Isaiah lived during that period of Old Testament history when the Israelite nation was divided into two kingdoms. The division occurred about 930 BC, soon after the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 11:9-13; 12:16-20), and resulted in a northern kingdom of ten tribes and a southern kingdom of two tribes.
The northern kingdom continued to call itself Israel, though in fact it was the breakaway part of the nation. It dissociated itself from both the dynasty of David and the religion that centred on the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:25-33). The early centres of administration were Shechem and then Tirzah, but within fifty years a new and well fortified capital was established at Samaria, and this was still the capital in the time of Isaiah.
The southern kingdom called itself Judah, after the tribe that formed its major part. Jerusalem, which had been the capital of the entire nation in the time of David and Solomon, was now the capital only of Judah. The dynasty of David continued to rule in Jerusalem, but now it ruled only over the southern kingdom. The Jerusalem temple remained the centre of Judah’s religious life in spite of the false religion that repeatedly troubled the nation.
A prophet and a statesman
God’s servant Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, where he was an adviser to several kings of Judah. He was a person of importance, and over many years he used his position to try to influence Judah’s policies in both local and international affairs. His work began in the year of King Uzziah’s death (740 BC), and continued through the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and
Hezekiah (Isa 1:1; 6:1,8-9). According to traditional Jewish belief, he was executed during the reign of the wicked king Manasseh by being sawn in two (cf. Heb 11:37).
Much of the early part of Isaiah’s book is concerned with his attempts to persuade the ungodly Ahaz to trust in God instead of seeking military help from Assyria. The next portion of the book records his attempts to control the zeal of the good king Hezekiah, who was so keen to free Judah from Assyrian power that he too sought foreign military aid, in this case from Egypt.
Isaiah saw that Assyria and Egypt, along with many other nations among Judah’s neighbours, were opposed to Israel’s God, who was the one and only true God. The prophet therefore announced God’s judgments upon each of them in turn. But he saw also that Judah was rebellious against God.
The nation was heading for a terrible judgment that would see the people taken into captivity in a foreign land. Through all these events, however, God would preserve the remnant, that minority of the people who remained faithful to him.
The final section of the book, which was probably written much later than the earlier parts, shows God’s purposes in preserving the remnant.
From this faithful group would come the beginning
of new life for God’s people. When the people acknowledged the justice of God’s punishment and received cleansing from past sins, they would return to their land and enjoy peace and prosperity once more. This future glory of Israel is described at length, with particular emphasis on the qualities of the messianic king who would rule and the worldwide blessing that his kingdom would bring.
Conditions of Isaiah’s time
With the long and prosperous reigns of Uzziah (or Azariah) in Judah and Jeroboam II in Israel, both kingdoms enjoyed expansion and progress (2 Kings 14:23-25,28; 15:1-7; 2 Chron 26:1-15). However, the prosperity brought with it severe religious, social, moral and political evils. The prophets of this time, Amos and Hosea, tirelessly denounced the moral and religious corruption of the people, and tried to defend the poor against the exploitation of the rich (Amos 2:6-7; 3:10,15; 6:4-6; 8:4-6; Hosea 4:1-6; 6:6-
10; 7:2-4; 12:7-9).
The work of these two prophets was soon strengthened by that of Isaiah, and a few years later by that of Micah. Although the four prophets carried out their work in different parts of Israel and Judah, and although each had his own emphasis, they all saw the same evils and announced the same judgment (cf. Isa 1:12-23; 3:14-17; 5:11-13; 5:20-23; Micah 2:1-5,8-9; 3:1-3,9-12; 7:3).
Isaiah, being in a better position than the other three to influence the king, tried also to develop a greater concern for God’s standards in the government of the nation. He saw what was happening in Jerusalem, and knew that Judah was heading for inevitable judgment. Yet the troubles of Judah were inseparably linked with those of Israel, and much in Isaiah’s book relates also to the northern kingdom.
Political instability in Israel
When Jeroboam II died (753 BC), the northern kingdom Israel entered a time of political chaos as ambitious men fought to seize power. The new king reigned only six months before being murdered, but his assassin reigned only one month before suffering a similar fate at the hands of Menahem, who then became king (2 Kings 15:8-16).
Israel quickly lost its stability, and Assyria soon began to show interest in adding Israel to its rapidly expanding empire. Menahem survived only through buying the protection of the Assyrian king Tiglath- pileser III (also known as Pul). The Israelite army commander Pekah was opposed to this pro-Assyrian policy. When Menahem died and was succeeded by his son, Pekah murdered the new king and seized the throne for himself (2 Kings 15:17-26).
