The book of Isaiah is a book of prophecy in the tradition, or school of Isaiah.
The book as we know it today in the Bible is actually a collection of writings which represent a tradition that extended over a span of some three hundred years. The whole text can be sub-divided into three major parts: (i) Isaiah 1-39, for the most part, presenting the teaching of the prophet himself, who laboured in Jerusalem from 740 until sometime after 701 B.C.; (ii) Isaiah 40-55 (generally referred to as Deutero-Isaiah (second -Isaiah)), containing the oracles of another prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, who announced God’s word to the exiles in Babylon sometime between 550 and 539 B.C.; and (iii) Isaiah 56-66, Trito-Isaiah (third Isaiah), reflecting the same tradition at a later stage in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the arrival of Ezra and Nehemiah, perhaps around 500 B.C.
Isaiah is often considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets because of the sheer range and vision of his prophecy. As I wrote in my post on the Eucharist, words have great meaning and power for the Hebrews. Thus their names are more than mere labels; they tell the identity, the significance, the sign-value of the person who bears them (hence the significance of the divine name of God for example). The name Isaiah means “God is salvation” and what is most extraordinary perhaps about this book is that it contains prophecies of Jesus, so numerous, so beautiful and so much more famous than any other prophet, that it has been referred to as the “Gospel of Isaiah”.
Isaiah has also been called “the Shakespeare of the prophets”, for his poetic turn of phrase rivalled only by Job and Psalms for poetic grandeur. At least ten of Isaiah’s passages have become unforgettable to all English-speaking peoples, immortalised in Handel’s world famous oratorio, The Messiah: 11:1-5; 7:14; 40:9; 60:2-3; 9:2; 9:6; 35:6-6; 40:11; 53:3-6; 53:8.
This prophet and his followers lived long before Christ, yet the detailed prophecies of the life of Christ we find in Isaiah are far more numerous and far more specific than anything else in the Bible. At least seventeen of them were fulfilled in truly remarkable detail.
Take the time to look up the following seventeen passages. These are only part of the more than three hundred different prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Christ. Even though the New Testament writers (especially Matthew) deliberately used the style and language of Old Testament prophecies to describe events in the life of Christ—as a modern preacher might use the King James English to describe current events—the statistical odds that one man could fulfil all of these prophecies so completely is not much better than the odds that a monkey could type out Isaiah by randomly throwing marbles at a computer keyboard. Compare:-
1). Isaiah 7:14 with Matthew 1:22-23;
2). Isaiah 9:1-2 with Matthew 4:12-16;
3). Isaiah 9:6 with Luke 2:11 (see also Ephesians 2:14-18);
4). Isaiah 11:1 with Luke 3:23, 32 and Acts 13:22-23;
5). Isaiah 11:2 with Luke 3:22;
6). Isaiah 28:16 with 1 Peter 2:4-6;
7). Isaiah 40:3-5 with Matthew 3:1-3;
8). Isaiah 42:1-4 with Matthew 12:15-21;
9). Isaiah 42:6 with Luke 2:29-32;
10). Isaiah 50:6 with Matthew 26:26, 30, 67;
11). Isaiah 52:14 with Philippians 2:7-11;
12). Isaiah 53:3 with Luke 23:18 and John 1:11; 7:5;
13). Isaiah 53:4 with romans 5:6, 8;
14). Isaiah 53:7 with Matthew 27:12-14, John 1:29 and 1 Peter 1:18-19;
15). Isaiah 53:9 with Matthew 27:57-60;
16). Isaiah 53:12 with Mark 15:28; and
17). Isaiah 61:1-2 with Luke 4:17-21.
One of the most salient texts in Deutero-Isaiah, are the four Songs of the Lord’s Servant (42: 1-9; 49: 1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). The theme and tone that these texts share distinguish them from the rest of Deutero-Isaiah. The fact that each of them can be removed from its present context without interrupting the general flow of the text suggests that they were composed in light of each other and that together they comprise an independent collection. However, it is important to note that there exists a development of theme in them along the lines of the major portions of Deutero-Isaiah.
The first Servant Song (42:1-9) speaks of the servant’s call to ministry in a manner consistent with the international perspective characteristic of the first stage of prophet’s ministry under the shadow of Cyrus’ advance (the Persian king who, at the time of Deutero-Isaiah, had overthrown the Medes and was advancing against Babylon) cf. 41:1-48:22. By comparison, the remaining three Servant Songs (49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) reflect a personal aspect of suffering and affliction that corresponds with the tenor of the stressful days of restoration (49:1-54:17).
Disciples of the prophet produced their final version of the text prior to 515 B.C. The last editors of the complete Isaian collection located it in its present setting in the book when they completed the whole work between 450 and 400 B.C.
Scholars still debate who the Servant is: Israel, Cyrus or the prophet himself are all mooted as candidates. Closer analysis indicates that the Songs refer to Deutero-Isaiah himself, but they also point beyond him to the perfect Servant whom God will send in the future (42:1-12; cf. 9:1-6; 11:1-9).
The literary form of the Servant Songs derives from the “Confessions” of Jeremiah (Jer 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18). Indeed, the witness of Jeremiah’s prophetic career and suffering introduces the theme of the last three Songs (Is 49:1; cf. Jer 1:5; Is 50:4-11; cf. Jer 20:7-13; Is 53:7; cf. Jer 11:19). Each Song indicates a development in the prophet’s vocation.