What is your greatest need in life? Every December, I am reminded of my greatest need, expressed in a Christmas card I received many years ago.
If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
But since our greatest need was forgiveness, God sent us a Savior!
A Savior, who is Christ the Lord! That is what Christmas is all about. Better yet, that is who Christmas is all about. The annual holiday is not about jolly ol’ Saint Nick and his team of reindeers delivering gifts to children around the world. The worldwide celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is about how God chose to meet our greatest need for forgiveness, for salvation.
Theologically, the word “salvation” means “deliverance from the penalty and power of sin, redemption.” Salvation sounds like it belongs inside the stained-glass windows of the church. Can we unwrap this word in a way that everyday people understand that salvation is indeed our greatest need? We can, with help from an Old Testament prophet named Isaiah.
Our next stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible is the book of Isaiah, where the word “salvation” appears twenty-eight times and the theme “God is my salvation” runs deep.
Isaiah is the first of seventeen prophetic writings found in the Old Testament. Based on the size of each book, five of them are classified as Major Prophets and twelve as Minor Prophets. The granddaddy of the Major Prophets is Isaiah. What Beethoven means to music and Shakespeare means to literature, what Michelangelo is to art and Babe Ruth is to baseball, and whom Washington and Lincoln are among the presidents of the United States, Isaiah is among the holy prophets of God.
Like the other prophets in the Bible, God sent Isaiah to deliver a word of warning to His wayward people. The Lord never sent a prophet to the nation of Israel while she was walking in obedience to His divine commands. Rather, He commissioned holy firebrands like Isaiah (6:1-11) to correct God’s chosen people and call them to repentance when they had strayed like sheep into immorality and idolatry. Often, the prophet’s messages fell on deaf ears and hard hearts. Even Jesus rebuked two men on the road to Emmaus and called them foolish for being “slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:24-25).
The writer of Hebrews says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (1:1). These ancient word-warriors spoke with divine authority, uttering, “Thus saith the Lord!” The apostle Peter describes the prophets as having been “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” like a ship driven by a tempestuous wind (2 Peter 1:21; Acts 27:15-17).
Furthermore, the Old Testament prophets were both forth-tellers and foretellers. Their divine messages applied directly to the times in which they lived, but they also gave glimpses into the future known as prophecies, something that requires divine inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16). Isaiah contains much Bible prophecy, including, for example, one we recite at Christmas about the birth of our Savior (9:6-7) and many others about the second advent of Christ.[i]
The claim of predictive prophecy is the main reason skeptics attack and malign the book of Isaiah. Modern scholars who deny the Bible’s supernatural origin go to great lengths to construct a post-exilic date for Isaiah’s writing. They propose the only explanation for chapters 40-66 is an anonymous author (Deutero-Isaiah) who wrote after the Babylonian captivity. They try to make their case by pointing to differences in the writing style. The New Testament rejects such nonsense by attributing the entire book to Isaiah.[ii] Besides, today’s published authors often use different writing styles like fiction and non-fiction.
Who was Isaiah the prophet? Fun facts about him include that he was born to wealthy parents and grew up among the aristocracy of Israel, which gave him access to kings when he ministered God’s holy word.[iii] Isaiah served as a prophet and statesman to the Southern Kingdom for sixty years (740 to 680 B.C.), during the time when the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria and before Judah’s Babylonian exile.[iv] Isaiah’s wife was a prophetess, and they had two children. Strangely, God told Isaiah to walk around naked and barefoot for three years as a sign of shame against Egypt and Cush (20:1-6). Finally, a not-so-fun fact about Isaiah is that he was eventually executed for his faith. Jewish tradition says he was sawn in two inside a hollow log during the reign of an evil king named Manasseh (696-642 B.C.), something to which the writer of Hebrews alludes (11:37).
Salvation is of the Lord
But what do Isaiah’s life and ministry have to do with salvation? What does it have to do with our greatest need? Let’s dig deeper. For starters, Isaiah’s name means “Yahweh is salvation.” Isaiah 12:1 captures the book’s theme beautifully, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.”
With sixty-six chapters, Isaiah is like a miniature Bible, which also contains sixty-six books. As the Bible easily falls into two parts with thirty-nine chapters in the Old Testament and twenty-seven chapters in the New Testament, the book of Isaiah lays out similarly. Chapters 40-66 are commonly called the Book of Consolation. By way of contrast, chapters 1-39 could be called the Book of Judgment. After reading the first thirty-nine chapters, which are full of judgments against the nations of the earth, you might find it strange that the salvation of the Lord is the book’s overall theme. However, the stern judgments in chapters 1-39 make perfect sense because man’s need for salvation always precedes God’s provision of salvation.[v]
Judgment always begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17), which is why Isaiah begins with judgments against Judah, including five “woes” aimed at the Southern Kingdom (1:1-5:30). In Isaiah’s time, God’s people had devolved morally, invoking a series of scathing denunciations from the Lord through His prophet. For example, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (5:20). Also, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (5:21).
Israel had lost the ability to discern between right and wrong. Pride had blinded the nation and its leaders! It was not easy for the prophet to deliver such stern messages. However, it was time to clean house. Isaiah, a visionary leader, first caught a vision of the exalted Lord that made him pronounce his own woe, a sixth in the flow of lamentations that begin in 5:11. After hearing the angels sing “Holy, holy, holy” around the throne of God, Isaiah saw himself clearly. “Woe is me! 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!” (6:5).
The judgments accelerate in chapters 1-39. They expand to include all nations throughout history, even to the end of the age, which Isaiah views through the lens of predictive prophecy. Beyond Judah (1-6), Isaiah takes aim at the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom (7-12), followed by other nations like Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, and Moab (13-23). In chapters 24-27, Isaiah foretells of a time in the future known as the Tribulation—the worst of times on planet earth—followed by the Millennial Kingdom of Christ. Jerusalem becomes the focus in chapters 28-33, and then a return to the Great Tribulation, Armageddon, and the millennial blessings of Christ (34-35).
Isaiah 1-39 provides one of the broadest swaths of history and prophecy found anywhere in the Bible. Reading these chapters might make us feel sad, weary, and desperate. However, chapters 40-66 follow with consolation and hope as Isaiah unpacks God’s promises and future blessings through His Messiah.
The Gospel According to Isaiah
Isaiah 40 begins a Hebrew poem that stretches at least through chapter 55, and some say to the end of the enormous book. It might be the greatest and most eloquent poem ever written. Jewish rabbis refer to this section of Isaiah as the Book of Consolation, in part because of the way it begins: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (40:1). Through a prophetic lens, Isaiah anticipated that God’s people would grow weary after seventy years of captivity in Babylon and would need the Lord’s consolation.
The word “salvation” appears twenty-one times in these twenty-seven chapters, providing hope and solace for hurting souls after thirty-nine chapters of judgment. As pure literature, Isaiah’s soaring eloquence pleases the ear when read aloud. But God’s word does more than tickle our ears. Holy Scripture also comforts our heart and draw us closer to our Creator.
Chapters 40 and 53 contain the most familiar sections of the biblical composition. The movie Chariots of Firedrew attention to Isaiah 40 when Olympic runner Eric Liddell read these beautiful words during a church service, “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (40:31). These verses inspired Liddell to run for the glory of God and fly like an eagle.
Most students of the Bible also recognize the lofty rhetoric of Isaiah 53, which sits like a jewel at the perfect midpoint of the literary structure between chapters forty and sixty-six. This famous chapter inside the grand poem contains the powerful Messianic prediction of the Suffering Servant who is to come. Isaiah 53 also explains the mystery hinted at in chapter forty relating to the restoration of God’s exiled people.
Although orthodox Jews still believe Isaiah 53 has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth, the gospel according to Isaiah is clear. The New Testament quotes or alludes to Isaiah 53 nearly forty times.[vi] Of course, Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled this monumental prophecy. He was indeed the Suffering Servant Isaiah wrote about centuries before Christ was born in Bethlehem.
Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, agrees and writes, “Isaiah 53 is one of the clearest prophecies of Jesus the Messiah in the Hebrews Scriptures. This chapter has changed the lives of thousands of people—both Jews and Gentiles—who have read the text and believed in the One who fulfilled these prophecies in glorious detail.”[vii]
Let’s return to the question I posed at the beginning. What is your greatest need in life? How you answer that question will determine what you spend your life chasing after. If your greatest need is education, you will spend your life running after knowledge. If your greatest need is for technology, you will become a slave to the latest gadget. If your greatest need is for money, you will wear yourself out trying to get rich, and the next dollar you earn will never be enough. If your greatest need is for someone to love you and make you feel secure, you are getting closer. But no human relationship can fully satisfy that ache in your heart.
However, if your greatest need is for forgiveness, Isaiah will open to you like a springtime flower. Better yet, you will understand why the writer of Hebrews warned about neglecting “such a great a salvation” (2:3). Furthermore, you will spend the rest of your life chasing after Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, who loves you so much that He purchased your salvation by dying on the cross to pay the penalty for your sin and free you from its power.
This blog submission is from Route 66: The Ultimate Road Trip Through the Bible, an eBook written by Dr. Ron Jones. Download the complete eBook based on Road Trip 4, the Major Prophets (Isaiah through Daniel) in our Store.
[i] See Isaiah 7:16, 8:4-7, 37:33-35, 38:
[ii] Recent archeology supports the credibility of Isaiah and the preservation of the Bible as a whole. In 1946, the scroll of Isaiah was found among the Qumran discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
[iii] Isaiah served during the reigns of
[iv] A few years after Isaiah was born, Romulus and Remus founded Rome (753 B.C.). At that time, Greece was also emerging as a world power.
[v] The apostle Paul follows the same logic in the book of Romans. In chapters 1-3, he deals with man’s depravity and sin, followed by a discussion of salvation in chapters 4-5.
[vi] God used Jewish men who were guided by the Holy Spirit to write the New Testament. They clearly linked the prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 to Jesus of Nazareth.
[vii] Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, pg. 21.