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The Literary Message of Isaiah



The Book of Isaiah Divides into Two Parallel Halves
Major Discoveries in Isaiah’s Bifid Structure
How to Read this Literary Analysis

PART I: RUIN & REBIRTH (Isaiah 1–5; 34–35)

National and Universal Dimensions of Ruin and Rebirth
Discourse A: Edom as a Type (Synecdoche) of the Nations
Covenant Curses and a Reversal of Covenant Curses
Interpretive Motifs Linking Both Units of Material


Opposite Choices by Ahaz and Hezekiah and Their Peoples
Discourse B: Zion Ideology (1)—The Davidic Covenant
The King as Exemplar of the People
The Prophet as a Paradigm of the People
A Hierarchy of Ascending Levels


Typological Motifs in Common
A Composite Davidic Figure
Discourse C: Chaos and Creation (1)
A Composite Righteous Warrior Figure
A Composite Cyrus Figure
A Composite Servant Figure
Variations of the Ideal
Discourse D: Chaos and Creation (2)


Greater Babylon as a Composite Entity
Discourse E: Zion Ideology (2)—Deliverance and Destruction
A Babylon Ideology
The King of Babylon—A Composite Tyrant Figure
Discourse F: The Servant–Tyrant Parallelism (1)—The Structure

PART V: SUFFERING & SALVATION (Isaiah 24–27; 48–54)

Cumulative Concepts of the Bifid Structure
Discourse G: The Composite City
Universal Suffering and Universal Salvation
Suffering and Redemption
Agents of Redemption
Discourse H: The Servant–Tyrant Parallelism (2)—The Message
Redemptive Suffering

PART VI: DISLOYALTY & LOYALTY (Isaiah 28–31; 55–59)

A Covenant with Death
A Covenant of Life
Discourse I: The New Covenant
A Decisive Covenantal Allegiance


A Contradistinction between the Wicked and the Righteous
A Decisive Covenantal Separation
Discourse J: The Woman Figure
A Glorious Covenantal Heritage




In short, the nature of synchronous structures is to lift entities and events out of the realm of history in which they may originally have appeared. Isaiah’s seven-part Bifid Structure thus creates a new context for what is predicted. Within that context, Israel’s ancient history—as selectively presented by the prophet—forms an allegory of the end of the world. For someone who hasn’t experienced the step-by-step process I did over ten years of post-doctoral research, grasping that idea may require a considerable cognitive leap from what scholarship has taught in the past. In my dealings with Isaiah’s layered literary structures—linear and synchronous—I had to fundamentally adjust my thinking about this text many times. Thereafter, I came to regard it as indeed a “sealed book,” which, like other sealed books, was intended to be unsealed in the “end-time” (Isaiah 30:8). (Introduction, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

The literary message of Part I, therefore, has to do with a single stage of events, not with the separate historical scenarios that appear when these passages are viewed individually. Although Isaiah’s prophecies may have originated in different historical contexts, and may have dealt with the particular circumstances of their times, Part I’s struc­ture—without taking away from the text’s historical relevance—lends it a new dimension. It lifts the prophetic message of this material out of its original timeframe into an eschatological or end-time one. On a purely structural, and thus ahistorical, level, a scenario plays itself out that transcends the literal or historical message of the prophecy. On that ahistorical plane, the prophetic message deals with a reversal of circumstances between Zion and non-Zion and about the nature and timing of that event. Individual prophecies of perhaps diverse historical origins now gain new relevance as an integral part of a much larger scenario, becoming less relevant individually than when subsumed within a futuristic timeframe. (Part I, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

The ruin of Jehovah’s people thus consists of a series of covenant curses that ensue upon a period of covenantal blessedness. However, Jehovah’s people don’t suffer these curses alone. As depicted in the second unit of Part I (Isaiah 34–35), the nations of the world also experience ruin. Ruin, in other words, occurs not just locally but throughout the earth. This suggests that humanity as a whole has degenerated to the point that both Israel and the nations share Jehovah’s common condemnation. Still, it isn’t the nations of the world who precipitate this universal ruin but Jehovah’s alienated people. In a real sense, therefore, Jehovah’s people act as a catalyst for what happens to humanity at large. (Part I, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

