I have begun reading The Theology of the Book of Isaiah by John Goldingay.
One of the problems with reading Isaiah and other books of the prophets is the non-linear placement of the oracles. When you read a narrative there is usually a beginning and an end with points on a time-line in between. Even when you read an epistle or letter, there is a greeting and usually a formal closing, no matter how much rambling there is in the middle. We understand stories and letters as well as compilations of laws, proverbs and psalms. But the way the prophets are put together stumps many readers.
Goldingay says that for Isaiah, it is best to think in terms of collages. A collage is a non-linear form of art where items like photos, newspaper clipping, cartoons, drawings and so forth get stuck on a flat surface in a creative way. It is a kind of mash-up. This fits Isaiah because it was not written as a continuous book, but put together as a collection of originally oral messages now stuck together to make a collection.
It is not like a collection of longer sermons. Goldingay thinks that Isaiah reveals that the typical prophet would deliver a three or four minute long oracle. Many chapters in Isaiah consist of two, three or four such oracles that Isaiah or another prophet delivered on separate occasions.
You could look at the whole book as a collage of collages. Goldingay sees five clear collages in the structure of Isaiah. They are first Isaiah 1-12, which interprets the historical threats to Judah during the time of King Ahaz. Second comes Isaiah 13-27 with messages about the empires and nations around Judah at that time and, in 24-27, more general messages about the whole world. Third, comes Isaiah 28-39, which interprets the historical threats to Judah during the time of King Hezekiah. Fourth comes Isaiah 40-55, which skips forward about two hundred years to address people living in exile in Babylon. Fifthly, Isaiah 56-66 addresses people who have come back to a Jerusalem still in ruins to reestablish the Temple.
These do not appear in a random order but are in a ring structure or chiasm. This is a creative way of ordering material so that certain features recur. For instance, the historical threats of 1-12 recur in 28-39 and again in 56-66. The more universal message of 24-27 recurs in 40-55. And so on. . . .
Goldingay says that there is a theme that holds all these apparently unrelated materials together. That theme is YHWH as the holy one of Israel.
When he begins to talk about the first twelve chapters, he uses another image that I like better that the idea of collages. He talks about how old-time movies usually proceeded in linear fashion. You know how boy meets girl proceeds to boy and girl get together in the end, or bandits threaten the western townspeople proceeds to hero rescues townspeople. Goldingay talks about how contemporary dramas are often structured with flashbacks, teasers or dream sequences that mess with the linear order and make the viewer work harder to keep track of what is going on.
Something like this is going on with Isaiah. Its complicated structure gives us a combination of historical reference and recurring and alternating themes that make us work grasp the overall message.
“On the one hand, the chapters affirm that Yahweh is intent on fulfilling a purpose with Judah and that its story is destined to go somewhere. On the other hand, in practice it is hard to see any progress in the story; what goes around comes around.”
This caused me to recall a conversation I had with a layman who was trying to read the book of Ezekiel. What I recall is just how frustrated and emotionally put out he was that the prophet was so hard to grasp. Perhaps we need to warn people about the weirdness of the structure of the prophetic books.
But I was also made to think about Abraham Lincoln and how he, without anyone telling him about ring structures, apparently got a lot out of the prophets. The above quote from Goldingay captures much of the perspective that the prophets gave Lincoln about the Civil War.