In so many ways, the book of Isaiah is like a set of Russian Stacking Dolls. You know, the ones pictured above that share the same shape but not the same size. Similarly, the book of Isaiah is composed of countless chiastic structures that fit within one another. Already, we have something of this in the way that the chiastic structure of Isaiah 1–12 anticipates the whole book.
Adding to this first post, I am going to focus in this post on the first twelve chapters themselves. And what we find in each section is a chiastic structure, which reveals the main point of each section. Again, what follows depends heavily on the exegetical work of David Dorsey (The Literary Structure of the Old Testament). In outline form, I will give a summary of each section, combined with a textual outline that is adapted is from Dorsey’s book (pp. 218–19). After putting forward this outline, I will draw our three interpretive conclusions that help us understand Isaiah and marvel at Isaiah’s God.
N.B. The following outlines should be understood as incomplete and written in pencil. In other words, you can find other plausible and helpful outlines from scholars like J. Alec Motyer. Exegetical outlines are always subordinate to the text of Scripture itself. But they are helpful, especially in larger books, because they help provide a grid for reading. To that end, I offer these seven chiastic structures.
Seven Chiasms in Seven Sections
First, after the title sentence to the whole book of Isaiah (1:1), we find Isaiah issuing a strong call to repent (1:2–31).
A Israel’s Rebellion (1:2–4)
B Israel’s Present Devastation (1:5–9)
C Condemnation of Rulers and Murderers (1:10–15)
X Call to Repentance and Promise of Forgiveness (1:16–20)
C’ Condemnation of Rulers and Murderers (1:21–23)
B’ Israel’s Present Devastation Reversed (1:24–27)
A’ Israel’s Guilty Punished (1:28–31)
Second, Isaiah bookends his judgment on Israel with two visions of glory (2:1–4:6). In between, he addresses the specific sins of Israel’s men and women.
A Mt. Zion’s Future Glory (2:1–5)
B The Idolatrous Pride of Israel’s Leading Gentlemen (2:6–9)
C Future Humiliation of Proud Men (2:10–22)
X God’s Judgment on Jerusalem (3:1–15)
C’ Future Humiliation of Haughty Women (3:16–17)
B’ The Ostentatious Pride of Israel’s Women (3:18–4:1)
A’ Mt. Zion’s Future Glory (4:2–6)
Third, using a vivid illustration from God’s bitter and brier-covered vineyard, Isaiah declares the coming humiliation of mankind (5:1–30).
A Parable of the vineyard (5:1–7)
B Woes 1–2 (5:8–12)
C Verdict: Death (5:13–14)
X The Humiliation of Mankind (5:15–17)
B’ Woes 3–6 (5:18–23)
C’ Verdict (5:24–25)
A’ Literal Interpretation (5:26–30)
Fourth, in the central section of Isaiah 1–12, the prophet describes his divine calling which reveals his own need for cleansing, his hard mission, and the way in which God will use Isaiah to bring the glory of heaven to earth (6:1–13)
A Yahweh’s heavenly glory (6:1–4)
B Isaiah’s distressed response (6:5a)
C Isaiah’s lips are purified (6:5b–7)
X Isaiah’s Call (6:8)
C’ Israel’s eyes, hearts, ears are impure (6:9–10)
B’ Isaiah’s distressed reaction (6:11a)
A’ Yahweh’s earthly glory—salvation through judgment (6:11b–13)
Fifth, Isaiah gets specific about God’s judgment, dismissing the Syria-Samaria threaten and turning attention to the coming Assyrians (7:1–8:18)
A Introduction: Syria and Samaria Threaten (7:1–2)
B Prediction of Syria-Samaria’s Failed Invasion (7:3–9)
C The sign of Immanuel—sign of Syria-Samarian failure (7:10–16)
X The greater invasion—Assyria! (7:17–25)
C’ The fulfillment of Immanuel—sign of Syria-Samaria failure (8:1–4)
B’ Prediction of Assyria’s Successful Invastion (8:5–10)
A’ Conclusion: Fear God, not the nations (8:11–18)
Sixth, the immediate judgment on Israel, Samaria, and Assyria will be overcome by a later, greater king. Accordingly, readers should look for his light, it is coming to the whole world (8:19–11:16).
A The darkness of Judah’s present (8:19–22)
B . . . will be replaced by a future light (9:1–7)
C Samaria’s pride will be struck down (9:8–12)
D Judgment on Israel’s leaders (9:13–17)
X Israel is Doomed (9:18–21)
D’ Judgment on Israel’s leaders (10:1–4)
C’ Assyria’s pride will be stuck down (10:5–34)
B’ The light has come in arrival of the Spirit-anointed king (11:1–9)
A’ . . . and the kingdom go from Zion to the nations (11:10–16)
Seventh, Isaiah concludes his seven sections with a short paean of praise for the salvation God has given to the world (12:1–6).
A “In that day” you will give thanks for the Lord’s salvation (12:1–2)
X You will drink waters from wells of salvation (12:3)
A “In that day” you will take the good news of salvation to the nations (12:4–6)
Three Lessons from Isaiah 1–12
When we step back from the bark to look at the trees and the way they have been planted, we can see at least three things.
First, the overwhelming message of Isaiah 1–12 is one of judgment. Notice how four of the seven “centers” stress that point.
- A Call to Repent and a Promise of Forgiveness (1:16–20)
- God’s Judgment on Jerusalem (3:1–15)
- The Humiliation of Mankind (5:15–17)
- Isaiah’s Call (6:8)
- The greater invasion—Assyria! (7:17–25)
- Israel is Doomed (9:18–21)
- You will drink waters from wells of salvation (12:3)
While these four centers (in bold) are surrounded by words of promise, judgment remains prominent. Such severity is not God’s last word, but it is the predominate word in this section. We should read this section accordingly, and not miss the darkness of the section. While Isaiah 12 concludes with the solid hope of salvation, this final word points to Isaiah 56–66, where the light of the glory of God will come to dwell permanently with his people.
Second, salvation is a deliverance from judgment. Indeed, where judgment is pronounced, Isaiah will also speak of salvation. At this point in his prophecy, the means to that salvation (i.e., the substitionary death of the Servant and the outpouring of the Spirit) is not in view, but the seed of the woman (7:14), who is the son of David (9:6–7), who will be clad with the Spirit (11:1–5)—this promised one is in view. And thus, the salvation praised in Isaiah 12:1–6 is an offer that must come through Christ.
Third, and last, these seven chiasms invite us to read each section as a mini-drama. That is to say, instead of simply trying to nail down the history (which we must do) or determine the theological propositions (which we must also do), the structure invites us to see a series of plotlines. Each section is a drama unto itself, and together they tell the story of how God’s glory in heaven (Isaiah 6) will come to earth.
In particular, that glory will judge unrepentant sinners and save those who trust in the Lord. In the order of these seven chapters, we can see a few things about this drama. (1) Salvation will come after judgment. More precisely, (2) God’s judgment on the nation of Israel in Jesus’s day is not the last word, because there is a day coming in the future, when God will send his Son (Immanuel), and he will bring salvation to the world. (3) God’s judgment and salvation are always inseparable and always effective in accomplishing God’s heavenly purposes on the earth.
Gloriously, this is the drama that is introduced in chapters 1–12, and it is a drama that continues throughout Isaiah. In fact, this drama is still ongoing today. And the more we understand the book of Isaiah, the more we will know the God of glory and the drama of his salvation story. To that end, let’s continue to pay careful attention to Isaiah and it’s message of salvation and judgment. Truly, like Russian Stacking Dolls, the more layers we pull back, the more we find.
To that end, let’s read Isaiah with its literary structure in view, so from its inspired shape, we come to see the glory and grace of God.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
Photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash