Structure of Isaiah

Structure of Isaiah January 18, 2018

The following summarizes the structural analysis of Isaiah found in David Dorsey’s Literary Structyre of the Old Testament. Like most of the books of the Old Testament, Dorsey finds that Isaiah is organized in a sevenfold pattern:

A.Condemnation, pleading, promise of future restoration, 1:1-12:

B. Oracles to the nations, 13:1-26:21

C. Woes, 27:1-35:10

D. Historical narrative, 36:1-39:8

C’. Yahweh triumphs over idols, 40:1-48:22

B’. Servant Songs, 49:1-54:17

A’. Condemnation, pleading, promise of future restoration, 55:1-66:24

There are close linkages between these various passages.

A/A’: Both condemn empty liturgical practices, liturgical practice without justice (1:12-15; 58:1-14; 66:3). In both, Yahweh threatens to hide away because the hands of the people are full of blood (1:15; 59:1-3). Both sections also speak of briers and thorns. In A, the references to thorns and briars all have to do with the Lord turning the land desolate, with the desertification of the garden land (Isaiah 5:6; 7:23, 24, 25; 9:8), while in the A’ the Lord promises to replace the thorns with cypress and thus to restore the land to its prosperity (55:13).

Both refer to Sabbaths (1:13; 56:2, 3, 6; 58:13; 66:23) – eight references in all, and framing the entire book. Both refer to the reconciliation of wolf and lamb, lion and ox, and the end of harm on Yahweh’s holy mountain (11:6; 65:25).

Both sections speak of gardens (1:29-31; 66:17) and shame (1:29; 66:5), and both use the image of unquenchable fire (1:31; 66:24). In both, righteous/wicked separated, and in A’ the righteous are given new names (65:15; cf 1:26). There is a progression from A to A’: The latter has a cosmic scope that is lacking in the first section of the prophecy.

B/B’: The B section is a series of ten oracles against various Gentile nations, which are divided into two cycles of 5. The sequence begins with two chapters about Babylon, emphasizing the pride of Babylon and its eventual fall; Babylon comes back in the middle of the section (21:1-17), and then again at the end, this time described as the “lofty city” (24:1ff).

Dorsey notes various other connections: B predicts the end of singing and the beginning of mourning (chs. 15-16), while in the B’ section the people are full of rejoicing at the Lord’s restoration of the nations (49:13; 51:3, 11; 52:7-10; 54:1); both include exhortations to those who are dead (26:19; 51:9, 11; 52:1). Both refer to Sheol or the pot (14:15, 19; 51:14); nature rejoices at the end of Babylon (14:7-8; 49:12-13); Babylon’s children are cut off (14:20-22), while Israel’s children are restored (49:19-23); Babylon does not let his prisoner’s go (14:17), while Yahweh calls prisoners out (49:9).

Dorsey also points to a series of contrasts between the King of Babylon in chapter 14 and Yahweh’s servant:


King of Babylon Suffering Servant
Smites (nakah), 14:6 Is smitten (nakah), 53:4-5, 10
Slays and oppresses (nagash), 14:2, 4, 10 Is oppressed (nagash), 53:7-8
Shakes earth and boasts, 14:13-14, 16 Is humble and quiet, 53:7
Wicked, pompous, feared, 14:5, 11, 16 Righteous, despised, 53:2-3
Exalts himself and falls Humbles himself and is exalted
Dies and ends, 14:18-20 Dies, but prolongs days, 53:10-11
Seed cut off, 14:20-22 Cut off, but sees seed, 53:8-10
Buried in tomb, 14:18-20 Given a tomb, 53:9
Kings see and are startled, 14:9-11 Kings see and are startled, 52:14-15
King’s arise to welcome to Sheol, 14:9-20 Kings arise and bow down, 49:6


C/C’: Both of these sections warn against the misplacement of trust. C includes warnings against going to Egypt to find help against the Assyrians or Babylonians (31:1-3)’; in the C’ section, the warming is specifically against trusting idols. The connection indicates that the reliance on Egypt is itself a kind of idolatry.

Several verbal connections link together these sections: Isaiah warns against relying on the “help” (‘zr) of Egypt (30:5, 7; 31:1, 2, 3) and the later section warns against trusting in the help (‘zr) of idols (41:10, 13, 14); Egypt’s help brings no “profit” (30:5-6), and neither does idolatry (44:9-10); trusting Egypt will lead to shame (30:3, 5) and so will trysting idols (42:17); Egypt is merely human and not God (31:3), and the idols are also not-gods (44:6, 8-11); the vanity/vaporousness of Egypt’s help (30:7) is parallel to the emptiness of idols (41:44, 12, 24 29; 44:9).

Both use the image of the potter and clay (29:16; 45:9; cf. 64:8). Chapters 35 and 40 are woven closely together by a series of verbal parallels: wilderness/desert (35:1; 40:3); way through wilderness (35:6-7; 40:3-4); flowers (35:1-2; 40:6-7); Lebanon (35:2; 40:16); “our God” (35:2; 40:3, 8); glory of Yahweh (35:2; 40:5); a highway or road in the desert (35:6-8; 40:3).

D: The central narrative section is embedded between these two passages about trust, about political trust and about liturgical trust. They are linked by the message from the Assyrians, who urged Hezekiah and his people to abandon trust in Yahweh to deliver them from their political threats. Hezekiah trusts Yahweh, and the city is delivered.

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