Isaiah: The Gospel of God’s Holiness

Apr 12, 2023Blog

Isaiah: The Gospel of God’s Holiness

The Book of Isaiah is a masterpiece of ancient literature and a supernova of divine revelation. 

As ancient literature, many aspects of Isaiah’s prophecies – both in content and in form – are only understood within their original context and provenance. This can make the book quite difficult, and even bewildering at points, for modern readers. As a recognized prophet of the 8th century, Isaiah had access to the royal courts in Jerusalem. He boldly addressed kings (see 1:1; 7-8; 36-39) and courtiers (3:14-25; 10:1-4; 28:14-16; etc.) ruling under the shadow of a rising Assyrian empire. But Isaiah was also an extraordinarily far-seeing prophet, who spoke of geo-political and spiritual realities well beyond his lifetime. The principal series of future events the prophet so vividly foresaw was the Babylonian exile of Judah in the late 6th century (39:5-7), and the people’s subsequent return to the land under a Medo-Persian emperor named Cyrus (45:1-13) in 538 BC.

With an impressive portfolio of fulfilled predictions regarding the fate of nations and empires, Isaiah proved to be a true prophet of God within his own generation. With divine sanction, then, he addresses a coming generation of God’s people with the same message he spoke to his contemporaries: Trust in the Lord alone to save (7:3-9; 26:4; 28:16; 45:15-25; etc.). This future audience appears to include not only post-exilic Israel (40:1ff), but even modern readers like us, as it predicts the coming of Christ, the good news that would be proclaimed to all peoples, and the consummation of all things (see 24-25). The scope of Isaiah’s prophetic work is breathtaking.

Having said this, as Isaiah switches back and forth between events far and near, his readers might well become confused. Martin Luther humorously commented on the prophets’ “queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them,” (Luther’s Works, Volume 19, 350). But if we are careful, and slow down in our reading to consider both the historical and canonical context of Isaiah’s work, we will, I hope, be able to make out the head and the tail.

Another feature of the book that is potentially confusing – or better put, whiplashing – is the back and forth between terrifying judgment and fantastic redemption (read 1:2-4:6). This back and forth doesn’t let up as the book unfolds, but only seems to intensify (note the concluding passage, 66:15-24). There is no final resolution to this troubling clash of judgment and salvation. What becomes apparent as we sit in the tension of the text is that salvation will only come through judgment: “the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning,” (4:4). God’s people undoubtedly desired a salvation without judgment – an escape from punishment, a release from the strictures of justice. We’re no different. But “Zion will be redeemed by justice” (1:27), not despite it.

Justice is the only path of redemption. Salvation is the work of God’s righteousness.

It is a miraculous work. Isaiah’s book is a remarkable tale of two cities: Jerusalem as she is, in all her ugly corruption and rebellion (1:2-31; 3:18-4:1; 9:8-10:4 … 59:1-15), and Jerusalem as she will be, in all her beauty and integrity (2:1-4; 4:2-6; 11:1-16 … 65:17-25). The impossibly vast chasm between the two is consumed and collapsed by a holy conflagration. It will be from the charred remains of Israel’s felled tree that the holy seed will sprout (see 6:11-13).

A redemption by fire would be Isaiah’s own experience (6:1-10). As he entered the temple of God to grieve the death of king Uzziah, he had an unexpected encounter with the living God. Above the enthroned Deity stood the six-winged seraphim, calling out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” It was awesome. It was traumatic. Isaiah becomes undone at the sight, crying out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” As he would later prophesy: “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings” (33:14)? What happens next is important. One of the seraphim takes a red-hot coal with a tong from the altar, flies toward Isaiah and presses it to his lips: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for,” (6:7). Through a burning ember the prophet is purified.

Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple that day profoundly shaped him and his message. He would be utterly gripped by divine holiness. The seraphim’s chorus of the thrice-holy LORD resounds throughout his prophecies, as is exemplified by his favorite and peculiar title for God: “the Holy One of Israel.”[1] God’s holiness demands that justice be satisfied; that sin be punished, and a wandering people be disciplined in righteousness. Holiness demands judgment. 

At the same time, it is our only hope. The holy character of the LORD pertains fundamentally to his utter uniqueness as God (43:9-12; 44:6-8) – his radical otherness – and then to his moral attributes. Because God is holy, he will not only judge justly but also “abundantly pardon,” and “have compassion” on all who turn to him (55:7). His thoughts are not our thoughts; his ways are not our ways (55:8-9). God is not like us. He is ever gracious and infinitely kind, slow to anger and quick to forgive … even the worst offenders. His absolute holiness makes possible the complete salvation of a guilt-ridden and wayward people. But it is not without judgment. Perfect holiness entails both unbounded grace and overflowing justice.

These seemingly polar realities come together in an unexpected way in the second half of the book. We encounter a mysterious figure called “the servant of the LORD.” This servant appears at once to be the nation of Israel itself (but proves deaf and blind, 42:18-25), and then an individual who acts on behalf of the whole nation (49:1-7). Surprisingly, this faithful servant is crushed for the iniquities of his people; he is pierced for the transgressions of others! It will be by his wounds that we are all healed. By his fiery ordeal we are saved (52:13-53:12).

Centuries later, the apostle Paul would write of this servant: “God put forward Christ as a propitiation for sins … to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” (Ro.3:25-26). This is a wonderful and strange justice – a holy justice: just in itself and justifying of the guilty!

The good news Isaiah received in the temple (6:3) and proclaimed from the mountain tops (40:9; 52:7-10) is that the God who reigns over the whole world is holy. The entire earth will one day exult in his glory (11:9-10)! The nations will be inexorably drawn by divine beauty. Those who persist in their rebellion against the Holy One will most certainly be judged. But all rebels who turn to God will be magnificently redeemed. After all, he is holy.

To learn more about Isaiah’s brilliant book, see these two videos from the Bible Project.


[1] This title appears 19 times in Isaiah’s book, and only 3 other times in the rest of Scripture.

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