Isaiah is one of the most beautiful books of poetry ever written, but it takes work to follow his verse. This means that to understand his message means following his train of thought—poetic thought. If you are like me, reading poetry may not come easy. If you are a reader of poetry, who loves to linger long over lines of verse, you will be at an advantage with Isaiah. Either way, you can and should learn (to love) the poetry of Isaiah.
Here’s an example of how one chapter is organized. By following the logical order, i.e. the poetical structure, of Isaiah 5 you will be better positioned to understand the passage.
In Isaiah 5 we find a word of lamentation and judgment all rolled into one. It begins with a lyrical parable (vv. 1–7) and ends with a word of impending judgment (vv. 26–30). In between, Isaiah weeps and explains why God is going to destroy his holy mountain. Consider the outline and how this structure helps us read Isaiah 5.
An Outline of Isiah 5
The Song of the Vineyard (vv. 1–7) 1
Cycle 1: 2 ‘Woe’s’ and 2 ‘Therefore’s’ 2, 3
Woe 1: Greed that leads to exploitation (vv. 8–10)
Woe 2: Hedonism that Causes Indifference to God (vv. 11–12) 4
Judgment 1: Exile because of Ignorance (v. 13) 5
Judgment 2: Israel’s Leaders are Humbled and Yahweh is Exalted (vv. 14–17) 6
Cycle 2: 4 ‘Woe’s’ and 2 ‘Therefore’s’ 2, 3
Woe 3: Falsehood Masquerading as True Piety (vv. 18–19)
Woe 4: Spiritual Blindness (v. 20)
Woe 5: Folly Caused by Self-Reliance (v. 21)
Woe 6: Hedonism that Causes Injustice towards others (vv. 22–23) 4
Judgment 3: Destruction because Israel has rejected the Law (v. 24) 5
Judgment 4: Israel’s People Stand Under God’s Wrath (v. 25) 6
Yahweh’s Sign (vv. 26–30) 1
Reading Isaiah 5 in Parallel Fashion
There are numerous parallels in these two cycles and points of connection in the whole chapter. Here are six that match the annotation above.
1 The chapter opens and closes with word of judgment. First, in the song of the vineyard (vv. 1–7), we find a parable that explains why God will destroy his vineyard—it has produced rotten grapes, even though he has done everything for it to produce good grapes. Then, in the signal on a hill (vv. 26–30), we find a description of the coming army (who will turn out to be Assyria) that will serve as the destroyer of God’s vineyard.
2 In between these two songs are two cycles of lamentation and judgment, organized around two words: “woe” and “lament.” Woe is not a word of pure condemnation; it combines anger and sorrow. Like Jesus when he looked at the Pharisees with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart (Mark 3:5), so Isaiah employs this word to issue a judgment filled with grief because of his love for God’s vineyard, i.e., Israel.
3 The pattern of “woe” and “therefore” repeats twice, with intensification. As Barry Webb (Isaiah, 56) observes,
The passage as a whole is structured by the words Woe and Therefore. Woe introduces denunciations of particular sins; Therefore introduces the judgments which either have been or will be visited on the offenders. There is a growing intensity as the unit progresses: first one woe (8), then another (11), and then four strung together in quick succession (18, 20, 21, 22), Similarly, there is first a single announcement of judgment introduced by The Lord Almighty has declared in verse 9, then a double Therefore in verses 13 and 14, and finally another in verses 24 and 25, where the judgment takes on cosmic, world-shattering proportions (especially in 25).
It is also possible to see how Woe 1 (Greed that leads to exploitation) finds its defense in the three woes (3–5) of the second cycle.
4 The first and second series of woes end in the same way. Both address Israel’s hedonism. The first relates to the way this hedonism rejects God (vv. 11–12), the second relates to the way they exploit one another (v. 25). These two indictments show how Israel has failed to keep the law—to love God and love neighbor.
5 In both instances God’s judgment comes upon Israel for their failure to keep the Law. Abandonment of the Word is central to God’s judgment. This judgment was not surprising; it was exactly what Yahweh said he would do if/when his covenant people rejected his Word (see Lev. 26–27; Deut. 27–28)
6 First, God’s judgment fell on the leaders, whose responsibility included teaching the people God’s Word. Then, second, God’s judgment fell on the people.
A Final Word for Reading Isaiah 5
Take time to consider this outline and then re-read Isaiah 5. I have found that once I get (or come close to getting) the structure of a text, I have taken a major step towards ‘getting’ the passage and letting the passage get into me. Always, it is the Spirit who illumines our minds, but the Spirit who inspired the Bible with Hebrew grammar and Greek syntax works with the rules of poetry and prose to help us understand the Word. As one pastor has said, the Holy Spirit is a super-grammarian, and we should seek to understand his grammar.
As for Isaiah 5, what do you think? Do you see any other connections in this passage? Are there any ways to improve the structure? Feel free to leave observations in the comments section.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds