Isaiah by the Day: A Conversation with Alec Motyer
Our church calendar---indeed, our very salvation---hinges on the promises of Isaiah. We turn during Christmas to worshiping God with Us (Is. 7:14), the child called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6-7). We turn on Good Friday and Easter to remembering the Suffering Servant (Is. 52:13-53:12). Every day we give thanks to the preacher who brings good news to the poor (Is. 61:1-3). And by the power of Jesus' Resurrection all who believe will one day enjoy fellowship with him in the new heavens and new earth (Is. 65:17-25).
The distinguished scholar and expositor Alec Motyer has recently released Isaiah By the Day, which includes a fresh translation of Isaiah and opportunities to learn more about this book through author notes and devotional comments. You pick up the book now from WTS for $19.99. Formerly principal of Trinity College, Bristol, Motyer writes in the preface to this devotional translation:
Welcome to Isaiah! I send you this invitation as one who loves everything about him---the way he writes, his mastery of words, the rhythmic beauty of his Hebrew and, above all, the magnificent sweep of his messianic vision, taking in the glory of Jesus as God and King, the wonder and fullness of the salvation he accomplished, and the shining hope of his coming again. I want to share all this with you so that you may become as indebted to Isaiah as I feel myself to be. His book is as much the crown of the Old Testament as the Epistle to the Hebrews is of the New Testament---and for the same reason. Isaiah saw the coming King, Savior and Conqueror; Hebrews knew him as Jesus. May the Lord God bless you richly as you read this tremendous portion of his Word.
I corresponded with Motyer to learn more about how to read and teach this spectacular Old Testament book. When you've finished reading, be sure to check out our new page of resources on Preaching Christ in Isaiah, complete with sermons, articles, workshops, and books by Tim Keller, David Jackman, D. A. Carson, Alistair Begg, and many others.
What is the chief way Isaiah stands out in the biblical canon?
The book of Isaiah is unique in its sustained concentration on the Messianic theme. While other prophets forecast the Messiah in one way or another, Isaiah constructs a whole book on this one theme.
His "preface" (chs. 1-5) introduces the topic of the return of David (e.g., 1:26) that is then developed in the detailed portrait of the coming King (chs. 6-12; e.g., 9:1-7). Isaiah 9:7 includes the vision of world dominion, which then becomes the topic of the "Davidic Panorama" of chs. 13-27. In case we should still question whether such a vision is realistic, however, Isaiah turns to a period of history in which the leading protagonists of the Davidic Panorama (19:24-25) did actually meet (chs. 28-36) and in which Yahweh's absolute sovereignty over history and nations was proved. The inadequacies Hezekiah displayed at the time of the Assyrian attack (chs. 36-37) come to a head in the cardinal sin of deserting the way of faith for the way of works (chs. 38-39), but no sooner has doom been pronounced on this (39:5-7) than the command goes out to proclaim comfort (40:1). This then develops into the ministry of the Messianic Servant of the Lord and the completed work of salvation (52:13-53:12), with the Servant's ministry including the overthrow of his opponents (e.g., 42:13). This task devolves on one whom Isaiah foresees as the Anointed Conqueror (e.g., 63:1-6) by which redemption and vengeance are alike consummated and the New Heavens and New Earth created (chs. 56-66).
Thus the Isaianic Literature is one book with one closely integrated theme.
You say, "Isaiah saw the coming King, Savior, and Conqueror." In what ways might Jesus' arrival have been surprising to Isaiah?
I'm not entirely sure. Certainly one thing the Lord Jesus did was sort out Isaiah's predictions along a timeline. Isaiah sees the threefold Messianic portrait as one whole, but, thanks to the Lord Jesus, we can with hindsight now recognize that Isaiah was speaking of the first and second comings of the Messiah. Further, Isaiah foresaw the Messiah as both a return of David and a coming of Yahweh himself to save (52:10; 53:1). But would Isaiah have been surprised that Jesus was actually the Son of God---not just notionally so as had been the Davidic kings (Ps. 2:7)? I guess I'll ask him when I get to heaven!
It seems so obvious to Christians that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 fits Jesus. So how can we help our neighbors---especially our Jewish friends---to make this connection?
In the case of Jews, I am told that one must start by making sure they know that Isaiah is part of the canon of Holy Scripture. Beyond that lies the painstaking work of comparing Old Testament predictions with New Testament fulfillment in order to display the perfect "match." For example, comparing Isaiah 50:4-9 with the sufferings of Jesus, or comparing the contrast between "wicked men" and the "rich man" in Isaiah 53:9 with the circumstances of the burial of the Lord.
If someone wants to teach or preach Christ in such a long and powerful book as Isaiah, where would you suggest he begin?
The whole book can readily be introduced in one sermon---even more readily if one has the opportunity for a 60-minute lecture. The problem with all books of the Bible is that it's easy to lose sight of the forest as one ambles through the trees. The method useful for any biblical book, then, works for Isaiah too: set up signposts. Start by introducing King, Servant, and Conqueror using just one verse or short passage each; proceed to show how the whole book hangs together along the lines of my answer to the first question above. Consider giving the congregation handouts covering these two overall approaches, coupled with selected passages with brief notes for seven days' readings.
How do you hope this devotional translation will help readers see Isaiah in a new way?
First, the translation is designedly "basic"---as "literal" as possible. It should therefore act as a corrective to the paraphrases or the paraphrastic tendencies of most modern translations by bringing the reader as close to the Hebrew as possible in a translation. Second, since it's quite easy to get lost in such a long book, the headings, analyses, and introductory notes---along with the marginal explanations---are designed to keep the reader on track as Isaiah develops his successive themes.
Isaiah wrote a book; he didn't leave unedited collections or anthologies. I want to help people to read Isaiah as a book---with a single theme and a coherent development.