I’m fascinated by the way the book of Isaiah begins.
I was reading the book of Isaiah recently when I was struck by how oddly it begins. The books of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all begin with an account of the prophet’s call to be a prophet. That account may be short, as in the case of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10) or long, as in the case of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1-3:27).
This call establishes the prophet’s credentials in proclaiming a word of God to the people. Only once that authority has been established do we get the content of the messages each prophet is commissioned to deliver.
The call of Isaiah, however, does not come in his book until Chapter 6. What precedes it are five chapters of the actual messages that Isaiah delivers. That’s what I find odd. We don’t learn about Isaiah’s authority to speak for God until we have been exposed to a powerful summary of his prophetic burden.
Lifted High, Dropped Low
That summary is a real emotional roller coaster ride. Chapter 1 begins with a denunciation of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem. The prophet denounces the people’s religious infidelity. This infidelity is shown in the people’s extravagant piety in worship while they accommodate to injustice in the kingdom’s social and economic life.
So fierce is the prophet’s denunciation that he calls Jerusalem Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities are the Old Testament’s great symbols of urban corruption. They suffer a fire and brimstone fate (Genesis 19). One can hardly imagine a greater insult to Judeans, who considered themselves pious, faithful, and respectable.
Chapter 2 opens, however, with a glorious vision of the temple mount in Jerusalem drawing pilgrims from all over the world. People come to the mount because there they expect to receive instruction from God and the word of the Lord. It will be a transforming word, for they shall end up beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Then the prophet returns to his denunciations. The land is filled with riches and the machinery of war, but it will be humbled when the Lord comes in judgment. Chapter 3 continues this recital of destruction, describing a society collapsing in chaos. It contains a particularly vivid description of the elite women strutting around town in their jewelry and finery (Isaiah 3:18-23),* before they will be reduced to baldness and sackcloth.
Then abruptly in chapter 4 the prophet returns to a hopeful vision of the glory that will return to Jerusalem after its spiritual cleansing. The Lord will dwell in the city and protect it as the Lord did the Israelites journeying through the wilderness during the Exodus. Whoever lives in the city will be called holy.
Then as we launch into chapter 5 we plunge again into a fierce denunciation of Judah as a people who were created to be the vineyard of the Lord, but a vineyard that has produced a harvest of sour, wild grapes. As a result, Sheol, the land of the dead, will open its mouth and swallow the people into its land of no return. This chapter ends with a vision of darkness enveloping the land:
They [foreign invaders] will roar over it on that day,
like the roaring of the sea.
And if one look to the land–
only darkness and distress;
and the light grows dark with clouds. (Isaiah 5:30)
Only after this rhetorical cycle of highs and lows do we come to the story of the prophet’s call. When I reach chapter 6, I am crying out for a respite. In a sense that is what chapter 6 provides for at least its first eight verses, before the text launches into another searing description of the judgment to come.
Why This Beginning?
When I read all this, I find myself asking what rhetorical purpose did the editor who compiled the book of Isaiah have in mind when he chose to arrange his material in this way. Was it to grab his audience’s attention immediately, and when they begin to protest to the emotional barrage, to spring the authority behind it with the call of the prophet?
I am not sure I see clearly the rhetorical purpose. But I have learned that the biblical writers and editors are generally very astute communicators. Things in the biblical text are seldom left to chance. The writers and editors bring an acute intelligence to their work.
And so when I come upon things that I don’t understand, I don’t immediately assume that this is a case of sloppy writing and careless editing. There may be a rhetorical subtlety at work that I don’t yet perceive. Is such the case with the opening of Isaiah?
Any thoughts among you, my readers?
* This passage is a particularly detailed description of all the paraphernalia that the women of ancient Jerusalem would have considered high fashion.