Isaiah wrote to warn the people of Judah to repent so that they might escape God’s judgment, poured out through the Assyrians. However, the range of his prophecies of judgment spread in all directions to include virtually all nations known to ancient Israel and, indeed, all people throughout the world. The universal scope of judgment in Isaiah’s prophecies is complemented with the good news of Zion’s redemption, which also becomes the means of salvation for all people.
Isaiah’s style is exceptional. Rarely have “inspiration” in the poetic and the theological senses been wed so beautifully. Different genres are adopted in different parts of the book, but the same peerless ability is evident throughout. Some features of the style come through even in translation; many others are untranslatable. It is a matter that the conscientious reader cannot ignore, and in the original context it must have contributed inestimably to the impact of Isaiah’s preaching. Play on words and startling similes are dominant throughout. Isaiah has an almost uncanny ability to find an apt figure or illustration to make his point (the lodge in a cucumber field in 1:8; or a child in a forest of few trees in 10:19). More technically, he is a master of all the formal devices of Hebrew poetry. And, as the novice in Hebrew often discovers to his dismay, we find in the Book of Isaiah a richness of vocabulary and synonyms unparalleled elsewhere in the Bible (someone has counted a total of 2,186 different words used).
There are many variations within the first chapters of Isaiah, but especially in chapters 40–55, where the style is often called lyric or hymnic, because there are close connections with the style of the so-called enthronement psalms or hymns. (Scholars have debated in which direction the dependence lay, but it seems more likely that Isaiah adapted a familiar liturgical pattern both in applying its theme to current events and in projecting it upon the screen of ultimate fulfillment.) The eloquence in the latter chapters is more cumulative, and natural imagery tends to give way to human figures, especially personification. Triads, imperatives, and rhetorical questions are also much in evidence.
The more hymnic style of the latter half of Isaiah, so evident even in translation, also appears frequently in the earlier chapters. The shifts in style as well as vocabulary are easily credible in the case of a past master of the Hebrew language such as Isaiah. Change of vocabulary inevitably also attends change in style and subject matter. We shall not cite statistics here, but actual counts indicate a substantial continuity in vocabulary as well as variations. One of the most obvious of these is the frequent use of the Isaiah’s favorite name for God in all parts of the book: “the Holy One of Israel.” Others would include references to the “highway,” the “banner,” etc.
Isaiah presents himself as Yahweh’s willing spokesman, specifically called to speak His word to the people of Judah (chapter 6). The prophet has special access to the kings of Judah (chapters 7, 36–39) and is bold to rebuke them in the Lord’s name while also relating God’s comforting promises.
King Ahaz of Judah (735–715 BC) is a significant character in chapters 6–12. Isaiah presents him as lacking trust in the Lord and unwilling to seek the Lord’s counsel or even a sign. (See the first narrative described under “Narrative Development or Plot” below.)
King Hezekiah of Judah (715–686 BC) is the main character in chapters 36–39. The prophet describes examples of his great faith, prayer, and turning to the Lord for help, yet ends his account of Hezekiah by pointing out his self-interest, which will lead to the downfall of Judah in the future. (See the second narrative described under “Narrative Development or Plot” below.)
Cyrus II (559–530 BC), the king of Persia called “the Great,” is mentioned by Isaiah in the prophecies of chapters 44–45. Isaiah describes him as the Lord’s “shepherd,” who will restore Jerusalem and subdue nations. Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and his policies were instrumental in returning the exiles to Jerusalem.
The Suffering Servant is the subject of four songs in Isaiah (42:1–9; 49:1–13; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12). The servant is a humble ruler whom God has appointed to suffer on behalf of His people. The prophecies about the servant are fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. (See The Lutheran Study Bible, p 1178.)
Narrative Development or Plot
Since the Book of Isaiah is, in general, a collection of prophecies, it does not have an overarching storyline or plot. However, like other Prophetic Books, the oracles move from warnings of God’s judgment to promises of redemption. Two sections of Isaiah are written with clear historical progressions.
The first narrative-based section, chapters 6–12, opens with the Lord calling Isaiah to prophesy against the dullness and coming desolation of the kingdom of Judah. The prophet confronts King Ahaz with his lack of faith that the Lord can help the people overcome the threat of the Assyrians. The Lord promises the sign of Immanuel (chapter 7) and the blessings of His future reign (chapter 9, 11) while anticipating the judgment of Assyria and other nations. This section closes with praise for God’s deliverance of the remnant of Israel, who will return from exile rejoicing.
The second narrative section, chapters 36–39, describes the Assyrian army’s advance against Jerusalem under the leadership of Sennacherib. Judah’s king Hezekiah seeks the Lord’s help by going to the temple and requests counsel from Isaiah. Isaiah sends word that the Lord will lead the Assyrian out of Judah and return him to his own land. Hezekiah prays for deliverance, and the Lord answers by sending His angel, who strikes down 185,000 Assyrians. The remaining Assyrians withdraw. The story then turns to Hezekiah’s prayer for healing, which the Lord answers mercifully. The last chapter describes how Hezekiah shows off his storehouses to the Babylonian envoys. Isaiah warns him that the Babylonians will conquer Hezekiah’s kingdom, though not during Hezekiah’s lifetime.
Discover more about the context and meaning of Isaiah in the Lutheran Bible Companion Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament
Blog post adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament, pages 725-726, copyright © 2014. Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.