“For many within the biblical field, the publication of yet another commentary seems about the last thing needed,” says Brevard Childs in the preface to his commentary on Isaiah. The author of Ecclesiastes would probably agree: “For the writing of books is endless” (12:12). This phrase haunts publishers in the night. But there are some books that truly transform your perspective—Childs’ commentary on Isaiah is one of them.
I spoke with Brevard on the phone near the end of his life. I asked him how he came up with his canonical approach—the interpretive method he is credited with inventing. Childs remarked that he didn’t really think of it as a method at all; instead, he thought of it as reading the Bible as it is today, informed by the rest of Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit in his life, and the larger Christian community including scholarship. Childs then proceeded to say something that I will never forget: “Herein lies the secret of interpretation: . . . wherever the Spirit is not present, there is no great explanation possible.”
Later on, as I was working on The Resurrected Servant in Isaiah, I found Childs to be right. I couldn’t put his commentary down. Who reads a whole commentary? I read this one, front to back. Page by page, Childs unraveled God’s great story as told in the book of Isaiah: a message of calling, salvation, justice, and love—all wrapped up in a time of pain and turmoil for the original community. I saw how Isaiah’s message is rich, for its context and today. I realized how it informed the New Testament.
Wherever the Spirit is not present, there is no great explanation possible.
But Childs has a way of doing this without compromising the original meaning of the text. Application is natural for him because he is reading Scripture like it is actually life-giving and informative. He wants to know God through it, and he shows us God in the process. Here is the rare combination of a scholar and someone who truly and deeply loves the church.
In his 1998 preface to his Isaiah commentary, Childs details three reasons why his project is so monumental (although he was far too humble to say it that way).
We need a fresh interpretive model—especially for Isaiah
Childs remarks, “In the light of the exhaustive philological, historical, and text-critical research done on Isaiah . . . there is little need to rehearse once again many of the same issues. In my judgment, what is needed is a fresh interpretive model that does not get lost in methodological debates, and that proves to be illuminating in rendering a rich and coherent interpretation of the text as sacred Scripture of both church and synagogue.”
Isaiah is special and deserves special attention.
“The book of Isaiah,” Childs says, “presents a special challenge because of its length, complexity, and enduring importance for both Jews and Christians. The usual pattern of immediately dividing the book into at least two or three parts has had a deleterious effect on the interpretation of the whole. Even though many voices have expressed a similar concern . . . there have been no successful attempts to overcome the problem on the commentary level.”
Biblical theology should inform exegesis.
Childs remarks: “After having recently completed a lengthy project on biblical theology (1992), I am fully cognizant that its effect has been minimal on the field of biblical exegesis. Usually books on biblical theology have been relegated to a special subdiscipline and thought to relate only to larger hermeneutical and theological concerns without any close relation to exegesis. Those engaged in biblical theology are often dismissed as ‘theologians,’ and not biblical interpreters. For my part, I have always considered biblical theology to be only an ancillary discipline that better serves in equipping the exegete for the real task of interpreting the biblical text itself.”
Childs continues, “Ever since I first began to teach the book of Isaiah in 1954, I have tried to keep abreast of the changing approaches to the book, which have moved through numerous stages of literary-critical, form-critical, redactional, and rhetorical analysis. I have learned much from each, yet I am also conscious that an eclectic mixing of methods does not offer a real solution. I also resist the practice of some immediately to characterize my approach as ‘canonical,’ since the label has only engendered major confusion. Frequently, I have had genuine difficulty in even recognizing those features that have been assumed by reviewers to be constitutive of my approach.”
With this approach, Childs would build on his already game-changing work in his Exodus commentary within the Old Testament Library series. But in his work on Isaiah, we see an even more seasoned scholar with less patience for nonsense, elegantly teach us how to read our Bibles again. Childs’ goal: understand the Bible, in its context, so that we can understand it for our lives.
For example, in Isaiah 49, Childs sees the suffering servant’s role shifting, from a corporate group (Israel) to an individual who will bring Israel back into right relationship with God. Childs is only able to see this because he is reading the book as a unit, discerning a storyline even in the poetry. Here is where my perspective on Isaiah changed drastically—and here is where I would personally build much of my arguments in Resurrected Servant in Isaiah. I am indebted to Childs, like many others.
The gospel according to Isaiah
The search for wisdom will never be satisfied—the real point of the Ecclesiastes remark about the writing of many books—but it can prod us in the right direction towards the “one shepherd” (Eccl 12:11). But it will all be pointless in the end, if it isn’t about God and his workings in our lives and world—if it isn’t about service to Jesus.
Childs uses the biblical text as a guide for understanding the Almighty. And on every page, you can see the work not just of a scholar, but of a prayerful man who knows Jesus. Childs’ commentary on Isaiah isn’t just the best commentary on Isaiah in my opinion; it’s maybe the best commentary ever written. Childs shows us the gospel according to Isaiah.
And it is beautiful.