The Dramatic Arc of Isaiah 1–12: How Seeing Literary Structure Unveils the Glory of God

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“This is an unusual and fascinating book.”

One might think this commendation describes the Bible, or at least the book of Revelation. But in fact, these words come from Richard Averbeck’s endorsement of David Dorsey’s book about the Bible, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Baker, 1999). Indeed, his full endorsement reads as follows,

This is an unusual and fascinating book. It is the first comprehensive treatment of the inherent structure of the Old Testament books and its significance for understanding their meaning and message. Expositors will find it of inestimable value for looking at the books in a way that is true to the literary nature of the Old Testament itself and the theological significance of that structure. (From the back cover)

Dorsey’s book is unlike any other book I have read. For in 39 chapters—surely that was on purpose—he introduces his method (ch. 1–5), outlines every book in the Old Testament (ch. 6–38), and offers some final reflections (ch. 39). In all, his book provides students of Scripture with a comprehensive reading plan for seeing the literary structures of every book in the Old Testament. With careful attention to literary details, his book, though it came out in the year of Y2K fears, is not flight of fancy into Bible coding. Rather, it offers a well-argued case for reading Scripture on its own terms.

For readers of this blog, you know how much value this approach to Scripture. Following the persuasive argument of David Helm, I believe every inspired text has an inspired structure. Accordingly, the faithful reader (or preacher) must discern the “inherent structure” in the text, in order to uncover the meaning of the original author.

I have often shared the literary structures I have seen in the Scripture. And in our church, this care for literary structure is the starting place with our teachers. (For those with ears to hear, you know this is a shameless plug for Simeon Trust). Surely, getting the structure is not the end of our study, but it is a necessary step. Good exposition depends on rightly dividing the word of God, and discerning the biblical structures helps the disciple cut with and not against the grain of Scripture.

To that end, as I preach through Isaiah over the next few weeks, I will share some of Dorsey’s work. In doing so, I hope it will help those who are following our Advent Reading of Isaiah. And more, I hope it will persuade you to begin looking for these structures in Scripture. So, without any more prolegomena, let me offer an outline of Isaiah 1–12, which in turn prepares us for the whole book of Isaiah.

The Structure of Isaiah 1–12

The place to begin is in the beginning, and in the beginning of Isaiah we find twelve chapters broken out into seven sections. As Dorsey demonstrates, these sections take the form of a chiasm (ABA), and they look something like this.

[1] Introduction: Israel’s Sin Results in God’s Legal Judgment (Isaiah 1)

    • Format: A courtroom scene where God judges Israel for unacceptable worship
    • Seed Theme: The children of God have proven themselves to be false sons
    • Nations: God will judge Zion with foreign armies

[2] A Glorious Future, After An Immediate Judgment (Isaiah 2–4)

      • Format: Oracles of judgment on proud men (2:6–22) and haughty women (3:16–4:1)
      • Seed Theme: God will purify Zion, so that she can bear true children (2:1–5; 4:2–6)
      • Nations: Judgment comes from the nations and the nations enter Zion to worship God

[3] Coming Destruction (Isaiah 5)

        • Format: Six woes are pronounced are on the vineyard of God (Zion)
        • Seed theme: The children of God have born bad fruit, but the judgment is not final (six woes, not seven)
        • Nations: Yahweh whistles for the nations to come (5:26)

[X] The Glory of God and the Call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6)

          • Format: God calls Isaiah to pronounce a word of judgment on Zion
          • Seed theme: From the stump of Jesse will come a holy seed (6:13)
          • Nations: The glory of God will cover the earth (6:3)

[3′] Coming Destruction, with the promise of savior (Isaiah 7–8:18)

        • Format: God gives a sign of salvation in the midst of cursed vineyard (7:23-25)
        • Seed theme: The sign is a seed of the woman (7:14)
        • Nations: Yahweh whistles for the nations to come (7:18)

[2′] A Glorious Future, After An Assyrian Judgment (Isaiah 8:19–11:9)

      • Format: Oracles of judgment on Samaria (9:8–21) and Assyria (10:5–19)
      • Seed theme: The son of Jesse will become the prince of peace
      • Nations: The nations will receive the light of God, and creation will experience salvation

[1′] Conclusion: God’s Legal Judgment Results in Salvation Joy  (Isaiah 11:10–12:6)

    • Format: Judgment is replaced by Jubilation
    • Seed theme: The true children of God will rejoice in their savior
    • Nations: All the earth will know the salvation of the Lord

This is my modified structure of Isaiah 1–12, adapted from Dorsey’s work (p. 220). It follows his basic seven-fold outline and adds an observation regarding the seed theme, which runs throughout Isaiah. From this outline, we can draw at least three interpretive conclusions.

Three Lessons from a Literary Reading of Isaiah 1–12

First, the center of Isaiah 1–12 is the call of Isaiah.

Ever wonder why Isaiah’s call waits until the sixth chapter? The answer probably be due to the chiastic structure of Isaiah’s introduction. Unlike Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which put the call of the prophet in chapter 1, Isaiah stresses his call by putting it in the middle of his first twelve chapters. If this is the case, this explains why Isaiah waits to reveal his calling.

