Isaiah (Tyndale Commentary) by Motyer, reviewed

Motyer TOTC Isaiah

J. Alec Motyer writes about his Isaiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries):

I have set out to provide a ‘reader’s commentary’ on Isaiah – a companion to daily Bible reading – and I believe that those who use it this way will reap the largest rewards from it. This is not to say that it cannot be used to look up ‘spot’ verses or passages, for I have done my best not to evade difficulties and, in every such place, to ask what a reader, Bible in hand, would find most useful to know.

The series has “the serious Bible reader” as its intended audience. It blends exegesis, theology, history, and application nicely.

Motyer’s Introduction to Isaiah

Motyer’s brief (less than 25 pages) introduction contains these sections:

  1. Isaiah’s message: Motyer summarizes Isaiah in five pages.
  2. Isaiah’s thought: “Isaiah is the Paul…’Hebrews’…James of the Old Testament….”
  3. Isaiah’s book: Motyer highlights the canonical and literary unity of Isaiah, bluntly noting that using stylistic differences to identify different authors “is and always has been a nonsense.”
  4. Text: “The Hebrew Text (MT) of Isaiah has come to us in fine preservation without any real doubt what the text means or a serious necessity of emendation.”
  5. Isaiah and the New Testament: “The New Testament quotes Isaiah more than all the other prophets together….”

Following the introduction is a six-page “Analysis,” which is a fairly detailed outline of Isaiah. IVP and Motyer have made the commentary easier to work through by then using this outline to structure the commentary proper. Each of the headings, points, and sub-points appear at the appropriate spots in the commentary for easier navigation. You always know where you are in the larger context of Isaiah, as Motyer understands it.

The Commentary Proper

I’ve used the Tyndale commentaries in preaching and also individual Bible reading. Motyer is not only a good exegete; he’s engaging and funny (e.g., he refers to a “stink-fruit harvest” in Isaiah 5).

Theologically, Motyer is comfortable (as we all should be, I think) with the idea of predictive prophecy: “There is no need to find anything difficult or strange in Isaiah’s prediction of Babylonian captivity.” Yet he engages critical scholarship that reads the book differently. Motyer addresses the book’s authorship, but he is more concerned with the book in its current form than anything like redaction criticism.

Motyer’s application of Isaiah is inspiring. Of Isaiah 2:1-5 he says, “[I]f the world is ever to say Come, let us go up (3), the Lord’s people must heed the call Come … let us walk (5): the first requirement in evangelism is to have a church that is worth joining!” While Isaiah was not necessarily thinking in these terms, it’s a good way for us who read him today to apply his message.

I would have liked to see more comment on the Servant/Anointed One as Jesus, or on how the New Testament picks up and uses such imagery. There is some of this–for example, Motyer mentions that Isaiah 61:1-4 is the passage Jesus read in Luke 4, “establishing the messianic credentials of Isaiah’s presentation.” And this is not necessarily a given in an Isaiah commentary, but since this is a series for “today’s Christian church and reader,” I had been hoping Motyer would go further in application.

Regarding the beautiful Isaiah 61 Motyer uses a wonderful turn of phrase to talk about the reversal of fortunes Yahweh will bring about: divine replacement therapy. His take on verse 3 is especially compelling. Isaiah reads (NIV):

and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

Motyer has this gem of a comment:

Note the downward movement of the transformation: from the crown (lit. ‘head-dress’; 3:20; cf. 61:10; Exod. 39:28), to the head (oil), to the clothing (garment). (Cf. the running down of Ps. 133:2–3, significant of heavenly outpouring.) Note also the inward movement of ashes, the visible evidence of grief (58:5; 2 Sam. 13:19), to mourning, grief in the heart, to the inner spirit of despair. The Lord thus acts to pierce progressively to the innermost need. 

The series and the author’s aims to give the serious Bible reader a guide for Bible study are successful. I’d heartily recommend Motyer’s Isaiah to anyone who is reading through the Bible’s “fifth gospel.”

Thanks to IVP for the review copy. Motyer’s Isaiah (TOTC) is on Amazon here. Its product page is at InterVarsity Press’s site here.

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