Friday, July 28, 2006

The Book of Isaiah by Edward J. Young (or Tendencies in Older Evangelical Commentaries)

I recently finished the three-volume work The Book of Isaiah by Edward J. Young. This work is a major benchmark for conservative, evangelical commentaries from a non-dispensational perspective on this important and interesting Old Testament prophet. I benefited greatly from plowing through this large work. However, while I was reading it, two issues presented themselves to me about this commentary in particular and other commentaries as they share some common features.

The first thing that struck me from the opening pages of the commentary was the format. I have noticed that many older commentaries, and a few more recent works, treat the text in an atomistic, verse by verse manner. I think this is unhelpful for several reasons. First, it is poor hermeneutical practice to treat a text piecemeal, sentence by sentence. No one would chop up a story by Dickens, or a treatise by Locke and examine the work a sentence, or a phrase at a time. The proper manner to analyze a text is by those natural divisions of thought found in paragraphs or larger sections which encapsulate a single or related set of thought. Second, this method obscures the structure that may be found in the work or the section under consideration. At times in the Hebrew Bible, this structure is important in understanding a section, or the work as a whole. For example, in certain sections of Jeremiah particularly near the beginning, oracles are grouped around a common word or a common theme. Without noticing this pattern of attraction of common words or themes, one may easily misunderstand or misinterpret these oracles. The fact that they one is earlier in the book does not necessarily mean that they are historically earlier; nor does the fact that two oracles are juxtaposed imply that they have anything other than a accidental thematic similarity- the actual occasion of the two sayings may be widely divergent. Following the chapter and verse division of the English Bible obscures the actual patterns found within the text itself. Third, this method destroys the unity of the text. No author sat and wrote a series of loosely connected statements. They wrote thoughts, and these thoughts were related to each other- and these were related to his goal and his reason for writing. It is the larger thought which has priority, and informs the meaning and significance of the details (Of course I am not denying the fact that the parts inform the meaning and significance of the whole). Thankfully, this method has generally fallen out of favor; but this poor format obscures the insight and the value of some older works.

The second thing that struck me was how much this was a “Christian” commentary. While I think that Isaiah has great significance for the Christian this side of redemptive history, I also think he likewise had great significance for those before Jesus. Dr. Young, and many other conservative evangelicals focus on the meaning of the text in light of Jesus; but in so doing, leave little or no meaning for those before the formation of the New Testament church or before Christ. Thus, there are passages which speak of Israel as the servant of God, or as a light to the Gentiles, which Dr. Young says must refer to Jesus or the church in the New Testament age. Passages which seem to clearly have reference to the return from exile and the restoration of life in Palestine have reference to the Gospel and the inclusion of the remnant of the Jews and of the Gentiles in the church. As a Christian, I cannot deny the basic truth that redemptive historically the eschaton inaugurated by Christ fulfills the figures and the expectation found in the prophets. But I likewise cannot deny that Isaiah had significance and had a message for those in his own days. For me, this is why the sensus plenior is such a wise method- holding in tension the meaning for the original audience and also its fuller, redemptive-historical meaning in Christ and those united to him by faith. From both an exegetical standpoint, and in order to do justice to our brothers and sisters before the advent of Christ, I believe conservatives must pay more attention to the original meaning and situation of the Old Testament writings.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi, Regarding your second point, objecting to the commentary on Isaiah being too "Christian" according to what I read in the NT, the OT IS all about Jesus. Reference John 5:39, Luke 24:25-27 and Acts 8:26-35 in particular. Isn't that how you would read those passages?

Keith said...

Thanks for the comment. This is a tough issue and is currently a subject of much debate.

My point regarding this commentary being too Christian does not mean to deny or discount the fact that Christ is the center or end of all of Scripture.

My point revolves around the question how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. Does Jesus evacuate the text of all other meaning, or does the text have a meaning related to Christ, but also a meaning related to the author and his own audience? If it is the former, then the author has nothing meaningful to say to his audience in their own time and situation. I think that this is a wrong way to view Christ's fulfillment of the Old Testament. It is analogous to how many today falsely read Revelation- the book is written about future events and persons, and aside from raising interest and providing a "blueprint" for the future, it has nothing meaningful to say the church in John the Seer's day, or our own.

I think it is better to hold in tension the meaning of the text to the original audience and its relation to Christ. The latter complements and extends the former, but it does not replace it. Too often we read the Old Testament as drawing a direct connection with Christ without any nuance. But I do not think this is what Luke, Paul or any other New Testament author would support. Looking carefully at the Gospels, Matthew and Luke in particular how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament is a lot more complicated then Jesus=OT reference. For example, Matthew's use of Jesus flight to Egypt in chapter 2 has reference to the Exodus of Israel, but consider a few things. First, Matthew has had to change the text to make it apply to Jesus. Jesus fulfills the text by going to Egypt, not out of Egypt. Matthew changes Hosea's reference to a past historical event to a future event. Second, consider also how little Matthew's use of the passage is lifted from the context, which emphasizes Israel's unfaithfulness. Does Jesus fulfill this passage simply by moving from Judea to Egypt and then back again, or is something deeper going on? I think all of the passages in this chapter are presenting Jesus as the true Israel, the fulfillment of everything that Israel was supposed to be. In light of the larger context of Hosea 11, this points to Christ clearly not because Jesus went to Egypt, but Jesus, unlike Israel after the Exodus- their call and adoption- Jesus was faithful. God does not need to judge Jesus for his unfaithfulness- note what immediately what follows in Jesus baptism. In short, Matthew is doing something a lot more complicated than ripping Hosea 11:1 out of context and saying it is fulfilled in Jesus in a simple 1:1 manner. We like to take those easy passages which appear to draw this connection, but all to often this creates more problems when one thinks deeper about the NT's use of the OT.

What does this have to do with the Isaiah commentary. I don't think Young, or other evangelical commentators take account of the complicated nature of Jesus fulfillment. This is not because Young is unable to do this, he was a very capable scholar, he just didn't in this commentary. All of the references in the text were all focused on this side of redemptive history. For me, a commentary on and Old Testament book has to take into account the text and the original audience itself first. At times this means that a passage which relates to Jesus also may have meaning in its own time. Consider a brief example from Isaiah. The passage in chapter 7 about the maiden (the meaning of the Hebrew term used/virgin (the Greek term used in the NT) clearly relates to Christ (Matthew 1:23) But is that all that the prophecy meant in context? What about the time reference in Isaiah 7, was Jesus born in the days of the Assyrian hegemony? What about the connection with chapter 8 and Isaiah's own children? There is a clear relation in the text between the Immanuel oracle and what follows, just compare 7:16 and 8:4. A good commentary should note the historical reference of the text, and should point out the meaning of the Immanuel oracle in light of the text itself before jumping to Matthew 1. The goal of a commentary is to understand the text first, and then the redemptive historical application. Skipping the first does not allow one to understand the text properly, and I think it also can hinder our understanding of how Christ fulfills the text. It is only when we see the text in its full richness, it is only when we understand the Old Testament people fully that we can understand its Christological meaning. A good Christian commentary deals with both.

I know I have rambled on a bit, and maybe have not made it any more clear, but I hope I have explained my thinking a little more. For more information on some of these issues, I would recommend reading the articles on the NT's use of the OT by Dr. Pete Enns and Dan McCartney available at

Anonymous said...

So if I follow you correctly, you don't have a problem with what Young does present - you'd just like to also hear how he and/or other commentators believe people in the Biblical writer's day understood the book and the prophecies. Is that correct?

I have not read Young's commentary and am not defending him. (When I found your site, I was actually doing research to try to find out if Young's commentary is Biblically sound, easy to understand and enlightening since I don't know anything about him.)

I agree that Revelation has meaning today. No matter what a person believes from Revalation (and related passages from other books) about the 2nd coming, rapture and tribulation, there is great comfort for the reader (at least for the Christian reader) knowing that in the end Jesus wins. There is also much exorhtation in the letters to the 7 churches that we can learn from. We don't have to wait for it to be fulfilled to get something out of it.

As the writer of Hebrews says, God's word is living and active. Always has been and always will be for all people in all ages. Isaiah primarily points to Jesus - and while the people in that day wouldn't have fully understood that at the time, that does not make the book meaningless to them. Perhaps Young felt like what it did mean to them at the moment was not nearly as important for us to know in order to understand the ultimate meaning today. As I said, I don't know anything about Young and haven't read the commentary.


Keith said...


Sorry I haven't responded sooner. The comment feed from Google hasn't been emailing to me, so I didn't know that another comment had been made.

Young's commentary is good and very insightful. It is thoroughly committed to a Biblical and evangelical commitment to the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. You will not be disappointed, or mislead by using the commentary.

This is just my personal preference, but for a commentary, I prefer that the author primarily focus on the authors conscious intentions and the message to the original audience. If the author wants to talk about the redemptive-historical implications of the text, I prefer that be done in a separate section after the text itself has been exegeted.

Anonymous said...

You wrote
"No one would chop up a story by Dickens, or a treatise by Locke and examine the work a sentence, or a phrase at a time."

It is so very true! I've read Isaiah more than 30 times, and still don't get the big picture. Only gathering a few key texts, here a little, there a little. This is not right, but commentaries really don't help much.

John said...

Which Commentary would you suggest for a clear understanding of Isaiah's
prophecy? Also have you read Osald T. Allis' book, "The Unity of Isaiah?