Isaiah 58 – Part 1

We begin a new series in Isaiah 58-59, with guest writer Rev. Christine Redwood. Christine serves on the pastoral team at Hornsby Baptist Church in Sydney, and has been a student of mine at Morling College.

Imaginative Isaiah

Hello everyone! If you notice a change in style over the next two weeks that is because Tim has kindly offered me the chance to contribute to his blog. One of the things I am passionate about is communicating God’s Word. I believe it is important not just to think about the content of the Bible but the different forms the writers of the Bible use to communicate their message. One of the questions I have spent some time reflecting on is: How might those different forms shape both us and the way we communicate?

The prophetic books are powerful pieces of literature which God used to speak to his people.  They are often noted for their ‘visionary scope, moral insight, and imaginative impact’.[1] The book of Isaiah is a great example of a prophetic text. On a personal note when I was asked to lead a small group for the first time, I chose Isaiah. We spent most of the year working through this amazing book (I encourage you to do this!) so it has special significance for me.  This work ‘fully mined the riches of the Hebrew language’ through clever imagery and poetic devices.[2] We’re going to spend some time slowing down and digging deep into the imaginative language of Isaiah.

There is debate (there is always debate!) about how a prophetic work was produced: did the prophets give their speech first and it was later recorded, or was it written and then delivered. Either way, they still read like they were meant to be read out loud – performed in front of an audience!  [3] The prophets were in the business of reorienting the people of Israel: leading them back to the vision God has for the world, and for them as his people. Isaiah does this in multiple ways.[4] To help us focus we’re going to explore Isaiah 58 and 59.

Poetry: the language of God

Isaiah 58 can be classified as a ‘divine oracle’. One of the clues that can help you work this out is when you spot God addressing his people by using the first person pronoun (‘I’).[5] Then it’s normally called a divine oracle.  Many of the literary genres in the prophetic books are shaped by the conventions of poetry. So when reading through any of the prophets, a basic understanding of Hebrew poetry can deepen our appreciation.[6] You might wonder, why does God seem to like speaking in poetic terms so much? I love Robert Alter’s suggestion that poetry is the best creative form that captures how God might speak. [7] Poetry is a genre of human language that is ‘intricately rich’ making it the perfect choice to represent the voice of God who is also complex and rich.[8] Furthermore poetry can create a vivid picture of who a community is and who God is calling a community to be.[9]

A Divine Judgement

Isaiah 58 is specifically a judgment oracle. A judgment oracle is a particular form of speech that borrows language from the law system. It tends to be a ‘summary of the legal proceeding’.[10]  This judgement oracle addresses the people of Israel: a nation that is called to live righteously and claims it is living this way.[11] Most judgment oracles involve a series of wrongful deeds that have accumulated over some time and which God now comes to address.[12] Read through Isaiah 58 and see how many examples you can count of the wrong things God’s people have done. Once the list has been given, what you would expect next is the verdict of judgement presented in vivid imagery by the prophet.[13]

The striking feature of this judgment oracle is that after the accusation found in Isaiah 58:1-4 there is no pronouncement of judgment.[14] Instead of judgment in verses 8-12 the twist is the possibility of salvation. Words of both judgment and promise go hand in hand whereas conventionally these two normally appear as two distinct genres of speeches.[15]

To think about

Do you normally think of the Bible as an imaginative work?

How might imagination deepen our faith?

How do you imagine God’s voice? 


[1] Reed Lessing, “Preaching Like the Prophets: Using Rhetorical Criticism in the Appropriation of Old Testament Prophetic Literature,” Concordia Journal 28, no. 4 (2002): 391.

[2] Willem A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word (Academie, 1990), 252.

[3] Galen L. Goldsmith, “The Cutting Edge of Prophetic Imagery,” Journal of Biblical & Pneumatological Research 3 (2011): 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] David L. Petersen, The Prophetic Literature : An Introduction, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.

London,: Westminster John Knox ;, 2002), 28.

[6] “Introduction to Prophetic Literature,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol.6 – General Articles and Introduction, Commentary and Reflections for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocryphal- Deuterocanonical Books : Full Texts and Critical Notes of the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible in Parallel Columns. Vol.6, Introduction to Prophetic Literature, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2001), 15.

[7] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 141.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 1st ed., 2 vols., Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 186.

[10] Petersen, The Prophetic Literature : An Introduction, 66.

[11] Isaiah 58:2

[12] Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech (Lutterworth, 1991), 170.

[13] D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Cracking Old Testament Codes : A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 173.

[14] Grace I. Emmerson, Isaiah 56-66 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 25.

[15] Petersen, The Prophetic Literature : An Introduction, 75.

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