Review by Anthony Lipscomb
Five years after the completion of his monumental three-volume Old Testament Theology (2003, 2006, 2009), John Goldingay, the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, contributes what one may describe as a “bite-sized” version of Old Testament Theology in his latest book, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah. Here, in his usual charm and clarity, Goldingay aims “to articulate the theology in the book called Isaiah — that is, to consider the theology expressed or implied by the different sections of Isaiah,” and then “to articulate the theology of the book called Isaiah as a whole, the theology that can be constructed from the book when one stands back and considers the whole” (11). In doing so, Goldingay unpacks what he regards as the central themes of Isaiah, and he makes accessible a collection of prophecies that can at times frustrate the modern reader with its foreign imagery, expressions, and literary technique.
The Theology of the Book of Isaiah follows a simple arrangement: Acknowledgements, Introduction, Part One (chapters 1-5), Part Two (chapters 6-18), Subject Index, and Scripture Index. In the Introduction, Goldingay sets out to correct what he regards as two confusion-inducing assumptions that general readers often bring to the text. The first assumption reads the whole of Isaiah as though it flowed logically from beginning to end, just like a report. Goldingay corrects this misunderstanding by explaining how chiasm, an ancient literary device that repeats concepts in a layered scheme (e.g., A-B-C-C-B-A), structures major sections of Isaiah. Understanding how chiasm works and recognizing its presence in complexly arranged texts, such as Isaiah 1-12 and 56-66 (discussed below), will help to obviate potential confusion.
A second assumption that Goldingay attempts to correct holds that the prophet Isaiah ben Amoz (8th c. BC) composed the entire text himself. This traditional position has been lucidly articulated by such Evangelical scholars as John Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, 1986, 23-28). Goldingay, however, favors the widely held conclusion among critical scholars that the text of Isaiah was composed and edited in three stages at different periods of time and by different hands. To be sure, critical scholars have put forward a number of variations on this compositional hypothesis, but the classic articulation claims the following: Isaiah 1-39, called “First-Isaiah,” was composed by Isaiah ben Amoz at a time when Assyria was the superpower of the ancient Near East; Isaiah 40-55 (“Second- or Deutero-Isaiah”) was composed during the period of Judah’s Babylonian exile in the sixth-century BC, at time when Babylon had superseded Assyria as the superpower; finally, Isaiah 56-66 (“Third- or Trito-Isaiah”) was composed and added to the Isaianic corpus during the Persian period, which followed the period of Babylonian dominance. This view of Isaiah’s composition history, according to the theory, explains what many scholars regard as shifts in writing style and perspectives from one phase to the next. While advocating for a multiple-authorship view of Isaiah, Goldingay is nevertheless adamant that the text of Isaiah demands that all its parts be read in light of the whole. Yet, even though he proposes a “holistic” reading of Isaiah’s “parts,” it is unfortunate that Goldingay does not provide even a footnote for informed articulations of the traditional view of single authorship, such as those advanced by Oswalt mentioned above. In any case, from these two premises, Goldingay proceeds with his exposition of theological motifs in Isaiah.
Goldingay’s two-fold aim for the book corresponds to its two parts: “Part One: The Theologies of Isaiah” and “Part Two: The Theology that Emerges from Isaiah.” In Part One, Goldingay treats Isaiah as a collection of five “collages,” each having its own message, structure, and set of key themes, yet the five interconnect to form a coherent whole. The first collage, addressed in chapter 1, spans the text of Isaiah 1-12 with the themes of “Faithfulness in the Exercise of Power” (Isaiah 1-5), “Holiness” (Isaiah 6-9), “Trust” (Isaiah 7), “Darkness and Light” (Isaiah 8), and “Putting Down and Raising Up” (Isaiah 10-12). Goldingay’s arrangement of these themes roughly follows the progression of the text and does not necessarily indicate a collation of related thematic points that are strewn across the first twelve chapters of Isaiah. Chapter 1 concludes the study of theological themes with two supplemental discussions. The first discussion looks at how Isaiah 1-12 progresses in an arrangement of chiasm. The message of Isaiah 1-12 from this perspective affirms a cycle of judgment upon Jerusalem followed by a word of comfort, but this cycle carries the expectation that “Yahweh is committed to bringing the sequence to an end. Israel’s experience is not condemned to be an eternal cycle” (32). Readers unfamiliar with chiasm and how one may go about figuring this component into an interpretive grid will find this section particularly helpful. The second supplemental discussion, entitled “A Note on Isaiah’s Role in the New Testament,” addresses how New Testament writers quoted or alluded to passages from the whole of Isaiah.
