The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66
Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998. $48.00 hc. xviii + 755 pp. ISBN 0-8028-2534-6.
This volume completes the commentary in this series on this prophetic book. Oswalt’s work on Isaiah, chapters 1-39 appeared in 1986. These two volumes are the replacement for the earlier classic study by E.J. Young that appeared in three volumes, 1964-1972.
Oswalt’s commentary exhibits several of the strengths of the first volume. His many helpful footnotes focus primarily on explaining grammatical and lexical particulars, and the structural breakdown and exposition of the text are lucid and easy to follow. There is a concern to weave theological reflection into this exposition, not only in terms of each passage’s relationship to the broader concerns of the entire book of Isaiah and the rest of the Old Testament but also in terms of possible subsequent fulfillments and developments within the New Testament. There are extensive indexes for subject matter, authors, biblical references, and Hebrew words provided at the end of the book.
At the same time, however, this commentary reflects a weakness of the earlier commentary as well. Some reviewers faulted the introduction and discussion of passages in Oswalt’s first contribution for the lack of a more deliberate and constructive interaction with critical research on Isaiah. The same observation could be made concerning this commentary. With so much work in so many diverse dimensions of Isaiah studies appearing in print since the publication of that first volume, one would have hoped for a much more detailed and ample introduction. Instead, in the opening paragraph the reader is referred to the 1986 introduction (p. 3). What follows is a very brief summary of just four pages of some contemporary debates and positions. Yet, there has been a sea change in scholarship over the last fifteen years! Fruitful new research and approaches, such as the creative literary readings of scholars such as C.R. Seitz and E. Conrad and the complex new redactional theories of critical scholars, are mentioned in a footnote (p. 4, fn. 6) but utilized hardly at all in the commentary itself, or glaringly are conspicuous by their absence (for example, the recent significant proposals by H.G.M. Williamson and R. Rendtorff). It must be said, though, in fairness, that Oswalt does offer quite an extensive supplementary bibliography on pp. 20-39. Nevertheless, citation is neither dialogue with other points of view nor integration of possible new insights.
One other, perhaps unavoidable, frustration with this commentary is that some important discussions on topics especially pertinent to these chapters of Isaiah are to be found in volume one. For instance, Oswalt’s comments on the first Servant Song (42: 1ff.) are prefaced only with a two page survey of a few views on the Servant, and then the reader is advised to consult the first volume. Once more, the author provides a supplemental bibliography - one of the Songs in general (pp. 113-15) and another on the fourth Song (52:13-53:12) in particular (pp. 408-10) - but the reader is left with the task of moving between both commentaries.
Oswalt continues with the theological thrust suggested in that first volume. That is, the central theme of Isaiah, as he sees it, is the servanthood of the people of God. Chapters 40-66 will elucidate how God will restore his people in order that they might be able to accomplish their appointed mission to be a blessing to the world: the effectual work of an individual, who is the messianic Servant of the Lord. He divides these chapters into two large parts, chapters 40-55 ("The Vocation of Servanthood") and 56-66 ("The Marks of Servanthood"). The author throughout makes a concerted effort to demonstrate the theological unity of the entire prophetic book and constantly underscores the multiple interconnections with chapters 1-39.
In sum, Oswalt’s work is a solid, technical commentary of a more traditional evangelical sort. Accordingly, it exhibits the values of that genre: good explanations of passages with attention to textual details and a commitment to exploring the theological ramifications for the Christian faith. It will serve well the pastor, teachers of the Bible, and seminarians, who desire to grasp the message of this key prophetic book as a whole for today.