Isaiah is widely considered the deepest, richest, and most theologically significant book in the Old Testament. It is, without question, a profound statement by God about his own sovereignty and majesty spoken through his chosen spokesman, the prophet Isaiah.
In this accessible commentary on the book of Isaiah, Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. argues that Isaiah imparts a single vision of God throughout all sixty-six chapters. It is a unified, woven whole that ultimately shows that God saves sinners. He saves them from their own self-invented salvations, so that they can walk in the light of his love.
Ultimately, the message of Isaiah offers us a God-centered confidence that enables us to face anything while challenging us to trust God in new ways.
Part of the Preaching the Word series.
About the Author
Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. is the pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including the Preaching the Word commentary on Isaiah, as well as a contributor to the ESV Study Bible. He and his wife, Jani, have four children.
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
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Introduction to Isaiah
Who can tell us whether this awful and mysterious silence, in which the Infinite One has wrapped himself, portends mercy or wrath? Who can say to the troubled conscience whether He, whose laws in nature are inflexible and remorseless, will pardon sin? Who can answer the anxious inquiry whether the dying live on or whether they cease to be? Is there a future state? And if so, what is the nature of that untried condition of being? If there be immortal happiness, how can I attain it? If there be an everlasting woe, how can it be escaped? Let the reader close his Bible and ask himself seriously what he knows upon these momentous questions apart from its teachings. What solid foundation has he to rest upon in regard to matters which so absolutely transcend all earthly experience and are so entirely out of the reach of our unassisted faculties? A man of facile faith may perhaps delude himself into the belief of what he wishes to believe. He may thus take upon trust God's unlimited mercy, his ready forgiveness of transgressors, and eternal happiness after death. But this is all a dream. He knows nothing, he can know nothing about it, except by direct revelation from heaven.
We can know, because God has spoken. Into our troubled world, God has spoken to us "from the borders of another world."Our needs go deeper than the remedies on sale in the marketplace of ideas today. Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, wouldn't you agree that "the solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time"? No matter how many experts we consult or how much research we do, the ultimate questions of life remain unanswerable unless God speaks. And God has spoken to us, in plain language. Surprisingly, his message is good news for bad people like us. Will you listen to him thoughtfully, patiently?
God spoke eloquently through Isaiah. If you have any interest in the Bible at all, Isaiah will reward a close reading. It is "the most theologically significant book in the Old Testament." "Of all the books in the Old Testament, Isaiah is perhaps the richest." "From ancient times Isaiah has been considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets." The scholars who know what they are talking about prize Isaiah. What Bach's first biographer said about his music applies to Isaiah's prophecy:
[Bach's music] is not merely agreeable, like other composers', but transports us to the regions of the ideal. It does not arrest our attention momentarily but grips us the stronger the oftener we listen to it so that, after a thousand hearings, its treasures are still unexhausted and yield fresh beauties to excite our wonder.
Isaiah deserves better than to be a "classic" — a famous book nobody reads anymore. His prophecy isn't always easy to understand. But every day all around the world people take on challenges, from climbing the Matterhorn to learning Japanese to launching a new business. If God has spoken to us through Isaiah, let's explore this literary Matterhorn. Let's enjoy the view from the very top, and even the effort of getting there. Let's reach out for new understandings.
Let us begin: "The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah" (1:1). This heading invites three questions: What? Who? When?
"The vision of Isaiah ... which he saw ..." This book is a prophetic vision. Not that Isaiah went into a trance, for 2:1 says that Isaiah saw a "word" from God. But this book puts before us a way of seeing. And it isn't our own brainstorm. God is the one offering us a new perspective on everything.
Left to ourselves, we live on the level of impressions and hunches and gut reactions. We are blind to the things we most need to know. But a prophet was enabled to see beyond the immediate. A prophet was not fooled or stampeded. He was a seer.
For example, Elisha was surrounded one night in Dothan by the army of the Syrians (2 Kings 6:15-17). A young man was with him there — a prophet-in-training. He got up one morning to find the area swarming with enemy troops. He was terrified. But when he alerted Elisha, the old man didn't panic. Elisha said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." His young friend must have thought, This old guy is past his prime! He doesn't appreciate the gravity of the situation. But what did the prophet do? He prayed, "O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see." God did. And the young man saw that the surrounding mountains were filled with horses and chariots of fire. The prophet could see through appearances into reality, which is why the prophets were misunderstood.
