An Introduction to the Prophecy of Isaiah

David H. Linden  University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM USA     revised, September 2010


The Book of Isaiah has in it as much about Christ as all the other prophets combined. Surprisingly, it also gives more explanation of the meaning of the death of Christ than we find in all of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.


In Old Testament times it became clear that all the institutions of Israel were in decay. When Isaiah was called to the ministry, the king of that day had leprosy (6:1), so did the nation spiritually. Their kings failed in faith, obedience, administration and resistance to their enemies. Their priests maintained a veneer of true worship while idolatry was rampant. Their prophets invented lies and scorned truth when it was spoken by true prophets. In this scene of decay and darkness the Word of the Lord speaking of the One to come increased greatly. There would be a true and godly Son of David as King. A Priest was coming Who would make an effective offering for sin which would bring redemption – even beyond the borders of Israel. This person, our Lord Jesus Christ, the ultimate Prophet, would speak the word of God faithfully and effectively. After much darkness the light would shine (9:1) in Galilee where Jesus lived, preached, and performed many mighty works. The chief Old Testament book to emphasize this great worldwide hope is Isaiah. Those who have pondered this book are astounded at the scope and depth of its doctrine.


The early chapters are closely tied to the theme of the Lord as King during God’s gracious rescue from the Assyrians. Later God would call Cyrus to deliver from Babylon, but the Lord would follow up on that with Christ as the Servant Savior from the ultimate bondage, sin. Christ has accomplished this greater deliverance by bearing our sin in His substitutionary sacrifice. Isaiah ends with multiple calls to righteousness, with worldwide salvation, and yet, to their eternal loss, with the hearts of the wicked still hard. The One Who saves is also the One Who crushes those who reject Him (59:17; 63:1-6).


Isaiah has a multitude of related themes. That God is three appears more here than anywhere previous to the New Testament. (See 48:16 and 61:1.) A strong correlation exists between the One Who commissioned Christ, as well as the Spirit with Whom He was endowed. The theologian probably finds more about God in Isaiah than in any other single book in the Bible.


The prophet Isaiah lived in the time of the Assyrian menace, yet he supernaturally predicted the rise and fall of Babylon generations later. He speaks of his day, of the time of the Babylonian captivity AND the restoration from it. This prophecy includes much of the first coming of Christ, plus material that fits only after the second. It should not be missed that he wrote also of our day, a feature that is of great value to understanding our time. All history lies in God’s control. To understand its scope and purpose, read Isaiah. To see the overarching sovereignty of God, read Isaiah. To be humbled before His holiness, read Isaiah. To see the paralyzing grip of sin on the sinner and the saving ability of God, read Isaiah. The discouraged saint who beholds the unbelief and God-hating clamor of this world will read in Isaiah of the salvation of the nations. Some texts specifically apply to Arabs (42:10,11) which to me is a great joy. The Lord is bringing in Arabs as our brothers.


I am personally thankful for the teaching ministry of James M. Hatch, who 46 years ago first instilled in me some sense of the flow of Isaiah. In later years I have benefited very very much from both commentaries on Isaiah by Alec J. Motyer. Both are published in N. America by Inter-Varsity Press, and are highly recommended. The first series of my Isaiah lecture notes in 2003 were all translated into Chinese by my brother, Wu Zuhong. These revisions will be posted on my website: 




Notes on Isaiah 1


This chapter was clearly intended by Isaiah to be a unit. The structure of chapters 2-4 is marked as a unit by inclusios, so chapters 1 and 5 must be units as well. The call of Isaiah to the ministry of a prophet comes in chapter 6 when we might have expected it in chapter 1. This indicates that chapters 1-5 are intended to give some background of the situation into which God called His prophet Isaiah. Chapter 1 shows:


1) the trauma of the nation, except for Jerusalem, overrun by enemy forces,

2) the corruption of worship where sinful conduct contradicted the holiness of God.

3) pervasive social injustice. 

4) Gracious salvation; Zion will be redeemed.

5) Final judgment; Rebels may remain rebels


Judah was beaten, occupied by foreign armies. It had corrupted the worship of God, Within the nation the judicial system was unjust. Thus the nation was in the throes of death. Into this dire setting God called Isaiah to be His spokesman. First, Isaiah became a redeemed man. His genius with language and his noble status were applied in His calling as a prophet.  


Isaiah 1 begins with a charge of rebellion, proven by detailed evidence. This takes up most of the chapter. Then with the “therefore” of v.24, the Judge announced His verdict and said what He would do in executing His judgment, which turns to purging away their sins. 




