John Goldingay in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah moves from the doctrine of God to the relationship of God to his people and place.
When Isaiah ben Amoz, the founder of the Isaiah circle of prophets, lived and spoke the word “Israel” applied to the northern kingdom in contrast to Judah, the southern kingdom. Yet Isaiah used Israel to mean the whole people of God. He called the northern kingdom Ephraim. But Israel had a theological meaning, not a political or geographical one.
Thus Isaiah’s addressees were Israel, the people of God. Yet the addressees changed over the history of the book: Judah, the exiles, the people of Jerusalem, or perhaps some group within the larger community. Isaiah’s point, says Goldingay is not that these addressees are the real Israel to the exclusion of others. It is that these groups, who are under threat and have a hard time seeing that they are the people of God, have the blessings and duties of God’s Israel.
This is why Israel emerges as the servant of Yahweh after chapter 40:
You, my servant Israel,
Jacob whom I have chosen,
offspring of Abraham my friend,
you whom I am bringing back from the earth’s extremities,
and have summoned from the remote regions –
I told you, “You are my servant.”
I have chosen you and not rejected you (Isaiah 41:8-9 NET Bible).
Isaiah’s addressees in the later chapters felt rejected rather than chosen. They must have seen themselves as helpless pawns of the great powers. Yet the Isaiah prophets insist that Israel’s God manipulated the great powers in the original exodus (51:10) and that he rules the whole world by being its creator (51:13). Now comes a new exodus. The God who created all nations will use his power to reinstate Israel and cause new growth.
In Isaiah the unique mark of God is that he is holy. So it is surprising to find holy as the description of a place, Jerusalem or Zion (48:7, 52:1). Isaiah opens with the self-description that it is a word about Judah and Jerusalem (1:1).
Much of Isaiah’s early chapters are devoted to bad news about Jerusalem. It will fall. It will be like Sodom and Gomorrah (1:8-9).
The reason for this fall is crucial. If, as Israel Knohl suggests, Isaiah ben Amoz preached a message of holiness to the Temple priests and people in Jerusalem; then it means something that Isaiah does not condemn their ritual practices as inadequate or insincere. Goldingay says that what Isaiah condemned was a mismatch between worship and life. The priests have taught the people to say and do the right things at the Temple, but there is a distance between that and the life of holiness (29:13).
Isaiah says that the people’s heart is far from him. To modern people this means that there is an emotional mismatch between God and the people of Jerusalem. But for Hebrews that heart meant the will. The mismatch was in life.
Jerusalem is holy because the Temple is there and it is the seat of David’s chosen dynasty. God saves Jerusalem from the Assyrian invasion because of Hezekiah, David’s descendant. But David had once made war on Jerusalem. So God will, like David, besiege Jerusalem even though the altar (Ariel) is there (29:1-4).
Think how radical must have been the thought for faithful Jews who experienced the Babylonian desolation of Jerusalem, that Yahweh was now with the Babylonian army as he had been with David’s army. Yet many residents of Jerusalem probably no longer thought of themselves as the people of God. Why should God treat them differently than he treated the Jebusites that David conquered?
These are the issues faced by a later Isaiah prophet who tried to proclaim good news about Zion to the exiles. So Goldingay will move on next to talk about restoration and hope for Jerusalem.