4 Reasons You Should Preach through Isaiah

Article
10.25.2018

I love the Bible, and I’m intimidated by the Bible. This is especially true of the book of Isaiah. It’s long, it’s complicated, and it’s hugely important for understanding the message of the Bible. As a preacher, it’s easy to look at this book and see a mine field. So how can we understand it, much less preach it?

I’m sure you’ve had the same experience as me: whenever you’ve invested the time to understand and teach a book of the Bible, God never fails to reward your effort. He doesn’t promise us easy, excellent sermons, but he does assure us that his Word never fails (Isa. 40:8; 55:10–11). His Word is the powerful, saving, word of “Comfort”: the gospel.

If you’ve put Isaiah in the category of “I’ll get to it someday,” I hope the promises of God about his word, and the following four reasons I offer below will encourage you to rethink that.

But more than any argument, the message of the book of Isaiah itself should inspire you to preach it. Here’s my best attempt to summarize the book: Since God’s people had “forsaken the Lord” (Isaiah 1:4) to worship false gods, they “had become as spiritually lifeless as their idols,”[1] and so they must face the coming “day” of the Lord’s judgment, that is, the Babylonian exile. After the exile, their spiritual hardness persists, but God has not abandoned Israel or the nations. He holds out out the hope of a coming day of salvation, a New Exodus, led by the promised Servant-King, who would save through pouring out his soul to death, and bearing the sins of his people (Isaiah 53:12).

Or, here’s a shorter summary: The Lord’s day of judgment and salvation is coming, and when it does, his glory will be revealed through his anointed Servant-King.

1. Preach Isaiah because it’s a bridge between the Old and New Testaments.

One of the reasons Isaiah is notoriously difficult is because of the various vantage points in the book. Chapters 1–39 offer a vantage point before the exile, warning of the judgment of God to come on Judah, Israel, and the surrounding nations. Chapters 40–66 are written[2] as if the exile has already happened. From this vantage point, we see that the punishment of the exile did not change the stubborn hearts of God’s people, yet there still remained a hope of gospel “comfort” (Isaiah 40:1) in God’s promised restoration.

This unique structure is a feature, not a bug. Isaiah brings the story of Israel’s history to a powerful conclusion, telling us what happened while also revealing God’s authoritative indictment against all who would oppose him.

At the same time, Isaiah lays the foundation for the New Testament. The Israel of Jesus’ day shares many characteristics with the heard-hearted, post-exilic Israelites who thumbed their noses at God’s choice of Cyrus. The Gospels also present the ministry of Jesus as the glorious resolution to the story that begins in Isaiah 40. As Rikki Watts argues, the persistent blindness and deafness of God’s people lead to the postponement of God’s “New Exodus plan” until the coming of “a new, faithful, and suffering servant ‘Israel’ who will deliver Jacob-Israel and execute Yahweh’s plan for the nations.”[3] In Christ, the exile has ended, and the New Exodus has finally come to fruition.

Isaiah is a key inflection point in the Bible’s story. It offers a clearer glimpse of how God will solve the riddle of Exodus 34:6–7. Through the death of the suffering servant, God will satisfy justice and show his abundant mercy by forgiving the sins of his people. Through this servant, who is not only “a covenant for the people,” but also “a light for the nations,” (Isaiah 42:6) the promise to Abraham is fulfilled. All the families of the earth find blessing through faith in Isaiah’s Servant-King.

Isaiah provides a crucial connection between the story of Israel and the revelation of God in Christ.

2. Preach Isaiah for encouragement in evangelism.

As preachers, we all thank God that we are not Isaiah, who was called to “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive’” (Isaiah 6:8–9).

But we must remember that our Lord used these same words to describe his own ministry (Matthew 13:14, 15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10). They were also cited by the Apostle Paul when he preached under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:26, 27).

By God’s grace, our place in redemptive history is not the same as Isaiah’s, and certainly not the same as Christ’s, but we confront the same spiritual blindness and deafness. Isaiah faithfully proclaimed both God’s judgment against idolatry and the hope that was to come, confident that God’s word would “not return empty” (Isaiah 55:11). How much more confidently and faithfully may we, who know Christ crucified, risen and exalted, preach the gospel to blind and deaf sinners.

3. Preach Isaiah to expose the vanity of idolatry.

Isaiah has a lot to say about idols. Specifically, Isaiah shines a spotlight on the ways our idols kill us. Worshipping blind, deaf, and dumb idols makes us blind, deaf, and dumb. Even the ox knows it’s master, but because of their sinful abandonment of God, “Israel does not know” (Isaiah 1:3). God is the living and true Creator who speaks and saves (Isaiah 42:5, 9), but idols are made by mere men, crafted from blocks of wood, and have to be carried from one place to another (Isaiah 45:20). They are nothing, and they can’t save (Isaiah 44:9-11; 45:20). Those who worship them come to nothing.

