the organisation of the book in looking at four features of the kingdom: God, the king; the lead agents of the king; the realm of the kingdom; and the people of the king.

I’ve had a little peep at Abernethy’s published dissertation, Eating in Isaiah: Approaching the Role of Food and Drink in Isaiah’s Structure and Message (Leiden: Brill, 2014). This looks at the function of food and drink in the outer seams (chapters 1, 36-37, 55, 65-66) of the book’s major sections. In that sense, Isaiah 55:1-3 concludes chapters 40-55 with an invitation to buy food and water from Yahweh in a way that resonates with earlier references to that topic. Here’s the summarising upshot of his fascinating discussion of Isaiah 40-55:

‘By offering water for the thirsty (55:1a), the merchant calls to mind other passages that use thirst and water as metaphors for YHWH’s ability to bring transformation (41:17-20; 43:20; 44:3; 48:21; 49:8-10). By offering wine and milk free of charge for the impoverished (55:1b), the merchant shows how different he is from other gods, which drain money from the people (46:6-7), and announces a coming era when YHWH’s wrath toward his people is passed (i.e., 51:17-23)’ (143).

I’m not yet sure what difference any of this will make to my actual sermon on Isaiah 55, but it’s felt good to put in the work, and it will hopefully pay dividends for future preaching from the book.

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