How and Why to Read Isaiah in 2023
Wednesday’s presidential debate has many voters thinking about which candidate they prefer. It’s an important question, but we should remember that human leaders will always disappoint us. Only God is worthy of our complete and ultimate trust. That’s one major theme flowing throughout the book of Isaiah.
Those readers who have followed this series on books of the Bible might have questions about why I suddenly jumped from 2 Kings to Isaiah; apart from skipping Ruth, I haven’t deviated from the order of our English Bibles so far. I’m trying to follow the Hebrew order of the Old Testament, which sorts the books into three categories: the law, the prophets, and the writings. (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings belong to the “prophets” category, while the rest of our historical books, along with the books of wisdom, belong to the writings.)
The New Testament supports, or rather assumes, this order. Jesus referenced “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44) — Psalms standing for the writings — and mentioned “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel [Genesis 4:8] to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah [2 Chronicles 24:21]” (Matthew 23:35) as a sort of “A to Z” from the first and last books of the Hebrew Bible.
Overview of Isaiah
Isaiah contains two long sections of prophecy divided by a historical interlude. The former section condemns Judah for its sins, warns of a coming Assyrian invasion, promises a coming king, and foretells the final judgment of the world. The historical interlude, which is largely the same as 2 Kings 18:13-20:19, describes the Assyrian invasion of Judah, the supernatural destruction of their army, and the events that followed. The latter section also condemns Judah’s sins, warns of the coming Babylonian exile, promises a coming servant, and foretells the final restoration of God’s people.
Isaiah’s prophecy occurs during the reigns of “Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1). Time generally progresses throughout the book, which notes the year Uzziah died (6:1), Ahaz’s self-inflicted foreign policy blunders (7:1-12), the year Ahaz died (14:28), and Hezekiah’s reign in the historical interlude. Consequently, the parallel historical narratives from 2 Kings 15-20 and 2 Chronicles 26-32 provide useful interpretive information, and vice versa. Isaiah prophesied concurrently with several other prophets, such as Hosea, Amos, and Micah, and he often preached similar messages (compare Isaiah 2:2-4 with Micah 4:1-3).
The interlocking, interweaving themes of Isaiah’s prophecies make it difficult to subdivide into a neat outline, especially the first 12 chapters. Isaiah foretells God’s judgment on Judah for their sins in 1:1-31, 3:1-4:1, 5:1-30, 7:18-8:10, and 9:8-10:4. Intermingled with these condemnations, Isaiah foretells the coming Messiah (4:2-6, 7:10-17, 9:1-7, and 11:1-16), judgment on Judah’s enemies (7:1-9, 10:5-19), the final judgment (2:6-22), and the restoration of God’s people (2:1-5, 10:20-34, 12:1-6). These chapters also include Isaiah’s famous vision of God’s holiness (6:1-7), his commission to preach to a blind and deaf people (6:8-13), and an exhortation to fear God and wait for the Lord (8:11-22).
These rough divisions fail to catch all the nuances of Isaiah’s magnificent poetry. For instance, one of the Old Testament’s sweetest promises of forgiveness and cleansing, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (1:18), comes right in the middle of a passage about judgment for sin.
Isaiah 13-27 consists largely of oracles of judgment against the nations: Babylon (13:1-14:23, 21:1-10), Assyria (14:24-27), Philistia (14:28-32), Moab (15:1-16:14), Syria (17:1-14), Cush and Egypt (18:1-19:15, 20:1-6), Dumah (21:11-12), Arabia (21:13-15), Kedar (21:16-17), Tyre and Sidon (23:1-18), and indeed the whole earth (24:1-23). But the sins of these nations — idolatry, arrogance, oppression — also characterized God’s people, so Isaiah pronounces an oracle of judgment against Judah too (22:1-25). Yet, after God’s judgment is poured out on the earth, Isaiah foreshadows Revelation, foretelling the resurrection, the salvation of the nations, the final judgment, and the redemption of God’s people (25:1-27:13). Even amidst the judgment we find glimpses of Israel’s remnant (14:3-23) and the nations’ restoration (19:16-25).
