Isaiah: historical background

The book of Isaiah is ground in a particular history, with nations and kings, wars and alliances, heroes and villains, about which we know much through reliable historical sources. The book of Isaiah only makes sense in its historical setting. Our understanding of Jesus will be enriched, not diminished, the more we see Isaiah’s message in its original context.

Israel and Judah in Isaiah’s time

Isaiah’s ministry is centred in Jerusalem, which is the capital of Judah. The nation united under Kings David and Solomon has splintered into two kingdoms, with Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Deep distrust between the two leads to sporadic ‘civil wars’.

Judah is a ‘small fish’ surrounded by big foes, notably Assyria to the north-east, Egypt to the south, and the rising power of Babylon to the far east. Closer to home, smaller but very present threats exist in the form of Aram, Ammon, Phlistia and Edom. Wars, strategic alliances and international politics among these nations are woven into the fabric of the book of Isaiah. Faithfulness to God in the face of these threats is one of Isaiah’s key themes.

Isaiah’s formal commissioning for ministry began at the death of King Uzziah (740 BC). Although 2 Chronicles 26:6-15 paints Uzziah (aka Azariah) as one of the ‘good kings’ of Judah, his reign ended in shame. He had reigned for 52 prosperous and secure years. Uzziah died in dishonour because he had arrogantly taken it upon himself  to enter into the temple to burn incense where only priests should go  (2 Kings 15:5; 2 Chr 26:16-21). He was instantly afflicted with leprosy and had to live out his days in isolation; spiritually ‘unclean’ and estranged. His son Jotham had to take charge of the palace and governed in his place. This was a picture of the failure of leadership– another of Isaiah’s key themes.

Isaiah’s ministry during the reigns of two further kings of Judah, King Ahaz (736-716 BC) and King Hezekiah (725-687 BC) anchors the book, up until Jerusalem’s exiles are carried off to Babylon in 598 BC (Isa 39:5-7, compare with Isa 40:2). The span of these dates (at very least, 142 years!) indicates that the book of Isaiah is actually composed by more than one singular author. The best understanding is that Isaiah’s ministry and writings were carried on past the time of his death by a ‘school of prophets and disciples’ (see Isa 8:16) who remained true to Isaiah’s original calling and practice.

Ultimately, the divine authority of Isaiah as Scripture is marked by the work of the Holy Spirit and not by the composition of its human authorship. When the New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, refer to the prophecies of Isaiah, accepting their canonical authority, they refer to the entire book as simply “Isaiah” and accept of all it as divinely inspired (eg Mt 3:2; 4:13-15; 15:7-8; Mk 1:2;Lk 4:16-18; Acts 28:25) . And so if that’s good enough for Jesus, that’s good enough for me.

Isaiah’s Message

For the Christian reader, the message of Isaiah is generally received as a message of hope and promise. We assume we are unlikely to be invaded by Assyrians or Babylonians and so Isaiah’s message of imminent judgment and doom is usually skipped over. However, the Christian would be well served to recognise that God’s greatest judgment is yet to come, and that we will not be immune from his searching evaluation.

Taking our cue from the New Testament writers, however, the Christian is confident that Jesus Christ is indeed the fulfilment of the forward-looking promises in Isaiah. Isaiah’s message contains promises about God’s Messiah that enrich our understanding of Jesus: his mission, his character and his own self-understanding. This Messiah figure seems to come in three guises, in three major units of the book, set in contrast against the three prominent kings of Judah.

In the context of the failed Davidic kings– arrogant and cursed Uzziah (aka Azariah), apostate Ahaz and gullible Hezekiah– Isaiah spoke about a glorious king yet to come (Isa 1-39). In the aftermath of Hezekiah’s great sin of unbelief and the judgment of exile on a sinful people, Isaiah foresaw the sin-bearing Servant of the Lord (Isa 40-55). Seeing the post-exilic people still in subjection and without any king at all, Isaiah promised the coming Conqueror, exacting vengeance and bringing salvation (Isa 56-66).

An initial appreciation of these three messianic figures is found in each of four passages from each of the three units of Isaiah.

Isaiah 1-39

The Glorious King
(not the failed Uzziah, Ahaz and Hezekiah)

Isaiah 9:1-7; 11:1-16; 32:1-8; 33:17-24

Isaiah 40-55

The Servant of the Lord
(redeeming the exiles)

Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

Isaiah 56-66

The Conqueror-Deliverer
(rescuing the returnees)

Isaiah 59:20-21; 61:1-3; 61:10-62:7; 63:1-6

And so the message of Isaiah is summed up as, something like, “Although God’s people have failed at every point, because of his grace, God will send both judgment and a suffering Saviour King who will deliver his people.”