Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) – Review

Wong, Gordon C. I., The Road to Peace: Pastoral Reflections on Isaiah 1–12 (Singapore: Genesis, 2009). Pp. xxviii + 258. Paperback. S$22.00/US$15.25. ISBN 978-981-4222-94-5.

The Road to Peace is a series of twelve expository studies on Isaiah 1–12, which the author describes as pastoral reflections dedicated to his home church on the occasion of the founding of, and his induction to, the professorial chair at Trinity Theological College in Singapore on February 4th, 2009. In addition to the Foreword by one of the author's doctoral mentors, Professor Hugh Williamson at Oxford University, eleven other paragraphs of commendation are included on the first six pages, contributed by friends and colleagues in both academic and pastoral circles alike.

Being “concerned at the rift between the devotional use of the Scriptures by lay persons and the ‘scholarly’ investigations of biblical scholars,” (p. xxiii) the author sets out in the Preface to clarify the primary focus of his book being “a pastoral, rather than an historical or literary” (p. xxi) one. This does not imply that the author would “dismiss the value of the historical origins and literary features of the text,” (p. xxi) but “such discussion is generally postponed to the section of each chapter entitled Additional Notes” (p. xxiii). As a result, “the reader who wants immediate access to the pastoral reflections” (p. xxiii) may not be “detained” in hearing “the word of God applied pastorally and devotionally” (p. xxiv). This aim “to bridge the gap between academic studies and popular piety” (p. xxiv) is a most noble and earnest endeavor, and the author may find tall examples and solid support from the Presbyterian volumes of The Daily Study Bible (Saint Andrews Press/Westminster Press) and the evangelical series of The Bible Speaks Today (Inter-Varsity Press) published during the second half of the last century.

To provide further orientation for the study of Isaiah 1–12 among the educated laity, the author inserts “A Note to Discussion Groups” at the beginning of his book, spelling out his pastoral objective as “to encourage responsible action rather than additional information” (p. xxvii). Hence every chapter concludes with a couple of Questions for Group and Individual Reflection, “not designed to encourage further examination of the Scripture passage or historical background,” (p. xxviii) but for the “people to share their own perspectives, ideas and feelings on practical issues” (p. xxvii). These discerning questions may prompt a communal response:

Is there anything that might possibly make God displeased with the kind of worship that we offer in our church? (p.16, towards the end of chapter 1, entitled “Repent!”),

or suggest a self evaluation:

Isaiah 4 offers a picture of a perfect heaven. But such visions have sometimes been criticized as utopian and escapist, making people ‘too heavenly-minded and of no earthly good.’ What do you think? Is faith in God's promise of heaven helpful or harmful for constructive living on earth? (p. 58, at the end of chapter 4, entitled “The Hope of Heaven”)

sometimes with realistic decisions to be made:

Mary is a widow with three young kids and she is struggling to make ends meet. One of her friends has just won $10,000 in the national lottery. Mary is thinking of gambling some money and praying very hard. What would you advise her to do? If you advise her against gambling, what alternative suggestions might you offer? How might fearing God and patiently trusting in Him help Mary, if at all? (p. 125; after expounding on “The Secret to Fearlessness” in chapter 8)

and straight-forward advice for corporate effort:

Think of two groups or two individuals that are in conflict with each other. Think of things that might be done to help reconcile the two. Pray for reconciliation. (p. 185; concluding the exposition on “A Paradise of Peace” in chapter 11)

There are in fact altogether more than thirty similarly provocative questions intertwined organically within the book, and they must never be relegated politely to become appendices to the main body of expositions.

Additional Notes to the twelve chapters comprise a total of 89 pages, and if we throw in the two extended Appendices consisting of 25 pages as well as the 20 page Bibliography cum Abbreviations, it adds up to no less than half of the entire length of the book. Academic issues tackled critically include mostly the varied interpretations of individual verses (1:1; 2:6, 9b; 3:12; 4:2, 4; 5:25; 6:8, 13b; 7:14, 14–17, 21–22; 8:6, 9–10, 12–13, 14, 20; 9:1, 6–7, 11, 17; 10:20–23, 33–34; 11:1–9, 10, 11–16), but also more sophisticated discussions like “The Composite Nature of Isaiah 1” (pp. 17–20), “Who Wrote the Book of Isaiah?” (pp. 235–37), and “Make Their Ears Dull: Rhetorical Irony in Isaiah 6:9–10” (pp. 216–20); the last being a learned article first published in the Trinity Theological Journal[1] a year ago. Three paragraphs together with two footnotes from the article are again reproduced with minor adaptations to form the main part of exegesis on 6:9–10 (p. 88f), and so the reader may have a feeling of déja-vu when she or he comes across them once more in Appendix 1.

