Isaiah’s messianic insistence.
Of all the books of the Bible, in either testament, Isaiah’s prophecy remains paramount for one’s understanding of the kerygma of Scripture. This is due in large part because of the preponderance of New Testament (NT) citations of Isaiah’s oracles. Indeed, B. H. Lim asserts that “with some six hundred instances of quotations, paraphrases, illusions or echoes, Isaiah is the single most referenced work in the NT.”1 Furthering the essentiality of Isaiah is Jesus’s own interpretation of his identity and purpose in the Godhead’s schema of redemption, which he perceived to be distinctly Isaianic. “Jesus himself,” continues Lim, “understood his vocation and ministry in terms of Isaiah.”2 This is made plain through Jesus’s own proclamations of the nature of his divine errand.3 It may be admitted that while Isaiah’s oracles were not immediately seen as christocentric, Jesus’s application of these oracles to his own identity and ministry provide the paradigm in which they are properly apprehended.
In his article on the “Book of Isaiah” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, however, H. G. M. Williamson maintains that evangelicals are often too hasty to run with the messianic passages of Isaiah and fasten them to the person of Jesus Christ. Doing so, Williamson insists, ignores the immediate historical and contextual fulfillment of those prophecies. However, such scholastic equivocation, while noble in its cause to retain contextual interpretations of Scripture, fails to maintain a focus on not only Isaiah’s prevailing thread but also Scripture’s prevailing insistence that Israel’s ultimate deliverance only comes through a heaven-sent king. Notwithstanding, then, who filled the prophecies in the immediate, there would persist a glaring vacancy until God’s Servant appeared.
One is given the dawning of this appearing through a triad of messianic emphases in Isaiah 7—9. In Isaiah 7, God himself promises a “sign,” a virgin-born son named Immanuel. (Is 7:14; cf. Mt 1:21–23) And while the immediate conditions which follow this promise are scathing for Israel, to say the least (Is 7:20; 8:5–8), nestled within them is Yahweh’s insistence that he is still with them. (Is 8:3–10) “Even where the Davidic kings fail,” writes D. G. Firth, “Yahweh continues to provide his people with security symbolized in the child.”4 He would go before them as the “Lord of Armies.” (Is 8:13–14) Such is the burden which this child would be made to bear, as is illuminated by the oracle of Isaiah 9, wherein the prospect of Israel’s reestablishment is thrust upon the child’s shoulders. (Is 9:6) “Isaiah 9:1–7,” writes D. G. Firth, “thus celebrates the birth of a child who will bear the responsibility of government, but who will specifically hold David’s throne.”5
Despite, then, the remarkable diversity of topics and historical circumstances which comprise the narrative of Isaiah’s oracles, the through-line which connects them all is the hope and promise of heaven’s coming king — the Lord of Armies — who would occupy the throne and wield a scepter of universal salvation. And so it is that the heart of God is revealed in ways both remarkable and unexpected throughout Isaiah’s prophecy, betraying his inclination to show mercy in the middle of mankind’s and his predisposition to tender compassion and faithful love even for the faithless.
Such is how the messianic promise is announced in Isaiah and, furthermore, how the messianic promise is accomplished in the Gospels — that is, it comes to the least deserving and in the least expected way. In the aftermath of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection, the evangelists of the Gospels insist that it is indeed the carpenter’s son from Nazareth who would fulfill all the redemptive expectations presented in Isaiah’s prophecy.
His concern for the outcast, his care for the suffering, and his love for the unloved are part of that work, and supremely, of course, his journey to the cross and his death there fulfilled the work of reconciliation between humanity and God in a way that even surpasses what had previously been envisaged.6
B. H. Lim, “Isaiah: History of Interpretation,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 382.
Compare, for instance, Mark 1:14–15 with Isaiah 52:7; and Luke 4:16–21 with Isaiah 61:1–3.
D. G. Firth, “Messiah,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 542.
H. G. M. Williamson, “Book of Isaiah,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 376.