Covenant in Isaiah, Part 1

This post and those to follow are extracts from a draft chapter in the book The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Vol. 1 (forthcoming, d.v.). Read the series.

The prophet Isaiah prosecuted his ministry between around 755 to 685 B.C.1 Isaiah has a lot to say about both the developing picture of the Creation Project and the person of the promised King who will reign upon the earth. His presentation of both of these broad themes furthers the developmental picture of the covenant program greatly.

The Prophet Before His God

Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord in chapter 6 of his book helps us to understand the rest of what he had to say.2 The prophet is confronted by the unimaginably majestic vision of the throne room of God, being brought face to face with the King of the universe (Isa. 6:5b). In this environment he quickly becomes acutely aware of his own decrepitude and unworthiness. He is a sort of microcosm of the people of Israel to whom he is sent, and to every reader of his work.

The vision of the holy King in Isaiah 6 grants a glimpse of God, albeit terrifying, but with a lining of hope, that not only enables us to make (some) sense of God’s difficult words in the book, but also invites us to examine ourselves personally and corporately.3

The prophet sees his own sin before denouncing the sins of Israel, and is given many indications of sin’s vanquishing by the Judge on the throne. Restoration, salvation, healing, and harmony are brought before the chosen race in this book; especially in and through the Messiah, whom Isaiah likes to call God’s “Servant,” in the second main division of the work. Although there is an irony in that the prophet’s message will only accelerate Israel’s decline.4

Be that as it may, the hope which punctuates this book originates directly from the One who sits exalted on the throne. If there was no hope from that quarter there would be no point in asking “Who will go for us?” for it would only be a fool’s errand of one doomed sinner telling every other doomed sinner what bad things God had in store for them all. The vision of God in chapter 6 may be strategically placed so that, as Oswalt comments: “Just as the man of unclean lips had to abandon all hope before being cleansed by fire, so too must the nation.”5

The Lord (‘adonay) is seen in a temple (Isa. 6:1),6 and the whole vision concerns the created earth (6:3).7 The fact that the Almighty cleanses the prophet before He asks for a volunteer (6:7-8) shows that a redemptive mission is in His mind.8 Isaiah goes forth “for Us” (the plurality that is the Lord).9 And even though there will be judgment against willful sin (6:9-10), yet in the end some, the “holy seed,” will be saved (6:13 cf. 4:3).

The Introduction to the Book

As Isaiah’s prophecy begins he wastes no time in coming to the point about Israel’s (i.e. Judah and Jerusalem’s) spiritual condition. Isaiah employs several memorable images to show the people their abandonment of God: they are “laden with iniquity” (Isa. 1:4), “the whole head is sick, the whole heart faints” (1:5). The trouble is the people don’t think (1:3). Still, God tries to reason with them:

Come now, and let us reason together,” says the LORD, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land. (Isaiah 1:18-19)

It is unclear whether this is simply a statement that we reap what we sow, or is also a prophetic oracle, looking at the cleansing action of God that will qualify His people to inherit what was promised to them many centuries earlier. But as the first chapter draws to a close, Isaiah foresees a time when God will turn His people back to Himself.

I will turn My hand against you, and thoroughly purge away your dross, and take away all your alloy. I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her penitents with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:25-27)

With the benefit of hindsight we know that at no time was there a national repentance that led to Jerusalem being known as a “city of righteousness.” The prophet is definitely on predictive ground again. Furthermore, although it is not given the name, these are New covenant words; true righteousness will only come once the Law is satisfied.

Yet there will come a time when Yahweh will cause His people to embrace their covenantal relationship with Him. “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her penitents with righteousness.” (Isa. 1:27). This promise is held secure by God’s covenants, of which the New covenant provides the all-important soteriological element. And as the prophet will go on to clarify in other visions, this New covenant redemption affects the natural world as well as the devout.

