Isaiah 59 – Part 1

We continue our series in Isaiah 58-59, with guest writer Rev. Christine Redwood.

Dividing Isaiah (Everyone has an opinion!)

Sometimes we can be unaware of the fierce debates happening in the academic world! This can be a good and a bad thing. I remember how shocking it was to discover that there is no consensus concerning who wrote Isaiah or how to divide it. So let me introduce you to some of these arguments so you’re prepared. Many commentaries will refer to chapters 56-66 as Trito-Isaiah.[1] Interestingly, the third part of Isaiah has not received the same scholarly attention as chapters 40-55, which have been perceived to be the ‘pinnacle’ of Isaiah’s theology (Christians also love the middle of Isaiah which contains those beautiful servant songs which Jesus fulfills). [2]  It is easy to ignore the difficult and obscure parts of the Bible! Yet in recent years as scholars have studied the whole of Isaiah they have rediscovered the unity between the three sections and now appreciate how the final section brings the previous two sections together.[3]  Goldingay creatively calls the voice in Isaiah 56-66 the ‘preacher, a bringer of good news’.[4]

There is also disagreement concerning the historical context. Many scholars believe the last part of Isaiah was written in the post-exilic period (c.538-332BC) by a scribe or prophet shaped by the earlier ‘Isaiah’ prophet, while others argue the whole book of Isaiah was produced by a single prophet.[5]  Seitz concludes that there is not enough historical information given to make an informed decision and instead of speculating it would be more helpful to focus on the theological message flowing throughout the whole of Isaiah.[6]

Perhaps not surprisingly there is also not a complete consensus about the structure of Isaiah 56-66! Though commonly it too is broken into three sections. The ‘centrepiece’ of this final unit is generally agreed to be chapters 60-62 thereby making the other two sections 56-59 and 63-66.[7] Since there is so much disagreement you might be wondering what the value is in dividing up a text. While none of these divisions are absolute it is helpful to consider them for it makes a rather large text more manageable when we run bible studies or preach from it!

Isaiah 58-59 is best taken as one literary unit. In other words these chapters work closely together. It has been described as a conversation between God and his people on the subject of sin which is preventing the community from experiencing the blessings of being in a relationship with God.[8] Isaiah 59 builds on Isaiah 58 containing further accusations against the people.[10] A clue which links these two chapters together is the name of Jacob. It is mentioned in 58:1 and again at the end in 59:20 adding weight to the argument that this is a discrete unit.[11]  There is also common vocabulary which appears in both chapters.[12] In the previous section, 56:9-57:21, the leaders are addressed while in this section it is the people who are addressed.[13]

Isaiah 59: A New Genre

A new literary genre marks the beginning of Isaiah 59. It is often called a ‘prophetic speech’.[17] Try reading  Isaiah 59 out loud. The overall tone is that of a sermon or an outline for a speech.[18] However it has also been classified as a ‘prophetic liturgy’ (words that might be used during a worship service).[19] Two genres seem to be woven together; a communal lament and the prophetic response.[20] Isaiah 59:1 sets the tone for the rest of the speech as the prophet seeks to answer the community’s lament concerning God’s absence. Verses 1-8 have elements of a judgement oracle continuing on from Isaiah 58 but then verses 9-15a are the community responding to the judgement oracle. They grieve the postponement of salvation due to their sins.[21] Verses 15b-20 return back to the theme of God’s judgment but this time through the genre of ‘a Divine Warrior Hymn’.[22] This hymn’s form is developed from older hymns found in Exodus 15 and royal hymns in the Psalter. These hymns typically picture a conflict with God coming against his enemies and establishing his victory.[23] Hanson argues that Isaiah 59 is an early form of what would become known as the apocalyptic genre.[24] The new elements in this genre are that now some in Israel are perceived as the enemies, and that this is not a celebration of victory based on a past event but a future event when God will destroy all the forces of evil.[25] So three genres seem to be loosely at work in Isaiah 59!

There is value in considering genres, both noticing the similarity to other texts and how they function and also the differences. However, if you’re feeling overwhelmed at this point it’s worth remembering that these genres are not strict identifications but they do offer some insight.

Questions to Ponder

Do you find it helpful to think about genres?

How do you wrap your head around such a large book as Isaiah?

Does it bother you that there are some many disagreements among scholars?

[1] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66, The New American Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2009), 516.

[2] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998), 10-11.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Goldingay, Isaiah, New International Biblical Commentary Old Testament Series 13 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 4.

[5] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66, 443.

[6]Christopher R. Seitz, “Isaiah 1-66: Making Sense of the Whole,” in Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah, ed. Christopher R. Seitz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 109-23.

[7] Smith, Isaiah 40-66, 521.

[8] James Muilenberg, “Chapters 40-66,” in The Interpreter’s Bible (Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah), ed. George Arthur Butrrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 686.

[9] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 : A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York, N.Y. ; London: Doubleday, 2003), 176.

[10] J. A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1993), 484.

[11] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 : A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 176.

[12] Paul Allan Smith, Rhetoric and Redaction in Trito-Isaiah : The Structure, Growth and Authorship of Isaiah 56-66 (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 100.

[13] Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” 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), 498.

[14] Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 463.

[15] Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” 498.

[16] R. N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66 (London: Oliphants, 1975), 211.

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

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

[18] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 : A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 186.

[19] Muilenberg, “Chapters 40-66,” 686.

[20] Grace I. Emmerson, Isaiah 56-66 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 38.

[21] Paul D. Hanson, Dawn of the Apocalyptic ([S.l.]: Fortress Press, 1975), 120.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 124.

[24] Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 213.

[25] Dawn of the Apocalyptic, 125.

[26] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66, 494.

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