The setting for the book of Isaiah is the reigns of four kings of Judah, Uzziah, Ahaz, Jotham and Hezekiah. The kingdom of Israel had split into two after Solomon’s death. Israel in the north was the larger, with most of the tribes joining and also the more prosperous due to its situation on the major trade routes of the fertile crescent. Judah, the smaller kingdom was less prosperous but stayed with the descendants of David which gave it greater political stability and was also home to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Uzziah reigned from around about 783-742 BC. It is likely, noting Isaiah 6, that the prophet’s ministry really began to take off in the last days of his reign and under his successors. During that period of time, the northern kingdom came under attack from the Assyrians and would fall in 701BC. The southern kingdom would withstand the Assyrians but at great cost.
The two kings who bookend Isaiah’s ministry, Uzziah and Hezekiah are recognised by Scripture as comparatively godly in relation to the other kings. They seek to follow David’s example and also demonstrate wisdom so that the kingdom prospers. However, both are undone by their own hubris. Uzziah seeks to go into the temple to offer sacrifices, usurping the role of the priests. He ends his life as a leper having been struck down by God. That’s the backdrop to Isaiah’s vision in chapter 6 of the exalted Lord in the Temple. Uzziah had been proven unclean despite his denials whereas, greeted with the Lord’s manifest presence, Isaiah immediately recognises his own uncleanness.
Hezekiah’s undoing is recorded in Isaiah 36-38. He seeks extra time to live. He is given those extra years but at cost. In his pride, he shows off the wealth of Jerusalem to Babylonian visitors so that the city rises up their radar.
Isaiah is a priest who serves in the temple (Isaiah 6:1). Whether or not the full prophecy was written by that same prophet has been questioned by modern scholarship. There are two reasons for the questioning. First, there is the change of focus to a detailed and positive description of life post exile in a restored land which seems to have an immediacy to it. Secondly, Isaiah even goes so far as to name key historical figures who lived long after his lifetime, specifically Cyrus the Great. So, it has been suggested that there were at least two, if not three prophets whose words were brought together in the one book.
I do not think that the detail we find in the book should put us off the assumption that there was a single author. We surely trust in God’s ability to know and reveal the detail of what is to come. Some think that the naming of Cyrus stands out and doesn’t quite fit with the genre and ask why people were not taken up with the name prior to the emperor’s accession to the throne. It is possible that the specific name was edited in later because the prophecy clearly referred to him. However, again I see no reason why a name, potentially common to that part of the world shouldn’t appear and why people might not spot the significance until later.
We do know that the prophets did work with scribes and editors. We know this because of the explicit reference to Baruch in Jeremiah. So it is possible that the bok of Isaiah has undergone some editing, taking individual oral oracles and arranging them intentionally in an order to develop a particular argument
Although over neat divisions are perhaps risky, we can suggest a rough structure of the book as follows
- Introduction to the Prophecy and its main themes (ch 1-6)
- Coming judgement (ch 7-35)
- Historical interlude – is Hezekiah the saviour? (ch 36-39)
- Future hope centred on a suffering servant (ch 40-66).
Much of the book follows Hebrew poetry in style. Indeed, it is likely that the prophets sung their oracles. Ezekiel was belittled as a singer of sad love songs. The poetic utterances are framed at times by introductory narrative which provides context.
The message of the book
Isaiah is known for four things
- His vision of the high and exalted Lord
- Prophecies of coming judgement
- Prophetic messages that clearly see their fulfilment in Christ, including some that directly relate to Christmas and Easter
- Prophecies that seem to look further forward still and point to the New Creation.
It is likely that even those prophecies that look further forward had an immediate fulfilment at that time but awaited their full and final fulfilment in Christ. Similarly, even those prophecies that relate most directly to Isaiah’s day and the immediate aftermath can be applied through Christ to our situation now.
The themes listed above combine to offer a message of hope. Yes, judgement is coming for sin but that judgement will also serve to purify and refine. Salvation will come through the promised suffering servant who is Emmanuel, God with us. This means that we can look forward to ultimate fulfilment in a new creation where God is manifestly present to reign.