How to read Isaiah


The book of Isaiah in many ways is the centerpiece of the story of Israel in the biblical story. Standing at the beginning of the Latter Prophets, even though not first chronologically, it serve to guide your reading of the rest of this tradition. But beyond that, its theological scope is all-embracing, constantly reminding Israel that Yahweh is the living God the Creator and majestic Sovereign-and Judge-of all that is, as well as the compassionate Redeemer of Israel. Thus Isaiah looks for- ward to Israel's judgment, to her redemption from exile through a second exodus, and through her coming Servant King, to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant that includes the nations in Yahweh,s salvation. And in the end it pictures the final redemption of Israel and the nations in a new heaven and new earth, when Zion, the place where Yahweh and people meet, is restored to its ultimate glory. Isaiah, therefore, had enormous influence on the New Testament writers, being cited or alluded to more often than any other Old Testament book except the Psalter.

The book itself presents this glorious panorama as a carefully crafted whole, which comes in two basic parts: Chapters 1-39 deal primarily with Jerusalem during the period of the Assyrian threat, but at the end Isaiah prophesies the future threat of exile in Babylon. Chapters 40-66 focus on the future of Israel and Jerusalem toward the end of the Babylonian captivity and beyond, climaxing with the hope of a new heaven and new earth and a final eschatological Zion.

Each of these parts has its own structures and rhythms. Chapters 1- 5 introduce the major concerns of part 1-that Judah and Zion have failed in their calling to be Yahweh's people for him and the nations, so they must be judged (while 2:1-5 looks forward to the fulfillment of that calling). The failure is threefold: (1) lack of trust in Yahweh, which is expressed in (2) their constant flirtation with idols and (3) their lack of social justice. Isaiah's call (ch. 6) introduces the rest of part 1. His vision of the "Holy One of Israel" leads to his own cleansing and his commission to announce God's judgment on a people who are exactly like their idols-they have ears that do not hear and eyes that do not see. The rest of part 1 is framed by two sets of narratives (chs. 7 -9; 36-39), one at the beginning (with Ahaz) and one at the end (with Hezekiah) of Isaiah's long career-both are during outside threats and both mention the same piece of geography (7:3; 36:2).In both cases at issue is trust in Yahweh: Ahaz does not, Hezekiah does. But Hezekiah then shows lack of trust with regard to envoys from Babylon, which leads to the second part of the book. Much of the inner frame of part I is a series of oracles against the nations, including nations on whom Israel has leaned for support rather than trusting Yahweh.

Part 2 is basically in two parts, each of which is also in two parts. Chapters 40-55 move the story ahead ta a time toward the end of the Babylonian exile; chapters 40- 48 are both consolation and confrontation-the latter to a people who are settled in Babylon and of no mind to take part in the new exodus-while chapters 49-55 reflect that the (now postponed) new exodus will finally be brought about by Yahweh's servant, who will thereby also gather the nations. Chapters 56-66 reflect the continuing failure of Israel (chs. 56-59), but then speak to the grand future that God has for his people and for the nations (chs. 60-66).


To read Isaiah well, you need to have some sense of the history it reflects, as well as of the theological concerns that energize the book from beginning to end.

The history reflected in chapters 1-39 is dominated by the role of Assyria on the international scene. Isaiah's call comes in the last year of Uzziah's long reign in Jerusalem (792-740 B.C.; see 2 Kgs 15:1 -7), which had been a time of Assyrian decline and thus of relative peace in Judah and Israel. But by the time of Uzziah's death, Assyria had reasserted her power in the Near Eastern world through a new series of kings (Tiglath-Pileser III [44-727], Shalmaneser V [726-722], Sargon II [721-705], and Sennacherib [704-681]. Much of the political intrigue in Samaria and Jerusalem had to do with Israelite and Judeam kings paying or withholding tribute to Assyria. It is these intrigues that lie behind the two sets of narratives in Isaiah 7-9 and 36-39. In each case Isaiah announces the deliverance of Zion, but he also foretells the exile to Babylon (39:5-7).