But there’s another reason Isaiah 6 stands in the middle. It is the vision of God’s glory that stands at the center of Isaiah’s whole ministry. Indeed, few places in the Bible are more famous for the glory of God than Isaiah encounter with the Lord. Accordingly, we should stress the glory of God in our reading of this section, and God’s purposes for bringing his glory from heaven to earth.

It is true that such a stress can be found without recognizing the literary structure, but the literary structure requires us to recognize where the stress is truly put. Did you see what I did there? By doubling literary structure in the middle of that sentence I not only made the case, but I checked it twice. You can decide if this is naughty or nice, but clearly it adds something to the text when we see the content and its container. This is what Isaiah is doing too, and by paying attention to the structure we see how his vision of God’s glory  is meant to inform everything else that he writes.

Second, the drama of Isaiah 1–12 moves from judgment to salvation.

As the outline above indicates, this drama is not simplistic, nor are the prophecies of Isaiah merely judgment than salvation. Nevertheless, there is in these twelve chapters an observable movement from darkness to light, death to life, and sin to righteousness. In Isaiah 1, God’s holy city is unrighteousness and ready for destruction. Yet, by Isaiah 12, the same city has been purified such the people are rejoicing in the Lord’s salvation. In between, the judgments of God have come with the promise of a seed (Isa. 6:13), a son (Isa. 7:14), a savior (Isa. 9:6–7), and a Spirit-anointed king (Isa. 11:1–5).

In short, by means of God sending forth his Son, he will bring judgment to completion, such that salvation results. Add in the historical referents to Assyria, Samaria, Israel, and Judah, and you have a prophesy grounded in time that will lead us to Christ and the eternal kingdom he will bring. Put differently, if the center of Isaiah 1–12 is the vision of God’s glory in heaven, the story of these same chapters is the way in which the Pre-Incarnate Christ takes on flesh to save his people and judge his enemies. That’s the drama at work in these chapters, and paying careful attention to the literary structure helps us see it.

Third, the book of Isaiah will follow the outline of Isaiah 1–12.

This means that the same seven-fold structure of Isaiah 1–12 is writ large in the whole book. Or maybe it is the reverse—the first twelve chapters reflect the message of the whole book. Either way, and surely it is both, reading Isaiah as a whole with Isaiah 1–12 as the first part is the key to understanding Isaiah’s message.

Look at how this works. When we compare the contents of Isaiah 1–12 with Isaiah 1–66, we begin to see the message unfold. (Another day we will consider the chiastic structure of the whole book—another point that Dorsey and others make).

Isaiah 1–12 Isaiah 1–66
Judgment on Zion’s Seed with a Promise of Hope

Isaiah 1

Judgment on Judah with a Seed of Hope

Isaiah 1–12

Judgment on Zion with a Future Salvation

Isaiah 2–4

Judgment on Zion with a Future Salvation

Isaiah 13–27

Judgment on the Vineyard of God

Isaiah 5

Judgment is Followed by a New Vineyard

Isaiah 28–35

The Call of Isaiah (Narrative)

Isaiah 6

The Prayer of Hezekiah (Narrative)

Isaiah 36–39

The Seed of the Lord

Isaiah 7–8:18

The Servant of the Lord

Isaiah 40–48

Prince of Peace Announced

Isaiah 8:19–11:9

Prince of Peace Sacrificed and Raised

Isaiah 49–55

Salvation for Zion

Isaiah 11:10–12:6

Salvation from Zion to the World

Isaiah 56–66

Just as a model airplane helps us understand the contours of its real life counterpart, so Isaiah 1–12 is model for the whole book. While getting our hands around Isaiah 1–66 is no easy thing, it becomes possible when we see how the Isaiah 1–12 anticipates the rest of Isaiah. And then in reverse, the rest of Isaiah helps us keep our bearings in the specific details of Isaiah 1–12. But this depends on seeing the structure of the text and the ways that different sizes of the text inform and reinforce one another.

Reading Isaiah Together

This is how Scripture works and how we should read Scripture. The parts inform the whole and the whole proves the parts. Today, and in the weeks ahead, I will keep dipping into The Literary Structure of the Old Testament to consider various ways to see the structure of Isaiah. And more, I would invite you to read along.

If you are interested in an Advent Reading Plan that takes you through Isaiah in 6 weeks, you can read about it here. And if you are interested receiving help in that reading, keep checking in here to see other reflections on how Isaiah unfolds. In all, we see that Isaiah’s prophesy is filled with Lord’s glory as the God of heaven brings judgment and salvation to the earth. Ultimately, that is what we need and what we want. And the more we can see the grain of Scripture in Isaiah, the more clearly God’s glory becomes.

To that end, let us pick up Isaiah and read along.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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2 thoughts on “The Dramatic Arc of Isaiah 1–12: How Seeing Literary Structure Unveils the Glory of God

  1. Pingback:  Pressing Deeper into Isaiah 1–12: Seven Chiasms in Seven Sections | Via Emmaus

  2. Pingback: Preaching Post Roundup (November 17, 2022) | From Text to Sermon

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