For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6, KJV).
It was Isaiah who first penned these God-inspired words. Frederick Handel quoted them, putting them to music for Messiah, his most famous oratorio. Messiah! Slain from before the world was! Promise became reality in the little town of Bethlehem: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel [“God with us]” (7:14).
Isaiah has much to say about Jesus Messiah — so much so, it’s often called the fifth Gospel. What can we learn about this Old Testament book, its author, and the ways it proclaims the good news of Jesus? And, like Isaiah, what can we cry out to our generation?
Possibly born into the royal house of Judah, Isaiah served as an official in King Uzziah’s court until the king’s death in 740 bc. Thereafter, in vision, Isaiah saw the Lord enthroned “high and lifted up” and seraphim crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” The doorposts shook, and the place filled with smoke (6:1-4).
Few prophets were ever privileged to have had such a vision — a relationship with God outside of time, space, and matter, but he didn’t feel worthy of it. His initial response was “Woe is me, for I am undone! . . . For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Distraught, Isaiah experienced a touch of a live coal from the altar that purged his unclean lips, and he was ready to answer the question “Whom shall I send?” with his “Here am I! Send me” (vv. 5-8). Thus began a forty-year service to the King of Kings.
The text of Isaiah’s prophecies was one of the best preserved manuscripts found in its entirety among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This major prophetic book of sixty-six chapters roughly divides into two, much like the Bible with its Old and New Testaments (witnesses). The first witness consists of chapters 1-39: God’s judgment on the nations, the nation of Judah particularly. Isaiah describes that great day of the Lord: “I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts” (13:13).
Beautiful passages of comfort and promise intermingle with warnings of judgment: “Behold, I lay in Zion . . . a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation . . . [with] justice the measuring line, and righteousness the plummet” (28:16, 17).
Though the people suffered judgments for their misdeeds, the second witness (chapters 40-66) begins with Isaiah’s well-known hymn of comfort: “Comfort, yes, comfort My people! . . . Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (40:1, 2).
Pinpointing John the Baptist’s entry in the New Testament, Isaiah declares, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (v. 3). Much like our freeways of today, Isaiah describes that Royal Road: building up low spots and shaving down the high; straightening curves and building bridges over difficult terrain. All obstructions swept away, we shall see Jesus in all His glory (vv. 4, 5).
“What shall I cry?” Isaiah asks, as do we. Another revealing: Flowers fade, seasons change, people are born and die, “but the word of our God stands forever. . . . To whom then will you liken God?” (vv. 6, 8, 18). Like the heavenly parent He is, God in essence is telling His children who had forsaken Him, “I’ve done everything for you, and this is the way you treat Me? Your carved images can never take My place. I am the Creator of the earth, mighty in power, everlasting, and My understanding is unsearchable. Those who wait on Me shall be renewed and soar like eagles” (see vv. 28, 31).
God’s covenant people failed to recognize that Messiah must first come as a lowly Servant bringing salvation to a lost world: “Behold! My Servant . . . He will not cry out, nor raise His voice . . . He will bring forth justice for truth. . . . as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison” (42:1-3, 6, 7).
Neither did they understand that they, as God’s servants, having suffered through much adversity themselves, were to share their blessings with the world in a lesser role (vv. 18, 19). Because of their unbelief, the Israelites retained their previously held image of the Servant arriving with pomp and great glory. Therefore, they rejected Jesus, refusing His words and walking not in His ways.
However, the Lord said to forget the past and He would do a new thing, making a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. But the people had rejected Him, choosing to weary Him with their sins (43:18-22). Still, He would blot out their sins and remember them no more (vv. 25, 26). Jesus’ seventy-times-seven policy in action!
In the next chapter, the Lord promises to pour water on the thirsty and “My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring” (44:3). God’s love of His chosen ones is expressed with deep longing in His calling of Abraham: “Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for I called him alone, and blessed him and increased him” (51:2).
Abraham. His belief in God was counted as righteousness that we may also be found righteous.
“My salvation has gone forth . . . The earth will grow old like a garment . . . but My salvation will be forever. . . . My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation” (vv. 5-8).
Thus says the Lord: “You have sold yourselves for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money. . . . My people shall know My name; . . . I am He who speaks: ‘Behold, it is I.’” . . . Behold, My Servant . . . shall be exalted and extolled and be very high . . . Who has believed our report? (52:3, 6, 13; 53:1).
There follows a well-known passage describing the sufferings of the Lord Jesus on our behalf: He was despised, rejected by men, and no stranger to grief and sorrow. He bore the brunt of our sins. Like sheep, we’ve all had our turn at wandering, so He took the fall to redeem broken humanity (53:1-12).
The Lord so desired to bless His people, yet time after time, they returned to their old ways. Again, what shall I cry? “Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (58:1). Their fasts were selfish, and they overworked their laborers. Rather, they should “loose the bonds of wickedness” (v. 6), relieve burdens, free the oppressed, house and feed the hungry, and extend a hand to their brothers. “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’” (v. 9).
Isaiah predicts the gospel and anointing of the Spirit of the Lord upon Messiah to “preach good tidings . . . heal the brokenhearted . . . proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison . . . [and] proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (61:1, 2). Isaiah expounds at length on the future new heavens and new earth: “And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy” (65:17, 18).
From beginning to end, the Gospel According to Isaiah points us to Jesus.
“And He shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” On March 23, 1743, Handel’s Messiah was premiered in London. As the strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus” echoed to the farthest reaches of the vast cathedral, King George II of England rose to his feet, reportedly in deference to Messiah, Jesus the Christ. As one, the audience rose with him, thus establishing a tradition to stand for this grand finale to Handel’s Messiah.
At the moment the “cloud curtains” rise on the first act of redemption and renewal and the opening strains of the angels’ “hallelujah chorus” ring out, accompanied by trumpet sound, we, too, will rise to meet Messiah in the air. We, too, will circle the earth as He gathers His own from every corner, descending upon the Mount of Olives, where He ascended from earlier.
What shall I cry? Jesus said, “Occupy till I come!” Will He greet us with open arms and His “work well done” welcome? The choice is ours, and the burden to share the good news of salvation with others — as Isaiah did.