Isaiah, Book of
ISAIAH, BOOK OF
The first of the Major Prophets in the canon of the OT. It bears the name of the great Prophet Isaiah of the 8th century b.c., whose oracles occupy most of the first half of the book. The longest and greatest of the prophetic books, it contains the sublime prophetic message embracing the progress of God's plan for salvation from the middle of the monarchical period of Judah (c. 750 b.c.) to the postexilic restoration (c. 500 b.c.). It is characterized by its profound religious teaching as well as its elegant literary style, perhaps the best in the OT. After certain general remarks about the book as a whole, this article presents a separate analysis of each of its main parts.
Because of the rather complicated nature of this long book, some preliminary remarks about its contents, multiple authorship, and text will prove useful.
Contents. The Book of Isaiah is neither a continuous narrative nor a literary unit, but an amalgam of religious literature of various genres and a collection of prophetic oracles from several historical periods. There is some prose (ch. 36–39), but the book is made up mainly of poems of varying length. They range from short proverb-like statements (29.9–10) to rather lengthy poems of several stanzas each (e.g., 9.7–10.4), which contain summaries of the prophetic message in poetry of various types, such as lyric and hymn (11.1–9; 42.10–25), allegory (5.1–7), parable (28.23–29), diatribe (48.1–11), satire (14.1–23; 47.1–15), lament (53.1–9), and psalm (12. 1–6). These poems deal with a variety of subjects, including religious (40.12–31), political (19.1–5), and social life (13.1–26); personal moral conduct (5.8–25); autobiography (6.1–13); threats and warnings (28.1–22); promises and assurances (35.1–10); meditation and prayer (51.1–16; 60.7–19); and thanksgiving, praise, and worship (54.1–17; 60.1–22). The book thus preserves in a rich variety of form the sublime message of Isaiah, his disciples, and later prophets in an attractive, vivid, and highly imaginative style.
Multiple authorship. Although the book was always known under the title of Isaiah, despite the absence of any reference to him in its second section (ch. 40–66), it gives evidence of containing originally independent oracle collections (1.1; 2.1; 5.8; oracles against the nations, 13.1; book of consolation, 40.1) and suggests several hands in compilation (8.16). The interposition of a prose narrative (ch. 36–39) between two large poetic sections that are thematically and literarily diverse also implies a certain amount of collecting and compiling in the composition of the book.
Until the 19th century, the Prophet Isaiah was accepted uncritically as the author of the entire book for problems of literary form and composition are of rather recent interest in biblical science. Yet the second section (ch. 40–66), which is addressed to the exiles in Babylon or to those who returned from the Exile, has always been recognized as fundamentally different from the first section (ch. 1–39). Modern critical studies initiated by J. G. Eichhorn (d. 1827) and B. Duhm (d. 1928) gradually revealed the true nature of the book. It is a rich composite of poetic oracles composed over a long period of time (from c. 740 to c. 300 b.c.) by various authors (prophets and preachers) centered on the core message of the great Prophet Isaiah. Such a process of composition and editing is now known to be quite usual in gathering biblical literature, as, for example, in the pentateuch, the Book of psalms, and even to some extent the Gospel according to St. john.
Though admittedly it is difficult to say exactly how the book reached its present form, a plausible explanation is this: the Prophet Isaiah preached from 740 to 690; his message was preserved in poetic oracles gathered by his disciples (Is 8.16), who continued to preach the message and compose oracles, adding them to the original ones of Isaiah. This so-called school of Isaiah continued even after the destruction of Jerusalem (587 b.c.) and during the Exile. During the Babylonian Exile there arose a great (now anonymous) poet-prophet, a genius in his own right (now called Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah) who continued Isaiah's message in the magnificent poems of ch. 40 to 55, developing it and applying it to the situation of the Exile and the return (537 b.c.). He was followed by another or other great literary prophets, also anonymous (now called Trito-Isaiah or Third Isaiah), during the restoration in Jerusalem (520 b.c.), who composed further oracles that developed the message in light of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, stressing further aspects of God's message that had become clear in the new situation of Israel. Some scholars such as J. Bright, hold that Third Isaiah was written by the same author who wrote Second Isaiah, but in the rebuilt Jerusalem. Finally, at some time between 400 and 200 b.c., when the biblical books in general were being edited into their present form (it is impossible at present to be more specific), these various collections of the Isaiah message and school, with some late apocalyptic additions (ch. 24–27; ch. 34–35), were gathered together on one scroll for careful and safe preservation. Perhaps by this time the School of Isaiah was dying out; indeed, the office of prophet seems to have disappeared after c. 400 b.c. until the coming of John the Baptist. Sirach (190 b.c.) knew the book in something like its present form (see Sir 48.22–25), and the NT authors cite all sections of the book as Isaiah. (The citing of OT books in the NT follows popular acceptance at the time and does not involve settlement of any questions of authorship.) Isaiah proper is sometimes called Proto-Isaiah, to distinguish him from Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah.
The theory just outlined on the composition of the book can be found with various specific refinements in the studies of S. Mowinckel, A. Bentzen, A. Condamin, P. Auvray and J. Steinmann, A. Feuillet, A. Gelin, and others, and it is widely accepted, though some few critics, Protestant and Jewish as well as Catholic, still defend the unity of authorship by Isaiah for the entire book. Nor does it contradict the carefully worded decree of the pon tifical biblical commission of June 29, 1908, warning against hasty, ill-founded theories that were then inadequately substantiated. Since then scientific study, supported by growing literary and archeological evidence from ancient times, has made the theory of the multiple authorship of the book into a carefully considered, well-substantiated understanding of its true nature. Evidence will be indicated in the survey of the book below.
Text. The present text of the book, formerly based on medieval MSS of the accepted Masoretic text (MT) has been remarkably supported by the discovery in 1947 among the Qumran dead sea scrolls of two scrolls of Isaiah, one complete (1QIsa) and one almost complete (1QIsb), along with many fragments of the book from about the 1st century b.c. Textual corruptions, however, are apparent from the comparison of the Qumran scrolls with the MT and the Septuagint (LXX) and from the comparison of the Qumran scrolls with each other; these are sufficiently diverse to suggest different textual traditions. Yet the overall text is in a good state of preservation. Translation is at times uncertain because of the involved Hebrew poetry, the 400-year span of language represented, and limitations of present knowledge of Hebrew. Moreover, the exact delimitation of the various poetic oracles is often uncertain, and at least in ch. 1 to 35 the oracles are not in chronological order. Thus variations will be found in the arrangement of the book, in the dating of some oracles, and in the translation of some passages.
For best understanding of the book, an edition that prints the poetry in poetic form and separates the individual poems (even though this is at times somewhat uncertain), preferably with explanatory titles, should be used, such as is done in volume four (Paterson, N.J. 1961) of the four-volume Confraternity of Christian Doctrine translation of the OT, in the Revised Standard Version, the Smith-Goodspeed Bible (Chicago 1951), the French Bible de Jerusalem (Paris 1951), and others.
The book divides itself easily into four main sections approximately dated as follows: (1) ch. 1 to 35, oracles connected chiefly with the pre-exilic preaching of (Proto-) Isaiah (740–690); (2) ch. 36 to 39, a historical appendix (705–690); (3) ch. 40 to 55 (Deutero-Isaiah), oracles of the Exile (550–538); and (4) ch. 56 to 66 (Trito-Isaiah), oracles of the restoration (520–500). For practical reasons, Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah are treated here together.
Proto-Isaiah. According to the first verse of the book (a late editorial addition), the oracles of ch. 1 to 35 were delivered during the reigns of Uzziah (783–742), Jotham (750–735), Ahaz (735–715), and Hezekiah (715–687) in Judah probably between 740 and 690 b.c.
Historical Background. It was a critical period in the history of Israel. Assyria dominated the Near East, but the subdued nations were restless. King Achaz of Judah found himself under pressure from the anti-Assyrian forces with whom he did not sympathize. Syria and Israel (Ephraim) attacked Judah (735–734) to force her cooperation against Assyria. In spite of Isaiah's opposition (Is7.1), Ahaz appealed to Assyria for aid, which he received at heavy cost of tribute and religious compromise. Later the Assyrians under Sargon II marched with devastation, destroying Damascus (Syria) in 732; Samaria and the Northern Kingdom (Israel) in 722; Ashdod and the Philistine-Egyptian coalition in 711. Judah, sorely pressed, barely escaped. Under Hezekiah, who steered a perilous course of neutrality, comparative peace prevailed in Judah, though heavy tribute was paid to Assyria. Encouraged by Isaiah, Hezekiah undertook a rather extensive religious reform, which re-established the covenant and purified the worship of Yahweh. During this time Isaiah's preaching changed from the threats and warnings of the earlier period to the optimistic oracles of deliverance and blessing, partially, no doubt, in praise of the good efforts of Hezekiah, who became the historical figure behind the messianic imagery and expectation (ch. 9; ch. 11–12; ch. 32–33). The reform was short lived; when Sargon II was murdered in 705, the subject peoples again rebelled. Hezekiah resisted for a time, again no doubt influenced by Isaiah, but eventually he gave in to pressure from Merodach-Baladan of Babylon (ch. 39) and from Egypt and revolted. The result was almost complete disaster: in 701 the new king of Assyria, Sennacherib, devastated Judah and besieged Jerusalem (ch. 36). After this event, nothing further is heard of Isaiah. It is against this historical background that ch. 1 to 35 should be read.
Analysis of Chapters 1 to 35. Though the oracles in ch. 1 to 35 are not always in chronological order, most of them are authentic oracles of Proto-Isaiah. Chapters 1 to 12 are Isaiahan oracles concerning Judah and Jerusalem, mostly from the period of the Syro-Ephraimite war (735–734) in the reign of Ahaz. After an introduction (Is1.1–8) there are various oracles on the moral degeneration of the people and their religious hypocrisy, with warnings of punishment and destruction (1.9–5.30), including the beautiful parable of the desolate vineyard of Israel (5.1–7).
Chapters 6 to 12 form the so-called Book of emman uel, which begins with the autobiographical oracle of Isaiah's vision and call (6.1–13) and continues with the Emmanuel oracles delivered to Ahaz assuring deliverance from the Syro-Ephraim coalition (7.1–8.20). The oracle of the Prince of Peace (9.1–6), the warning drawn from the fall of Damascus and Israel (9.7–20), the condemnation of social injustice (10.1–4), and the designation of Assyria as the rod of God's anger (10.5–34) are followed by the optimistic view of the rule of Emmanuel and the eventual reunion of all Israel (11.1–6). The collection ends with a joyful psalm of thanksgiving (12.1–6).
Chapters 13 to 23 collect the oracles against the nations (God's judgment will fall upon them also) mostly from Isaiah, though some of them, especially those against Babylon (ch. 13; ch. 14; ch. 21) are probably of later (exilic) origin. Chapters 24 to 27 contain the late socalled Apocalypse of Isaiah (see below), logically placed here to show, following the judgment of the individual nations, the inevitable universal judgment and triumph of Yahweh and of His plan.
Chapters 28 to 33 contain Isaiahan oracles of various dates developing the theme of Yahweh's vengeance on Judah and Israel, with flashes of promise and hope of eventual restoration. Here, also, some of the oracles (29.17–24; ch. 33) may be of later date. Chapters 34 to 35 contain the late so-called Little Apocalypse of Isaiah (see below).
Doctrine of Proto-Isaiah. The dominant theme of ch. 1 to 35 is that of warning and threats of punishment against Judah and Jerusalem, especially for their infidelity to Yahweh and His covenant. Such infidelity led to the destruction of Samaria; Judah herself awaits a similar fate if there is no reform. The Holy One of Israel is a just God who punishes the misdeeds and crimes with which Judah is filled. He is Lord of all—not a mere nationalist god—before whom all men, Judah included, are unworthy to appear. He is powerful and majestic; His people must offer him profound reverence. He is holy and perfect; His people must be holy for Yahweh is holy. God's work in history, shown in His covenant with Israel, will eventually be accomplished even though His own people, Judah, becomes an obstacle. Unless there is repentance, change of ways, restoration of the covenant in sincerity and justice, even Judah must suffer the fate of all God's enemies. God's people must have faith; they must trust in His promises and have confidence in His holy will, which involves an orientation toward God of all aspects of man's existence. Without such faith there can be no stability.
Still, there is hope. Israel is the chosen of God. Yet not all will participate in God's plan. Isaiah is the great prophet of the Remnant of Israel—a small, distinctive group in the general body of Israel that will remain faithful, and through it God will fulfill His promise. (The socalled remnant theology receives greater refinement in ch. 40 to 66, where the returning exiles are regarded as the remnant.) Yahweh's promise is sure, and Isaiah is filled with an optimistic picture of the future of Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace, who will reign from Jerusalem, but only after the threats and warnings have been carried out. It is possible (according to Gelin) that the group of disciples who carried on Isaiah's work thought of themselves as this remnant keeping alive Israel's hope in Yahweh.
Historical appendix. Chapters 36 to 39 contain a historical appendix duplicating 2 Kgs 18.23–20.19, but also containing several Isaiahan oracles together with some biographical material and background detail. It has something of an apologetic aim: history bears out Isaiah's warnings. The events are not in chronological order: the embassy from Merodach-Baladan occurred most likely before the invasion of Sennacherib. Many (e.g., W. F. Albright, J. Bright, and E. Dhorme) think that the mention in Is 37.9 of Tharaca (Terhakah), who became king of Ethiopia in 690, and the repetitions and confusion of details indicate that there is a conflation in the biblical account of two Assyrian campaigns, one in 701 and one in 690. If so, Isaiah's ministry extended to the latter date.
Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah. Beginning with ch. 40, the Book of Isaiah is transformed. Isaiah is never mentioned. The dominant theme is consolation, encouragement, hope, and promise of restoration. Jerusalem (Is 52.2, 9; 62.1–4) and the Temple (63.18; 64.10) are in ruins; the people are in Babylon, but deliverance is at hand. The situation is obviously that of the Exile. cyrus, king of Persia (550–530 b.c.), who allowed the Jews to return to Judah in 538 b.c., is mentioned by name (44.28;45.1) as the deliverer raised up by Yahweh. The oracles are now long, meditative, discourse-type poems, lyrical and sustained in mood, that stress not so much moral instruction as a profound religious reflection on God, His nature, His attributes, and a theological explanation of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in light of God's plan for His people. The theme of forgiveness of sin replaces that of punishment; hope of restoration, that of destruction. There are marked changes in language and style and a more varied and technical vocabulary; the Hebrew is a later Hebrew. No longer is there the narrow vision of Judah and Jerusalem, but the broad vision of the nations and a universalism that would be strange in the first part of the book.
All these factors make it abundantly clear that ch. 40 to 66 contain the exilic and postexilic preaching of a prophet (or prophets) who, continuing the work and message of Isaiah and the Isaiahan school, spoke to the exiles (ch. 40–55) and to the first returnees to Jerusalem (ch. 56–66) in the spirit and tone of ezekiel, Zechariah, mal achi, and haggai. Babylon, not Assyria, is now the enemy. There is a remarkable polemic against idolatry and the pagan gods that seems to presuppose the Jewish people living in the midst of paganism and far from Jerusalem and its Temple. The authors (or author) of these poems remain anonymous; one can designate them only as Second and Third Isaiah.
Message of Faith and Hope. The year 587 marked an applling catastrophe for Israel: Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians; all Judah was a shambles, and the chief people were deported to Babylon. Yet Israel, unlike countless other nations similarly destroyed, in spite of its poor, desperate situation, did endure—a testimony to the divine mercy and the indestructibility of the divine plan. Even in exile Israel kept alive its faith, its law, and its identity because of the work of such men as Deutero-Isaiah. He offered a theological explanation for the national disaster and kept alive the spark of hope. Yahweh's righteous judgment was purifying Israel; it was not a contradiction but a vindication of Israel's historic faith. The prophet preached also of the inevitable, glorious triumph of Yahweh and the resurrection of Israel. It was this faith and hope that enabled Israel to survive, and Isaiah ch. 40 to 66 is a testament of such faith. Moreover, the original message of Proto-Isaiah was now more pertinent and meaningful than ever. His warnings had been realized and his message vindicated. Hence, the original oracles were studied and gathered religiously during the Exile, and the message was carried on in the preaching of his disciples. It is against this background that ch. 40 to 55 should be read.
Analysis of Deutero-Isaiah. The so-called Isaiahan Book of Consolation (ch. 40–55) includes a brief introduction (40.1–1l), the body of the work setting forth the promise of release (40.12–55.9), and a conclusion of joy and thanks for the release and return (55.10–13). The first part (ch. 40–48) is centered on the exiles in Babylon; the second (ch. 49–55) on Zion (Jerusalem) and its impending restoration. In Deutero-Isaiah are the five famous songs of the suffering servant, 42.1–4; 49.1–6;50.5–9; 52.13–53.12; 51.9–16. God, the creator (40.12–31) and liberator (41.1–29) of Zion is a gracious and loving savior. The period of trial is over; redemption is a reality (43.1–44.5); Yahweh has triumphed over the false gods, who are no-gods (44.6–23; 46.1–13). Cyrus is the Lord's anointed, freeing His people for a new exodus to the promised land (44.24–45.25). Proud Babylon has fallen ignominiously, an event described with masterful irony (47.1–15; c.f. 13.1–14.23; 21.1–10); the exiles can now rejoice in clear assurance of salvation (48.1–21).
Shifting his vision to Zion soon to be restored, the author proclaims that Israel's sins have been expiated (49.1–50.11); the Lord's goodness to Abraham and to Moses and to His people is re-established (51.1–16), as the cup of wrath is removed (51.17–23), and Zion rejoices at being reinhabited by the chosen remnant of God's people (52.1–12). The hope of the new Zion is brilliantly described (54.1–55.9).
Analysis of Trito-Isaiah. The scene shifts to Jerusalem. Hope of the restoration had been bright; but the actuality of the return and the first few years (538–500 b.c.) was bleak, difficult, and bitterly disappointing. Trito-Isaiah (Isaiah ch. 56–66) continued to speak of lofty hopes, but they were still in the future. Courage, determination, energetic building, unremitting toil, and prayer for Zion were the program of the present. The returnees were suffering the inevitable birth pangs of the new creation about to appear (65.17–25). Severe opposition to the restoration came even in Jerusalem itself from the doubters (59.9–11), from economic tensions, from the people who had remained behind and had now developed a somewhat syncretistic religion (57.3–10; 65.1–7), and from the callousness of some people behind a façade of piety (58.1–12; 59.1–8). The question of unity or religious separation between the returnees and those who had remained was perplexing (65.8–16; 66.15–17). Failure to make progress on the reconstruction of the Temple—not completed for some 20 years after the return—was no trivial thing; as a focal point, the Temple was desperately needed. Chapters 56 to 66 should be read in connection with the Books of ezra and nehemiah and the postexilic Prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
In such a situation, Trito-Isaiah (Isaiah ch. 56–66) speaks to the first returnees to Jerusalem. The Mosaic Law is being re-established and the Sabbath restored (56.1–8). The leaders must be purified and the faithless people restored to faith (56.9–57.13) in spite of the discouraging situation. Yahweh alone is His people's comfort (57.14–21). Fasting, reparation, and good works must characterize the new spiritual people, the returnees (58.1–14). Let them confess their sins and proceed with confidence to the task at hand, for Zion is restored (59.1–21). In a magnificent piece of poetry, the prophet describes the glory Yahweh has planned for His restored people when salvation for all men will come forth from Zion, the new bride and spouse of Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel (60.1–62.12). God's favor is returned; the necessary punishment is expiated; the good and the bad will be separated, and true worship will be re-established in the Lord's Temple (63.1–66.6). Mother Zion, the new Jerusalem, will rejoice as all nations gather to celebrate and enjoy the salvation of the Lord that will endure forever.
