The Messianic Prophecies in the Book of Isaiah
Isaiah lived with eyes set on God. This is clear from the opening words of his book: “The vision of Isaiah.” Vision is singular, which tells us that Isaiah is meant to be read as one unified whole. It is not a fragmentary account of Isaiah’s prophecies and life with a few historical narratives thrown in for good measure. Rather, Isaiah is an organized, structured, thoughtful presentation of God’s revelation. His whole message is a single vision because it was a literal vision that formed the basis of his ministry. In the year 740 BC, the year Uzziah king of Jerusalem died, Isaiah records, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Is. 6:1). This vision of God overwhelmed him. He understood, in a way we can only imagine, just how far he fell short of the glory of God. There is only one way to respond to God’s glory: confession. “Woe is me!” Isaiah cries in despair, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is. 6:5). But in the midst of his grief and fear, we see the mercy of God—one of the angels, a seraphim, takes a red hot coal from the altar, flies to Isaiah and presses it again his unclean lips. Contrary to what we might expect this does not destroy Isaiah’s lips, it purifies them. The angel declares, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for” (Is. 6:7).
Though his lips burned, how Isaiah’s heart must have sung to receive God’s grace and mercy. His guilt removed, his sin dealt with—Isaiah was a new man, forever changed by the glory and grace of God. It was this vision that formed the message he was to set before those in Jerusalem—that God is both holy and merciful, full of love and wrath, just and gracious, and that God will send a Messiah to save unclean sinners from his holy wrath by atoning for their sins and taking their guilt away.
The hope of a Messiah is one of five “unificatory lines” that hold the vision of Isaiah together, argues Old Testament scholar and pastor J. Alec Motyer. Within the vision Motyer demonstrates that Isaiah paints three distinct “portraits” of the Messiah: the King (1-37), the Servant (38-55), and the Anointed Conqueror (56-66). Each unique portrait shares significant characteristics which will be fulfilled in one Messiah. For example, in each portrait, the Messiah has the Spirit and word of God and is characterized by righteousness. Each is of the line of David, includes the Gentiles as well as Jews in their mission, and has the“Messianic enigma.” In other words, each portrait hints at the human and divine nature of the Messiah.
By the time of Isaiah, the Jewish people had split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the South, and Isaiah prophesied in the capital of Judah, Jerusalem. He reminded the people of a promise God made years before the kingdom splintered; a covenant promise to David: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-13). In the first thirty-seven chapters of Isaiah we find many prophecies about this offspring, the king in the line of David who would establish an eternal reign. For example,
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.
This prophecy is echoed in the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will become pregnant and give birth to a child who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Jesus Christ is the promised king of whom Isaiah spoke; the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). Matthew makes this clear in his account of Jesus’ miraculous conception (Matt. 1:22-23). Jesus is born of the virgin Mary and he is truly Immanuel, “God with us.”
Prophecies of a Messiah King in the line of David point us to the birth of Christ, but that is not all. They also point us to the time when Christ will come again. We are told, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him” (Is. 11:1-2). Jesse is, of course, the father of David. Isaiah tells his listeners in Jerusalem that though Israel will be chopped down by the Assyrians (and later Judah by the Babylonians), from the stump that remained a savior would arise. God’s promise to David shall not fail. No matter how dark the future may seem the Messiah will come. This was true for Isaiah’s listeners and it is true for the church today. Jesus did not reestablish the kingdom of Israel, but he ascended to the right hand of the Father after his resurrection. We, just like Isaiah’s audience in Jerusalem, are looking forward to the day when Christ will come. In Revelation we learn that, “the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev. 5:5). The Root of David came once, and he will return as the triumphant King in the glory of his victory.
The second Messianic portrait Isaiah paints is quite different from the royal King and the triumphant Conqueror. He describes a humble, suffering Servant, whom the reader will know by the herald sent before him: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Is. 40:3). Matthew tells us that that herald was John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way by preaching a message of repentance and baptism because “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). What is truly remarkable about this is that the one whom John the Baptist prepares the way for is a man, Jesus. Matthew identifies Jesus with Yahweh, the eternal, self-existent, independent God of the Israelites. In Isaiah’s prophecies there are hints that the Messiah will be a figure who is in some sense both human and divine. This must have been intriguing to his original hearers, and only more so as they heard that the divine Savior of God’s people would come not only as a King and Conqueror, but as a Servant.
