The Prophecy of Isaiah is one of the largest and most significant books of the Bible. Some have called it: “The Bible In Miniature”. Because it splits into two halves – just as the OT has 39 books and the NT has 27 books - likewise Isaiah ch.1-39 addresses Israel’s sin, threatens judgement and being sent away into exile; and ch.40-66 looks to the future with the promise of God bringing His people home from exile, and forgiving their sins through the work of His Servant.
The book begins with God calling the heavens and earth to be witnesses as He puts His people (Israel) on trial for their unfaithfulness; but the book ends with God creating a new heavens and new earth filled with people (from all nations) saved by His faithful Servant.
Isaiah’s name means “The LORD is Salvation” – which points us to Jesus whose name also means “The LORD Saves”. Although Isaiah lived 700 years before Jesus, Jesus says in John 12 that “Isaiah saw my glory”. The New Testament quotes from Isaiah at least 20 times and refers to it countless more times. So this is an important book for Christians to drink deeply from to appreciate more of who Jesus is!
Tonight I want to share with you some tools to help you get the most out of reading Bible prophecy generally – and help you start to get to grips with Isaiah specifically.
Whenever we open up the Bible we are going on a journey: from “OUR TOWN” to “BIBLE TOWN”. Our Town and Bible Town are separated by a river which represents the fact that we’re going back to a time long ago, a country far away, a culture different to our own, reading a book written in a foreign language, given to people under the Old Covenant. That means that we’ve got some work to do if we’re to get the most out of our visit to Bible Town. Think of tonight as a kind of Guide Book for your time in Isaiah town, to help you ask the right questions and find answers that will help you see clearly what is going on in Isaiah.
Here are the five questions which you can use for ANY Bible Study!
- GENRE: What type of writing is it?
- CONTEXT: When and where is it set?
- OBSERVATION: What does it say?
- MEANING: What is the message? [For THEM/THEN]
- APPLICATION: So what difference does this make? [For US/NOW]
Let’s work through them together…
(1) GENRE: WHAT TYPE OF WRITING IS IT?
You don’t have to be an English literature student to know something about genres – or different types of writing.
Q: Shout out some examples of genres?
There are different genres in the Bible, which you need to recognise and read accordingly. Some are easier to read than others – for example: narratives are easy to read because we love story, poems take a bit of imagination, and the prophets require us to work hard!
- When you hear the word prophet/prophecy – what associations come to mind?
There were two types of prophecy: Prophets weren’t just people who were given visions and messages about the FUTURE by God (fore-telling) – most of their sermons were “forth telling”. They have been called “covenant enforcers” – their job was to speak to God’s people in the PRESENT – calling them to take seriously what it means to live as God’s people in covenant relationship with Him. Almost like a best-man is there to tell a married man: Remember to take seriously your vows to your wife. The prophets’ had two basic themes:
- God’s warnings: God’s judgement is coming against the people for their sins of idolatry, immorality, inhumanity and indifference.
- God’s promises: there is hope of deliverance from and restoration beyond judgement for those who faithfully trust God.
(2) CONTEXT: WHEN/WHERE IS IT SET?
If you read something out of context, then it can mean that you miss its true significance. For example, let me read you an extract from a famous book – out of context… Listen and then tell me how interesting it seems…
“In the 21 months we’ve lived here, we’ve been through a good man ‘food cycles’ – you’ll understand what I mean in a moment. A ‘food cycle’ is a period in which we have only one particular dish or type of vegetable to eat. For a long time we ate nothing but endive. Endive with sand, endive with mashed potatoes, endive and mashed potato casserole. It’s not much fun when you have to eat it every day for lunch and dinner, but when you’re hungry enough, you do a lot of things”
Does your perception of the passage change if I tell you that this is from Anne Frank’s Diary? When put in context, what seems quite a boring piece of text, suddenly comes alive with new significance when you know that this is the account of a young Jewish girl, hiding from the Nazis.
Likewise, when you put Isaiah into its Biblical Context and Historical Context, then you can begin to see its significance then and now!
(a) BIBLE STORY CONTEXT:
The kingdom that they can see with their eyes around them is failing, but the prophets call the people to have faith in the kingdom of God that is promised to come in the future.
(b) HISTORICAL CONTEXT:
Isaiah begins his book locating himself in history: “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”. Isaiah ministered under a succession of kings, who appear in a spiritual Hall of Shame: two-faced “Uzziah”, half-hearted “Jotham”, and wicked “Ahaz”. The exception was faithful “Hezekiah”, but his son, Manasseh, turned out to be the worst of all the kings and had Isaiah murdered. His ministry started in the year Uzziah died – 740BC. His death marked the beginning of a period of grave uncertainty and instability for the people of God in the nation of Judah.
