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Tyndale Old Testament Commentary

Alec Motyer

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Tyndale Old Testament Commentary

Alec Motyer

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About This Book

The book of Isaiah is perhaps the most compelling of all Old Testament prophecy. No other prophet rivals Isaiah's brilliance of style, powerful imagery and clear vision of the messianic hope.Isaiah's prophetic ministry begins with his temple vision and "I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send?'" Through a series of oracles Isaiah calls Israel and the nations to turn to the Lord, for judgment is coming. He announces that redemption is found in the Davidic Servant alone. Finally, in the "day of vengeance and the year of redemption" the Anointed Conqueror will punish rebellious peoples, comfort the contrite and reestablish the glory of Zion.J. Alec Motyer, author of the unparalleled one-volume commentary The Prophecy of Isaiah, now provides the long-awaited final volume in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series. Unlike many Isaiah commentators who divide the book between chapters 1-39 and 40-66, Motyer instead identifies three messianic the King (Isaiah 1-37), the Servant (Isaiah 38-55), and the Anointed Conqueror (Isaiah 56-66).This volume provides Motyer's lucid exposition on these three portraits, examining Isaiah with insightful and probing passage-by-passage commentary.All who study the text of Isaiah will find here expert scholarship and solid footing for unraveling difficult issues of exegesis and interpretation.

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The Book of the King (1–37)

1. Backdrop To The Ministry Of Isaiah: The Author’s Preface (1–5)

As the book of Isaiah has come to us, chapters 1–5 form a distinct section—like a ‘preface’ to Isaiah’s collected prophecies. This is apparent for four reasons. (a) The precise dating of chapter 6, contrasts with the undated oracles in 1:2–5:30. Specific events must, of course, have prompted these oracles, but Isaiah did not find it necessary to state them. (b) What we call ‘chapter 6’, the prophet’s call, is well suited to form chapter 1 of the book, following the ‘author’s preface’ (cf. Jer. 1:4–19; Ezek. 1:1–3:27; although, since the call of Amos is not noted until Amos 7:10–17, this is not a decisive factor. (c) Apart from the illustrative reference to the Philistines in 2:6, no foreign nations are named—not even the threatened super-conqueror of 5:25–30—and this increases the sense that these chapters offer general truths designed to form a backdrop to the ‘main’ content of the book. (d) Chapters 1–5 are coherently structured with a progressive message. The unexpected heading at 2:1 indicates a fresh beginning, and the matching passages 2:2–4 and 4:2–6 form a bracket or inclusio (see p. 13) making them a distinct section. In this way 1:2–31 and 5:1–30 are also marked off as separate divisions of the prefatory chapters.
Thus, the ‘preface’ can be summarized as follows. First is the heading (1:1). Then 1:2–31 is roundly condemnatory of what the Lord’s sons have become: rebellious (2), corrupt (4), chastened (5–6), shattered (7–8), religiously unacceptable (10–15) and degenerate (21–23). This is not, however, the whole story: for the Lord has not abandoned (9) and will not abandon (25–28) his people. Nevertheless, the beginning of the preface is effectively a declaration that ‘You are not what you ought to have been’.
Isaiah 2:2–4:6 opens with a thrilling vision of what Zion was meant to be: a rallying-point for the whole world, the city of universal truth and peace. But of course, to the prophet’s eye, it simply was not so. Far from conforming the world to itself, the Lord’s people had conformed to the nations (2:6–7) and would, with the world, come under ultimate divine judgment (2:12–21) and, nationally, under imminent destabilization (3:1–7). Yet this, too, is not the whole story, for where Jerusalem’s sin is most in evidence, in the actions and attitudes of the daughters of Zion (3:16–4:1), the Lord would some day apply cleansing (4:4) and bring in his new creation (4:5–6). Yet the sad accusation has been substantiated that ‘You are not what you were meant to be’.
Isaiah 5:1–30 can be reviewed as parable (1–7), application (8–12, 18–23) and consequence (13–17, 24–30), with six ‘woes’ spelling out the bitter fruit (2, 4, 7) produced by the Lord’s vineyard. Yet the Lord had so spent himself for the good of his vineyard that there was nothing more he could have done (4). This is the heart-stopping truth on which Isaiah ends his preface, the conclusion out of which his prophecy emerges. Note how chapter 5 begins with song (1) and ends with darkness (30), and that between those two points, unlike 1:2–31 and 2:2–4:6, there is no message of hope. For if all has already been done, what more can the Lord do? The theme of chapter 5, therefore, is that ‘You are not what you might have been, for a total divine work of grace was your inheritance and you squandered it.’ As far as chapter 5 is concerned, darkness has the last word. The shutters have come down on the Lord’s people.

