Structures and Features
We've noted that the Book of Isaiah is not a history or narrative like the Book of Acts where Luke provides a historical narrative of the establishment of the church in Jerusalem at the early part of the 1st century and goes forward to describe key events and characters in its development up to Paul's imprisonment in Rome in about 64 AD. Luke's narrative spans a period from about 33 AD to 64 AD, all of which is linear, concise, historical, easy to plot on a graph, follow and understand.
Isaiah is completely different. Aside from a few chapters of historical information at the midpoint of the book, Isaiah's writings are the product of visions and prophecies recorded in poetic form. He writes about the impending judgment of God on His unfaithful people in the form of invasion by foreign powers, and the salvation and blessings that will eventually come through a future Messiah, who he describes in detail.
These prophetic utterances are contained in five different themes or strands which are braided together to form a single image in the end and that image is Jesus Christ.
And so, in this chapter we will examine the fifth of these five strands:
- The Messianic hope as:
- Anointed Conqueror
- The City (Jerusalem)
- Metaphor for God's people (present, future, end-times)
- The Holy One of Israel
- A Holy God is: Transcendent, Judge, Savior
- A Holy God as: Creator, Potter, Maker
- The History and Faith of the Jewish People
- Ahaz - Faithless
- Hezekiah - Faithful
- The Literary and Structural Features of Isaiah
Literary and Structural Features of Isaiah
This strand is not about the actual content of the Book of Isaiah but rather how that content was put together. To understand the writings properly requires understanding of how Isaiah arranged the material in his book and the various devices that he used in his writings.
The following is not a complete list but some of the important literary features to consider:,
1. Mosaic vs. Linear
As I mentioned before, if you read the Gospels or the Book of Acts, you are reading a linear narrative. They begin with Jesus' birth or ministry (Gospels) or the establishment of the church (Acts) and tell the story to the end (Gospels - Jesus' resurrection/ascension/ Acts - Establishment of the church throughout the Roman Empire).
If you read Isaiah with this mindset you will quickly become confused and bored because his book is set up as a mosaic and not a linear narrative.
A mosaic is a whole piece made with disparate parts. Linear books follow a historical and chronological order. Mosaics, on the other hand, use events, poetry, prophecy, history and prayers (to name a few, but not all of the elements) in order to create a single image or portrait, or tell a story, or in the case of Isaiah, convey a message from God to His chosen people.
2. Literary Features
We know that Hebrew poetry and literature used various features to give their writing texture, emotion and aids in understanding the exact meeting in context.
A good example of this was the use of a device called parallelism used extensively in the Psalms, as well as other Old Testament books including Isaiah. For example, the author of a Psalm would repeat the same thought or idea using different words in successive lines of the poem. There were different types of parallelism.
The second line repeats the first using different words that have the same meaning.
1The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
2Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
- Psalm 19:1-2
The second line adds to the first.
3Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in His holy place?
4He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood
And has not sworn deceitfully.
- Psalm 24:3-4
- Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord
And who shall stand in His holy place?
- He who has clean hands and a pure heart
Who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
The second line contrasts the first.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
- Isaiah 73:26
Successive lines build to a climax or a summary.
17Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
18Yet I will exult in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
- Habakkuk 3:17-18
A combination of different types.
How long, O Lord, will I call for help,
And You will not hear?
I cry out to You, "Violence!"
Yet You do not save.
- Habakkuk 1:2
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
- Deuteronomy 6:5
Three separate words referring to the same object - the whole person. To love with one is to love with all. I explain all of this to show that Isaiah also uses these as well as other devices throughout his book. For example:
The imagery that Isaiah uses becomes evident when comparing different passages.
10Hear the word of the Lord,
You rulers of Sodom;
Give ear to the instruction of our God,
You people of Gomorrah.
11"What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?"
Says the Lord.
"I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle;
And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
- Isaiah 1:10-11
In this passage, even though he uses a literary device like synonymous parallelism, there is no imagery it reads like a conversation.
