In Isaiah 39, written around 700 BC, King Hezekiah of Judah was told that his people and his sons would go into captivity in Babylon. Beginning in Isaiah 40, Isaiah prophesies the deliverance from that captivity, a prophecy fulfilled around 535 BC, some 150-175 years later. In that prophecy, he actually names the ruler who God would use to release the children of Judah from their captivity, Cyrus of Persia, as seen in chapters 44 and 45. I discussed that prophecy in an earlier article.
There is more about Cyrus in these chapters, and I’d like to write on some of it. But it is perhaps helpful first to note the different sections of Isaiah.
The first 39 chapters deal with Israel and the surrounding nations in the time of Isaiah. It’s not my purpose to break this down in any depth, but some key themes include:
- the failure of the nation to be what it should have been
- the wickedness and unbelief of Ahaz
- promises of the Messiah who will eventually come
- prophecies of the coming Assyrian invasion
- the judgment of the nations
- warnings against trusting in Egypt
- Hezekiah’s faith in the face of Assyrian power
- the prophecy of captivity in Babylon
In chapter 40, the focus shifts from Isaiah’s time to far into the future. These 27 chapters tell the story of Israel after the Babylonian captivity, and are divided into three sections (of nine chapters each).
In each of these sections, you see the themes of God’s faithfulness, the coming Messiah, the ultimate restoration of Israel, and the judgment of those who will not believe and obey. Because these (and other themes) can be seen throughout, not every commentator will see the sections of chapters 40-66 that I’ll delineate here, but the final verses of chapters 48 and 57 hint at a division, and the content of the chapters has a distinct change in focus.
The first section, chapters 40-48, is focused on the return from the Babylonian captivity, and the means by which God is going to accomplish it. There is a strong emphasis on God being the only God — thus, He is the One who can declare what is going to happen before it happens.
Chapter 48 closes this section with several themes that we see repeated in chapters 57 and 66. Israel has been wicked:
Yea, thou heardest not; yea, thou knewest not; yea, from that time that thine ear was not opened: for I knew that thou wouldest deal very treacherously, and wast called a transgressor from the womb.
But God is God:
For my name’s sake will I defer mine anger, and for my praise will I refrain for thee, that I cut thee not off.
They could have had peace, and no captivity:
O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea:
But they would not:
There is no peace, saith the LORD, unto the wicked.
The second section is primarily focused on the Saviour. It foreshadows Israel’s unbelief and the salvation of the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:5-7). It describes the work of the Saviour in Isaiah 53. In chapter 55, it says that His Word will not return void — surely a reference to the Scripture, but perhaps given the context this is also a reference to the Word of John 1, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Chapter 57, closing this section, has the same themes as chapter 48, closing the last section.
Israel has been wicked:
3 But draw near hither, ye sons of the sorceress, the seed of the adulterer and the whore….
10 Thou art wearied in the greatness of thy way; yet saidst thou not, There is no hope: thou hast found the life of thine hand; therefore thou wast not grieved.
But God is God:
For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
God still offers peace:
I create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the LORD; and I will heal him.
But there is still no peace to the wicked:
There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.
Though parts of chapter 57 are very similar to chapter 48, there are differences. Chapter 48 says Israel could have had peace, while chapter 57 offers peace to those afar off as well. Thus, chapter 57 points to the work of the Saviour for Gentiles and Jews. Chapters 48 and 57 close with an identical statement, but in the first, it is made by the Lord Jehovah. In this section, which deals with the redeeming work Jesus, it is “my God” who makes the statement. Perhaps it is here personalised to highlight that this section, centred on chapter 53, focuses primarily on personal salvation, as opposed to a national relationship.
This final section of Isaiah looks forward to the eventual complete restoration of Israel and the final events of human history. Throughout these chapters there are many references to Messiah’s kingdom and the coming final judgment. Chapter 65 tells us of the new heavens and new earth for the first time, a promise repeated in chapter 66.
There are also echoes here in chapter 66 of the themes of chapters 48 and 57.
Israel has been wicked:
He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine’s blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations.
But God is God, and offers peace:
For thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream: then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon her sides, and be dandled upon her knees.
Yet, there is no peace to the wicked:
And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.
The stark warning in the last verse of chapters 48 and 57 finds its ultimate fulfillment in that final verse of chapter 66. The “peace like a river” that Israel had lost (chapter 48) will be extended to Israel again (chapter 66), and beyond Israel. The source of that peace is found in the centre chapter of the middle section (and thus the centre chapter of these last 27), which says (53:5), “The chastisement of our peace was upon Him,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
What About Cyrus?
This post is a “laying a foundation” post. I hope it helps you understand the flow of the book of Isaiah when you read it, and perhaps motivates you to read it, or at least give chapters 40-66 a try, if you’ve never read them. 40-48 are the restoration from Babylon chapters, 49-57 the chapters telling of a Saviour, 58-66 the chapters of the final restoration and final judgment. If you read with that in view, you’ll find a lot of things fit together that might not have done so before.
The main reason for this article, however, is to sharpen our focus on chapters 40-48, the “restoration from Babylon” section, written by Isaiah 150-175 years before that restoration. It is written in the time when God’s people could have had “peace like a river” and had instead chosen a different way. It says that even so, He will be faithful to His promises. They must pay a price for their sin, so the Babylonian captivity is coming, but God definitely will bring them back.
In these chapters, God wants them to know that the coming captivity, and the coming restoration, are His work. He is God alone, and they must not worship idols any longer. He’s going to tell them how He is going to accomplish it, so they will not doubt His power and His work.
That’s why God named Cyrus in this section, so that those Jews, more than a century later, would see God’s hand in Cyrus’ decree sending them back from their captivity. And that means we shouldn’t be surprised to see more about Cyrus than just his name, if we look a little further in chapters 40-48.
More to come….
Series Summary: Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy