Overview: The Book of Isaiah

The First Major Prophet

If the Book of Ezekiel was fairly straightforward, and Jeremiah was a tangled web, then Isaiah is the most confusing of the three to work through.

Where the Book of Jeremiah had a handful of later additions, the Book of Isaiah is a composite text coming from at least four different authors, across a span of about three or four centuries. We call the three main contributors to the book Proto-Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah. Somewhat similar to the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah is the result of a core collection of prophecies, with later prophecies added on in stages with careful intent.

Proto-Isaiah

What we might call the 'original' Book of Isaiah is attributed to the actual, historical prophet of that name. This section consists of chapters 1-35, though there may be later prophecies inserted into this original.

Proto-Isaiah follows the same rough format as the Book of Ezekiel and the Septuagint version of the Book of Jeremiah.

The first section is largely concerned with judgment for Israel. However, we need to be careful with our definitions: here, 'Israel' refers to the Northern Kingdom, as distinct from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. By the time of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, the Northern Kingdom had long since fallen, so the judgment they proclaimed was for Judah. Isaiah dates about a century and a half earlier than those two prophets. In this earlier time, Judah is under threat from Israel, and Isaiah prophesies that disaster will fall on Israel for pursuing this destructive course of action. The second section contains a series of prophecies against Judah's neighbors: Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and so on. Two prophecies about Israel's restoration are interspersed. The third and final section, chapter 35, concludes the book with a prophecy about Israel's restoration.

As mentioned above, three passages in Proto-Isaiah may be later additions, though the evidence is far from conclusive in requiring them to be so.

First, the initial prophecy against Babylon in Isaiah 13.1-14.23 is sometimes thought to come from a period shortly before or during the Babylonian exile. If this is the case, this prophecy was preserved simply by adding it to an existing prophetic text; namely, Isaiah's. Some have pushed back, noting that the literary style fits with Proto-Isaiah quite well, and it could simply be that the prophecy was about a major kingdom from Isaiah's time, but the text was edited to be about Babylon in order to make it more relevant to the Judean exiles in their later time. (Acts 7.42-43 does exactly that with Amos 5.25-27, changing 'Damascus' into 'Babylon'.) This seems to be the majority position.

Second, Isaiah 24-27, what is sometimes called the 'Isaiah Apocalypse', appears to take on a much larger scope and climactic tone than the rest of Proto-Isaiah, especially with the imagery of God raising the dead. The apocalyptic genre is generally thought to have developed a ways into the Second Temple period after the Babylonian exile, and Isaiah 24-27 has commonly been placed in the first couple centuries of that period. It may have been inserted where it is in Proto-Isaiah to universalize the preceding oracles against various nations, before concluding with the message about Israel's restoration. But again, there has been criticism in placing these chapters so late. Of all Israel's enemies, only Assyria, Egypt, and Moab are mentioned. No Persian or Greek loanwords are present. These facts are consistent with Isaiah's time period, and the few decades that followed him. If this section is indeed a later insertion, it may have only been written a short time after the fall of Israel to Assyria in 722 BC, rather than all the way after the return of Judah from Babylon in 538 BC.1

Third, Isaiah 34-35 is sometimes thought to be an addition. It is commonly noted that language and themes in these two chapters are similar to Deutero-Isaiah, and possibly also Trito-Isaiah. The two chapters were probably written by someone with knowledge of Deutero-Isaiah, but they were inserted at the end of Proto-Isaiah.

Hezekiah's Reign

A few chapters concerning the rule of the Judean king Hezekiah, taken from the Book of Kingdoms, were added by a later editor to Proto-Isaiah. I've written another article discussing this section.

This narrative section, probably borrowed from a version of the Book of Kingdoms, shows the fulfillment of some of Proto-Isaiah's prophecies concerning Assyria in his early chapters. However, it concludes with Isaiah warning about the coming Babylonian exile. Evidently, this narration has been placed here to set the stage for Deutero-Isaiah, which was written during that exile.

Deutero-Isaiah

After chapter 39, Isaiah is not mentioned anymore in the book. The next major section of the Book of Isaiah was written within a year or two before the fall of Babylon in 538 BC, nearly two hundred years after the original Isaiah. The author anticipates the Persian king, Cyrus, will conquer Babylon and release the Judeans from their exile.

This is where the famous 'servant songs' come from, in which Israel is personified as God's conflicted servant (e.g. Isa 41.8, 42.19, 44.1). The poetry is long, and thought to draw on traditions regarding the exodus in order to describe Judah's return from exile. (Exodus-like imagery also appears in Isaiah 34-35.)

The early stages of a 'new Jerusalem' tradition can also be seen.

Trito-Isaiah

The internal unity of this section has been debated, with some scholars arguing that it is comprised of multiple sources and layers of redaction. Whatever the case, the overall section comes at least a few decades after the exile has ended, builds on themes present in Proto- and Deutero-Isaiah, and even borrows a bit from Hosea and Jeremiah.

The second temple in Jerusalem appears to be under construction, or even completed. However, there is still division and conflict within the Judean community, and that is the overriding focus of the author rather than much to do with foreign nations: he looks forward to a time when Israel's ideal future is realized, where Jerusalem is exalted as the religious capital of the whole world, and Israel serves God in justice and peace, without corruption.

The author(s) may have been contemporary to Ezra and Nehemiah, but he takes a more inclusive view of non-Judeans and eunuchs than those two.

Proto-Isaiah Content

Focus primarily on Israel

Isaiah 1 Judgment on Israel.
Isaiah 2-5 Judgment on Israel.
Isaiah 6 Judgment on Israel.
Isaiah 7-12 Judgment on Israel, Syria, Assyria.

Focus shifts from Israel to foreign nations

Isaiah 13.1-14.23 Judgment on Babylon.
Isaiah 14.24-27 Judgment on Assyria.
Isaiah 14.28-32 Judgment on Philistia.
Isaiah 15-16 Judgment on Moab.
Isaiah 17 Judgment on Syria.
Isaiah 18 Judgment on Ethiopia.
Isaiah 19.1-17 Judgment on Egypt.
Isaiah 19.18-25 Restoration for Israel, Egypt, Assyria.
Isaiah 20 Judgment on Egypt, Ethiopia.
Isaiah 21 Judgment on Babylon, Edom, Arabia.
Isaiah 22 Judgment on Judah.
Isaiah 23 Judgment on Tyre.
Isaiah 24-27 Judgment on all nations, restoration for Israel.
Isaiah 28.1-30.26 Judgment on Jerusalem.
Isaiah 30.27-31.9 Judgment on Assyria.
Isaiah 32-33 Judgment in general.
Isaiah 34 Judgment on all nations, Edom.

Focus shifts primarily to Israel's restoration

Isaiah 35 Restoration for Israel.

Footnotes

1Christopher B. Hays, 'The Date and Message of Isaiah 24–27 in Light of Hebrew Diachrony', Formation and Intertextuality in Isaiah 24-27 (ed. Hibbard, Kim), 7-24.