Isaiah is definitely not my strongest book of the Bible. I know much of what it says, that is, it’s chapters and verses, but I don’t know its construction or structure, that is, the “big picture” that adds valuable context to the chapters and verses. The only thing I knew about Isaiah prior to our current reading is that it divides roughly in half, with chapters 1-39 being messages of “condemnation” and chapters 40-66 being messages of “comfort”.
We are starting Isaiah this week, and we will remain in Isaiah for most of next book.
And I always thought I knew Isaiah. That is, I thought I knew it’s structure. I was taught in Bible college that Isaiah has two parts. The first part is “The Book of Condemnation” which runs from chapters 1-39, and the second part is “The Book of Consolation” which runs from 40-66. In the first part, Isaiah condemns Israel (and just about everyone else) for their sins, and in the second part he consoles them with the promise of forgiveness. This is what I was taught Isaiah is, and this is what I have always believed.
But as we begin to read this year, I am beginning to think something else is going on in this book, something besides condemnation and consolation. This something has to do with the kings Isaiah repeatedly mentions.
These kings pop up first in Isaiah’s opening statement, what we often call “the introduction” of the book. In 1:1, Isaiah says,
The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
With this introduction, Isaiah identifies himself as the author and the content as a supernatural revelation about Judah. He also list the four kings of Judah who were alive during the time he wrote and minister: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. This information allows us to “date” Isaiah; it tells us both when the events the book records took place and when Isaiah wrote the book itself.
I have come to believe, though, that it does more than that. I think these four kings (or at least three of them) are a huge part of what Isaiah is trying to communicate in the first 39 chapters of the book.
It was Isaiah’s reference to Uzziah which first got me thinking like this. In chapter 6, Isaiah describes his vision of the Lord in the Temple, the vision which was effectively his “call” into the prophetic ministry. He beings describing this vision with this phrase in 6:1:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord,
Again, that reference to King Uzziah dates this event. It tells us it happened in 739 BC, give or take. But it does more than that. It adds what I call “a flavor” to this event and to the many that follow it. You see, King Uzziah was a good king; not a perfect king by any means, but a good one. His death, then, put the godly people of Judah in tough spot. They knew not only that they were losing a good ruler and also that the new ruler might not be so good. In other words, King Uzziah’s death brought about both a physical and spiritual uncertainty for the godly in Jerusalem.
This uncertainty is confirmed for the worse in the next chapter. There, Isaiah confronts Ahaz, Uzziah’s grandson. When Isaiah tries to encourage Ahaz to trust in the Lord for rescue from his enemies, Ahaz dismisses him with false modesty (Isaiah 7:1-12). This leads Isaiah to predict the birth of an “Immanuel” king who will be a better ruler than Ahaz. In all likelihood, Isaiah thought he was talking about Uzziah’s son Hezekiah, and to some degree he was. (Remember, the prophets didn’t always know what they were saying, as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:11, and their their prophecies were often “double entedres”, having two or more fulfillments.)
Hezekiah’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Isaiah then gives a lot of attention to this coming king. In chapter 9:6, he rejoices at the thought of this king, saying,
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Again, we know who Isaiah is really talking about here, but we’re not sure he did. It is possible he thought he was talking about Hezekiah and only Hezekiah here.
Hezekiah and Uzziah, that is, good king and bad king, continue to appear in the following chapters in one way or another, but they come to a head in chapters 36-39. These chapters are nearly verbatim copies of 2 Kings 18-20, and they record three stories. In the first two stories, Hezekiah is more or less the hero. But in the final one, Isaiah 39, he is the cad if not the actual villain. He allows the Babylonians to spy out Jerusalem and doesn’t care that they will eventually invade because he knows he will be gone when they do.
I believe what Isaiah is expressing here is disappointment. I believe this final story about Hezekiah is the final story of this section because it shows that Hezekiah, good though he may have been, was not the Immanuel king Isaiah thought he would be. That had to have been disappointing to the prophet.
But it also had to have been enlightening. As a prophet, Isaiah would have known that the Hezekiah disappointment did not mean there would never be an Immanuel king. Rather, it only meant the Immanuel king was still to come.
The Hidden King
As Peter again tells us, we today are more blessed than Isaiah because we know who this Immanuel king is and have seen His coming. He is, of course, Jesus. It is Jesus that Isaiah was really talking about in Isaiah 7 and 9. It is Jesus who is not just the good king but the great and gracious and glorious king. It is Jesus who will really save us from our enemies and establish justice. It is Jesus and only Jesus who will never disappoint us.
Being Realigned By God
I believe these three kings and this “hidden” king are what Isaiah 1-39 are really about. More than that, I believe the idea of “being realigned by God” is what all of Isaiah is about. Isaiah was expecting and wanting an earthly king, and when that fell through God realigned him to see the coming of a greater heavenly king. The prophet experienced disappointment but that disappointment in turn gave way to a clearer understanding that God was actually doing better things than what the prophet expected.
And that realignment can encourage us modern readers today. Like Isaiah, we often misunderstand what God is doing and are expecting something lesser. Like him, we experience disappointment when this lesser thing does not occur. And also like him, we can experience great encouragement when we are realigned to see what God is really doing.
My prayer is we all experience this realignment as we read this book together.