By Christina M Wilson
Cycle 3: Patterns of Repetition
Isaiah 63 begins the third prophetic cycle of repetition in Volume 2 (see prior post for a description of the cycles). What patterns of repetition in the text indicate for readers that a new cycle has begun?
Details that Indicate a New Cycle
I. A Major “Throwback”
Watching Isaiah perform another abrupt turnabout should not surprise readers who follow him closely. What about this turnabout? First, chapters 60-62 speak unremittingly of blessings to Sion/Jerusalem. These names collectively represent the faithful remnant of Israel. God joins believing Gentiles to this remnant. It appears the prophet takes the reader right up near the end of all history. Jerusalem’s blessings will be permanent. But then, without warning, chapter 63 switches back to condemnation.
At first, it appears that the figure dressed in red (verse 1) condemns the nations. But a little further on, the condemnation switches to the Lord’s own people (verses 63:9-10f). How can the Lord be condemning those in chapter 63 whom he just blessed in chapter 62? Once again in the book of Isaiah, the reader must decide, is God unstable? The answer is, of course, no. God is not unstable. Isaiah simply begins a new cycle of repetition.
II. Volume 2 Repeats the Closing of Volume 1
If we consider Isaiah 36-39 about Hezekiah to be an addendum to Volume 1 of Isaiah, then chapters 34 and 35 constitute its conclusion.
- Septuagint Isaiah 34 deals mostly with the final judgment of the world. Verses 1-4 concern the nations. Verses 5-14 specifically describe the judgment upon Idumea (Edom) and Bosor (Bozrah), a city within Edom. These together represent the area where Esau and his progeny settled.
- After chapter 34 concerning judgment, then Septuagint Isaiah 35 describes the eternal joy of those
who participate in God’s blessings. These include the faithful of Israel (“my people” of verse 2) and all the redeemed of the world (Isaiah 35:10). Sion (Zion) will be their eternal home.
Septuagint Isaiah 63-66 concludes both Volume 2 and the book of Isaiah as a whole. Chapters 63-66 repeat the pattern of chapters 34-35.
- The judgment of Septuagint Isaiah 63:1-6 strongly resembles the judgment of Septuagint Isaiah 34. Both judgments specifically mention Edom and Bosra (Isaiah 34:5-6 and Isaiah 63:1). Both chapters use the word recompence (or recompense) (Septuagint Isaiah 34:8 and Septuagint Isaiah 63:4).
- Both passages describe the eternal blessings of the redeemed.
- One difference between the two sets of concluding chapters is detail. Chapters 34 and 35 present an overview of both judgment and redemption. Chapters 63-66, on the other hand, go into great detail concerning God’s protracted dealings with Israel throughout its long history.
- A second difference is that the judgment and redemption sections of chapters 34 and 35 do not mix. First, the judgment is described, then the joyous state of the redeemed. The text does not switch back and forth between the two. In the closing chapters of Volume 2, however, the prophet continually addresses both judgment and salvation in a back and forth manner, alternating the one with the other. In fact, the entire book closes with a single, horrible description of final judgment.
III. Cycles One, Two, and Three of Volume 2
Cycle 3 of Isaiah (Isaiah 63-66) contains each of the four elements of cycle 1 (Isaiah 40:1-56:8) and cycle 2 (Isaiah 56:9-62:12) (see Cycles of Repetition in Isaiah). These elements are 1) Israel’s need (Septuagint Isaiah 63:10-64:12), 2) the Servant’s coming and sacrifice (Septuagint Isaiah 63:8-9), 3) outcome for believing Israel and believing Gentiles (Isaiah 63:9; 65:1, 8-10, 15-25; 66:12-14, 18-23), and 4) judgment upon the rebellious (Isaiah 63:1-6; 65:3-7, 11-15; 66:3-4, 15-18, 24).
Difficulties in Reading Isaiah
Readers encounter many difficulties in the study of Isaiah. The book is a large, somewhat overwhelming book of prophecy. Readers can become lost in its seemingly minute details. The text manifests few time markers. Enormous, abrupt shifts in topic occur, often without any transition words whatsoever. God himself seems to flip-flop between the judgment of condemnation for his people and pronouncements of magnificent blessings.
Two Textual Keys
Two important keys of interpretation exist. The first is to realize from the text itself that “not all Israel is Israel.” God consistently addresses two different groups of people within the body politic. The first group consists of Israelites who are rebellious in heart. The second group consists of those who display a willingness to confess and turn to God. God condemns the rebellious people and blesses the contrite. These groups manifest throughout the entire book.
A second key of interpretation is the realization that Isaiah does not progress in an orderly, chronological fashion. Rather, Isaiah progresses in somewhat disorderly, topical fashion. Isaiah’s message contains relatively few major topics. These include 1) judgment upon the nations, 2) judgment upon unfaithful Israel, 3) salvation of repentant and obedient Israel, 4) the Servant, who bears the totality of deliverance, and 5) inclusion of believing Gentiles within the Servant’s kingdom.
As these topics continually repeat, especially in Volume 2 (chapters 40-66), a reader begins to perceive discrete packets. I have called these packets “cycles of repetition”. These cycles of repetition form the structure of the book. By allowing Isaiah to interpret Isaiah, that is, by not importing theological constructs from elsewhere, a reader will begin to perceive Isaiah’s strongly gospel-centered, New Testament message of judgment and salvation through God’s Servant, who is God himself.
Isaiah’s Final Chapters
Chapters 63-66 conclude both Volume 2 and the entire book. Within this cycle of repetition, God in his own words reveals and explains his heart in a directly open and bluntly clear way. His words span the course of Israel’s entire history from its inception to its future, eternal end. Within this overview, God does not neglect to mention his inclusion of Gentiles within the community of Sion and Jerusalem, whom he chooses to bless. The text also gives readers a deep view into the heart of Israel’s redeemed, as well as descriptions of the rebellious ways of the condemned. None of this is new material. Chapters 63-66 repeat what Isaiah has already said elsewhere. This cycle of repetition constitutes a summary of both God’s judgmental anger and merciful salvation. In these chapters, God speaks with a strength and coherency fitting for the conclusion of the book.
… Lord willing, the next post will begin consideration of the details of Isaiah’s final cycle of repetition.