"Yet you have not called on Me, O Jacob;
But you have become weary of Me, O Israel.
- Isaiah 43:22
Same problem with Judah but uses both devices of personification (the nation is tired of God); and also uses synonymous parallelism (second line repeats the first line but with different words - Not called / Become weary).
These devices are not loud or showy but rather low-key and easy to miss but their variety and repetition gives the writing a certain texture and enables Isaiah to highlight certain ideas in a work that is complex and lengthy. Too dramatic and ornate would become wearying after several chapters, but no changes, highlights or texturing devices would lead to boredom in a work that is this long and repeats the same ideas several times.
Another literary feature in Isaiah's writing is:
The Extended Doublet
This feature is noted when Isaiah covers the same area of truth in the same consecutive steps, twice over. In other words, he tells the story, the prophecy, or the warning twice or more times using a similar order of events/lessons but he repeats it from a different perspective. Like the report of a car accident from the view of the driver of the car and then the view of a bystander.
An example of this "extended doublet" is in chapter 7. This concerns the prophecy concerning the attack on Judah and Jerusalem by the combined forces of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who joined with the Aramaeans to overtake the Southern Kingdom and its principal city of Jerusalem.
Isaiah's prophecy lists the pending attack; the need to trust the Lord; the failure of this invasion; the subsequent destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians (722 BC), the future destruction of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians in 582 BC; and the eventual coming of a Savior who would be rooted in the remnant of that Southern Kingdom after its destruction and restoration. This entire order of events is addressed to the Southern Kingdom by Isaiah's prophecy in 7:1-9:7.
Now, in Isaiah 9:8-11:16, Isaiah refers to all of the same elements but this time from the point of view of the Northern Kingdom and its ultimate conqueror, Assyria. In 7:1-9:7, he speaks and records a prophecy of what is to come. In 9:8-11:16, he pronounces a judgment that will come for what the Northern Kingdom and the Aramaeans tried to do to Jerusalem - again, all to take place in the future.
In both instances, Isaiah ends his prophecies with a description of the promised Savior to come. The same promise but a different description.
In other sections of his book, Isaiah uses this repetition device, the extended doublet, for not just two but three times in reference to a single event, person or theme. For example, let's go back to our analogy of the accident. You have the driver's report of what happened, then you have the bystander's report and finally, you have the police report. Three different records of one single event. This is what Isaiah does.
- In 28:1-29:24 - the North and South Kingdoms are warned twice.
- In 30:1-35:10 - Judah is warned against making alliances with other nations and warned three times.
I mention these because understanding the types of literary devices used by the author and how they work (i.e. parallelism) helps us to discern the correct and intended meaning of the text. So we've looked at the "mosaic" layout for Isaiah's book and several of the literary features like parallelism, imagery and the extended doublet. One last point about Isaiah's writing which is often debated is:
3. Single Author vs. School of Authors
As I mentioned before, one of the main debates concerning this book is if it was written by a single person (a man called Isaiah who lived in the 8th-7th century and served as a prophet); or this is a work completed by a "school" of prophets/writers who produced the material based on Isaiah's initial work but done over a period of four centuries ending in 435 BC.
The "school of writers" theory argues that the variety of styles and devices in Isaiah's book can be explained by the fact that the book was actually written by multiple authors over a period of several centuries.
Of course, those who hold this position also use this idea as a basis to deny the possibility of predictive prophecy. For these people, the "school of prophets/writers" producing material over a number of centuries theory provides a rational answer to explain the many prophetical sections in Isaiah. They see Isaiah's book as history and not prophecy.
On the other hand, the "single author" understanding of Isaiah requires no special explanation since Isaiah is a known historical figure who lived and had access to the people and the events that he writes about, not to mention that the book itself is presented as the work of a single author.
Of course, for those who believe that God used prophets, like Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah and others to communicate to the Jews and through them to communicate to us who believe today, the single author idea presents no challenge of faith.
