Several weeks ago I mentioned that my wife and I had the opportunity to hear Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I really tried to pay attention to the music and take advantage of the opportunity. As I listened I noticed something, that I later learned is typical of symphonic or big orchestral pieces. That is, the development and allusion to continuing themes. For example, the theme notes that open the first movement and form the backbone of that part of the symphony also begin the second movement but then disappear. Another example is the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme, that is so recognizable to all of us, which is hinted at early in the fourth movement but doesn’t really fully flower until the choir kicks in later in that movement.

As I thought about this technique, it occurred to me that perhaps this is a good way to view the book of Isaiah, which is a research are of mine at the moment. I’m less interested in theories of authorship or redactorship than I am about understanding how the book works as a whole. I think the paradigm of a symphony with separate movements and recurring themes is a good way to talk about Isaiah.

Whether you hold to one author of Isaiah or many, it is clear that there are at least three major movements in the book (1-39, 40-55, 56-60). But within these movements are recurring themes that tie the piece together. So, for example, in Isa. 5:1-7 we have the Song of the Vineyard, which uses a story about an unproductive vineyard to talk about Israel’s relationship with God.

Is. 5:1  Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 

Is. 5:2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

Is. 5:3  ¶ And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 

Is. 5:4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

Is. 5:5  ¶ And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 

Is. 5:6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

Is. 5:7  ¶ For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice,but saw bloodshed; righteousness,but heard a cry! 

This same imagery is picked up again in ch. 27 where God declares his love for the vineyard (rather than the judgment of ch. 5). 

Is. 27:2  ¶ On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it! 

Is. 27:3 I, the LORD, am its keeper; every moment I water it. I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it; 

Is. 27:4 I have no wrath. If it gives me thorns and briers, I will march to battle against it. I will burn it up. 

Is. 27:5 Or else let it cling to me for protection, let it make peace with me, let it make peace with me.

Then, again at the end of the book, the theme of the judged vineyard is sounded again to speak of the Lord’s wrath, but this time it is the enemies of Israel who are trampled:

Is. 63:1  ¶ “Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bozrah in garments stained crimson? Who is this so splendidly robed, marching in his great might?”¶ “It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save.”

Is. 63:2  ¶ “Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?”

Is. 63:3  ¶ “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes. 

Is. 63:4 For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come. 

Is. 63:5 I looked, but there was no helper; I stared, but there was no one to sustain me; so my own arm brought me victory, and my wrath sustained me. 

Is. 63:6 I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”

  This vineyard language runs throughout the book of Isaiah (though it is mostly absent from the Second Movement) and is clearly a theme that the author uses. The point is that it is a common theme that is found throughout the book. It is used differently at different times of the book but the common theme is clearly heard each time like a thread winding its way throughout the whole composition (to mix a metaphor).

My reason for pointing out this theme is the comparison to a symphony. Like a symphony repeats and reuses a thematic melody throughout the different movements, so Isaiah uses the Vineyard theme throughout its varying movements. I find this to be a helpful way to talk about the Book of Isaiah.

If we use this analogy to speak of Isaiah we can have a meaningful discussion about the varying movements (1-39, 40-55, 56-66) and about different and recurring themes. We can avoid the quagmire of discussions of authorship and historical setting. Not that those discussions are bad, but the symphonic analogy allows you to discuss the textual features that are evident because of potentially differing authors and historical settings without getting bogged down in, what are in my opinion, unanswerable questions. Essentially, what I have called the Symphonic analogy is a certain spin on a canonical exegesis of Isaiah. 

 It is not really categorically different than a canonical analysis but the example was a helpful way for me to think about the book of Isaiah. Thus, I find the category of orchestrated symphony as a helpful way to read the Book of Isaiah.