Overview of the Book of Isaiah

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Overview of the Book of Isaiah
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Overview of the Book of Isaiah

Author: The prophet Isaiah.

Purpose:

To encourage the prophet's contemporaries to be loyal to the Lord and to exhort future readers in exile to repent of sin and trust the Lord to bring the faithful remnant of Israel and other nations to unprecedented blessings after the exile.

Date: c. 686-650 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God called Isaiah to warn his people of the judgment of exile and to assure them of future restoration to tremendous blessing after the exile.
  • Isaiah's reliability was demonstrated by the fulfillment of many of his earlier prophecies by the time of the writing of the book.
  • Isaiah's astounding predictions about the end of the Babylonian exile and the restoration were sure to take place, but only the repentant in Israel and the nations would enjoy these future blessings.

Author:

Jewish and Christian traditions have followed the book's own identification of Isaiah as its author (Isa. 1:1). Little is known about the personal life of Isaiah. He lived in Judah, was married at least once and had at least two sons (see notes on Isa. 7:13-14): Shear Jashub (Isa. 7:3) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Isa. 8:3). During his lifetime Isaiah not only composed this book but also wrote a history of the reign of Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:22). Several ancient traditions suggest that the prophet suffered martyrdom during the reign of King Manasseh (697-642 B.C.).

In recent history, an increasing number of interpreters have disputed the unity of the book. Although older Jewish and Christian traditions affirmed Isaiah's authorship of the entire work, many recent interpreters have argued that the book resulted from a much more complex history of composition. In general terms, they have divided Isaiah into several books: They ascribe most of chapters 1-39, called Proto-Isaiah ("First Isaiah"), to Isaiah himself. Chapters 40-55, called Deutero-Isaiah ("Second Isaiah"), are attributed to a late exilic or early postexilic prophet writing in the tradition of Isaiah. Chapters 56-66, called Trito-Isaiah ("Third Isaiah"), have been ascribed to a postexilic prophet living in Judea.

At least three major objections may be raised against the proposal of multiple authors of this book:

(1) For the most part, these theories were developed by interpreters who assumed that Israel's prophets concentrated almost exclusively on events that were taking place in their own day. Chapters 1-39 primarily concern the Assyrian judgment (c. 740-700 B.C.) and chapters 40-66 the Babylonian exile and return (c. 586-500 B.C.). On this basis, many modern critics have argued that more than one prophet must have written the book of Isaiah. However, this outlook cannot be sustained in light of the fact that Biblical prophets characteristically spoke about events that would come to pass after their lifetimes.

(2) These same interpreters often assumed that miraculous prophecy, such as the identification of Cyrus by name more than a century before he arrived on the scene (Isa. 45:1), did not occur in Israel. Yet the book of Isaiah itself reproved naturalistic outlooks on prophecy. In Isaiah 40-55 the Lord's call to Israel directly pointed to the supernatural quality of the prophetic word (Isa. 41:21-29; 44:24-45:8). Under divine inspiration Isaiah predicted some events with meticulous specificity.

(3) Variations in language and style among the alleged sections of the book have also been used to support the argument for multiple authors. The differences that do exist, however, may be due to differences in subject matter, changed perspectives or the maturation of the prophet.

More positively, at least three important considerations offer strong support for maintaining that the prophet Isaiah was the real and fundamental author of the entire book:

(1) The book itself explicitly references Isaiah as the source of its prophecies in a number of superscriptions (Isa. 2:1; 7:3; 13:1; 20:2; 37:2, 6, 21; 38:1, 4, 21; 39:3, 5, 8). Other books of the Old Testament that have multiple authors, such as Psalms and Proverbs, use superscriptions to identify their various authors, but nothing of this sort occurs in the book of Isaiah.

(2) The repetition of themes, literary images, vocabulary, and metaphors throughout the book (e.g., "glory," "the Holy One of Israel," "Zion," "city") strongly supports a single author. Note also the satirical scorn of idolatry found in all sections of the book (see Isa. 2:8 note).

(3) The New Testament witness validates this outlook on the book. A number of passages identify various portions of the book of Isaiah as coming from the prophet (e.g., Matt. 12:17-21 [Isa. 42:1-4]; Rom. 10:16, 20 [Isa. 53:1; 65:1]). Most importantly, the apostle John attributed prophecies from Isaiah 6:10 and Isaiah 53:10 (from allegedly "First Isaiah" and "Deutero-Isaiah," respectively) simply to Isaiah (John 12:38-41).

Time and Place of Writing:

Isaiah's public ministry took place during the reigns of Uzziah (792-740 B.C.), Jotham (750-731 B.C.), Ahaz (735-715 B.C.), and Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.), "kings of Judah" (Isa. 1:1). He ministered in Judah during the time when God brought judgment against his people through Assyrian aggression (740-686 B.C.). Isaiah also prophesied about the Babylonian judgment (612-538 B.C.), which took place after his lifetime. The latest event mentioned in the book as a past occurrence is the succession of Esarhaddon to the throne of Assyria (Isa 37:38), which occurred in 681 B.C. The book of Isaiah could not have been completed until after that event.

Isaiah's ministry divides into five major segments:

(1) Early Assyrian Judgment (c. 740-734 B.C.). During the middle decades of the eighth century B.C., Assyria became a dominant power in the ancient Near East. During this time Isaiah began to minister (Isa. 6:1). He railed against hypocritical (Isa. 1:10-15), greedy (Isa. 5:18:), self-indulgent (Isa. 5:11), and cynical leaders (Isa. 5:19) who had led the people of God into moral ruin and warned that God was preparing to judge his people in both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms through the armies of Assyria.

