Isaiah is massive book that displays an even larger vision of God’s glory. And because of the scale and grandeur of its message, it often seems difficult to grasp its meaning. Sure, there are those familiar verses we often return to, but how do we grasp at the whole message of Isaiah?
In what follows, I am going to trace out two key themes that may help us see the forest and not just a few trees. The first stream relates to Zion, the key place in the book. The second relates to the messiah, or the seed (zera’), the key person in the book. By holding these two streams together, I think it helps us see the arrangement of the forest so that we can climb the heights in this glorious book.
Two Streams That Run Through Isaiah
More than a few commentators have observed that Zion plays a key role in the book of Isaiah. As the opening line of Isaiah foretells, “the vision [singular!] of Isaiah the son of Amoz [is] concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (cf. Webb, The Message of Isaiah, 26–29). As it begins in about 740 BC, in the year King Uzziah died (6:1), Isaiah keeps Jerusalem/Zion at the center, until it reaches its climax, when God’s glory comes to Zion. Thus, Zion plays a crucial thematic and structural role in Isaiah, as various sections in the book repeatedly terminate with praise and glory coming to Zion.
At the same time, Isaiah is a book that focuses on one seed (zera’) springing up in Zion. That is to say, as 1 Peter 1:10–12 comments on the Old Testament as a whole, the Spirit of Christ is bearing witness to the Christ in Isaiah’s prophecy. And throughout this long-awaited messiah is portrayed as a king, a servant, and Spirit-anointed Redeemer. In short, as Isaiah trains our eyes to look at Zion, we see that God is showing how he will bring his Son into the world (Webb, The Message of Isaiah, 28–29).
For readers of Isaiah, therefore, we do well to see how the twin themes of Zion and Zera’ fit together. For in keeping our eyes on them, we grow in our understanding of the structure and central focus of Isaiah. Thus, in what follows, I will highlight a few passages that identify these two themes, so that we can keep an eye on the massive and glorious book of Isaiah.
Depending on how you structure Isaiah, you may find anywhere between 7 and 9 visions of Zion. In what follows, I share the seven passages that I believe are the climax of each of the seven sections of the book.
- Isaiah 2:1–4 gives the first promise of peoples streaming into Zion. It is a glorious vision, but in comparison with what is to come, it is but a flicker.
- Isaiah 4:2–6 speaks of the glory of the branch and safe return of God’s people into Zion. In this we see how the glory of the promised messiah and the promised return to Zion are related. As it will become clear, the glory of the latter depends on the former; and the work of the former is what makes possible the glory of the latter.
- Isaiah 12:1–6 again speaks of salvation and the praise brought into Zion. This chapter culminates the three promises of a coming savior (7:14; 9:6–7; 11:1–10), and amplifies a growing pattern in the book—namely, that God’s goal for his people on the other side of exile is a return to his holy hill.
- Isaiah 27:1–12 concludes a section of judgments on the nations (ch. 13–24). This judgment includes Jerusalem (ch. 22) and spreads to the whole earth (ch. 24). But in response God promises his people peace (ch. 25–27), culminating in resurrection life (ch. 25) and a glorious return to Zion (ch. 27).
- Isaiah 35:1–10 concludes another section of oracles against Judah and Jerusalem. He warns them to abide in the Lord and to trust in him. He promises a king to reign in Israel (ch. 32) and offers another warning to the nations (ch. 34). But the climax is again a return to Zion in chapter 35.
- Isaiah 55:1–13 invites everyone to come freely and eat of the Lord’s bounty. This invitation is an offer of salvation (vv. 6–7) that stands on the work of the Servant. Zion is not mentioned by name, but all the blessed elements of a return to Zion are present, before chapter 56 returns to the sinful conditions of Jerusalem. (Of note, there is also a mention of Zion in 51:16 that has led some commentators to see another break between 40:1–51:16 and 51:17–and 55:13).
- Isaiah 65–66 is the ultimate climax and promise of future restoration in Zion. Whereas every other vision of Zion is followed by a return to gloom, Isaiah 65–66 envisions an endless glory on Zion and the total destruction of wickedness. The book closes with a measure of immediate uncertainty, because it impels us to consider our own response. But clearly, this vision of Zion is meant to build confidence that all the Servant accomplished and applied by the Spirit is going to bring about a new heavens and new earth. Additionally, this confidence is supported by the vision of Zion found in chapters 60–62. This is the center of this final section, which explains how salvation is secured and judgment is finalized.
All in all, Zion in history and eschatology is the clear focus of this book. And to understand the message of Isaiah, we need to keep our eyes on its recurrence.
Again, zera’ is the Hebrew word for seed and it is regularly used with respect to agriculture (Gen. 1:11, 12, 29; 8:22; 47:19; etc.). At the same time, it is also used to speak of children. Often English translations use the word “offspring” rather than “seed” to translate zera’ with respect to children (e.g., Gen. 3:15; 4:25; 9:9; etc.). However, this misses the linguistic connection, which explains why harvest language is so regularly applied to people. Just like the word house (bayit) connects people and buildings (see the play on words in 2 Samuel 7), so too seed becomes an important and theologically-charged metaphor in Scripture.
This is all the more true in Isaiah, because over the course of the book, the “holy seed” that comes from the fallen tree of Judah (Isaiah 6:13) is going to grow into a forest of righteous oaks (61:3). Thus, in order to fully appreciate the story of God’s seed foretold in Genesis 3 and developed in Isaiah, we need to see how this language develops and how the Messiah emerges from the charred ground of ancient Judah.
To be clear, what follows is not a word study of zera’ but a thematic study of the messiah in Isaiah. He is the One long ago promised to the woman (Genesis 3:15), Abraham (Genesis 12:7), and David (2 Samuel 7:12). Now, in Isaiah we find a number of passages that enlarge these earlier promises. And amazingly, but maybe not surprisingly, many passages about the king, servant, and Spirit-anointed redeemer possess imagery related to a growing plant.
- Isaiah 4:2 promises glory to the branch who will return to Zion to its former glory.
- Isaiah 6:13 tells of a holy seed that will arise from the stump of Judah.
- Isaiah 7:14 prophesies that the virgin will conceive and bear a child. (The language of sonship is personal and familial, not agricultural, but for reasons mentioned above, the language of sonship and seed should be read as complementary and not contradictory).
- Isaiah 9:6–7 promises a king who will reign in righteousness, bringing peace to a people living in darkness.
- Isaiah 11:1–5 promises a new King David (“a son of Jesse”) who will be endowed with the Spirit.
- Isaiah 42:1–4 introduces the Servant who will be anointed with the Spirit.
- Isaiah 49:1–9 tells how this Servant will come from Israel as Israel to save Israel. The notion of corporate solidarity or covenantal representation is found here, only this covenant people will also include the nations.
- Isaiah 50:4–9 speaks of the discipline and discipleship of this Servant. He will be harassed and yet he will not waiver from his obedience to the Lord.
- Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is the pinnacle of the Servant songs, where the suffering of the Servant is made most clear. He will not merely suffer in life. He will suffer in death. And by his death he will become the guilt offering which takes away the sin of his people. This is the passage that Philipp unmistakably assigns to Jesus Christ in Acts 8.
- Isaiah 59:15–21 identifies a Spirit-anointed Redeemer who will bring to completion the work of the Servant. As it will become clear, this is the king of Isaiah 9 and 11 and the Servant of Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 53.
- Isaiah 61:1–4 identifies the same anointed one who will proclaim peace to the world. This is the passage Jesus reads in the synagogue and applies to himself (Luke 4:18–21).
- Isaiah 61:10–62:7 describes a man clothed in garments of salvation bringing “marriage” to the people of God.
- Isaiah 63:1–6 complements these three songs of salvation with a song of vengeance, where the Spirit-anointed priest who brings salvation now brings judgment on those who refuse to repent.
Altogether, these verses display in comprehensive colors who the coming messiah is. Set in various stages of God’s history with redemption, they all foretell the coming of Jesus Christ. And thus, in Isaiah as a whole we learn to look to for Christ and what Christ looks like. He is the king who comes to die in the place of his people, and once rising from the dead, he now applies salvation to those whom he purchased. It is a glorious vision and one worth our endless contemplation.
Take Up and Read
On this note, let us return to Isaiah to consider the contents of the verses mentioned above. By getting ahold of these two rivers, they promise to give us water to drink in the parched ground of Isaiah 13–24 and they will help us see where we are in this large but glorious book. Indeed, this is why Isaiah wrote, not so that we would remember a few proof texts, but to see the infinite glory of God’s son (Immanuel) that will one day fill the universe.
This is why we read Isaiah. I pray these two rivers may help you find your way in this glorious book.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds