As I read the sixty-six chapters of Isaiah yesterday, it occurred to me that to understand Jesus this is where a person needs to begin. Sadly, many of us do not understand our own Lord because we do not see him in light of Isaiah’s prophecies. Oh, we know Isaiah 53, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” (vs. 5), but we don’t know the context. We don’t see the big picture Isaiah was painting about the end of exile and the beginning of the new creation. To understand Jesus, we really need to understand Isaiah.

Isaiah’s Context

If you’re following my Bible reading plan this year, then you went straight from Kings to Isaiah. That’s great because it helps you understand the context in which Isaiah is prophesying. Isaiah’s ministry lasted from King Uzziah to King Hezekiah; or in other words, 2 Kings chapters 15 through 20.

He prophesied when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and carried off into exile by Assyria. And, during Isaiah’s day, the Southern Kingdom of Judah looked as if it would be destroyed by hoards of Assyrians as well. But he told them to trust in the Lord and not in military alliances with other nations. Isaiah also warned Judah they would eventually be carried off into exile by Babylon because of their own sins. So the idea of being exiled or driven out “to the east” is a major theme in the book of Isaiah.

If you remember, when we discussed Deuteronomy, we said Canaan was supposed to remind us of the Garden of Eden. The Promised Land of Israel was a paradise where God and men lived together. But just like humanity was driven out “to the east” (Genesis 3:24), Israel and Judah were also driven out to the east and scattered amongst the nations.

God as a Redeemer

Throughout the book of Isaiah, we see the words ransom, redeem, and redemption. To understand those ideas, you have to think back to the books of Moses. You have to think about how God “redeemed” the people out of Egyptian bondage.

I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.

When we think of being “redeemed,” we often think of a business transaction. One person purchases something from someone else. But that’s not always the biblical idea of redemption. When God redeems His people, He doesn’t pay anyone for them. The whole cosmos belongs to Him, who would He pay? When God redeems His people, it is about bringing them back from exile and giving them the land.

This is an incredibly important theme in Isaiah. This book helps us to realize, God’s plan is not just to redeem Israel, but to redeem people from all nations. God will build a road that will lead people from exile back to Zion. Isaiah says the Lord will make the wilderness of Zion “like Eden” and her desert like the “garden of the Lord” (51:3).

In fact, the Lord will recreate the whole heavens and the earth for His redeemed people. The Lord says, “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (65:25).

God as a Judge

Isaiah has plenty of beautiful promises, but also plenty of judgment. He makes it very clear, the Lord is God of the whole earth and He will judge every nation. The oppressed will be set free and the oppressors will be judged. There is no injustice that will go unpunished.

But there also seems to be the idea that Israel, because he belongs to the Lord, would take the lion’s share of humanity’s punishment. It’s like when an individual sins, he contributes a drop of filth to a huge cup. As each person in the world sins, more drops are added to the cup until it reaches the point when it is full and must be poured out as punishment or someone must drink it.

Israel would be the one to drink the cup down to its dregs. But how would they survive? They would survive because someone would stand in for them and drink the cup in their place. Through this plan, God would swallow up the veil that was spread over all nations; He would swallow up death forever (25:7-8). God was executing a plan to bring humanity back from exile and give them a whole new world without death.

But God knew then – just as He knows now – not everyone will submit to His plan. He reaches out His arms, but not everyone wants to be saved. Many will reject His offer to redeem. The book of Isaiah ends with these words:

“For as the new heavens and the new earth
    that I make
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
    so shall your offspring and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
    and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the Lord.

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

Understanding Jesus

So if we are going to understand Jesus, we have to understand the hope and expectation Isaiah lays out for us. If we read the Gospel accounts first and assume we know and understand Jesus, then we read Isaiah through that lens, we may misunderstand both Jesus and Isaiah. But if we start with Isaiah, letting the hope and anticipation properly build, then we will understand why Jesus’ coming is truly Good News for the world!

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams

P.S. It’s definitely not easy to read Isaiah in a day, because of its length, but you can do it. And it’s really not as hard to understand as you may think. Give it a try.