Righteousness: The Character of Servanthood (A Study in Isaiah)

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Antonio Balestra; 18th century

The final section of the book of Isaiah, chapters 56–66, seems to be very strangely constructed. In many ways the climax of the section, and even the book, occurs in chapters 60–62, with the following chapters, 63–66, being almost anticlimactic. So we, the readers, wonder what is going on.

While I was working on the first of my commentaries on Isaiah, I came across a suggestion by a French writer that made a great deal of sense to me, and the longer I have worked with it, the more probable it seems to me. The suggestion was that the section is constructed chiastically. A chiasm is something like a literary triangle in which the elements in the two upright sides parallel each other, with both pointing to the main point at the center. It looks something like this:

A

B

C

D

C

B

A

The two A parts are saying similar things; the B parts are saying something else, but both are making the same point, and the same is true for the C parts. Here in Isaiah 56–66 there are five parts, and the thought line goes like this: (A) righteous foreigners (56:1–8; 66:18–24); (B) unrighteous Israel (56:9–59:15a; 63:7–66:17); (C) Divine Warrior defeats sin (59:15b–21; 63:1–6); (D) The Light shines through righteous people (60:1–22; 61:4–62:12); (E) The Messiah (61:1–3). So the segment begins and ends (A) with the thought that has run through the book from the very beginning: Israel has a mission to the nations—to make it possible for them to see Yahweh’s glory, to live in his presence, and to share his character. This is the foundation thought; this is why God called them and redeemed them: that the world might know him. But in fact, (B) Israel has been sinful; they have not displayed the character of God; moreover, they seem unable to do so. What is to be done? (C) The Warrior will come from heaven and with his own righteousness defeat the power of sin in his people’s lives. What will be the result? (D) Like a lantern whose lenses and globe have been stringently cleaned, the Light will shine out of them for all the world to see. Who is the Warrior who makes this possible? (E) None other than the Spirit-anointed Messiah of whom the book has been speaking throughout.

Now why make these points in this chiastic fashion? I think it is so that we will not forget what the issues are. Salvation is not about us; it is about the world. Nor dare we ever forget that in us, as the apostle said, “dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7:18 KJV). If the light of Christ is ever to shine out of us for the world to see, it will be his doing in our tender and contrite hearts, and nothing of ours. By reiterating these points in this manner, Isaiah underlines them in a memorable way.

Many scholars believe that these chapters are addressed to the people who returned from the Babylonian exile circa 538 BC. It certainly seems like what is taught here would fit that time. It is very possible that those returnees were saying, “Why are we back in the land? It had nothing to do with us; it was just the grace of God. We are the chosen people, so it doesn’t matter how we live.” On the contrary, said Isaiah, it does matter how God’s servants live. He calls us into a relationship with himself, a relationship that is impossible if we do not share his character. Yet it is not possible for us to reproduce that character by ourselves. It must be done by God himself as we surrender ourselves to him. This is very much the same message that is found in Romans 6–8. At the same time, there is very little in these chapters that is specific to Israel in the years after 538. The point being made is governed more by theology than by a particular historical setting. What the prophet was attempting to do was to synthesize the apparently disparate teachings of chapters 1–39 and 40–55.

Chapters 1–39 insist that God’s people must live righteous lives. If they did not, they would go into exile, as they did. But chapters 40–55 say almost nothing about righteous living. Instead, these chapters speak of God’s righteousness in graciously delivering his people from the consequences of their sin. If the book had ended at chapter 55, we might very well conclude that in view of God’s grace, righteous living is of little consequence. What chapters 56–66 are doing is putting the two messages together. God himself will graciously enable us to fulfill the call to righteous living. Yes, we must live righteous lives, but we are enabled to do so by his grace alone.

The Bible study The Book of Isaiah: Part III (Chapters 56-66) is now available from our store. If you enjoyed this entry, you’ll appreciate the profound lessons that can be learned from Dr. John Oswalt’s exposition of this important text. This third part concludes his teaching through what’s often called the “Fifth Gospel,” which expounds the heart of God’s plan of salvation for the entire world. In the book of Isaiah we see a promise from God to make all things new and give his people new hearts. Get multiple copy discounts in order to start group studies, and preview the video element below. View this study in our store here.

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Dr. John Oswalt is Visiting Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. His expertise is in Old Testament studies, Hebrew language, and Hebrew religion. His writings have appeared in Bible encyclopedias, scholarly journals and popular religious periodicals, and is a leading scholar on the book of Isaiah. He is married to the former Karen Kennedy, and they have three children and two grandchildren.

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