Reviewed by Daniel C. Timmer
The book of Isaiah poses significant challenges to its readers. Its length is imposing, its complexity is intimidating, and its structure is often difficult to discern. This volume by Andrew T. Abernethy, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, is crafted with a view toward helping readers (whether specialists or not) cross Isaiah’s challenging but beautiful terrain by helping them integrate the variety that they see by means of one primary theme, God’s kingdom.
Abernethy’s approach is consciously Christian in that he is unwilling to treat “the OT in an ancient vacuum, in isolation from its role in a two-testament canon” (3). Instead, recognizing that God’s inspiration of human writers can entail their less than complete understanding of the message they transmit (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-12), Abernethy encourages his readers to “weigh how God may have providentially inspired the human words, including a book’s arrangement, in an initial context to play a role in the larger canonical witness to Jesus Christ and God’s redemptive plan” (4). Yet he is sensitive to the danger of simply reading the NT back into the OT, as if the two were saying precisely the same thing. Hence his goal is to “allow an OT text to sound its own discrete voice while also factoring in how this joins in with the NT as they jointly bear witness to Christ and God’s redemptive plan” (4).
The volume traces “four features of kingdom in Isaiah,” giving multiple chapters to God the king (chs. 1-3), a chapter to the “lead agents of the king” (ch. 4), and half a chapter each to the “realm of the kingdom” and the “people of the king” (ch. 5). Chapter 1, “God, the king now and to come in Isaiah 1-39,” is “a gateway into the rest of the book” that conveys the overwhelming holiness and glory of YHWH as king (14). Abernethy’s exegesis of Isaiah 6 reveals that the “cosmic king, utterly holy, is on the brink of breaking forth in purifying judgment” (20). This dangerous situation underlines that the negative analysis of Judah in Isaiah 1-5 will not be without grave consequences (26). Several other contexts dealing with YHWH as king (Isa 24:21-23; 25:6-8) add to this emphasis that of restoration after punishment (exile), so that “two destinies” of salvation and judgment are possible for humanity under God’s kingship (36). Other passages surveyed reject all human claims to supremacy in glory in favor of YHWH’s unique divinity (Isa 36-37).
Chapter 2, “God, the only saving king in Isaiah 40-55,” sets forth how God’s people on the other side of judgment are to prepare for his glorious arrival (59). This new era in the unfolding of God’s kingdom focuses on “God’s salvation for and faithfulness to his people” under the theme of righteousness, a fundamental responsibility of any king in the ancient Near East (68-72). Abernethy also explores other facets of YHWH’s kingship (creator, temple/city builder, etc.), showing how this section of Isaiah presents God as coming to “set things right: all will be as it should be” (81).
The third chapter traces God’s roles as “warrior” and “international and compassionate king” through Isaiah 56-66. This section’s concentric structure, and especially Isaiah 60-62, impress “upon us that King YHWH will act in eschatological judgment and salvation with the result being Zion’s transformation into the capital and jewel of the entire world, which only the repentant and faithful will enjoy” (85). The theme of righteousness remains in the foreground here, not least when Isa 59:1-8 shows “apostate Judahites as being among the enemies who will receive God’s wrath” (92). Likewise, the judgment—salvation polarity is evident in various ways in YHWH’s different roles, which Abernethy encourages us to appreciate as such without melding them into one (113-114). This necessary emphasis on diversity is helpfully followed by a complementary review of unifying themes that run across the book (114-117).
Having begun in good Isaianic fashion by focusing at length on YHWH, Abernethy moves on in chapter 4 to discuss the “lead agents of the king.” Although in Isaiah “all of God’s people and even foreign nations can to some extent be God’s agents,” the author’s decision to focus on the Davidic rule in Isaiah 1-39, the servant of YHWH in Isaiah 40-55, and God’s messenger in Isaiah 56-66 is well-justified. Concerning Isaiah’s “servant,” Abernethy carefully distinguishes the servant of Isaiah 42, who despite being equipped by God still fails in its mission (cf. 42:19-20), from the servant presented in Isaiah 49, 50, and 52-53 (138-142). The suffering servant’s role is clearly vicarious and atoning (154), and while distinct from that of the Davidic ruler in Isaiah 1-39, it is compatible with it (158). Together with the prophetic messenger who “will emerge on the brink of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s coming as the warrior king,” these three agents represent the prophetic, priestly, and kingly roles so prominent in NT Christology (136-137, 159-160, 168-169).
The book’s final chapter deals with two interrelated features of kingdom, where it is (realm) and who it includes (people). The view of realm that Isaiah presents is “bifocal,” with the “cosmos as the universal realm” and Zion as “the particularized realm” of God’s kingdom (172-179). While attempting to skirt the issue of “how physical Jerusalem fits into God’s plan on this side of the cross” (179), Abernethy does affirm that “the church was the temple of the Holy Spirit” and that “the realm of God’s kingdom is more universal in focus in the NT” than in the OT (180). Last, the people of God’s kingdom are characterized by their being “purified” from sin and “redeemed” from suffering and punishment (181-187), by their just and obedient lifestyle (187-191), and by their trust in God. The chapter ends where the book of Isaiah ends by reflecting on the multiethnic, international nature of God’s people, created through the restoration of Israel by YHWH’s servant (195). Abernethy is again careful to note diversity, in this case the varying roles and characteristics of the “nations,” in the passages he explores.
There is no doubt that as a “thematic-theological” interpretation of Isaiah this volume is a success. Abernethy’s carefully executed thematic approach plays a key role in this success: the themes he traces keep the reader oriented (and are presented first), while the exegetical detail he incorporates along the way (and which the reader would do well to follow with an open Bible) prevents the various themes from becoming flat, monochrome, or reductionistic. The author regularly summarizes his conclusions after each section, and a number of helpful tables and diagrams (e.g., 63, 84, 120) aid comprehension of the text. The work is also written in clear, accessible language, no small feat given the complexity of Isaiah’s thought and Abernethy’s frequent interaction with a wide variety of scholarly literature. Last, the volume has a warm, pastorally engaging tone that draws the reader into practical and worshipful responses to Isaiah’s message as part of the Christian canon (e.g., 19, 50-51, 65, etc.).
The book also clearly attains its goal as a study consciously doing “biblical theology,” defined by Mark Boda as “reflection on the theological witness of the Bible in its own idiom with attention to its unity and diversity” (5). To express this in musical terms, the volume consistently harmonizes the many distinct notes that one hears in Isaiah so that the listener hears all that is being sung, without eliminating a particular voice or forcing all voices into a monotone chant (e.g., 113).
One element of Abernethy’s biblical theological approach merits further attention: his apparent adoption of Christopher Seitz’s method of treating the OT as a “discrete” (independent) witness to its subject matter, which it shares with the NT (37; Abernethy acknowledges that throughout the book he has been “greatly influenced by” Seitz, 28 n. 54). Accordingly, the author states in his interpretation of Isaiah 6 that “the logic here is not ‘Let’s look at how the NT views Jesus, and then reread Isaiah 6 in that light to understand how it speaks of Christ’” (29). Following Seitz, he prefers instead to speak here and elsewhere of “accordance between the literal sense of the OT and God’s ways in Christ and the church” (29; similarly “correspondence,” 66, 197; “resonance,” 110; “accord,” 197).
It is not clear to me, however, that “reading the OT in light of the NT,” as Abernethy summarizes Seitz’s critique of a common approach to understanding the OT as Christians (37), is indeed the mistake that Seitz thinks it to be. The argument for two independent, mature voices (OT and NT) claims that the NT authors held that “the OT can teach the church about Christ and his ways, even without recourse to the NT canon” (37, Abernethy summarizing Seitz), but this seems to introduce a problematic distinction between the message of Jesus and the apostles during their ministries on the one hand, and the NT documents on the other. While there is no doubt that when speaking to Jewish audiences Jesus and the apostles made frequent reference to the Jewish Scriptures (now our OT), it is equally clear that their discourses used such references to identify Jesus as central to the fulfillment of the OT and its patterns, promises, and trajectories (e.g., 2 Cor 1:20). This identification of Jesus in “real time” cannot have taken place prior to his incarnation, so cannot be located in the Old Testament. When Jesus and the apostles make this identification, however, it is not presented in terms of accordance, resonance, and resemblance between OT and NT, nor is it something perceived only by the later church. Rather, the hearer (and later reader) are obliged, by the authority of Jesus and the apostles, to recognize Jesus as the one who fulfills God’s promises. As a result, misunderstanding (Luke 24:25, 44) or outright rejection of their claims is culpable (John 5:39-40, 45-46).
However, while Seitz’s method is open to critique, it is not clear that Abernethy follows it consistently. In more than a few cases, the author’s interpretations diverge from a two-testament, two distinct voice approach in favor of an approach that links the Testaments on the basis of the New Testament’s use of the Old (i.e. on apostolic authority rather than on a general resonance between two texts with similar images). For example, discussing how Isa 59:15b-20 and 63:1-6 “bear canonical witness to Christ,” Abernethy’s immediate move from the Isaiah texts to “Jesus’ first coming,” in which “the arm of God [is] initiating redemption,” makes reference to Luke 1:51, which as part of the Magnificat celebrates God’s fulfillment of numerous trajectories, promises, and patterns rooted in the OT. Similarly, affirming that “in Christ’s second coming the divine warrior elements from Isaiah 63:1-6 reach their fullest expression,” Abernethy identifies Jesus as “the warrior king whose garments will drip with the blood of the wicked” in Revelation 19:15-16, and agrees with G. K. Beale’s observation that there “what originally applied to God . . . is now applied to Jesus Christ” (100, 101 and notes). As a final example, the author ties a spiritually transformative reading of Isa 52:13-53:12 to reading it “in the light of its witness to Christ” (159). Such exclusive specificity regarding Christ as the fulfillment of the OT is impossible to achieve on the basis of OT-NT “concordance” alone, whereas Abernethy’s numerous references to the NT in that context (Matt 8:17; 12:18-21; Mark 10:45; 14:61; Acts 8:32-33) provide clear warrant for seeing Christ as the referent of the Isaiah text.
It appears, therefore, that while in theory Abernethy affirms Seitz’s method, in practice he often seems to share perhaps only Seitz’s desire not to see the OT as having been made unnecessary by the completion of the NT documents. In my opinion this inconsistency strengthens rather than weakens the author’s biblical-theological work, since it puts it on more solid hermeneutical footing than Seitz’s approach allows. Not least for this reason, and for many others, readers stand to profit greatly from this work. Abernethy’s closing wish that Scripture “should have the ultimate say in how one envisions the message of Isaiah amid life in the world as we know it” (200-201) characterizes his own work while providing his readers with an excellent method by which to grasp Isaiah’s contribution to biblical theology.
Daniel C. Timmer
Faculté de théologie évangélique (Montréal)