Israel and Syria attack Judah
Tiglath-pileser III now planned a complete military takeover of Israel. (God’s prophets had already predicted such a conquest; Hosea 10:5-8; Amos 7:17.) To strengthen the defence against Assyria, the Syrian (Aramean) king Rezin and the Israelite king Pekah entered into a joint defence agreement. They tried to persuade the Judean king Jotham and the succeeding king Ahaz to join them, but the Judean kings refused. Rezin and Pekah then attacked Ahaz, apparently with the aim of conquering Judah, putting their
own king on the Judean throne, then forcing Judah to join their anti-Assyrian alliance. This attack took place in 735 BC (2 Kings 15:37; 16:5; Isa 7:1-2,6).
On learning that the Israelite-Syrian army was nearing Jerusalem, Ahaz panicked. Isaiah remained calm and urged the king to trust in God, assuring him that he had nothing to fear. Israel and Syria would not defeat Judah, but would themselves be conquered by Assyria. Ahaz had only to believe God (2 Kings 16:5; Isa 7:2-9; 8:4). But Ahaz neither trusted God nor believed Isaiah. Instead he decided to ask Assyria to come and help him. Isaiah warned that this was a foolish move, because it would place Judah under Assyria’s control. Again Ahaz ignored the advice (2 Kings 16:7-8; Isa 8:5-8).
In response to Ahaz’s request, Assyria attacked Syria and Israel. When Assyria conquered a country, its policy was to take the people captive into other parts of the Assyrian Empire and replace them with settlers from elsewhere. This helped to prevent rebellion breaking out in the conquered territory.
Therefore, when Tiglath-pileser III conquered Syria, he carried off the people into captivity in Assyria (2 Kings 16:9). This happened in 732 BC and marked the end of the kingdom of Syria, as foretold by the prophets (Isa 17:1; Amos 1:4-5).
Tiglath-pileser continued his attack across the border of Syria and into Israel. He seized much of Israel’s eastern and northern territory, and carried off the inhabitants into captivity (2 Kings 15:29). This was the beginning of the end for Israel. The nation was finally conquered by Assyria and its people taken captive into foreign lands in 722 BC (2 Kings 17:1-6).
Judah’s new policies under Hezekiah
The Assyrians were now dominant in Palestine. In the north they had replaced former Israelite inhabitants with settlers from elsewhere (2 Kings 17:24), and in the south they had imposed a heavy tribute on the Judean king Ahaz (2 Kings 16:7-8). But when the young Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz in Judah, he set out on the bold task of freeing Judah from all Assyrian influence, whether military, political or religious.
Hezekiah’s first action was to reform Judah’s corrupt religion. He destroyed all idolatrous shrines, cleansed and rededicated the temple, reinstituted various festivals and ceremonies, and organized the priests and Levites according to the arrangements originally set out by David (2 Kings 18:1-6; 2 Chron 29:1-31:21).
It is doubtful, however, that Hezekiah’s reforms brought any lasting change in the lives of the people in general. Hezekiah is commended for the good work he did (2 Kings 18:5), but the prophets of the time, Isaiah and Micah, do not mention his reforms. They saw that, in spite of the renewed religious activity, people had not changed inwardly. They gave little evidence of genuine faith and repentance (Isa 1:11-20; Micah 6:6-8).
In relation to Assyria’s military and political dominance of Judah, Hezekiah was equally zealous for reform. But before he declared his new policy on foreign affairs, he fortified Jerusalem’s defences, strengthened the city wall and improved the city’s water supply as a precaution against possible siege
(2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chron 32:5-6). Then, assured of military backing from Egypt, he revolted against Assyria by refusing to pay further tribute (2 Kings 18:7-8).
Isaiah opposed this dependence upon Egypt, just as during the reign of Ahaz he had opposed dependence upon Assyria. Judah’s need was not for military help from Egypt but for quiet faith in God (Isa 30:1-3,15; 31:1,3). In response to Hezekiah’s rebellion, Assyria attacked Jerusalem (701 BC; Isa 36:1- 6). The book of Isaiah gives a lengthy account of events surrounding the attack and Jerusalem’s miraculous deliverance.
Captivity and return
After the account of Jerusalem’s deliverance from the Assyrian siege, there is a gap in the record of approximately 150 years. This gap occurs between Chapters 39 and 40, and forms a natural division in the book. In fact, Chapters 40-66 are so different in content and style from Chapters 1-39, that some biblical scholars suggest they were not written by Isaiah, but come from some person or persons of a later generation.
In brief, what happened during this intervening period was that Assyria was conquered by Babylon (612 BC), who then conquered Judah, carried the people captive to Babylon and destroyed Jerusalem (605-587 BC). The messages recorded in the latter section of Isaiah were intended originally for the Judean captives in Babylon.
During this time of the Judeans’ captivity, events foreseen by the prophet began to happen. In neighbouring Persia a man named Cyrus had risen to power, and one by one conquered most of the surrounding nations. Then, in 539 BC, he conquered Babylon, and immediately gave permission to the captive Jews to return to their land (Ezra 1:1-4). Many returned and immediately began to rebuild the temple, but because of delays through opposition it was not finished till 516 BC (Ezra 6:14-15).
THE USE OF NAMES
The name Yahweh
In the Hebrew Bible a number of words are used for God, the most common of which are translated in English Bibles as ‘God’ (Hebrew: el or elohim) and ‘the LORD’. The latter of these two words, which is always printed in capitals, has a distinctive significance in the Old Testament. Where God is called ‘Lord’ (and the whole word is not in capitals), the Hebrew word is usually adon or adonai, a word that
indicates God’s sovereignty as lord and master. But where he is called ‘LORD’ (in capitals) the Hebrew word is yahweh, the name of the Hebrews’ God.
There is some mystery concerning the origin and usage of this name. Israel’s ancestors knew God as Yahweh (Gen 12:1; 26:2; 28:21; 49:18), but the people as a whole seem to have first understood the significance of the name only at the time of their escape from Egypt under Moses. God revealed himself to Moses as ‘I am who I am’ (Exod 3:14; sometimes translated ‘I will be who I will be’), and Moses was to pass this revelation on to the people. In revealing himself in this way, God was providing an explanation of what the name Yahweh should have meant to his people. In the Hebrew language the word translated ‘I am’ is related to the name of God, Yahweh.
Originally the Hebrew language was written using consonants only. The absence of vowels was no problem, because readers knew how to put in the vowels as they read. The name of Israel’s God was written as YHWH (without vowels) but pronounced apparently as Yahweh. There can be no absolute certainty about this pronunciation, because there are no Hebrew records old enough to record it.
By the time the Hebrews had developed the practice of adding vowels to the written language, they no longer spoke the name YHWH. This, they claimed, showed their reverence for the holy name of God, but for many it was more a superstition. Whatever the reason for it, the practice developed that when the Hebrews read the Scriptures, instead of speaking the word YHWH, they used the word adonai (meaning ‘lord’ or ‘master’).
When, about 300 BC, a version of the Hebrew Bible added vowels to the consonants, it put the vowels of adonai to the consonants YHWH. This produced a new word, Jehovah, though the Hebrews still preferred to substitute adonai for YHWH when speaking. English translations of the Bible have usually avoided the pronunciation problem by using ‘the LORD’ (in capitals) instead of YHWH.
Names of nations
A common practice among the Old Testament prophets was to refer to countries by some representative feature, such as a king (Isa 14:4; Ezek 28:2), a god (Isa 46:1; Jer 48:46), a river (Isa 8:7; Jer 2:18), a mountain (Isa 1:27; Ezek 35:2), a tribe (Isa 7:2; Jer 49:8), or a city (Isa 9:8-9; Jer 49:3). The reader of the prophets will therefore find that the northern kingdom Israel is often called either by the name of its leading tribe, Ephraim, or by the name of its capital, Samaria. In the same way the southern kingdom Judah is sometimes called by the name of its capital, Jerusalem. Among foreign nations, those most commonly referred to by their capital cities are Assyria (called Nineveh) and Syria (called Damascus).
Names of Israelites
During the years of the captivity in Babylon and the subsequent reconstruction of Israel, it became increasingly common to refer to Israelites as Jews. The background to this change of usage goes back to the time of the divided kingdom.
When the people of the former northern kingdom (Israel) were taken captive to various countries by Assyria, they became absorbed into the nations where they lived and largely lost their national identity. But when the people of the former southern kingdom (Judah) were taken into captivity in Babylon, they retained their national identity. The people of Judah were called Judeans, which was later shortened to ‘Jew’.
After Persia’s conquest of Babylon, captives from Babylon returned to the ancient Israelite homeland.
This meant that most of those involved in the rebuilding of Israel were Judeans, or Jews. But they were also Israelites, according to the meaning of the name that went back to the nation’s origins. There was no longer any division in Israel between north and south, and the names ‘Israelite’ and ‘Jew’, along with the ancient name ‘Hebrew’, were used interchangeably (Jer 34:9; John 1:19,47; 2 Cor 11:22; Gal. 2:14).