Isaiah’s Central Message and Historical Setting
There are 66 books in the Bible. The first 39 books are in the Old Testament and the last 27 books are in the New Testament. Isaiah has been called a mini-Bible, because it has been divided into 66 chapters with a common division in theme between the first 39 chapters and the last 27 chapters. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah contain judgment and condemnation of an immoral and idolatress people. The last 27 chapters of Isaiah are a message of hope that point to the comfort all people can take in the coming Messiah who is a savior and king. The concept then in calling Isaiah a mini-Bible is that for 39 books, the message is all law and condemnation against sinful people, before God gives us forgiveness in Jesus for the last 27 books. The message being conveyed then is that Isaiah gives us the complete package in one book – gives us both Law and Gospel.
This scheme is forced on numerous levels. First, this scheme doesn’t recognize that the Old Testament was originally compiled as 22 books according to Josephus, with the modern day compilation being 24 books – not a 39 book arrangement as we have in the Christian ordering of the same text in the Old Testament. Second, this scheme doesn’t recognize that chapter and verse divisions were added to the text late in history. Finally, and most important of all is that this scheme doesn’t recognize that there is Gospel proclamations of Christ’s saving work throughout the Old Testament, and even in the first 39 chapters of Isaiah. Also, it fails to recognize that there is quite a bit of Law in the New Testament text, and in fact it is in the New Testament through the words of Christ that we get vivid imagery of warning of the eternal condemnation that awaits unrepentant sinners – such images reveal the eternal wrath of God in explicit ways that are never even remotely reached in the sparse mention of eternal commendation in the Old Testament.
A much better move to express the overall message of Isiah is to point to the meaning of Isiah’s name, “The Lord saves.” That is the overall message of Isiah, “The Lord saves.” This message comes through three main teachings: God is the Holy One of Israel, God punishes his rebellious people, and God later redeems them.
God is the Holy One of Israel
Isaiah 1:4 – “Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.” (emphasis added)
God Punishes His Rebellious People
Isaiah 1:2 – “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.
God Later Redeems Them
Isaiah 41:14 – “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.”
The definitive passage in Isaiah that demonstrates the message that “the Lord saves” is Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This passage is commonly labeled after its key figure, who is named the Lord’s Suffering Servant. I once heard that if you took this passage and removed its title and all of the chapter and verse numberings and gave it to just about anyone in America and asked whoever read it, “Who is this passage describing,” they’d almost all come back and say it’s about Jesus Christ. The kicker to drop at that point is that this text was written about 700 years before Jesus of Nazareth! I ran this test once by offering high school students extra credit to hand this passage to five random people and report back who they said the passage was about, and the few students who took me up on the extra credit only found people who said the passage was about Jesus. Living in the New Testament era of God’s people, we know very well that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus does save men from sin, death, and the devil.
Jesus saves us very much in the same way that Isaiah describes the person and work of the Suffering Servant. In a cursory reading of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the following descriptions serve as clear prophesy fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth:
52:13 – “Lifted up and highly exalted,”
52:14 – “marred beyond human likeness,”
52:15 – “he will sprinkle many nations,”
53:2 – “like a tender shoot, like a tender root,”
53:3 – “rejected by men,”
53:4 – “took our infirmities and carried our sorrows,”
53:5 – “pierced for our transgressions,” “crushed for our iniquities,” “punishment that brought us peace was upon him,” “by his wounds we are healed,”
53:6 – “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,”
52:7 – “led like a lamb to the slaughter,” “he did not open his mouth,”
53:8 – “cut off from the land of the living,” “for the transgression of my people he was stricken,”
53:9 – “assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death,”
53:10 – “the Lord makes His life a guilt offering,”
53:11 – “after the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life,”
53:12 – “He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Isaiah 65:17-66:24 closes with vivid imagery of what the complete and final salvation will look like in the “new heavens and the new earth” (for God’s people) and what the hand of doom will wrought (for the rebellious enemies of God).