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Preaching on Isaiah

An overview of the historical background and theology of Isaiah to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on Isaiah
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Historical Background

Christians in the twenty-first century face challenges both like and unlike those faced by God’s people in Isaiah’s day. Our challenges are not so obviously political and military in nature, but the spiritual issues and temptations are much the same: How big is our God? How do we stand in relation to him? Who or what will we trust to bail us out of trouble?

Judah in the late-eighth century BC was a sad shadow of her glory days under David or even the relatively strong Uzziah, whose death marked the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry. Economically precarious, bullied by geopolitical powers, weakened by syncretism and injustice and formalistic religion, Judah after Uzziah was never again (except for a couple brief respites) an independent state. Her kings were vassals serving at the pleasure of Assyrian overlords until a century after Isaiah, when Babylon put an end to the line of David altogether. Well, an apparent end! Isaiah’s most hopeful oracles foretell a Davidic Branch, the virgin’s Son, the suffering Servant, and ideal King, we now know because he came and will come again, “God with us.”

The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah, in which the Assyrian threat dominates, recount two main crises faced by Judah’s leaders. God’s prophet spoke the divine King’s word into these situations with mixed results. Ahaz failed the test, trusting human schemes and ill-advised military alliances instead of trusting Yahweh. Years later, his son Hezekiah did somewhat better: he almost yielded to the counsel of his cabinet, but in the end heeded Isaiah and relied on the Lord Almighty for the help only he can give. Their stories, chapters 7-12 and 36-39, bracket a series of oracles where this issue is raised again and again—whom or what will you trust? Egypt? You’ve got to be kidding! Shrewd political maneuvering? Give me a break! God’s covenant with your fathers? But you’ve forsaken that covenant, even if God hasn’t. He can’t stand your hypocritical adherence to the outward show of piety and worship while you live as you please and scorn his moral standards.

Chapters 40 and following envision a new situation, in which God’s people are no longer challenged to trust him for deliverance from a brutal war machine. It’s too late for that. God has followed through on his oft-repeated warnings through the prophets and sent his people into exile. But trust is still an issue! Can they trust God to fulfill his promises when there’s no Davidic king? Will he ever bring them back to their land? Will he forgive them and strengthen them to fulfill their calling as his “servant”?

Many scholars believe the second half of the book can be further divided, with chapters 40-55 envisioning the Babylonian captivity and chapters 56-66 the post-exilic period. For applying the theology and ethical demands of Isaiah, it does not matter greatly which outline you use.

Sermon Series

Few pastors will want to cover every paragraph of this long book and fewer congregations could endure such a series. Here are two alternative approaches: the first is from David Jackman (Teaching Isaiah), the second is my own.

Jackman suggests preaching the book sequentially, though not expounding on every line. You might, for example, choose two or three representative judgment oracles when you get to chapters 13-34 to demonstrate what God means by his “strange work” (28:21), then move on. You might interrupt your exposition of Isaiah with a couple of brief topical or seasonal series to give listeners a break. Jackman proposes five series of five or six sermons each with breaks from Isaiah in between:

Isaiah 1-12 Promise and Threat – the early years

Isaiah 13-28 King of the Nations – Yahweh’s universal sovereignty

Isaiah 29-39 Trust and Obedience in Hezekiah’s reign

Isaiah 40-55 The Servant King – a new exodus and the restoration of Zion

Isaiah 56-66 The Sovereign Conqueror – waiting for the fulfilment of God’s purposes

Or you might consider three series with three different emphases on the book’s Messianic figure (again, with breaks in between):

Isaiah 1-39 The Davidic King

Isaiah 40-55 The Suffering Servant

Isaiah 56-66 The Anointed Warrior

Preach the “Great Texts in Isaiah,” but not necessarily sequentially. In a recent sermon series, I started with chapter 40 and its stirring invitation, “Behold your God,” which became the title and theme for the whole series. Then, our fall missions conference featured Isaiah’s great missionary texts. In Advent we looked at chapters 7, 9, and 11; on communion Sundays the “Servant songs” and chapter 53. We finished on Easter with chapter 25 (“The Feast of Life”). To give listeners a coherent sequential overview of the book, I relied on printed handouts in our worship bulletins and a few Sunday evening “digging deeper” sessions. In these sessions we covered “The Life and Times of Isaiah,” “The Poetry of Isaiah,” “Messiah in Isaiah,” “Great Themes in Isaiah.” Eight months on Isaiah may be a bit much for some congregations; mine is used to longish series.

Isaiah shifts repeatedly and abruptly back and forth between threat and promise, warning and hope. Whatever approach you take to an Isaiah series, these two moods must both be respected. There’s no need to balance the two the same way in every sermon, but the series as a whole must include both or you won’t be true to the prophet’s message. God’s gracious unilateral salvation and his expectation that we be holy are intertwined in Isaiah and should be in our preaching of Isaiah.

The outline below proposes, for the most part, expositions of complete pericopes; this should be the meat and potatoes of pulpit ministry. But Isaiah includes some single sentences that merit full sermons and some worthy topical studies, so I include a few of each as possibilities.

Text: Isaiah 40
  • Title: Behold Your God
  • Main Idea: May the omnipotence of God be the measure of our expectation.
  • Tips for Application: Awe of God is a more important response to this text than any specific “to do” you might think of. I memorized this chapter and delivered it with some blocking and drama.
Text: Isaiah 1
  • Title: A Visit from Isaiah
  • Main Idea: The holy God condescends to reason with and forgive sinners.
  • Tips for Application: I did this as a first-person narrative (hence the title); it could be preached more straightforwardly. God’s holiness and concern for holy living is introduced here at the beginning of the series, but so is his grace. Note: “Isaiah” means “God saves.”
Text: Isaiah 2:1-5
  • Title: (I don’t always give my sermons titles.)
  • Main Idea: A day of worldwide peace is coming; let’s live in light of that vision now.
  • Tips for Application: Be specific: What would it look like for Christians, and the church as a whole, to “walk in the light” (v. 5) of this vision?
Text: Isaiah 5:20
  • Title: Woe to Those who Call Evil Good and Good Evil
  • Main Idea: Woe to those who call evil good and good evil. (A rare instance of title and main idea being identical, and taken verbatim from the text.)
  • Tips for Application: I preached this on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, with application to the increasing willingness of some to view abortion not as a tragic evil but an actual good.
Text: Isaiah 6
  • Title: Close Encounters with a Holy God
  • Main Idea: Encountering a holy God, Isaiah is contrite, cleansed, and commissioned.
  • Tips for Application: The exegetical idea provides the sermon’s outline.
Text: Isaiah 7
  • Title: Is There Anyone Else Up There?
  • Main Idea: If you don’t stand firm in your faith you won’t stand at all.
  • Tips for Application: The sermon title comes from an old story about a guy hanging off a cliff edge who spurns the voice of a rescuer from above—like Ahaz, who balked at trusting God in his crisis.
Text: Isaiah 9:1-7
  • Title: What’s in a Name?
  • Main Idea: Messiah’s titles reveal his majesty. (A lame-sounding summary of this marvelous Christmas text; I did not use this prosaic sentence in the sermon itself.)
  • Tips for Application: The four titles of verse six are a ready-made outline for a Christmas Sunday sermon. Their cumulative effect conveys majesty worthy of worship.
Text: Isaiah 11
  • Title: The Peaceable Kingdom
  • Main Idea: The Spirit-filled Root of Jesse will rule a perfected creation.
  • Tips for Application: You might include something about the artwork and literature inspired by this vision of “the peaceable kingdom.” Application is not so much giving listeners something to do but giving them hope.
Text: Isaiah 28:21
  • Title: God’s Strange Work
  • Main Idea: Judgment is not God’s preferred mode but his “strange work.”
  • Tips for Application: This long section of doom oracles is a challenge. I read some excerpts before focusing on this grace-filled line. God, in Isaiah and the rest of the Bible, is ready and eager to forgive if we give him any pretext for doing so.
Text: Isaiah 36-37
  • Title: God Rescues Jerusalem
  • Main Idea: On whom are you depending? (I do not share the view that the sermon’s thrust has to be an indicative sentence. Repeating this question several times in the sermon ties it all together and makes the point.)
  • Tips for Application: The question posed—ironically, by the pagan field commander—is the most important line in the narrative, and a question Isaiah presses upon us again and again. Six readers performed this long text as reader’s theater, before I preached.
Text: Isaiah 38-39
  • Main Idea: God might use your personal crisis to prepare you for bigger crises to come.
  • Tips for Application: Hezekiah, like other biblical figures (and like us!), is hardly a pristine hero. But his response of faith in his personal health crisis did strengthen him for the national crisis of chapters 36-37, which are chronologically subsequent to these two chapters.
Text: Isaiah 44:6-20
  • Main Idea: Why do we still make idols? It’s so stupid!
  • Tips for Application: Isaiah scorns idolatry, exposing its foolishness. In your sermon, don’t merely treat idolatry as wrong; show its folly.
Text: Isaiah 53
  • Title: Human Sheep, Divine Lamb
  • Main Idea: Like sheep we’ve gone astray; like a sacrificial lamb, the Servant suffered in our place.
  • Tips for Application: For some, conversion; for others, gratitude! This sermon leads straight to the Lord’s Table.
Text: Isaiah 55
  • Title: The Great Invitation
  • Main Idea: Come to the One who alone can satisfy.
  • Tips for Application: Illustrate “what is not bread” and “what does not satisfy” and offer the One who is and does.
Text: Isaiah 57:15
  • Title: Where Does God Live?
  • Main Idea: God lives in a high place and a low place.
  • Tips for Application: This text sums up a tension in Isaiah (and much of Scripture) between the transcendent holiness of God and his closeness to the contrite and broken. Applications: revere God, trust and turn to him in your need.
Text: Isaiah 58
  • Main Idea: The way God treats us depends in part on how we treat the poor.
  • Tips for Application: In the Scripture reading for the day, if not the sermon itself, include other Isaiah texts where God insists on justice as more important than ritual.
Text: Isaiah 60
  • Title: ‘When the Kings Come Marching In’ (title of a book by Richard Mouw)
  • Main Idea: A day comes when all that’s worthy in fallen human culture will be redeemed and brought into the city of God.
  • Tips for Application: Common grace implies that not everything in this world is irredeemably twisted and doomed to destruction. All that’s worthy will find its place in the world to come. Tease out implications for every believer’s “calling” to worthy work.
Text: Isaiah 65:17-25
  • Main Idea: Rejoice in the coming new heavens and earth.
  • Tips for Application: The phrase “sermon application” might imply that a sermon must generate action items. Not always! Here, the passage itself tells us how to respond: be glad and rejoice (v.18). Consider preaching this early in the worship service, then let everyone be glad and rejoice.
Textual Preaching

Consider preaching some of the great individual verses in Isaiah: 8:12 (“Do not fear what they fear);” 29:13 (“These people honor me with their lips);” 45:15 (“You are a God who hides himself);” 52:7 (“Beautiful feet);” 64:1 (“Rend the heavens and come down”).

Topical Preaching

Consider preaching some thematic sermons from Isaiah: the Suffering Servant, waiting on God, justice and injustice, the remnant theme, the city of God—unfaithful but one day redeemed. You might do more with the idolatry theme. And missions: in a number of eminently preachable texts, Isaiah proclaims the world-embracing purposes of God and the role of his Servant/servants in that purpose.

Theological Themes

No book of the Old Testament is more theologically profound than Isaiah. Its vision of God as Creator (40:26), Redeemer (41:14), and Lord of history (14:24-27) is unsurpassed. He is unique, exalted, and infinitely superior to idols (40:18-20). “Behold your God!” Look reverently, obediently, longingly at him and to him, and let that vision shape everything you think and say and do. “You” in the preceding sentence should be construed as both singular and plural: when preaching this book, don’t make individual applications only; display its relevance for the people of God in community. And watch for these recurring themes.

The City of God

Jerusalem has become a harlot (1:21-26), but God still intends to redeem her and make her the center of a new heaven and earth (65:17-25). Watch for this pattern repeated in Isaiah: the unfaithful city, refined by purifying fire of judgment, becoming the new city to which all nations will come (ch.11; 29:1-8; 35:10; 62:1-7,12). God’s people in every age fall short of this high calling, but God will not give up on us!


How foolish then and how foolish now to create our own “gods.” Note: when preaching this theme in Isaiah, it’s not enough to say that idolatry is wrong; show how stupid it is (41:21-24; 44:6-20). Subject it to the scorn Isaiah models so effectively. And don’t limit your scorn to the idols your people might encounter only in National Geographic; include the close-to-home idols of money, sex, and power.


Judah might not know it, but everything she’s experiencing is by God’s appointment. Arrogant superpowers may not know it, but they are his tools (10:5,15; 22:11; 37:26; 40:10; 42:24; 45:1-6; 46:10).


Isaiah’s characteristic title for God is “The Holy One of Israel” (1:4). He is so utterly holy the angels shield their eyes in his presence (6:1-7). And he calls his people to be holy, a light to the nations (49:6). Mere adherence to ceremonial religious rites without transformed lives and public justice is not only inadequate; God despises it (1:10-20; ch.10).


Isaiah’s vision encompasses all the nations streaming to the worship of God and the entire earth made new in the “peaceable kingdom” (2:1-5; 19:23-25; 55:5; 66:19-21). What a stirring vision for our congregants!

Judgment and Hope

God takes his people to task for injustice and covenant infidelity (43:22-28; ch.58), but also assures them that he will not finally abandon them (44:22-28). In love and mercy he will rescue them from the enemies they encounter in this book: Assyria, Babylon, and their own sin (43:14-19; 49:8-26).

As noted above, judgment and hope alternate in Isaiah: in the first half, there’s more judgment, in the second half, more hope, but both recur throughout the book. Some critics think the frequent shifts from one to the other and back again are due to clumsy editing by Isaiah’s disciples. A better explanation is that God wants his people to hold onto both, always, and in tension. When tempted to despair over the state of the church and the world, we can recall God’s salvation promises. When tempted to presume on his grace, we’re reminded that even for his elect, sin has consequences.


Isaiah has been called the Romans of the Old Testament, emphasizing faith in God’s promises; the Hebrews of the Old Testament, emphasizing faith for dark days; and the James of the Old Testament emphasizing that faith works (7:9; 12:2; 26:3, 4). When you study everything Isaiah says about trust, be sure to include the many “do not fear” passages (41:10; 43:1, 5).


The Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah is sometimes the nation, sometimes a remnant within the nation, and sometimes an individual—the prophet or The Prophet, the One who embodied what Israel was supposed to be and accomplished what God intended. One implication of this fluid usage is that we who trust and obey the Servant are also servants under him, empowered by him, for the world he came to serve and save (42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). The prophet’s call to ministry in chapter six forewarns us that our servanthood may be no more appreciated than was Isaiah’s or the Messiah’s!

My Encounter with Isaiah

This is one of my favorite books of the Bible. Its soaring poetry surpasses even that of the Psalms, stirring not only my intellect but my imagination, emotion, and sense of beauty. I’ve benefitted from memorizing whole chapters (and delivering some of them from memory in the pulpit). I’m not surprised that the early church called Isaiah “the fifth gospel.” I urge you to not be intimidated by its length and complexity; preach Isaiah!


J. AlecMotyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993).

John N. Oswalt, Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).

Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996).

Ken Langley is pastor of Christ Community Church in Zion, Illinois.

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