One of the most difficult aspects to understanding the book of Isaiah is that, though it is very intentionally organized, its structure is not always self-evident. Indeed, any scholar, Sunday school teacher, or casual Bible reader will tell you, it takes special scrutiny to identify its shape. To the casual reader, the book is a mess, careening from wrath to comfort and back again, over and over. What’s more, the book does not unfold in a linear fashion with a clear plot that demonstrates a distinguishable beginning, middle, and end. At many points it is not entirely clear when in Jerusalem’s history the reader should be contextually anchored.
In light of all this, it is helpful to orientate oneself before beginning to read. Perhaps the most obvious place to begin is the three main sections, which are chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. Scholars often refer to these sections as First Isaiah or Proto-Isaiah (1-39), Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah (40-55), and Third Isaiah or Trito-Isaiah (56-66). Great debate swirls around who is responsible for the composition of these three sections. Some argue that Isaiah, the son of Amoz, wrote all 66 chapters. Others suggest that many hands over many years contributed in their own time and way to the theological legacy of Isaiah, the son of Amoz. All camps agree that First Isaiah (1-39) is originally addressed to pre-exilic Judah, Second Isaiah (40-55) is originally addressed to the exilic community in Babylon, and Third Isaiah (56-66) is originally addressed to the remnant that returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem.
If we look at First Isaiah (1-39) more closely we will see seven principle parts, which are chapters (a) 1-6, (b) 7-12, (c) 13-23, (d) 24-27, (e) 28-33, (f) 34-35, and (g) 36-39. The first of these principal parts (1-6) ought to be set apart as a block that introduces the three main sections of the entire book (1-39, 40-55, and 56-66). The remaining six principle parts then create a symmetrical structure, with chapters 24-27 in the middle. This structure can be understood metaphorically as a mountain, with chapters 24-27 representing the summit:
The summit (Isaiah 24-27) represents the end, the goal of history. These chapters describe the cataclysmic transition to a world ruled by God from Mount Zion. On this mountain God hosts a banquet (Isaiah 25:6), swallows up death (Isaiah 25:7-8), and raises people back to life from the dust of the earth (Isaiah 26:19).
On either side of the summit are the rocky cliffs. To the left (Isaiah 13-23), Isaiah provides oracles against the nations, showing that no mere mortal, no matter how powerful, is equal to God. The proud will be humbled. To the right (Isaiah 28-33), Isaiah makes it clear that, just like the other nations, Ephraim (Israel) and Judah have also failed to achieve a right standing before God. In short, “Are Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9).
We then have an asymmetrical piece (Isaiah 34-35), which summarizes the cascading message of wrath and salvation throughout Isaiah. Chapter 34 reminds us that we are all subject to the wrath of God. However, chapter 35 mercifully promises salvation and restoration for “the ransomed of the LORD” (Isaiah 35:10).
Finally, we come to the foothills, which establish twin historical object lessons from the reigns of kings Ahaz (Isaiah 7-12) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 36-39). Both kings are embroiled in knee-knocking tests of faith. Whereas Ahaz, a first class idolater (2 Kings 16:1-20), fails miserably, Hezekiah, his son, triumphs by faith against inconceivable odds (2 Kings 18:1-19:37). And yet, God shows Ahaz mercy and grace, sustaining Jerusalem in spite of his stark faithlessness by promising an heir to reign “with justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 9:7). By contrast, though Jerusalem and Judah enter into a temporary peace, God promises certain exile for the descendants of Hezekiah (Isaiah 39:5-7). Unwrapping this riddle will be the goal of future posts.