Keep Zion in View: Help for the Beleaguered Reader of Isaiah

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If you have started the Via Emmaus Bible reading plan, you may be thinking about now: Isaiah a big book—a big, confusing book. If so, have no fear, you are not alone. One of the first times I read Isaiah—Isaiah 13–19 in particular—I just gave up.

This post is written so that you won’t follow that same path.

When I gave up reading Isaiah, I had no idea how to read Isaiah, or any other Prophet. I was trying to read Isaiah like I read Paul or John. I was looking for a nugget of truth or application in every verse, or at least one in every paragraph. However, that’s not the way to read Isaiah. Isaiah is like climbing a mountain—literally and literarily!!

In the book of Isaiah, Mount Zion is the goal and each section of the book keeps coming back to his holy hill. The effect is a pronouncement of salvation and judgment in surround sound. Yet, you wouldn’t know that the first time you read the book. (However, Isaiah 2:1–4 does supply a help key to the rest of the book). And thus, to get the most out of reading Isaiah, you will need to see the big picture.

Indeed, reading Isaiah can feel like putting a puzzle together without the box top, if you don’t have the big view in mind. But if you have the boxtop, i.e., a picture of what the whole book is about, it makes the reading understandable and far more enjoyable.

That’s the goal of this post—to give you a few boxtops for Isaiah. The following videos, sermons, and literary outline, therefore, are a few ways to get your bearings in Isaiah. May they help you read this big and wonderful book with less confusion.

A Video Overview of Isaiah in Two Parts

Seven Overview Sermons on Isaiah

I have culled fifty sermons on Isaiah, but here are two that might be a good starting place for getting the big picture of the book.

If you want to get a survey of the book in five sermons, let me suggest Trent Hunter’s five sermons. He organizes his series around two cities—the city of God and the city of man. He is a sure guide to the book.

A Final Strategy and Forthcoming Resources

Finally, let me encourage you with this: Keep Zion in view and keep reading.

Zion, the mountain of the Lord, is a place that continues to come up in Isaiah. (Later this month, I hope to do a word study on this theme). As long as you keep this mountain in view, you will keep on the right path. In other words, as you wander through the judgments of the nations in Isaiah 13–19, the historical narrative of Assyria and Babylon visiting Hezekiah in Isaiah 36–39, and the complex of servant songs in Isaiah 40–55, Zion will help you keep your bearings. When you feel lost, just look for the next Zion sighting. It is sure to encourage you—both in your hope for heaven and in your reading of Isaiah.

In the days ahead, I hope to add a few more resources on Zion and its place in the book. After I finishing reading through the book myself, I will also draw together a few resources on how the book of Isaiah is outlined. For now, you can look at any Study Bible; they will give an outline of the book. Or you can keep this outline from Peter Gentry in mind:

The Book of Isaiah: From Zion in the Old Creation to Zion in the New[1]

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

All in all, keep reading.

The goal of this reading plan is not instant understanding, but saturation. Often, understanding only comes after we have saturated ourselves in the text. Because Isaiah is so big, Isaiah is difficult to do that. But hopefully these strategies and resources can help.

If you have any particular questions, feel free to send them here (viaemmaus@obc.org). We will discuss them in an upcoming Reading the Bible Better podcast.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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[1] This chart is found in Peter J. Gentry, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets, 52. I might draw the line differently for cycles 5 and 6. I would place the end of cycle 5 in Isaiah 35 and begin cycle 6 in Isaiah 36, but he knows more about Isaiah than I do so I’m probably mistaken. Go look at the text and decide for yourself.

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