First of 4
Few books have inspired more debate in terms of their historical context. Isaiah the prophet lived in Judah in the 8th century B.C., the time of Assyria’s resurgence. He prophesied in Jerusalem, especially to kings Ahaz (735–715 B.C.) and Hezekiah (715–686 B.C.), and many of his prophecies speak clearly of the political situation of their time. His message to both kings, in brief, was that no human power could stand in the way of Assyria. Thus Judah was not to rely on alliances with Egypt or any other nation. Judah’s only hope was faith in God’s power to protect Zion, His chosen city.
The judgments recorded in Is. 1–35 can almost all be placed in this 8th-century Assyrian context. Chapters 36–39 is a historical narrative about that time period, almost identical to 2 Kin. 18:13–20:19. The setting changes, however, in Is. 40–55. These chapters are oracles of salvation that specifically speak of Cyrus the Persian and the restoration of Jerusalem in 538 B.C., some 200 years after Isaiah’s time. Another change of setting occurs in Is. 56–66, chapters that appear to speak of the restored temple during Persian rule (c. 538–515 B.C.).
For almost a thousand years, some scholars have noted these shifts and suggested that the Book of Isaiah is the work of at least two different prophets. One would have been the prophet Isaiah himself, but the other an anonymous prophet of the late Babylonian exile (Cyrus’s time) who consciously traced his spiritual roots to the original Isaiah. Other scholars, while acknowledging that chs. 40–66 speak of a later time, maintain that they are still the work of the prophet Isaiah, a divine vision of the salvation to come in the distant future.
But historical context concerns more than just the question of authorship. The sense of the various chapters of Isaiah should be considered in the context of which they speak. During Isaiah’s own lifetime the threat was Assyria, and the prophet had to speak forcefully to his people and their kings, because they tended to trust in their own political and military maneuverings rather than in the power of God. This is the setting for most of Is. 1–39.
The prophecies of Is. 40–66 demonstrate that Judah’s God is superior to other nations that would come. God promises to deliver His people, His chosen servants, from their captivity in Babylon. He will do something unheard of: through the mighty Persian emperor Cyrus, God will set an exiled people free to go home. Beyond all this, God will prepare His people to make His glory known to the Gentiles, who will come to the Lord’s house to learn His ways (49:6; 56:3–8). These later chapters of Isaiah should be read in this context.
The first five chapters of Isaiah contain many representative oracles and may be intended as a thematic introduction to the book. Chronologically, though, Isaiah’s ministry begins with his call, recounted in Is. 6. The prophet’s call consists of a vision of God which he received “in the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), about 740 B.C.
Chapters 1–5 present God’s case against Judah. She has been seduced by the folly of human independence. Because Judah placed her faith in human leadership instead of in God, she was doomed to experience weaker and weaker leadership. This was exactly what happened in Judah’s final years.