For those who believe the idea that a man spoke accurately from God about the present, near future, distant future and the end times, is an acceptable and natural demonstration of the work of the Holy Spirit in one of God's servants - in this case, a man named Isaiah.
To properly understand the content and appreciate the power of Isaiah's book, we must see that it is a mosaic fashioned from parts of poetry, history, prophecy and narrative all combined to fashion a single message from God relevant to every generation of His people starting with the Jews in the days of King Uzziah to the members of the Lord's church today.
Summary and Outline
Isaiah uses a variety of literary devices and historical narrative that are used as a framework for his messages and prophecies from God to the Jewish people and surrounding nations.
As I mentioned in a previous chapter, Isaiah's book can be divided into three main sections:
- Messages relating to God's judgment - Chapters 1-35
- The historical account of Hezekiah's reign - Chapters 36-39
- Messages relating to God's mercy - Chapters 40-66
If, as you read the book, you feel that it is gloomy and harsh, this is because more than half of it deals with warnings and judgments against the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, as well as a dozen or so surrounding nations.
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. Mixed in with the judgments are the promises of a savior, the story of God rescuing Hezekiah and Jerusalem from a sure destruction by a foreign army, and a comprehensive description of the Messiah. In addition to these Isaiah also explains in detail the way that the Messiah would achieve salvation and the nature of that salvation. Isaiah provides more precise information concerning man's ultimate salvation in his book than anywhere else in the Old Testament.
Detailed Outline of Isaiah (TruthSaves.org)
I. Messages Relating to Judgment 1-35
- The opening call of God 1
- To Judah 1:2-20
- To Jerusalem 1:21-31
- A word concerning Judah and Jerusalem 2-5
- The Introduction to the Coming Messiah 6-12
- The Vision of the Lord and the Holy Seed 6
- The Great Sign—a Virgin 7
- Immanuel, a Stone of Stumbling to Israel and Judah 8
- The Light from Galilee, a Child 9:1-7
- The Light, a Destroyer of the enemies 9:8-10:34
- The Rod and Branch, the Root, and the Future Day 11
- The Holy One 12
- The Burdens Against the Nations 13-23
- Against Babylon 13-14:27
- Against Philistia 14:28-32
- Against Moab 15-16
- Against Damascus 17
- Against Ethopia 18
- Against Egypt 19-20
- Against the Wilderness of the Sea 21:1-10
- Against Dumah (Edom) 21:11-12
- Against Arabia 21:13-17
- Against the Valley of Vision 22
- Agaisnt Tyre 23
- The Woes and deliverance 24-35
- The earth will be destroyed 24
- But there is victory over death 25
- For those who trust in the Lord 26
- He delivers 27
- Woe to the drunkards of Ephraim 28:1-15
- There will be a precious cornerstone 28:16-29
- Woe to Jerusalem 29-30:11
- God is gracious 30:12-33
- Woe to those who rely upon Egypt 31
- There will be a king of righteousness 32
- Woe to evil-doers 33:1-16
- There is coming a beautiful king 34:17 to 35
II. Historical Account of Hezekiah 36-39
- Sennacherib's boast 36
- God's Intervention 37
- Hezekiah's Illness 38
- Hezekiah's Sin 39
III. Messages Relating to Mercy 40-66
- The Revelation of God 40-48
- The Revelation of the Servant 49-53
- The Call for Righteous Living 54-59
- The Reign of Messiah 60-66
This outline is a guide in reading the book since with it you always know the context of what Isaiah is talking about. The key idea in Isaiah is that the Messiah is coming even though the term "Messiah" is only used in reference to "Cyrus" King of the Medes/Persians (Isaiah 45:1).
We will not do a line-by-line study from here forward but will select key passages to present a variety of lessons using Isaiah as our springboard. You now have a detailed outline and information on the features to guide you as you read the book of Isaiah.