The Literary Structure of Isaiah: Five Tour Guides to Help You Stay the Course

pexels-photo-697662.jpegThe book of Isaiah is sixty-six books, just like the Bible. And it is divided into 39 chapters and 27 chapters, just like the two Testaments–old and new. Therefore, we should organize Isaiah around this bipartite division, right?

Well, maybe . . . not.

Somewhere along the line, I’ve heard this line of thinking. And for years, I operated with this basic understanding that there is one seismic break between Isaiah 39 and 40, making the one book two. Add to this a number of well-worn proof texts for systematic theology—e.g., verses about Christ’s virgin birth (7:14 and 9:6–7), his sacrifice (52:13–53:12), and the grossness of sin (64:6)—and I accumulated a lot of disconnected knowledge about this glorious book.

It was not until I began reading Isaiah as whole book, however, that the message of Isaiah began to come to life. I am still learning that message, but having a mental map of the whole book has been a game-changer. And thankfully, that map has been aided by a number of tour guides—books and teachers that have helped me find my way in Isaiah.

The Need for Teachers . . . According to the Bible

This is how it should be. God gives teachers to the church to instruct in God’s Word (Eph. 4:11–12). And we would be fools to ignore them.

With the wisdom of ages past and those who have devoted themselves to the study of the Bible in the present, we can and should gain a better understanding of Scripture. Indeed, whenever we enter a new book of the Bible, one we do not know well, our best course of action is not to hide ourselves away in our room until we determine its meaning. We should seek the assistance of those who have gone before us. Such dependence on faithful teachers does not put human wisdom above the Bible, it listens to the Bible, acknowledges the gifts of God, the goodness of reading the Bible in community, and seeks to know God’s word with the help of others.

With that in mind, here are five scholars, tour guides, who have provided an outline of Isaiah. While each organizes the book differently, their collective witness gives us insight into things we should be looking for when we read. At present, I am persuaded Barry Webb’s outline is the most persuasive, but I am still learning.

1. Alec Motyer’s Three-Part Theological Reading of Isaiah

For many biblical scholars and pastors, Alec Motyer’s commentary, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and CommentaryIt is technical, but not so technical that any Bible reader could profit from it.

In his book, he alters the typical way Isaiah is divided into two halves (1–39, 40–66). Instead, he places stress on the historical narrative of Hezekiah’s encounter with Assyria and Babylon (ch. 36–39). As we will see in many of the following outlines, this is a crucial section of the book for understanding the unity and progression of Isaiah’s message.Here’s Alec Motyer’s outline basic outline. Under each point, Motyer includes many detailed subpoints (Isaiah, 5–8)

  1. The Book of the King (ch. 1–37)
    1. Preface: Judah: diagnosis and prognosis (1:1–5:1)
    2. Triumph of Grace (6:1–12:5)
    3. Universal Kingdom (13:1–27:13)
    4. The Lord of History (28:1–37:38)
  2. The Book of the Servant (ch. 38–55)
    1. Historical Prologue: Hezekiah’s Fatal Choice (38:1–39:8)
    2. The Consolation of the World (40:1–42:17)
    3. The Redemption of Israel (42:18–44:23)
    4. The Great Deliverance (44:24–48:22) — [Cyrus is the Servant Who Saves Israel from Babylon]
    5. The Greater Deliverance (49:1–55:13) — [“Christ” is the Servant Who Saves the World from Sin]
  3. The Book of the Anointed Conqueror (ch. 56–66)
    1. The ideal and the actual: the needs and sins of the Lord’s people (56:1–59:13)
    2. The coming of the Anointed Conqueror (59:14–63:6)
    3. Prayer and response: steps to the new heaven and the new earth (63:7–66:24)

Motyer’s outline is thorough and captures (the) three main themes in Isaiah–the king, the servant, and the Spirit-anointed warrior. While his organization does not consider the city of Zion, it is a helpful place to begin and one that puts the reader on solid ground.