1:2,3      Unlike so many New Testament letters beginning with warm greetings, Isaiah began with a complaint. It is God’s complaint, a summons to court, as God called heaven and earth to be witnesses of a charge. Anyone who wants heaven and earth to listen in must think his issue is very important. Anyone who can make heaven and earth pay attention IS very important. Making a charge calls for proof, and the Lord began this book by making His case. This is the way the chief prophetical book of the entire Bible opens.


The Lord’s complaint was about His children. Note the verbs that describe their behavior toward the Lord: they rebelled, forsook, spurned, and turned their backs against the Lord. We should not miss the setting; Isaiah does not begin with the specifics of what they did as much as the deliberate nature of their very personal rebellion. Sins will be listed later. First, it is the Lord they have sinned against. The complaint includes the sad contrast that dumb animals may know their masters, but Israel does not.   


The complaint is against children, thus the sin is against a father. Later Isaiah has covenant people calling God “Father” in 63:16 & 64:8. God calls these children “my people”. If children, there is a family relationship, but when it is “my people” it is covenant language. The pronoun “my” affects the meaning. Notice the difference in these two sentences: 1) She is a wife. 2) She is my wife.  


1:4      Not only does God call them “my people”, He refers to Himself as “the LORD”. This is His covenantal Name. He also says that He is the Holy One of Israel. To say He is “the Holy One” means He is God, but to add “Israel” means He is in covenant with them.


This is one example of the Bible having a covenant background without using the word. A man may speak often with his wife but he may go for a long time without saying, “You are my wife”, yet everything he says to her is in the context of their covenant of marriage. Do not make the mistake of thinking the word must appear for the concept to be present.  If we describe the contents of a room, we may list all the furniture, but we are likely to omit the air that fills the room. Covenant is like that; it is the ever present, often unstated setting in which God speaks to His people. (See 2 Corinthians 6:16 and Leviticus 26:12,13 for explicit covenant language.)



The Lord alleges their sin and guilt, v.4.  We would do well to see some difference.  Sin is any part of our experience in which we disobey, whether secretly in our hearts or outwardly with our hands.   Guilt has to do with the fact that sin transgresses the law of God. Guilt may be defined as God’s judicial ruling that disobedience has occurred. He judges sin as truly sinful and then curses the sinner as worthy of punishment.  In wrath, He acts to respond to it appropriately. Sin is in us, but guilt is established in God’s review of the conduct of His creatures. Shame is what we feel; but the declaration of “guilty” is God’s judicial indictment of sinners. Western society wants to be relieved of shame; we care what others think, yet having no fear of God, our world cares little about guilt. (Who cares what God thinks?) Justification is the complete and instantaneous removal of guilt from our record; sanctification is the process of purification of believers from the pollution of sin within. 


1:5      When Isaiah moves from verse 4 to 5, he does something that makes perfect sense to the Oriental mind, yet something not typical to Western communication. This is not W5: who, where, when, what, and why?  Isaiah simply states sin and then reports trouble. Every Chinese would get it; one is the reason for the other. In English we are used to a multitude of connecting words (“He is sick” instead of “he sick”). In this passage the two themes are simply positioned together without explaining the connection. That will happen a hundred times in Isaiah. The sin is the offense, and the other is the consequence, or more clearly, the Lord’s response to it. 


1:6-8  National Trauma      God’s judgment is presented as both a battered body and a destroyed country.  The first is figurative language in vv.5 & 6. The second in v.7 is absolutely literal. Vv. 5 & 6 use a metaphor; v.7 is literal, and v.8 employs a simile. According to vv.8 & 9, the destruction is not total. In the metaphor of vv. 5 & 6, one cannot tell that. (So we must remember the rule not to press figurative language further than intended by the author.) Though foreigners had overrun Judah the remaining hut in the melon patch was Jerusalem. In China one often sees in the field a little place for a farmer to have a rest in the shade. It is a very small part of the large field. Jerusalem was a city under siege, not much was left. Jerusalem was the name of the city, and Zion the name of the hill on which that city was built. 


1:9      The important point we must not miss is that in spite of many raiders going through their land, there was still a Jerusalem; there were survivors. Verse 9 introduces to us the theme of a remnant when it mentions survivors. Paul quotes Isaiah twice in Romans 9:27-29 saying only “a remnant will be saved” and indicates that 1:9 is saying the same thing. Every Jew should have said over and over; “For us it has not been like Sodom, but it could have been. The Lord has left us survivors but Sodom none.”  Here was the great mercy of the Lord Who could have destroyed them, except for His covenant with them. Wrath and mercy may co-exist in the dealings of God (Habakkuk 3:2). Sinners have the right only to wrath, but God has the right to extend mercy as He chooses (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:14-18).    


