From Wisdom to the Prophets
Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are behind us. We are now leaving those difficult but beautiful books as well the entire Poetry/Wisdom Literature section of the Old Testament. We are entering both a new book and a new section, the “Prophecy” section. It is the last section in our English arrangement of the Old Testament, and it is divided into two parts: the Major (or longer) Prophets and the Minor (or Shorter) Prophets.
Isaiah, The First of the Major Prophets
The Major Prophets come first. They start with Isaiah. Isaiah is a fairly well-known book. I’m certain most Christians at least know of Isaiah and probably know some passages from Isaiah.
Not only so, but Isaiah is a well-loved book. One of my Bible college professors once told me about a preacher he knew who had been asked by a publishing company to write a commentary on Isaiah. This preacher really loved Isaiah. I mean he really, really loved Isaiah, and he set out to write the best Isaiah commentary he could.
When the publishing company asked him for an update on his progress a year later, he showed them his introduction. That introduction was 600 pages long! That’s 600 pages just for the introduction. Who knows how many pages he wrote for the rest of the commentary. As you can imagine, his work went unpublished. The publishing company just couldn’t put out a book that big.
What’s an Abstract?
Now I’m not at the level of this preacher when it comes to my understanding of Isaiah. I don’t know enough about it to write 600 pages of anything about it. But I did notice something about it when I started reading it for our daily reading plan. It was something I had never noticed before. I noticed that Isaiah starts the book with what I call an “abstract”.
“Abstract” is a term I take from the papers I wrote for Bible college. If you are writing a scholarly paper, particularly a long one like a doctoral thesis, you include an abstract. This abstract sits at the beginning of the paper and explains why the paper is written and/or what it is going to say. It introduces the paper to some extent, but it also sets the tone of the paper.
Several of the prophets give their books abstracts like this; I knew that going in. But I didn’t know Isaiah did until I saw it during this reading. Isaiah’s abstract appears, naturally enough, very early in the book. It is the second thing in the book, in fact.
Isaiah beings by introducing himself, what his book is (“a vision”), and the time period in which he wrote it (using the kings who reigned during his life to date himself) in the first verse of the book, 1:1; that’s the very first part of the book. But then he says this in 1:2 & 3:
Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
For the Lord has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
This is undeniably an abstract. It is not part of the body of the book. The body doesn’t start until 1:4. It is something else entirely. It is an introduction, a thematic introduction. It is a summary of what the book is going to be and say.
And there are a couple of things we need to notice about this summary. The first is that God is speaking directly here. As we all know, the Bible is God’s word. All 66 books of the Bible come from God. All are legitimately “God speaking”. But in the prophets God speaks in a unique way. He speaks directly.
You will often see quotations marks in Isaiah and the other prophets, indicating that God is speaking directly. You will also see the first person pronoun I, further indicating that God is speaking directly. That doesn’t make these parts “more God” than the other books of the Bible. But I do think it is both interesting and powerful that this is God speaking to us as directly as possible.
There’s a Problem Here!
The second thing to notice in this abstract is the problem God identifies. He says His children have rebelled against Him. He says animals don’t rebel against their masters but His children have rebelled against Him and they have done so because they do not know or understand Him.
And that is indeed what this book is going to be about. That is indeed what the purpose of this book is. That is indeed what the subject and the tone of this book is going to be. This book is going to center around this terrible reality that God’s people have rebelled against Him, and it is going to be God’s attempt to get His people to stop rebelling against Him.
At times, Isaiah will describe the people’s rebellion and rebuke them for it. At other times, he will try to persuade them to stop rebelling by informing them of the things they do not know and need to understand. At still other times, he will comfort them by promising that good things will happen if they stop rebelling.
Bringing His People Back from Rebellion
But at all times this is what the book is going to be about. This is what the prophet and God are trying to accomplish here. They are stating that the people have fallen into a terrible rebellion and they are trying to bring the people back from that rebellion. This (like most of the prophetic books) is a father pleading with His children to return to a harmonious relationship with Him.
We are going to see that pleading as we continue through Isaiah for the next two weeks. For now, though, it is important that we start the way Isaiah wanted us to start. It is important that we start with this summary and the tone it sets for us. It is important both to our ability to interpret this book as well as grow through this book that we understand Isaiah’s abstract.