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I hate being lost. Few things are more frustrating for me than meandering through an unfamiliar city, or hopelessly searching for an elusive item in the supermarket. I confess I’m not pleasant to be around in such moments.
Yet lost is exactly how I feel every time I come to Isaiah. As I begin reading, the same thoughts seize my attention: I will soon be lost; totally disoriented; Isaiah feels too big; there is no immediately discernible structure. Perhaps you share this experience. Somewhere in the middle of Isaiah 24, you begin to reel at the winding path that has brought you there and the unknown path that awaits you.
Perhaps a map would be useful. Let me offer some help by mapping five movements in Isaiah’s prophecy. These movements can aid us in finding our bearings in this mammoth book. As you’ll see, the movements are centered on one of Isaiah’s favorite descriptions of God: “the Holy One of Israel.”
1. The Holy One of Israel and His People (Isa. 1–12)
The opening movement in Isaiah concerns God’s relationship with his people. The reader will quickly note three forces at work.
First, rebellion. The book begins with an exposé of Judah’s sin. On five occasions in chapter one, God’s people are called rebels (Isa. 1:2, 5, 20, 23, 28). This is later reinforced as Isaiah records how God came looking for justice and righteousness, but found only bloodshed and outcry (Isa. 5:7).
Second, judgment. The reality of God’s judgment is virtually scattered throughout each of the opening 12 chapters. This is perhaps most effectively demonstrated throughout chapters 9 and 10 with the fourfold repetition of these chilling words: “For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still” (Isa. 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4).
Third, hope. Rebellion and judgment are not the conclusion. The relationship between God and his people is not defunct. Hope reigns supreme with the promise of a royal Son (Isa. 7:14; 9:1–7; 11:1–16). The opening chapters of this “fifth Gospel” may feel like a splash of cold water to the face. But the note of hope encourages the reader to press on.
2. The Holy One of Israel and the Nations (Isa. 13–27)
The focus moves from God’s relationship with his people to his relationship with the nations. Isaiah’s God is personal, but he’s also global.
This movement begins with an oracle against Babylon. The Babylonians had not yet become a world superpower. The invasion, ruin, and exile of God’s people at their hands was still in the future. Even so, at the height of their power they would be humbled by almighty God (Isa. 13:11). The Babylonians aren’t alone. Throughout chapters 13–27, nation after nation is named and God’s power over them asserted as their defeat is promised.
Reading these chapters consecutively magnifies God’s power over every nation in righteous judgment. Once again, though, judgment isn’t the last word. One day a banquet will be provided for all peoples and nations (Isa. 25:6–8). Both God’s judgment and salvation are global.
Both God’s judgment and salvation are global.
This second movement makes for difficult reading given its repetitive nature. Yet, in partnership with the first movement, it lays the necessary foundations to enrich the reader’s understanding of the third movement.
3. The Holy One of Israel and Sovereign Grace (Isa. 28–39)
This third movement repeats the content of the opening two, but it drenches the themes of judgment and salvation with sovereign grace.
Isaiah uses the image of the potter (Isa. 29:16) in depicting God’s sovereignty. Isaiah’s God doesn’t need to ask for permission. His hands are active in shaping and directing events. The only fitting response is to stand in awe of the God of Israel (Isa. 29:23).
The Holy One of Israel is not capricious with this power. Isaiah wants to ensure Israel knows that God’s power is consistently exerted for their good (Isa. 30:15). Isaiah 30 is replete with this graciousness and tenderness.
The Holy One of Israel is not capricious with this power.
Chapters 36–39 contain something striking compared to the rest of Isaiah: narrative. A careful reading of these chapters demonstrates that this narrative interlude further illustrates God’s sovereign grace.
4. The Holy One of Israel and His Servant (Isa. 40–55)
From here on there’s a discernible shift in emphasis and tone. Hope is tangible from the outset of chapter 40.
Along with this shift in emphasis and tone, a new character is introduced: the servant. These chapters feature four “servant songs” (Isa. 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:1–11; 52:13–53:12). According to these Songs, this servant will be full of the Spirit (Isa. 42:1), speak as a prophet (Isa. 49:1, 5), walk in obedience (Isa. 50:5), and die as a substitute (Isa. 53:4–6).
Much could be said about these servant songs, but suffice to say that the servant brings about a significant change. It is he who acts to bring the salvation promised throughout Isaiah thus far. So it’s not surprising to observe that the atmosphere has changed once more as we move to the fifth movement.
5. The Holy One of Israel and His Kingdom (Isa. 56–66)
The final movement of Isaiah’s sizable prophecy points readers toward the kingdom of God. This Holy One of Israel is king: his kingdom has been secured by the servant and awaits his people.
After the glorious salvation won by the substitutionary servant, it’s somewhat jarring once more to be confronted with the wretchedness of sin (Isa. 57). This is an exercise in contrast: Isaiah’s aim is to show the righteousness of God’s kingdom by detailing the wretchedness of sin (Isa. 65:13–16). The kingdom isn’t only righteous, but also redemptive. Isaiah 59 reminds the reader that the Holy One of Israel will clothe himself with salvation (Isa. 59:17), and that a Redeemer will appear in Zion (Isa. 59:20).
The book then draws to a close with a vista of the flawless kingdom (Isa. 65:17–25). The Holy One of Israel’s flawless kingdom is the ultimate destination for God’s people, who are besieged by the kingdoms of this world.
Holy One of Israel
I hope this map will help the reader in navigating Isaiah. More important than gaining one’s bearings, however, is being introduced to Isaiah’s God, who is the common theme in all five movements.
The Holy One of Israel’s flawless kingdom is the ultimate destination for God’s people, who are besieged by the kingdoms of this world.
Yahweh is called “the Holy One of Israel” on 31 occasions in the Old Testament. Strikingly, 25 of these occur in Isaiah. This title for God is a particular favorite of Isaiah’s. It reminds the reader that this God is utterly unique, distinct from any other. And yet the addition “of Israel” reminds us that a people belong to this holy God. At this vital moment in Israelite history, Isaiah assures the people of God they will be known as “redeemed ones” (Isa. 35:9; 51:10; 62:12; 63:4).
This is Isaiah’s focus: the Holy One of Israel and the redemption of his people. Isaiah’s desire is that his readers, far from being lost, find their place in the Holy One of Israel’s flawless kingdom.