The above image is a painting by James Tissot (c. 1896) titled “Isaiah,” from the Jewish Museum
The prologue to Isaiah in The Wycliffe Bible reads, “Isaiah is worth to be said not only a prophet, but more, a gospel, for he declares so openly … of Christ and of [the] Holy Church, that you guess him not only to ordain and profess a thing to come, but to ordain a story of things passed.” Reading Isaiah as Christians leads us to look for nuggets of Messianic material. Having read the New Testament, Isaiah is quoted at large, with passages being connected to the life of Jesus. I want us to resist the urge to read Isaiah that way primarily. Why? That’s likely not how the original audience read it. They were concerned with their lifetimes and the prevailing circumstances and not something centuries ahead. Nevertheless, in the unseen and distant future, some things would occur, and in the immediate context, we’ll see how they would have understood it and how it became just a part of the larger story of God’s people—even to the time of Christ.
Isaiah was written during a crisis by a prophet bearing that name—which means “Yah is Salvation.” So anytime you see a name ending with –ah or –el, that’s Hebrew for God’s name. For example, Samuel means “name of El” or “El has heard.” Jeremiah’s name means either “Yah will exalt” or “appointed by Yah.” The first thirty-nine chapters detail the crisis Isaiah faced, spanning four kings, the prophet having access to them (7:3). Isaiah’s ministry was from 740–681 BCE, receiving his prophetic call when Uzziah died (Is. 6:1), 740–739 BCE. His access to the kings and priests (8:1–2) has led to the suggestion that he was aristocratic, royalty, or priestly.
During his tenure as a prophet, he’d see the tiny kingdom of Judah exist in a world of three superpowers—Egypt to the south, Assyria to the north, and Babylon to the east. In 721 BCE, he’d see the northern kingdom of Israel fall to the Assyrians. Judah sought the military aid of Egypt to protect them from Assyria, but Isaiah would preach that Judah needed to trust in God alone. In 701 BCE, he’d see the Assyrians attempt to besiege Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah. After, Hezekiah invites the Babylonians over to see the wealth of Judah and to provide protection from the Assyrians. Isaiah rebukes Hezekiah for this, saying that Babylon would destroy Judah—something that would occur in 586 BCE. In 681 BCE, he detailed the Assyrian King, Sennacherib’s death (37:38), being put to death himself during Manasseh’s reign by, according to tradition, being sawn in two.
We all have ideas of what a prophet is, but we need to understand (biblically) what a prophet did. The Hebrew nabi is translated as “prophet” but can also be translated as “spokesman.” The prophet spoke for God, delivering His message. But, as Isaiah 6 will disclose, they also saw visions of heavenly matters to talk to their current events (cf. 1 Kings 22:19–23; Ezek. 1, 10; Dan. 7:9–14). One way to think of a prophet is to think of a holy person who counsels kings, peoples, and priests. Their counsel was often the word of the Lord, but at times, it was based on just natural wisdom from being a holy person of God (cf. 2 Sam. 16:23). Prophets could also have a voice in the heavenly court through prayer (Gen. 20:7, 17; 1 Kings 13:4–6), and Moses was said to have received the law through the mediation of angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2) when he was immersed in the clouds (Ex. 24:1–2, 9–11, 15).
His message is one of judgment and hope. God’s judgment will purify Jerusalem to make it possible for God to fulfill His promises. The first promise is a Davidic king whose kingdom is forever established (2 Sam. 7:12–16). All kings of Judah were descendants of David, but their kingdoms were only temporary. The Kingdom of God through Jesus would be this specific rule of which the Lord promised on the grand scale, while in the context, it may refer to Hezekiah. The second promise was fidelity to the covenant (Exod. 19:5–6). The third promise was that Israel would be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:2–3).
I’m going to suggest we read Isaiah the following way:
- Isaiah 6 details the prophet’s call and the focus of his message.
- Isaiah 1–6 speaks about Old (current) Jerusalem and New (future) Jerusalem.
- Isaiah 7–12 addresses King Ahaz.
- Isaiah 13–23 tells about the fall of Israel’s neighbors, including Babylon.
- Isaiah 24–27 speaks about the lofty city (sinful Jerusalem).
- Isaiah 28–35 detail the rise and fall of Jerusalem.
- Isaiah 36–38 records the rise of King Hezekiah.
- Isaiah 39 records the fall of King Hezekiah.
This is only the first section of the book with its themes. Once we get to the second section, we’ll set a similar structure, and I’ll address the notion of 1 & 2 Isaiah.