Isaiahan Apocalypse and Little Apocalypse. Here a word should be added on ch. 24 to 27, known as the Apocalypse of Isaiah, and ch. 34 to 35, the so-called Little Apocalypse. These chapters are more in the style of Second and Third Isaiah rather than that of Proto-Isaiah. They contain, moreover, the world vision and the literary characteristics of the apocalyptic form of literature of the late postexilic age. Yahweh will execute His vengeance on the rebellious and stubborn nations in the great day of the lord, which will bring an eschatological judgment on the whole world and a definitive establishment of God's kingdom. Yahweh's victory will be final, over all celestial and terrestrial forces; salvation and the ultimate reassembly of Judah in the circumstance of a universal catastrophe will be effected; finally, there will be the resurrection of the pious ones and the triumph—reechoing like a refrain—of the city of God over the city of evil. These are standard apocalyptic themes in the manner of the Books of daniel and Zechariah and other apocalyptic books and probably are to be dated around c. 300 b.c., which would thus make them the latest parts of the book and of the Isaiahan message.
Universal Redemption. Besides the doctrinal points mentioned in the analyses, the great theme of Isaiah ch. 40 to 66 is that of universal redemption. Israel is a nation and a people with a world mission, a nation founded on Abraham, Moses, and David, but with a vocation to bring the redemption and salvation of Yahweh to all mankind. Showing the divine control of history, the prophet preaches of the power of righteous suffering (cf. Job) and the role of Israel as witness and mediator between Yahweh and the nations of the world, a witness to the one true God who redeems and intends all men to share in His plan.
Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, is Lord of all. Explicit and dynamic monotheism is nowhere more vigorously stated. Yahweh's cry, "I am God; there is no other!" (45.22) is the constant refrain, accompanied by a strong ironic and satiric polemic against idolatry. Yahweh is the God of all nations; there can be no other allegiance, not only for Israel, but for all nations. The creative and salvific activities of Yahweh are made clear: the creation of the world and the destiny of Israel are the two great divine works (cf. Gn ch. 1–11, where there is a development of the same themes, which probably attained their present form about the same time). The prophet daringly glimpses the day when all the nations will share the faith of Israel. He opens vistas unimagined by any previous prophet. The re-establishment of God's people is the beginning of the conversion of the nations.
Such universalism is not, indeed, that of Jesus or St. Paul, for it regards salvation as dependent upon Israel and under its dominance. But never was it so markedly clear that the covenant is for the service of all men. The theological development of Isaiah ch. 40 to 66 is remarkable; it is the climax of OT prophecy and epitomizes the whole prophetic tradition. The Israel that bears this vocation is not the great nation ruled by King David, but defined in religious terms, it is the "remnant"—the "poor" (’ănāwîm ) of Yahweh—who have remained faithful despite crushing obstacles and have been constant in suffering; those who keep the Law in their hearts, who serve Yahweh and Him alone and hope only in Him (cf. the Sermon on the Mount), the race of Israel-Jacob in its full religious sense (cf. Gal and Rom). It is an Israel transformed through which Yahweh will re-enter the promised land and return to Jerusalem as king. This accomplishment is such that all the nations will be converted and incorporate themselves into the people of God.
Salvation will be marked by pardon of sin, of which the return from exile is the sign. It is a redemption: Yahweh is the gō’ēn (redeemer) in His land, its capital, and its reconstructed Temple; He will reign and begin building the New Israel and the New Jerusalem that are the objects of His promise. It will be a new alliance of peace and knowledge of the one true God served by all the nations. Christian faith has seen the vivid realization of these glorious promises and of the vocation of Israel in the establishment of God's reign through Jesus Christ and His Church; this is one reason why Isaiah ch. 40 to 66 is often quoted and alluded to in the NT.
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