From Chaos to Restoration. An Integrative Reading of Isaiah 24–27

Written by Dan G. Johnson Reviewed By H.G.M. Williamson

Isaiah 24–27 has long been known as ‘The Isaiah Apocalypse’. By those who do not attribute the whole of the book of Isaiah to a single author, it has been ascribed to the post-exilic period with many dates between the sixth and second centuries bc being suggested. In recent years, the earlier part of this period has been most widely favoured.

These chapters pose many problems of interpretation on any view. Their unity is by no means assured; there are a number of references to an unnamed city whose identification has evoked numerous proposals (including the suggestion that no specific city is in view but rather that it is a kind of ‘Vanity Fair’, a representation of city life in general); and it is not always clear whether the writing is predictive of future expectation or descriptive of some past event. Finally, these chapters have featured prominently in recent discussion of the origins of apocalyptic, a number of scholars seeing here adumbrations of that style of literature and, in a few cases, of the tensions within the Jewish community which are thought to have given rise to it.

In this, his doctoral dissertation, Johnson approaches these chapters with a novel and interesting hypothesis. With full attention to and discussion of alternative views, he proposes that the composition comprises three main sections. The first, 24:1–20, is a prediction of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 bc. written just before the event. In this section, then, the city is Jerusalem, whose destruction is presented as the fulfilment of several of the eighth-century prophet Isaiah’s predictions. Moreover, its downfall is depicted in terms of a return to ‘chaos’, and this accounts for some of the apparently universal language which has misled so many scholars into linking it with proto-apocalyptic. In reality, the events foretold are quite localized, though with broader implications.

The second section, 24:21–27:1 (except 25:10b–12, stated, though not argued, to be a later, polemical, intrusion), builds on this chaos motif, for in Israelite beliefs of the time such chaos could never be God’s final word; eventually, he would return in victory and restoration. This section, then, is full of trust and expectation as the prophet looks for this future victory, but since the victory is conceived of as imminent, it must have been written during the exile with the oppressive city as Babylon. Because many have thought that the overthrow of the city is described as already past, they have dated this section much later; after all, Babylon was not in fact destroyed by Cyrus in 538 bc. Johnson, however, argues carefully for his ‘predictive’ view, and maintains in consequence that it is not so important if some of the details turned out to be historically imprecise. A further consequence of his view is that 26:19 speaks of national rather than individual resurrection—a view which fits well, of course, with the nearly contemporary Ezekiel 37.

The final section, 27:2–13, looks for the reunification of Israel and Judah as part of the consequence of Yahweh’s victory, a further link with the exilic prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. This chapter contains some of the most difficult material from a textual point of view, and in my opinion Johnson’s arguments are not quite so persuasive at this point. But no commentator can be fully confident here, and in any event the issue is not crucial to the overall case being presented.

Two matters of importance appear to be missing from this thesis. There is no indication whether Johnson locates the writer in Judah or Babylon, and more seriously there is no discussion of the role of these chapters at this point of the book of Isaiah as a whole, something of much interest in current scholarly debate. Their ‘logical’ setting, on Johnson’s view, is between chapters 39 and 40. There must be some reason for their present location, and this may have a bearing on their interpretation. Most commentators observe that they immediately follow the ‘oracles against the nations’ and so suggest that they tend to emphasize the universal aspects of God’s victory and reign. Since Johnson rejects this interpretation, it would have strengthened his case if he had presented an alternative explanation for the chapters’ present setting.

Readers of Themelios will tend to judge this book on the basis of their overall understanding of Isaiah. Defenders of unitary composition will naturally not accept Johnson’s main proposals, though they should welcome his stress on the predictive nature of these chapters. For the rest (including this reviewer), the issue has to be judged by the normal criteria of the historical-critical method. This will require particularly close attention to the allusions to other parts of Isaiah in these chapters and their potential implications for dating. It is too early to say what the outcome of such research might be, but certainly Johnson has made a well-argued and attractive case for his position.

H.G.M. Williamson

Christ Church, Oxford