The Second Half of Isaiah

Reading a modern commentary upon the second half of Isaiah is much like walking through a beautiful country the citizens of which are presently engaged in a vicious and bloody civil war. For whilst the chapters contain many beautiful and glorious pictures of the Messiah they are also one of the major battlegrounds upon which the struggles of modern textual criticism are fought. The section also contains some breathtaking predictive prophecies yet it is the very glory of these gems of inspiration that cause the battles to be fought.

In this context a surveyor of literature upon Isaiah is faced with an interesting dilemma. Do you drop beneath the radar and try to seek out those people that can still appreciate the beauty of the countryside? Or do you rather wade in and seek to report upon the state of the war that is raging overhead?

Generally I would prefer the former option. People attacking the Bible with a knife go back to at least the time of Jeremiah[1]; the fact that today the academics fight over exactly where to make the incisions does not significantly alter the nature of the assault. However as I have studied Isaiah recently and in reading some of the papers I shall be discussing I have become increasingly convinced that the Battle of Isaiah is not an accident. The book appears to be almost goading the combatants into action. Further the prize being fought for is not just the integrity of one part of the canon but the very deity of God Himself.

Therefore in the paper that follows I will be reviewing five websites. One of them overviews the battlefield and describes the nature of the battle-lines that have been drawn. One of them reviews the very latest maneuvers that are being enacted. Two of them then form a microcosm showing how the two sides engaged on the matter of idolatry. The final paper reviewed is then a sheer indulgence; it ignores the debate and gives a glimmer of the riches that would be available to us in a more peaceful era.

This paper is by Professor George L Robinson of McCormick Theological Seminary and was published in 1910. He was writing at a time when, in his words, Isaiah had 'disintegrated' and the criticism of Isaiah was more trenchant and microscopic than before. He gives a summary of the criticism of Isaiah which had commenced some hundred years before and at his time of writing had reached the point where it was believed that the second Isaiah was a Palestinian writing after the return from captivity. In fact of the 1292 verses in Isaiah only 262 were believed to have been written by Isaiah himself.

The author then states some of the axioms of criticism and some of the 'false' presuppositions it makes. It is interesting to note that most of those reject the timing and unity of Isaiah based upon the belief that certain principles Isaiah stated had not developed by that point in Jewish thought.

The professor then devotes three sections showing the cohesiveness of the concepts of Isaiah throughout, the consistency of literary style and the consistency of the historic references throughout all parts of the book. However it was his section upon the predictive element that particularly caught my attention.

Firstly he shows that there are at least four sieges and their outcomes predicted. However the part that is surely most noteworthy is that he pulls out nine different places from chapters 41 to 48 where God states that He alone can declare things before they come to pass[2]. These declarations completely span the dividing line between the so-called first Isaiah and the second. He then gives significant space to the issue of the prediction of Cyrus and notes that Josiah was also predicted ahead of time.

Whilst the professor makes many valid points we know that at least during his lifetime the battle was apparently lost and most of his peers would eventually come to concede that Isaiah was written in parts. Nonetheless I think his paper is an invaluable introduction to the battle that followed.

This paper by Kevin Malarkey is almost the reverse of the former. It essentially deals with only one verse: Is 66:17 and it clearly presumes the existence of a 'Trito-Isaiah' who was considered an approximate contemporary of the post Exilic prophets.

The paper starts by noting that Isa 66:17, which deals with, is 'completely out of literary context' and is thus probably a gloss. He then however notes that in the previous chapter (Isa 65:3-7) exactly the same scene is depicted by in much greater detail[3]. Therefore he proceeds to analyze what that section may refer to. He then gives a long and interesting survey of the various religious practices and groups and eventually settles upon the worship of Asherah as the likely culprit. He also shows at length that the section in Isaiah is very similar to a section in Ezekiel 8 that appears to deal with an almost identical ritual. He goes as far as to state that Trito-Isaiah could almost be substituted for the name Ezekiel.

The conclusion Malarkey draws is perhaps the most telling part of his paper. He notes that traditionally post exilic Israel is considered to be a conservative religious group that would not have involved themselves in idolatrous worship. However the 'fact' that Trito-Isaiah is concerned with this problem in the post exilic era suggests that the times where not as otherwise people would assume[4].

This paper is little more than a blog and has few if any of the academic pretensions of the previous paper. However I chose it for this reason. Stripped of academic pretension the argument is not complex. The author raises the very valid point that idolatry does not appear from any other Biblical reference to be an issue in post-exilic Israel. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi all neglect to mention it as a theme. Why then does the second (or third) Isaiah see it as such a major issue that has to be mentioned repeatedly?

Whilst it is not mentioned in the paper above I would note that God explicitly states that one of the purposes of the exile was to destroy the idols and to make them cease[5]. We also know that not only did the post-exilic prophets not complain about idols but the Lord didn't either. Remember further that the revolt under Maccabeus was caused by an external attempt to introduce the sacrifice of pigs; this would seem to have been a rather strange reaction if they were doing it anyway.

This 2003 paper by Clinton McCann Jr details the current state of Biblical criticism in the area of Isaiah. It provided information which was genuinely useful but also rather discouraging. It is an extremely well written essay that helpfully condenses the key points into a series of 'Theses' which are as follows:

  1. The book of Isaiah should be read and interpreted as a unity
  2. The complex unity of the book of Isaiah is the result of an extended redactional process and the resulting complexity suggests the unity does not mean conformity
  3. The book of Isaiah's complex unity--especially its contrast and contradiction--provides the key to biblical-theological reflection on the book of Isaiah.

The first of these might at first sight have the conservatives cheering but the actually meaning of the thesis is far more sinister as the second thesis shows. Essentially the new concept is that there was not one, two or three Isaiah's. Instead there were many different fragments of messages in existence which were then woven together by some number of editors into a consistent whole. In essence Isaiah is a scrapbook of theological thought pasted together to achieve a particular end.

In terms of the thrust the author is making this conclusion may not be too terrible. He is arguing that commentaries need to view all the themes of Isaiah and exposit the book as a whole. He is thus arguing for a form of interpretation that every reasonable conservative would have called for from the beginning of the reformation.

However the reality is that the critics have maneuvered themselves into a relatively unassailable position. Any argument that shows that Isaiah has consistent themes throughout can now be readily accepted. It is simply viewed that one particular message was cut up and dropped into the relevant sections of the scrapbook. At the same time any element of genuine prophecy can simply ignored as being from a part of the book which was assembled later.

In short the conservatives now have a position from which they cannot be budged and so do the critics. I suspect this may mean that the battle will begin to abate but that the wonderful territory of Isaiah will remain a piece of no-mans land that is considered suspect throughout much of Christendom[6].

As stated previously; viewed from the trenches of the Battle of Isaiah this series of papers from Wayne Turner (Fayette Bible Church, Fayetteville, Georgia) is a pure indulgence. Unencumbered by any questions regarding the authorship of Isaiah Wayne is able to dig in and see what the prophet actually had to say. The papers form part of the 'BibleTrack' which is essentially a daily blog in which the pastor exposits in outline form upon 3 or 4 chapters of the Bible. The notes are historically detailed and accurate and the gist and meaning of each chapter is clearly outlined.

Pastor Turner is clearly a modern, conservative pre-millennialist. He sees the warnings to Israel as real and imminent yet he sees the blessings as partially fulfilled by the return from captivity. Instead he looks forward to a complete fulfillment in a millennial kingdom which is inhabited by Jews and Gentiles that survived the rapture. His one slight deviation from what may be deemed 'standard' thought is that he sees the New Jerusalem occurring after the millennial period[7].

Whilst I could go through each chapter at length I prefer instead to simply commend the work to you; it is an excellent resource for those for whom the Battle of Isaiah is over.

In the preceding I have undoubtedly revealed my own persuasion on this matter. I consider Isaiah to have been written by Isaiah. I have no problem at all believing that God can tell the future. What has impressed itself upon me however is the extent to which this is a crucial question: not simply one of academic curiosity. Within Isaiah the Holy Spirit clearly stakes the reputation of God upon His ability to foretell. It then backs up the assertion with many amazing predictions and one astounding one. I trust that as this paper and perhaps some of the references are read the deity of our Great God that knows the end from the beginning shine ever brighter upon and within us.


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