Indeed, an entire hierarchy of spiritual categories is on display in this material. The pairs of parallel names Jacob/Israel and Zion/Jerusalem in the Book of Isaiah provide a clue to this differentiation of spiritual levels. Isaiah’s ascent from prophet, in the first unit, to angelic emissary, in the second, supplies another. As a paradigm of spiritual ascent, Isaiah represents a superlative category of Jehovah’s salvation. His celestial accession, which models itself on the seraphs, reflects his attaining an increasingly sanctified state. Such celestial accession, however, is held out as a spiritual goal for all: “Lift your eyes heavenward and see: Who formed these? He who brings forth their hosts by number, calling each one by name” (Isaiah 40:26; cf. Job 38:7). Jehovah’s naming or renaming a person or people occurs whenever they assume, or are urged to assume, a higher spiritual calling (cf. Isaiah 43:1; 45:3–4; 49:1; 56:5; 62:2; 65:15). (Part II, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

As a spiritual category, Jacob/Israel nevertheless goes two ways: those who grow “faint” (‘yp) and “weary” (yg‘) in their allegiance toward Jehovah, who lack understanding (Isaiah 40:21, 27–30; cf. 6:10); and those who “hope in” (qwh) Jehovah and “ascend” (‘lh) (Isaiah 40:31). The first course constitutes spiritual descent, a path leading to the level of idolaters (cf. Isaiah 40:18–20). People in that category perish in Jehovah’s Day of Judgment (Isaiah 37:18–19). The second leads to higher spiritual realms. Beginning with rebirth as Zion/Jerusalem, ascent may proceed all the way to the seraph category, as with Isaiah. In that superlative state, individuals are “renewed in strength,” possessing the ability to “run without wearying and walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). They experience a condition of nonweariness akin to Jehovah’s own—the ability to “ascend as on eagles’ wings” (Isaiah 40:31). (Part II, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

As we have seen, severe tests of loyalty in Part II evoke either rebellion or compliance toward Jehovah by king and people. These attributes surface when Jehovah tries Ahaz and Hezekiah and their respective peoples under the pressure of political expediency. In that regard, the two tests are similar, although one might argue that Hezekiah and his people undergo the greater trial of their faith. A striking feature of Part II is that the king’s covenantal rebellion coincides with his people’s in the first unit (Isaiah 6–8), even as the king’s covenantal com­pliance coincides with his people’s in the second (Isaiah 36–40). Such structuring casts each king in the role of an exemplar of his people: the people’s traits, whether of rebellion or compliance, mirror his own. (Part II, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

While scholars have noted that the terms of agreement of ancient Near Eastern secular covenants match those of the Davidic Covenant, they have none­theless failed to see the full implications of the parallels. These include the significance of the covenant’s protection clause. The key role a vassal king plays in securing his people’s deliverance has a bearing not only on the nature of Zion but also on important concepts the Bifid Structure ultimately develops, such as proxy salvation from sin. A closer look at the king’s role as the protector of his people reveals the essence of these concepts. (Part II, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

So far as Israel’s divine protection is concerned, the Davidic Covenant succeeds the Sinai Covenant but only because Israel has regressed in its loyalty toward Jehovah (cf. 1 Samuel 8:7). The king now stands as an intermediary between Jehovah and his people. For the people, the Davidic Covenant is thus a lesser covenant than the Sinai Covenant. Less is required of them in order to obtain Jehovah’s protection: they must simply remain loyal to their king. For the king, on the other hand, the Davidic Covenant is a greater covenant than the Sinai Covenant. More is required of him in order to obtain Jehovah’s protection: as his people’s proxy representative, he is answerable for their loyalties or disloyalties toward the suzerain. Still, so long as the king proves righteous before Jehovah—by keeping the terms of the covenant—this arrangement possesses many advantages over the Sinai Covenant. (Part II, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

