Overview of Isaiah
Background to Isaiah
Isaiah 1:1 informs us that this book is a record of the visions of Isaiah, the son of Amoz. Isaiah was probably born to an influential upper class family (Malick) , because he had access to the King (Is 7:3-4, 8:2, 30:1-7, 36-36). He was married to a prophet and had two children. (7:3, 8:3). He probably was a scribe in the employee of Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:22). Tradition states he was executed under the reign of the evil king, Manasseh.
As will be discussed in the structure section below, the book of Isaiah has a clear division between chapters 1 – 40 and chapters 41 -66. The first section deals with the nation of Judah during the time of the threat of invasion by Assyria in the eighth century BC. The second section deals with the nation in exile in Babylon.
For this reason, in the late 18 th century, biblical scholars began hypothesizing that the second section of the book was written by a different author during the sixth century BC. This anonymous author was called the “Deutero-Isaiah.”
In 1895, the biblical scholar Bernard Duhm further suggested that the book actually has three authors. For most of the 20 th century all but the most conservative biblical scholars all agreed that the book was written either two or three different authors.
Although few scholars outside of the evangelical community would consider the book to be the work of a single author, in the last 25 years there has been more attention given to interpreting the book as a unified whole.
The Case Against the Unity of Isaiah
There are a number of different reasons to believe that Isaiah should not be considered as a unified book written by a single individual.
First, there is a significant change in the style of the writing beginning around chapter 40. The first section focuses more on God's judgment, while the second section's lofty poetry focuses more on the restoration of God's people.
Secondly, the author is addressing an audience in the Babylonian exile more than a century later than Isaiah. The discussion of God's restoration of those in exile would have had very little relevance for Isaiah's contemporaries.
Third, Isaiah 45:1 states that Cyrus of Persia would free Israel from its Babylonian exile. For most scholars, the mention of this specific liberator nearly 200 years before his arrival is absurd. Clearly, then, the author must have written after the rise of Cyrus, for this prediction is too specific to possibly be written as early as the rest of the book.
Finally, while Isaiah is specifically mentioned several times in the first 39 chapters of the book, he is not mentioned at all in the last section of the book.
The Case for the Unity of Isaiah
While there most scholars are convinced that Isaiah is written by multiple authors, there are compelling arguments for the unity of the book.
First, the New Testament writers assume Isaiah as the author of the latter part of the book. Both the apostle John (John 12:38) and Paul (Romans 10:16) attribute chapter 53 to Isaiah. Matthew attributes chapter 40 to Isaiah (Matthew 3:3). Finally, when Jesus himself attends synagogue in Nazareth, He reads chapter 61, which, according to Luke, is from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:17-19). In all the prophet Isaiah is mentioned 22 times in the New Testament, and of these, nine are specific references to the latter half of the book. The witness of the New Testament authors alone should provide sufficient evidence for the unity of the book of Isaiah.
Secondly, while it is acknowledged that there is a change in style in the latter sections, these difference are outweighed by the similarities (Davis) . For example, the title for God, “the Holy One of Israel,” is used 12 times in chapters 1 to 39, and 14 times in chapters 40-66. However, this title is only used six other times in the rest of the Old Testament.
Third, in chapters 41 – 48, the author repeatedly makes the case that Yahweh is the only one true God because He can predict the future. For example:
(Isaiah 44:6-8 ESV) Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.
7 Who is like me?...Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
8 Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me?
If this section of the book does not predict the future but is merely a description of current or recent historical events, then it would negate the very argument being made (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66 270) .
Finally, without exception, every ancient manuscript of Isaiah presents the book as a single unit. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are dated as early as the second century BC, contains the complete book as a unit. Furthermore, there is no extra biblical evidence whatsoever to support the theory of multiple authors. Without exception, every ancient author assumes that Isaiah was the author of the entire book (Ortlund) .
If, then, Isaiah was the work of multiple authors, then one must hypothesize the circumstances under which these books were combined into a single presentation. Current scholarship can find no consensus on how this took place (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1 - 39 24-25) .
Date & Audience
According to 1:1, Isaiah wrote the book during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. This represents the major part of the 8 th century BC.
Events in Israel
The northern kingdom of Israel was ruled by King Jeroboam II during the reign of King Uzziah, and was experiencing a military and economic revival. However, following Jeroboam's death, Israel went into a downward spiral. The kingdom was in political chaos, with kings frequently being assassinated. The nation had rejected the worship of God and adopted the pagan practices of their neighbors. This included human sacrifice and temple prostitution.
