The book of Isaiah is a collection of the prophetic sayings and oracles of the prophet Isaiah, who was the dominant prophetic voice in the tumultuous latter half of the eight century BC (ca. 740-700). Some of the richest Hebrew literature known is found here as well as a bold and forthright presentation of the trustworthiness and sovereign power of the God of Israel.
Key Ideas: (1) The trustworthiness of the Lord; (2) The incomparability of Israel's God; and (3) Divine sovereignty in judgement and deliverance.
The purpose of the book of Isaiah is to demonstrate the trustworthiness of the Lord with regard to two kings that Isaiah advised. Ahaz did not trust the Lord. He ignored Isaiah's advice and followed his own schemes, and suffered the consequences. Hezekiah, in contrast, trusted the Lord and Jerusalem was delivered from the Assyrians. In the second half of the book, the exiles are also encouraged to trust the Lord to bring deliverance.
The book of Isaiah is set against the background of the second half of the eighth century BC. It will be remembered that this is when the Neo-Assyrian Empire was taking its place as a greater world power than any previously konwn in history.
Two major events serve as the focus of chapters 1-39:
- The invasion of Israel by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III serves as the backdrop to chapters 7-12.
- This came in response to the military action of Damascus (the capital of Aram) and the northern kingdom, Israel, against the southern kingdom, Judah.
- The reason for the aggression of Damascus and Israel against Judah (the Syro-Ephraimite War, 735-732 BC) is not given in the text. It is clear, however, that their action was considered a real threat against the survival of the Davidic monarchy.
- The response of Ahaz, king of Judah, was to summon Assyria to police the region, an invitation that Tiglath-Pileser gladly accepted. The result was that Damascus was conquered, its people were deported, and all of Aram was incorporated into the Assyrian Empire (732 BC).
- Selections of the northern kingdom were annexed and a new king was put on the throne. Several years later, Israel rebelled again and was totally assimiliated into the Assyrian Empire, with the capital city of Samaria destroyed in 721 BC; but this event is given very little coverage in the book of Isaiah.
- The invasion of Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherbi in 701 BC resulted from Hezekiah's involvement in an anti-Assyrian coalition.
- It brought the destruction of many of the fortified cities of Judah, leading finally to the siege of Jerusalem. In contrast to his father, Ahaz, Hezekiah trusted the Lord for deliverance and the Assyrian army was destroyed.
- This was a time of fear and political uncertainty. The Assyrians terrorized the populace of the ancient Near East with an aggressive program of subjugation. A country could choose to be a submissive vassal paying annual tribute and supplying auxiliary troops to the Assyrians.
- Any sign of disloyalty, however, would bring territorial reductions and increased tribute demands. Behind all this lay the threat of ultimate deportation, with all political independence revoked.
- The deportation program was designed to destroy any sense of nationalism or political identity. The goal was assimilation of foreign peoples into a massive ethnically and politically generic empire.
- For the Israelites this was a theological issue. They were a people chosen and set apart by God and living in a land promised and delivered to them by God. The Assyrian policy was a threat to the covenant distinctiveness of Israel.
Purpose and Message
The book of Isaiah is arranged to highlight the trustworthiness of YHWH, the covenant God. This is clearly seen in the contrast between the actions of the two kings Ahaz and Hezekiah. Ahaz did not trust Yahweh, but sent for the Assyrians to aid him in time of political crisis (against the advice of Isaiah).
This only resulted in replacing one crisis with another. Hezekiah, though he initially counted on Egyptian help, depended on Yahweh and was delivered in a mighty way. Hezekiah thus became a convincing example of how God in his sovereignty can bring deliverance. This was an important lesson for the Israelites in exile, who were thereby encouraged to respond to their crisis with trust.
Although some oracles explicitly give this emphasis (e.g., chaps. 30–31), it is more discernible in the arrangement of the oracles. The purpose of a prophet was to deliver the words that God gave him to say. The oracles of the first part of Isaiah (1–39) are largely oracles of indictment and judgment. Chapters 40–66 are more concerned with God’s forgiveness, deliverance, and restoration of Israel.
- Sons' Names as Signs
- Chapters 7-9 feature four sons whose names were given prophetic significance. Isaiah's own children, Shear-Jashub ("a remnant will return," 7:3) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz ("quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil," 8:1-3), had such names, and so did Immanuel ("God with us," 7:14; 8:8, 10) and the child identified in 9:6.
- These highlighted God's short-term and long-range agendas for Israel.
- The Servant
- Four sections in the book of Isaiah have been designated "Servant Songs," for they speak of a Servant who would be instrumental in fulfilling God's plan for Israel. These passages are 42:1-7; 49:1-9; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12; in addition, 61:1-3 shows some similarity to the Servant Songs, although the designation "servant" is not used.
- Israel is at times referred to as God's servant in the book (e.g., 41:8; 44:1) and Cyrus plays an instrumental role in God's program of deliverance; nevertheless, the description of the Servant in the songs goes far beyond what could be said of either of them. The function described for the Servant is strikingly parallel to the function ascribed to the future, ideal Davidic king elsewhere in the book. (cf. Ch. 11 and 55:3-5).
- The New Testament further confirms this as the preferred and common interpretation of these passages. Though the Servant is not called "Messiah" by Isaiah, the function and accomplishments attached to him lead many to that conclusion.
- The Holy One of Israel
- A title for God used almost exclusively by Isaiah in the Old Testament is "The Holy One of Israel." This title not only shows Isaiah's emphasis on the holiness of God, but also reflects the book's concern over the seriousness of Israel's offenses against that God.
- Reconciliation is God's ultimate goal. Punishment is used to effect reconciliation and the Servant had a primary role in making it accessible to the people. Yet, in the end God brought the people back to himself for His name's sake (43:22-28).
- Another attribute emphasized in Isaiah is that YHWH is the Redeemer of Israel. This title for YHWH is used only four times elsewhere, but more than a dozen times in the book of Isaiah.
- All the references lie within chapters 40-66 (namely, 41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7, 26; 54:5, 8; 59:20; 60:16; 63:16). The verb is used another nine times as an action carried out by YHWH (likewise all in 40:66; 43:1; 44:22-23; 48:20; 51:10; 52:3, 9; 62:12; 63:9). Again the focus is on the sovereign grace of God.
- The eschatology (the study of the conclusion of God's agenda) found in the book of Isaiah is a kingdom eschatology. By that 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 descendant of Jesse will be on the throne, but this aspect of the kingdom is not prominant in Isaiah. The emphasis is on the fact that YHWH will reign (24:23; 33:22; 43:15; 44:6) and will be the pride of the remnant of Judah and the glory of Jerusalem.
- Overture (1-5)
- Commissioning (6)
- Assyrian Context: Scenario One
- Oracles at the Time of Syro-Ephraimite Coalition (7-12)
- Oracles Against Nations (13-23)
- Apocalyptic Conclusion to Oracles Against the Nations (24-27)
- Assyrian Context: Scenario Two
- "Woe" Oracles at the Time of the Siege of Jerusalem (28-33)
- Apocalyptic Conclusion of "Woe" Oracles (34-35)
- Resolution of the Assyrian Crisis (36-37)
- Transition to Babylonian Crisis (38-39)
- Scenario Three: Projected Oracles Addressing Exiles (40-55)
- Scenario Four: Projected Oracles Addressing Postexilic Situation (56-66)