Isaiah’s Hope

Most scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was actually written by three different authors: one before the Exile into Babylon, one during the Exile, and one after (some scholars combine the last two). These are simply referred to as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah and provide a very interesting look at similarities and differences across this span of time. Isaiah is a very hopeful book, acknowledging problems in the present but promising that God will bring greater things in the future.

In this post I’ll cover the theme of hope in 1st and 2nd Isaiah. In the next post I’ll cover 2nd Isaiah’s “suffering servant” poems as well as the justice message of 3rd Isaiah after the Exile.

1st Isaiah – Pre-Exile

1st Isaiah prophesied in the late 8th Century BCE in Jerusalem. Like the previously discussed prophets, Isaiah was particularly critical of those who worshipped God but lived unjustly. He said, for example.:

10 You are no better
than the leaders and people
of Sodom and Gomorrah!
So listen to the Lord God:
11 “Your sacrifices
mean nothing to me.
I am sick of your offerings
of rams and choice cattle;
I don’t like the blood
of bulls or lambs or goats.

12 “Who asked you to bring all this
when you come to worship me?
Stay out of my temple!
13 Your sacrifices are worthless,
and incense is disgusting.
I can’t stand the evil you do
on your New Moon Festivals
or on your Sabbaths
and other times of worship.
14 I hate your New Moon Festivals
and all others as well.
They are a heavy burden
I am tired of carrying.

15 “No matter how much you pray,
I won’t listen.
You are too violent.
16 Wash yourselves clean!
I am disgusted
with your filthy deeds.
Stop doing wrong
17 and learn to live right.
See that justice is done.
Defend widows and orphans
and help those in need.”

He believed that God would send a descendant of David to fix these injustices and restore the Kingdom of Israel. Many of these texts were later reinterpreted by Christians to be pointing toward something even bigger: Jesus restoring the Kingdom of God for all people:

11 Like a branch that sprouts
from a stump,
someone from David’s family
will someday be king.
2 The Spirit of the Lord
will be with him
to give him understanding,
wisdom, and insight.
He will be powerful,
and he will know
and honor the Lord.
3 His greatest joy will be
to obey the Lord.

This king won’t judge by appearances
or listen to rumors.
4 The poor and the needy
will be treated with fairness
and with justice…
5 Honesty and fairness
will be his royal robes. (11:1-4a, 5)

Another important theme in 1st Isaiah is how this future is a peaceful one. He promises that one day:

4 He [God] will settle arguments
between nations.
They will pound their swords
and their spears
into rakes and shovels;
they will never make war
or attack one another. (2:4)

Even animals will no longer be violent with each other (11:6-8).

2nd Isaiah

The second portion of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, was likely written partway through the Exile, after the Persian Emperor Cyrus had conquered the Babylonian Empire. It is clear that Isaiah saw Cyrus as a saviour for his people very similar to how 1st Isaiah saw the promised descendant of David:

28 I [God] am also the one who says,
“Cyrus will lead my people
and obey my orders.
Jerusalem and the temple
will be rebuilt.” (44:28)

And then says to Cyrus:

5 Only I am the Lord!
There are no other gods.
I have made you strong,
though you don’t know me.
6 Now everyone from east to west
will learn that I am the Lord.
No other gods are real.
7 I create light and darkness,
happiness and sorrow.
I, the Lord, do all of this.

8 Tell the heavens
to send down justice
like showers of rain.
Prepare the earth
for my saving power
to sprout
and produce justice
that I, the Lord, create. (45:5-8)

Interestingly, 2nd Isaiah was the first biblical author to explicitly claim monotheism. Others claimed that there should be no other gods placed before YHWH, but nobody before the Exile had the audacity to claim that those gods didn’t even exist. This monotheism explains why 2nd Isaiah thought that Cyrus – a non-Israelite – could be the saviour of Israel. Cyrus doesn’t even have to know that it is YHWH who is guiding him to help his people.

2nd Isaiah may be focusing on a different human figure who they see leading the way – Cyrus instead of a descendant of David – but they both have this same hope that God will restore his people if they return to living justly. Not only that, but through the great tragedy of the Exile came a much broader vision of God’s justice that was no longer limited to Israelites.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.