Isaiah 28-35 return to the theme of coming judgment for Judah’s sin. Even amid Hezekiah’s revival, the land was still full of wickedness, and God was about to implement a plan to scrub it out (28:1-13, 29:1-24, 30:8-17, 32:9-20). God particularly rebuked his people for turning to Egypt for help (30:1-7, 31:1-9), directly disobeying God’s law (Deuteronomy 17:16). At the same time, God promised to establish his own king (28:14-29, 32:1-8) and be gracious to an undeserving people (30:18-33, 33:1-24). The section concludes with more Revelation imagery as God judges the nations (34:1-17) and restored a ransomed remnant to the land (35:1-10).
Isaiah 36-39 provides a historical interlude to these prophecies of judgment and hope. The long-foretold Assyrian invasion finally occurs, and the superpower took every fortified city but Jerusalem (36:1). A high-ranking Assyrian then comes to intimidate Jerusalem and convince the beleaguered city to trust in Assyria for protection (36:2-22). Another message turns outright blasphemous, alleging that the one true God had no power to protect Jerusalem than the various false gods Assyria had vanquished (37:8-13). With nowhere left to turn, Hezekiah calls on God to defend the honor of his name (37:1-4, 14-20), and Isaiah sends word that God will deliver Jerusalem without Assyria ever fighting against her (37:5-7, 21-35). God supernaturally delivers (37:36-38). Yet Hezekiah quickly turned to make a sinful alliance with Babylon (39:1-8), although he did trust God to deliver him from a life-threatening illness (38:1-22).
Isaiah 40-48 resumes the poetic prophecy with a voice crying in the wilderness (40:1-5), explicitly identified with John the Baptist (Mark 1:3, Matthew 3:3, John 1:23). Whereas God had earlier promised to send a king, in the latter half of the book he promises to send a servant (42:1-9), later to be identified with Jesus (Matthew 12:18-20). God could promise these things hundreds of years ahead of time because he is great, glorious, and everlasting (40:6-31, 42:18-25, 48:1-11). In fact, he is the only one true God, not at all like the voiceless, sightless, powerless idols, whom God mocks in epic smackdown fashion (41:21-29, 44:6-20, 46:1-13). All this enables God to be Israel’s Savior and Redeemer, both temporally and eternally (41:1-20, 42:10-17, 43:1-44:5, 44:21-45:25, 47:1-15, 48:12-22).
Isaiah 49-53 zooms in on this servant. The Lord’s servant, Jesus, would be a light for the nations, obedient through suffering, and pierced for our transgressions (49:1-7, 50:1-11, 52:13-53:12). Accompanying these servant songs are prophecies that the Lord would restore, comfort, and save Israel (49:8-26, 51:1-52:12).
Isaiah 54-66 resolves the melody with glorious glimpses to the Lord’s future salvation. The Lord promised an eternal covenant of peace with his people (54:1-17). Yet that promise is set in tension with the people’s present sin: futile idolatry, hypocritical worship, oppression, and abused authority (56:9-57:13, 58:1-59:13). What the people need is God’s open-armed compassion that invites all who are humble and contrite to find rest in him (55:1-13, 57:14-21, 66:1-6) — even foreigners (56:1-8). Isaiah looked forward to a future day when God would establish both judgment and mercy (59:14-60:22, 63:1-65:16, 66:15-24). This future day would usher in salvation for God’s people (62:1-12, 66:7-14), including a new heavens and new earth (65:17-25). The day of salvation is called “the year of the Lord’s favor” in a passage about healing and liberty (61:1-2), which Jesus said he fulfilled (Luke 4:18-19).
Lessons about God
Through Isaiah, God spelled out in unmistakable clarity that he is the only true God. “I am the Lord, and there is no other,” he repeated three times (45:5, 6, 18). To prove this, he foretold future events (42:9). He named Cyrus (44:28), the king of Persia who would have Jerusalem rebuilt, approximately 100 years before Jerusalem was even destroyed. “I equip you, though you do not know me,” God told to a yet unborn Cyrus, “that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me” (45:5-6). The God who made heaven and earth has also made himself known to mankind, that we might worship him (45:18-19). “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (42:8).
God also says three times that he is holy. Or rather, the seraphim surrounding the throne sing it continually, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (6:3). On seeing this vision, Isaiah immediately made the correct inference, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:5). Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness and the sin of all the people, and he knew that a holy God “will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity” (13:11).
