Reading the books of the biblical prophets is challenging. They’re written in ancient Hebrew poetry and narrative style, which is really different from modern poetry or narrative. Also, these books assume that the reader has a fairly good understanding of the final two centuries that led up to the tragic end of the Israelite kingdoms. If you’ve been tracking with the story so far, reading from Genesis through 2 Kings, you have an advantage because you can place the biblical prophets into the story you just finished reading. Second Kings 17-25 just narrated the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., followed by the demise of the southern kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.
As you turn to the book of Isaiah, the introduction (Isaiah 1:1) explicitly time-warps you back 150 years, to the decade before the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom. Isaiah lives in Jerusalem, in southern Judah, and can see the gathering Assyrian storm on the horizon. He’s convinced that the northern kingdom of Israel is done for, but he still has hope that things could turn out differently for Judah and the family of David ruling in Jerusalem.
Remember the divine blessing
Now, a quick summary of the back story that Isaiah assumes you know. Recall the story of Genesis 12 onward, how God chose Abraham after the scattering of Babylon and promised to make him into a large nation that would mediate divine blessing to all of the nations (Genesis 12:1-3, 22:15-18). That promise got developed as Abraham’s family grew, ended up in slavery in Egypt, and then was rescued out of slavery and brought to the foot of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 1-18). There, at the mountain, God asked the Israelites to obey all the terms of the covenant so that they could be God’s priestly representatives to all the nations (Exodus 19:1-6). However, as the story went on, we watched the family of Abraham fail at this task (remember the book of Judges?). God raised up David, a royal leader who would be faithful on behalf of the unfaithful people. Yet, even this leader had his failures (adultery, murder). So God promised that the ideal leader for Israel would come in the future, from David’s line. The key story was 2 Samuel 7, where God promised that a faithful king would arise and lead Israel towards faithfulness. This king would rule over the nations forever and ever.
David himself was not that king, nor was his son, nor were any of his descendants for that matter. Because of this, when we open the book of Isaiah, we’re anticipating this promised king from the line of David who will fulfill the ancient promises of God to Abraham, Israel, and David. Isaiah does not disappoint. One of the main themes of this book is the future hope of this anticipated king.
In chapter 1, we learned that the Davidic rulers in Jerusalem have become murderers and thieves (Isaiah 1:21-26). God promised he would purify Israel with a coming act of divine justice, and only the repentant would be redeemed. He was referring to the Assyrian empire gathering just over the horizon, taking out Israelite cities everywhere (Isaiah 5:24-30). But he trusted God’s ancient promise to David. He knew that this act of judgment would not be God’s final word. Isaiah’s hope for a future ruler is introduced in the opening chapter: “I will restore your rulers as in the beginning… and you [Jerusalem] will be called ‘city of righteousness, the faithful city’” (1:26).
God allows the southern kingdom and family of David to go through the fire and come out the other side purged and faithful. The ultimate goal isn’t just to glorify Israel. The poem in Isaiah 2:1-5 shows that when God restores Jerusalem and the family of Abraham, all people will be drawn to the Kingdom of God, resulting in peace among all the nations. The storyline of Isaiah in chapters 1-2 goes something like this:
Israel’s sin > Divine justice: Assyria > Restoration of Israel with a new king > Peace on earth!
The rest of the book of Isaiah picks up and develops this storyline, introducing new twists along the way. If you grasp this basic storyline, you’ve got the main idea. The poems and narratives to follow show how Assyria came to town and ruined much of the southern kingdom (Isaiah 3-11). Isaiah confronted one Davidic king, Ahaz (Isaiah 7), who ended up being as faithless as his ancestors, and so Isaiah looked forward to a king who would be like David and have radical faith to save Israel from the Assyrian threat. This is the king described in the famous poem in Isaiah 9:1-7:
The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them…
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.
Would the real King from the line of David please stand up?
This is quite a king, who’s given some extremely exalted titles: “Mighty God,” “Eternal Father,” and famously, “Prince of Peace.” When this king arrives, he will be the embodiment of the power and presence of the God of Israel, and he will bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise to David.
As you read on, you realize that, for Isaiah, this coming king will not just provide a solution to the immediate threat of the Assyrians, but his arrival will bring about a renewal of creation itself. The poem in Isaiah 11 describes this king as the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (11:1). Jesse was king David’s father, and it was David’s family who was threatened by Assyria and would later be taken captive to Babylon, effectively cutting off hope for the future.
Still, no matter how bad things get, God promises that a “new David” will grow out of Jesse’s family line. And this king is amazing! He’s endowed with the “seven-fold” Spirit of God (Isaiah 11:2-3), which empowers him to rule Israel and all nations and bring about perfect justice. Not only that, but creation itself will undergo a transformation (Isaiah 11:6-9). This is poetically depicted by showing the most violent creatures of their imaginations (lions, bears, wolves, cobras) playing and snuggling with the weakest and most vulnerable creatures they could think of (lambs, calves, baby humans). The king who brings about this transformation will become a rallying point for all of the nations (Isaiah 11:10).
With all of this hope, we venture into the rest of Isaiah looking for the identity of this king. Who will it be? The next Davidic king we meet is named Hezekiah, whose story is told in Isaiah chapters 36-39— and he is legit.
He’s the king ruling Jerusalem when the Assyrian war machine arrives (Isaiah 36-37). His response is the very opposite of Ahaz, his father, whose failure was told in Isaiah 7. Hezekiah heads right into the temple and prays that the God of Israel would deliver him, and that’s exactly what happens. That night, a mysterious plague spreads through the Assyrian camps outside the city and Hezekiah wakes up and looks out on the corpses of thousands of Assyrian soldiers surrounding the city. The king of Assyria retreats. We are left thinking to ourselves, this Hezekiah is a boss! Surely he is the prince of peace and the shoot from the stump of Jesse.
But then, as always in the Bible, the following story throws a wrench in this positive depiction of Hezekiah. Isaiah 39 tells a story about a group of Babylonian ambassadors who arrive in Jerusalem to court Hezekiah. You’re supposed to recall from 2 Kings 18-25 that the Babylonians, Assyria’s neighbors, were secretly plotting to topple the Assyrian empire. They were going around forming alliances all over the ancient world to help them pull off this coup. They arrive in Jerusalem and Hezekiah is flattered. He shows them all of his treasury and resources (Isaiah 39:1-2). He relied upon the God of Israel at the moment of crisis, but once a better political option shows up, Hezekiah crumbles. The possibility of having Babylonian military firepower in his pocket was more attractive than going through another Assyrian crisis on his knees in prayer. Isaiah then confronts Hezekiah (Isaiah 39:3-4) and tells him there will be serious consequences for this faithless act. These Babylonians he wants to ally with will turn on him in just a few generations, and Babylon will actually become Jerusalem’s destroyer. Hezekiah’s royal descendants will be taken captive and hauled off in the Babylonian exile (Isaiah 39:5-8). And, because you just finished reading the story of 2 Kings, you know that Isaiah’s warning does come true.
That’s how Isaiah 1-39 comes to a close. We had our hopes all worked up. We thought Hezekiah was the promised king, then he failed too, just like David, and Solomon, and all the rest. Those divine promises of a future king from earlier in the book (Isaiah 1, 9, 11) are left hanging open and unfulfilled.
However, as you turn to the next main movement of the book, Isaiah 40-66, these chapters will pick up this thread and develop it more in a surprising direction. For the moment, let’s conclude by observing the nature of “messianic prophecy” in Isaiah 1-39. The author of Isaiah wants us to see that the hope for a faithful king who would bring the Kingdom of God has deep roots going all the way back to David. It appears that this promise stood as a potential reality for each generation of David’s descendants, but one by one they all struck out. Hezekiah came close, but in the end, even he was disqualified by his selfishness and sin. The future promise keeps getting delayed and kicked out into the distant future.
This a very different conception of messianic prophecy than the popular conception of the prophets (think Nostradamus), who looked into a crystal ball and predicted events far removed from their own day. That isn’t how the biblical prophets worked. Rather, they looked to God’s promises in the past (to Abraham and David) to generate hope for their own day and beyond. The prophets believed that God’s covenant promises called every generation of Israel and its kings to repentance and faithfulness. But as the story turns out, none of David’s descendants lived up to this call. And then the exile happened. This is how the promise of the Messiah became a hope for the distant future once the kingdom of David was hauled off to Babylon.
This was the story Jesus was born into. The basic claim of the four Gospel stories in the New Testament is that Jesus was that faithful king from the line of David. He was the one to whom this entire story had been pointing all along. Not because of Isaiah’s predictive prophecy, but because Jesus arrived and began doing things that made people realize this man is doing all the things God promised to David and Abraham. Those ancient poems and prophetic stories created a giant “help wanted: Messiah needed” sign, Jesus arrived to apply for the job, and successfully. But how Jesus fulfilled these ancient promises also surprised many people. That will be the focus of our exploration of Isaiah 40-66.