Guide to the Book of Isaiah
Isaiah lived in Jerusalem during the latter half of Israel’s kingdom period and spoke to the leaders of Jerusalem and Judah on God’s behalf. Isaiah brought with him a warning about God’s judgment, telling Israel’s corrupt leaders that their rebellion against the covenant with God would come at a cost. Isaiah also said that God would use the great empires of Assyria and later Babylon to judge Jerusalem if they persisted in idolatry and oppression of the poor.
However, that dire announcement was also combined with a message of hope, as Isaiah believed deeply that God would one day fulfill all his covenant promises. He trusted that God would send a king from David’s line to establish his Kingdom on Earth (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 2, 72) and lead Israel in obedience to the laws of the covenant made at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19). This was how God’s blessing and salvation would flow outward to all nations, just as God promised to Abraham (Gen. 12). It’s this messianic hope that compelled Isaiah to speak out against the corruption and idolatry of Israel and its leaders.
The book has a complex literary design, but there is one simple way to see how it all fits together. Chapters 1-39 contain three large sections that develop Isaiah’s warning of judgment on Israel, culminating in an event pointed to at the end of chapter 39, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its people to Babylon. But chapters 1-39 also present a message of hope, that after the exile, God’s covenant promises would be fulfilled. Chapters 40-66 pick up that promise and develop it further.
8:11 • Old Testament Overviews
Many Jewish and Christian traditions hold that Isaiah wrote the entire scroll. Other groups and traditions ascribe the first 39 chapters to Isaiah and chapters 40-66 to Isaiah’s disciples, who built upon Isaiah’s visions.
Isaiah does his prophetic work in Judah, under Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, during the period before and during the Babylonian exile (586-539 B.C.E.).
Isaiah contains poetic, apocalyptic, and narrative literary styles.
1-12 focuses on Jerusalem’s judgment and hope. 13-27 explores judgment and hope for the nations. 28-39 details Jerusalem’s fall. 40-48 offers hope after exile. 49-55 introduces the suffering servant. And 56-66 concludes with hope for a new creation.
The first 12 chapters of the book of Isaiah focus on the prophet’s vision of judgment and hope for Jerusalem. It all begins as Isaiah accuses the city’s leaders of covenant rebellion, idolatry, and injustice, especially towards the poor. God will judge the city by sending other nations to conquer Israel. Isaiah says this will be like a purifying fire that burns away all that is worthless among his people. But this fire doesn’t only destroy. It will also create a new Jerusalem populated by a remnant of Israel that has repented and turned back to God. Isaiah goes on to say that, through these events, God’s Kingdom will come and all nations will gather at the temple in Jerusalem to learn of God’s justice. This will bring about an age of universal peace and harmony. Now, this basic storyline of the old Jerusalem changing over to the new will get repeated over and over throughout the book, and it will get filled in with increasing detail.
At the center of this section, in chapter 6, is Isaiah’s grand vision of God sitting on his throne in the temple. He’s surrounded by heavenly creatures, all shouting that God is “holy, holy, holy.” Isaiah suddenly realizes just how corrupt he and his people are, and he’s certain that he’ll be destroyed by God’s holiness. Instead, God’s holiness, in the form of a burning coal, comes and burns Isaiah, not to destroy him but to purify him of his sin.
As Isaiah ponders this strange experience, God commissions him with a difficult task. Isaiah is to continue announcing the coming judgment, but since Israel has already reached a point of no return, his warnings will have the paradoxical effect of hardening their hearts. However, Isaiah is to trust in God’s plan—Israel will undergo its own purification like Isaiah. It will be chopped down like a tree with its stump scorched and burned. But God says that this smoldering stump is a “holy seed” that will survive on into the future. It’s a small sign of hope, but who or what is the holy seed?
The rest of this section offers up an answer. Isaiah confronts Ahaz, a descendant of David and king of Jerusalem, and announces his downfall. God says that the great empire of Assyria will chop Israel down and devastate the land, but there’s hope! Because of God’s promise to David, he will send a new king named Immanuel, or “God with us” (ch. 7). Immanuel’s kingdom will free God’s people from violent, oppressive empires. Then Isaiah goes on to describe this coming king as a small shoot of new growth emerging from the old stump of David’s family, the holy seed. This king will be empowered by God’s Spirit to rule over a new Jerusalem and bring forth justice for the poor. All nations will look to this messianic king for guidance, and his kingdom will transform all creation, bringing peace.
Now, as you finish these chapters you come away with a pretty good understanding of Isaiah’s message of judgment and hope. But Isaiah saw another empire rising up after Assyria, Babylon, who would also attack Jerusalem and succeed in destroying it.
