Most Christians believe that the book of Isaiah was written by one person, the prophet Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem in the eighth century B.C. This belief is based on two factors. First, people believe that Isaiah wrote the whole book because the book bears his name.
Second, people believe that Isaiah spoke about the coming Messiah and thus, to deny that Isaiah was the author of the book is to deny the inspiration of the Bible. Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible believe that, if the Bible says Isaiah wrote the book, then to deny that Isaiah wrote his book is to deny the inerrancy of the Bible.
This view, however, is misleading for two reasons. The Bible is the inspired word of God even though Isaiah did not write the whole book of Isaiah. Second, just because the name of a person is on the title page of a book, it does not mean that that person wrote the book. Let me explain.
In the Old Testament we have the book of Samuel, more precisely, we have 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel. But 1 Samuel 25:1 says: “Now Samuel died.” But 1 Samuel continues through Chapter 31 and then there is 2 Samuel. If Samuel died in Chapter 25:1, who wrote the rest of the book? We do not know and that is not important, because whoever wrote the book of Samuel was as inspired to write the book as if Samuel had written the whole book himself.
Another example. In Joshua 4:14 the Bible says: “On that day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they stood in awe of him, as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life.” The text says that all Israel honored Joshua all the days of his life. The book is saying that the book of Joshua was written many years after the death of Joshua.
If the book is called the book of Joshua and Joshua was already dead when the book was written, is the book less inspired because Joshua did not write his own book? Of course not.
In writing about the authorship of Joshua, John Calvin wrote: “As to the Author of this Book, it is better to suspend our judgment than to make random assertions. Those who think that it was Joshua, because his name stands on the title page, rest on weak and insufficient grounds.” Even Calvin recognized that the book of Joshua was not written by Joshua.
Many people dispute the assertion that the book of Isaiah was the result of the work of the prophet and his disciples. In the eighth century B.C., when King Ahaz of Judah rejected his advice, Isaiah retreated from his public ministry. Isaiah wrote: “Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him” (Isaiah 8:16-17).
Isaiah had disciples who preserved and continued his ministry. The work of one of his disciples is found in Isaiah 40-66. Because we do not know his name, we call him Deutero-Isaiah (or Second-Isaiah). Deutero-Isaiah was a disciple of Isaiah who lived in exile in Babylon. He preserved the teachings of his master and when the need arose among the exiles, he proclaimed a message of hope and deliverance.
In the first part of the book of Isaiah, the people of Israel are still in their land, ruled by a king from the house of David. But in Isaiah 40–55, the people are in exile, Jerusalem is in ruins, the temple is destroyed.
When Deutero-Isaiah wrote about the work of Cyrus, the king of Persia, the prophet said that Cyrus would do God’s work and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple:
“This is what the LORD says . . . who says of Jerusalem ‘It shall be inhabited,’ of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be built,’ and of their ruins ‘I will restore them,’ . . . who says of Cyrus ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please’; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid’” (Isaiah 44:24-28 NIV).
The promise that Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt is not a prediction that these events will happen many years into the future. Rather, they reflect a historical situation that exists in the present. This is also reflected in God’s promise to the people in Babylon:
“Though you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste, now you will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away” (Isaiah 49:19 NIV).
“The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins” (Isaiah 51:3 NIV).
During their captivity in Babylon, the people of Israel had lost their hope of deliverance and many of them lost their confidence that God could deliver them. They said: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ezekiel 37:11).
In the midst of despair Deutero-Isaiah and Ezekiel gave the people hope for the future; their message encouraged them to continue believing in God. Without the ministry of these two prophets, the people of Israel would perish in their despondency, without a hope for the future.
The call of Deutero-Isaiah is found in Isaiah 40:1-11. The Lord called the prophet and sent him with a message of comfort to the people. His message must be understood in the despair of the exile. The despair of Israel is expressed in the book of Lamentation:
“She [Jerusalem] weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:2).
“Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:17).
Five times the poet says in Lamentations that there is no one to comfort the people of Judah, no one that is, until Deutero-Isaiah came proclaiming a message of hope and comfort:
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Her term of service is the exile. Jerusalem had received a severe punishment because of her sins. Such a proclamation could only be made after the fall of Jerusalem. Deutero-Isaiah comes proclaiming the end of exile and the return home to Israel.
The end of exile is only possible because of God’s faithful promise. God told the prophet: “Proclaim!” And he asked: “What shall I proclaim?” (Isaiah 40:6 TNK). And the response from God affirms God’s faithfulness to his promises: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).
The constancy of the people does not last; it is like the flower of the field that withers and dies. Only the word of God, his promises to save and deliver his people, stands forever.
The message of Deutero-Isaiah is a message that God has come to redeem his people from their exile: “You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God’” (Isaiah 40:9 NIV).
Deutero-Isaiah is a herald of good news. The people who are now living in the darkness of exile are promised the light of a new day. Deutero-Isaiah proclaims a message of consolation to a hopeless and despairing people. The people have suffered severely for their sins, but that now is in the past.
After almost seventy years in exile, God comes to “speak to the heart of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 40:2) and through the prophet, he speaks a message of grace and deliverance: “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:8).
One of the central motifs in the message of Israel is that the liberation of Israel will be a New Exodus. In my next study I will go into more detail about the concept of the second Exodus in the message of Deutero-Isaiah. The message of redemption that Deutero-Isaiah is to speak to the people in Babylon is a message of liberation. Israel will once again be redeemed from their heavy time of service in the same way Israel was redeemed from the house of bondage in Egypt.
The exodus from Egypt was the most important event in the history of Israel. The exodus from Egypt was the time when Israel was born as a nation and received its mission to be God’s people in the world. Deutero-Isaiah declares that the liberation of Israel from their exile in Babylon marks a new beginning in which Yahweh will establish a new relationship with Israel. Yahweh’s new relationship with Israel is a renewal of Israel’s mission, a mission that involves the redemption of the nations.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on the Exile of Israel