Book Write-Up: The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom

Andrew T. Abernethy.  The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach.  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Andrew T. Abernethy teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College.  The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom is not a verse-by-verse commentary that goes through every single chapter of the Book of Isaiah, even though it does discuss different scholarly views on a number of verses.  Rather, the book is thematic, as it focuses on the Book of Isaiah’s interaction with the subject of God’s kingdom.  Topics related to this include: God being king amidst the historical turmoils Israel faced; God’s eschatological kingdom, which God will set up on Zion but which will influence and even encompass the entire world; God’s activity as warrior-king, in pursuit of justice; and God the king’s agents, including the Davidic king, the servant of the Lord in Second Isaiah, and the Lord’s messenger of Third Isaiah.  Abernethy also refers to the New Testament, albeit not in a manner that forces Isaiah’s themes into a New Testament mold or projects Christian concepts onto the Book of Isaiah.  Rather, Abernethy shows where there is overlap between the Book of Isaiah’s themes and what the New Testament says about Jesus, as well as ways in which the New Testament builds on Isaiah’s themes.

I would like to comment on four aspects of the book:

A.  To his credit, Abernethy was unafraid to stray from certain conservative Christian interpretations.  Abernethy believes that Isaiah 7:14 originally related to the seventh century B.C.E. rather than predicting a Messiah who would be born of a virgin centuries later.  He argues that the description of the newborn son in Isaiah 9:1-6 does not portray the son as a divine being, but rather calls this newborn Davidic king “mighty God” to highlight God’s might in the seventh century B.C.E.   Although Jesus applies Isaiah 61:1 to himself in Luke 4:18, Abernethy disputes the scholarly idea that the messenger of Isaiah 61 is portrayed as a prophesied Davidic king; rather, he maintains that the messenger is a prophet, speaking about God’s restoration of Israel when the Persians were ruling it.  In these cases, and more, Abernethy judiciously evaluates scholarly views, noting their strengths and weaknesses, while defending his own view.  Some chapters in this book were better than others, but Abernethy’s surveys of different interpretations made this book especially interesting.

B. Abernethy does attempt to connect the Book of Isaiah with the New Testament.  Although he says that Isaiah 7:14 originally applied to a child in the seventh century B.C.E., he states that the Gospel of Matthew applies that verse to Jesus to argue that, as God was with Israel in the seventh century B.C.E., so likewise is God with Israel in the first century C.E.  Abernethy notes that God in Isaiah 59:15-17 wears the same sort of armor that Christians are exhorted to wear in Ephesians 6:14-17; reading these texts together, Abernethy concludes that Ephesians 6:14-17 is encouraging Christians to join God in God’s work of defeating oppression (in the case of Ephesians 6:14-17, supernatural oppression).  On pages 197-198, Abernethy compares the story of Jesus with the larger story in the Book of Isaiah: both discuss God rebuilding Israel on a righteous or repentant remnant, and both posit a role for Israel in God’s plan to renew creation and bring Gentiles to God-self.  This last discussion would have been stronger had Abernethy interacted with the theme of Israel’s return from exile in the New Testament, since (as Abernethy knows) Israel’s restoration from exile is highly significant to God’s purposes in the Book of Isaiah.

On one occasion, in discussing the Servant of the Lord in Second Isaiah, Abernethy appears open to the view that the Servant was an ideal figure, someone Israel in exile hoped would come.  That would open the door to Jesus being the expected Servant of the Lord, rather than the Servant being some historical figure in the sixth century B.C.E.  But does such a view do justice to the context of Second Isaiah?  Even Abernethy seems to acknowledge that the Servant related, in some manner, to the amelioration of Israel’s exile, presumably (albeit not necessarily) her exile in Babylon.  How would an ideal figure accomplish this?  How would that be relevant to Jesus?  I am not saying a connection between Jesus and the themes of Second Isaiah is impossible, but, if one believes in such a connection, it should be explained.

C.  Overall, Abernethy treats First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) as relating to the seventh century B.C.E.: God will deliver Judah from the Assyrians and establish a Davidic kingship, along with eschatological paradise, in the aftermath of the Assyrians’ defeat.  Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) and the Servant in that section of the Book of Isaiah, for Abernethy, pertain to God delivering Israel from Babylonian exile.  And Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66), along with the messenger of that book, concerns God’s imminent judgment of evildoers and vindication of the righteous, within the context of Persia’s subjugation of post-exilic Judah.

One can ask: Is the Book of Isaiah a collection of frustrated, unfulfilled eschatological hopes and dreams?  Obviously, writers, redactors, and editors of the Book of Isaiah did not think so, for they continued to see themes in the book as still relevant, even amidst new historical situations.  The writer of Second Isaiah, for instance, arguably observed themes about Israel’s deliverance from Assyria and applied the theme of deliverance to Israel’s redemption from Babylonian exile.  What was their theological rationale for this, though?  Would not the unfulfillment of certain prophecies in First Isaiah disqualify First Isaiah’s divine authority, in light of Deuteronomy 18:21-22?

Abernethy in this book never devotes a section or an explicit discussion to this topic, yet he does say things that are relevant to it.  Sometimes, he prefers to look at the book thematically or generally while bypassing thorny historical questions: he says that the Book of Isaiah affirms that God was Israel’s deliverer from the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians, and will continue to be Israel’s deliverer.  That may coincide with the view of those who put the Book of Isaiah together, continued to see relevance in its parts, and canonized it.  Still, such an approach dodges the problem that sections of Isaiah seemed to expect a near eschatological divine intervention that historically failed to take place.

The closest Abernethy gets to resolving this problem is when he appears to imply that God changed God’s strategies.  For instance, God hoped that God’s plans in First Isaiah would result in a righteous people and a righteous Davidic king, but they did not, so God in Israel’s exile appealed to Israel with the Suffering Servant.  Yet, for Abernethy, God did not abandon God’s plan for a righteous Davidic king to rule God’s eschatological kingdom, for that would remain on the table; it would just come later.  Convincing or not, Abernethy deserves credit for his attempt to balance the Book of Isaiah’s historical meanings and their possible trans-historical (i.e., canonical) meanings, and what he says is thought-provoking.

D.  Abernethy’s discussion of social justice in Isaiah 58 was especially good.  According to Abernethy, Isaiah 58 exhorted wealthy landowners to free the indebted, including slaves, while also providing the newly freed people with resources to get, and stay, on their feet.  That should be the goal of charity for the poor, in my opinion.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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