2. Andrew Abernathy’s Thematic Approach to Isaiah

Furthering our understanding of the key themes of king and servant, Andrew Abernathy  (The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach, 204–06) provides a helpful outline for pastors who are going to teach through this book. In his thematic study of Isaiah, he outlines the book under five parts. His outline is very similar to Trent Hunter’s five-part sermon series. Because Abernathy has outlined Isaiah for preachers, I’ve also included the number of sermons he suggests—25 in total.

Part 1: The holy king must judge, but hope remains (Isa. 1–12) [5 Sermons]

  • Isaiah 1–5: Introduction to Isaiah’s message of judgment and hope
  • Isaiah 6: A vision of the holy king: perspective on the nature of Isaiah’s message
  • Isaiah 7–12: Judgment with a foolish king and a hope for a just king

Part 2: Yahweh’s sovereignty in judgment and salvation of the world (Isa. 13–27) [4 Sermons]

  • Isaiah 13–23: Oracles about and against the nations
  • Isaiah 24–27: A cosmic vision of judgment and salvation

Part 3: Back to reality—judgment, trust and signs of hope (Isa. 28–39) [5 Sermons]

  • Isaiah 28–33: Woes against mistrust and hope for a king
  • Isaiah 34–35: Cosmic judgment of renewal
  • Isaiah 36–39: Historical bridge—God can save, but Zion’s exile awaits

Part 4: After judgment—comfort while waiting for the king to return (Isa. 40–55) [6 Sermons]

  • Isaiah 40–48: Waiting confidently when God seems absent
  • Isaiah 49–55: God the king, the servant and Zion’s comfort

Part 5: Responding to the final judgment and salvation (Isa. 56–66) [5 Sermons]

What makes Abernathy’s outline helpful is the way that it unites the book around the themes of kingdom and service. It also identifies the twin actions of God’s salvation and judgment. These themes keep the main ideas of the book front and center, helping us keep our eye on what is most important.

3. Tim Mackie’s Motion Picture Map of Isaiah

Tim Mackie, the scholar behind The Bible Project, has provided a helpful visual map to Isaiah. In his two videos he explains this map in full detail.

Here is his organization in outline form. But you should really watch the two videos to get the full effect of the book.

Isaiah 1–12: Judgment and Hope for Jerusalem

  • Old Jerusalem vs. New Jerusalem (1:1–2:5 and 2:6–4:5)
  • Isaiah’s Temple Vision (6)
  • Old Jerusalem vs. New Jerusalem (7:1–12:5)

Isaiah 13–27: Judgment and Hope for the Nations

  • Fall of Babylon and Israel’s Neighbors (13–23)
  • A Tale of Two Cities (24–27)

Isaiah 28–39: The Rise and Fall of Jerusalem

  • Accusation of Jerusalem’s Leaders (28–35)
  • Hezekiah’s Rise (36–38)
  • Hezekiah’s Fall (39)

Isaiah 40–48: Announcement of Hope

  • Comfort, Comfort My People (40)
  • Trial: Accusation, God’s Response, The Right Conclusion (41–47)
  • Israel Still Rebellious (48)

Isaiah 49–55: The Servant Fulfills God’s Mission

  • God’s Servant is Presented (49:1–7)
  • God’s Servant is Rejected and Killed (50:4–9; 52:13–53:12)
  • God’s Servant Lives Again and Brings a New Covenant (53:10–12; 54–55)

Isaiah 56–66: The Servants Inherit God’s Kingdom

  • All Nations Invited to Join God’s Covenant Family (56:1
    • Contrast Between the Wicked and the Servants (56:9–58:14)
      • Prayers of Repentance (59)
        • THE Servant Announces God’s Kingdom (60–62)
      • Prayers of Repentance (63–64)
    • Contrast Between the Wicked and the Servants (65:1–66:4)
  • All Nations Invited to Join God’s Covenant Family (66:5–24)

4. Barry Webb’s Six Balanced Cycles With a Center

Barry Webb (The Message of Isaiah, 30–31) has provided, in my estimation, the most helpful outline of the book of Isaiah. You can see it here in this table. (The first four columns are his; the last is my addition).

