When you read this title you may be thinking, there’s no First Isaiah! And you are correct. Because we are reading the prophets in (roughly) chronological order, it makes sense to divide Isaiah into two sections.
Since middle ages, biblical scholars have recognized that the first part of Isaiah is different enough from the second part of Isaiah to warrant consideration of different authors from different periods of history. At the same time there is continuity of ideas between the two “parts” of the book of Isaiah. We have followed the traditional division of Isaiah, 1-40 as first Isaiah and 41-66 as second Isaiah. Some scholars would consider chapters 1-33 to be first Isaiah and 34-66 second Isaiah. Some scholars divide Isaiah into three parts, 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66.
Scholars believe that First Isaiah contains the work and words of the prophet Isaiah who lived in the eighth century BCE. Second Isaiah appears to be the work of several anonymous prophets, who are working in the tradition of Isaiah. There probably have been at least four stages of composition of Isaiah. The first occurs during Isaiah’s life. Isaiah lived during the time of the Assyrian invasions of Israel and Juda in 742-701 BCE. The second occurs during the restoration of King Josiah of Judah when the book of Isaiah was edited in support of the king’s reforms (640-609 BCE). The third stage was during the fall of Babylon and the rise of Persia and King Cyrus (559-530 BCE) when the exiles returned to Jerusalem. And the last stage occurred during the time of Nehemiah and Ezra in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE.
Marvin Sweeney gives a brief review of the history of the eighth century BCE:
The Syro-Ephraimite war and its aftermath. After a period of relative peace between Israel (the Northern Kingdom, often called “Ephraim” in Isaiah after its most important tribe) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom), international tensions rose when Tiglath-pileser III became king of the Assyrian empire in 745 bce and began an effort to conquer the lands to the west of Assyria, including Syria, Israel, and Judah. Uzziah, the king of Judah whose reign began during the peaceful era, died in 733 (6.1), but because he was quarantined due to an illness, his son Jotham became king in 759, followed by Jotham’s son Ahaz in 743 or 735 (the chronology is disputed). Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria (Damascus or Aram) tried, beginning in 735, to enlist Ahaz in an alliance against Assyria, and when that effort failed, they attacked Judah to replace Ahaz with a king more amenable to their policies (ch 7). This conflict is known as the Syro-Ephraimite war, since it was a war of Syria and Ephraim against Judah. Ahaz successfully turned to Assyria for help in fending off Israel and Syria. The price he paid was steep: Judah became a vassal of Assyria.
The Assyrian invasion. During the decades following the Syro-Ephraimite war, the Assyrians expanded their influence in the area, taking over Syria and then attacking the Northern Kingdom, which fell in 722. When the Assyrian ruler at the time, Sargon II, died in 705, Hezekiah, the king of Judah and son of Ahaz, rebelled against Assyria. Hezekiah had thought to take advantage of the confusion at the change of rulers, and in addition sought support from Egypt that was not forthcoming (36.6). The new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, retaliated and conquered the cities surrounding Jerusalem in 701. Hezekiah was able to avert the conquest of Jerusalem itself only by paying tribute. ( Sweeney, 965-967, Kindle edition)
Isaiah is an important book for both Jews and Christians. Consider, as we read, what this text meant to Jews if Isaiah’s time and latter. Also consider what what early (and modern) Christians found revealed as they read Isaiah. As we read, look for themes of judgment, restoration,and sovereignty. Think about the relationship of God to Israel and to all of creation.
General Outline of Isaiah (based on Sheppard)
I. 1:1- 31 Title and prologue
II. 2:1-39:8 Part I The testimony of Isaiah addressed to the people from the death of King Uzziah of Judah to the end of time.
III. 40:1-66:24 Part II The testimony of Isaiah addressed to people from the end of the Exile to the end of time
A. 40:1-31 A transitional introduction
B. 41:1-48:22 “Listen to me in silence, O coastlands!”
C. 49:1-57:21 The word to the coastlands
D. 58:66:24 The Lord’s way with this diverse people.
Outline of Isaiah 1-39
I. 1:1-31 Title and Prologue
II. 2:1-39:8 The Testimony of Isaiah from the Death of King Uzziah to the End of Time
A.2:1-4:6 Promises of Judgments of Zion
B. 5:1-7 The Song of the Vineyard
C. 5:8-30 One Side of a Framework of Judgment Against Ephraim and Judah
D. 6:1-9:7 The Testimony of Isaiah
E. 9:8-10:4 The Other Side of a Framework of Judgment Against Judah and Ephraim.
F.10:5-11:16 Woe to Assyria and Promise to Judah
G.12:1-6 Anticipatory Praise
H.13:1-23:18 Oracles against the Nations
I.24:1-27:13 Promises and Visions of the Future
J.28:1-33:24 Judgments and Promises to Judah
K.34:1-35:10 The Future of Zion
L.36:1-39:8 Jerusalem and Further Intrigue with the Assyrians and the Babylonians
Read More About It:
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of Isaiah.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 6, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2001.
Sheppard, Gerald T. “Isaiah” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Sweeney, Marvin A. “Isaiah” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version.Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.