a. Heading (1:1)

On the kings mentioned here, see Introduction, pp. 22–26. Vision … saw (Heb. ḥǎzôn … ḥāzâ): these words can refer to ‘visionary experience’ (29:7; 33:20), but both more usually express the heightened ‘perception’ of truth which the Lord granted by special revelation to the prophets (e.g. 2 Chr. 32:32; Amos 1:1; Mic. 1:1). The Isaianic literature, then, is ‘the perception of truth which came to Isaiah by divine revelation’.

b. A comprehensive failure (1:2–31)

In setting the scene for his ministry, Isaiah starts with what must have been obvious—even if the people will not accept his diagnosis, they cannot quarrel with his facts! Nationally (2–9), foreign invasions (7–8) have left a trail of desolation so that the ‘body politic’ (5c–6) is like the victim of a savage mugging. Religiously (10–20), there has been punctilious devotion—sacrifices in abundance (11), temple attendance (12), monthly and weekly observances (13–14), prayers (15)—but it has not got through to God and has done nothing to rectify the national plight. And socially (21–26), the city life is degenerate and dangerous (21), its leaders corrupt and self seeking (23a–d) and its needy uncared for (23ef).
Isaiah sets this three-part analysis of the contemporary scene as if in a court of law. In verse 2ab the witnesses are called, in verses 2c–23 the charges are laid and in verses 24–30 sentence is pronounced. Behind the observable facts Isaiah discerns the hidden causes: rebellion against the Lord (2d) as the root of national calamity (5); personal guilt vitiating religious practice (15); social degeneration through abandonment of revealed norms of justice and righteousness (21). All this gives colour to a comparison with Sodom (9–10) and builds a case for divine punitive action (5, 20, 24, 28, 29–31), but, typically of Isaiah, there is also a surprise: hope is affirmed. The Lord has not left his people (9); when he acts it will also be to purge and restore (25–26), and the very justice and righteousness they abandoned (21) will be affirmed in a divine work of redemption (27).
i. The national situation (1:2–9). 2a. Isaiah does not explain why the heavens and earth are summoned to hear. The parallel address (10) to the accused suggests that creation is called to court as the perpetual witness of what happens on earth (Ps. 50:4–6) and is therefore able to affirm the truth of the divine accusations. But it may simply be to affirm the dignity of the One who can convene such a court (cf. 1 Chr. 16:31; Ps. 69:34–35) and the awesomeness of the occasion.
2b. But even greater awesomeness is contained in the reason given why creation must pay attention: for the LORD himself has spoken. Here is One whom all creation must obey; it is to him that his people must render account; and in the unique marvel of revelation and inspiration the words of the prophet are ‘verbally inspired’, the very words of the Lord.
3. Israel’s (our) sin is simply unnatural. Look at the instinctive actions of the beasts! The locus of our disloyalty is the mind (know … understand) just as the mind is the focal point of all spirituality (cf. Ps. 119:33–34, 104, 130; Luke 24:27, 32; Rom. 1:28; Eph. 4:17–18, 20–22). While know can extend to include both personal intimacy (Gen. 4:1, NIV ‘lay with’) and lifestyle (1 Sam. 2:12), it retains its base-meaning of knowing the truth.
4. Four nouns of privilege: the unique nation; the redeemed people; the ‘seed’ or brood (the word used for the line of descent from Abraham in 41:8); and children (or the Lord’s ‘sons’). Four descriptions of the lost ideal: sinful, from the participle ‘going on sinning’, or missing God’s target; loaded with (possibly ‘heavy with’, hinting that the Lord who carried them felt the burden; cf. 46:3–4; Exod. 19:4) guilt, i.e. ‘iniquity’ (‘āwôn), meaning sin as corruption of character and nature; of evildoers, i.e. the chosen seed has become those who commit evil; and, lastly, given to corruption, ‘acting corruptly’, from Heb. šāḥat, to spoil, ruin. They have forsaken … spurned … turned their backs: here is the basic principle of spiritual decline, a sustained rejection of the Lord. Maybe we should translate ‘turned themselves back into aliens’, i.e. reverting to what they were prior to their redemption. On the Holy One of Israel see Introduction, pp. 28–30. The height of their privilege, to know the Lord in the fullness of his holy nature, became the benchmark of the depth of their fall.
5–8. What is important in these verses is not which historical invasion they reflect. The choice probably lies between the Aram-Ephraim incursion, c. 735 BC (2 Kgs 15:37–16:6; 2 Chr. 28; see Introduction, p. 23; cf. on 7:1–2) or the Assyrian attack in 701 BC (chs. 36–37; 2 Chr. 32; see Introduction, p. 24). The important thing is Isaiah’s view of history as the arena of divine moral judgment. The enemy depredations (7–8) which have left the nation crippled (5–6) from top (head) to toe (foot), inwardly (heart) and outwardly (head … foot), and without remedy (not cleansed … bandaged), were a divine chastisement, with more to come if they persist in rebellion. None of Isaiah’s kings (1:1) was inept. They managed a sound economy and followed clever policies, yet the land was devastated (5c–7), fragile internally (8bc) and threatened externally (8d). The key to national well-being is righteousness, i.e. what is right with God (Prov. 14:34), and in this the prophet records dismal failure.
9. But for the Lord’s people there is another factor, the surprising element of hope. Merit says one thing; mercy says another. As far as desert is concerned the Lord must either apologize to Sodom or visit judgment on Israel! But he is the Lord Almighty, literally ‘the LORD of [who is] hosts’—where the plural indicates that in himself he is and has every potentiality and power. Consequently he is sovereign to act in whatever way accords with his nature. The same Lord (2) who judges also acts in forbearing preservation (9). Because of the Lord’s love, we are not terminated, for his compassions do not fail (Lam. 3:22). Thus Isaiah rounds off the section.
ii. The religious situation (1:10–20). Isaiah turns now to the religious life of the nation. The placing of this topic between his review of national fortunes (2–9) and social conditions (21–23) is significant. The kernel of every national problem is how people relate to God. They cannot be right anywhere if they are wrong here. Religion determines everything.
But the people were extremely religious: they expended time on monthly, weekly and other observances (13); the financial cost of sacrifices and offerings (11) was considerable. It would be strange if they did not ask why, since they did so much for him, the Lord seemed to be doing nothing for them. But that is just the point: their religion was ‘what we do for God’ and not ‘how we enter into the grace he offers to us’.
These verses have been the centre of a difference of opinion. Some note how in verse 11 the Lord denies the significance of sacrifices, in verse 12 their divine authorization, and in verse 13 issues commands to end them. On this view, Isaiah is calling for ‘morality without religion’, an ethically focused walk with God devoid of ritual observance.1 But it can be questioned whether this understanding is true to Isaiah. Is it likely that he was so revolutionary as to repudiate the tradition in which he had been nurtured and which he would have traced back to Moses? Such a conclusion would require more than the ‘say so’ of a brief passage like this! Furthermore, if the passage repudiates temple rites, then it repudiates equally the Sabbath (13) and prayer (15)! Rather, Isaiah invites us to recall that in the Mosaic system redeeming grace (Exod. 6:6–7; 12:13), the gift of the law (Exod. 20) and the forms of religious observance (Exod. 25–Lev. 27) followed one another in that order as parts of a single whole. The law was given so that those who had already been redeemed by the blood of the lamb would know how their Redeemer (Exod. 20:2) wished them to live. The sacrifices were provided to cover lapses in obedience (cf. 1 John 1:7). But as Isaiah looked around he saw people long on religion and short on morality. They were as morally negligent as Sodom (10), their offerings were meaningless (13; lit. ‘a gift of nothing’) because the Lord cannot bear wickedness coupled with religious punctiliousness. The hands they raised in prayer were blood-stained from wrongdoing (15). Like all the prophets Isaiah operated squarely within the Mosaic revelation, and his charge in this passage is that his contemporaries had put asunder what the Lord, through Moses, had joined together, namely, the means of grace (the sacrifices) and the obedient life which they were intended to sustain. The act—the ritual, divorced from its source in a heart grateful for redemption, and from its function in the obedient life—was meaningless and abhorrent to the Lord (13).
10. Like all the prophets Isaiah held that he was the mouthpiece of the Lord, the channel of the divine word. Law means ‘teaching’, the imparting of truth, within which, of course, there is a place for authoritative direction, command and prohibition. But the Lord’s law first of all is the loving instruction that a caring father gives a loved child (cf. Prov. 4:1–2). Apart from mercy they would have been judged like Sodom and Gomorrah (9), but it surely is mercy, for they are like Sodom and Gomorrah in fact.
11. The standing error of the ritualist is that if all depends on performing the ceremonial act, then the more you do it the better. Says is a continuous tense: ‘keeps saying’—as something he presses home upon us. Apart from Psalm 12:6 only Isaiah (1:18; 33:10; 40:1, 25; 41:21; 66:9) uses this verbal form referring to divine speech. To the Lord the ritual act means nothing (11ab), adds nothing (11cd) and does nothing (11ef). No pleasure: 53:10 uses the same verb (‘it was the LORD’s will’) of a mighty sacrifice which delighted him.
12. Appear before me (or ‘meet with me’) may also be translated ‘see my face’, depending what vowels we supply to the consonants of the Hebrew text. The two ideas taken together express the reality and wonder of true worship (cf. e.g. Exod. 23:15, 17). Trampling: a religion of ritual is only the noise of feet on a pavement.
13–15. The denunciation continues. Become a burden (14): i.e. the rituals are not themselves a burden, for the Lord commanded them to start with. It is not the use but the abuse of divine ordinances that vexes him. This is true even of prayer (15), for we can ‘pray on Sunday and prey on our neighbours for the rest of the week’. Hide my eyes: the opposite of the shining face of approval and blessing (Num. 6:25; Ps. 4:6). What makes prayer unavailing is unrepented personal...

Table of contents

  1. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
  2. Isaiah
  3. Contents
  4. General preface
  5. Author’s preface
  6. Chief Abbreviations
  7. Notes
  8. Further Reading
  9. Introduction
  10. Analysis
  11. Commentary
  12. 2. Light Beyond The Darkness: The Coming King (6–12)
  13. 3. The Kingdom Panorama: The Whole World In His Hand (13–27)
  14. 4. The Lord Of History (28–37)
  16. 6. Universal Consolation (40:1–42:17)
  17. 7. The Lord’s Plan Unfolded (42:18–44:23)
  18. 8. The Great Deliverance: The Work of Cyrus (44:24–48:22)
  19. 9. The Greater Deliverance: The Work of the Servant (49–55)
  21. 10. The Ideal and the Actual: The Lord’s Needy, Under-achieving People (56:1–59:13)
  22. 11. The Promised Conqueror: Vengeance and Salvation (59:14–63:6)
  23. 12. The New Heaven and New Earth: Prayers and Promises (63:7–66:24)