Isaiah 1–33

Written by John D. W. Watts Reviewed By Paul D. Wegner

This is the first of a two-volume series (second volume published in 1987) covering the entire book of Isaiah and, as the division at Isaiah 33 indicates, does not present a conventional approach. The ‘Editorial Preface’ describes this commentary series as expressing an ‘evangelical’ perspective and endeavouring to meet the needs of ‘the fledgling student, the working minister as well as … the colleagues in the guild of professional scholars and teachers’ (p. xiii). Though people who are very conservative may question whether this is an evangelical commentary (for example, Watts believes Sodom and Gomorrah were not historical places but etiological (legendary) references (p. 19)), it should probably be regarded as such. It is, however, doubtful that a fledgling student or a busy minister will profit greatly by a commentary which is so unusual in its handling of the book of Isaiah, especially since Watts’ approach is based upon such weak evidence.

Watts considers the book of Isaiah to be an example of drama which was intended for oral presentation; therefore he assumes various speakers (‘herald’ (1:2); ‘heavens and earth’ (1:4); ‘people of Jerusalem’ (1:9); etc.). Watts himself admits that his recognition of the speakers is sometimes quite arbitrary (p. 3). He divides the book of Isaiah into twelve acts using historical periods (chs. 1–6 (Uzziah/Jotham); chs. 7–14 (Ahaz); etc.) (p. li). For five pages (xlv–xlix) Watts discusses the possibility of drama in ancient Israel (where his strongest evidence is drawn from Greek literary style) but is unable to demonstrate that the book of Isaiah is written in this form.

Watts’ major contention is that the book of Isaiah is a drama composed c. 435 bc, which he believes would be late enough to include all historical references in the book (p. xxiv). Watts arrives at this date by examining Isaiah 63:1–6 which appears to speak of the recent destruction of Edom. He argues that before the exile, Edom regularly occurs as one of Judah’s neighbours (e.g. Is. 11:14; Je. 9:26; 25:21) but Ezra and Nehemiah do not mention Edom (cf. Ezr. 9:1); thus he assumes that Edom was no longer a threat by 450 bc. One might hope for stronger evidence upon which to build such an important part of one’s interpretation.

Some recent scholars (R. E. Clements (Interp 36 (1982), pp. 117–129; JSOT31 (1985), pp. 95–113); J. J. M. Roberts (Interp 36 (1982), pp. 130–143)) have suggested a theological unity of Isaiah, but Watts argues for a literary unity (i.e. that the whole book was written for a fifth-century audience). Several other recent scholars (such as H. Barth (Jesaja-worte, 1977), R. E. Clements (Isaiah 1–39, 1982), and J. Vermeylen (Du prophète Isaïe à I’apocalyptique, 1977)) have suggested a later rereading of the Isaianic tradition, but no-one has suggested so late a date which redirects the whole purpose of the book of Isaiah. It is unclear what the evidence is for Watts’ interpretation since a normal reading of Isaiah gives no indication that this book was being directed toward a fifth-century audience.

To his credit, Watts has done a superb job with the textual notes. He seems to have handled the material fairly and explains it clearly so that a non-specialist can understand the evidence. Watts generally favours the MT, unlike his teacher H. Wildberger who generally emends the text (e.g. Watts retains Is. 8:23a (pp. 129–130) while Wildberger assumes it is a gloss (1982, 1, p. 356), Watts rejects Wildberger’s emendations at 8:23b and 9:3 (1982, 1, p. 364) as unnecessary).

The bibliography at the beginning of each section is very helpful and the surnames in bold print make it much easier to use than Wildberger’s commentary, but there are many mistakes in the bibliographies so that they need to be used with care: e.g. misspelled names—Hoffmann (pp. 11, 30, 43); Lipiński, É. (p. 47); Westermann (p. 57); Jeppesen (p. 125); Saggs (p. 186); misspelled words—rhythmical (p. 11); messianum (p. 129); incorrect page numbers—Jones, SJT 21 (1968), pp. 320–329 (p. 22); Gerstenberger, JBL 81 (1962), pp. 249–263 (p. 57). The publication of an errata sheet would be helpful here.

Other reservations concerning this commentary include: 1. Most examples of what Watts terms ‘arches’ (p. 15) are rather ‘sagging’ because they are so forced (see especially pp. 15, 24, 33–34, 185, 195). 2. Watts’ interpretations often colour his exegesis. This can be seen in several passages but two are particularly noteworthy: (a) In Isaiah 10:33–34 Watts is so convinced that this passage is speaking about Judah that he interprets it as referring to God as a divine gardener pruning the wickedness from Judah (see pp. 165f.). But it has been convincingly argued (by Clements, NCB 1982, p. 121, and Høgenhaven, 1988, pp. 122f.) that this passage describes a terrifying destruction rather than an awe-inspiring pruning; (b) In Isaiah 9:3–5 Watts understands the as a conditional particle. This is possible, but the context and the majority of scholars appear to go against Watts’ suggestion. Surely the kîs in these verses give three reasons for the joy mentioned in verse 2 (3) (cf. Gesenius, Hebrew Grammar, para. 158b; R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 1976, p. 72) and a conditional element would be completely foreign to the context.

This commentary contains some very helpful information but one must read it cautiously, especially with regard to his approach and suggested ‘arches’. For those who have limited financial resources this would not be a commentary I would recommend.

Paul D. Wegner

Paul D. Wegner
Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary
Mill Valley, California, USA