This brings us to the next sections of the book of Isaiah, first opening with a large collection of poems in chapters 13-27 that explore God’s judgment and hope for the nations. It is in these poems that we learn about the coming fall of Babylon and other nations around Israel. Isaiah could see that Assyria’s world power would one day be replaced by the empire of Babylon, a nation that was even more destructive and arrogant. Babylon’s kings would claim that they were higher than all other gods, and so God vows to bring Babylon down. Isaiah continues down a list of Israel’s neighbors—Philistia in chapter 14, Moab in 15-16, Damascus in 17, Egypt and Cush in 18-20, and Tyre in 23—accusing them all of the same kind of pride and injustice and predicting their ultimate ruin.
Remember, however, that for Isaiah, divine judgment isn’t the final word for either Israel or these other nations. This idea leads into the next section with a series of poems that tell a tale of two cities, starting off by describing the “lofty city” that’s exalted itself over God and has become corrupt and unjust. It’s a poetic archetype of rebellious humanity and is described with language borrowed from Isaiah’s earlier depictions of Jerusalem, Assyria, and Babylon, all blended together. This city is destined for ruin, and it will one day be replaced by the new Jerusalem, where God’s Kingdom reigns over a redeemed humanity from among all nations and there’s no more death or suffering. These chapters are the climax of this entire section, showing how Isaiah’s message pointed far beyond his own day. His was a message for everyone who waits for God to judge violent, oppressive kingdoms and establish his universal Kingdom of justice and healing love.
Day of the Lord
God or gods?
Chapters 28-39 return the focus to the rise and fall of Jerusalem. We first read poems where Isaiah rebukes Jerusalem’s leaders for turning to Egypt for military protection against Assyria. He knows that their plan will backfire, and he tells the leaders that only trust in their God and repentance can save Israel now.
This is illustrated well in the following story of the rise of King Hezekiah in chapters 36-38. Just as Isaiah had predicted, the Assyrian armies attack the city. Hezekiah humbles himself before God and prays for divine deliverance, and the city is miraculously saved overnight. Hezekiah’s initial rise and success, however, is immediately followed by his fall. He attempts to make another political alliance for protection and hosts a delegation from Babylon. Hezekiah tries to impress the Babylonians by showing off everything in Jerusalem’s treasury and palaces. Isaiah hears about this and confronts Hezekiah’s foolishness, predicting that this “ally” will one day betray him and return as an enemy to conquer Jerusalem. As we know from 2 Kings 24-25, Isaiah was right. Over 100 years later, Babylon turned on Jerusalem, destroyed the city and its temple, and carried away the Israelites into exile in Babylon.
All of Isaiah’s warnings of divine judgment led up to this very moment, and Isaiah was shown to be a true prophet. It all came to pass, just like he said it would. Remember, though, that the purpose of God’s judgment was to purify Jerusalem and bring forth the holy seed and the messianic Kingdom over all the nations. It’s this hope that gets explored in the book’s second half.
Isaiah chapter 40 opens up the book’s second half, which explores the future fulfillment of God’s covenant promises after the exile.
The first main section, chapters 40-48, opens with an announcement of hope and comfort for Israel. The people are told that the Babylonian exile is over. Israel’s sin has been dealt with, and a new era is beginning. They should return home, where God himself will bring his Kingdom to Jerusalem and allow all nations to see his glory.
Now, a question most readers ask at this point is, “Who’s saying all this? Whose voice are we hearing with these words of hope?” The perspective of the author of these chapters is someone living after the exile during the time period described in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. But Isaiah died over 150 years before any of that. What exactly are we to make of this? Many think that these chapters were composed by Isaiah himself, but that he had been prophetically transported nearly 200 years into the future to speak to later generations as if the exile had already passed.
However, the book of Isaiah itself offers us clues that something else is probably going on. In chapters 8, 29, and 30, we are told that after Isaiah was rejected by Israel’s leaders, he wrote and sealed in a scroll his message of judgment and hope, passing it on to his “disciples” (Isa. 8:16) “as a witness for days to come” (Isa. 30:8). Isaiah eventually died, waiting for God to vindicate his words. Chapters 1-39 were designed to show us that Isaiah’s predictions of judgment were fulfilled in the Babylonian exile, proving him to be a true prophet. So after the exile was over, Isaiah’s disciples, who had long treasured his words, opened up the scroll and began developing his message about the future hope of God’s salvation. According to this view, the book of Isaiah consists of both the original collection of Isaiah’s words, as well as the writings of his later disciples who God used to extend Isaiah’s message of hope to future generations.
