Book Review: The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom by Andrew Abernethy

Book Review: The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom

Abernethy, Andrew T. The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016.

Summary

Abernethy’s book is an attempt to understand the theology of Isaiah. Isaiah is a huge book and so, to keep things simple, Abernethy a priory assumes the Kingdom theme (p. 17). He takes a Biblical Theological approach that assumes the unity of the text. His book breaks up into three sections. The first section (chs. 1-3) covers each of the three major parts of Isaiah (Is 1-39, 40-55, 56-66). The second (ch. 4) discusses the three leaders in Isaiah. And the third section (ch. 5) explores the relationship between the people and the kingdom.

He argues that the three major sections of Isaiah present the kingdom as the central theme. The first section presents God as king in such passages as Isaiah’s call, the little apocalypse, and the defeat of Sennacherib (ch. 1). These passages occur in each of the minor sections of the first part of Isaiah infusing them with the kingdom theme. The second section presents the Gospel of the kingdom (ch. 2). The good news is that the Kingdom of God is coming, and he will rule over all. The third section presents God coming as a warrior king who will receive tribute from all nations (ch. 3). The end of Isaiah finishes with God as the cosmic king who reigns over all from Jerusalem.

God’s leading agents also promote the Kingdom concept (ch. 4). The three sections of Isaiah champion a different agent. The Davidic Ruler (Is 1-39) appears as the leader who will reign by the Spirit. The Servant of the Lord (Is 40-55) completes the mission of Israel and unites the world to God. The Anointed Messenger (Is 56-66) comes to proclaim God’s kingdom to the world. As for the kingdom today, the realm of God’s kingdom is twofold (ch. 5). It is infinite, since “heaven is his throne, and earth is his footstool.” But it becomes localized in Zion as the epicenter of God’s reign on earth.

Comparison

Abernathy’s viewpoint on the “virgin” birth (Is 7:14) reflects a modified traditional style. Moyter, for contrast, represents a traditional viewpoint in his commentary The Prophecy of Isaiah (IVPA, 2015). For Abernathy, the identity and meaning of the ‘almâ is not important. He does not cover it in the main body, but rather leaves it to a footnote (p. 197, fn. 18). He takes the critical position that the ‘almâ is means young woman, but not necessarily a virgin. For him, if at the time of the prophecy Isaiah referenced a virgin, his audience would have understood that the prophecy implied she would get pregnant normally. In contrast, Moyter concludes argues that the word does mean virgin as opposed to beûlâ which he argues means young woman.[1]

From here, the interpretations further diverge. Abernathy takes the prophecy as a “pattern-fulfilment” instead of a “prediction-fulfilment” model (p. 197). As such, the prophecy set a pattern which Christ fulfills in the future. But as far as the prophecy in the context of Isaiah, he says the identity of the child is not important because it is not developed in the text. Further, he believes that the sign is not on the birth of the child, but on the timing—before the child is 2 years old, Syria and Northern-Israel will be destroyed. Moyter takes the “prediction-fulfilment” model (p. 176). Since in his view ‘almâ means virgin, it is a direct prophecy of Christ (p. 180). As such, the identity of the child, namely Jesus, is all important. And the sign of Isaiah 7:14 is in fact the virgin birth of Christ.

Between the two views, Abernathy has the more cogent explanation. There were several logical issues and factual errors in Moyter’s interpretation that needed better explanation.[2] Abernathy seemed to address these issues and still coherently maintained the orthodox position of the virgin-birth of Christ.

Evaluation

Overall, it is an excellent, thought provoking work. I, however, question if he proved his thesis. His goal was to argue that the Kingdom of God is the major theme of the book. While the kingdom of God is there, I was not won over to his position entirely. He certainly showed how many passages focus on the kingdom and how God’s kingliness plays a major role. Yet, in many passages, the kingship of God plays an assumed role while other things seem to take the foreground. For example, while Isaiah 6 opens with an awesome display of God’s kingship, the scene focuses on Isaiah and his mission to the people. The banquet of YHWH passage (Is 25:6-8), which he cites as an example of his kingship, falls in the middle of a passage about the salvation of humanity from sin and the effects thereof. I am convinced that the kingdom plays a major role, but I am not convinced it plays the major role.

Another note, though of the nitpicky sort, there were a few passages where he made statements that were rather obvious. For example, he said, “An invitation to partake in the king’s feast was a badge of honour” (p. 69) and he proved his point with several ANE examples. It is helpful that he pointed this out, but it is hardly necessary to prove. In modern life, if a dignitary or even an executive invites a person to dinner, that is still viewed as an honor. It just seemed a little unnecessary to prove.

In the end, I think this book is worth the read. It brought out the kingdom motif while still maintaining the structural integrity of the book. It was easy to read and enjoyable. I would recommend this book to pastors or teachers interested in preaching through Isaiah.

[1]. He states “outside the Bible, ‘so far as may be ascertained’, ̔almâ was ‘never used of a married woman’. He cites E. J. Young for this point (Studies in Isaiah, 1954). This, however, is only part of the story. While he may be right as far as he goes, ‘almâ does mean a girl on her wedding night in Ugaritic literature. Although aware of this fact, Moyter never seems to address it even though it undermines his case. Further, his citation for this point is also outdated (1954). In fact, at the same time he mentions this point, the Ugaritic literature came to light scholarly circles: Cyrus H. Gordon, “’Almah in Isaiah 7:14,” Journal of Bible and Religion 21, no. 2 (1953): 106; Ernest R. Lacheman, “Apropos of Isaiah 7:14,” Journal of Bible and Religion 22, no. 1 (1954): 43; Herbert M. Wolf, “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91, no. 4 (1972): 449–56.

[2]. Since this a review of Abernathy and not Moyter, I will not elaborate here. See footnote 1 for an example.

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