Isaiah vol. I

Written by John F. A. Sawyer Reviewed By John J. Bimson

Although they do not deal with the same chapters of Isaiah, these two commentaries invite comparison because they both set out to offer an exegesis of the text as Scripture with a relevance to the life of the Christian and the church. Both aim to be of practical use to the non-specialist.

Sawyer’s commentary illustrates the approach to the Old Testament proposed by B. S. Childs in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Understanding how the final text developed from the original words of the prophet Isaiah is therefore a feature of the commentary; importance is attached to what later generations thought of, and did with, the words which they received. Since this is seen to be more important than discerning separate major authors within the Isaianic literature, it is not surprising that the two volumes on Isaiah in this series are divided at the end of chapter 32 (the approximate half-way mark) rather than at the end of chapter 39.

It is also not surprising that the reader is introduced to additions and editorial changes, not as encumbrances to be pruned away to reveal the original prophetic word, but as features worthy of the exegete’s attention, showing how subsequent generations of the community of faith reacted to that word. E.g. an original word of judgment can be transformed into an expression of hope and, in a new context, can eventually function as a messianic prophecy (pp. 97–98). The last stage of such a development is no less significant than the original words, for any addition or adaptation ‘reminds us that Isaiah is consistently represented as a prophet whose words, visions and ideals transcend his eighth-century environment’ (p. 79).

The method naturally imports into the task of exegesis all the subjectivity and pitfalls of the critical approaches on which it builds. For example, the contrast between the denunciation of Judah in chapter 1 and the prophecies of salvation in chapter 37 and elsewhere are highlighted because they ‘enable us to distinguish between how things really were in 701 BC and how they came to be interpreted later’ (p. 7). Sawyer follows those who believe that 701 saw Jerusalem defeated and humiliated, the ‘later’ story of the city’s miraculous deliverance having no basis in history. Quite apart from the fact that the contrasting prophecies need not point to that conclusion in the first place, this view naturally leads to a distinctive exegesis of those passages which speak in one breath of the humiliation of Jerusalem and the discomfiture of the Assyrians (e.g. 10:1–19; 29:1–8). Since such passages have to be seen as in part reflecting the historical truth of 701, and in part being the product of the later tradition, Sawyer can only take them seriously from a theological point of view (cf pp. 112–114, 238–240); ‘the theme is not historical but theological’ (p. 238).

Readers with conservative convictions will obviously not be happy with such treatments. Also this reviewer cannot help suspecting that many non-specialists, whether conservative or not, will simply be baffled by an approach which treats original Isaianic material, and supposedly later interpretations which turn that material completely on its head, with equal respect. The approach raises major questions which do not yet seem to have been satisfactorily faced.

George A. F. Knight’s commentary on Isaiah 40–55 (a completely revised edition of a work which first appeared in 1965) is of an altogether different type, partly because the chapters dealt with differ in character from chapters 1–39, but chiefly because Knight’s approach contrasts sharply with Sawyer’s.

For Knight these sixteen chapters are a coherent and closely-argued thesis. The prophet’s method ‘is to make constant reference backward and forward as he proceeds, and bit by bit he binds his book together in one sustained and developing argument’ (p. 24). The end product is nothing less than a theological thesis ‘as decisive and significant for an understanding of Christian faith as are the sixteen chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans’ (p. 1). Yet, Knight observes, these chapters from the Old Testament have received relatively little theological interest, most scholars stopping at the level of critical issues. Knight sets out to redress the balance, producing what he describes as ‘a theological and exegetical commentary’ (p. 3). The reader will find only fleeting reference to such critical matters as the various Gattungen which have been discerned in Isaiah 40–55, not because Knight regards these issues as unimportant, but because (as he says) they are adequately dealt with in the many existing ‘Introductions’ to Deutero-Isaiah. A bibliography of some seventy books and articles is provided, and Knight evidently hopes that his readers will take their studies further than the reading of one or two commentaries. Indeed, some of the works listed are on fairly technical topics, and not all are English. (Sawyer, on the other hand, lists only five books for further reading, three being commentaries and two being general works on Old Testament prophecy.)

Knight assumes that DI (the abbreviation for Deutero-Isaiah which he uses throughout) was a prophet of ‘the second half of the 540s bc’ (p. 27). It is good to see a few reasons for this belief set out in the brief Introduction, since many commentators now take this date to be self-evident and in need of no justification. The historical setting is important for Knight’s understanding of these chapters; he believes that DI affirms ‘that the living Word of the living God began to be united—though still in a proleptic sense—with the very flesh of God’s son Israel at that specific period in which DI himself was participating’ (p. 5).

This brings us to Knight’s view of the servant in DI. He does not spend time in a search for the servant’s identity: ‘The “scissors-and-paste” method of handling the text … compelled scholars to make such a search. But if we take the so-called “Servant Poems” in context, then DI himself gives us his own dogmatic answer to our question’ (p. 166). Knight’s close-knit exegesis leads him to conclude that the portrait of the servant ‘comprises two elements, that of a very human Israel, and that of “God in Israel” ’ (p. 171). In his exegesis of chapter 53 he says: ‘… The extraordinary inference can be made that it was “God in Israel” who became the Suffering Servant that Israel was elected to be, for Israel could not fulfil her calling alone’ (p. 172). For Knight, while these chapters are important for our understanding of Christ’s ministry and the New Testament interpretation of it, they are not about Christ: ‘For it is Israel that we read of in DI’s text, and not the person of Christ’ (p. 4).

Knight is well aware that some of his interpretations ‘may appear to the informed reader to be biased or even tendentious’, but he expresses the hope that the reader will at least be stimulated to ask himself ‘Is that what the prophet really meant to say?’ (p. 5). The reviewer found himself posing that question frequently, and in some cases (e.g. the ‘extraordinary inference’ referred to above) is still not sure of the answer. But that is no bad thing; this is a mind-stretching and rewarding commentary for those with the time and inclination to consider its arguments closely.

John J. Bimson

Trinity College, Bristol