Raymond C. Ortlund Jr is the pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville. Ray recently contributed to the new ESV Study Bible, compiling notes for the book of Isaiah. Here is a link to the Isaiah intro along with the first couple of chapters. In what follows, I put a few questions to Ray about Isaiah in the context of the ESV Study Bible.
1. Ray, I believe that Isaiah is one of the books you’ve given yourself to for special ‘lifetime study.’ What led to your interest in Isaiah and how have you invested in studying it?
Dr. Bruce Waltke introduced me to Isaiah at Dallas Seminary in 1973. I saw this lovely Christian man drawing insights out of Isaiah that left me spellbound. I had never seen the Bible perform like that, especially the Old Testament. God claimed me for a lifetime of serious Bible study. Isn’t it often the case that God uses a person to awaken us to spiritual riches that would otherwise go unnoticed?
I want to know the whole Bible as well as I can, of course. But it’s a huge book in every way, and life is short. So, alongside my studies ranging all over the Bible, my strategy is to focus on one Old Testament book and one New Testament book as lifetime personal projects. I have chosen Isaiah and Romans. Right now, in my daily Bible reading, I am plowing through Isaiah again with Brevard Childs’ commentary.
2. You’ve also compared Isaiah to a “classic that no-one reads any more.” It begs the question: are there some particular challenges readers face when confronting this prophecy?
Yes. But the challenges are part of what makes Bible study so satisfying. If it were easy, who would care?
For many people, the front-end challenge to enjoying Isaiah might be what Luther noted in his wonderfully blunt way – that “the prophets have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at.” Isaiah as literature can give the appearance of arbitrary disconnectedness. It’s part of the reason Delbert Hillers wrote, “The books of Israel’s prophets are among the most difficult in the Old Testament, and probably among the most difficult books ever written.” In addition, we have to consider hermeneutical/theological questions within the flow of the Bible as a whole, especially how Isaiah dovetails into the New Testament. Then there is Isaiah’s historical distance from our own time, though that may be the least formidable difficulty because the Holy Spirit makes sure that Isaiah remains hard-hitting in every age at the level of raw personal impact.
3. In what ways do you believe the ESV Study Bible notes will help the ‘average reader’ grapple with the book?
Two, for starters. One, the notes will help a reader track with the larger flow of Isaiah’s unfolding thought. The parts really do fit into a whole. It is satisfying and maturing to track with a book like Isaiah without quitting until we have that “Aha!” moment, given by God, when the prophet’s message finally breaks open with clarity and power. The introduction and notes are meant to set the scene for that discovery experience.
Two, the notes also attempt to answer the more detailed questions that a reader will ask. Getting an accurate answer quickly, at the bottom of the page, enables a reader to keep going with minimal interruption and keep reaching for that larger vision Isaiah wants to communicate.
4. In the study notes you say that “God himself is the center of Isaiah’s vision” and that everything else plays a ‘supportive’ role. What do you mean by this?
If Isaiah were the script of a play, the one character who never exits the stage is God. That fact alone is full of meaning and material to Isaiah’s message. The prophet himself appears only several times. Everyone and everything but God plays a support role in the unfolding drama. The book is “concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (1:1), but they are there to prove what only their Savior can do. Other nations appear (chapters 13ff), Assyria swaggers into view rattling its sword (chapters 36-37), Bel and Nebo are dragged on-stage as absurd props (chapter 46), but the Holy One of Israel remains center-stage throughout. He draws our attention to the Servant in whom his soul delights (42:1). He pours out his Spirit (44:3). He surveys the whole drama and says, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it” (48:11). He even commands, “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (2:22). Today we “regard man” far too much. It’s why we need this aggressively God-centered book of Isaiah.
5. Ray, you have previously preached through Isaiah. Did preaching through the prophecy make any impact upon the kinds of study-notes you included?
I love biblical scholarship. But I do ask that it help me trust the Lord more biblically and help me, as a pastor, help others trust the Lord more biblically. But to get to the point, yes, preaching through Isaiah changed me. It re-oriented my reading at the level of my deepest assumptions about what the Bible is even here for. I tried to write, therefore, not primarily with the questions of a professional scholar in mind but primarily with the questions of a regenerate, thoughtful layperson in mind. Isaiah wrote to help everyday people reason honestly with the Lord, trust firmly in the Lord, rest quietly in the Lord, wait patiently for the Lord, prepare the way of the Lord, remove every obstruction, and so forth. Okay. Now I know what to care about. I hope this sense of alignment with the prophet’s own intention comes through, with notes that are scholarly but not arcane, practical but not platitudinous.
6. So, what ‘prophetic message’ does the book of Isaiah bring to the church today?
I think Isaiah would have loved Calvin, who in the throes of decision wrote to Farel, “I am well aware that it is with God that I have to do.” We are always dealing with God. But little in the modern world makes us well aware of it. Isaiah became well aware of God. He came to realize how urgently relevant to all things is the One who says, “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (43:11). But Isaiah also saw that it’s the most natural thing in the world for us, without even realizing it, to redefine God in such a way that we can forsake him and still think of ourselves as good people.
That leads to Isaiah’s second prophetic message to us today. We are more wicked than we know. Isaiah himself went through a profound humiliation before God. He was a privileged man, and obviously a genius. People probably valued his opinions. But when he saw the holy King, he finally saw his own dirty self, no better than anyone else (6:1-5). But the grace of the King was feelingly applied to Isaiah, energizing him for a self-abandoning, God-glorifying life mission (6:6-8). As Charles Simeon wrote to a friend, “You have always appeared to me to be sincere. But your views of Christianity seemed to be essentially defective. You have always appeared to admire Christianity as a system; but you never seemed to have just views of Christianity as a remedy; you never seemed to possess self-knowledge or to know the evil of your own heart.”
Isaiah’s third and breath-takingly glorious message is that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He will preserve, purify and honor his people, drawing us out from all the nations as a glorious new humanity and, through the sin-bearing Servant, he will have us glorifying and enjoying himself in a renewed universe forever. No matter what terrors confront us in the world, no matter what sins we discover in ourselves, God will fulfill his saving purpose. “Be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create,” God says (65:18).
7. Finally Ray, how did you find the experience of putting together your contribution of the ESV Study Bible notes?
It was one of the great privileges of my life, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would have gladly paid Crossway to let me do it. Fortunately, they didn’t know that.
I think of it this way. What if God, in grace, allowed me to set aside significant time to linger in thoughtful personal conversation with the ancient prophet Isaiah? What would I learn from that experience? How would I see things in a new way and be set free and change? Well, he did give me that privilege – in large part, through this Study Bible project – and I’m still there. I hope these notes that came of it, these jottings from the conversation as it were, make it easier for every reader to join in. God himself has promised to meet us there.
(Ray also blogs at Christ Is Deeper still).