The remaining four collages follow the clearly defined units of chs. 13-27, 28-39, 40-55, and 56-66, and Goldingay does well to illustrate the literary structures that frame each unit. Collage 2 (Isaiah 13-27), with its scope expanding beyond the borders of Israel, includes the following themes: “The Nations,” “The Day of Yahweh,” “The Archetypal Superpower,” “Hope for the Nations,” “The Whole Cosmos,” “Land, City and Supernatural Powers,” “The Celebration of Life,” and “The Appropriate Response(s).” In the chapter on collage 3 (Isaiah 28-29), Goldingay highlights the themes of “Life and Death, Truth and Lies, Insight and Stupidity” (i.e., what should characterize Israel vs. what actually characterizes Israel), “Yahweh’s Dilemma” (i.e., Yahweh’s tension between punishing Israel and restoring/blessing Israel), “Reversal and Restoration,” and “Trust.” The linearly-arranged fourth collage (Isaiah 40-55) is characterized by the themes of “Yahweh Alone is God,” “Israel Is Yahweh’s Servant and Witness,” “Cyrus My Shepherd, My Anointed,” “A Prophet as Yahweh’s Servant,” “An Offering to Make,” “The Transformed City and the Covenant People.” Finally, the chiastically-arranged fifth collage (Isaiah 56-66) comprises the themes of “A Prophet as Yahweh’s Anointed,” “The Nations’ Destiny,” “The Position of Foreigners,” “Prayer,” “True Religion,” and “Who Are Yahweh’s Servants.” While the supplemental sections that conclude the chapter on Collage 1 do not appear in these remaining four chapters as independent discussions, Goldingay addresses structural issues and Isaianic links with the NT when the occasion arises.
In Part Two, Goldingay attempts to amalgamate the various theologies presented in Part One into a more comprehensive theology of Isaiah as a whole, which he categorizes as follows: “Revelation: Words from Yahweh Mediated Through Human Agents,” “The God of Israel the Holy One, Yahweh Armies,” “Holy as Upright and Merciful,” “Israel and Judah,” “Jerusalem and Zion Critiqued and Threatened,” “Jerusalem and Zion Chastised and Restored,” “The Remains,” “The Nations,” “The Empires and Their Kings,” “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility,” “Divine Planning and Human Planning,” “David,” and “Yahweh’s Day.” What ultimately emerges from Goldingay’s study is a complex of theological perspectives on Yahweh’s relationship with Israel/Judah, Yahweh’s relationship with the nations, and Israel/Judah’s relationship with the nations.
Goldingay assumes a general audience as his readership. This is never explicitly stated, but one will easily pick up on a characteristic down-to-earth tone, popular-level illustrations (e.g., cinematic technique as a way to understand literary technique, 19), and basic definitions and discussions of technical terms (e.g., chiasm, 14) and Hebrew words (e.g., mišpāṭ and ṣědāqâ, 21-22). General readers will find Goldingay’s explanations of Hebrew terms and concepts especially satisfying, as they do not merely inform but they pull back the veil of modern translations to bring into sharper focus the text’s meanings expressed through the original language.
While Part One assumes a general readership, at times Part Two seems to expect some familiarity with Hebrew and grammatical terms. For example, Goldingay does not attempt to clarify such terms as yiqtol (92), “construct” (98), and “niphal” (101). This may be explained by the fact that Part Two represents an “expansion” of a previously published essay, “The Theology of Isaiah” (cited in Acknowledgements). Overall, a general audience should find Part Two just as insightful and comprehensible as the first part.
Goldingay also assumes a Christian audience, and he shows, without “Christianizing” Isaiah, how the NT writers drew upon its messages. For Goldingay, the governing interpretive principle that one must bear in mind when relating the OT to the NT is the distinction between a text’s original meaning and a text’s significance to later situations (35). In his most extensive discussion on the NT use of Isaiah, Goldingay states: “[The NT writers’] process of interpretation does not start from a reading of Isaiah that reveals God’s intentions or expectations and moves towards Jesus, and it does not seek to establish that Jesus is the Messiah on the basis of such an argument. The process moves in the opposite direction, from Jesus back into Scriptures” (34). Goldingay demonstrates what he means by this on several occasions, such as when he discusses Isaiah 53, the well-known “Suffering Servant” passage and one of the key messianic passages in the whole of the OT for a Christian understanding of Jesus’ passion: “Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy of the Messiah but a portrait of how Yahweh’s servant-prophet becomes the means of Israel’s being put right with God, of Israel’s personal renewal, and of the nations’ coming to acknowledge Yahweh. But one can see how the chapter came to help people understand Jesus’ significance” (72). To a general Christian audience, especially those accustomed to reading by default certain OT prophecies messianically, such as Isaiah 53 or 7:14, Goldingay’s approach to the text in this regard may induce some discomfort, though this does not necessarily constitute a drawback.
Regardless of its implied audience, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah is a delightful conversation partner, a warm and charming read that will offer something to all who take in its careful study of the great depths of the book we call Isaiah. Scholars will appreciate Goldingay’s balanced and insightful treatment of the text and its themes. Pastors and general readers, while finding Goldingay’s position on multiple-authorship to be in tension with the traditional view of single authorship, will nevertheless find Goldingay’s discussion of Isaiah’s structures a helpful guide for navigating the book’s complex literary and logical development. Goldingay’s lucid interpretation of Isaiah within its own context models a helpful way to read OT prophecy contextually, even if he does not carry forward its theological implications into a Christian synthesis. Goldingay stays true to his aim to articulate the theology in the Book of Isaiah, and he leaves the curious reader wanting to probe deeper into hermeneutical method.
Anthony Lipscomb is a completing a ThM (Old Testament) at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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The Theology Of The Book Of Isaiah