Because of the rebellion of the northern kingdom, God allowed Assyria to slowly capture the nation. First under the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser, Assyria captured Galilee and northern Israel in 740 BC. Finally the Assyrian king Shalmaneser brought about the fall of the Israelite capital, Samaria, in 722 BC, taking the inhabitants of the northern kingdom in exile.
Events in Judah
The Judean king Uzziah sought after God. He developed a sophisticated army and was economically very prosperous. However, as Uzziah grew in strength and prosperity he quit trusting God. God struck him with leprosy after he arrogantly performed a temple ritual reserved for the priests.
Jotham, his son, ruled while his father had leprosy. While Jotham followed God, the people were corrupt and increasingly followed the pagan religion.
The next king, Ahaz, rejected God and tried to build an alliance with Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria. While he was helped militarily, he taxed the people and gave away the temple treasury to keep Assyria happy.
The next king, Hezekiah, however, followed God and eliminated destroyed the pagan temples. However, militarily Judah was weak and faced a formidable enemy in Assyria, which was a constant threat in the north.
Isaiah is writing primarily to the nation of Judah which is increasingly under the threat of invasion from the Assyrian empire. The nation has rejected the worship of God and are increasingly relying on pagan religion and military strength for their salvation. Isaiah is also, however, writing to the generation which will be in exile, awaiting the hope of return to the Promised Land.
Structure of Isaiah
As previously mentioned, Isaiah is divided into two major sections:
Judgment of the Proud
Deliverance of the Humble
The Pride of Israel
The Pride of King Ahaz
The Pride of the Nations
The Humility of King Hezekiah
Deliverance from Babylon by Cyrus
Deliverance from sin by the Suffering Servant
Deliverance to future glory by the Messiah
- Chapters 1-39 deal with the threat to Judah from the Assyrians.
- Chapters 40-66 present a hope for deliverance from the coming Babylonian captivity.
The first section of the book has four major sections:
- Chapters 1-6 serve as a “mini-book” summarizing the major themes of the entire book (Baylis 288) .
- Chapters 7-12 report the interaction between Isaiah and King Ahaz during the threat of invasion by the allied forces of Israel and Aram (Syria).
- Chapters 13-27 contain a series of oracles against various nations.
- Chapters 28-40 report the interaction between Isaiah and King Hezekiah during the threat of invasion by Assyria.
The second section of the book has three major sections:
- Chapters 41-48 predict the deliverance of God's people from exile in Babylon by Cyrus.
- Chapters 49-59 predict the deliverance of God's people from their sins by the Messiah.
- Chapters 60-66 predict the deliverance of God's people to future glory by the Messiah.
The book of Isaiah serves as a warning to the kingdom of Judah to not arrogantly trust in their own strength in the midst of crisis, but to trust in the Holy One of Israel who will bring about deliverance from Assyria, from the Babylonian exile, and ultimately from their sins.
There is condemnation for those who arrogantly place their trust in their own might. There is deliverance for those who humbly place their trust in the Holy One of Israel.
Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:10-11)
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. (Isaiah 40:21-23)
Contents of Isaiah
Judgment of the Proud (1 – 40)
The first forty chapters of the book address the people of Judah in the midst of the threat of the invading armies of Assyria. The focus is to declare their sin and predict the impending judgment on those who would put their trust in anyone or anything other than the Holy One of Israel.
The Pride of Israel (Chapters 1 – 5)
The first five chapters of Isaiah serve as a summary of the entire book. These chapters stand-alone in what one scholar calls a “mini-book,” capturing all the major themes of Isaiah (Baylis 288) .
The book begins by God calling on all of heaven and earth to hear His case against His people (1:2). The major sin of the people is not that they aren't religious (1:11-14), but that they are arrogant and materialistic (3:14-15), and that they have exploited the poor (3:2-4). Therefore, because they have oppressed the humble, God will humble the proud (2:11-17, 5:13-15).
However, if the people humble themselves and repent, God promises to forgive them of their sins and bring them prosperity (1:19). If they do not repent, they would be conquered militarily (1:20, 5:26-30).
The Humility of Isaiah (Chapter 6)
In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah is taken into the midst of the throne room of God, where the angels shout out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts.” Through this experience, Isaiah comes to understand this importance of God's holiness. This is demonstrated throughout his writings, as his favorite title for God is “the Holy One of Israel.”
When confronted with God's holiness, Isaiah became aware of His own sinfulness, and that he is doomed (“Woe is me, for I am undone!”). Fortunately God does not leave Isaiah in his doomed, woeful state. God takes the initiative to forgive, to purify and purge Isaiah of his sin so that he can be a used by God as His prophet.
When confronted with the holiness of God, Isaiah learns humility. In comparison to the holiness of God there is no room for arrogance. God is holy, and we are not.
The Pride of King Ahaz (Chapter 7 – 12)
During the reign of King Ahaz, Israel joined forces with Aram (Syria) to attack Jerusalem. Isaiah was sent by God to King Ahaz to reassure him that the Lord would protect Jerusalem if only Ahaz would place his faith in Him (7:3-9). Ahaz, however, thinks he doesn't need the Lord , for he has arranged an alliance with Assyria who would help him with the threat. So he arrogantly ignores the sign of God's deliverance (7:10-12). King Ahaz feared the armies of Aram and Israel more than he feared God (7:2b, 8:13). As a result, the very country which Ahaz will trust to save him will turn around and cause his ruin (7:17).
Ahaz's failure as a king prompts the announcement of a future king who would rule His people well (9:6-7). This King will be God incarnate, as he is titled, “Might God” and “Eternal Father” (9:6). His reign will never end, and He will establish justice (11:3-5) and peace (11:6-9). He will gather the remnants of exiled Israel back to the land (11:11-13). This remnant will never again put their trust in human armies that will betray them, but will rely only in the Holy One of Israel (10:20).
The Pride of the Nations (Chapters 13 – 27)
Beginning in chapter 13, Isaiah declares God's judgment on Judah and the surrounding nations. The common sin of each of these nations is their arrogance. They each believed in their own strength and abilities and were proud. They did not give God his due consideration.
The key passage dealing with the sin of arrogance comes in the middle of an oracle against the nation of Babylon (14:12-15). Here, Isaiah is describing to us the fall of not just Babylon, but Satan himself. The original sin of Satan, and the sin of each of the nations is that of arrogance. This belief that one can be as great as God himself, is abhorrent to God. God will humiliate those who are arrogant and proud.
This section of Isaiah reaches its climax in a declaration of final judgment against the pride of the whole earth (Chapter 24). God will bring an end to the rebellion of Satan, and he will punish all the arrogant kings of the earth (24:21). This will then usher in God's righteous reign from Zion (24:23).
Isaiah then completes the section with a song of praise for God who defeats the arrogant and lifts up the humble. God will be a defense to the helpless (25:4), and will establish his kingdom of peace and prosperity for those who trust in the Lord (26:2-4). He will raise the dead back to life and bring them into His kingdom (26:19).
The Humility of King Hezekiah (Chapters 28 – 39)
In chapters 7 – 12 King Ahaz is confronted with an invading army and must choose to trust God for deliverance or trust in a foreign alliance. In chapters 29 – 39, Ahaz's son, King Hezekiah faces the same choice. However, unlike his father, Hezekiah chooses to trust in the Lord rather than the armies of men. Hezekiah serves as a contrast to the arrogance of the nations and is an illustration of one who humbly trusts in the Lord.
The army of Assyria is outside the gates of Jerusalem, and the Assyrian general calls out to the people of Jerusalem to surrender. He tells them they cannot trust Egypt to rescue them (36:6), and that they cannot trust in the Lord to rescue them either (36:7, 18-20).
The general's first statement was accurate. Egypt could not be trusted to rescue Jerusalem. Isaiah himself had warned that the people were not to trust Egypt in 30:1-3. To trust in Egypt and military strength would be a sign of the pride and arrogance which Isaiah had just condemned. Furthermore, in chapter 20 Isaiah even prophesied that Assyria would conquer Egypt.
But Hezekiah took offense that His God could not be trusted to rescue them. Hezekiah responds to the Assyrian threat by praying to God (37: 16-20). In this prayer, Hezekiah affirms God's greatness and his own inadequacy. Where others might trust in military might, Hezekiah would trust in God.
In response to Hezekiah's prayer, God sends Isaiah to tell Hezekiah that He will deliver Jerusalem. Assyria will leave without a battle (37:36-37).
With chapter 39, the focus of attention moves from Assyria and its threat to Israel and Judah, to Babylon. The rest of the book will focus on the exile to Babylon predicted in this chapter, and will speak primarily to that future generation awaiting deliverance from their Babylonian exile.
God's Faithfulness to the Humble (Chapter 40)
Isaiah 40 serves as a transitional chapter in the book. It continues the theme of judgment to the arrogant, but also begins the theme of comfort and hope to the humble which characterizes the rest of the book.
In verses 12-26, Isaiah shows how far God is above his creation. He declares that to God, “the nations are as a drop in a bucket,” and “are counted by Him less than nothing.” The haughtiness of the nations is foolishness when you look at it from God's perspective.
But if we understand our place from God's perspective, God will comfort us and give us strength (v. 27-31).
(Isaiah 40:29 ESV) He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Deliverance of the Humble (41 – 66)
The final 26 chapters of the book are prophecies of hope and restoration for Israel. There is the redemption for the nation as it returns from the Babylonian exile under Cyrus of Persia (Chapters 41-49). More important, however, is the redemption of Israel from its state of sin (Chapters 50-49). This redemption requires the sacrifice of one known as the Servant of the Lord . The book ends with a description of the restored kingdom of Israel (Chapters 60-66).
Deliverance from Babylon (Chapters 41 – 48)
Chapters 41-48 prophesy the deliverance of the Jews from captivity by Cyrus (44:28-45:1). This is primarily fulfilled in Cyrus. But some of the predictions also have a secondary fulfillment in the a person termed “the Servant of the Lord .”
Isaiah wrote this passage almost two centuries before Cyrus was even born. Cyrus was not a worshipper of God (45:4). But God can use a worldly leader even when he doesn't acknowledge that he is being used as an agent of God.
God will save the nation through His manipulation of the geopolitical situation, for He is the one who delivers up nations and subdues kings (41:2b). Therefore His people do not need to be afraid, even in the midst of their exile.
God's deliverance by Cyrus has a specific purpose. First, it is to declare to His own people that He was their God, and that He alone was God.
(Isaiah 44:6 ESV) Thus says the Lord , the King of Israel …"I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
Secondly, the restoration of Israel would declare to all the nations that Yahweh was the one true God. There will be a day when the nations will be subservient to Israel and they will say:
(Isaiah 45:14 ESV) They will plead with you, saying: “Surely God is in you, and there is no other, no god besides him.”
Deliverance from Sin (Chapters 49 – 59)
Isaiah mentions several times throughout chapters 40-55 a person known as the “Servant of the Lord .” This servant is described in a series of four “Servant Songs” (Lindsey) :
- The Call of the Servant (Isaiah 42:1-9) - The Servant will receive the Spirit of the Lord and will bring a new covenant to the whole earth.
- The Commission of the Servant (Isaiah 49:1-13) - The Servant will bring Israel back to the worship of the Lord and will be light to all the nations, that salvation might come to the ends of the earth.
- The Commitment of the Servant (Isaiah 50:4-11) - The Servant has obediently gone through suffering. God will vindicate Him and will bring judgment upon those who reject Him.
- The Career of the Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) – The Lord praises His servant because He willingly suffers a death for the sins of Israel and the entire world.
Jesus stated He is Isaiah's “Servant of the Lord,” fulfilling the suffering of the servant described in the fourth song:
(Luke 22:37 ESV) For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” For what is written about me has its fulfillment.
Deliverance to Future Glory (Chapters 60 – 66)
The book's final six chapters conclude with a description of the final deliverance of Israel to future glory during the time of the Messianic kingdom.
The promise of the future kingdom for Israel begins with the gathering of the Jews from all the corners of the earth back to Jerusalem and the Promised Land (60:4). When Israel returns, she will no longer be subservient to the other nations.
This will be a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity for Israel and the entire world. Violence and war will be abolished, because the Messiah will serve as the judge. This time of healing and peace will allow people to live amazingly long lives (65:20).
God's people will be made righteous and they will never again depart from following the Lord (60:21). However, the greatest aspect of Israel's future glory, is the Lord himself will dwell physically in Jerusalem.
This description of the coming kingdom is brings comfort to a people entering exile. God has not forsaken them. But to participate in this kingdom, Israel needs to humbly trust in the salvation of the Lord .