The Remnant      Throughout Isaiah we see that there is a division within the covenant people. Some are rebellious children (1:2), whereas some rely on the Lord: “In that day the remnant of Israel, the survivors of the house of Jacob …will truly rely on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel(10:20, note 10:20-23). Survivors is often a synonym in Isaiah for this remnant. Some nations, like Babylon will have none (14:22). In 6:11-13 the judgment of God is so great the nation is a tree cut down with only a stump remaining. Yet “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (11:1). Thus the remnant is characterized by faith (note “rely” above), and the only hope for surviving from the cut down tree is in the shoot that comes out of that stump. That shoot from the stump of Jesse is Christ.


Sodom & Gomorrah are mentioned twice, first in v.9 as the historical cities of Genesis 19, then in v.10 as a jarring description of Jerusalem. Those in early Sodom were not God’s people; there were no survivors. Lot did not belong to Sodom. The inhabitants of Jerusalem-Sodom were God’s people, God’s covenant breaking people. The Lord would deal with some as He did with the original Sodom, but on some He would have mercy. Lot’s wife, with Sodom in her heart, looked back longingly to it (Genesis 19:26; Luke 17:32). As a true Sodomite, she did not escape God’s judgment, though her husband was a righteous man (2 Peter 2:7). Jerusalem was not destroyed. Was it because it was morally better? When God refers to Jerusalem in v.10 as Sodom, moral superiority cannot be the reason for the survival of the remnant. The first Sodom was the Sodom God destroyed, but Jerusalem was the Sodom that God would turn into a righteous city (1:26).   


1:10-20 Corrupt Worship      This section denounces the immoral conduct of religious people. Ostensibly they were worshipping the Lord using His Name and sacrifices He prescribed. This they did on the schedule God required in His law. Yet such worship was contradicted by a policy of appalling sin without repentance. God’s rejection of their worship shows when He called things He had instituted as your New Moon Festivals. The Temple courts were God’s, but the evil assemblies were theirs. (Watch the possessive pronouns carefully.)   


This should show us something very important.  Sinners need to come for forgiveness; the sacrifices were for sinners!  Yet we cannot come without repenting of sin; such a coming is not coming in faith for forgiveness but in presumption to escape the consequences of sin. God is not fooled by such a strategy. We cannot use His worship to trick Him into blessing us. Yet our repentance does not merit forgiveness; only Jesus merits salvation for us. A true coming to the Lord (faith) entails turning from sin. The prophets will make very clear that there is acceptable and unacceptable worship. In vv.10-20, there is divine rejection. If we have someone who can approach God for us who is sinless and who offers a sacrifice that brings reconciliation, then in such a priest we will be accepted. With Christ we do have such a Great High Priest (Hebrews 8:1).


1:18-20      A clear note of gospel appears. Nothing in chapter 1 that precedes v.18 shows any softening in the wayward. Nevertheless, God announced that there will be cleansing from sin. A red stain in any material is very hard to remove, but God can get it out. He is confident of His ability to save. Red is the color of the hands of a murderer (v.15). Yet the sinfulness is so deliberate that nothing prior to this verse would make us expect this turnabout except for the hint that there will be survivors. Now we know why. Concerning this remnant, God will make covenant breakers to be obedient covenant keepers, a major change and a miracle. Some will remain rebels. Both snow and wool are naturally white. This may indicate a new nature given to sinners of such a kind that, when transformed, we naturally prefer obedience to sin. This is new covenant obedience (Ezekiel 36:26,27). Before any mention of their obedience in v.19, there was the announcement of their salvation. If we reverse this and make salvation to be on condition of our obedience, there will be neither obedience nor salvation. If obedience is instilled in us by the Lord, such new obedience is genuine.


1:21-26      The once faithful city had became a harlot, then it will be called the Faithful City again. This is one of the choice cryptic surprises of Isaiah. It follows the pattern of v.18, where God unilaterally and unexpectedly announced salvation. Here it is even more graphic. The list of sins in vv.21-23 is followed by the determination of God to react. Note, “I will get relief. I will turn my hand against you!” This is the language of vengeance. The reader of Isaiah expects the hand of God to come crashing down. Where did it go?  How does God get relief? Their impurity will be removed; the nation’s infrastructure will be restored, and it will be called the City of Righteousness. How can the fury of judgment be turned into salvation?  