We need to hear Isaiah’s profound, sustained attack on idolatry because we’re all in a sustained war against our own idols. It’s easy for us to see that the totems of ancient cultures were lifeless, but we’re much more easily deceived when it comes to contemporary promises of power, wealth, pleasure and security. We cry out to these gods, but they don’t answer or save us (Isaiah 46:7).

This leads us to the final reason to preach Isaiah.

4. Preach Isaiah to see the glory of the living God.

In Isaiah 6, we read about a magnificent encounter with the exalted, holy Lord in which Isaiah is utterly undone by his sin and yet purified and forgiven when a coal from the altar touches his lips. Here is the glory of God revealed: pure, exalted, terrifying—yet condescending, atoning, forgiving.

Throughout the book we see God’s glory revealed in his sovereignty, and his wisdom as Creator and Judge. We see him as the eternal God of everlasting joy and light. We see him as the living God who speaks and saves.

But as Isaiah leads us to our own encounter with the glory of the exalted Lord, it comes with a twist. The glory of God is revealed . . . through a human king. This king, born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), is both the Spirit-anointed Davidic King (9:1-7; 11:1–11) and the Spirit-anointed Servant (Isaiah 42:1). But he’s more than a merely human king. He’s called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14), and he will be given the very names of God (Isaiah 9:6). Isaiah 42 tells us that this gentle, righteous Servant shares in God’s glory.

That Isaiah 42 passage is crucial. The Lord reveals himself as the sovereign Creator, but then turns to describe the Servant and his work. Though people are blinded by their sinful idolatry and captive to it, the Servant opens the eyes of the blind and delivers captives from prison (Isaiah 42:7). This is the glory of God. God’s glory is seen in his salvation.

Later, Isaiah explains exactly how the servant accomplishes this work: by offering up his own life, being “pierced for our transgressions . . . crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). Our peace with God and forgiveness comes through the Servant’s sacrifice. We encounter the glory of God in the same way Isaiah did: by coming to see our own uncleanness and trusting in the atoning work of the Servant to take away our guilt. This is the eternal comfort God offers us through Isaiah.

Preach Isaiah to see the saving glory of the living God in the face of Jesus Christ.

COMMENTARIES:

John Oswalt’s two-volume commentary, The Book of Isaiah, was my favorite commentary. I appreciated his clarity and conviction, and I was helped by the way Oswalt explained major themes and described the structure of the book. Along these same lines, I also found his collection of essays helpful: The Holy One of Israel: Studies in the Book of Isaiah (Eugene, OR: Cascade. 2014). In my opinion, it’s worth the time and money to invest in Oswalt’s two volume NICOT commentary on Isaiah as opposed to the one he wrote in the NIV Application commentary series.

For a general overview of larger passages, I was helped by Barry Webb’s, The Message of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), in The Bible Speaks Today series.

By far, the most helpful resources for me in understanding Isaiah were the following journal articles.

  1. K. Beale, “Isaiah VI 9-13: A Retributive Taunt Against Idolatry,” in Vetus Testamentum, XLI 3 (1991), pp. 257–278. I believe Beale develops this idea in his book, We Become What We Worship (IVP Academic. 2008). This article is very helpful for understanding the crucial, but difficult Isaiah 6.
  2. Rikki E. Watts, “Consolation or Confrontation? Isaiah 40–55 and the Delay of the New Exodus,” in Tyndale Bulletin, 41.1 May 1990, pp. 32–59 (available online). Watts builds on Beale and explains how the blinding idolatry that marked Israel in Isaiah 1–39 remained in Israel after the exile (Isaiah 40–66), keying in on Israel’s rejection of Cyrus as God’s “anointed one.”
  3. A. Motyer, “Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14” Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970) 118–25 (available online). This article will help you make sense of the “Immanuel Sign” and Isaiah chapters 7–9.

Editor’s note: You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.

* * * * *

FOOTNOTES:

[1] G. K. Beale, “Isaiah VI 9–13: A Retributive Taunt Against Idolatry,” in Vetus Testamentum, XLI 3 (1991), p. 272.

[2] By describing the book’s structure like this, I am not postulating that there were multiple Isaiah’s. Barry Webb’s discussion authorship is brief and helpful. See Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah: On Eagles’ Wings, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 33–37.

[3] Rikki E. Watts, “Consolation or Confrontation? Isaiah 40–55 and the Delay of the New Exodus,” in Tyndale Bulletin, 41.1 May 1990, p. 31.