A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Thomas J. Sculthorpe
Andrew T. Abernethy is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies from Bethel College in Indiana, a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, and a Doctor of Philosophy from TEDS with a concentration in Old Testament under the supervision of Willem A. VanGemeren. Abernethy’s dissertation was entitled “My Servants Shall Eat”: The Prospect of Eating in the Book of Isaiah. He published his dissertation (Eating in Isaiah) and has also edited a historical-contextual study of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah and Imperial Context). Additionally, Abernethy is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles and essays in edited volumes, many of which involve exegetical and theological treatments of OT texts, especially the prophets and the Psalms.
In the present volume, the author proposes the concept of “kingdom”—explicitly infrequent in Isaiah but integral throughout—as an entry point for organizing the major themes of the book of Isaiah (1–2). Abernethy argues that this concept of “kingdom” is a useful and valid basis for a second-level discourse concerning the unity and diversity of the theology of Isaiah and the role of Isaiah in the canon of Scripture (7). As an entry in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, this book also seeks to contribute to the field of biblical theology. Abernethy does so by exemplifying a literary approach that recognizes the final form of Isaiah as the lens through which to interpret it and by proposing a canonical methodology that distinguishes between the intent of the human and divine authors of Scripture.
Abernethy frames his study of Isaiah around four features of the theme of kingdom present in the book. With each feature, he interprets the relevant texts throughout the book of Isaiah, shedding light on them with other biblical passages and through the use of Isaiah’s Ancient Near Eastern context, and then proposes a canonical understanding of Christ’s fulfillment of the kingdom theme in Isaiah through the New Testament authors’ use of the texts. This process, for Abernethy, is the “doing” of biblical theology. He is concerned to allow OT texts to sound their own discrete voices while also factoring in how those voices join with the New Testament as they jointly bear witness to Christ and God’s redemptive plan (4). He states:
A good ‘biblical theology’ should be more like a menu at a restaurant than a puree soup. In a puree soup, many vegetables are blended together to such an extent that each vegetable is unidentifiable to the eye, with the most colorful vegetable becoming the dominant hue. There is danger in harmonizing passages in Isaiah and between Isaiah and the larger biblical canon to such an extent that the unique contributions of Isaiah’s witness are erased. This is why a ‘menu’ analogy is preferable. On a menu, each dish has the signature of the restaurant (unity) and is strategically chosen in the light of how it corresponds with the other items on offer, yet its distinctness from other dishes both in terms of its place on the menu and its ingredients is still quite apparent (diversity). The aim of this study is to treat themes related to ‘kingdom’ in Isaiah in such a way that unity and diversity are maintained within Isaiah and the canon (6–7).
Abernethy also affirms a “synchronic,” literary approach to the book of Isaiah which recognizes the work as a literary whole rather than a “diachronic,” historical-critical approach that seeks to classify the texts that make up Isaiah according to their supposed position in history and the process by which the various texts came together into the present form of the book. He refers to the naming of only Isaiah in the superscript (Isa 1:1) as a basis for his approach, although it seems that he affirms some sort of later redaction, organization, or addition not attributable to Isaiah (8n28). Whether later editing occurred or not, the process is impossible to reconstruct with any certainty, and the final form of Isaiah is unconcerned with it, so Abernethy urges readers to be equally unconcerned in order to receive Isaiah’s message as it is intended (9n30).
Abernethy opens his study of Isaiah with his first and most prominent feature of the kingdom theme in the book: the very clear picture of God as King. He chooses to spend the most time in the book on this feature, devoting a separate chapter to exploring King YHWH in each of the traditional divisions of the book. The prophet’s vision of God on his throne (Isa 6) sets the stage not just for Isaiah 1–39 but for the whole book. This magnificent and frightening vision of the Holy King comes after the message of impending judgment in chapters 1–5 so that readers are better equipped to both apprehend and submit to that message and the many that follow throughout Isaiah (26). Additionally, the mercy that YHWH shows to Isaiah in that same setting gives readers a context to understand the message of hope also present in chapters 1–5 and beyond and to themselves hope in the same. This theme—the visible (Isa 6:1; 33:17) visitation of King YHWH to his people and to the whole earth in both salvation and judgment—pervades the entirety of Isaiah’s prophecy.
In Isaiah 40–55, Abernethy argues that the prophet presents YHWH as the glorious King who is coming to save his people from Babylonian exile (55). Here God’s righteousness is made manifest as he sets all things right for Israel and the whole world (71). This is the “good news” (Isa 40:9; 52:7): that although God’s people have been laid low, the preserved remnant will experience a visitation from righteous King YHWH that will result in their salvation. Then, in Isaiah 56–66, the prophet utilizes a chiastic literary structure in order to emphasize King YHWH’s role as a warrior in subduing the enemies of Israel—both within and without—to call readers to hope in his promised coming while also repenting from transgression (99). King YHWH will surely restore Zion to international prominence (Isa 2; 60) as the King of Glory (Ps 24) radiates brilliance worldwide.
