Some of you have been working through Isaiah, a day at a time through Lent. Other’s wont have had time to do this but perhaps you’d like a different or additional challenge, to read through the book in the week leading up to Easter. Here’s a possible outline to help you do this. Even if not, you might find it helpful to get the big picture of how the book breaks down.
The book of Isaiah is usually seen as dividing into two parts with the main break at Isaiah 40, chapters 36-39 can then be seen as a narrative interlude between the two parts. Those who argue for two authors usually believe that the majority of the second part was written either during or immediately post exile. The later chapters focus much more on hope and give more detail about what return and restoration look like. Some people have suggested that chapters 56-66 were written by a third author.
My view remains that the book is best understood as coming from one single, pre-exile prophet whom God enabled to see the future in detail and with precision. However, it may well have been structured and ordered into its final form by an editor. Within those major divisions, we may identify a number of further subsections as follows.
Called to a stubborn and rebellious people ch 1-6
The first six chapters introduce us to the prophet and his call to prophesy during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (1:1). His calling is in response to a vision of the Lord’s greatness and holiness (6:1-7) and so Isaiah, experiencing forgiveness and cleansing is available and ready to be sent (6:6-8).
However, the mission is not an easy one. The recipients are difficult, stubborn, rebellious and unfaithful to God (1:2-9). God makes it clear that they will not be willing listeners, in fact he will harden their hearts and make them unable to perceive and understand (6:9-10). They will in effect become like their unseeing, unhearing, silent idols and so devoted to destruction with them (6:11-13). So, the message is a difficult one because it is about coming judgement (3:1-4:1). However, even in these dark passages we find light, throughout the book, there is the promise of a remnant (6:13) and restoration (4:2-6).
The next section focuses in on Isaiah’s interactions with Ahaz. At this stage Israel is attempting to form an alliance with Syria against Judah, although in reality, it is a takeover by Syria. This is a source of discouragement for Ahaz (7:1-2). God sends Isaiah to reassure the king that this will not happen and to offer a sign. Ahaz in a show of false piety refuses the sign but God still gives him the sing (7:3-14). The sign is of a coming ruler, born to a young woman (7:14). The prophecy will have immediate fulfilment and will be proof that a greater threat, Assyria is coming (ch 8). However, the description of this coming child as the mighty God and prince of peace whose rule is everlasting points to one greater, at that time still to come and was recognised by the Gospel writers as pointing to Jesus (7:6-7).
This means that even though Assyria is to be feared, she holds power ona temporary basis, from God and only for his purposes (ch10). She too will be judged. God will deal with all sin and evil and so his chosen one will usher in a reign of peace and righteousness (ch11-12)
Judgement on the nations (ch 13-23)
We are next treated to a whistlestop tour of the cities and nations around Israel, the powers and power brokers of Isaiah’s day. These were the nations that Judah both feared and trusted, seeking to build alliances with them for mutual protection. However, they were to be neither feared nor trusted. These powers had become proud but God would judge and humble them. The shock comes in chapter 22, when Jerusalem herself is named among the proud, pagan cities. Instead of being distinctive, a light to the nations, Jerusalem and Judah had become just like the Gentiles.
Complete judgement (ch 24 -35)
God will bring judgement on the whole earth, no-one is found innocent (ch 24). God’s complete victory over evil includes the destruction of death itself (25:7-8). This is important because God’s people hoped to cheat death by negotiating with it, or alt least with those enemies they thought could bring death on them (28:14-15). Judah are warned against the folly and danger of making human alliances instead of trusting God (ch30-31).
Instead of fearing, or putting their trust in others, the people should trust in God alone. He is the one who will bring back his people from exile and even gather the nations to himself. We begin to see echoes of Exodus language as Isaiah looks back in history for potential comparisons. The return will be like the journey across the desert. God will lead the people as he did out of Egypt and so, the desert will not be able to contain itself and will join in the song of deliverance, blooming with beauty and fertility to greet the true king.
Interlude ch 36-39
In chapter 36 -38, the Assyrian King Sennacherib launches his assault on Judah during Hezekiah’s reign, sacking the city of Lachish and besieging Jerusalem. He is however, forced to turn back due to threats closer to home and never completes his conquest. Isaiah makes it clear that this is because of God’s sovereign will and Hezekiah’s intercession. God even grants the king a reprieve on illness and death. Sadly, Hezekiah fails to remember God’s hand in things and seeks an alliance with Babylon, opening up his city to their enjoys. God says that this will bring judgement on the people.
Comfort through God’s servant ch 40-53
The curtain opens on the second half of Isaiah with the announcement of comfort. God declares forgiveness for sin and the end to Jerusalem’s troubles. God is faithful unlike frail human and false idols (ch 40. He will lead the people back from exile, they will be kept safe through fire and flood just as with the first exodus (43:1-7).
Rescue will come through YHWH’s chosen servant, one who will act with gentleness and mercy (42:1-3). Who is this servant? Well, Israel herself was meant to be God’s servant (44:21), however, she failed in her mission (49:1-4). So other servants are offered, possibly the prophet himself as the one commissioned with God’s Word and even Cyrus, the Gentile emperor who arranged for God’s people to return to Jerusalem (45:1). Each of these do serve God’s purposes, just as Assyriaand Babylon had.
However, Isaiah points to a more significant servant. Isaiah 53 takes us to the one who suffers in our place, for our sin and is rewarded with glory and an eternal reign. Jesus is the suffering servant who “was pierced for our transgressions” and in his resurrection “brings many sons to glory.”
Hope ch 54-66
Through Christ, true and lasting hope comes. #In him, God can invite weary, hungry suffering people to find peace, rest and refreshment (55:1-5). The promises centre on a restored city and a restored temple (the New Testament point to these as the church with Christ at the centre). TPeople from all backgrounds and without discrimination or barriers will be drawn to God’s house of prayer (ch 56).
God’s people are invited to awake, rise up and shine in the light of God’s glory because deliverance has come (ch 60). This hope is comparable to the Jubilee Year when captives were freed and debts cancelled. God’s Spirit is on Christ to bring healing and freedom (61:1-3). There will be a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth (65:17).