A Companion Passage

One companion passage, which starts out in a similarly bleak fashion later in the book, helps to illustrate this turnaround:

Because the palaces will be forsaken, the bustling city will be deserted. the forts and towers will become lairs forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks– Until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field. The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever. My people will dwell in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. (Isaiah 32:14-18, emphasis added)

It is apparent that the critical factor in the coming renewal is the Holy Spirit (Isa. 32:15). Notice also that along with righteousness, justice, and faithfulness comes the outward peace and safety I have already commented on in the last chapter (e.g. 32:16), together with manifestations of divine blessing in the natural world. This recalls the portrayal of super-productivity in Amos 9:13-15.

When we come to Isaiah 2:1-5 and 11 this picture becomes even more distinct. We have already noted the way Isaiah 2:2-3 mirrors Micah 4:3-4, but whereas Micah goes on to relate how this affects the person on the ground, Isaiah focuses on the Lord who teaches Israel His ways (Isa. 2:3). The vain search for world peace envisioned by the most sanguine utopianist will be delivered, though not by human effort. But if not by us, by whom?

The pronouns “He” and “His” of Isaiah 2:3 and 2:4 refer to “the God of Jacob.” This is a name of protection for Israel (e.g. Psa. 20:1, 46:7, 46:11; 146:5).10 But how will He teach and judge the world? The answer is brought to light in chapter 11.


1 I utterly reject the notion that Isaiah did not write all the prophecies attributed to him. It is discouraging to find so many evangelical scholars accepting the reality of “Deutero” and “Trito” Isaiahs. For good defenses of the Isaianic authorship see Oswald T. Allis, The Unity of Isaiah: A Study in Prophecy (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980); R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 764-800, and Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (rev. & exp.), 366-390. See also the commentaries by E. J. Young, G. Grogan, and J. Oswalt. Notice should also be taken of Richard L. Schulz’s two review essays, “How Many Isaiahs Were There and What Does it Matter?” in Scripture in the Evangelical Tradition: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), edited by Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguelez and Dennis L. Okholm, 150-170, and, “Isaiah, Isaiahs, and Current Scholarship” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary, 243-261, although I am unable to fully endorse either book.

As an aside, the interested reader might take up the B. B. Warfield volume The Person and Work of Christ (various editions). After reading several pieces it should become apparent that the same author can employ very different styles depending on the situation. This holds true for the biblical writers.

2 It is impossible to be dogmatic about whether Isaiah 6 signals the very start of his ministry, but the commissioning language of 6:9f, encourage the assumption.

3 Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016), 14.

4 See Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 174-175.

5 J. N. Oswalt, “Isaiah,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by T. Desmond Alexander, et al, 218.

6 This is an indication of the King-Priest role which the coming Messiah will occupy (cf. Psa. 110:1-4; Zech. 6:12-13).

7 The creation itself is separate from the temple, not identical with it.

8 Cf. Bernhard W. Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology, 117-118.

9 Some interpreters say this is God conferring with a “divine council.” They cite passages 1 Kings 22:13-23 and Daniel 4:17. But neither one of these passages speaks of a council in heaven. Yahweh may interact with angels as in 1 Kings 22, but this does not imply that, “The throne room of God was where God held court with his servant council.” (M. S. Heiser, “Divine Council,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda & J. Gordon McConville, 163). For example, Job 1 and 2 does not refer to a council but to a report to God. Angels may be given corporate duties (e.g. the “watchers” of Daniel 4:17), but this does not mean they sit on a council with God.

10 “God of Jacob” also connotes Israel’s glory as the elect nation, as in Isa. 2:3; Psa. 114:7.

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There are 3 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I love Isaiah, and I especially appreciate the (midrash) connection between Isaiah and Romans.  Much of Romans is an exposition of Isaiah, IMO.

The prominence of the Holy Spirit, salvation by faith, imputed righteousness --- Isaiah is amazing!

Anyhow, thank you for sharing these solid thoughts.

"The Midrash Detective"

josh p's picture

Thanks for this one Paul. I especially appreciated the note about the unity of Isaiah. Something I’ve been wanting to read more about lately. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Paul Henebury's picture

Yes, Isaiah is an amazing book alright.  This series focuses on the role of the covenants in Isaiah.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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