Second, Abernethy observes the feature of lead agents of the King in Isaiah. This portion of his study focuses on three figures whom YHWH empowers with his Spirit to accomplish his will as King for Israel and for the whole world. The author argues that these are not three representations of the same individual, but three distinct figures with distinct roles (120). In Isaiah 1–39, King YHWH acts through a future Davidic ruler to establish justice and righteousness in the homeland after deliverance from Assyria; in Isaiah 40–55, King YHWH acts through his Servant to procure atonement for sin and bring justice to the nations; and in Isaiah 56–66, King YHWH acts through his Messenger to declare his salvation at the end of the age. In each case Abernethy affirms the New Testament attestation to the fulfillment of these figures in Jesus Christ as “unexpected” and “surprising” (136–7, 158, 169). Isaiah’s chief aim is to grant a vision of King YHWH coming to establish justice and righteousness through judgment and salvation, and he will do so through these three agents (170).
Finally, Abernethy treats the features of the realm and the people of King YHWH in Isaiah together as they are inseparable. Here he argues that Isaiah highlights Zion as a particularized realm of God as a means to comprehend the nature of God’s reign over the whole earth. God’s reign over Jerusalem—manifest in his sovereignty over their circumstances for both judgment and restoration and over the nations around them—reveals the unseen reality of his reign over heaven and earth now (175). The people of the King who reside in the realm of Zion are redeemed in order to reflect the character of their King to the world. This involves both God’s resolve to purify his people from every nation and the necessity that they respond to their King in obedience by pursuing justice and trusting in his word (187, 191). Like his universal realm, King YHWH’s international interests concerning his people will unfold through the particular people of Zion (194). Abernethy concludes his study urging his readers to glory in YHWH, the King of the universe, and to an eagerness to traverse the kingdom motif of the book of Isaiah with the aim of better understanding its message.
Abernethy has combined sharp biblical exegesis with a balanced, charitable approach to explore the prophet that arguably had the greatest impact on the apostles’ understanding of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promise of restoration. His work serves as a unique contribution to both Isaiah studies and the wider field of biblical theology as well. By subsuming commonly recognized and often exposited features such as the future Davidic king, the Servant of YHWH, judgment and salvation, and God’s universal sovereignty under the head of YHWH as King, Abernethy has produced a clear, integrative, exhaustive, and very helpful vision of the totality of Isaiah’s kingdom message which has proved to be elusive thus far. Additionally, by grounding his study in the kingdom theme that emerges from Isaiah’s work itself, he provides an example of biblical-theological exegesis that emerges from the text rather than being imposed upon it, an example that all students of the Bible can emulate. As far as thematic biblical theological studies of particular books go, Abernethy’s work in Isaiah should be considered a stunning achievement for years to come and should inform the work of pastors and scholars alike in the book of Isaiah.
However, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom is not without weaknesses of its own, and it seems that they generally stem from Abernethy’s definition of biblical theology as a discipline. He cites Boda’s definition of biblical theology: “Biblical theology is a theological discipline that reflects on the theological witness of the Bible in its own idiom with attention to both its unity and diversity” (5n15). As a theological discipline, Abernethy argues, biblical theology is a “second-level” discourse with the biblical text itself as the “first-level.” Thus, his own “kingdom schema” is imposed onto Isaiah’s prophecy rather than emerging from it, although he does believe that the notion stems from Isaiah’s own idiom (6). While it is true that the Bible itself serves as the “first-level” discourse, and no attempt to describe what the Bible says about God can approach that level, it seems better to pursue Isaiah’s own author-intended schema for understanding his work, whether it is “kingdom” or not. Simply put, How has Isaiah structured his work? What themes does he use to communicate his message? How does Scripture available to him in his time inform his interpretation of events? In answering these questions biblical theology remains a theological discipline, but the distinction between “first-level” and “second-level” all but disintegrates. Instead, it is the intent of the human author as demonstrated through word choice, grammar, and syntax that guides reading and interpretation. Abernethy’s exegesis is very convincing regarding the kingdom schema in Isaiah; perhaps he could simply argue that Isaiah himself, immersed in and informed by the Torah and perhaps even the Psalms, intended to structure his message around a kingdom motif for the benefit of his intended audience and God’s faithful remnant throughout this age.
This leads to another weakness of Abernethy’s study, namely his conception of the role of authorial intent in biblical theology. He seems to firmly grasp the necessity of authorial intent in expositing the texts of Isaiah in their original context; the issue arises when he attempts canonical understanding of those passages. A case in point is Isaiah 7–9 (121–37). Regarding Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:23), Abernethy states, “It is not necessary for Isaiah 7:14 to refer in its original context to a coming Davidic king” because Matthew reads Isaiah according to “patterning,” or typology (124n16). While Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 is certainly typological—involving both correspondence and escalation—if Matthew imports new meaning into the Isaiah text that was not intended by Isaiah, then he has moved beyond typology in his interpretation, and Abernethy seems forced to characterize Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 as “unexpected” (136–7). Surely many of the ways in which God fulfilled Old Testament Scripture in the coming of Jesus Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant should rightly be characterized as “unexpected” and “surprising”; on the other hand, Abernethy’s position seems too constrained by both a narrow view of Isaiah’s intent in the Immanuel sign and the seemingly clear correspondence between Immanuel, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, the child born (Isa 9:6), and the shoot from the stump of Jesse (11:1), the promised Davidic King who will reign forever.