Nor is there anything man can do to avert or resist God’s judgment, because God is also high above all men. “The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high” (33:5). He “has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up — and it shall be brought low” (2:11). “Surely the people are grass,” whereas “the word of our God will stand forever” (40:7-8). Therefore, “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (2:22).
Yet this glorious view of God does not leave us without hope of salvation. God openly invites — nay, coaxes — the parched and bankrupt to partake of his abundant luxuries (55:1-2). There is even hope for the wicked man — how scandalous! “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (55:7). Yet it is God’s very high position that makes this possible, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah’s suffering servant makes possible the forgiveness God offers so freely. “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (53:5). He was gentle (42:3), and he suffered silently (53:7). God placed our sin on him (53:6), and he was obedient unto death (50:5-6), yet he would not stay dead (53:9). He would be “a light for the nations,” that God’s salvation “may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). These songs are about Jesus Christ, and they are quoted all over the New Testament.
Yet Isaiah also foretold a coming king. Jesus is called the branch of the Lord (4:2), Immanuel born of a virgin (7:14), “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6), a branch from the stump of Jesse (11:1), and a king who “will reign in righteousness” (32:1). The Jews did not suspect that these two figures — the king and the servant — were one and the same, but Jesus fulfilled the prophecies concerning both. Thus, Revelation portrays Jesus as simultaneously “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:5-6). Jesus explained that rulers should not lord it over their subjects, but serve them; “whoever would be great among you must be your servant … even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
Isaiah is also rich with glimpses of future hope for the people of God. After they had irredeemably broken the Mosaic covenant, the Lord promised them an eternal covenant of peace. “‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (54:10). That covenant, Jesus explained at the Last Supper, “is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This is a marriage covenant of love and joy, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (62:5). God promised to create for his people “new heavens and a new earth” where “the former [sin-cursed] things shall not be remembered” (65:17). In this new creation, God “will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces” (25:8), there will be no more sin (60:21) nor violence (60:18), and God himself would be the light and glory of his people (60:19).
A major lesson of Isaiah is to put your trust in the right things. First, we shouldn’t put our trust in idols. A passage like Isaiah 44:9-20 — which you should read today; trust me it’s worth it — makes clear that idol worship is utter folly. It is less believing in a local deity than it is deceiving oneself into worshiping a lie, the work of one’s own hands, material goods that can be consumed by fire. Are we tempted to do that today? But God refuses to share worship that rightly belongs to him with idols (42:8).
Next, we shouldn’t put our trust in other people. The Lord promised Ahaz that he would deliver him from the alliance of Israel and Syria (7:3-12), but Ahaz refused to believe God. Instead, he sought out an alliance with the Assyrians, who “came against him and afflicted him instead of strengthening him” (2 Chronicles 28:20). Later, with an Assyrian invasion looming, the Lord rebuked him for disobediently seeking an alliance with Egypt, whose “help is worthless and empty” (30:7). “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!” (31:1). Later, Hezekiah welcomes an alliance with Babylon (39:1), showing its envoys treasures that it would later cart away into exile (39:6).
We shouldn’t even put our trust in our own strength. After initiating a revival, Hezekiah prepared for the Assyrian invasion by redirecting waterways, rebuilding fortifications, and amassing weapons (2 Chronicles 32:2-5). Yet Isaiah rebuked the people:
“In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest [the armory], and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many. You collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago.”
Eventually, all their hard work to construct defenses was overthrown, and they were only saved through the Lord striking 185,000 Assyrian soldiers dead in the middle of the night.
By process of elimination, then, we arrive at the only one worthy of our trust: the Lord of Hosts (that is, the Lord of armies). When justice, righteousness, and truth were expelled from Judah’s public life, and “there was no one to intercede,” Isaiah prophesied, God’s “own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak” (57:16-17). (Yes, the armor of God that Christians should wear was inspired by the armor God himself put on.)
God is the only one we should trust in, and the only one we should fear. “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread,” Isaiah instructed the faithful remnant. “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (8:12-13). When “the haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,” Isaiah says, “the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (2:11). So let’s humble ourselves before him before that final day of judgment arrives.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.