At the beginning of Isaiah chapter 42, the portrait of the Messiah-Servant begins to take clear shape: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him” (Is. 42:1). The Servant is one on whom the Spirit of God rests. It is no coincidence that when John the Baptist baptized Jesus the Spirit of God descended in the likeness of a dove and rested on him (Matt. 3:16), but a confirmation that John the Baptist is the voice in the wilderness preparing the way for Yahweh, that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
Isaiah’s prophecies about the Servant are some of the most well-known Messianic predictions of the Old Testament because of how clearly they point to the person and work of Jesus Christ. The quintessential example of this is Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12. In these verses Isaiah writes a song in which a picture emerges of a Servant who is, to sum up, “sage, priest, sacrifice, servant, sufferer, conqueror and intercessor. He is the channel of God’s grace to sinners. In him the holiness and mercy of God are perfectly reconciled.” Christ is the fulfillment of the promises and prophecies in these verses, the one who reconciles the holiness and mercy of God on the cross. He was “wounded for our transgressions… crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5). The apostle Peter described what Christ accomplished on the cross in words that echo Isaiah’s prophecy, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
Isaiah begins by telling us that God’s Servant “shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted” (Is. 52:13). From exaltation Isaiah’s song moves almost immediately to suffering and humiliation. The Servant is “marred, beyond human semblance” (Is. 52:14). He is “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3), with that sorrow and grief resulting in his death: “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities… he was cut off out of the land of the living… And they made his grave with the wicked” (Is. 53:5, 8-9). Death is not the end for the Servant—because he died for the sins of his people he will be rewarded. The song concludes with this hope: “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sins of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53:12). Death does not conquer the Servant; rather through the Servant’s death he conquers Death itself. He will receive an inheritance from the Lord: those for whom he died. He will do what the earthly priests could not: fully and finally intercede on behalf of sinners, once and for all. The Servant will be exalted once more because of the redemptive work he accomplished. This pattern is exactly the pattern Christ follows to redeem sinners. Paul describes this pattern of humiliation and exaltation in Philippians 2:5-11,
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Christ freely gave up the state of exaltation and glory he had with God from eternity to become a man. Just like the Servant he humbled himself even to the point of dying on the cross in order to atone for our sins. It is because of his redemptive work that God has raised Christ from the grave and exalted him to his prior state of glory. Christ is at the right hand of God the Father, in glory, interceding on behalf of the saints. Isaiah’s portrait of the Servant stepped out of the canvas and into the world in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The Anointed Conqueror
The final portrait of the Messiah begins with a promise, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Is. 56:1). Notice that this exhortation follows on the heels of the portrait of the Messiah as Servant. The Servant comes in the middle of the book and in the middle of time. Life goes on after the Servant comes to suffer and bear the sins of many. God’s people are called to live just and holy lives until the Messiah returns as the Anointed Conqueror. Salvation and deliverance will come with the arrival of the Anointed Conqueror.
The meaning of the word Messiah is “the anointed one,” a fact which is highlighted throughout the final prophecies of Isaiah. Isaiah 61:1-2 says,
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.
Jesus read these prophetic words in the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth. After finishing he rolled up the scroll, handed it back, and sat down. With all eyes on him Jesus said, “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). I always picture this as a “mic drop” moment, but the text tells us that Jesus went on teaching with “gracious words” (Luke 4:22). His claim was to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the one anointed by the Holy Spirit. This prophecy also tells us that as the promised Messiah, Jesus had “the double task of salvation and vengeance.” He is not merely the Anointed One, he is the Conqueror who will bring blessing and justice to the world when he comes at the end of time to judge the wicked and the righteous and to make all things new.
Beholding the Messiah
As we meditate on the Messianic portraits found in Isaiah this Advent season, we become like Isaiah; we become people who live life with eyes set on God. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus Christ is the promised King, Servant, and Conqueror. Christ is the savior and as his followers we are exhorted to, “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2, emphasis added). The Christian life is to be lived with eyes set on Christ. Though the Messianic portraits found in Isaiah are each unique, they only depict one person: the God-man Jesus Christ. The church today looks back, to the life, death and resurrection of the Servant; and forward to the return of the Davidic King as the Anointed Conqueror. Our great hope as believers is not only that Christ died for our sins, but that he will return one day to make all things new. As we celebrate his incarnation and await the Conquering King, we live in the age of the Servant. We must endure through the trials and temptations that come with life in a fallen world. Like Christ we must be humble, suffering servants. The apprentice is not above his master and the cross comes before the crown. But, as Isaiah foretold long ago, the Master is returning. In the meantime, we live by faith. No matter how bleak things may be, one day we will see our Savior face to face and wear the crown of life!
Andrew Menkis lives in Maryland with his wife and daughter. Andrew is head of the theology department at Washington Christian Academy, where he teaches courses on biblical theology, systematic theology, film, and the writing of C. S. Lewis.
This article was originally published at Modern Reformation on December 10, 2019