(2) The Syrian-Israelite Coalition (734-732 B.C.). When Syria and Israel formed a coalition to resist Assyrian dominance (see notes on Isa. 7-8), King Pekah of Israel and King Rezin of Syria confronted King Ahaz of Judah to force him to join their alliance. Isaiah offered Ahaz God's protection from all of his foes, but Ahaz responded with fear and unbelief. Instead of trusting God for deliverance, he turned to the Assyrians for help. As a result, God not only incited Assyria to attack Syria and Israel, but Judah became subservient to the Assyrian Empire as well.

(3) Destruction of Samaria (722 B.C.). The northern kingdom suffered severe hardship and rebelled against the Assyrian Empire. This rebellion led to the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy that Assyria would invade the Northern Kingdom, destroy Samaria (the capital of the Northern Kingdom) and exile many citizens of Israel.

(4) Invasion of Judah and Jerusalem's Siege (705-701 B.C.). Despite the demise of the Northern Kingdom, Judah continued in sinful rebellion against God and resisted Assyrian dominance in its region as well. As a result, God also moved the Assyrians against Judah. King Sennacherib of Assyria (705-681 B.C.) attacked Hezekiah's Kingdom, destroyed much of Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem (Isa. 36:1-37:38). Isaiah warned against seeking help from other nations and called on Hezekiah to trust the Lord to deliver him from the Assyrians. Unlike Ahaz, Hezekiah finally trusted in the Lord (Isa. 37:14-35), and God drove the Assyrians away before they could destroy Jerusalem (Isa. 36:1-37:37).

(5) Babylonian Judgment and Restoration (586-539 B.C.). Despite God's mercy toward him, Hezekiah immediately sought to secure his position against future troubles by forming an alliance with the Babylonians (Isa. 39:1-2). In response to this lack of faith, Isaiah announced that Judah's royal treasures would one day be taken to Babylon (Isa. 39:6-7). Thus he predicted that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians and that Judah's citizens would be exiled, as their northern counterparts had been in previous decades. Much of this book explains these future events and offers hope to those who would one day be exiled to Babylon. Isaiah predicted the fall of Babylon and a grand restoration of Israel and Judah (Isa. 40-66).

Purpose and Distinctives:

As God's prophet, Isaiah applied both the blessings and judgments of God's covenants with Israel. See Introduction to the Prophetic Books. On the one hand Isaiah's ministry consisted largely of bringing charges, condemnations and judgments as he declared covenant curses on Israel and Judah for their flagrant violations of their covenant obligations (Isa. 1:2-31; 13:1-23:18; 56:9-57:13; 65:1-16). The prophet spoke of many different curses that would come, the most serious of which would be destruction and exile. In fact, both Israel and Judah had fallen so far from the ideals of the covenant that God commanded Isaiah to prophesy in order to harden the people's hearts so that the judgment of exile might not be averted (Isa. 6:1-13).

On the other hand, Isaiah balanced his message of judgment with words of hope. He spoke of many different kinds of blessings, but for the most part his positive words focused on the principal blessing of restoration after exile (Isa. 40-66). As a result, Isaiah called the godly to persevere in seeking the Lord, in cultivating hope for God's Kingdom, in experiencing God's peace within themselves during times of trouble and in responding to God's new acts of redemption in faith (Isa. 2:5; 8:13-17; 26:20-21; 33:14-16; 40:28-31; 48:20-21; 55:1-12; 60:1-3; 61:10-11; 63:7-64:12; 66:5-6). Isaiah promised that a remnant would survive the exile, return to the land and enjoy the unprecedented blessings of God.

Christ in Isaiah:

The prophecies of Isaiah anticipate Christ in at least three ways. First, Isaiah warned of judgments to come against God's rebellious people and the nations who resisted him (Isa. 1:20; 3:13-15; 11:4; 34:2; 51:5). Ultimately, the judgments of God that Isaiah threatened are were fulfilled in the ministry of Christ (Isa. 53:4-6, 12; 2 Cor. 1:15; Heb 9:26).

Second, Isaiah assured God's faithful people that they would enjoy a glorious restoration after exile-a restoration he called "the new heavens and the new earth" (Isa. 66:22; see also Isa. 65:17). Jesus inaugurated this new creation by an earthly ministry that separated anew light and darkness (John 1:1-9). He continues this new creation throughout the history of the Church (2 Cor. 4:6; 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Jas. 1:18) and will bring it to its fullness when he returns (Rev. 21:1-3).

Third, the New Testament refers to Isaiah more than to any other Old Testament book to indicate how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament expectations of the Messiah. The most important way in which Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's prophecies was with respect to Isaiah's prevalent servant motif (see note on Isa. 42:1). Isaiah predicted that the "servant" to come would bring justice to the nations (Isa. 42:1-4), reestablish Israel's covenant with the Lord (Isa. 42:5-7), become a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 49:1-7), and take away the sins of the elect and be raised from the dead (Isa. 52:13-53:12). The New Testament identifies this Servant-Savior as Jesus, the incarnate Lord (Matt. 8:17; 16:21; 27:26, 29, 31, 38, 57-60; Mark 14:49, 61; 15:27, 43-46; Luke 2:14; 18:31-33; 23:32; John 1:10-11, 29; 3:17; 12:38; 19:1, 7, 18, 38-41; Acts 2:23; 3:13; 7:32-33; 8:32-33; 10:43; Rom. 4:25; 8:34; 10:15-16; 15:21; 1 Cor. 15:3; Eph. 3:4-5; Phil. 2:9; Heb. 5:8; 9:28; 1 Pet. 2:22-25; 1 John 3:5; Rev. 14:5).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).