The siege and fall of Jerusalem and the twofold exile to Babylon is the story of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The historical setting envisioned in Isaiah 40-55 is the later part of this exile, that is, the time after the message of Jeremiah and Ezekiel has been heeded and the exiles have settled into a new life in Babylon. The whole of this section of Isaiah is dominated by the expectation of a new exodus-from exile, across the desert with promises of water and safe passage back to Zion, the place where Yahweh will reestablish his dwelling. But the exiles will not receive this message of consolation-they cannot believe that Yahweh will use the Persian Cyrus to accomplish his purposes-and so the second exodus becomes part of a more distant future.

The theological passions of Isaiah find their focus at four points: (1) Yahweh as the "Holy One of Israel" (a term found thirty times in Isaiah and only six times in the rest of the OT); (2) Israel as ) Yahweh's "Holy People" (62:12); (3) Zion (Jerusalem) as God's "holy city" (48:2) and "holy mountain" (11:9; 27:13); and (4) the inclusion of the nations (Gentiles) in his people (2:2; 52:15).

Yahweh as the "Holy One of Israel" lies at the heart of everything- Isaiah's vision (ch. 6), Yahweh's justice and judgments (5:19-25), and Yahweh's mercy and compassion as Israel's Redeemer (41:L4; 43:3- 15; 62:12). Thus in Isaiah the term holy carries both of its essential characteristics: ( 1 ) Yahweh's absolute "otherness"-the Creator and Sustainer of all things and ail nations, the one who has no rivals, since no other gods exist. you will not be able to miss this theme as you read, especially when it takes the form of scathing rebuke on the "lifeless" nature of such idols, who have eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear (see esp . 44:6-20).(2) Yahweh,s absolute holiness in the moral/ethical sense. As a holy Go4 he requires holiness of his people-they are to bear his likeness (compassion, rove, goodness, faithfulness) rather than that of their idols. After all, idolatry inevitably leads to injustice: The lifeless gods are unjust; their worshipers become like them.

At the center of Isaiah's story is Israel, redeemed but wayward stubborn but loved, and it is Yahweh's relationship with them, told over and over again by pointing back to the exodus and the Davidic covenant, that reveals his mercy and compassion. Judge them he must, but give them up he will not-and it is here that the theme of Yahweh's saving a "remnant" belongs to the story. The story of this redemption thus climaxes with a servant Messiah who will redeem both Israel and the nations by dying for them-a story that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the cross.

The essential symbol of the relationship between Yahweh and his people is his presence with them in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. Here is where Israel has desecrated the relationship (1:10-25), yet here also is where Yahweh plans to restore the relationship (1:26-3 1) so that the nations will join them in worship on Zion (2:1-5). Thus the book begins with a desecrated Zion that is promised to be restored, and it ends (chs. 65-66) with the promised final expression of the Holy City and its Holy People, which includes the Gentiles.

There is much else that makes up this marvelous telling of the biblical story, but watching for these several themes, as well as being sensitive to the powerful imagery and cadences of the poetry, should help you catch something of the book's splendor, as well as its important place in the biblical story.



Introduction: The Corruption and Future of the Holy People and Holy Place

This section introduces both chapters 1-5 and the whole book; be watching for the pervading themes. Here Yahweh's complaint takes the form of a lawsuit against Jerusalem's ongoing rebellion against the Holy one of Israel that has brought on his judgment (vv. 2-9, 24-25); their religion is useless (w. 10- 15d) because of their sins- social injustice (vv. 15e- 17 cf. Amos) and idolatry (v.29)-but there is also the offer of mercy (w. 18-20) and a bright future(w 26-28). In 2:1-4 Yahweh makes plain his commitment to redeem his creation, with Mount Zion functioning as the new Mount Sinai to which all the nations come (thus fulfilling Israel,s true purposes in keeping with his covenant with Abraham). Note how the section ends with an invitation to Israel to thus walk in the light of Yahweh.


The Coming Day of the Lord

In the first oracle (2:6-22) the key issues are arrogant trust in idols and lack of trust in Yahweh; also watch for some repeated themes that give power to the poetry. The coming disaster prophesied in 3 :1-4:l is directed especially at the leaders, and again the issue is social justice-the wealthy abusing the poor and the land (including the graphic portrayal in 3: 16- 4:1). But after disaster there is hope (4:2-6), the first expression of "second exodus" themes in Isaiah. Likewise, the song of the vineyard (5: I - 7; picked up in Jer 12:10; Ezek 19: l0- 14; and by Jesus [Mark l2:l-12; John 15:l-81) focuses on social injustice (Isa 5:7),as do the six woes that follow (w. 8-25); hence, instead of the nations now coming to worship on Zion (2:2-4), they are summoned to destroy it (5:26-30).


Isaiah's Vision and Commission

Uzziah has died (symbolic of what is happening to the Davidic dynasty). In the temple, the place of Yahweh's presence, Isaiah sees a vision of Israel's true King, the Holy one of Israel. Crushed because of his own and his people's uncleanness, Isaiah is pardoned and then commissioned to pronounce God's judgments on a people who have become like the idols they worship, that is, neither seeing nor hearing.

A Crisis of Trust: Ahaz and the Syro-Ephraimite Coalition (Chs. 7-12)

At issue in chapters 7 -39 is whether or not Jerusalem, represented by her king' will trust in Yahweh or in entangling alliances (a form of idolatry). Note that the narratives about Ahaz's (7: 1-8:10) and Hezekiah,s (ch. 39) failures to trust Yahweh bookend this larger section. And this is why there must be a future faithful king for Judah and the nations (9: I - 7; 12:1-6; and throughout the oracles against the nations).


Failed Kingship in Judah

Watch how this opening narrative reveals Ahaz's wavering before a Syro-Ephraimite coalition. The names of Isaiah's two sons reflect Yahweh's response to Ahaz-the threat of Israel's being plundered (Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz) and the mere remnant that will remain of the northern alliance after Yahweh judges them (Shear-Jashub)-while Immanuel, Yahweh's "sign" to Ahaz) reminds him of Yahweh's own presence in Zion (in this case, probably as a threat). Yahweh's word to Isaiah and Isaiah's response (8:ll-22) indicate the issue at hand-trust in Yahweh.


Future Kingship in Judah

Central here is kingship in Israel. So note how Ahaz's failure to trust Yahweh is responded to by the announcement of a coming great Davidic king (9:1-7; 11:1-16). Together these oracles bookend (1) the announced fall of Samaria (9:8- 10:4, who sided with Damascus against Judah) , (2) the punishment of her destroyer, Assyria ( 10:5- 19), and (3) the preservation of Judah (10:20-34). After the second announcement of the coming king (11:1-16), the section concludes with Yahweh on Zion as Judah's true king (ch. l2).

Yahweh's Complaint with the Nations (chs. 13-27)


Against Babylon and Assyria

Note that both oracles against these two historic enemies of Judah are distinguished at their heart by words of hope for Judah (14:1-3,25). Babylon probably stands first in the series because eventually she would turn out to be the world power, whose collapse would be of monumental significance. Two things are noteworthy about this oracle: (1) It contains the imagery of the holy war, as Yahweh himself musters the army that will destroy Babylon (13:4-22), and (2) the king in particular is singled out because of his arrogance against Yahweh (14:12-21).


Against Judah's Neighbors: Philistia, Moab, Damascus

These oracles each put emphasis on the coming disaster, not on these

nations' sins as such; in each case, as with the preceding two, look for the word of hope about the future of Zion and her people (14,32;16:5; 17:6-7).


Against Cush and Egypt

Note how the two more general oracles (chs. 18-19) are concluded with a historically specific oracle against both Egyptian realms (ch.20). In the two oracles, note that, as before, emphasis lies more on the announcement of judgment than on the reasons for it, and again it will result in the exaltation of Yahweh as king (1 8:7; 19:19-21). The length of the oracle against Egypt is probably related to the way it concludes: Judah's having sought help from Egypt.


Against Babylon and Her Allies

The oracle against Jerusalem (ch. 22) fits within these final oracles against Babylon and her allies (ch. 21), because Jerusalem's ruin will come at the hands of Babylon. Note the repeated motifs-emphasis on the doom, not the sins as such; turning from Yahweh on the part of Jerusalem, but with a future for the house of David (22:20-24); Yahweh's judgment of the arrogant (23:9).


The Distress of the Nations, and Feasting on Yahweh's Holy Mountain

The preceding oracles seem to imply that Yahweh is merely reacting to what the nations are doing; however, this next series makes it clear that he is the Sovereign Lord of the nations. In the first oracle, the coming destruction of Jerusalem (24: l0- 13) is appropriately placed in a context of the ultimate devastation of the earth. The nations respond by joining his people in a great eschatological feast on Mount Zion (ch. 25), while Judah's response (ch. 26) is to renew commitment to her trust in Yahweh and to enjoy his peace after discipline-to which Yahweh, having atoned for her guilt, responds by a renewed song of the vineyard, as Jacob takes root once more (ch. 27).

A Crisis of Trust: Hezekiah and the Babylonian Threat (chs. 28-39)


Woe to Ephraim and Judah, Who Trust in Egypt

Back to present reality in Judah once more; note how these oracles pickup themes from chapters 6-12. Again it is a crisis of trust regarding Yahweh. Watch for the sins that call forth this series of woes, first against Samaria (28:1-6) and then against Judah and her leaders (28 :7-3l:9)-especially the sins of injustice (the rich lying around getting drunk off the labor of the poor), mockery of God's prophet, and idolatry, all of which reflect Judah's arrogance, both in worship and foreign policy, with its accompanying failure to trust Yahweh, for which exhibit A is their going to Egypt for help (ch. 31).. But note also how these threats are interlaced with words of hope that focus on the future of Zion and God,s righteous king. Future hope then becomes the primary theme of chapters 32-33, interlaced with threats of judgment. Note especially that when Yahweh,s righteous king reigns, the blind finally will see and the deaf hear (32:3-4; cf. 6:9-10)'

Also be on the lookout for the many wordplays that mark these oracles (Samaria as a fading "flower'' to be replaced by Yahweh as their "wreath" [28:1-5]; Judah,s mockery is turned into God's mockery of them [28:9-13; cf. v.22]; the deaf will soon hear from the scroll [29:11- 12, 18]; etc).


Once More: Judgment on the Nations, and the Future of Zion

The final two oracles of this part of Isaiah conclude with Yahweh's love for Zion, first by announcing the Divine warrior's judgment against the nations, especially Edom (ch. 34; cf. the similar phenomenon in Ezek 35-36), and second by announcing the coming new exodus (Isa 35:1-10); note how the judgment of 6:9-10 against the blind and the deaf, who have become like their idols, is finally reversed forever (35:5) and the ransomed of the Lord enter Zion with joy (v. 10). This final oracle also paves the way for chapters 40-55.


Trusting Yahweh regarding Assyria, and Failure regarding Babylon

Most of this narrative is repeated in 2 Kings 1 8: 13, 17 -20: 19. In contrast

to Ahaz earlier, Hezekiah listens to Isaiah and puts his trust in Yahweh, who miraculously delivers Judah from Assyria. Note again the emphasis on Zion and the remnant of Yahweh. But then Hezekiah fails to trust Yahweh by dallying with Babylon, not recognizing, as Isaiah does prophetically, that Zion's real threat lies in that quarter. So this narrative also serves as a transition to the oracles that come next.

Consolation and Confrontation (chs. 40-48)



Watch how the theme of Israel's second even greater exodus, which lies at the heart of the oracles contained in this section, is introduced here. Jerusalem's "hard service" in exile is coming to an end (w. 1-2), as the desert is to be prepared like a highway, and Yahweh's glory will be revealed once more (w. 3-5). All of this is the result of God's unbreakable word (w. 6-8). Thus the prophet announces "good tidings to Zion"-that Yahweh will once more come with power and "shepherd" his people, bringing them safely home (vv. 9-l1; note how v. 9 responds to 35:4).


The Consolation of Israel

But is exiled Jerusalem ready for this? Note how the oracles begin with Yahweh's contending with his people that he is the Sovereign Lord who can be trusted absolutely. His wisdom is unsearchable (40: L2-14); no nation or idol can compare with him (w. 15-26), so he will strengthen them for the journey (w. 27 -31; cf. v. 31 and Exod l9:4). Then Yahweh contends with the nations and their idols (41:I-7 [which have to be created in order to join the dispute!], w. 21-29) to point out that he alone has raised up "one from the east" (v. 2, Cyrus), who comes on Babylon from the north (w. 21-29). These oracles are obviously for Israel's consolation, since they bookend Yahweh's encouragement to Israel his "servant" that he is with them (as in the former exodus) and will provide for them through the desert (w. 8-20).


Israel As God's Reluctant Servant to the Nations

As you read this series of stirring oracles, watch for the following repeated themes-that God's gracious redemption of Israel is so that she might become his servant for the nations; that Israel, still deaf and blind (cf. 6:9-10), is reluctant to receive this redemption; that Yahweh thus contends with them that he alone is God and that there is no other; that he will bring about a second exodus that will cause them to forget the first; and that all of this is for his own glory, he who is the gracious Redeemer of Israel.


Yahweh's Chosen Deliverer, Cyrus

Note the renewed emphasis on Yahweh's unbreakable word that accomplishes what he intends, including the raising up of Cyrus his servant for the sake of Israel his servant; especially note the repeated emphasis on "I am the Lord [Yahweh], and there is no other" (45; 5, 6, 18; cf. 43:11; 45:14, 21, 22). Tucked into all this is also the note of Israel's reluctance (45 :9-10). Nonetheless Yahweh intends to use Israel's redemption as an appeal to the nations (vv. 14-25).


Yahweh's Disputation with Stubborn Israel

In this series of oracles Yahweh at last announces the actual fall of Babylon (46: l-2;47:l-15). But his contention is with citizens of stubborn Israel, who are resistant to what Yahweh has planned for them (46:3-13; 4g:1-19); he concludes with a final plea to flee Babylon (48:20-22).

Yahweh's Coming Servant Who Will Bring Salvation (chs. 49-55)


Yahweh's Servant and the Salvation of Israel

Note in these oracles how Yahweh's "servant, Israel," narrows down to one servant who will stand in for Israel and redeem both Israel and the nations. Note also that the new exodus is more clearly located in the relatively distant future. The first oracle paves the way: Yahweh's servant, Israel, becomes the one who brings Israel-and the nations-back to Yahweh (49 :1-7).This is followed by the renewed announcement of the new exodus (49:8-13), along with Israel's continued reluctance (49 : 14, 24)and Yahweh's responses (49:15 -23, 25 -26), climaxing with the servant,s own response to his commission (50:1-9) and the prophet's invitation for Israel to obey Yahweh (50:10-11).


The Glorious Future of Zion

After Yahweh appeals to the faithful in Israel who will inherit the promises (51:1-8), the prophet calls for Yahweh to lead the new exodus (51:9-11). Yahweh responds with words of consolation to Israel (51: 12-16), so the prophet calls for Israel to respond (5 1:17 -21), since their cup of wrath is to be passed on to Babylon (w. 22-23). Zion must therefore prepare herself for the great exodus to come (52:1-6), which climaxes with Yahweh's return to Zion (w. 7 -10) and a final appeal to flee Babylon as they did Egypt, but not in haste this time (vv. 11- l2).


The Servant Atones for Israel's Sins

How will this new exodus be achieved? Through the redeeming work

of Yahweh,s suffering servant, whose effective ministry is presented in 52:13-15, its means in 5 3:1-9, and its divine origins and assessment in 53:10-12. No wonder the New Testament sees the fulfillment of this passage in Jesus Christ (Mark 10:45; Acts 8:30-35; 1 Pet 2:21-25).


The Glorious Future of Zion

The climax of the servant's work is now expressed by means of echoes of three former covenants-Abraham (54:1-3), Sinai (vv. 4-8), and Noah (w. 9-1O)-as Zion's future glory is expressed with lavish imagery (w. 11-17). Note especially that the exiles in chapter 52 are still in Babylon, but here they appear on Zion (v. I l). How did they get there? Through the suffering servant of 52:13-53:12!


Yahweh's Invitation to Israel and the Nations

Yahweh's final word in this section is one of invitation-to Israel and to the nations-to receive freely of God's gracious provision (55: I -7). Appealing once more to his sovereignty and unbreakable word (w. 8-11), Yahweh announces the great reversal of fortunes for those who respond (vv. 12-13).

Present Failure, and Zion's Glorious Future (chs. 56-66)


True Sabbath Keeping and True Fasting

This final section of Isaiah begins with a kind of reprise-a return to the themes with which the book began. An opening oracle (56:1-8) sets the tone, with its concerns for Yahweh's soon-coming salvation, Israel's keeping covenant, Sabbath keeping in a context of justice, and the gathering of the nations on the holy mountain.

The series of oracles that follows picks up these themes, plus condemnation of Israel's leaders (.56:9-57:4) and idolatry (57:5-13). But inserted between this condemnation of idolatry and of religion without

justice (58:1-14) is an oracle of salvation for the humble (57:14-21). Note how all these themes echo 1:2-2:5.

The section concludes with an announcement of the sins that have kept Yahweh at a distance (59:1 -8), a pray er of repentance by the people (w.9-15) and Yahweh's response of coming salvation (w. 16-21), which echoes 1:18-20. Note especially how it ends by announcing the coming Redeemer and the Spirit (59:20-21).


The Future Glory of Zion, and Yahweh's Anointed One

This collection of oracles is the centerpiece of the final section of Isaiah. It starts with a marvelous picture of the future glory of Zion (ch. 60), which, as throughout Isaiah, includes the nations (w. 10-14). Then comes the announcement of the coming Redeemer (ch. 6l), who has remarkable resemblances to the servant of chapters 42-53-a passage that Jesus announces as fulfilled in himself and his ministry (Luke 4:16-21). Note also that the redeemed are the humble poor of the preceding oracles. This is followed by yet another oracle about Zion's glorious future (Isa 62), concluding with the Redeemer's eschatological judgment of the nations (63:1-6), a passage picked up by John (Rev 14:17-20).


Yahweh's People Pray

This prayer brings us back to present realities, as Cod's people await their great future. Note how it begins by recalling the first exodus-that Yahweh was present by his Spirit and in mercy redeemed them despite their rebellion (63:7-14)-which leads to the prayer for God to act again on their behalf (63:15-64:12), constituting one of the more poignant moments in Isaiah.


Judgment and Salvation

Yahweh's response to their prayer is to remind them of their waywardness (w. 1-7), but also of his consistently promised redemption (w.8-16).


Future Zion in a New Heaven and New Earth

Isaiah now concludes with one more look at the future glory of Zion-what Yahweh has always been after-placed in an eschatological setting of a new heaven and a new earth, with a reminder of final judgment to come. Note how the end echoes 2:2-4: God's salvation encompasses a renewed Zion that will include the nations (66:18-21).

The book of Isaiah stands in the middle of the Old Testament as a

reminder that Yahweh is the living God who will both judge the world

in righteousness and will in mercy save his people and the nations

through his "suffering servant" Messiah. It thus gathers up the whole of

the Old Testament story and prepares the way for the New.