Isaiah himself was enabled to see the divine King enthroned in the heavenly court (Isaiah 6). What he never could have stumbled onto, God revealed to him. This makes the prophetic vision of the Bible our clearest view into reality. Our natural outlook focuses on everything secondary. But in the Bible God is the central, unavoidable figure everywhere. All the basic questions of life are, in fact, God-questions. As John Calvin put it, "The Christian must surely be so disposed and minded that he feels within himself it is with God he has to deal throughout his life." That is a prophetic way of seeing. But this awareness clashes with our intuitive sense of things. We dislike God's word and defend ourselves against it. But Isaiah begs us, "Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD" (2:5). Let's respect God enough to be open and think it through.
The heading in Isaiah 1:1 alerts us that his book will interrupt our familiar ways of thinking. Isaiah walks up to us, taps us on the shoulder as we struggle with our problems, and says, "There's another way to look at all this. Interested?" God is disruptive. Without his word, we are confined to our own pretenses and bluffs. With his word, new realities open up. But if we want to get anything out of Isaiah, we have to be ready to adjust.
The other thing we should see about the What is this: The verse says "the vision" (singular), not "the visions" (plural). That is surprising. Why? Because this book is an anthology of Isaiah's lifetime of prophetic work. He preached many sermons and made declarations for God on many occasions. What we have in this book is an edited collection of his whole career. Toward the end of his life, Isaiah gathered his papers and notes and memories together and wove them into one coherent presentation. So the unfolding sections of this book come from who knows how many different occasions, and not always in chronological order. But they all unite as one compelling new way of seeing everything. "The vision ... which he saw ..."
There are two answers to the Who question. The first is obvious: "Isaiah the son of Amoz." The Bible does not tell us who his father Amoz was, but rabbinic tradition claims that Amoz was brother to Amaziah, King of Judah, putting Isaiah into the royal family. We know that Isaiah was a married man with children. We think he was a resident of Jerusalem. We can see he was a literary genius. But the most important thing about Isaiah is his name.
His Hebrew name means "The Lord saves." This man's very identity announces grace from beyond ourselves. We don't like that. We want to retain control, save face, set our own terms, pay our own way. Every day we treat God as incidental to what really matters to us, and we live by our own strategies of self-salvation. We don't think of our choices that way, but Isaiah can see that our lives are infested with fraudulent idols. Any hope that isn't from God is an idol of our own making.
Idolatry is Isaiah's primary concern about us. This is offensive, because we thought we left idolatry behind centuries ago. But Isaiah, who understands the power of God, also understands the power of non-gods. It works on our minds. Every day we shift our deepest fears around behind amusements, professional achievements, and even lesser fears. As we drive slowly around a serious car accident, we think, It wasn't me, to distance ourselves mentally. We think, They must have been driving recklessly, because blaming feels reassuring. We sense how vulnerable we are. But any evasion of plain dealing with God is idol-manufacture. And we do not let go of our idols easily.
In heaping our idolatries together, we assemble a culture — a brilliant, collaborative quest to prove ourselves. Our modern culture rarely represents itself with religious language. But Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, explained how we serve it every day with faithful devotion:
We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having only a little better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope.
We crave reassurance that our lives are not zeroes. But unless we are resting in God, our uncertainty generates "a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog." No idol can truthfully say, "My yoke is easy" (Matthew 11:30).
In today's increasingly dangerous world, our cheery but demanding idols, with their empty promises, are failing us. The fact is, death watches us, stalks us, takes aim, and shoots straight. There is no safe place, not even in America, the land of optimism. We have terrorist hijackers, drive-by shootings, tainted blood transfusions, gun-toting kids at school, and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of maniacs. William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, put it vividly:
Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.
Ignoring and forgetting is why we hold this banquet called the American Dream. Isn't it time, with all other hopes proving false, to reach out for the strong hand of God?
A salvation we don't even know how to define, Isaiah is an expert at explaining to us. He wants to lead us into a life that outlasts our earthly expiration date. J. I. Packer puts into words the greatness of the Isaianic message:
God saves sinners. God — the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father's will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of the Father and Son by renewing. Saves — does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners — men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, blind, unable to lift a finger to do God's will or better their spiritual lot. God saves sinners. ... Sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory forever, amen!
