If you open the Bible to the middle, you’re likely to land in Isaiah, one of the biggest books in the Old Testament. Isaiah was a prophet like many others in the Bible, but his book is the epic of the Old Testament—not in length alone, but also in scope.
The prophet Isaiah belonged to the Southern Kingdom of Israel, after the nation had fractured in two. He witnessed the collapse of the Northern Kingdom to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 BC during the reign of Ahaz, the Syro-Ephraimite wars in 734-732 BC, and Hezekiah’s crisis with Sennacherib (King of Assyria) in 701 BC. Isaiah lived in wartime, under the stress of national insecurity.
Isaiah spoke to three audiences: the pre-exilic generation of his time, those taken into exile by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, and those returning from exile. In this context, he often gave political instruction to Israel’s kings. He was God’s means of direction for their state. Some people wonder how this is possible, because Isaiah didn’t live long enough to personally address each audience. Surprisingly, God not only gave Isaiah foresight into the present course of his nation, but also into the cosmic course of history. Some scholars are so astounded by the visions given to Isaiah by the Holy Spirit that they try to explain it away by saying his book had to have been authored by three different people!
The book of Isaiah helps us understand the complex nature of biblical prophecy. Here’s how.
Prophecy is like a photograph of a mountain range. Imagine it. Looking at the photo, there seems to be one row of mountains, all different hues of color.
You know, though, that if you were to fly over those mountains, they would no longer look like they stand in a line. The mountain ranges would be separated by great lengths.
When we open Isaiah and read his prophecy, we are looking at a sort of mountain photo—a beautiful polaroid of God’s promises. They seem to be indistinguishable from one another, all scrunched together and overlapping.
But if we were to fly over the Bible’s story, we would see clearly that the closest range of promises found their fulfillment in Isaiah’s day. The range of promises beyond that found their fulfillment in the coming of Jesus—the one Isaiah speaks about as “The Suffering Servant.” But the mountains in Isaiah’s photo span even further. Isaiah’s prophetic photograph spans all human history.
At the beginning and end of his prophecy, Isaiah clarifies that his audience includes all of creation, because God’s plan is universal. At the beginning, he writes: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken…” (Isaiah 1:2). At the end, God says, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind… From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD” (Isaiah 65:17; 66:23). God’s plan of redemption involves all of creation.
Isaiah is a collection of one man’s sermons from the 7th and 8th century BC given to his home country. When Isaiah’s first hearers looked at the picture he painted through his prophecy, they saw judgment, for Israel had sinned against the Lord and broken his covenant, thus they would be driven into exile by their political enemies, away from their homeland. But even in that near vision, God promised to restore Israel and bring Israel home from exile one day.
A vision far grander than Isaiah’s first audience could imagine stood behind their present circumstances. God would rescue his people through a coming suffering servant who would bear the exile of sin and death for us and free us from our bondage to sin.
Isaiah is also an anthology that poetically retells God’s plan to redeem all of humanity. A vision far grander than Isaiah’s first audience could imagine stood behind their present circumstances. God would rescue his people through a coming suffering servant who would bear the exile of sin and death for us and free us from our bondage to sin. We find out as we read the rest of the Bible that this servant is God himself, come to us as one of us in the person of Jesus Christ.
We pray that as you open Isaiah, that photo would turn to flight for you, and the Holy Spirit would help you soar through God’s promises, and recognize the magnitude, beauty, and significance of each one.