The Circumstances of Isaiah’s Ministry

We’ve all seen shows that aren’t in chronological order. My wife and I have gotten into “Better Call Saul.” Sometimes, the beginning of each episode shows what happens after the main premise of the show. At other times, the beginning is a flashback to before the main premise. Isaiah is kind of like that. The prophet’s ministry begins in Isaiah 6, but the first five chapters set the stage by laying out the circumstances that precipitated his ministry. The fact is, these first five chapters should not be read as chronological, because they aren’t. Scholars don’t agree about the structure, though many theories exist. For our purposes, we’ll treat these chapters as introductory despite how disjointed they seem. 

The structure of the early chapters is one of the puzzles of the book, but may be laid out as follows: 

  • Isaiah 1: wickedness of Judah and Jerusalem.
  • Isaiah 2:1–4: the hope of a renewed Jerusalem. 
  • Isaiah 2:5–4:1: judgment on the oppressors. 
  • Isaiah 4:2–6: the renewal of Zion. 
  • Isaiah 5: God’s disappointing people. 

Starting out, we get a glimpse of not only Jerusalem’s future, but it’s spoken of as if it’s in the past. Notice the language of the first chapter: “Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire … Zion is left as a … besieged city” (1:7–8). Leading up to this is the point—Judah and Jerusalem have rebelled (1:2). They are referred to as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah” (1:10; cf. 3:9). Whether or not Isaiah wrote some portions with hindsight (cf. 5:13) is debatable. Some have suggested that it was written in hindsight, others that it’s some literary device common at the time. Because of the disjointed nature of these chapters, it may be better to just appreciate it as is, noting when the tone shifts. 

The sins of Judah and Jerusalem are the key themes, and God’s judgment will come. The righteous will be spared the oncoming trouble despite how distant it was (4:3–4). The wicked would still worship, much to the chagrin of God (1:11–15). God doesn’t always want worship, especially when it doesn’t match our character. What he wants is our whole hearts (1:16–17; 21–23, 27). For this reason, he calls for justice and righteousness. He saw a lack of them in Judah (5:7, 20). 

When we read these terms, especially “justice,” we mustn’t think in terms of modern parlance. Anything and everything is a matter of justice—environmental justice, social justice, gender justice, etc. Justice is justice, and any modifier tells one that it’s more a group’s desire than actual justice. Mišpāṭ (“justice”) refers to government, the exercise of authority, and decision-making. It’s paired with ṣědāqâ (“righteousness”) because when justice is perverted, the right thing isn’t done in relation to other people. Righteousness here must be understood as relational and not as personal holiness—at least not in this context. These two words suggest “the faithful exercise of power in community.”

The powerful of Judah and Jerusalem had a duty to look after those less fortunate, but that wasn’t happening (1:23; 3:13–26). Orphans and widows weren’t being treated fairly (1:17, 23). Foreign ways infiltrated God’s people (2:6), and they trusted more in instruments of warfare than God (2:7). When Israel was suffering under the Egyptian yoke, they cried out to God (Exod. 3:7, 9). Now, in Isaiah’s day, they cry out to God against their countrymen (Is. 5:7). Judah and Jerusalem are Egyptian oppressors now. This is the language used here. 

Yet, a future hope remains (2:2–4). Early Christians understood these verses to refer to the incarnation (“latter days”) and subsequent birth of the church. The Lord’s house was often a metaphor for the church (1 Tim. 3:15), and those who went to the mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem also went from there preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. Acts follows this geographical route—beginning in Jerusalem, then Samaria, and to the ends of the world. Rather than being warring nations, we are brothers and sisters who’ve laid down our arms. As Christians, we are a nation (1 Peter 2:9). The nations of the world still war, but God’s nation does not. The long sought reality was the hope of Israel, and our story as the church is the fulfillment and continuation of God’s love of his people whom he set apart to be lights to the world.  

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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