There is a definite unity to Isaiah. From start to finish, Isaiah delivers a message of justice and hope. Israel’s sin will lead to divine justice through her neighbors Assyria and Babylon. These foreign people will destroy Israel and Judah. Babylon will destroy Jerusalem and lead its people off to exile. Somehow, Israel will be restored with a new king named Immanuel. Immanuel will be the servant of the LORD who will suffer for and lead his people in a new Jerusalem that will establish peace on Earth forever.
To help us better understand Isaiah, we will look at two halves to Isaiah. The first half runs through the first 39 chapters. Then, there is a gap of about 150 years in between chapters 39 and 40. The second half then goes from chapter 40 through 66. It is thought that the first half, leading up to the Babylonian exile, was written by Isaiah the son of Amoz himself. The second half was probably written by Isaiah’s disciples at the end of the exile period. This is the same time period as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. After Israel’s leaders rejected his message, Isaiah sealed his message in scrolls that he gave to his prophetic disciples who later used it to write the second half. Isaiah 8:16; 29:10-12; 30:8-9 seem to suggest this, although it is by no means certain. In any case, it matters less to us who wrote which chapters than to try to understand what they are telling us.
Within the first half of Isaiah, there are three big blocks of chapters. The first and possibly most important block is from chapter 1 through 12. This section is prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon. In the opening two chapters, Isaiah calls out Jerusalem for idolatry and injustice. He says that the nations will conquer Jerusalem. This conquest will be, somehow, like a purifying fire. This establishes the recurring theme in Isaiah of Old Jerusalem leading to a purifying fire, which ultimately leads to New Jerusalem.
Chapter 6 gives us a fantastic vision of this purifying fire process. Isaiah is taken up in a vision to see the LORD seated on his throne surrounded by angelic creatures shouting “Holy! Holy! Holy!.” Isaiah, feeling his sin, sees this holiness as a threat. Across the whole Bible, everyone has this same reaction to holiness. As a hot coal of holiness is carried with tongs to his mouth, he is burned and believes he will be destroyed. Instead, he is purified and commissioned to speak for the LORD. The LORD says that a holy seed will be saved from the chopped down and burned up stump of Israel.
In chapters 7-12, Isaiah tells King Ahaz that Assyria will do him in. He also introduces King Immanuel, who is Israel’s future hope. He will set Israel free from all violent and oppressive empires. He is the new branch from this charred stump of David’s family tree. Through the empowering of God’s Holy Spirit, he will bring justice and bless all nations. In other words, His kingdom will transform all creation, bringing lost shalom.
This first part of this section of chapters deals with when this will all come to pass. In this first part, chapters 13 through 23, Isaiah prophecies that Babylon, which is greater than Assyria, will do this. In this section are poems about all of Israel’s neighbors. They all share in Babylon’s pride and injustice. As a result, they will all be brought to the grave in due time.
The second part of this section, spanning chapters 24 through 27, is a tale of two cities. Babylon, the archetypal lofty city, is filled to the brim with rebellious humanity. It is a stand-in for all of humanity in rebellion to the LORD. It includes residents of all cities, including Old Jerusalem. New Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the hope of all the world. This city is the LORD’s kingdom over all nations. In New Jerusalem, there is no more suffering. There is no more injustice. There is even no more death.
In the final section of chapters in the first half of Isaiah, chapters 29-39, Isaiah prophecies the rise and fall of Jerusalem. In chapters 28 through 35, Isaiah accuses Jerusalem’s leaders for seeking protection from their neighbors. They are trusting in Egypt to save them. Remember when Israel was wandering in the desert, fearful and grumbling? Some of them wanted to go back to Egypt too. Isaiah like Moses reminds the God-grumblers that their only hope is in the LORD. They need to place their trust in Him and turn towards Him in repentance.
King Hezekiah in chapters 36-38 illustrate this. As Assyria is coming to Jerusalem to attack it, King Hezekiah humbles himself before the LORD and prays for deliverance. Jerusalem is saved from destruction, miraculously overnight.
This does not last. In chapter 39, Hezekiah is showing the Babylonians all of the riches of Jerusalem. He does this, because he is hoping that Babylon will ally with Jerusalem. Once again, he is trusting in wealth and human power to save Jerusalem. Isaiah prophecies that Babylon will betray Jerusalem and place its people in exile.
In between these two halves of Isaiah is the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon and the Babylonian exile. As Isaiah prophesied, Babylon did slay Jerusalem and take her people off to Babylon in exile. 2 Kings 24 and 25 provide the history of this awful time. This is also the time of prophets like Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. If you are not familiar with this history, I recommend those two chapters in 2 Kings.
The second half of Isaiah, from chapters 40-66, has three blocks of chapters. The first section of chapters, from 40 through 48 offer comfort and hope for Israel. Israel will be able to return home from exile. The LORD’s kingdom is coming. All nations will see his glory. In chapter 40, the hope expressed is that Israel will become the LORD’s servant and bear witness to Him to all nations. Instead, Israel complains. Israel accuses the LORD of neglecting them. Some suggest that the LORD is not, after all, the most powerful.
This leads to chapters 41 through 47 where the LORD is put on trial. Israel accuses Him of ignoring and neglecting them. The LORD responds to this accusation in two ways. First, destruction and exile were divine judgment for Israel’s sin. Second, He raised up Persia to conquer Babylon and end the exile for Israel’s sake. The LORD is essentially saying this divine judgment was a purifying fire. The conclusion to draw here is that the LORD is the true king of history. Serve Him and witness to the nations. Yet, Israel resists. This tension sets up the next section of chapters, from 49 through 55.
There is now a new situation. The LORD’s Servant, who is the messianic king announced earlier in chapters 9 and 11, is now Israel. His mission is to restore the people of God and be a light to all nations. He will be empowered by the LORD’s own Spirit to do this.
How will he do this? By raising up an army to slay the nations? No. The Servant will be rejected and killed. His death will be an atonement sacrifice for his people. Remember all of those laws about sacrifices and offerings in the Mosaic law? They were all pointing to this atoning sacrifice. Then, miraculously, after his death, he lives again and declares that His people are now right with the LORD.
Chapters 54 and 55 lay out the two responses to the Servant. The first response is by the people referred to as “the seed” or “the servants.” They respond with humility and repentance. The second response is by those referred to as “the wicked.” They reject both the Servant and His servants.
The contrast between the wicked and the servants is extended in the final section of chapters in Isaiah as a contrast between Old Jerusalem and New Jerusalem. This section of chapters is like a mountain with a peak at the center.
The outer chapters at both the beginning and ending of this section contrast the wicked and the servants. These outer chapters are chapters 56 through 58 and 65 through 66. In these chapters, all nations are invited to New Jerusalem. There is both justice and hope. The wicked in justice are removed from New Jerusalem. Hope is realized as the servants inherit New Jerusalem, which is really the new creation.
Chapters 59 and 63 through 64, Inside of those outer chapters, are prayers of repentance. Here the servants are seen confessing sin and grieving for the evil in the world. Forgive us, they pray, and may your kingdom come.
Chapters 60 through 62 are the peak of this mountain. They are a centerpiece in the form of three poems about New Jerusalem being the blessing to all creation. This is heaven in all its glorious splendor.
Isaiah consists of poetry and prophecy. There are two halves. Within each half, there are three sections of chapters. Throughout it all, there is an underlying message about justice and hope that speaks to all nations throughout history. The long-prophesied King Immanuel came, and with all servants of the LORD Most High, we pray that His kingdom would come on Earth as it is in heaven.