What follows is an overview of the entire book of Isaiah looking at its structure and features as well as its importance. I have preached through the entire book of Isaiah from 2010-2012, which you can find those sermons on this site. Therefore, even though the approach of these commentaries is different than my sermons I have not yet written more extensively on the book.
Remember the Former Prophets are:
And the Latter Prophets are:
Book of the Twelve
The two halves of the Prophets are united through the use of large sections of 2 Kings 18-20 for the narrative of Isaiah 36-39.
Apart from Isaiah 6-8 and these chapters there is not much narrative in the book. This is one of the ways that the latter prophets are substantially different from the former prophets. And the use of narrative and ‘narrative subtitles’ is key to understanding the structure of Isaiah.
The book of Isaiah is a prophetic vision. The historical introduction to the book reads:
“The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1).
The rest of chapter one is a general introduction to the book.
Chapter 2 has a similar (though shorter) title formula:
“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:1).
Chapters 2-5 introduce the message of the book. Already with the opening chapters we have seen that the historical narrative markers point to the structure of the book.
Chapter 6 begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne….”
This historical marker introduces the call of Isaiah – it is his first and the foundational vision that the rest of the vision of Isaiah unpacks.
Then chapter 7 begins, “In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it.” This begins a narrative where we see the sign of Immanuel (“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” Isaiah 7:14). The narrative continues through chapter 8.
There are also subtitles throughout the book for small sections of text.
“The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.” Isaiah 13:1
“In the year that King Ahaz died came this oracle:” Isaiah 14:28
“An oracle concerning Moab.” Isaiah 15:1
“An oracle concerning Damascus.” Isaiah 17:1
“An oracle concerning Egypt.” Isaiah 19:1
Chapter 20 is a short one, but it is narrative. It opens, “In the year that the commander in chief, who was sent by Sargon the king of Assyria, came to Ashdod—at that time YHWH spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying,” (Isaiah 20:1-2a). It includes a sign against Egypt and Cush.
“The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.” Isaiah 21:1
“An oracle concerning Dumah” Isaiah 21:11
“The oracle concerning Arabia” Isaiah 21:13
“The oracle concerning the valley of vision.” Isaiah 22:1
“The oracle concerning Tyre.” Isaiah 23:1
“An oracle on the beasts of the Negeb.” Isaiah 30:6
An oracle is a genre marker – it tells you what kind of prophecy you are about to read. Normally oracles are where a prophet denounces a foreign nation. It is a statement of divine warfare against that foreign nation.
We do not see narrative again until chapters 36-39. Nevertheless, the reason for narrative is to provide the context for the prophetic vision. Moreover, every narrative section (6-8, 20, 36-39) includes prophetic signs.
Isaiah prophesied about 740-700 B.C. At the time the major world power was the Assyrian Empire, though Isaiah saw its end and the rise of Babylon, and its fall, and the rise of Persia not to mention seeing the death of Jesus Christ and the church.
A more general outline of the book is as follows:
The coming judgment on Israel (ch.1-12)
Oracles of judgment on foreign nations (ch.13-35) Future blessings (ch.40-66)
Chapters 36-39 serve as a narrative transition.
This is similar to the arrangement of Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Joel, and the Septuagint of Jeremiah (Dillard/Longman, OT Introduction, p.281).
Brownlee, Harrison, and Evans argue for a bifid structure to the book:
Some of the parts correspond better than others. But the strength of this approach to outlining the book is that it understands the key narrative portions (chapters 6-8 and 36-39) are the key to seeing the structure. (This does not give, however, any structural importance to the narrative of chapter 20.)
There are chiasms in the text. For example, Isaiah 55:8 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares YHWH.” The chiasm: My/Your/Your/My
It has been suggested that Isaiah 56-66 is a chiasm (pts 6&7 of v.2 in the bifid outline).
Likewise, pts. 6&7 of volume 1 (Isaiah 28-33) are tied together structurally.
Several of the sections begin with the word “Woe” (Isaiah 28:1, 29:1, 15, 30:1, 31:1, 33:1).
Perhaps it would be better then to see pts. 6&7 in each volume as one section each rather than two each. The weakest parallels are in pt. 5 for each volume.
At the end of the 18th century scholars began arguing that the book of Isaiah is not a unified whole. And they called the author of Isaiah 1-39, “Isaiah of Jerusalem” and the author of Isaiah 40-66 they called “Deutero-Isaiah”).
The main reason for this was unbelief that the prophet Isaiah who lived when he did could possibly have prophesied about things that far into the future. Thus the original audience for Isaiah 40-66 was assumed to be the people of Israel while already in exile in Babylon. They gave other reasons too, but this was the main one.
Later scholars even proposed a “Third Isaiah” for the chapters we saw the chiasm above (ch.55-66). Under this approach, Isaiah of Jerusalem wrote chapters 1-39, Second Isaiah is chapters 40-54, and Third Isaiah is chapters 55-66. However, some argued that chapters 34-35 were also by Second Isaiah. Many influenced by this argument about chapters 34-35 argue for the bifid structure of the book.
