The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, John Goldingay. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: Taking the book of Isaiah as a whole and as it would have been read by its first readers, Goldingay both considers the theologies present in each major section of Isaiah, and traces the theological themes emerging from the book as a whole.
I wish I had this book a few years ago when I was teaching Isaiah in an adult ed class at my church. Isaiah’s 66 chapters encompass a sweeping vision extending from the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah to the post-exilic destiny of Israel and the nations. Most of the commentaries on Isaiah are multi-volume or lengthy single volume works. What makes this a great resource is that it is both a concise work and yet gives the reader a good grasp of the framework of the book and key theological themes, crucial to understanding the book. What is also refreshing is that rather than pursuing the endless discussion of “how many Isaiahs are there?” he simply deals with the book as we have it, “the book called Isaiah”.
Goldingay notes what many of us who have taught Isaiah have seen–this is no ordinary book of sequential narrative or discourse. Rather it is a collection of prophecies occurring over an extended period of time. Goldingay contends that this collection can be considered as five or six “collages” that make up the book: Chapters 1-12; chapters 13-27 (or a separate collage of 24-27); chapters 28-39; chapters 40-55; and chapters 56-66. The first part of the book then delineates the major theological themes to be found within each “collage”.
The second part of the book explores the theology that emerges from “the book called Isaiah” as a whole. The themes he explores, each in a short chapter are:
- Revelation: Words of Yahweh mediated through human agents
- The God of Israel, the Holy One, Yahweh Armies
- Holy as Upright and Merciful
- Israel and Judah
- Jerusalem and Zion Critiqued and Threatened
- Jerusalem and Zion Chastised and Restored
- The Remains
- The Nations
- The Empires and Their Kings
- Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
- Divine Planning and Human Planning
- Yahweh’s Day
One thing that the reader should be aware of is that Goldingay does not read Isaiah in light of the New Testament but as its first readers would have considered it, which is actually careful scholarship and interpretation controlled by what is found within the book itself. This is most evident in his discussion of the “servant” passages, which he treats in terms of Israel, the prophet, and eventually Cyrus. I think he is right in the sense that these were in fact the only interpretive options that would have made sense to the first readers. Yet, this seems to evade the question of who in fact fulfilled this–neither Israel, Isaiah, nor Cyrus completely do so. The question the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip recorded in Acts 8:34 reflects this enigma: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
One of the most significant insights comes in his discussion, which recurs at several points of holiness as uprightness and mercifulness (mispat and sedaqa). He writes at one point:
“Mispat and sedaqa thus suggests the faithful exercise of power in community. People with power control resources; they will therefore make sure that ordinary people can share in resources such as land and food. People with power do control decision making in court, which meets at the city gate; they will see that judicial decisions are made in a fair way. People with power control what happens in community worship; they will make sure that it is offered in a way that is faithful to Yahweh.” (p. 22-23)
Israel in Isaiah’s day, and the church in our own have rarely worked with such a comprehensive vision of holiness, and we see that this is both Israel’s problem, and the realization of this vision, Yahweh’s intention. Goldingay’s approach teases out important themes like this, and Yahweh’s ultimate intention not only for Israel but the nations that might often be missed.
I would commend this book for anyone looking for a concise treatment of this book, including those, like me, who might be attempting to teach “the book called Isaiah” in an adult ed setting. Yet there is also the academic depth to make this an assigned text either in a seminary level course on Isaiah, or a wider survey of the prophets.