Place Part Chapters Enemy Genre




New Jerusalem

1 1–12 Assyria Poetry: Present Judgment
2 13–27
3 28–35
4 36–39 Assyria — Babylon Prose: Historical Narrative
5 40:1–51:11 Babylon Poetry: Future Salvation
6 51:12–55:13
7 56–66

Following his outline, Barry Webb explains how Isaiah unfolds

Chapters 1–35 and 40–66 are predominantly verse, reflecting the powerful rhythmic style characteristic of prophetic preaching. But, at the centre, in chapters 36–39, stands an extended block of material which is predominately prose. It has two parts. The first (chapters 36–37) describes Sennacherib’s invasion and its outcome, and finally resolves the Assyrian crisis which has dominated the whole first half of the book. The second (chapters 38–39) deals with Hezekiah’s illness and his reception of envoys from Merodach Baladan. It anticipates the Babylonian crisis, which casts its shadow over the second half of the book. So chapters 36–39 are effectively the structural pivot on which the whole book turns .It is preceded by three units (chapters 1–12; 13–27 and 28–35), all of which end with the redeemed singing God’s praises in Zion, or on their way to it. It is followed by another three units (40:1–51:11; 51:12–55:13; and chapters 56–66) which end in the same way.

We observed earlier the overall movement from Jerusalem to new Jerusalem and from fallen creation to new creation. But in fact this movement takes place again and again within the book as well as across the whole of it. While the fullest description of life in the new creation is reserved until the last two chapters, we are given frequent anticipations and pledges of it the way through, especially at the conclusion of Parts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. We glimpse the end many times before we finally arrive and rest there. (pp. 30–31)

More than the previous outlines, I believe Webb has captured the cyclical nature of Isaiah. In Isaiah 2, 4, 12, 27, 35, 55, and 66 we are brought back into the realm of Zion. While Isaiah pronounces judgment upon Jerusalem (earthly Zion), his heavenly vision continues to promise Israel and the nations a servant-king who will come to bring salvation, by undergoing our judgment in our place (see Isaiah 53).

Webb’s outline helps us to see that and to see where the next rest stop (i.e., return to Zion) is. While the other outlines are helpful, I am persuaded Webb’s sticks closest to the literary shape of Isaiah.

5. Peter Gentry’s Seven Zion-Centered Cycles

One more outline to mention is Peter Gentry’s. In his introduction to the biblical prophets, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets, Gentry also outlines Isaiah according to seven repeating cycles that move from Jerusalem to the New Jerusalem.

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

This chart brings together Alec Motyer’s division between chapters 37 and 38 and combines it with the cyclical nature of Barry Webb’s seven-part outline. Gentry’s outline helps us see how the various proposals work in concert together. While I am still persuaded by Webb’s organization, there are good reasons for following Gentry’s also (or another of the other outlines too).

Ultimately, these proposals for literary structure are not meant to confine us to one way of reading the text. They should be and can be used to help us see what is in the text itself. For reasons in the text one might be stronger than another, but because the Bible has no inspired outlines, we must accept that these outlines are ministerial, not magisterial.

(How To) Use One of These Outlines . . . Don’t Use All of Them

Practically, you might “try on” one of these outlines as you read through Isaiah. It will help you keep your place and give you a knowledgeable conversation partner with whom you can push and pull against the Bible. The benefit of his this is that by keeping an outline in mind, it protects you from getting lost or discouraged in the long journey through Isaiah. As you read, it provides you a sure guide. And when you finish, you can agree or disagree to read Isaiah in the way he has proposed.

Teachers of Scripture are never authoritative in themselves. Authoritative teaching always comes from its adherence to the biblical text. Yet, God did not give us the Bible for us to read as isolated individuals. We tour guides to help us wade through the Bible. For this reason, take up an “order of service” and read along.

If you know of any other resources or outlines to assist our reading of Isaiah, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds