Structure of Isaiah

Over the last two weeks, I taught an undergraduate elective course on the book of Isaiah at Philadelphia Biblical University.

One of the most encouraging aspects of contemporary Isaiah studies is that the focus has generally moved away from the source-critical debates of a previous era, and moved toward approaches that treat Isaiah as a unity. There has been no consensus, however, about the structure of Isaiah 28-39 (if there is one) and the place(s) at which to divide the book.

Last weekend I discovered what I believe to be a pattern in Isaiah 28-39 that relates it to Isaiah 1-12 and 13-27. I’d be interested in your thoughts and questions.

The Structure of Proto-Isaiah

Benjamin D. Giffone

Epiphany, MMXI


Berlin observes that biblical poetry is paratactic, in that the syntactic connection between two or more poetic lines is often unclear: “The lines, by virtue of their contiguity, are perceived as connected, while the exact relationship between them is left unspecified.”[1] This is also frequently true of sections within books, particularly those composed primarily of poetry.

There is much debate regarding the relationship of certain chapters and units within the book of Isaiah.  Seitz observes that while it is generally acknowledged that Isa 1-12 and Isa 13-27 form distinct sections within Proto-Isaiah, there is no consensus on the unity of Isa 28-39.[2] The narratives of Isa 36-37, 38 and 39 are variously associated with the poetic sections of 28-33, 34-35, or even Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah.  These various emphases and associations permit scholars to divide the book between 33 and 34,[3] 35 and 36, 38 and 39, or 39 and 40.

Seitz points out that both 1-12 and 13-27 conclude with hymns in praise of YHWH’s salvation (Isa 12; 26:1-6; 27:1-5).[4] There are several other structural and theological similarities between 1-12 and 13-27.  This caused me to wonder whether Isa 28-39 has a similar structure in its final form (setting aside redaction-critical theories).

My general thesis is that Isa 28-38 is patterned in certain ways after 1-12 and 13-27, with 39 as the “spoiler” that defeats the argument of the previous section.  The narratives of 36-38 offer Hezekiah to the reader as a fulfillment of the messianic vision of 1 Isaiah—in contrast with his father, Ahaz—but ultimately Hezekiah is withdrawn as a messianic candidate in Isa 39.

Overview of Isaiah 1-35

Isaiah 1-12

This section is nearly universally acknowledged to be a unit.[5] Isa 6 fits neatly with 1-5, in that the change in the purpose of prophetic preaching found in 6:9-10 (hardening rather than repentance) is more rhetorically effective when following an extended hortatory section (1-5).  The narratives of Isa 7-8 are associated with the oracles of 9-12; both address the Syro-Ephraimite crisis faced by Ahaz and the imminent threat posed by Asshur.

Isaiah 13-27

Isa 13-23 is usually titled, “The Oracles Against the Nations,” and 24-27, “The Isaiah Apocalypse.”  Attempts to discern a structure within this section based on geography or chronology have failed.  There seems to be a focus on Babel as the first (13:1-14:23) and final (21-22, 24) objects of judgment.

Isaiah 28-33

This section returns the focus to an eighth-century historical situation in which the Syro-Ephraimite coalition and the Asshur Empire are Judah’s primary threats.  Judah is tempted to appeal to Egypt for aid (30-31).  The section is characterized by six “woes” (28:1, 29:1, 15, 30:1, 31:1, 33:1).

Isaiah 34-35

The so-called “Isaiah Mini-Apocalypse” deals with the judgment upon the nations (34) and the return from exile.  There are numerous connections between Isa 35 and 40-41: “a way in the wilderness” (35:1-2, 8-10; 40:3); new plants springing up in the desert (35:2, 6-7; 41:17-20); the return of YHWH with his people (35:2, 4, 10; 40:3-5, 10-11); etc.

The Hezekiah Narratives: Isaiah 36-37, 38 and 39

This historical appendix[6] to 1 Isa performs several functions in the book of Isaiah.  First, it provides an historical link between the eighth-century prophecies and the exilic and post-exilic prophecies of 2 and 3 Isaiah.

Second, it invites a comparison between Ahaz and his son, Hezekiah.  Is Hezekiah the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies of Isa 9 and 11?  We might think so, based on his reliance on YHWH in 36-38.  But Isa 39 gives us the answer and explains the exile.