God is announcing to us through Isaiah: The Lord, for all that he is, saves, for all that's worth, sinners, for all that we need. That truth is better than we give it credit for.
The people of Isaiah's day had an unrealistic appraisal of themselves, with little awareness of their own fatal salvations. They went through the motions of Biblical faith. But when it came to the hardball of everyday life, they saw no relevance in God's help. But their brilliant stupidity only played into the hands of their enemies, as we will see. The Lutheran Church, in their service of Affirmation of Baptism, asks new members, "Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?" That may sound quaint. But the question on which our lives turn, moment by moment, is whether we are banking on God's promises of salvation or on the empty promises of the false salvations pressing in upon us all around. If we are not letting God save us, we are exposing ourselves to forces of evil, more than we know. But as the truth of "The Lord saves" breaks upon us with prophetic clarity, it becomes a powerful resource for living.
In Isaiah's day, his message was unpopular. A prophet with his name ("the Lord saves") — well, the people could see a mile away what he stood for, and not many listened. Their hearts were too dead to resonate with the greatest thing in the universe. And so it is today. If the gospel that you can not be your own savior, but God can save you totally, does not thrill you, it's probably an irritant to your self-importance, lust for control, and moral superiority. Even in the church, the more clearly the good news is preached and the more directly it is applied, the more inevitably it sparks controversy. So be it. "The Lord saves" is the improbable truth we've been looking for but resisting all our lives.
This book is also about, secondly, "Judah and Jerusalem." Isaiah will address other nations too. His message is for everyone. But God is most present among the people of his choosing, and the revival of his people is the hope of the nations. That is Isaiah's primary concern. So we should apply Isaiah's vision today not to America or any other political entity but, first and foremost, to the Christian church. Jesus said to his followers, "You are the salt of the earth. ... You are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:13, 14). Nothing is more important to the state of the world than the state of the church. God speaks first to believers, so that his overflowing salvation can spread to all. The world cannot impede the expansion of salvation; the mediocrity of the church can and does. If the world is not experiencing the grace of God, the church is being untrue to its destiny. What the world most needs is the church so obviously saved that the church is an alternative to convert to. If Isaiah were alive today, he would say to Christian believers, "The Lord saves, beginning with us."
"... in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah." Isaiah preached in the southern kingdom of Judah during the closing decades of the eighth-century B.C. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. When Isaiah began his work about 740 B.C., Judah was still basking in long-sustained prosperity. But the good times were nearly over, and the people sensed it. They lived in a pivotal moment and in a threatening world. The crisis of their generation was the rising Assyrian empire to the east, and these four kings of Judah proved how mixed the nation's response was — trust in God complicated by deeper trust in themselves. You can read more about it in 2 Kings 15 — 20. But the Assyrian threat was the point at which these leaders and their people would decide whether God would save them or whether they had to develop their own strategies of self-salvation. Every generation is tested at some point of felt urgency, and to us today God freely offers himself as our most powerful ally. Whether or not we choose him is the story of our generation, and nothing else ultimately matters.
Why did Isaiah keep speaking out? Few people took him seriously. As thanks for his ministry, according to an ancient tradition, he was sawn in two. How did he carry on? There is only one answer. What he saw is real. We need to see it too. We need to embrace it rather than push it away. We can discover in our crises today what it means to be saved by grace from God. Others in the past have trusted him, and he more than kept his word. Now it's our turn. But we don't have forever to make up our minds.
Let's rethink everything from this prophetic viewpoint: God saves sinners. It's the most underrated truth in all the world.CHAPTER 2
Our Urgent Need: A New Self-awareness I
Paul Tournier, the Swiss psychiatrist, observed, "A diffuse and vague guilt feeling kills the personality, whereas the conviction of sin gives life to it." Isaiah begins with life-giving conviction of sin. It's our first step back to God.
We need a sense of sin. We shouldn't fear it or resent it. It is not destructive. It is life-giving, if we have the courage to let Christ save us. We are often told — or just whispered to — that what we need is more self-esteem. That is false. What we need is more humility and more Christ-esteem.
William Kilpatrick distinguishes self-esteem, with its non-judgmental-ism, from self-awareness, with its clear consciousness of sin:
A colleague at Boston College ... once asked members of his philosophy class to write an anonymous essay about a personal struggle over right and wrong, good and evil. Most of the students, however, were unable to complete the assignment. "Why?" he asked. "Well," they said — and apparently this was said without irony — "we haven't done anything wrong." We can see a lot of self-esteem here, but little self-awareness.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Isaiah"
Copyright © 2005 Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word,
1 Introduction to Isaiah (ISAIAH 1:1),
2 Our Urgent Need: A New Self-awareness I (ISAIAH 1:2-9),
3 Our Urgent Need: A New Self-awareness II (ISAIAH 1:10-20),
4 Our Urgent Need: A New Self-awareness III (ISAIAH 1:21-31),
5 The Transforming Power of Hope and Humility (ISAIAH 2:1-22),
6 The Enriching Power of Loss and Gain (ISAIAH 3:1 — 4:6),
7 Receiving the Grace of God in Vain (ISAIAH 5:1-30),
8 The Triumph of Grace Over Our Failure: Isaiah (ISAIAH 6:1-13),
9 The Triumph of Grace Over Our Failure: Judah I (ISAIAH 7:1 — 8:8),
10 The Triumph of Grace Over Our Failure: Judah II (ISAIAH 8:9 — 9:7),
11 The Triumph of Grace Over Our Failure: Israel I (ISAIAH 9:8 — 10:15),
12 The Triumph of Grace Over Our Failure: Israel II (ISAIAH 10:16 — 11:16),
13 Our Response to the Triumph of Grace (ISAIAH 12:1-6),
14 The Supremacy of God Over the Nations I (ISAIAH 13:1 — 20:6),
15 The Supremacy of God Over the Nations II (ISAIAH 21:1 — 23:18),
16 The Supremacy of God Over the Nations III (ISAIAH 24:1 — 27:13),
17 Our One Security: God's Sure Foundation (ISAIAH 28:1-29),
18 God's Power on God's Terms (ISAIAH 29:1-24),
19 The Counterintuitive Ways of God (ISAIAH 30:1-33),
20 (ISAIAH 31 — 32),
21 Finding God in Failure (ISAIAH 33),
22 The Two Final Outcomes (ISAIAH 34 — 35),
23 In Whom Do You Now Trust? (ISAIAH 36:1 — 37:7),
24 That All the Kingdoms of the Earth May Know (ISAIAH 37:8-38),
25 Peace and Security in Our Days? (ISAIAH 38:1 — 39:8),
26 God's Glory, Our Comfort (ISAIAH 40:1-11),
27 God's Uniqueness, Our Assurance (ISAIAH 40:12-26),
28 God's Greatness, Our Renewal (ISAIAH 40:27-31),
29 The Reality of God in an Unreal World (ISAIAH 41:1-20),
30 A Delusion, a Servant, a New Song (ISAIAH 41:21 — 42:17),
31 God's Way to Reformation (ISAIAH 42:18 — 43:21),
32 God's Way to Revival (ISAIAH 43:22 — 44:23),
33 God's Surprising Strategies (ISAIAH 44:24 — 45:25),
34 Gods That Fail and the Collapse of Their Cultures (ISAIAH 46:1 — 47:15),
35 God's Commitment to God Is His Assurance to Us (ISAIAH 48:1-22),
36 Not with Swords' Loud Clashing (ISAIAH 49:1 — 50:3),
37 Why Do We Have Ears on the Outside of Our Heads? (ISAIAH 50:4 — 51:8),
38 Wachet Auf (ISAIAH 51:9 — 52:12),
39 Guilt, Substitution, Grace (ISAIAH 52:13 — 53:12),
40 When Grace Dances (ISAIAH 54:1 — 55:13),
41 Revival and the Heart of the Contrite (ISAIAH 56:1 — 57:21),
42 Revival and Responsibility (ISAIAH 58:1 — 59:13),
43 Revival and World Renewal (ISAIAH 59:14 — 60:22),
44 Revival, Preaching, and Prayer (ISAIAH 61:1 — 62:7),
45 Revival and the Wrath of the Lamb (ISAIAH 62:8 — 63:14),
46 Revival and the Descent of God (ISAIAH 63:15 — 64:12),
47 Revival and the Eagerness of God (ISAIAH 65:1-25),
48 Revival and Worship (ISAIAH 66:1-24),
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