Saturday, 25 June 2011

Isaiah makes his main message in the story of Hezekiah

In BSF last week we have been studying the central chapters (36-39) of the Book of Isaiah, which tell the story of Hezekiah, king of Jerusalem. In 36-37, God saves Hezekiah and Jerusalem from the Assyrian king Sennacherib, and his army. In 38, God saves King Hezekiah fro a deadly illness, granting him 15 more years of life. In 39, Babylon sends ambassadors to Hezekiah, and he shows them all his treasures before Isaiah warns him that within a few generations, his own descendants will be taken along with the palace and temple treasures to Babylon as spoils of war.

This week I have also been thinking and reading about the rhetorical technique of chiasmus, which according to Corbett & Connors' Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (p394-5) is the "reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses. ... it does not involve a repetition of words."
In many Biblical and other ancient writings, chiasmus is used in an expanded form called chiastic structure. A chiastic structure was used to draw attention to the main idea of a passage. Idea or Event A is paralleled by Idea/Event A'. Idea/Event B is paralleled by Idea/Event B'. C is the critical event. The ideas/events occur in the passage in a sequence of steps leading up to and down from the main one: A B C B' A'. Or a longer, more detailed chiastic structure might be outlined in this way: A B C D E D' C' B' A' etc. Thus this pattern forms a symmetrical text. A chiastic structure may also be described as a Ring Composition.
In a Ring composition, the chiastic structure is developed in such a way that "it is a construction of parallelisms that must open a theme, develop it, and round it off by bringing it back to the beginning. ... the meaning is located in the middle." (Mary Douglas, 2007, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, x.) Interestingly, John Granger argues in his book Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle that JK Rowling's works follow this ancient practice of organising writing with the main message in the middle.

Over breakfast just now, these two trains of thought came together as I read my BSF notes. If Isaiah is written as a ring composition, with a chiastic structure, then this explains why my BSF notes say, "Chapters 36-39 link chapters 1-35 with 40-66. ... The events of chapters 38-39 seem to precede the events in 36-37. However, the outline of Isaiah's book reflects the decline of Assyria and the rise of Babylon as the new enemy." I haven't looked over all of Isaiah, so I can't say for sure that it is a ring composition. But I can see evidence of chiastic structure in the chapters at the centre of the book, and it has drawn my attention:

A 1-35 Judgement to come; also deliverance
B 36 Envoys from Assyria

C 37 God protects Jerusalem from Assyria
C' 38 God protects Hezekiah from death

B' 39 Envoys from Babylon
A' 40-66 Deliverance to come; also judgement

The main or middle message (C,C') is thus that God will save his people; both corporately and individually.

Considering chapter 37 more closely, I can see that there is a chiastic structure there as well:

A 37:1 Hezekiah mourning in the temple
B 37:2-4 Hezekiah asks Isaiah to intercede with God for deliverance
C 37:5-7 Isaiah tells Hezekiah the commander will leave Jerusalem
D 37:8 The commander withdraws, Jerusalem has relief
E 37:9-13 Sennacherib predicts Jerusalem's fall, pridefully
F 37:14 Hesekiah presents Sennacherib's letter to the LORD
G 37:15-16 Hezekiah prays to the LORD, praising Him
H 37:17 Hezekiah reports Sennacherib's insult to the Living God

I 37:18-19 The other nations fell because their gods were worthless, false gods

H' 37:20a Hezekiah asks the LORD to deliver them from Sennacherib
G' 37:20b Hezekiah prays to the LORD, seeking that He be praised
F' 37:21 Isaiah presents the LORD's response to Hezekiah's prayer
E' 37:22-29 Isaiah prophesies Sennacherib's fall, as punishment for his pride
D' 37:30-32 Isaiah prophesies relief for Jerusalem
C' 37:33-35 Isaiah tells Hezekiah the king will leave Jerusalem
B' 37:36-37 God delivers His people
A' 37:38 Sennacherib killed in his temple

The main/middle message (I) of chapter 37 is that all other gods are all false, they cannot save. Only the One True God deserves praise.

And Chapter 38 breaks down to anther chiastic structure:

A 38:1 Hezekiah becomes ill and (through Isaiah) Hezekiah learns he will die
B 38:2-3 Hezekiah prays to God, praising his own faithfulness
C 38:4-6 God will grant Hezekiah life
D 38:7-8 God promises to give Hezekiah a sign, and He does so
E 38:9-14a Hezekiah describes the anguish of his illness

F 38:14b-15a "O Lord, come to my aid! But what can I say?"
F' 38:15b "He has spoken to me, and he himself has done this."

E' 38:15c-16 Hezekiah describes the blessings of his recovery
D' 38:17 Hezekiah prays to God, praising God's love and salvation from sin
C' 38:18 Hezekiah considers the fate of death
B' 38:19-20 Hezekiah prays to God, praising His salvation
A' 38:21-22 The method of God granting health to Hezekiah (through Isaiah) is described

The main message (F,F') of chapter 38 is thus that When we call out to God for help He Himself will save us.

The point of all this chiastic analysis:

God saves His people corporately (the Church) and God saves His people individually (as Christians).
Are you joined to God's people, the Church, gathering with, growing with and loving His people in a local church?
Are you saved?

No other god can save.
Are you relying on something or someone other than the One True God to save you?

God saves His people when they cry out to Him for help.
Have you cried out to God to save you from your sins?
Have you cried out to God to help you with your current struggle or stress?
How has the LORD answered you and saved you?


Sharon said...

Moving on to read ch 40 I noticed how it echoes chapter 35:

35:8-10 The Way of Holiness is paralleled in 40:3-5 Prepare a way for the LORD.

35:5-7 God brings new life --- 40:6-8 Human life is fragile

35:3-4 Say 'your God will come' --- 40:9-10 Lift up your voice... See, the Sovereign LORD comes.

35:1-2 --- 40:11 Blessings

34:16-17 --- 40:12-13 The LORD is Sovereign

Mrs. Edwards said...

Thanks for teaching me about chiastic structure. I love that sort of thing; it really enriches Scripture to uncover patterns such as this.

I've been memorizing Isaiah 55 and as you know, there is no better way to meditate on text than to memorize it. In verses 6-9 Isaiah contrasts man's ways and thoughts to the Lord's ways and thoughts. The pattern is...


I don't know that it means anything, but it is interesting. :)

Do you remember what the name is for the Hebrew poetic device of restating an idea in a parallel way? It is common in the Psalms, but I also see it in Isaiah.

e.g. Is. 55:10-11
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that comes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Sharon said...

Hi Amy,

The A B B A A B B A ... pattern is another common form of chiastic structure, although it won't form a ring composition. It provides for both contrast and reinforcement of the ideas presented in the A and B sections.

The second rhetorical scheme you mention is actually called "Parallelism", so you almost guessed it. According to Corbett & Connors, parallelism is "similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, or clauses". The Biblical example I had noted was Exodus 20:4:
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything
in heaven above
or on the earth beneath
or in the waters below.

A particular example of parallelism is "Isocolon" "where the elements are similar not only in structure but in length". That is, similar in number of words and even number of syllables.
eg Philippians 4:8, which is also an example of Anaphora, a very common rhetorical device in the NT, the "repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses."

Parallelism and Isocolon are used a lot in Proverbs as well.

I have loved reading through a section of Classical Rhetoric and then opening my Bible to find examples of each of the schemes I have just read about. It has opened my eyes to the beauty of Biblical language.