This issue surfaces further regarding Abernethy’s concept of agency in Isaiah. As summarized above, he understands the Davidic king, the Servant, and the Messenger in Isaiah to be different individuals—perhaps due to an overemphasis on the traditional tripartite division of Isaiah, as each agent arises in each division respectively—and he rightly affirms the New Testament merger of these three into one Messiah, Jesus Christ. He writes, “Luke coordinates the distinct roles of Isaiah’s various agents and brings them together in the person of Jesus Christ” (168). But like Matthew, is Luke importing new meaning into the book of Isaiah? If Isaiah intended three distinct agents, on what valid hermeneutical basis can Luke combine them into one? Again, Abernethy characterizes Luke’s handling of Isaiah as “surprising,” but this seems lacking given Jesus’ admonishment of the Jews for not recognizing him as Messiah and believing in him (John 5:37–47). It may prove more defensible to employ biblical-theological exegesis based upon authorial intent. In other words, the task of biblical theology in this specific instance might be to defend the apostolic use of Isaiah based on the intent of Isaiah himself as revealed in the text; or, simply put, to read Scripture like the biblical authors. This would be the only way for readers of Scripture today to employ the same methodology in interpreting the Old Testament as the apostles did. Abernethy addresses arguments for correspondence between the three figures in Isaiah, but his responses fail to convince, and it seems best to read Isaiah synchronically, as Abernethy recommends, and thus understand the three agents as literary manifestations of the one Seed of the woman to come (Gen 3:15) who will accomplish God’s restoration by destroying the serpent and his seed, the enemies of God’s faithful people.
One final critique concerning the most relevant context for exegesis is necessary. While Abernethy does set many of his expositions of Isaiah in the context of earlier Scripture, he most often does so in Ancient Near Eastern history, culture, and literature.. The best example is his exegesis of Isaiah 51:9–10 (74–5). Here Abernethy refers to Ugaritic myths about Marduk to explain Isaiah’s use of the word “Rahab,” but perhaps there is a better way to understand Isaiah’s meaning. As Hamilton has argued, the discipline of biblical theology ought to employ earlier Scripture in the exegetical process whenever possible. Thus, it may be better to allow the use of “Rahab” in Psalm 74 to inform Isaiah’s use of the term. If we do so, we find this Isaiah text to be a likely reference to the exodus from Egypt. Coupled with the creation language that accompanies it, it seems Isaiah is saying that God’s restoration of his people will fulfill his promise to crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15) and will mirror or even exceed the exodus in majesty, power, and effectiveness. Rather than importing ideas from ANE myths into the text that were contradictory to Isaiah’s thinking at the worldview level, it seems best to allow the biblical worldview informed by Scripture available to Isaiah in his day to shape the context for interpretation. Doing so may help readers to draw more sound conclusions regarding “Rahab” in Isaiah 51:9 and also the three agents throughout the book who seem to be intended by Isaiah not as three individuals but as three complementary depictions of the Son of David who will fulfill the promise to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), the promise to Adam and Eve (Gen 3:15), and will also be divine himself (Isa 9:6).
Among Abernethy’s many strengths, including his exegetical work, his literary reading of Isaiah, and his attention to detail in fleshing the theme of kingdom and YHWH as king out throughout, his overall lack of substantial attention to the effects of earlier Scripture on Isaiah and his message is a main weakness of the book. Perhaps a greater emphasis on the interpretive perspective of Isaiah himself in the exegetical and theological process would benefit this work even more and would help readers of Isaiah to do so in the context not only of later Scripture but also that which came earlier.
The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom is a very helpful biblical-theological study of the book of Isaiah and the theme of YHWH as King therein. While exegetical insights abound, questions regarding the nature of biblical theology as a discipline, authorial intent, and the most valuable context for interpreting Scripture remain. With that said, Abernethy has certainly demonstrated his thesis that “kingdom” serves to unite the message of Isaiah and to elaborate on the role of Isaiah in the canon. Abernethy has written his work for pastors and theological students, and along with others with at least some background in hermeneutics they will benefit most from reading and considering Abernethy’s claims. Biblical theology continues to be a burgeoning field, and Abernethy has certainly contributed to the conversation with his unique thematic approach to Isaiah’s prophecy.
Thomas J. Sculthorpe is a PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
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THE BOOK OF ISAIAH AND GOD'S KINGDOM: A THEMATIC-THEOLOGICAL APPROACH, by Andrew T. Abernethy