This Sunday I will preach Isaiah 59. And to prepare for this Christmas message, I have spent time getting to know the landscape of Isaiah. Because the literary shape is so important for understanding the (theological) message of any book, I’ve spent time trying to figure out how this one chapter fits into the whole of Isaiah.
In what follows, I will share a few observations from what I’ve found. If you are interested, I’d love to hear your feedback and insight into this glorious chapter.
The Seven Cycles of Isaiah
In his book on the Prophets, Peter Gentry outlines the whole book of Isaiah in 7 sections. Following the work of Barry Webb, he writes,
The book of Isaiah develops its plot structure by presenting the central theme of the transformation of Zion seven times. The ‘music’ of Isaiah is like that of a DTS 5.1 surround-sound system; or, even better, Isaiah resembles the newer DTS 7.1 surround-sound system, which distributes the music over seven channels as it describes the transformation of Zion, in all seven of its major sections, like a seven-channel audio system. (How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets, 51)
Gentry’s remarks come in a chapter on Hebrew poetry, where he explains how parallelism works at the micro-level (where one line in a verse repeats another by way of amplification, comparison, contrast, etc.) and the macro-level (where entire books of the Old Testament are arranged by way of repeating or (re)cycling various themes). This, he argues, is the way we ought to read Isaiah, where each section repeats, develops, and intensifies the previous, as Yahweh indicts the dwellers of Jerusalem (in the days of Isaiah) and promises to transform Zion in the days to come.
To get a sense of this literary structure, here are the seven cycles in Isaiah. When you have time, take this ‘map’ and see how it matches the flow of Isaiah’s book.
The Book of Isaiah: From Zion in the Old Creation to Zion in the New
|1. The Judgment and Transformation of Zion, Part 1||1:2–2:4|
|2. The Judgment and Transformation of Zion, Part 2||2:5–4:6|
|3. The Judgment of the Vineyard and the Coming King||5:1–12:6|
|4. The City of Man vs. The City of God||13:1–27:13|
|5. Trusting the Nations vs. Trusting the Word of YHWH||28:1–37:38|
|6. Comfort and Redemption for Zion and the World||38:1–55:13|
|7. The Servants of YHWH and the New Creation||56:1–66:24|
If you are familiar with Isaiah, you can seem similar breaks in these seven divisions. At the same time, this structure deviates from the typical tripartite division of Isaiah 1–39, 40–55, and 56–66. Instead of following the structure of sixty-six chapters, or the shift in focus from in chapter 40, it follows the literary structure of the book itself, determined by the repetition of Zion’s transformation at the end of these sections.
Additionally, we discover in this seven-fold structure a key turning point between section five and six. Whereas the last two chapters of section five look back to Assyria, the first two chapters of section six look ahead to Babylon. In context, these chapter recount the events of Hezekiah, just as they are described in 2 Kings 18–20. In Isaiah, however, these four historical chapters explain how Isaiah “pivots” from Assyria to Babylon, and why chapters 40–66, coming after the historical introduction in chapters 38–39, look into the future and ultimately to the coming of the Servant of the LORD.
The Chiastic Structure of Isaiah 56–66
After looking at the whole book of Isaiah, we must consider the literary structure of Isaiah 56–66 to discover how Isaiah 59 functions in that last section. On this subject, Andrew Abernathy, in his biblical-theological treatment of the kingdom in Isaiah, nicely arranges as a chiasm centered on Isaiah 60–62.