Whichever view you take, everyone agrees that these chapters announce that the day of future hope has come and God is fulfilling his prophetic promises. The prophet expresses his hopes that Israel will respond by becoming God’s servant after experiencing his justice and mercy, going on to share with the other nations what God is truly like.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. Israel, instead of bearing witness to all nations, starts complaining and accusing God. “The Lord doesn’t pay attention to our trouble, he ignores our cause” (Isa. 40:27). The Babylonian exile has caused Israel to lose faith in their God. They start to think that maybe he’s not all that powerful; maybe the gods of Babylon are greater.
Chapters 41-47 are set up like a trial scene as God responds to these doubts and accusations with the following arguments. First of all, the exile into Babylon was not divine neglect but a divinely orchestrated judgment for Israel’s sin. Secondly, it was for the sake of Israel’s return home that God raised up Persia to conquer Babylon and fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic word (Isa. 13:17). The right conclusion that Israel should draw is that their God is the King of history, not their idols. In the fall of Babylon and the rise of the Persian king Cyrus, Israel should see God’s hand at work and become his servant who will bear witness to the other nations. However, at the end of the trial in chapter 48, we find that Israel is still just as rebellious and hardhearted as their ancestors, disqualifying themselves from being God’s servant to the nations. God still has a mission to bless all the nations, however, so the prophet says that God will do a “new thing” to solve this problem.
In chapters 49-55, we are introduced to a new figure called God’s “servant,” who will fulfill God’s mission and do what Israel has failed to do. God gives this servant the title “Israel,” and sends him on a dual mission to restore the people of Israel back to their God and become God’s “light to the nations.” We’re told that this servant is empowered by God’s Spirit (Isa. 42:1, 48:16) to announce the good news and bring God’s Kingdom over all nations, just like Isaiah’s messianic king in chapters 9 and 11.
We continue to learn how this servant will bring about God’s Kingdom by being rejected, beaten, and ultimately killed by his own people (Isa. 49:7, 50:4-9, and 53). In reality, he’s going to be accused and sentenced to death on behalf of the sins of his people—his death will be a sacrifice of atonement for the people’s evil and rebellion. The servant does die, but then suddenly he comes back to life (Isa. 53:10-12). We’re told that by his sacrificial death, he provided a way to make people “righteous,” that is, to put them back into a right relationship with God.
The section concludes by describing two different ways that people will respond to God’s servant. Some will respond with humility, turn from their sins, and accept what the servant did on their behalf. These people are also called “servants” or “the seed,” calling back to the “holy seed” from chapter 6. These people are the ones who will experience the blessing of the messianic Kingdom (ch. 55). Others, however, will reject both the servant and his servants and are simply called “the wicked.”
We come now to the final section of this book with chapters 56-66, in which the servants, who follow the servant, inherit God’s Kingdom. These chapters are artistically designed as a symmetry that brings together all the themes in the book. At the center are three beautiful poems that describe how the Spirit-empowered servant announces the good news of God’s Kingdom to the poor by reaffirming all the promises of hope from earlier in the book. The new Jerusalem, inhabited by God’s servants, will be the place from which God’s justice and mercy flow out into the world. Surrounding these poems are two long prayers of repentance (chs. 59 and 63-64). The servants confess Israel’s sin and grieve over all the evil that they see in the world around them, asking for God’s Kingdom to come here on Earth as it is in Heaven.
On either side of these prayers are other collections of poems (chs. 56b-58 and 65-66a) that contrast the destiny of the servants with that of the wicked who persecute them. God will bring his justice down upon those who pollute his good world with evil through selfishness and idolatry, removing them from his city forever. The servants who are humble and repent will instead inherit the new Jerusalem—an image of the renewed creation, where death and suffering are gone forever. Finally, this brings us to the outer frame (chs. 56a and 66b). In the renewed world of God’s Kingdom, people from all nations are invited to join the servants in God’s covenant family, so that they too can know their Creator and redeemer.
The book of Isaiah comes to an end with a grand vision of the fulfillment of all God’s covenant promises. Through the suffering servant king, God creates a covenant family with all nations, who are awaiting the hope of a renewed creation and the coming of God’s Kingdom here on Earth as it is in Heaven.
This is the powerful hope of the book of Isaiah.
God’s acts of justice do not mean he is abandoning his covenant promises. He will renew creation and establish his Kingdom here on Earth as it is in Heaven.
The Message of Isaiah (Bible Speaks Today)
Isaiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 20)
Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library, 2000)
The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament)