Abernethy, Andrew T. The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach. NSBT 40; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 245 pp. Pb; $25. Link to IVP
This new contribution to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series focuses on the theme of Kingdom in the book of Isaiah. The topic of kingdom in the whole canon of Scripture is too large for a short monograph, but by limiting the discussion to Isaiah Abernethy is able to provide a reasonable foundation for understanding the book of Isaiah and its foundational role in a Christian understanding of Jesus. Abernethy’s previous book on Isaiah focused on the theme of food in Isaiah (Eating in Isaiah: Approaching the Role of Food and Drink in Isaiah’s Structure and Message. Leiden: Brill 2014, reviewed here).
In his introduction, Abernethy describes his approach in this book as synchronic since he is interpreting the book of Isaiah as a literary whole without being concerned about the historical formation of the book. This approach recognizes the coherence of the whole book of Isaiah through a network of intentional literary associations in each of the major sections of the book. Be he is quick to point out that although questions of historical process for the formation of the book are set aside, history is important for interpreting the book of Isaiah. He will divide this large book into the standard three sections commonly used by scholars so that Isaiah 1-39 are rooted in the Assyrian era, Isaiah 40-55 are rooted in the Babylonian era (with 44-45 in the Persian era). Isaiah 55-66 represent the struggles of the post-exilic period in the light of the eschaton. This “metahistory” is derived from the final form of the book regardless of how the book was formed.
The whole book of Isaiah “endeavours to orient the allegiance of its readers around a king, namely YHWH” (13). The first three chapters survey what Isaiah says about God in the three major units of Isaiah. After commenting on a unit in Isaiah, Abernethy offers a few paragraphs on the unit in the canon of Scripture, specifically on how the unit “bears witness to Christ: (29). These brief reflections are intended to be more than sterile “Old Testament in the New” lists. Isaiah 1-39, especially since some of the texts Abernethy uses are not directly cited in the New Testament. For example, there is no direct citation of Isaiah 25:6-8 in the New Testament, but Abernethy finds intertextual allusions or echoes in the Last Supper (cf. Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Last Supper, 448-58 or my Jesus the Bridegroom, 202-4). Other canonical reflections seem strained For example, Abernethy relates Isaiah 36-37 to kingdom language in Matthew, especially the interactions between Jesus and Pilate. This particular example falls well below even a nebulous allusion, although the point may be more clear if this were a monograph on a biblical theology of Kingdom in Matthew.
Chapter 1 reviews the presentation of God as the “king now and to come” (Isaiah 1-39). Abernethy begins with Isaiah’s throne vision to argue that God is the only king and that he is about to render “purifying judgment” on his people (20). In fact, the theme of Isaiah 1-39 can be fairly described as “who is the real king?” The king in Jerusalem is dead, and despite his boasts, Sennacherib is not the true king. The throne vision therefore stands in the center of Isaiah 1-12 in order to throw light on the narrative of Isaiah 1-5 and 7-12 by focusing on the thrice-holy enthroned king. This king will judge the nations and rule from Zion (24:21-23) where he will host a feast for all people, destroying the ultimate enemy, death (25:6-8). This king will reign in beauty, and the eyes of the people will see him (Isaiah 33:17). Abernethy points out this is particularly stirring when read in the light of Isaiah 6. Isaiah sees God and is filled with dread; in Isaiah 33 seeing God is a “vision of hope” (43-4).
In the chapter 2, Abernethy examines Isaiah 40-55 and describes God as the only saving king. Much has happened between Isaiah 39 and 40; Israel has been sent back out into the wilderness and they are to prepare for God’s return. Although it is possible the wilderness is a positive image recalling Israel’s early, pure relationship with God, for Abernethy the wilderness “symbolizes Zion’s destruction” (57). God’s kingly presence will manifest itself as a shepherd king who leads his people out of the dangerous wilderness and back to the good land. Abernethy draws parallels between Isaiah 40:1-11 and 52:7-10, arguing these texts function “to orient our hopes, our desires for comfort, our longings for vindication around the prophetic declarations that God himself is promising to come as king” (65).