Following John Goldingay, he shows how the themes of these eleven chapters break into a five-ring chiasm (The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom, 84). I have reproduced his summaries for each section, while emending D / D’ to match the stress of redemption in Isaiah 59 and judgement in Isaiah 63—a point of emphasis that he also observes (94–9)
A. Faithful outsiders to be in God’s service upon salvation (56:1–8)
B. Confronting the faithless insiders with judgment and assuring the faithful with salvation (56:9–59:8)
C. Prayer for forgiveness and restoration (59:9–15a)
D. The warrior king judges redeems the repentant and judges the wicked (59:15b–21)
E. Zion’s international renown amid King YHWH’s glory and his messenger (60–62)
D.’ The warrior king judges the wicked (nations) to secure his redeemed (63:1–6)
C.’ Prayer for forgiveness and restoration (63:7–64:12)
B.’ Confronting the faithless insiders with judgment and assuring the faithful with salvation (65:1–66:17)
A.’ Faithful outsiders to be in God’s service upon salvation and judgment (66:18–24)
The validity of any literary structure improves when we can find thematic and verbal connections in the text. In this case, Abernathy lists numerous ways the chiasm is organized through repeated words in the parallel levels. I will list his observations below (The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom, pp. 83–84, 94–95)
Foreigners come near to the throne of Yahweh in the house of God. Some of the key words that repeat are
- “sabbath” (56:2, 4, 6 = 66:23)
- “gather” (56:8 = 66:18)
- “holy mountain” (56:7 = 66:20)
- “house” (56:5, 7 = 66:20)
These verses deal with the historical realities related to Isaiah’s time period.
- “Next to the framing passages (level B), one enters into historical realities where apostate Judahites, who think they are in right standing with God, are confronted concerning their idolatry (56:9 — ch. 57; 65:1–7, 11–12; 66:3, 17) and injustice (58 — 59:8); judgment will fall upon them, though God will forgive and save those who turn to him in repentance (57:1–2; 13b–19; 65:8–10; 66:2, 5–14).” (84)
Repentance is the key to receiving mercy and not judgment when the Divine Warrior comes.
- “The prayers (level C) in 59:9–15a and 63:7 — 64:12 are repentant pleas for God’s mercy.” (84)
When the divine warrior comes, he will bring salvation and judgment. Redemption is stressed in 59:15–20; judgment is stressed in 63:1–6). In both sections, there are many repeated words, almost as if the repeated words build intensity in the king’s arrival.
- “There was no” (59:16 = 63:5)
- “Astonished” (59:16 = 63:5)
- “Supporting” (59:16 = 63:5)
- “Righteousness” (59:16, 17 = 63:1)
- “[his/my] arm saved for [him/myself]” (59:16 = 63:5)
- “garments” (59:17 = 63:1)
- “vengeance” (59:17 = 63:4)
- “wrath” (59:18 = 63:3, 5)
- “redeem” (59:20 = 63:4)
In the center section, we see the glory of God present in Zion. The nations come and worship at his feet, proving his reign. On this point Abernathy reflects,
- In Isaiah 60[–62], the centrepiece of Isaiah 56–66, there are two major dynamics that emphasize YHWH’s kingship in Zion. First, Zion is the place where the very glory of God, the king, resides and shines forth. Second, because YHWH’s light is so remarkable, all nations bring praise and tribute to Zion as they acknowledge YHWH as the king. YHWH is the glorious, international king in Zion. (106)
Isaiah 59 in Context
When we come into Isaiah, we find the chapter organized by a number of voices. First, verses 1–4 accuse “you” of sins. These words are directed at the people in general, and form an introductory accusation that explains why the Lord has not saved them. Second, the accusation turns to the priests. As a class of ministers, the house of Levi has failed the people and led them into sin. Accordingly, the blood they were supposed to shed for forgiveness of sins has only polluted their hands all the more. Third, the people (“we”) confess their sins and seek salvation. Finally, Yahweh responds. He sees that no man (no priest?) has interceded, that those put in charge to instill justice through the Law have failed. And thus he promises to redeem Zion.
In short, these four sections are divided by four pronouns: You (vv. 1–4), They (vv. 5–8), We (vv. 9–15), and I, the Lord, (vv. 15–21).
|Accusation of the People:
Your sins have made a separation between you and God
No one is righteous (v. 4ab)
|Accusation of the Priests:
Their injustice has led the nation astray
No one seeks peace (v. 8)
|Confession of the People:
We have sinned and fallen short of God’s justice
No justice is found (vv. 14–15ab)
|The LORD responds:
I will redeem you
Justice will return to Zion (vv. 20–21)
By following these pronouns, we get a sense of the argument in this chapter, which is then amplified by its place in Isaiah chiasm in Isaiah 56–66. At the same time, the organization and emphasis in this chapter is also seen in the way that at the end of each section, a more objective statement is made. These are bolded above.
In all this chapter moves from the absolute unrighteousness of the people, the injustice of the leadership, and the inability of these men and women to save themselves. Just like Romans 3, which quotes from Isaiah 59 (Romans 3:15–17 cites Isaiah 59:7–8), establishes the absolute wickedness of mankind, before introducing the free gift of God’s righteousness by faith in his Son, so this passage locks down on Israel’s sin, with their only hope being a gracious God in heaven who sees their plight and will come to redeem them. Amazingly, this is what verses 15–21 promise, what the rest of Isaiah (ch. 60–66) reinforce, and what the rest of the Bible develops as it moves towards the coming of the Lord.
Isaiah 59 in Canonical Context
Finally, when we consider Isaiah 59 in its canonical context (i.e., the context of the whole Bible), we see at least three connections to the New Testament—namely, Christ’s Incarnation, Christ’s church, and Christ’s victorious return. Abernathy identifies these and helps us to see how Isaiah 59 is developed in the New Testament (100–02).
First, in God’s promise to come by himself and redeem his people (59:16), we find a connection to the Lord’s Incarnation. In fact, the promise of the Lord’s arm (a theme that runs throughout Isaiah and culminates in Isaiah 59:16 and 63:5) is picked up in Luke 1:51–55
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Ultimately, the Lord does more than save his people with a metaphorical ‘arm.‘ Rather, the Son takes on human form, such that his hands are pierced and his arms are spread out on a cross in order to save his people from their debt of sin. In this way, Christ’s Incarnation fulfills Isaiah 59 in ways far greater than could have been asked or imagined by Isaiah. Amazingly, Jesus literally fulfills Isaiah 59 by doing more than what this passage says: Yahweh promises to send his arm, but as the rest of Isaiah envisions and as history confirms, God sent his Son in order to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
Second, when Ephesians 6 speaks of the armor of God it cites Isaiah 59:17. In the original context, Isaiah is not speaking about the people of God, but rather it is God himself clothed who is clothed in holy armor. So how does Paul apply Isaiah 59 to the church? The answer comes through union in Christ. Because Christ is God in human form and he unites himself to his people by his covenant and his Spirit—two ideas present in Isaiah 59:21—it is appropriate to see how this holy armor is shared with Christ’s people. Christ is the one who first fulfills Isaiah 59:17, and by extension, those who are in Christ may also put on God’s holy armor.
Third, and finally, because Isaiah 59:15–21 is joined up with Isaiah 63:1–6, the imagery of blood spattered clothing in Isaiah 63:5, which is picked up in Revelation 19:13–16, brings Isaiah 59 into connection with Christ’s second coming. For context, Revelation 19:13–16 reads,
He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
In this setting, we see that the “the very lamb whose blood was shed for the sins of the world is also the warrior king whose garments will drip with the blood the wicked when he judges the nations in the wine press of his wrath” (The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom, 101). When we read Isaiah 59 and 63 together, we see that God will both save and judge. And in Christ’s first and second coming we learn how he will do this.
In his first coming, Christ came to save his people by shedding his blood to pay the penalty for their sin. In his resurrection, however, he earned the right to judge all flesh (John 17:2), and thus in his return, he will crush under his feet the nations—Jew and Gentile—who refuse to repent.
In the end, therefore, we see how Isaiah 56–66 proclaims both salvation and judgment and in the New Testament, we discover how both of these realities come to fruition in Christ. Thus, what we find in Isaiah 59 is a powerful testimony of God’s work in the world, and a glorious passage that leads us to have confidence in God and the work of his right arm.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds