Reading Notes for the Book of Isaiah


Isaiah’s message is marked by dialectic between God’s sovereignty over the events of history and the centrality of Jerusalem with respect to kingship and worship. Judgment inevitably comes upon the city of God and all nations because of their rebellion. Yet, God will demonstrate his faithfulness by fulfilling his word of hope to his people.
Isaiah preached in Judah during the period of the Assyrian crisis (see 1:1). The major segments of the book of Isaiah are generally set against important moments of Judah’s history.[1] For timeline see Selected Chronology of Empires.
            First, Ahaz faced significant pressure from a Syria-Ephraim coalition. Pekah king of Israel (Samaria in Ephraim) and Rezin king of Syria (Damascus in Aram) tried to persuade Ahaz, king of Judah to join them in an alliance against Assyrian (c. 735 BCE). When he refused they attacked Jerusalem, perhaps in a effort to have Ahaz replaced with a king favorable to the alliance. Ahaz turned to Tiglath-Pileser III king of Assyria for help, thus, becoming a vassal of the empire (see 2 Kgs 16:5-9). The Syria-Ephraim threat forms the backdrop of the narrative of Isaiah 7 and the related oracles in 8-12.
            Second, Hezekiah took advantage of the change of Assyrian rulers between Sargon II and Sennacherib in 705 BCE to rebel against Assyria. Hezekiah sought help from Egypt (Isa 36:6; 30:1-7; 3:1-3) but it did not materialize. The Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE provides background for the oracles in Isaiah 28-35 and the narrative in 36-37.
            Third, when Hezekiah showed off the treasures of Jerusalem to Babylonian visitors Isaiah declared that the Babylonians one day would plunder Jerusalem and take the people captive (39). The anticipated Babylonian captivity serves as the basis for the hope of return from exile. The threatened judgment took place in the exiles of 597 and 586 BCE, the latter in conjunction with king Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The Babylonian exile functions as the background for the narrative of Isaiah 39 and the oracles in 40-55.
            Fourth, a remnant of God’s people who would return from captivity beginning in 538 BCE under the rule of the Persian empire. This serves as backdrop for the oracles of hope in Isaiah 56-66.
The book of Isaiah is an anthology of the prophet’s poetic oracles. The poems, along with a few narratives (6, 7, 20, 36-37, 38-39), are edited together into a carefully structured book. The first half of the book is mainly a word of judgment (1-35) and the second half a word of comfort (40-66). The narratives of 36-37 and 38-39 make transition between and connect the two parts of the book. Immediately after God delivered Hezekiah from the seeming inescapable Assyrian threat, Hezekiah’s pride seals his people’s doom by the hand of the Babylonians which functions as the basis for the comfort for Jerusalem.
The Prophet and the Book
The present tense force of the call for a new exodus from Babylon, and Jerusalem as a new creation for the remnant which returns from captivity (40-55, 56-66 respectively) gave rise to the idea that the book of Isaiah is comprised of materials from more than one author. The most popular form of the theory of authorship ascribes Isaiah 1-39 to the eighth century BCE prophet, 40-55 to a sixth century exilic writer, and 56-66 to a late sixth or fifth century postexilic poet. The authors and their respective parts of the book are conventionally referred to as I Isaiah (1-39), II Isaiah (40-55), and III Isaiah (56-66).
            Opponents of these views have argued vigorously for the unity of the book of Isaiah. Important differences between evangelical and critical scholarship turn on whether prophets offer predictive prophecy, the different styles of the different parts of the book, and numerous related issues. In recent years some evangelicals, who accept predictive prophecy, think in terms of the book of Isaiah being a composite from different hands, while many critical scholars advocate the unity of the book, even while maintaining multiple authors. The “authorship” question is more difficult than ever, and continues to get much attention.[2]
            The canonical form of the book invites readers to consider the word of consolation (40-66) from the vantage point of Isaiah’s word to Hezekiah. The idea that God would forgive Judah and save them from the Assyrian treat after anticipating it through the first half of the book is exhilarating. The narrative of Hezekiah’s pride juxtaposes the inevitability of doom directly against the salvation of Jerusalem from Sennacherib. This striking juxtaposition offers readers the great theological contrast between God’s willingness to forgive and the depth of sinful pride even from among the best of the kings of Judah. The implications are many, and include the assurance of God’s faithfulness and goodness even in light of the necessary and inevitable judgment of the city of God.
The standard approach to the structure of the book of Isaiah is chapters 1-39, 40-55, 56-66.[3] This structure is interrelated to the questions of authorship, setting, and interpretation of the content of the book (see above). Beyond this, there is much agreement upon the sub-divisions in the first half of the book, namely, 1-12, 13-23, 24-27, 28-35, 36-39, with many of the questions falling on the function of 33, 34-35, and 36-39.[4] I am in line with all of this, yet I have begun to work with a new kind of approach to the book. My approach is not overly novel or innovative, but falls within the conventional interpretations I have been describing.
My proposal is to approach the book of Isaiah according to “connected redactional chunks.” I have in mind working with the implied intentionality within the main sections of the final form of the book of Isaiah. The redactional chunks are 1-6, 7-12, 13-27, 28-37, 38-66. Each chunk is comprised of poetic oracles in dialectic relation to a narrative (except in the case of 13-27, in which the apocalyptic summation rather than a narrative [24-27] is in dialect relationship with the poetic oracles).[5] I am not interested in breaking the book apart or isolating the distinctions of these “compilations.”[6] Rather, I am interested in the unified effects of the collaborative redactional processes that filed Isaiah’s prophetic ministry into the redactional chunks that comprise the book of Isaiah. Childs argues that “the context of the canon explains why First Isaiah has been edited according to a topical pattern.”[7]
            I acknowledge the danger toward disunity which could be fostered by attending to redactional chunks. The goals of theological interpretation, as opposed to historical criticism, are not about breaking down biblical writings to discover the underlying original kernels or the like. The recognition of dual or multilevel intentionality is basic to interpreting with an eye to the dialectic between the prophet and the book (see Introduction to the Prophets). I maintain that studying the redactional chunks within the book of Isaiah offers a vantage point for discerning the coherence of the prophet’s message across his many oracles. Moreover, close attention to the interrelations of the narratives and the oracle collections to which they are juxtaposed can strengthen the exegetical work for preparing sermons. I am hopeful that working with the redactional chunks of Isaiah can function as a powerful tool in the hands of the exegete-preacher. What follows is not exhaustive, but illustrates how to begin.
connecting the redactional chunks of the book of Isaiah
Heading of the book.
1-5, 6 (the case against Judah and Jerusalem, the call of the prophet)
Chapters 1-5 provide a set of oracles defining the leading concerns for the entire book of Isaiah. Chapter 6 narrates the call of the prophet (compare Jeremiah and Ezekiel whose books begin with the call). Isaiah 1-5 provide a good summation of the kind of message which might harden heart, clog ears, and blind eyes (6:9-10), as well as flesh out the answer to the prophet’s excellent question, “How long, O Lord?” (6:11).
7, 8-12 (omens against Ahaz, oracles concerning the Syria-Ephraim debacle)
Chapter 7 narrates the children who function as omens against smug king Ahaz in the face of the Syria-Ephraim coalition against Jerusalem (7:3, 14). These omen children provide a significant dialectic with the poetic oracles, especially with the birth of i‘mmanu-’el and the birth of maher-shalal-hash-baz and the expected child (see 7:14; 8:1, 3-4, 8-10; 9:6; 11:1). The manner in which these oracles create restless interpretation that transcends the bounds of the crisis bears witness to the genius of the redaction. (Also see discussion of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1.)
13-23, 24-27 (oracles against the nations, Isaiah's apocalypse)
The oracles against the nations (13-23) have significant interplay with the horrific universal judgment depicted in chapters 24 and following. The first oracle against Babylonia insinuates the devastation of the day of Yahweh is coming to the entire earth (13:5). Amongst the significant messages is the judgment against the city of David indexed along with the other nations(22:9). While I concur with the conventional guessing that the historical backdrop of the imagery in the first half of chapters 1 and 22 is likely Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah (see 36-37), I think the redactional suppressing of the specific historical details creates additional intertextual inferences. The details in chapters 7 and 36 which invite comparison between Ahaz and Hezekiah in their moments of crisis (see discussion in next section) likewise invite readers to consider the judgments of chapters 1 and 22 against both kings. That is, the judgment oracles in chapters 1 and 22 have natural double readings as they are applied to the contrasting responses of the two kings in their respective crises.
            Another example of interplay between the universal devastation and the oracles against the nations is the reference to Moab trampled to the dust in comparison to the oracle against Moab (see 25:10-12; 15:1-16:14). Also, notice the juxtaposition of Damascus and Israel in chapter 17 in light of their coalition against Jerusalem in chapters 7 and 8.
28-35, 36-37 (woe oracles, the Assyrian threat against Jerusalem)
Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and threats against Jerusalem provide a significant narrative context (36-37) for considering the oracles in the preceding chapters (28-35). The series of woe oracles begins with severe judgment against Samaria (the flower on the head of Ephraim, see 28:1, 3-5 with 7:9). The fall of Samaria by the hands of the Assyrians then functions as a powerful analogue against Judah who faces the threat of Assyria’s siege (cf. 29:9-10 with 28:7-8; and 29:3-4 with 28:14-15 [here taking sheol literally rather than as Egypt, yet see below]; and 29:13 with 6:9-10; and so on). Allusive connections invite readers to work back and forth across the sections of the book. The hope of the highway of return after exile is amongst the significant connections (see 11:15-16; 35:8-10; 40:1-4). In any case, the series of judgment oracles offer significant interplay with Sennacherib’s taunts against Hezekiah and Jerusalem in chapters 36-37.
            Among the important larger connections is the setting of the prophet’s meeting with Ahaz at the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, the same place the Assyrian Rabshakeh begins his taunts against Hezekiah (see 7:3; 37:2). The use of this specific locale invites readers to measure the responses of Ahaz and Hezekiah against their respective emergencies. The humility and faith of Hezekiah, a high testimony in its own right, invites reconsideration of Ahaz’s hardened folly. The prophet’s call to “not fear” 7:4 and 37:6 sets up significant contrast between Ahaz who rejects God and Hezekiah who turns to him. Thus, the oracles of 8-12 come as judgment for trusting Assyria, whereas the oracles warning Hezekiah to stop trusting Egypt in 28:14-15 [now taking sheol as Egypt, yet see above] with 30:1-7; 31:1-3 lead up to his trust in God 37:14-20.
38-39, 40-55, 56-66 (Hezekiah’s fall, the promise of return from exile, the enthronement of God above his new creation, Jerusalem)
If chapters 37 and 38 narrate Hezekiah as a paragon of faith, chapters 38 and 39 reveal the tragedy of his self-aggrandizement and self-concern. The sin of Hezekiah provides opportunity for Isaiah to pronounce a Babylonian exile in days to come. Hezekiah’s response drips with tragedy. The reason he accepts God’s word of judgment as good is because he personally will enjoy peace (see 39:8). The failure to invest his heart in the up and coming generation in accord with the great command (Deut 6:6-9) begins to explain why Hezekiah’s son is even worse than Hezekiah’s father. Not only do Ahaz and Manasseh enjoy the distinction being the only two kings of Jerusalem burn their children (2 Kgs 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6 with Jer 7:31-32), but Manasseh’s wickedness is ultimately blamed for the fall of Jerusalem (see 2 Kgs 23:26-27; 27:3-4; Jer 15:1-4). The promised Babylonian captivity provides the basis for the word of comfort in the remaining chapters of the book (Isa 39:6-7). In addition, if Hezekiah’s faith had prompted deliverance of Jerusalem from all of the judgment threatened in the first half of the book, his treachery reactivates those threats and seals the impending doom of the kingdom of God’s people.
       The prophet offers comfort to Jerusalem in Isaiah 40-55 when he tells of the return from captivity in Babylon. The return is likened unto the exodus and the creation. The dominant themes of the new exodus and new creation—the return to Jerusalem—are developed in the context of the election of Israel and the righteous servant who suffers. The center of gravity for all of these saving works is the great power of God, the holy one who knows the beginning and the end. The Lord of hosts is the one and only true God, exalted above all gods who are not gods. The Lord of hosts himself is one who brings judgment and salvation, according to his good will and his faithfulness to his people, covenant, and his word.
       In Isaiah 56-66 the prophet offers criticism, warning, and hope to the people of God who have returned to Zion to worship the Lord. The failure of God’s people to worship and serve him in righteousness begins to explain the disappointment and disillusionment concerning the state of the temple and Jerusalem. Although the Lord has brought Israel back to Jerusalem the people continue to exhibit the same rebellious, sinful heart and tendencies as their ancestors. The continuity of rebellious Israel in the return affirms the continuation and continuity of the covenant as the prevailing reality. The people of Isaiah’s day and the remnant who return to Jerusalem share the same character, problems, prospects, and need to turn from sin and to God for the same reasons and in the same ways. Just as going through the motions of covenant obedience is inadequate in the prophet’s day, so too hypocrisy and pretention continues to explain God’s ongoing judgment, and the need for the people to repent and turn to the Lord.  Since Israel remains stubborn, the righteous remnant will need God himself to bring about salvation and righteousness.

The connections between the various parts of the book of Isaiah been demonstrated by many interpreters in recent decades (see esp. Rendtorff, Childs, Seitz). Rolf Rendtorff makes much of the kinds of connections which are especially evident in redactional chapters at the seams of the book (i.e., Isa 12, 35, 40, 56; cf., 1, 6, 66) (see Rendtorff 1993, 146-189).[8] Sometimes key terms or concepts are used in important ways.

“sin,” “iniquity” 1:4; 40:2

“comfort” 12:1; 40:1; 51:12; 66:13 (“behold” concerning the salvation of God 12:2; 35:4; 40:9) (“behold” and “comfort” in these ways only appear in these contexts in 1-35)

“glory of the Lord” 35:2; 40:5, 9; cf. 6:3; 66:18

“Holy One of Israel” is used 39 times in Isaiah, in both halves of the book, and only 5 times outside of Isaiah, yet in Isaiah 1-39 Holy One is used in the context of judgment and in 40-55 in the context of salvation. Isaiah 12:6 uses Holy One in the context of salvation, which should be combined with the use of “comfort” in 12:1 (see above).

“Right(eous)” (tsdq) is very important through the book, yet tsdq is connected with “justice” (mshpt) in Isaiah 1-35 (for humans to do) and tsdq with “salvation” (ysh‘) (and shalom) in 40-55 (God’s own accomplishment). Then 56:1 connect the tsdq and justice which God’s people need to do, with the salvation and tsdq of God (see Rendtorff 1993, 162-164, 181-189).

The connecting redactional chunks approach shows that the unity and coherence of the book of Isaiah is established by reading oracles in relation to their adjacent narratives. These sectional readings need to be cross-read with the other sectional passages with which they share intentional connections (taking due effort not to imagine connections where there are none). That is, the book of Isaiah is designed for multilevel reflection and thus possesses a natural multifunctionality. This, in part, explains the book’s elusive and transcendent quality that speaks the gospel according to Isaiah across the generations.

Also see a more detailed view of the structure of the book.  And see bibliography on the prophets.

[1] Indebted to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1‑39, Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 2000), 98-105; Blenkisopp, “Introduction to Isaiah,” New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3d ed. (2007), 974-77.
[2] For recent arguments concerning authorship of Isaiah, see in Richard L. Schultz, “How Many Isaiah Were There and What Does It Matter?: Prophetic Inspiration and Recent Evangelical Scholarship,” 15-70, in Vincent Bacote, et al, eds., Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority, and Hermeneutics (InterVarsity, 2004); criticized by Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Baker Academic, 2008), 153; also see 147-49. For challenges from another direction, see Brevard Childs, “On Reclaiming the Bible for Christian Theology,” in C. Braaten and R. Jenson, eds., Reclaiming the Bible for the Church (Eerdmans, 1995), 1-17, esp. 7.
[3] There are occasional alternate approaches, like 1-33, 34-54, 55-66, see Marvin A. Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature (Abingdon, 2005), 48-54.
[4] See Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (Westminster John Knox, 2001), 7-8.
[5] “From the perspective of the canonical editors these chapters [13-23] receive their interpretation in the oracles of chs. 24-27” (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture [Fortress Press, 1979], 332).
[6] Blenkinsopp notes the tendency amongst some interpreters to think in terms of a “distinct history” for the compilations collected in the first half of the book of Isaiah, by which he means, 1-12, 13-23, 24-27, 28-35, 36-39, see Isaiah 1‑39, 82.
[7] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 330.
[8] Rolf Rendtorff, Canon and Theology: Overtures to an Old Testament Theology (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

Copyright 2011