Book Review: The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom
Isaiah is a very familiar book to many of us; at least certain portions of it. The book is filled with a number of highly quoted verses. That being the case, I do wonder how many people remain generally ignorant of the main thrust of the book. In The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom, Andrew Abernethy helps give a big picture overview of the book by taking us through how Isaiah teaches us about God coming as a saving, warrior king who establishes his kingdom.
The book itself is the 40th volume in the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series put out by IVP. Abernethy’s goal in writing the book was not to offer a conclusive study on the theology of Isaiah for academics, but rather to be a helpful guide for “pastors and students engaged in biblical and theological training” (Abernethy, p.5). While some discussions may be a little more intellectually demanding, Abernethy fulfills his goal of writing a more approachable overview of Isaiah. In his introduction, he briefly discusses some of the contentions around the book itself and places himself as a more conservatively minded biblical theologian. By that I mean he views Isaiah as the work of one author and argues for the internal cohesiveness in the development of Isaiah’s theological narrative; it is the work of one (human) author with one story.
The book itself contains five chapters that fit rather nicely into three different sections. The first three chapters look at God as he is revealed in each of the three sections of Isaiah. The fourth chapter looks at three of the agents that God uses in Isaiah. The last chapter takes a more focused look at the realm of God’s kingdom and the people of the kingdom. These chapters are bookended by an introduction and brief conclusion.
Chapter 1, God, the king now and to come in Isaiah 1 - 39, looks at the narrative flow of first Isaiah. Abernethy focuses in on the centrality of Isaiah 6 to this book. We peek into the throne room of God and see a picture of the thrice Holy One in all of his glory. This is central to understanding the judgment brought against God’s own people (chapters 1-12) and even against the entire world (chapters 13-39). Glimmers of hope are offered as God also speaks about the future state of his kingdom, as King over all the nations, where he will bring blessing to those who trust him and cursing to this who don’t. While the judgment of the thrice holy God is coming, there is still hope for all who trust him.
Chapter 2, God, the only saving king in Isaiah 40-55, looks at the narrative flow of second Isaiah. Abernethy focuses in on the need to be saved from judgment. When Israel was sent into exile, they were in need of a saving king to deliver them. Isaiah looks at the Egyptian gods, Baal, and Marduk and compares the Holy One to each of these pagan gods. The Holy One of Israel is set apart as superior to these gods, and most importantly, Israel’s only hope for deliverance. The people’s sins must be atoned for in order to be saved, and God has made a way possible for this salvation.
Chapter 3, God, the warrior, international and compassionate king in Isaiah 56-66, looks at the narrative flow of third Isaiah. Abernethy focuses in on the need to subdue enemies and establish justice. This justice is not just for the people of God, but it is international, even cosmic in scope. The reason that the Holy One does this work is that he would condescend to love his people. For a people coming out of exile and bondage, God is committing himself to making all things right. The work of God in judging sin and saving a sinful people is to establish an eschatological kingdom, one marked by peace and justice.
Now that the three main divisions of Isaiah have been described, chapter 4, the lead agents of the king, looks at vessels by which God will accomplish his goals. The three agents correspond to the three divisions of Isaiah. In first Isaiah, the Davidic ruler is the lead agent. In second Isaiah the Servant is the lead agent. And finally in third Isaiah, the Messenger is the lead agent. Abernethy contends that these three agents are distinct from one another and have different roles and functions in the narratives. He does maintain that all three of these agents find their fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ, but he insists that the agents must be understood in distinction from each other.
The last chapter, chapter 5, the realm and the people of God’s kingdom, looks at Isaiah in its entirety in order to learn about the place and people of God’s kingdom. Abernethy argues that place and people go together, so if God is going to gather a people to himself, God will create a place for his people. The place of the kingdom is looked at through a bifocal lens. In a broad sense, God’s kingdom is the entire cosmos; in a narrow sense, God’s kingdom is going to revolve around Zion, his holy city. The people of God will be a purified and redeemed people. In order to dwell in the midst of a holy God the people must be holy. This holiness will result in the people being obedient, just, and characterized by their trust in God. This people will also be the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham; a people of every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Abernethy does a good job building a clear argument throughout the book. Major sections in each chapter are closed off by a conclusion and considerations for interpreting the text in light of the rest of scripture. Whether or not you agree with all of his arguments, he does a good job in explaining himself clearly. One of the other features of the book is his appendix where gives two general outlines for how to preach through Isaiah. Abernethy’s goal is not to write for intellectual accomplishment but to be applied to the readers. He has written a very helpful book toward that end.
In closing, Isaiah is a book about a king and his people. This king comes in judgement against his people, but because of his great love, he delivers them from judgment. When he brings about the deliverance of his people, he establishes an eschatological kingdom around himself and transforms his people into sons after his own likeness: holy, just, and pure. In short, Isaiah is about Jesus Christ, the God-man, who dwells in the midst of his people and transforms them into his bride. And the two will become one. Isaiah is about the marriage feast of the Lamb of God.