Chapters 1–39: content and arrangement
The first part of the book of Isaiah can be divided into sections, in part guided by headings that have been inserted in the text and by brief passages (usually prose) that mark their endings. Chapter 1 may stand by itself as a general introduction; chs 2–4 consist of judgment on and promise to Jerusalem; chs 5–12 contain further warnings, including some to the kings of Judah; chs 13–23 consist largely of judgment on Babylon and other foreign peoples; chs 24–27 contrast the two cities, the city under judgment and the future Jerusalem; chs 28–33 once again warn Judah, and especially condemn Hezekiah's reliance on Egypt; chs 34–35 particularly condemn Edom, which took advantage of the Judean troubles to expand its territory; chs 36–39 form an appendix of historical materials (excerpted from the book of Kings) from the time of Hezekiah.
The title ( 1.1 ) describes the book as a vision that came to Isaiah, who was active during the reigns of four Judean kings, thus assigning him a prophetic career of about forty years. A second title ( 2.1 ) suggests that the first chapter was intended as an introduction to the message of judgment which takes up so much of the book. In addition, the last stanza of this first poem ( 1.27–31 ) has linguistic and thematic links with the last chapter of the book. Chapters 2–4 pronounce judgment on Israel and on Jerusalem in ways reminiscent of Amos, but these sayings are bracketed by the prospect of the land and city restored and purified ( 2.2–5; 4.2–6 ). Judgment, therefore, is not the last word.
The vineyard love song ( 5.1–7 ) serves as a transition to the account of Isaiah's involvement in the crisis of the Syro–Ephraimite war (734 BCE). This account begins with a vision narrated in the first person ( 6.1–13 ), continues with a third‐person narrative ( 7.1–25 ), and concludes by returning to first‐person narration ( 8.1–22 ). It is filled out with poems threatening divine judgment ( 5.8–25; 9.8–10.19 ), balanced by two poems about the future kingdom of peace and justice ( 9.1–7; 11.1–9 ), and it concludes with a psalm of thanksgiving which plays on the names of the principal protagonists, Isaiah and the Holy One of Israel ( 12.1–6 ).
Collections of sayings directed against hostile foreign nations form a significant component of several prophetic books. This is a type of saying particularly liable to be “recycled” to fit different historical situations; hence it is not surprising that much of chs 13–23 —the nucleus of which is a series of nine oracles against foreign nations—dates from long after the lifetime of Isaiah. Beginning with 13.1–14.27 , the focus shifts from the Assyrians to the Babylonians as the dominant world power. The prophet's engagement with events at the time of Ahaz and Assyrian ascendancy provides the key for those who came later to the theological understanding of events in the following centuries, when the Babylonians and after them the Persians succeeded the Assyrians as the major international powers.
The next section of the book, chs 24–27 , is often referred to as “the Isaiah apocalypse,” though much of it has little in common with apocalyptic. Of uncertain date, its principal theme is the contrast between an unnamed city, condemned to destruction ( 24.10–13; 25.2; 26.5–6; 27.10–11 ), and Jerusalem, destined for a glorious future ( 26.1–4 ). The connection with the previous section may be that the unnamed city is understood as a symbolic Babylon or a composite image of the cities placed under judgment in chs 13–23 .
Chapters 28–33 , much of which derive from eighth‐century materials, take up once again the theme of judgment on the civil and religious leadership of the two kingdoms, with a special condemnation for Judean overtures to Egypt during the troubled reign of Hezekiah.
With chs 34–35 the focus shifts to the period following the disaster of 586 BCE, with Edom taking the place of Babylon as the enemy. The contrast between the devastated land of Edom and the restored and fertile land of Judah in these chapters is clearly intentional, and it makes a fitting conclusion to the alternation of judgment and salvation throughout the book up to this point. The final paragraph or stanza ( 35.8–10 ), referring to a way through the wilderness, provides a transition to chs 40–48 .
This transition has been interrupted by the historical account of events in Hezekiah's reign in chs 36–39 , drawn from the Deuteronomistic History (2 Kings 18.13,17–20.19 ) and inserted at this point. The insertion does, however, provide the structure of a contrast between Hezekiah's reaction to political crisis (chs 36–39 ) and that of Ahaz a generation earlier (chs 1–12 ).