Discuss: In what ways can knowing these historical contexts help us appreciate the relevance of Isaiah for our situation today?
- Spiritually: The nation of Judah was in spiritual decline – the believing community in Judah had become a minority.
- Economically & Socially: The prosperous reign of King Uzziah had seen rising injustice and inequality growing between rich and poor – and was followed by severe recession.
- Internationally: The peaceful reign of Uzziah was followed by uncertainty with Judah caught between two warring superpowers: a new aggressive and expansionist Assyria (to the north) and old defensive Egypt (to the south)
- Nationally: The union between the nations of Judah and Israel remained broken and there was rising hostility between them
- Politically: The kings of Judah had to decide how they would face these threats: through trust in God’s promises or trust in Human policies/politics?
We too live in days of tremendous upheaval and instability – no one knows what the future holds: socially, economically, politically – nationally or internationally. So in today’s uncertain times, we need to be reminded of the greatness of God, who rules the nations and whose kingdom will prevail on the earth.
Also, like Isaiah, we live in days of national spiritual decline. In Scotland, the church no longer enjoys social privilege nor cultural influence, instead we are increasingly marginalised and maligned. Pundits confidently predict that the church is in terminal decline. Christians and churches look like nothing in the eyes of the elites of this world. Isaiah faced similar discouragements, but saw them from the infallible perspective of God’s purpose for history: through this small insignificant nation God was going to bring His salvation to the whole world. Today, we need to hear what God has to say about our significant role in His plans for the world!
(3) OBSERVATION: WHAT DOES THE TEXT SAY?
(4) MEANING: WHAT DOES IT MEAN? (FOR THEM/THEN)
What makes prophets like Isaiah strange to read is that they are recording sermons, which were preached or wrote in poetry! Poetry doesn’t just state a point or idea – rather it develops it over multiple lines and forces you to slow down to consider: what is the prophet saying here?
Also Hebrew poetry works a lot differently to English poetry. We like our poems to have rhyme and meter – however, the key feature of Hebrew poetry is technically called “parallelism”. That means it repeats IDEAS not sounds across its lines!
Let’s practice reading some Hebrew poetry. I’ll give you some examples of the three different types of parallelism – your task is to read it and tell me what is the point being made?
(a) Antithetical parallelism (contrasts ideas)
“The ox knows its owner,
And the donkey its master’s crib
But Israel does not know,
My people do not understand” (1:3)
(b) Synonymous parallelism (restates ideas)
“Ah, sinful nation,
A people laiden with iniquity
Offspring of evildoers
Children who deal corruptly” (1:4)
(c) Synthetic parallelism (develops idea)
“Your country lies desolate
Your cities are burned with fire
If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors
We should have become like Sodom
And become like Gomorrah” (1:7-8)
(5) APPLICATION: SO WHAT? (FOR US/NOW)
We have to remember that we are only ever tourists in Bible Town – we don’t actually live there and we have to return home to live our lives in Our Town. But we aren’t meant to return empty handed – our experiences in Bible Town are meant to have impacted us and are meant to change how we live here upon our return. There will be all sorts of things we’ll learn that are timeless, never change, and we can directly transfer to ourselves e.g.
- Truths about God’s character, purposes, promises and love for His people
- Truths about Human nature
- Truths about the sins of injustice, immorality, inhumanity and idolatry which God hates
However, there will be some things that we only indirectly directly relate to ourselves. Remember that the Prophets were “covenant enforcers” of the Old Covenant. They reminded the people that being in covenant with God involved enjoying blessings if they were obedient, and suffering curses if they were disobedient! We are included in the New Covenant today, because the Old Covenant has been fulfilled in Christ. It’s in the light of Christ that we need to listen to the warnings and promises of Isaiah.
- In His life, Jesus has perfectly obeyed God His Father and so as the Messiah or King, He has won the promised blessings for His people to share with Him.
- In His death, Jesus has suffered the curses for the sins and disobedience of Israel and the nations, so that His people might be saved by trusting in Him as their Saviour and King.
Isaiah’s message is full of the good news about Jesus, for us today!
Our final exercise tonight will be to look at some of the prophecies about the life and work of Jesus: How do these relate to Jesus and His work for us?
- Jesus’ virgin birth (ch.7)
- His three year gospel ministry (ch.42, 49, 61)
- His crucifixion and resurrection to save His people (ch.52-53)
- His gospel going out and converting the nations (ch.19, 55-56)
- His kingdom reigning on earth (ch.9,11)
- His new creation and the final judgement of evil (ch.65-66)