In this recent volume in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, Andrew Abernethy contends that the concept of “kingdom” should be the “entry point for organizing the book’s major themes” in Isaiah (p. 1). Those familiar with this series will not be surprised that he takes a synchronic approach, interpreting Isaiah as a coherent literary unit without being concerned about the historical formation of the book, as well as a canonical approach, recognizing that both testaments are Christian scripture and inspired by a divine author. Accordingly, Abernethy pauses after each section in each chapter to consider how the salient passage(s) fits within the larger canon and how it bears witness to Jesus Christ.
Chapter 1 begins with Isaiah 6, which Abernethy describes as “the gateway into the rest of the book through a recognition of the present reign of a holy king” (p. 14). Attention is given to words and expressions that have royal connotations, such as the phrase “sitting upon a throne,” “high and lifted up,” the trisagion “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “LORD of hosts,” to name a few. He then outlines how Isaiah 24–25 portrays this king as one who judges and rules over the nations and will invite people from all nations to his table to celebrate his victory over death. One of the greatest contributions of this chapter is Abernethy’s discussion on kingship themes in Isaiah 33 and its relation to Isaiah 6 and 11. For example, he points out that the faithful will be able to see God, something that is no longer dreadful (cf. Isa 6:2) but desirable and beautiful.
Chapter 2 examines the theme of God in Isaiah 40–55 as the saving king who is yet to come. Abernathy compares Isaiah 40:1–11 and 52:7–10, two pericopes that share many lexical similarities. He concludes that they “provide an arch within the message of Isa 40–55” that “orient our hopes, our desires for comfort, our longings for vindication around the prophetic declarations that God himself is promising to come as king” (p. 65). A significant section is then devoted to exploring two key themes in Isaiah and their relation to kingship. First, Abernethy argues that righteousness, one the most debated words in Isaianic studies, refers to God’s saving righteousness in Isaiah 40–55, which buttresses his argument that one of the expectations of a kingly figure is his ability to save. Secondly, he examines the theme of the supremacy of YHWH over all of the Babylonian gods by considering four ideas latent in Isaiah 40–55: YHWH as kingly savior, kingly creator, commander of destinies, and temple/city builder.
Chapter 3 explores the theme of God as warrior king in Isaiah 56–66, and though there is a close connection to Isaiah 40–55, this final section of Isaiah highlights the “eschatological judgment as a corollary to salvation” (p. 83) with the aim of motivating the nations to repent. Abernethy follows a chiastic structure for Isaiah 56–66, but he sets Isaiah 60–62 at the center of the chiasm, a rather large center relative to the other parts (e.g., A = 56:1–8). The D levels of the chiasm (Isa 59:15b–21 and Isa 63:1–6) are discussed at length to highlight the anticipation of the salvation this international king brings, and the day of vengeance, respectively.
Chapter 4 takes a slightly different angle and examines the characters, or “lead agents,” that God uses to save, judge, and establish his kingdom. Abernethy employs the term “lead agents” (instead of “messiah”) to avoid any arguments over which texts are “messianic” and also because “it is better to allow the uniqueness of each figure to emerge” (p. 120). Of course, this doesn’t mean Jesus does not fulfill the role of these agents. As he says later, this actually “displays the grandeur of Jesus and the surprise of recognizing how one person, Jesus Christ, can take on the role of all three figures, while also being the very God of these agent figures” (p. 169). In other words, Abernethy wants these characters to develop organically, within their own historical contexts, and allow the canonical narrative to tell the story of how Jesus takes on all three roles.
Finally, chapter 5 addresses the subject of place and people in the kingdom of God. Where is God’s kingdom and who are its citizens? With regard to the question of place, Abernethy takes a “bifocal” perspective, as the kingdom of God is both the entire cosmos (Isa 37:16) and particularized as Zion (Isa 65:18–19). Though he points out that Isaiah’s readers would have understood Isaiah’s vision of Zion as a physical place with real, material blessings, Abernethy does not elaborate on what that looks like for the church; he does, however, provide some biblical-theological reflections. On the identity of the people who participate in this kingdom, Abernathy is much clearer: they are the remnant people, purified and redeemed; they are an obedient people, reflecting the justice and righteousness of God; and they are an international community from all ethnic backgrounds.
I cannot think of any glaring weaknesses in this book. My one small criticism is that a few of the “canonical reflections” feel slightly contrived. Perhaps a clearer methodology on how we can read Isaiah Christologically would have clarified the “canonical reflections” sections. This quibble notwithstanding, Abernethy has ably modeled for us how to read Isaiah in its own right within its historical setting, as well as a reading it as part of the biblical canon without compromising either approach.
In short, this volume is a stunning achievement. It has given me much to think about. Though I did not agree with some of his finer points, Abernethy has given the academy and the church a wonderful resource that synthesizes the vision of YHWH as king. Not only has he made a compelling case that “kingdom” is a major theme in Isaiah, but that it is indeed the “entry point for organizing the book’s major themes” (italics mine). It is the hub, as it were, from which the other major themes can radiate. What is most impressive about this book is the way in which Abernethy has made one of the longest and, arguably, most daunting books in the Bible accessible and meaningful for the lay reader without dumbing it down. It is the perfect resource for the pastor, student, and scholar who wants to preach through or study Isaiah. If you love the book of Isaiah, this book is for you!