One might think God relented and backed off from the justice due them for their sin, but the chapter claims that this redemption is done with justice. We cannot understand the Christian faith unless we can see how the justice of God has been satisfied concerning our sin, when we were indeed guilty before him. The question is not one of God’s patience, for patience cannot remove sin. Nor is it love, for justice must be expressed even in the case of those loved. It can never be that God punished the angels for their sin but lets us off because He likes us. Zion will be redeemed.   


The Two Sides of Redemption:      1) payment  and 2) possession thereby secured of whatever has been redeemed, resulting in freedom. Redemption is not liberation only, but payment to secure it. The word contains both cause and result, but, unlike modern usage, the two in Biblical language are inseparable. To say we are God’s redeemed people, means He has paid for us in the sacrifice of Christ, and having paid for us, we have become His possession. The attribute of God that is in the forefront of dealing with sin is justice. The love of God in our salvation is that God Who owed us no mercy, graciously provided the one Person Who could endure God’s justice for us, and the Lord Jesus willingly did so. The love of God results in His grace to us, while the justice of God demanded punishment of the sins of the sinners He loved. On the cross Jesus representing His people satisfied divine justice. Without such a loving provision in response to the demands of justice there could be no redemption at all.  

1:27      Will all in Zion be redeemed?  No, some will remain rebels and will end up not being Zion at all. Remember Zion will be redeemed, so those not redeemed will in the end simply be no longer part of it. The holy city in the end is still called Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2). Redeemed Mount Zion is the current city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22). All covenant breakers will be saved or removed. Here the Scripture presents us with a great division of souls.  Some in the heritage of Israel are not Israel at all, Romans 9:6: “…For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” The reverse is that some who are not God’s people become His redeemed people (Romans 9:25). And so, Zion will be redeemed with justice.” That is a declarative sentence, not an exhortation. It is an announced statement of inexorable divine intention, which, with God, is simply a fact. With God fulfillment of His word is as certain as that the past has happened. Zion will be redeemed.   


God’s Announcements of Salvation      God states His plans, which are unlike ours, because He is able and determined to carry out His. Three similar statements in Isaiah 1 show His commitment to act on behalf of His covenant people.


1.)   Jerusalem had survivors (v.9); Sodom had none. This is not an announcement of a future mercy. It is a statement by God’s prophet of the Lord having already preserved His people.


2.)   “They shall be as white as snow” (v.18).  Their sins were pictured as red stains. God abruptly announced  that sinners would become white like snow. His announcement came with no reason given for this transformation. God simply said what He would do. Only then did the Lord mention their response in vv.19,20.


3.)   In this announcement (vv.24-28) God’s well-deserved vengeance against them suddenly turns to purging and removal of sin. The adulterous city would become faithful. Zion will be redeemed” is a strong assertion of irrevocable divine intervention. Zion’s natural response to God had been rebellion. Their sin is a repeated theme throughout chapters 1-3. They sinned with hardness of heart (1:2-4), but God said He would redeem. Chapters 1& 4 make it clear that it is the remnant He intends to save. In 1:27 they are described as penitent having a change of heart neither typical nor natural for them. Their repentance is not explained here. The absolute assertion of what God will do is dominant in His announcements. A change of heart was needed, but it was not the cause of their redemption. It is the result.


1:28-31 The Rebels      Isaiah 1 begins and closes with rebels, which shows that it is a unit. The good news just heard will not be theirs. Those who forsake the Lord will perish. Rebellion remains their settled decision. God saves by changing hearts, but with no obligation to save anyone, He passes others by leaving them to their freely chosen course in life and eternity. He leaves them in their rebellion. Their delights are in the pagan gardens of wine, women, song, idolatry and whatever else is forbidden. (See 65:2-7.) Those lush wooded areas were often the scene of idolatry and prostitution. They will turn into tinder dry places which the fire of God’s wrath will consume (Hebrews 12:29). Isaiah ends in 66:24 with unquenchable fire, and so does Isaiah 1. (In Mark 9:48 Jesus quoted Isaiah 66:24 to speak of hell.)


Clearly this chapter is a real introduction, a foretaste of all that is to come.  It speaks of covenant breaking, many specific sins, current chastening, perverse worship, judgment, salvation, and eternal damnation. It has left us so far to wonder how God will do this and Who the Redeemer is, but Isaiah will not leave that out. Isaiah’s name means “The Lord saves”.  Soon we will read of One who will be called, Emmanuel, “God with Us”.  Before he is finished, Isaiah will tell us how the justice of God will be satisfied, “It was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer … the Lord makes His life a guilt offering…” (53:10). The Redeemer in the Book of Isaiah is our Lord Jesus Christ. He fulfils His assignment from His Father (49:6). The result is: “Arise, shine, for your light [Israel’s] has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. [Gentile] Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:1-3).