An idea flowing out of the king’s role as guarantor of his people’s protection, for example, is that of Zion/Jerusalem as a safe place (cf. Isaiah 37:33). Divine protection under the terms of the Davidic Covenant is guaranteed for those who are loyal to a righteous king, although such protection is not guaranteed for those who are disloyal to him. The conditional aspects of the Davidic Covenant—the king’s loyalty toward Jehovah and the people’s loyalty toward their king—account for a remnant of Israel surviving a mortal threat such as the one posed by the king of Assyria. The place where a righteous king and his loyal people abide, in other words, constitutes a safe or inviolable place because that is where Jehovah intervenes on their behalf. (Part II, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

Accordingly, Isaiah 10 depicts the king of Assyria as a power of chaos: “I will commission him against the people of my wrath, to pillage for plunder and spoliate for spoil, to tread underfoot like mud in the streets” (Isaiah 10:6). “Mud” (homer), a chaos motif, signifies that the Assyrian king reduces Jehovah’s reprobate people to a powerless and disorganized state. As Jehovah’s instrument of punishment, the king of Assyria smites them and the nations of the world alike. He boasts, “I have done away with the borders of nations . . . I have vastly reduced the inhabitants . . . I have gathered up the whole world” (Isaiah 10:13–14; cf. vv 7–11). But Jehovah responds, “Shall an ax exalt itself above the one who hews with it, or a saw vaunt itself over him who handles it?” (Isaiah 10:15). The terms “axe” (garzen) and “saw” (massôr) thus add to the list of metaphorical pseudonyms that describe the king of Assyria and further identify this Tyrant figure as a power of chaos. (Part III, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

To sum up, Part IV creates the idea of a Greater Babylon or arch Babylon—an entity antithetical to Zion—that builds upon several cumulative concepts of the Bifid Structure. These include a reversal of circumstances between Zion and non-Zion developed in Part I, the coexistence of two peoples with opposite covenantal allegiances established in Part II, and the formation of a single, composite entity consisting of a number of historical types developed in Part III. This Greater Babylon—an ahistorical entity that is the contemporary of Zion—ultimately perishes in the “Day of Jehovah” (cf. Isaiah 13:6, 9; 47:9). Babylon’s humiliation in that day paves the way for Zion’s exaltation. (Part IV, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

Babylon’s king figure in Isaiah 14 epitomizes a Babylon ideology pursued, consummately, to its ignominious end. The archtyrant’s sudden passing from a state of unbridled self-exaltation to one of unmitigated damnation here receives dramatic expression. When the king of Babylon ascends, godlike, in the heavens—to the “utmost heights of Zaphon” (vv 13–14)—Jehovah thrusts him down to Sheol, to the “uttermost depths of the Pit” (v 15). After he rises gloriously as the morning star, he falls, ingloriously, from the heavens (v 12). After he commands the nations, Jehovah hews him down to earth (ibid.), his corpse moldering, unburied, in a bed of maggots (vv 11, 19–20). After he makes the earth shake and kingdoms quake, dead men mock and revile him (vv 10, 16). The king of Babylon, hewer of the cedars of Lebanon, Jehovah lays low (v 8). (Part IV, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

In sum, Zion’s intensified suffering isn’t just infused with hope but portends an imminent reversal of covenant curses leading to Zion’s salva­tion and exaltation. The very context of covenantal malediction upon the wicked, through which Jehovah’s people suffer, turns, for Zion, into covenantal benediction when it endures its trials as a refiner’s fire. Zion’s suffering provides the setting in which Jehovah redeems her, while non-Zion’s suffering proves irrevocable so long as those who comprise non-Zion fail to repent/return. (Part V, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

