For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer. - Isaiah 54:7–8 (ESV)

Isaiah is what we might call a powerhouse among the prophets. Indeed, we might call his book something like a powerhouse among the books of the entire Bible. Isaiah's content ranges far and wide, not only in terms of literary variety and style, but also in terms of the nations and peoples addressed in his work. Isaiah ranges from the epic to the tragic, from addressing the entire population of the world to comforting individual sufferers, from the poetic to the prophetic to the narrative. It is hard to contain Isaiah to a single Big Idea, but we remember that the function of the Big Idea is not to say everything that could be said about the text but to give a sort of backbone idea to get started and to facilitate connecting ideas and messages in the text.

The Big Idea of Isaiah

I have taught that the big idea of Isaiah is that Holy Yahweh judges and saves His people. Isaiah is a large book (hence its inclusion among the major prophets). However, even a superficial scan of the book reveals a theme centered on salvation and judgment.

The text at the head of this article is a helpful representative text for the whole of Isaiah because it touches on the themes of judgment and salvation. The judgment is in the desertion, which refers to the other prophecies in the context of Isaiah's day regarding the people's sin. But Yahweh also frames it in terms of something that happened before but does not define the relationship. Yahweh is angry at their sin, but he will have compassion on them and eventually save them.

An Outline of Isaiah

Chapters 1-24: Judgments on Nations and the Earth

Chapters 1-24 center on Yahweh's judgment on the nations and the earth. This includes not only the nations surrounding Israel but also Israel itself. Isaiah prophesies in Judah during the days of the final kings of Israel, when Assyria destroys Israel and threatens Judah. Nevertheless, the political is much less the focus than the moral.

The first five chapters are all an invective (highly critical speech) against Israel and Judah, commenting on their sin and what Yahweh will do. This is followed by Isaiah's famous vision of Yahweh in the throne room of his temple in chapter 6, where Isaiah receives his commission. In the following chapters, Isaiah is sent to comfort the king of Judah after he is attacked by Syria with the help of the son of the king of Israel. In the course of prophesying, Isaiah includes various prophecies that also refer to the coming Messiah. Along the way, Isaiah begins to give oracle after oracle regarding the nations of the earth, such as Babylon, Egypt, Moab, etc., all the way through chapter 24.

Chapters 25-35: The People's Sin and Yahweh's Salvation

Chapters 25-35 focus on the people's sin and Yahweh's salvation. These chapters open with praise to Yahweh and move in chapter 26 to a prophetic song of confidence in the future. The trend continues in chapter 27 with a mix of a song of confidence and a stern but hopeful focus on the sin of Israel and her eventual restoration. From Chapters 28 through 35, the condemnation of sin and description of the people's failure to be faithful is continued. However, over and over again, Yahweh's eventual victory and restoration of the people is reiterated. The people are sinful, but Yahweh will save them. The contrast between the people's sin and the resulting judgment and Yahweh's mercy in saving and changing them is remarkable.

Chapters 36-39: Hezekiah

Chapters 36-39 offer a fascinating narrative of key events in Hezekiah's reign over Judah. We read of Assyria's siege of Jerusalem and how Yahweh saved them through the angel of Yahweh singlehandedly slaying 185,000 Assyrians (Isaiah 37:36). Then we read of Hezekiah's mortal sickness, which Yahweh heals in response to prayer, granting Hezekiah fifteen more years. Finally, we read how, in those remaining years, Hezekiah commits the error of showing the wealth of his kingdom to envoys from Babylon, only to hear from Yahweh through Isaiah that they would later carry away all that he showed them.

Chapters 40-66: Yahweh's Holiness and Salvation

Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah are a tour de force of prophecy. They are at once elegant and punchy. In prophetic oracle after prophetic article, Yahweh proclaims his own righteousness and justice, setting himself as supreme over other gods, which are no gods at all, and calling the people time and time again to return to him in sincere worship and humble trust. We also read in these chapters the famous "Servant Songs," which are about the Messiah who will come and accomplish salvation that the people could never achieve for themselves (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). These passages reward contemplation, meditation, and reflection to a particularly rich degree, which is saying something. Isaiah ends with a confident assertion and description of the reign of Yahweh over the whole earth, with the nations hearing Yahweh's glory declared and rebels suffering eternal punishment.

Benefits of Isaiah

Isaiah is well-known for its benefits to believers to develop a worshipful attitude toward God. God's holiness is on display in Isaiah, showing him to be devoted to his own glory and purposes and making clear that all things find their beginning and end in him.

Isaiah also showcases Yahweh's mercy and compassion. We learn of a God who is kind and patient, who punishes sin but also is steadily working for the salvation of his people. If we compare Yahweh's self-disclosure to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7 or Paul's summary of God's eternal purposes in Christ in Ephesians 1, we understand how Isaiah both flows from Exodus 34 and leads to Paul's extended doxological (praise-filled) introduction to his letter.

We read in Isaiah of the ministry of Christ in the Servant Songs, which generate many connections in our understanding of the four Gospels and their complementary accounts of Jesus's life and ministry. Isaiah prepares us well to understand what Jesus came to accomplish. And the better we understand Isaiah, the more we are moved to praise God.

Isaiah teaches us about the danger of hypocrisy and the devastating effects of sin in our lives and the world. Isaiah creates in us a longing for the new heavens and earth, which Yahweh promises to make (Isaiah 65:17).

Isaiah may be intimidating due to its length and the breadth of its subject matter. But it may be read in many ways as a helpful sort of literary hinge-piece to cap off what comes before in biblical history and to prepare the reader for what will come after. In sum, the benefits of Isaiah are manifold for helping Christians today to live for God through Christ.

On Isaiah and Living for God Through Christ