When I read through Isaiah last year, one resource I consulted whenever I could was the Isaiah section in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Zondervan has recently published it as a stand-alone book.
The sort of “backgrounds” that Isaiah describes are history, geography, culture, archaeology, and comparison to other Ancient Near Eastern texts and traditions. The introduction is quite short, but with its timelines of kings and map and historical overview, it provides a solid orientation to Isaiah.
David W. Baker’s comments on the first two words of Isaiah give a good sense of the approach of his commentary:
The vision (1:1). Most prophecies begin with a self-identification that can contain elements such as the type of literature, the identity of the prophet, and the time period. These indicate that they contain actual messages to a real audience addressing real-life issues they were facing. “Vision” is a form of divine revelation that did not necessarily involve the physical eyes, since here it involves primarily words rather than images (cf. 2:1). Prophets of Yahweh and pagan prophets experienced them. In Mesopotamia, even laypeople, both men and women, received visions or dreams from their gods.
The commentary does not reproduce the entire biblical text, but the words and verse to be commented on are marked in bold.
Isaiah 22:16 (NIV) reads:
What are you doing here and who gave you permission
to cut out a grave for yourself here,
hewing your grave on the height
and chiseling your resting place in the rock?
The verse makes some sense in its context already, but Baker’s concise comment adds more:
Hewing your grave (22:16). In Jerusalem, tombs were often hewn from the limestone rock, especially by people with means (e.g., Gen. 50:5; 2 Chr. 16:14; Matt. 27:60).
Baker has excursuses throughout the book that further illuminate themes like “Names and Naming” (Isaiah 9), “Assyrian Siege Tactics” (Isaiah 23), and “Divine Mercy” (Isaiah 54-55).
The ZIBBC series does not offer much by way of grammatical analysis or rhetorical criticism, but neither does it seek to. It ably accomplishes its purpose of giving the reader background information on the text, as well as sources for further reading.
To that end more than 1,700 (!) endnotes supply citations and bibliographic information that one can follow. (Note: I much prefer footnotes to endnotes, but with all of the sidebars and charts and photographs already in the body of the text, I think I see why the series uses endnotes.)
As the commentary progressed, I occasionally grew tired of the constant comparison of Isaiah to other Ancient Near Eastern parallels. On the one hand, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to criticize a “Bible Backgrounds” commentary for this, but the parallels sometimes felt a little strained.
Yet at other times the connections to ANE texts are illuminating, and downright fascinating. For instance, in a section called “Year of the Lord’s Favor,” covering Isaiah 61:1-11, Baker writes
Happiness and plenty are the goal of an ideal reign. A letter containing a prophecy addressed to Ashurbanipal foretells blessings from Shamash and Adad. These gods establish
a happy reign: days of justice, years of equity, heavy rains, water in full flood, a thriving commerce … Old men dance, young men sing, women and maidens are glad and make merry … Whom his crime has condemned to death, the king my lord has let live; who has been held prisoner many years, is set free; who were sick many days have recovered. The hungry have been sated; the lice-infested have been anointed; the naked have been clad in garments.
Many of these same elements characterize the anticipated messianic reign in Israel….
One can deduce, then, that the elements of this reign fulfill universally human desires (since they show up in other religious texts) for well-being and freedom. Understanding this enhances one’s read of Isaiah 61. The Messiah, one could say, fulfills a human longing that many cultures and religions have sought to express.
One missing piece in this single volume is the “Methodology: An Introductory Essay” by series editor John H. Walton, that can be found in the multi-book volumes. I would hope that future single volumes in this series include it.
The book is surprisingly well-constructed for a paperback that retails at $19.99. The glossy paper is of high quality, as are the full-color photographs, maps, and charts. The cover and binding are built to last. Regardless of your level of knowledge about the Old Testament or biblical background in general, Baker’s Isaiah is a good second book to have on hand when reading through the biblical book of Isaiah.