The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary

By J. Alec Motyer
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1993). 544 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
9.1 (Spring 1998) : 116-118

Alec Motyer has lectured on the book of Isaiah during his entire teaching career at various educational institutions in the United Kingdom. From his own testimony, he had planned for many years to write this commentary and "planned to include everything in it! All the material - linguistic, exegetical, expository, introductory - appropriate to a lecture course and all the evaluative comments on specialist work and debate was to find a place in my commentary." With the humility that is so evident throughout this excellent work, he concluded that "the world is not big enough to contain such a book, no publisher foolish enough to undertake it, nor am I competent to write it" (9).

In this reviewer's opinion, however, Motyer has succeeded in fulfilling his original hopes in a far greater way than he acknowledges. It is difficult to control one's enthusiasm while describing the merits of this commentary. It is as thorough as one could ever expect a one-volume commentary to be. It is analytical, with very valuable insights regarding the literary structure of the book as a whole as well as its individual sections. It is scholarly, exemplifying a thorough familiarity with what has been written on "Isaianic literature," as he often terms it (13). It is evangelical in the best sense of that term, not only defending the entire book as the work of Isaiah, son of Amoz (25-30), but fully recognizing its "evangelical" nature as embodying the gospel in the Old Testament. It is theological, recognizing that the book is more than simply the sum of its parts, but exhibits certain key theological truths that bind the entire sixty-six chapters into a theological as well as a literary whole.

How refreshing it is to read a commentator who recognizes that the "Messianic Hope" comprises the central theme of Isaiah. Motyer's outline of Isaiah involves the three "Messianic portraits: the King (chapters 1-37), the Servant (chapters 38-55) and the Anointed Conqueror (chapters 56-66)" (13; cf. 13-16, 35, 287, 459). In his thorough discussions of the key messianic texts, Motyer unflinchingly defends their Messianic/Christological interpretations. He convincingly marshals the linguistic evidence for the "virgin" meaning of almah in Isa 7:14- a defense rarely seen today, even in professedly evangelical commentaries. He also argues eloquently that the context of chapters 7-11 demands that "Immanuel cannot be simply any child whatever. It is impossible to separate this 'Immanuel' from the Davidic king whose birth delivers his people (9:4-7) and whose complex name includes the designation Mighty God (9:6)" (86). He provides a thorough discussion of the "Servant Songs," recognizing that from chapter 49 onward the "individual" interpretation of the Servant is inescapable. His comment on 53:9 ("his grave was assigned with wicked ones and with a rich one") is illustrative of his insightful humility: "Like other enigmas of this Song, this too is written so that when the turn of events provides the explanation we shall know for certain that we stand in the presence of the Servant of the Lord" (436).

Unlike many evangelical commentators, Motyer is fully conversant with the most recent linguistic and literary insights that can be applied to biblical studies. He provides for each section under consideration a literary outline, often discerning in the text the presence of chiasm, or inverted parallelism. This literary device utilized so widely in both testaments often escapes the notice of commentators not familiar with it or not familiar enough with the Hebrew text. Note his treatment in this regard of 9:1-7 (98), 26:1-21 (212), and 49:1-55:13 (383). Motyer's recognitions of these literary characteristics of Isaiah do not serve simply as examples of our author's clever reconstructions, but further illustrate the unity of authorship in all sections of the book.

In regards to eschatology, Motyer may disappoint some. He appears to be closer to amillennialism than any other system, but he does not seem to carry any brief against a restored Israel reigned over by the Messiah in His second coming. His comments on 61:1-4 (499-501) clearly acknowledge a dual fulfillment in the first and second comings of Messiah - a view consistent with Jesus - use of part of that passage in Luke 4:16-22 to describe His first coming.

The only real shortcoming of this truly superb commentary is the absence of subject, author, and Scripture indexes. But that is a lack that could be supplied by one of Motyer's students.

This reviewer has thirteen individual Isaiah commentaries on his shelves, not counting those in sets. Motyer's will be the first of those he consults from now on.