The argument for a bifid structure demonstrates the unity of the book, but the approach of critics has usually been to destroy the unity of the book and cast doubt on the predictive part of prophecy. The whole book reads as if it were written by one person (because it was). The themes in Isaiah 40-66 are all present earlier in the vision of Isaiah and other Biblical prophets seem to borrow from Isaiah 40-66 (requiring the early date). These scholars explain away the similarities of the two halves by arguing that Isaiah 40-66 (or even 34-35, 40-66) was written by the prophet’s disciples or his school. They applied his teaching to a new generation and new situations.
The great Isaiah scroll found in the cave at Qumran had a three line gap between chapters 33 and 34. No such gap has been found in any scroll between chapters 39 and 40.
This may support reading Isaiah as two volumes as the bifid structure proposed earlier does with volume one as chapters 1-33 and volume two as chapters 34-66.
It is worth noting that Hebrew scrolls of the Book of the Twelve would put three spaces between each “book” rather than the normal four.
However, a gap between the two volumes (between chapters 33 and 34) does not mean that there were two authors of Isaiah. Simply comparing the Book of the Twelve shows that – each one begins with a new author identified.
The reason that critics argued for Second Isaiah to begin with chapter 40 is the perceived change from chapters 1-39 to chapter 40. It begins rather strikingly: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The chapter resumes where the vision of chapter 35 left off talking about the highway.
Yet the tone of the book does change, and this is clear when one compares the language of judgment in the early chapters to the language of comfort beginning with chapter 40. This change in tone is common among the prophets. They prophesy judgment until the judgment comes (whether it has happened yet in history or only in the vision) and then they prophesy comfort for the afflicted. However, this transition is prepared for in several places in chapters 1-39.
The narrative of chapters 36-39 is not in chronological order. Instead, serving as a transition, chapters 36-37 look back to the Assyrian period and chapters 38-39 look forward to the Babylonian period.
That being said, all of chapters 1-39 are laying the foundation for chapters 40-66. The book simply is not complete without the whole of chapters 1-66.
EJ Young, who believes the whole book was written by Isaiah of Jerusalem, says that “the prophecy concerning Cyrus is the basic stumbling block for acceptance of Isaiah’s authorship” (v.3, p.546). This because the text names the Persian king some 160 years before his birth. We saw the same thing in the book of Kings where Josiah’s name was predicted 300 years before his birth. The text concerning Cyrus does not make sense unless it is predicting his name. In other words, it would make no sense if written in the days of Cyrus.
Moreover, early chapters of Isaiah prophesy concerning Babylon even though Babylon was not on the world stage as a major player at the time. So why exactly could Isaiah say what he said in those early chapters about Babylon and not say what he says in the later ones about Babylon?
Jeremiah uses earlier prophets more than any other prophet does. And Jeremiah uses Isaiah 40-66 extensively.
EJ Young gives us this list to compare:
Jeremiah 13:18-26 and Isaiah 47:1-3
Jeremiah 48:18 and Isaiah 47:1
Jeremiah 31:12 and Isaiah 58:11
Jeremiah 31:13 and Isaiah 61:3
Jeremiah 31:22 and Isaiah 43:19
Jeremiah 31:34 and Isaiah 54:13
Jeremiah 31:36 and Isaiah 54:10
Jeremiah 5:25 and Isaiah 59:2
Jeremiah 13:16 and Isaiah 59:9-11
Jeremiah 50:8 & 51:45 and Isaiah 48:20
Jeremiah 17:1 and Isaiah 64:8
Jeremiah 18:6 and Isaiah 65:6
Jeremiah 2:25 and Isaiah 57:10
Moreover, the vocabulary of the book is thoroughly consistent – much detailed work has been done to show this by Margalioth (she is a Jewish scholar).
It is also important that I explain the difference between narrative portions, prophetic portions, and poetry. These things are on a scale. Narrative portions have less poetic devices than prophetic portions. Prophetic portions are an elevated style that is much more poetic. But poetry is where you will find the most poetic devices consistently used. Much of these distinctions are easier to know and see than to explain – for example, we know when we are reading poetry even if we do not know how to define it as poetry.
One of the most common poetic devices that you see in the book of Isaiah is parallelism. We discuss this more in our introduction to the commentary on the Psalms, but for here it is important that you understand that one line may be similar to the next, sometimes it is contrasted with the next, but almost always the idea of parallelism is A what’s more B. The B colon takes the A colon a step further. Isaiah uses a variety of other poetic devices that occur less often in narrative (but more often in Biblical narrative than we would in a history book). Much of what we will learn in the Psalms you will be able to take back and apply to earlier books.
Isaiah is the most important of the latter prophets. The three most quoted books in the New Testament are Deuteronomy, Isaiah and the Psalms (one book for each section of the Hebrew Canon). Part of the reason that Isaiah gets this place of pride is that it is the first book of the latter prophets. And as a result as well there are even times when other books from the latter prophets are the books actually being cited but the citation will say Isaiah (Mark 1:2). Thus Isaiah can refer to much if not all of the latter prophets. This is also true for Jeremiah, the second book of the latter prophets (Matt 27:9).
But Isaiah was the prophet of prophets when it came to the written prophets.
And Christians depend on the book more than any other book of prophecy to explain the ministry of Jesus and Paul. See the New Testament for this.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of Isaiah’s vision in preparing the way for the new covenant.