Book Write-Up: Isaiah, by Alfred Martin

Alfred Martin.  Isaiah.  Moody Publishers, 1956, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

This book is part of the Everyman Bible Commentary series.  It is a reprint of a book that was originally published in 1956.  The author, Alfred Martin, had a Th.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary.  He also served as Vice-President and Dean of Education at Moody Bible Institute and taught at Dallas Bible College.

Rather than serving as a comprehensive commentary, the book comments on highlights in the Book of Isaiah.  Its comments are largely homiletical, yet they focus on details of select texts.  Occasionally, Martin weighs in on a piece of scholarly minutiae, as when he disputes the scholarly view that Isaiah received his prophetic commission after the death of King Uzziah (Isaiah 6:1); for Martin, Isaiah received it before then.

Martin takes frequent swipes at liberal and non-Christian interpretations of Isaiah, as well as Christian interpretations that differ from his own.  Martin believes in one Isaiah who wrote before the exile rather than more than one author of the book who wrote during the pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic periods.  He thinks that the Book of Isaiah makes predictions that were directly relevant to Isaiah’s historical situation, but also prophecies concerning Jesus Christ and the time of the end.  Based on I Peter 1:10-11, Martin contends that Isaiah lacked a full understanding of how God’s prophecies to him would be fulfilled.  Martin disputes the liberal scholarly idea that ancient Israel was henotheistic and tribalistic, instead seeing its divinely-inspired religion as monotheistic and universalistic: it held that God was the only truly existing God and had sovereignty over and concern for all nations, not just Israel.  Martin interprets the Suffering Servant as the Messiah, Jesus Christ, not as the nation of Israel.  His approach is also literal and dispensational.  As far as Martin is concerned, Isaiah’s prophecies have been and will be fulfilled literally, meaning they are not allegorical; in addition, what is spoken about Israel is about Israel, not the church.  At the same time, Martin believes that believers can derive spiritual application from the Book of Isaiah.

There are times when Martin presents actual arguments in favor of these ideas.  He notes common themes throughout the Book of Isaiah (i.e., the highway), indicating, to him, that it is all the work of one author.  He observes that the Book of Isaiah discusses the outcome of nations other than Israel and affirms the God of Israel’s reality against the un-reality of other gods, showing that it is far from henotheistic and tribalistic.  For Martin, the Suffering Servant makes more sense as a righteous individual rather than the nation of Israel, which is far from righteous, throughout the Book of Isaiah.  Martin looks at how the New Testament approaches the Book of Isaiah and notices that it treats several of Isaiah’s prophecies as being literally about Jesus Christ, and as finding their literal fulfillment in the work of Jesus Christ.  Martin deems that to be evidence about the prophecies’ original meaning, and Martin thinks that liberal scholars’ disagreement with him on this is a spiritual more than an academic problem.  And, against Christians who interpret the prophecies as symbolic and as about the church, Martin argues that, if the prophecies are literal in describing Christ’s sufferings, then they must be literal in all other areas, as well.

One can critique Martin’s approach.  Martin makes a fairly decent argument that the Book of Isaiah is monotheistic and universalistic, but scholars have still had reasons for concluding that henotheism finds expression in certain biblical writings.  See Deuteronomy 32:8-9, where the Most High gives Israel to the LORD and other nations to other gods.  There are occasions in which the New Testament appears to apply Old Testament prophecies in a less-than-literal fashion.  Reading Old Testament prophecies about the Gentiles’ worship of God in a literal fashion, one would conclude that such worship would take place after Israel is restored and God establishes a paradise on earth, with physical Israel as the center.  The New Testament, however, seems to hold that such prophecies are finding fulfillment in the church age, as Gentiles join the Christian church (see Acts 15:14-18; Romans 15:7-12).  Contrary to the impression that Martin leaves, scholars who believe differently from him have actual reasons for their conclusions.

Martin’s Christological interpretation of Isaiah also leads to some awkward conclusions.  For example, Martin wants to interpret the Immanuel of Isaiah 7:14 as Jesus Christ, since Matthew 1:23 does so.  Yet, Isaiah 7 at least appears to treat Immanuel as a child in Isaiah’s time, as events in Immanuel’s life and experience serve as a sign regarding events in Isaiah’s day.  How does Martin handle this?  He says: “The thought seems to be that if the baby Immanuel was born in the immediate future, before He would be old enough to make known His distinction between good and evil, the two enemy kings would withdraw” (pages 43-44).  So Isaiah is presenting a hypothetical: Immanuel would be born centuries later, but Isaiah is saying that, if Immanuel were born in Isaiah’s lifetime, his life would serve as a timetable for events in Isaiah’s day.  That sounds like a stretch!  Martin wants to interpret the voice in the wilderness in Isaiah 40:3 as a literal prediction about John the Baptist, since the Gospels say that it is about John the Baptist (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23).  But why would Isaiah talk about John the Baptist, within a larger discussion about the restoration of the exiled Jews from Babylonian exile?  How does John the Baptist relate to that?  Martin fails to explain.

There may be something to Martin’s method, however.  Jews and Christians did interpret Isaiah as concerning not only events in Isaiah’s day, but in reference to Israel’s larger story and place in God’s eschatological plan.  Martin does not endorse canonical criticism, but one could make the case that, within the Book of Isaiah itself, old prophecies are updated and applied to new situations, showing that even some of the writers, editors, and organizers of the book believed that it was about more than the eighth century B.C.E.  Martin’s book would have been better had it explained more fully why God would tell people of Isaiah’s day about events in the far-off future, but Martin occasionally offered something to chew on, as when he said that Isaiah presented Israel’s deliverance from Babylon as “a foretaste of an even greater deliverance” (page 127).

Martin offered intriguing interpretations.  He believes that the Gospel is in Isaiah 59: Israel is alienated from God, God notices the absence of an intercessor, so God sends a redeemer.  Martin’s interpretation of Isaiah 6:9-13 was faithful to what the chapter says: Isaiah would not gain many converts, but God would preserve a remnant.  Such a theme, as Martin observes, extends beyond Isaiah’s time and is cited in the New Testament (Romans 9).  The book is edifying, as it attempts to provide a justification for God’s ways, presenting them as righteous.  Martin can be mocking towards other perspectives, as when he disparages liberal Christians who speak with an exalted tone about the “lowly Nazarene” while rejecting the substitutionary atonement.  I roll my eyes at those types, too!  Still, the book has a certain gravitas, as Martin speaks with weight and seriousness.

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

 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. 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. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also 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.
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