The author conveniently divides his expositions according to the first twelve chapters of the book of Isaiah, except for 4:1, which he considers to be an integral piece of 3:16–4:1, and 10:1–4, where there is some hesitation as to whether these verses belong to 9:8–21 or 10:5–34. Each chapter is further subdivided into two to six parts (mostly three or four), thus keeping its overall structure simple and coherent. Because of his “preacher's instinct for alliteration,” the author often makes use of repeated patterns in headings at the risk of being “jejune” even to his own eyes (p. 108, n. 13).

On page 211 at the very end of his last Summary chapter, the author outlines his analysis of Isaiah 1–12 with a simple diagram. The “prologue to the whole book” of chapter 1 is supposedly balanced by the “summary song” of chapter 12 concluding this first major part of Isaiah 2–12; the “call to repent” is now echoed by a “song of faith and hope.” The author then moves on to assert that both passages of 2:1–4 and 11:1–16 offer “a vision of global peace,” forming an inclusio around these ten chapters. The sections in between are then separated into two halves, 2:5–5:30 and 7:1–10:34, both of which “describe the human sin of cruel arrogance that must be and will be removed by human repentance and divine cleansing” (p. 202). Finally, the “central challenge of Isaiah 2–12” is located at the very centre in chapter 6, namely, “God's urgent call for repentance as the necessary road towards true peace and righteousness” (p. 202f; author's emphasis).

It is significant to note that the author dismisses Bartelt's thesis on The Book around Immanuel[2] with just one footnote (p. 202, n. 2). Whereas the popular theory of the Isaianic Denkschrift does not stand up to Williamson's scrutiny, and the syllable or stress counts conducted by Bartelt may indeed be overkill, the ambivalent sign of “With Us is God” rather than the vision of Isaiah appears to be the focal point of Isaiah 2–12 if we should pay enough attention to the following macro-palistrophic structure:

A   2:2-4:6	“On that day” ( 7x )
B     5:1-30	   “Woe” ( 6x ) + “Arm outstretched” ( 1x )
C       6:1-13	     First person singular pronoun “I”
D         7:1-25       “On that day” ( 4x )
C’      8:1-20       First person singular pronoun “I”
B’    8:21-10:4    “Arm outstretched” ( 4x ) + “Woe” (1 x )
A’  10:5-12:6    “On that day” ( 6x )
Moreover, a similar literary device may also be embedded in the Prologue of Isaiah:
A   1:2        ‘rebel’ (pāsha`)
B     1:5         ‘stubborn’ (sārar)
C       1:20         ‘disobey’ (mārāh)
B’    1:23        ‘stubborn’ (sārar)
A’  1:28       ‘rebel’ (pāsha`)

When we are led by the literary structure of Isaiah 2–12 to identify “the fearful and faithless response of Ahaz to the Syro-Ephraimite threat”[3] as the core historical event behind these eleven chapters, we may perhaps want to explore the alternative motif of divine response towards human obstinacy and rebelliousness. In other words, with these beginning chapters of prophecy, Isaiah of Jerusalem did not only leave us with an urgent appeal to repent, but he also prepared us for the “strange and astounding work” (28:21) of God when his call for repentance fell upon a people who were too deaf and blind to be able to turn back. The road to this glorious vision of shalom must then journey through the humiliating suffering of exile for the people of God.

Even those who do not share the author's commitment to the faithful ministry of the Word as pastor or teacher of the Christian church will  find value in the author's conscientious attempt to wrestle with both scholarly investigation and pastoral application of the scriptural text.

Stephen Lee, China Graduate School of Theology

[1] Gordon C. I. Wong, “Make Their Ears Dull: Irony in Isaiah 6:9–10,” Trinity Theological Journal 16 (2008), 24–34. reference

[2] Andrew H. Bartelt, The Book around Immanuel: Style and Structure in Isaiah 2–12, ed. William Henry Propp, (BJSUCSD, 4; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1996). reference

[3] Bartlet, Immanuel, 243. reference