I have spent a lot of time in Isaiah recently for several projects and was directed to Andrew Abernethy’s The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom to consider more deeply some of the issues I raised with Abernethy and Goswell’s recent book, God’s Messiah in the Old Testament. (I read the kindle edition of The Book of Isaiah, to which the locs below refer.) In The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom, part of IVP’s “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series, Abernethy argues that God’s kingdom provides a matrix for seeing the unity of Isaiah’s prophecies and the big picture of the book. He considers the books three sections, 1-39, 40-55, 56-66, showing how key texts concerning God as Kingdom provide interpretive clues to these sections. In Chapters 1 – 3, Abernethy considers these key texts. In Chapter 4, he then considers the three agents presented in each section of Isaiah (the Davidic king in 1-39, the Servant, in 40-55, and the messenger in 56-66) as the agents through which God’s kingdom purpose is achieved. He maintains that these agents are not identified with one another in the book of Isaiah. They are “unexpectedly” seen to be fulfilled by the one man, Jesus Christ (loc 2617, 3023). Chapter 5 concludes the book by considering the “realm” or place of God’s kingdom, both the world and Zion, and the people of God, primarily Israel but with the inclusion of the Gentiles indicated throughout the book.
Much is good about this book; I commend it as a resource for getting a big picture view of Isaiah’s message and the kingdom theme that runs through it. Abernethy hopes to give the reader a map for navigating the book’s difficult terrain; I believe he does so (e.g. loc. 3818). Some of the methodological problems I usually raise in my Old Testament reviews emerge here, such as reading Isaiah 40-55 against the background of the Enuma Elish (locs 1445-1637; cf. my reviews of The God of the Old Testament, Chaos and Cosmos, and this article on Biblical background material) and attempting to integrate a reading of the Old Testament with the New instead of reading the two in dialogue (cf. my review of God’s Messiah and The God of the Old Testament). I do not believe these issues significantly affect Abernethy’s argument in the book, except in Chapter 4, where he maintains the distinction of the three “lead agents.”
In Chapter 4, he dismisses the argument of several writers that there are thematic links connecting the Davidic king of Isaiah 1-39 with the Suffering Servant of 40-55, and perhaps with the messenger of 56-66. I am not convinced that he shows them to be distinct, nor that reading them as fulfilled in the same person would force them “into one mould” (loc 2299). On the contrary, we can recognize three separate portraits and acknowledge their difference while maintaining that they are three distinct perspectives on one individual’s work, as the New Testament fulfilment shows. Against the thematic links between these agents, he argues that these links can be explained by the fact that all three figures are agents in “God’s ‘divine rule’” (e.g. loc 3005). However, I do not think he gives any persuasive reason not to identify the figures. For example, he argues that the agent in 61:1-3 does not suffer to fulfil God’s purpose (loc. 3077). However, this is hardly a reason to deny his identity with the Servant: if we had other reasons to believe they were the same, then we can allow that each set of passages portrays the same Servant from a different perspective, as the New Testament fulfilment indicates. If we accept that each section may describe the same person and his work in different ways, the question then becomes, do we have reason to identify the three? In response, we have several. All three are related to the eschatological establishment of God’s kingdom, so parsimony would suggest that if all three are coordinated; perhaps they are identical. This is strengthened by thematic similarities, such as the explicit anointing with the Spirit (11:1-2; 42:1; 61:1-3). Stepping back, we see that all three are fulfilled in the same person, Jesus Christ, so we should be inclined to find them identified if there are literary reasons to do so, which there appears to be. In addition to this evidence, it is also arguable that both the Servant and the Davidic king are identified with Yahweh, which connects them even more closely. Depending on how one reads the flow of Chapter 61, we may include the messenger here as well (61:8-11).
However, Abernethy assumes a priori that “it seems unlikely that Isaiah would conceptualize a Davidic ruler as being divine” (loc 2415); this begs the question. Isaiah 9:1-7 certainly seems to do so, and I think the simplest reading of Isaiah 53:1 identifies a man with Yahweh (cf. Motyer’s commentary and my own Prevenient Grace). If a case can be made that Isaiah 7:14ff refers to the future, miraculous birth of a child in David’s line (as I argue in a paper I am working on getting published), then the case for 9:1-7 would be strengthened. That is, the child who is named “the Mighty God” is most likely Immanuel, “God with us.” The point is, we have little reason to think that Isaiah could not have believed that the future Davidic king would be Yahweh himself. If we permit this as a possibility, this provides further evidence for identifying the Davidic king in Isaiah 1-39 with the Servant in Isaiah 40-55, for 7:14-9:6 and 53:1-2 arguably identify both agents with Yahweh. Therefore, if we allow the New Testament to dialogue with the Old Testament in our interpretation and we are open to surprising conclusions in our Old Testament exegesis, such that Isaiah may have prophesied about the incarnation (God coming as a Davidic king, suffering Servant, and anointed messenger), we can construct a good argument that Isaiah not only identifies the three lead agents with one another but also with Yahweh. However, the manner of this identity is opaque in the book.
This disagreement aside, I think The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom does the reader a great service. It fulfils its purpose, to give the reader a map for navigating this complex but beautiful book. For this reason, I commend it to the reader.