The homiletic and exhortative content of Part VI (Isaiah 28–31; 55–59) lends itself to the emergence of two juxtaposed ideas—a Covenant of Life and a Covenant with Death. An inherent covenant relationship of people or peoples with Israel’s God thus divides in two: one springs from loyalty, the other comes of disloyalty; one accounts for Jehovah’s redeemed people, the other marks apostates. Because Jehovah’s redemption and retribution occur universally and concurrently, all peoples, Israelite or non-Israelite, fall into one or other covenantal category. In the first unit, Jehovah “cuts off” those who covenant with death, who rely on human counsel, who were his people. Yet he delivers those who receive his living word. In the second unit, Jehovah grants a covenant of life and peace to those from among the nations who heed the ideal vassal’s summons, while those who reject Jehovah’s righteousness incur a state of no peace. (Part VI, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

When Jehovah shuts the eyes of the prophets and seers (Isaiah 29:10), all-encompassing or “apocalyptic vision” (hazut hakkol) becomes a “sealed book” to the learned and unlearned alike (Isaiah 29:11–12). The unsealing of the book, which contains Jehovah’s “constitution” (huqa) for the last day and an everlasting “testimony” (‘ed) (Isaiah 30:8), causes Jehovah’s blind and deaf remnant to “see” and “hear” his words (Isaiah 29:18). Despite that positive result, the lip service and rote commandments Jehovah’s reprobate people offer as homage (Isaiah 29:13) cause Jehovah to overturn their human wisdom and learning (Isaiah 29:14). At such a time of his people’s apostasy—when life and death hang in the balance—Jehovah proceeds wondrously to perform things they did not expect (ibid.). (Part VI, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

The main elements of four biblical covenants in the Book of Isaiah appear in variously linked combinations that make up the new covenant. The first is Jehovah’s promise to Abraham of a numerous posterity and inheritance of land (Isaiah 51:2–3; 61:7–9; cf. Genesis 17:1–8): Jehovah blesses the followers of righteousness (Isaiah 51:1)—Jehovah’s people who repent/return (Isaiah 51:11)—as he blesses Abraham, their progenitor and type (Isaiah 51:2–3; 60:21–22). Second, Jehovah addresses Zion by the covenant formula, “You are my people” (Isaiah 51:16). That collective dimension pertains to the Sinai Covenant, Jehovah’s covenant with Israel as a nation (cf. Leviticus 26:9, 12). Third, as we noted, Jehovah endows the righteous and their offspring with his Spirit (Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; 59:21) and places his words in their mouth (Isaiah 51:16; 59:21). This feature of the Levitical covenant reflects Jehovah’s empowerment of Israel’s priests and Levites to teach his law (cf. Malachi 2:4–7). Fourth, Jehovah protects Zion “in the shadow of my hand” (Isaiah 51:16; emphasis added; cf. 41:10–13), reflective of the Davidic Covenant and its protection clause. (See Discourse B: Zion Ideology [1]—the Davidic Covenant.) (Part VI, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

Lastly, Jehovah’s “creation” or “re-creation” (br’) of the heavens and the earth (Isaiah 65:17), coupled with his “creation” or “re-creation” (br’) of Zion/Jerusalem (Isaiah 65:18), sums up Jehovah’s redemption. The parallelism of these ideas shows that the ultimate pur­pose of Jehovah’s cosmic creation is the creation of a redeemed people of Jehovah. That creation is realized when the present world ends and the new begins: “‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall endure before me,’ says, Jehovah, ‘so shall your offspring and name endure’” (Isaiah 66:22). Jehovah’s re-creation of the righteous, on the other hand, contrasts his de-creation of the wicked—temporally as well as spiritually—when “the corpses of the people who transgressed against me” return to chaos amid unquenchable fire (Isaiah 66:24). (Part VII, The Literary Message of Isaiah.)

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