Background

The historical background of the book of Isaiah is the second half of the eighth century BC. The ministry of Isaiah was carried out at a critical period of the history of Judah and Jerusalem. During this time frame (in 722 BC) the northern kingdom fell to Assyria. Would Judah learn from Israel’s tragic history? God promised his people that he desired to protect them from anything and anyone.1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

The Assyrian power was rising and the power of Egypt was waning but still formidable – and these realities led to the formation of two political groups within the southern kingdom. One favored a defensive alliance with Assyria against Egypt while the other sought friendship with Egypt to keep Assyria at bay. The Lord’s prophet, Isaiah, stood between these two groups, speaking against all human alliances and urging reliance on the Lord of Hosts. As a sign and assurance of divine deliverance Isaiah proclaimed the birth of the Messiah (Is 7:14) and spoke about the nature of the messianic kingdom (Is 9:6).

Isaiah’s prophetic ministry spanned at least three kings (Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah) and most likely a fourth (Manasseh).  Nothing is said about Isaiah’s relation to Jotham, but, since the king was godly, we have reason to hope that he listened to the prophet’s messages. Ahaz, in unbelief, despised and refused to act on what Isaiah told him. Hezekiah, taking to heart the promises conveyed through Isaiah, was willing to risk his own life and the welfare of Jerusalem on what the prophet told him. To the degree that Isaiah was still active during Manasseh’s time, he would have been out of favor, as he is traditionally believed to have been martyred. Some have suggested that Isaiah wrote chapters 40-66 in his final years during Manasseh’s rule when the exile of Judah was a foregone conclusion (see 2 Kings 21:10-15).

See also the Chronology of the Prophets and the Chronology of Latter Prophets and Intertestamental Period.

Authorship

The book’s title is drawn from that of its writer, Isaiah. His name in Hebrew means “The salvation of the Lord,” “The Lord is salvation,” or “The Lord saves.”

Isaiah is called the son of Amoz (Is 1:1), and he was commissioned as prophet of the Lord in the year that King Uzziah died (approximately 740 BC). The man served during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, and probably into the reign of Manasseh. Hosea and Micah were contemporaries. His message had primarily to do with Jerusalem and Judah. The year and circumstances of his death are not known with certainty, though an ancient Jewish tradition holds that he was sawed in two during persecutions that accompanied Manasseh’s infamous reign. Since he recorded the death of Sennacherib (Is 37:37-38) it is fair to assume Isaiah lived until after that event in 681 BC. If this basic timetable is correct, Isaiah’s ministry spanned about 60 years (approximately 740-680 BC). In 2 Chronicles 26:22 we learn that he wrote a record of Uzziah’s rule, and 2 Chronicles 32:32 informs us that he received and wrote a similar history concerning Hezekiah and that this latter work at least was included in “the book of the kings of Judah and Israel.” That book and the precise form of Isaiah’s “vision” are no longer extant.

Concerning Isaiah’s private life, we know he was married (Is 8:3) and had two sons who bore symbolic names. The first was Shear-Jashub (Is 7:3), “a remnant will return,” while the second was Maher-Shalel-Hash-Baz (Is 8:3), “quick the plunder, swift the spoil.” A case can be made that Isaiah came from a fairly prominent family in Judah. He seems to have been on familiar terms with the royal court, was quite knowledgeable of international events, and enjoyed a high degree of respect despite the unpopularity of his political counsel.

Purpose for Writing

The purpose and general content of the prophecy is the teaching of the truth that is embedded in his very name: that salvation is a gracious gift from God and not something produced by men. The trustworthiness of the faithful covenant Lord is highlighted. The complete unworthiness of the sinful and rebellious people is repeatedly set in sharp contrast with the redeeming love of their gracious Lord God. The actions of the two kings Ahaz and Hezekiah illustrate the situation well. Ahaz did not trust God but, against the counsel of Isaiah, sent for Assyrians to support him in political crisis. He merely traded one crisis with another. Hezekiah, who initially leaned toward Egypt, ultimately trusted the Lord and was delivered. This would be an important lesson for those in exile, who would be asked to respond to their crisis with trust.

Content

A summary of Isaiah’s work and message is stated well by August Pieper:

Isaiah is the prophet who deals with the hardening of the hearts of Israel (Jerusalem-Judah). Hardening of the hearts of Israel is the mission to which God called him (Isaiah 6). The Lord has finally become so wearied with this incurably rebellious people (cf. Isaiah 1, which is an epitome of the whole book) that He has determined its rejection, but at the same time also the preservation of a remnant, out of which he will build the future kingdom of the Messiah…How the persistent preaching of the prophet more and more hardens the hearts of the house of David and of the people and hastens the coming of the judgment, and how the same preaching detaches a remnant from the rejected mass of the people, and how this remnant is to be saved and become the kernel of the kingdom of God of the future – that is the point of view from which the prophet has arranged his prophecies.2Pieper, August. Isaiah II. United States: Northwestern Publishing House, 1979. 24-25.

In carrying out his task as the first of the “classical prophets” Isaiah included indictments of the people, promises of exile as divine punishment, and declarations of the sure hope of the fulfillment of covenant promises. Dominant themes in the book include the following:

The Servant. Four sections of the book have commonly been designated “servant songs” that speak of a Servant who would be instrumental in fulfilling God’s plan for his people (Is 42:1-7, 49:1-9, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12). Isaiah 61:1-3 has similarities with these sections but doesn’t use the word “servant.” This Servant is not called “Messiah” by Isaiah but the language used and the New Testament interpretation confirm that this is so. Additionally, the nation of Israel is at times referred to as the Lord’s servant (see Is 41:8, 44:1) and Cyrus plays a role like that of a servant.

