By the time of Isaiah, the Israelite nation had long been divided into two kingdoms
– the northern kingdom Israel whose capital was Samaria, and the southern kingdom Judah whose capital was Jerusalem. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, where he was an adviser to Judah’s royal court (Isa 7:3; 37:2; 38:1; 39:3). He was married and had at least two sons (Isa 7:3; 8:3,18). Isaiah began his work in the year of King Uzziah’s death (740 BC) and continued through the reigns of three successive kings, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (Isa 1:1; 6:1). He was a man of moral uprightness who opposed the social evils of the time (Isa 1:4,17; 3:9,14-15; 5:8-23). He was also a man of faith who consistently tried to persuade Judah’s kings to trust in God rather than in foreign alliances (Isa 7:4-7; 30:15; 37:6-7). In addition he taught and trained a group of devoted disciples, whom he encouraged to maintain a firm faith in God in a time of widespread unbelief (Isa 8:16-17). According to doubtful Jewish tradition he was executed during the reign of the wicked Manasseh by being sawn in two (cf. Heb 11:37). The book of Isaiah covers a lengthy period of about two hundred years. It deals not only with the reigns of the kings mentioned above, but also with Judah’s captivity in Babylon and the restoration to Palestine that followed. Political, religious and social conditions varied greatly from one era to the next within this overall period. The following survey of the book includes background information on the different eras.
Isaiah’s call to a sinful people (Chaps. 1-6)
During the long and prosperous reign of Uzziah (or Azariah), severe social and religious problems arose in Judah. Greed and injustice multiplied and, although the people maintained their religious exercises, they were thoroughly ungodly in their attitudes and behaviour. Isaiah’s preaching was similar to that of Amos and Hosea, who had met similar problems in the northern kingdom. He defended the poor against exploitation by the rich, and tirelessly denounced Judah’s social oppression and religious corruption. Isaiah opened his book with an accusation by God that Judah had rebelled against him (1:1-9). The nation was religiously and morally corrupt (1:10-31), which was the opposite of what God had intended for it (2:1-22). Such a society was heading for a humiliating judgment (3:1-4:1), though after the judgment a new Israel would be born. The people of God would then consist of those whom God had saved and made holy (4:2-6). In Isaiah’s day, however, Judah had despised God’s love, and the nation would surely be taken into captivity (5:1-30). Isaiah would have a difficult task in taking God’s message to such a rebellious people, because most would reject the message. But God would preserve the few who remained faithful to him, and from these he would produce a new people for himself (6:1-13).
Judah in the reign of Ahaz (Chaps. 7-12)
At the time Ahaz came to the throne of Judah, the nearby nation of Assyria was growing in power (see AHAZ; ASSYRIA). Understandably, the countries in and around Palestine saw Assyria as a threat to their security. To strengthen the defence against Assyria, the kings of Syria and Israel tried to persuade Ahaz to join them in a three-part alliance. When Ahaz refused, Syria and Israel joined forces to attack Jerusalem (735 BC), with the aim of setting a king of their choice on the Judean throne and so forcing Judah into the alliance. Ahaz was terrified, but Isaiah assured him that if he remained calm and trusted in God, Jerusalem would be delivered. Ahaz decided instead to ask Assyria to come and help him. Isaiah warned that this would lead to disaster, for Judah would then fall under Assyria’s power. But Ahaz ignored him (7:1-25; cf. 2 Kings 16:7-8). The common people likewise rejected the way of faith. God’s judgment on Judah, by means of the Assyrians, was therefore certain (8:1-22). But out of the darkness to fall upon the nation would come a new leader, the great Messiah-Deliverer, to bring in a new era of light, joy and peace (9:1-7). Isaiah then described the condition of the neighbouring kingdom Israel, which had become progressively weaker and was finally conquered by Assyria (in 722 BC; 9:8-10:4). But Assyria made the mistake of thinking it could treat God’s people as it liked. Therefore, it too would be punished (10:5-34). Judah meanwhile suffered and eventually would be destroyed, but God would preserve a remnant, the minority who remained faithful to him. From the people taken captive to foreign lands, a remnant would return to their homeland and the Messiah’s kingdom would be set up (11:1-12:6).
Messages for various nations (Chaps. 13-23)
Not only Judah and Israel, but all nations were under the rule of God. He controlled their rise to power and their final destruction. Babylon, the first on a list of nations to be addressed by the prophet, had not yet risen to power, but when its day of glory came, it would bring about its own downfall. Its arrogant defiance of God guaranteed its destruction (13:1-14:23). Assyria, the main threat in Isaiah’s day, was also doomed (14:24-32). Moab would fall (15:1-16:14), and so too would Syria and Israel who had combined to attack Judah (17:1-14). Judah was to make no foreign alliances for the purpose of withstanding Assyria (18:1-7). To rely on Egypt would be useless, because Egypt would be conquered (19:1-25). Alliances would lead only to eventual captivity (20:1-6). Babylonians, Edomites and Arabs would all suffer destruction (21:1-17), but when Jerusalem was besieged, the people had to keep trusting in God (22:1-25). Phoenicia, the great commercial power of the day, would also be judged (23:1-18).
Final judgment and salvation (Chaps. 24-27)
From the judgment of the nations of his time, Isaiah went on to consider God’s final judgment of the world. God would make no distinction on the basis of class or status. The faithful alone would be saved, and they would praise him for his gracious salvation (24:1-25:12). The godly, who had suffered because of their loyalty to God, would finally have victory (26:1-21). After a shameful exile there would be a glorious return (27:1-13).
Judah in the reign of Hezekiah (Chaps. 28-39)
When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king of Judah, he immediately set about changing Judah’s foreign policy and reforming its religion. He then revolted against Assyria by refusing to pay further taxes (2 Kings 18:7; see HEZEKIAH). In doing so he sought military support from Egypt, an action that Isaiah opposed, just as he had opposed Ahaz’s dependence on Assyria. Judah’s need was not for foreign military aid but for quiet faith in God. Bad leadership, both civil and religious, was one reason for Judah’s decline and subsequent punishment (28:1-29). By allowing Jerusalem to be besieged and then miraculously saving it (701 BC), God showed that Judah did not need political alliances to guarantee its security (29:1-24). To rely on Egypt was particularly foolish (30:1-31:9). Beyond the deliverance from the Assyrians, the prophet saw a kingdom of righteousness where Judah would be governed by a king according to the ways of God (32:1-20). The current crisis, out of which God would defeat Assyria and bless Judah (33:1-24), was a foreshadowing of the final great judgment of the world, when God would destroy all enemies (34:1-17) and bless his faithful people (35:1-10). A historical appendix outlines the events that formed the background to the previous messages. The Assyrians attacked (36:1-22), but God brought about their defeat (37:1-38). Earlier God had preserved Hezekiah’s life to enable him to lead Judah through the conflict with Assyria (38:1-22). Hezekiah, however, could not resist the temptation of yet another anti-Assyrian alliance, this time with Babylon. Isaiah saw that it would lead to eventual conquest and captivity in Babylon (39:1-8).
Captivity and return (Chaps. 40-48)
Between the events of Chapter 39 and those of Chapter 40 there is a gap of about 150 years. (Some suggest that Chapters 40-66 were not written by Isaiah, but come from some person or persons of a later generation.) The scene changes from Jerusalem of Hezekiah’s day to Babylon in the time of the Jews’ captivity. During the 150 years that are omitted, Babylon had risen to power, conquered Assyria in 612 BC, then from 605 to 587 BC attacked Judah repeatedly, finally destroying Jerusalem and taking the people into captivity (see BABYLON). The events foreseen in Chapters 40-48 began to take place during this time of captivity. Cyrus of Persia was overpowering one nation after another in the region, and in 539 BC he would conquer Babylon and give permission to the Jews to return to their land. God reassured his people that he was the all-powerful one. Though he had punished them in captivity, he would now lead them back to their land in triumph (40:1-31). He was raising up a deliverer, Cyrus, who would conquer Babylon and release the Jews (41:1-29; see CYRUS). There would be a new Israel, a true servant of God, through whom God would save the repentant of all nations (42:1-25). All this would be a demonstration of God’s power (43:1-28); for, while idols were lifeless, Israel’s God was the living, sovereign Lord (44:1-28). It was he who had raised up Cyrus to free the captive Jews (45:1-19). Babylon’s gods would be powerless to save when the day of Babylon’s destruction came (45:20-46:13). The once proud nation would die in shame (47:1-15). The Jews were to learn from their past mistakes and not fall into idolatry again (48:1-22).
The salvation of God’s people (Chaps. 49-55)
Although God had chosen Israel to be his servant, Israel as a whole was a failure. But there were always some who remained faithful, and for their sakes God would restore the nation (49:1-50:3). God’s true servant learnt obedience and perseverance through the things he suffered (50:4-11). It might have seemed impossible that mighty Babylon could be overthrown and the nation Israel rebuilt, but God had done the seemingly impossible in the past and he would do so again (51:1-23). The exiles were to prepare to return (52:1-12). Just as people were startled at the sight of the servant’s great suffering, so would they be startled at the sight of his great glory. The sufferer would become a conqueror (52:13-53:12; see SERVANT OF THE LORD). Judah’s exile in Babylon was like the divorce of a wife from her husband, but God would now forgive her and take her back (54:1-17). The exiles would find full satisfaction, not by trying to make life comfortable for themselves in Babylon, but by returning to Jerusalem (55:1-13).
Present shame and future glory (Chaps. 56-66)
Looking ahead to the time of the Jews’ resettlement around Jerusalem, the prophet saw that the golden age had still not come. With social and religious sins again characterizing Israel’s national life, the prophet looked for a new Jerusalem yet to be. Israel’s new national life should have been based on God’s law (56:1-8), but religious and civil leaders were as corrupt as those of former days (56:9-57:21). God rejected the worship of those who tried to impress him with their religion while at the same time they oppressed others (58:1-14). If they did not change their ways, God would act in judgment (59:1-21). Returning to the scene in Babylon and the expectation of return, the prophet pointed out that foreigners would come to join the Jews in rebuilding Jerusalem and worshipping God there (60:1-22). The returned exiles would mourn when they saw the ruined city, but God would compensate them for former plunderings (61:1-62:12) and punish the plunderers (63:1-6). On behalf of the nation, the prophet confessed its sin and asked God’s forgiveness (63:7-64:12). Amid all the corruption there had always been a faithful remnant, and these were God’s true people, the people of the Messiah’s kingdom (65:1-25). God had always required right attitudes and behaviour (66:1- 6), and only a genuinely spiritual life would fit people for the new age (66:7-24).