In his third chapter, God is “the warrior, international, and compassionate king” (Isaiah 56-66). These chapters are concerned with “eschatological judgment as a collar to salvation” (83), looking forward to a time when God will function as warrior king who will pacify the nations. In order to demonstrate this, Abernethy lays out a chiastic arrangement of 56-66 which sets Isaiah 60-62 in the center. This chapter examines the fourth level of the chiasm, the anticipation of God’s coming salvation (59:15-21) and the final expression of that salvation (63:1-6). The warrior king appears but only sees injustice (59:15a-16), therefore delaying his vindication of his people. When he finally arrives, it is a day of fury and vengeance (63:4-6). Here Abernethy draws a canonical refection to two images of Jesus in the New Testament, first initiating redemption (Luke 1:51) and rendering final judgment (Rev 14:9-11; 19:15-16).
As a conclusion to the first three chapters, Abernethy offers a short theology of kingship in Isaiah (112-17). The recurring themes in Isaiah are seeing the glory of the king, the international king enthroned in Zion; the coordination of judgment and salvation; history and eschatology. These themes are tied to the historical situation of the book (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian eras) but by the end of the book Isaiah “directs our attention to the eschatological future” (117).
Having surveyed what Isaiah says about the kingship of God, Abernethy devotes chapter 4 to the “lead agents” of the king in each subsection of the book. First, by “lead agent” Abernethy means the character through whom God acts to accomplish salvation and judgment. Although the obvious term to use is “messiah” Abernethy prefers “lead agent” in order to avoid confusion about how Isaiah presents the agent of salvation in each unit of the book. He finds a different lead agent for each of the three units of the book. For Isaiah 1-39, the lead agent is a Davidic ruler who establishes righteousness and justice in the land. In Isaiah 40-55 the lead agent is the Servant who also brings justice to the nations by providing atonement. In Isaiah 56-66 it is the “messenger” of Isaiah 61 who declares God’s salvation at the very beginning of the eschaton. As Abernethy concedes, most Christian evangelical readers will see all three of these figures as the Messiah, Jesus (169). However, each lead figure functions in their own historical context and are distinct characters from the perspective of the book of Isaiah. The claim of the New Testament is that Jesus takes on all three distinct roles.
Abernethy is content to allow some ambiguity in Isaiah with respect to how these lead agents function as messianic figures. I would suggest the ambiguity explains the variety of messianic expectations in the Second Temple period. If Abernethy is correct and there are at least three lead agents of the eschaton in Isaiah, Second Temple readers of Isaiah seem to have developed one aspect of the coming messiah (such as a Davidic king) and downplayed or missed the others (such as the suffering servant). Early Jewish Christianity may be unique in associating Jesus with all three of the lead agents described by Abernethy.
Finally, chapter 5 concerns “the realm and the people of God’s kingdom.” Abernethy describes Isaiah’s view of the kingdom as “bifocal” since sometimes God’s kingdom is the entire cosmos (40:28) in in other contexts the kingdom is particularized as Zion (65:17). Jerusalem and Zion are a microcosm of the universal kingdom of God (176), and Abernethy refuses to discuss how physical Jerusalem “fits into God’s plan on this side of the cross” (179). Isaiah is clear, however, the people who participate in this future kingdom will be purified and redeemed remnant who are obedient to the King and trust completely in God. The theme of trust is clear in the Ahaz and Hezekiah stories, but Abernethy shows how this theme appears in each of the sections of the boo (Isa 50:10, for example). This kingdom will also be an international community. Abernethy shows that Isaiah 2:2-4 and 66:18-24 frame the book with the prediction that in the latter times Gentiles will be part of God’s kingdom. Although the nations do participate in the eschatological kingdom in some way, I would point out the blood staining the warrior king in Isaiah 63:3 is that of Gentile nations who have opposed God and oppressed his people.
Conclusion. Abernethy contributes an overview of the whole book of Isaiah using the theme of the kingdom of God. Although there are other themes in Isaiah, kingship provides the reader with enough structure to make sense of the massive amount of material in the book of Isaiah. By describing the lead agents of God’s salvation in each unit of the book, Abernethy has provided a useful rubric for understanding how messianic expectations developed in different directions in the Second Temple period.
This is a very readable book for both scholar and layman. Abernethy is clear and structured in his presentation with occasional allusions to pop culture (Batman, the Matrix and Lord of the Rings). Although presenting an important scholarly argument about the book of Isaiah, his canonical reflections have a pastoral interest for the Christian reader. In fact, Abernethy offers two possible teaching outlines in an appendix for use in a small group Bible Study or Sunday School class.
NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.