The Holy One of Israel. This title for God is used 29 times by Isaiah (and only seven times elsewhere in the Old Testament). It stresses divine holiness as well as the ugliness of Israel’s sins against God. The Holy One of Israel also acted in holiness to deal with any nation that challenged him and his people (see Is 37:23). More than that, it serves to emphasize that when God reconciled people to himself, he used fitting punishment (inflicted on the Servant) and maintained his justice and love together.

Redeemer. The Lord is explicitly called the Redeemer of Israel more than a dozen times in Isaiah but only four times elsewhere. The verb “to redeem” is also used another nine times, all in chapters 40-66. The focus is unmistakably on the reconciling grace of God who maintains justice and love according to his promises.

The kingdom. The eschatology of Isaiah has been called “kingdom eschatology” by Hill and Walton. They offer this explanation: “We mean that the emphasis is on the future kingdom of Israel. It is depicted as a kingdom centered in Jerusalem. Peace and prosperity will abound, and all the world will come to Jerusalem and marvel and be taught. Proper worship and the centrality of the law are significant characteristics of this kingdom. A descendent of Jesse will be on the throne, but this aspect of the kingdom is not prominent in Isaiah. The emphasis is on the fact that Yahweh will reign (Is 24:23; 33:22; 43:15; 44:6) and will be the pride of the remnant of Judah and the glory of Jerusalem.”3Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 423.

Other themes in the book can be seen, such as the use of Isaiah’s sons’ names as signs, the sovereignty of God over all nations for the good of his people, the importance of heartfelt and sincere worship rather than mere externalism, and the concept of the believing remnant within the unbelieving nation. The detail provided in Isaiah concerning the good news of the Messiah’s redeeming work has rightly resulted in Isaiah being called “the Evangelist of the Old Testament” or “the evangelical prophet.” The book has similarly been called “the Gospel of the Old Testament.”

Christ Connection

Isaiah may have written his prophecies 700 years before Jesus was born, but what he writes about Jesus is very clear. Our Savior was to be born of a virgin (Is 7:14) and be God himself (Is 9:6). He was to bear our sins, carry our sorrows, and pay the price for our sake (Is 52:13-53:12). Isaiah writes more about the Servant of the Lord, Jesus, in chapters 42, 43, 49, 50, 52 and 53.

Notable Passages

  • Isaiah 1:18
  • Isaiah 6:1-10
  • Isaiah 7:14
  • Isaiah 11:1-10
  • Isaiah 12:1-6
  • Isaiah 40:1-11
  • Isaiah 40:30-31
  • Isaiah 42:1-9
  • Isaiah 43:1-3
  • Isaiah 43:8-13
  • Isaiah 44:3-5
  • Isaiah 45:9-10
  • Isaiah 45:15-17,22
  • Isaiah 49:1-7
  • Isaiah 49:8-12
  • Isaiah 49:15-16
  • Isaiah 51:4-6,11
  • Isaiah 52:7-10
  • Isaiah 52:13-53:12
  • Isaiah 55:1-13
  • Isaiah 59:1-2
  • Isaiah 61:1-6,10-11
  • Isaiah 64:6-7
  • Isaiah 64:8-9
  • Isaiah 65:1
  • Isaiah 65:17-25
  • Isaiah 66:22-23

Outline

Chapters 1-6 serve as a good introduction to the entire book, and all the prophecies of chapters 1-39 serve as the immediate background of chapters 40-66. With this in mind, a useful outline would be as follows:

  1. Introduction (Is 1:1-6:13)
    • The shameful condition of the Lord’s chosen people (Is 1)
    • The Day of the Lord, Judgment and Deliverance (Is 2-4)
    • The Lord’s unfruitful vineyard (Is 5:1-7)
    • Six woes and three judgments (Is 5:8-30)
    • The Lord calls the prophet to a hardened people (Is 6)
  2. The Book of Immanuel (Is 7-12)
    • Prophecies and Judgments (Is 7-11)
    • A Responsive Song of Praise (Is 12)
  3. The Lord Deals with the Nations (Is 13-27)
    • Judgments against Ten Specific Nations (Is 13-23)
    • The Lord’s Judgment of the Whole Earth (Is 24)
    • A Responsive Song of Praise (Is 25-27)
  4. The Lord Deals with the Judah and the Nations (Is 28-35)
    • The Lord’s Judgment against Israel & Judah (Is 28-33)
    • The Lord’s Judgments against All Nations (Is 34)
    • A Responsive Song of the Redeemed (Is 35)
  5. Interlude between Part I and Part II (Is 36-39)
    • A look back at deliverance from Assyria (Is 36-37)
    • A look forward to judgment at the hand of Babylon (Is 38-39)
  6. Part II: Three Groups of Prophecies, with Nine Discourses in Each
    • The return of the remnant from the Babylonian exile (Is 40-48)
    • The redemption of the world from the guilt of sin (Is 49-57)
    • The glorification of the church, in the New Testament and in eternity (Is 58-66)

Notes

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.
2. Pieper, August. Isaiah II. United States: Northwestern Publishing House, 1979. 24-25.
3. Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 423.