Third, Isa 36-39 provides a narrative complement to Isa 28-35.  Imagine if 36-39 had not been taken from 2 Kings and placed between Isa 35 and 40 (leaving aside the question of whether 2 Isa was added before or after 36-39 had been joined to the book).  Isa 35 and 40-41 have a lot in common (see above).  The insertion of Isa 36-39 (taken from 2 Kgs 18:17-20:19) not only divides the restoration sections into preexilic (35) and exilic (40-55),[7] but provides 36-38 as an historical outworking of the exhortations of 28-33.  We get to see Hezekiah rely not on Egypt or military might (31) but on the Lord (36-37).  We also get to see the healing promised in 35:3-6 (Isa 38).  Finally, we see the reason that Hezekiah is not the messiah, and why the exile happens (Isa 34) despite his apparently wholehearted faith in YHWH (Isa 39).

Chronologically, Isa 38-39 precedes 36-37.  We know this because the salvation from Assyrian siege is predicted in 38:6.[8] The exclusion of the story of Hezekiah’s tribute to Sennacherib (2 Kgs 18:14-16)[9] encourages the reader to hold out hope for Hezekiah from the beginning of the narratives.  His failure in Isa 39 then comes as more of a shock, since there was apparently no precedent.

Structure of Proto-Isaiah Table


This approach to Isaiah 28-38(39) is undergirded by several structural similarities.  The most clearly visible are the “Songs of Praise,” the “Six Woes,” and the two “Isaiah Apocalypses.”

The parallels between the two Asshur sections and the Babel section support one of the arguments of Isaiah: YHWH is sovereign over the boastful empires (10:13-15; 14:12-21; 36:18-20; 37:10-13), which are tools in his hand.

This structure invites comparison between Ahaz and Hezekiah:

  • Each was faced with a siege (and was found examining the water supply in the same location: 7:3, 36:2).
  • Each was tempted to rely on foreign powers for help rather than trusting YHWH.
  • Unlike Ahaz, Hezekiah shows himself to be a man of prayer, both during the siege and in his illness (38), proving that he is the true spiritual heir of David.
  • Both kings are offered signs that YHWH will fulfill his word.
    • Ahaz rejects the sign (7:10-17) because he wants public support for an appeal to Asshur (cf 8:12).
    • Hezekiah trusts even before the signs are given (37:30-35; 38:7-8) and then praises YHWH in the day of salvation.

The exclusion of the story of Hezekiah’s tribute to Sennacherib (2 Kgs 18:14-16) supports my thesis.  In comparing the Judahite kings of these sections, it is important for the storymaker to portray Hezekiah in as positive a light as possible.  This makes Isa 39 (2 Kgs 20:12-19) all the more shocking, since the reader is led to hope that Hezekiah would be “the one who would redeem Israel.”

Provisional Conclusion

The observation of parallels between Isa 28-38(39) and Isa 1-12 and 13-27 is not terribly profound, in that much prophetic material follows the same general pattern: prediction of judgment, judgment, promise of a remnant and messiah, restoration.  However, the specific parallels do draw the attention even more closely to comparisons between the sections.  In any case, I would contend based on this pattern that Isaiah 28-39 (and therefore Isaiah 1-39) has more cohesion than is commonly attributed.

Questions For Further Study

  • Are there more specific structural parallels between these three sections?
  • Is this structure found in 2 and 3 Isaiah?  See perhaps Goldingay’s chiastic structure of 3 Isa.
  • Should this have a bearing on redaction-critical debates?  (Perhaps this could push the authorship of 28-38 earlier, perhaps during the lifetime of Isaiah ben-Amoz, and then 39 as an addition along with 40-55.)

[1] Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 6.

[2] Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1-39 (Interpretation Commentary Series; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 9.

[3] Marvin A. Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005).

[4] Seitz 119

[5] Some view Isa 1 as a preface to the entire book and 2-12 as a unit; this distinction does not significantly support or undermine my argument.

[6] I am not completely comfortable with the use of the term “appendix,” since it implies vestigiality.  I mean only to say that the material from the book of Kings seems to have been placed at the end of (appended to) the Isaianic material.

[7] By this I mean that Isa 35 is preexilic in origin (Isaiah ben-Amoz) and Isa 40 is the work of an exilic prophet from the Isaiah school (Deutero-Isaiah) c. 540 BCE.

[8] According to Assyrian annals, Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem occurred in 701 BCE.   Marduk-apal-iddina (Merodach-baladan), who tries to make an anti-Assyrian alliance with Hezekiah (39:1-2), ruled the upstart Babylon from 721-710 BCE, and again in 703 when his revolt, supported by Judah and passively by Egypt, was crushed by Asshur (NOAB 1030).

[9] The fact that the 2 Kgs account of Hezekiah’s life (18-20) is arranged out of chronological order so as to conclude with Hezekiah’s failure is intriguing in its own right.  The failure seems to provide an ominous foreshadowing of Manasseh’s disastrous reign (2 Kgs 21).

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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