Isaiah’s Missional Vision
Determining authorship and purpose of Isaiah is perhaps more complicated than even Jonah is. The complication arising from several sources of composition, including the Deuteronomists, has created confusion about the message of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39 93). Even when we approach the book with the assumption of unity, for which John N. Oswalt convincingly argues, the multitude of images held within the text, makes finding a single thread of purpose extremely difficult (Oswalt 19). My goal, therefore, will be to identify the missiological thread throughout what we now have as the book of Isaiah. While Isaiah 40-55 (or Second Isaiah) is known for the work of the servant among the nations, Yahweh’s concern for all nations and desire to gather all nations to him resounds throughout the whole.
One of the defining images that Isaiah offers is of the mountaintop of God. Blenkinsopp suggests that in each case, the mountain of the Lord refers to Jerusalem (Isaiah 1-39 191). The idea of the “mountain of the Lord’s house” (2:2) being a center for all nations brackets the entire body of Isaiah (2:2-5, 66:18-21). In the first reference to the “mountain of the Lord’s house” (2:2), Yahweh establishes Jerusalem as a place of wisdom and peace, which attracts the nations “because the teaching that goes forth from that source appeals to the deepest human longings” (Okoye 113). In the final reference to the “holy mountain Jerusalem” (66:20), the nations have seen Yahweh’s glory and are bringing offerings. However, the final reference does not simply leave the reader with the picture of a gathering of all nations. Instead, Yahweh declares that some of the outsiders will be taken “as priests and Levites” (66:21). No longer objects of the mission, the nations become full participants.
The gathering of the nations unfolds in specific ways throughout Isaiah. The inclusive vision of Isaiah is especially shocking when Egypt and Assyria are welcomed into the fold (19:16-25). Israel’s history with Egyptian oppression continues to aid a view of Egypt as an enemy. Because of Assyria’s military might and bullying, Israel’s attitude toward the country might mirror the attitude toward Ninevah (Isaiah 1-39 320). Yet, Yahweh groups the three peoples together in blessing, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage” (19:25). Again, the inclusion is not only in blessing toward the three peoples. Yahweh declares that the three will join in his mission of blessing the world (19:24) (“Implications of Conversion” 15).
Isaiah directs its comprehensive understanding of mission primarily toward Israel living a faithful and true life before the nations so that they will come to know Yahweh. The interpretation of Isaiah’s mission has, therefore, been seen as centripetal in nature (Bosch 19). This understanding, however, does not take seriously two important missiological arguments. First, Isaiah’s repeated use in the New Testament (especially Luke-Acts) provides evidence of the early church reading parts of Isaiah as centrifugal mission. For example, Paul and Barnabas quote Isaiah 49:6 as support for an active mission to the Gentiles at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:47). In doing so, Paul and Barnabas interpret “give you as a light to the nations” as a sending out to be light to the nations (Martens 65).
Secondly, scholarship has not full addressed the purpose of the servant images. Most studies of the servant images in Isaiah have focused on identifying the servants. Is the servant Israel, the remnant, Jesus, etc.? No matter who we conclude the servant images to portray, however, it seems clear that the servant is a protagonist and carries out the will of Yahweh. Therefore, the servant provides us with an image of prototypical action from the whole people of God. If that is the case, the centrifugal actions of the servant are not limited to the servant alone. Instead, they become expectations for everyone who worships Yahweh. Second Isaiah continually shows a God who actively seeks the nations. From Isaiah 40 onward, “God is anything but a tribal god. God’s project reaches toward the ends of the earth” (Martens 60).