Isaiah means “salvation of the Lord.”
Isaiah prophesied in Judah during the reigns of four kings, a period of about 60-70 years during which Samaria was captured, Israel was carried away (722 – 721 B.C.), and Judah was invaded (701 B.C.). He was a contemporary of Hosea and Micah.
Isaiah’s messages hearken back to the eternal counsels of God and the creation of the universe (see 42:5) and gaze forward to God’s creation of new heavens and a new earth (65:17; 66:22). While there are many important prophecies concerning Jerusalem, Israel and Judah, Isaiah’s predictions encompass all the nations of the earth (see 2:4; 5:26; 14:6, 26; 40:15, 17, 22; 66:18).
His Messianic focus
Isaiah foretells the Messiah’s birth (7:14; 9:6); His deity (9:6-7); His ministry (9:1-2; 42:1-7; 61:1-2); His death (52:1 – 53:12); and His future reign on earth (chaps 2; 11; 65).
Isaiah “was the greatest of the writing prophets,” according to The New Scofield Study Bible. “No other prophet has written with such majestic eloquence about the glory of God…. Of all the O.T. prophets, Isaiah is the most comprehensive in range. No prophet is more fully occupied with the redemptive work of Christ. In no other place, in the Scriptures written under the law, is there so clear a view of grace” (p. 924).
The kings of Judah
Chronologies for the Hebrew kings vary between one and 10 years depending on the source consulted. Here are the dates according to E.R. Thiele in The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983): Uzziah/Azariah – 792-740 B.C.; Jotham (co-regent until Uzziah’s death) – 750-732 B.C.; Ahaz – 735-716 B.C.; Hezekiah – 716-687 B.C.
Uzziah and Jotham
Isa. 1:1 tells us the prophet’s ministry began during the time of Uzziah and his son Jotham. It is likely that Isaiah began late in Uzziah’s reign, after he had attained substantial wealth and military success, perhaps between 750-740 B.C. At this time Jotham was coregent and running the country because Uzziah was leprous and therefore secluded. Uzziah’s success early in his kingship was due to his willingness to listen to the prophet Zechariah, who taught him God’s ways. As a result, Uzziah is listed as one of Judah’s kings who “did what was right in the Lord’s sight” (2 Chron. 26:4-5). But his legacy began a downward spiral when he arrogantly entered the temple in Jerusalem and burned incense to God, despite warnings from 80 priests. As a result, God struck Uzziah with leprosy (2 Chron. 26:16-20) and his son Jotham ruled as coregent for about 10 years until Uzziah died around 740 B.C.
Religious life in Judah deteriorated significantly during the reign of Azah, who “did not do what was right in the Lord’s sight … he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and made cast images of the Baals. He burned incense in the Valley of Hinnom and burned his children in the fire, imitating the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites” (2 Chron. 28:1-3). His lack of faith in God was illustrated graphically when he failed to trust God despite the promise of military victory (Isa. 7:1-9).
Hezekiah was a great religious reformer, a man of faith who led his armies to trust in God for deliverance (2 Chron. 32:6-8), and who did so himself when he asked God to deliver the Jews from the Assyrians (2 Chron. 32:20-21). In the first year of his reign, he repaired the temple, consecrated priests, renewed the nation’s covenant with God, removed pagan elements his father brought into the temple area, and restored worship (see 2 Chron. 29:3-11, 15-36). Although he later was puffed up with pride for a time, he quickly repented, and God blessed him with great riches (2 Chron. 32:27-29).
The prophet Isaiah
It’s difficult to get a full picture of the prophet because his writings reveal very little about his personal life. We do know that Isaiah identifies his father as Amoz, who may have been a scribe in the king’s court. Jewish tradition suggests that Amoz was the brother of King Amaziah, the father of Uzziah, but there is no way to substantiate this. Isaiah’s wife is called a prophetess (8:3), but there is no record of her prophetic messages, so it’s possible the term simply identifies her with Isaiah. Isaiah and his wife have at least two sons (7:3; 8:3), but little is known of them.
A high point in Isaiah’s ministry comes in chapter 6 when he meets with God. He despises his uncleanness and confesses his sinfulness as he catches a glimpse of the glory of God (6:1-4). He then confesses the sins of the people of Judah and responds to the divine call to take God’s message to the people (6:6-8). Gary V. Smith comments, “Isaiah did not know the nature of the mission God designed for the one being sent, the length of the responsibility, where this person must go, the message that must be spoken, or the difficulty of the task that must be accomplished. Nevertheless, Isaiah immediately volunteered. He did not make excuses or question God’s plan like Moses or Jeremiah (Exod. 3:11; 4:1, 10; Jer. 1:6) but gladly offered to serve God” (The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Isaiah 1-36, p. 36).
It is important to note that Isaiah is sent to bring hardness to the hearts of the people of Judah (6:9-10). The Lord states plainly that the future is dark for His people, but there is hope (6:11-13). This is illustrated in Isaiah’s encounter with Ahaz in chapter 7. God instructs Isaiah to bring the wicked and wildly outnumbered king hope of God’s deliverance in the upcoming Syro-Ephraimite War. Rather than trusting God, however, Ahaz hardens his heart and refuses to invite God to grant a sign (7:10-13).
Isaiah obediently serves the Lord even when the assignments seem bizarre. For example, he is told to go naked in public for parts of three years (20:2). This symbolizes what would happen to the inhabitants of Judah if taken captive in war; normally, war captives are stripped in shame. It isn’t known whether Isaiah explains his behavior to anyone in self defense, but the Lord calls Isaiah “my servant,” “a sign,” and “portent.” The impact of Isaiah’s ministry is felt far beyond the scope of his lifetime. He is quoted directly in the New Testament more than 65 times, far more than any other Old Testament prophet, and is mentioned by name more than 20 times.
Through a literary device known as “prophetic foreshortening,” Isaiah predicts future events without laying down exact sequences of the events or the time intervals separating them. For example, as John MacArthur writes, “nothing in Isaiah reveals the extended period separating the two comings of the Messiah (cf. Is. 61:1, 2; Luke 4:17-22). Also, he does not provide as clear a distinction between the future temporal kingdom and the eternal kingdom as John does in Revelation 20:1-10; 21:1-22:5. In God’s program of progressive revelation, details of these relationships awaited a prophetic spokesman in a later time” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 757).
In summary, Isaiah the person is known primarily through what he says, not what he does. His speeches focus on Judah’s wrong political policies as reflections of their lack of trust in God. In ways similar to Joel, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum and Zephaniah, Isaiah offers little biographical information about the prophet. Many of the Lord’s prophets seem intentionally to downplay themselves in order to lift of God and His message.
Tradition has it that Isaiah met his death under King Manasseh by being cut in two with a wooden saw (see Heb. 11:37).
An outline of study
Commentators approach the book of Isaiah in different ways, but generally we will pursue this simple outline:
- I. Judgment: Chapters 1-35
- II. Historical Interlude: Chapters 36-39
- III. Salvation: Chapters 40-66