The annual liturgical calendar gives us seasonal excuses to set aside focused time to re-celebrate pinnacles of the biblical storyline, and to look at the same old, beautiful stories of redemptive history from different angles and using different lenses.
Ever since biblical theology found a happy home in Handel’s Messiah, Christmas has taken its rightful place as one of the most precious seasons for this type of reflection. And Advent itself has notoriously been targeted by publishers of devotionals and seasonal books for good reason. But as I’ve said over the years, I’m not much of a devotional-book reader. I much prefer to find my way directly to the pages of Scripture myself, and whenever I can intentionally focus my attention on a section of Scripture for a seasonal purpose, I take advantage of the opportunity. And that’s why this Christmas, I plan to invest extra time in slowing reading through the prophetic book of Isaiah.
It was something I did last year online, and a few dozen of you joined me on Twitter, and even more of you said they wanted to join along in the reading this year. So, welcome!
Isaiah is a book specifically dedicated to Israel’s history — their past redemption, present disobedience, and the future promises of God’s deliverance. Isaiah is a stunning book, and not only is it essential to our faith — some calling it the fifth gospel — but it’s also a historically magnificent work to help return our redemptive gaze back to the highlights of God’s activity among his people. But it’s not an abstracted involvement. It gets very personal, as we’ll see in a moment.
If you thought our world was a mess of dissension and idolatry, enter the world of Isaiah. It’s (arguably) the darkest book in the OT and (inarguably) the second most concentrated book of “joy” mentions in the OT (only behind the Psalms), making it a perfect set-up read for Christmas, and one rooted deep in a broken world.
Immediately obvious are the important prophecies for the Christmas season — passages like Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:6 stand out. But the entire book offers key background that frames the majesty of Bethlehem. That’s why for the month leading up to Christmas I’m dedicating my devotional readings exclusively to the book of Isaiah.
What makes this opportunity so precious during advent is the reality that Isaiah separates into three sections, and each section develops around one particular character whom God promises to send. In the first 39 chapters, God promises a Davidic Ruler, a new king, will emerge. In the next 16 chapters, he promises a self-giving Servant will arrive. In the final 11 chapters, he promises a Messenger, a prophet of God’s redemption.
Breaking Isaiah into three sections is not unique; students of the Bible have been making these breaks for a long time. What’s unique is that the trio of sections is here studied with particular emphasis on the central character in each of the section breaks, making the overall reading experience more personal (literally).
The threefold distinction of these characters is illustrated in one handy chart from a new book:
I pulled this helpful chart from Andrew Abernethy’s The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach. It was one of my favorite reads in 2016 and it’s one of the most relevant texts for the Christmas season.
To this end I want to use the month leading up to Christmas to read through Isaiah, look for these three characters, and recognize all along that these three characters are not three people, but rather one Messiah — God’s incarnate Son.
I’ll give you the specifics of my reading schedule in just a moment, but first here are two important paragraphs from Abernathy’s book to set the stage for how Isaiah develops these three characters. Here Abernathy also provides a caution about what not to do in our reading, and instead what we should be looking for as we read Isaiah.
Here’s the first important excerpt.
“Isaiah does not envision only one lead agent; instead, there are at least three distinct lead agents whom God will use in each of the major sections of the book: (1) the Davidic ruler (1–39), (2) the servant of the Lord (40–55), and (3) God’s messenger (56–66). While Christians profess that Jesus ultimately embodies what the book of Isaiah envisions for these lead agents, I am not certain that these agents are necessarily understood to be the same individual throughout Isaiah. The book of Isaiah contains a range of expectations pertaining to the various roles God would need his lead agents to fulfill in the course of time. Instead of forcing all of these lead agents into one mold, it is better to allow the uniqueness of each figure to emerge. The common denominator, however, between these lead agents is that they are the divine king’s agents and feature into his plans within his kingdom. In fact, God’s Spirit empowers all three of these agents for the task assigned to them. These agents, then, are distinct, but are also united under God as king and overlap to some extent due to shared participation in God’s mission” (120).
The royal, the prophetic, and the priestly — three characters in three persons in the Isaianic storyline. Before we run them together, based upon what we know from later revelation, we should first let the book of Isaiah develop the three characters individually in the full richness of the expectations of God’s people.
Here’s the second paragraph from the book I want you to see.
“The Davidic ruler, the servant, and the anointed messenger are distinct figures in the outlook of the book of Isaiah, for they have fairly distinct purposes and operate in differing contexts. The Davidic ruler will be God’s agent in maintaining justice within Israel in the aftermath of deliverance from their oppressors. The servant will be God’s instrument among the nations in reconciling Israel and the nations to God through his suffering so that they may dwell with God, the holy king, in his holy city. The anointed messenger will emerge on the brink of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s coming as the warrior king who will reign in Zion to declare the gospel to the disheartened faithful. It is not unexpected for Isaiah to envision multiple lead agents in the light of other prophetic literature. As Boda [another scholar] argues, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi envision royal, prophetic and priestly figures who will all play an important role in the establishment of God’s kingdom. The claim here also does not undermine the New Testament’s application of all three of Isaiah’s figures to Jesus; instead, it 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” (169).
As we work through the three figures in Isaiah, and as we approach Christmas, the connections between them in Christ should become clearer and clearer. As we work from the details of our personal reading, and as we come together in Christmas worship, we will see all three strands, all three characters, come together in our magnificent Prophet-Priest-King born in Bethlehem.
Finally, the schedule, which you are free to print out and slide into your Bible. I divvied up the book into a calendar, scheduled for weekdays, running from Monday, November 27 to Friday, December 22).
I would love for you to join me this year as we prepare for the birth of our Savior. May we together worship him in the full majesty of what his coming means for the world, and may we together praise him for his fulfillment of the multifaceted expectations of the prophetic anticipation.
EXPECTING A DAVIDIC RULER (ISAIAH 1–39)
☐ Nov 27 Isa 1–2
☐ Nov 28 Isa 3–6
☐ Nov 29 Isa 7–9
☐ Nov 30 Isa 10–13
☐ Dec 1 Isa 14–16
☐ Dec 4 Isa 17–21
☐ Dec 5 Isa 22–24
☐ Dec 6 Isa 25–28
☐ Dec 7 Isa 29–30
☐ Dec 8 Isa 31–33
☐ Dec 11 Isa 34–36
☐ Dec 12 Isa 37–39
EXPECTING A SERVANT (ISAIAH 40–55)
☐ Dec 13 Isa 40–41
☐ Dec 14 Isa 42–43
☐ Dec 15 Isa 44–47
☐ Dec 18 Isa 48–50
☐ Dec 19 Isa 51–54
EXPECTING A MESSENGER (ISAIAH 56–66)
☐ Dec 20 Isa 55–58
☐ Dec 21 Isa 59–62
☐ Dec 22 Isa 63–66