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Holman Bible Dictionary
The Historical Background Isaiah's ministry spanned the period from his call vision (about 740 B.C.) until the last years of Hezekiah (716-687) or the early years of Manasseh (687-642). The prophet lived during the reigns of the Judean kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, and perhaps the first years of Manasseh. He was contemporary with the last five kings of Israel: Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah, and Hosea. The tragic fall of Samaria to the Assyrian King Sargon II in 722 B.C. occurred during his ministry.
In northwest Mesopotamia, the energetic monarch Tiglath-pileser III (745-727) founded the mighty Assyrian Empire. A series of vigorous successors succeeded him: Shalmaneser V (726-722), Sargon II (721-705), Sennacherib (704-681), and Esarhaddon (680-669). With Asshurbanipal (668-627) the empire began to crumble and ultimately fell to the Babylonians in 612-609 under the command of Nabopolassar (625-585).
During this same period Egypt experienced a resurgence of power in the 25th Dynasty (about 716-663) and occasioned international intrigue among the Palestinian states to overthrow Assyria. The petty states of Palestine—Syria, Philistia, Moab, Edom, Ammon, Arabia, Tyre, Israel, and Judah—were ultimately conquered or made tributary to Assyria. With strong feelings of nationalism these states fomented rebellion and duplicity, a world of intrigue born of political and economic frustrations. In this era Isaiah exercised his prophetic ministry, a large part of which was politically involved with Judah and to a lesser extent Israel. He advocated policies of state in line with the religious creed of authentic prophetism.
Personal Life of Isaiah Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was born in Judah, no doubt in Jerusalem, about 760 B.C. He enjoyed a significant position in the contemporary society and had a close relationship with the reigning monarchs. His education is clearly evident in his superb writing that has gained him an eminence in Hebrew literature hardly surpassed by any other. He had a thorough grasp of political history and dared to voice unpopular minority views regarding the state and the economy. His knowledge of the religious heritage of Israel and his unique theological contributions inspire awe. He was alive to what was transpiring in the court, in the marketplace, in high society with its shallowness, and in the political frustrations of the nation.
Isaiah was called to be a prophet of Yahweh in striking visions which he experienced in the Temple about 740 B.C., the year that the aged Judean king Uzziah died (Isaiah 6:1 ). The elements in that vision forecast the major themes of his preaching, particularly the transcendent nature of Yahweh, which may serve as a modern translation of Hebraic “holiness.” God warned him that his ministry would meet with disappointment and meager results but also assured him that forgiveness would ever attend the penitent (Isaiah 6:5-7; Isaiah 1:19-20 ) and that the ultimate promises of God would be realized (Isaiah 6:13 ).
The prophet was married and was the father of two sons whose names symbolized Isaiah's public preaching: Mahershalalhashbaz (the spoil speeds; the prey hastes), a conviction that Assyria would invade Syria and Israel about 734 B.C., and Sherajashub (a remnant shall return), a name that publicized his belief in the survival and conversion of a faithful remnant in Israel (Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 7:3; Isaiah 8:1 ,Isaiah 8:1,8:4; Isaiah 10:20-23 ).
During the dark days when the Assyrians took over one Palestinian state after another, Isaiah firmly contended that the Judean monarchs ought to remain as neutral as possible, to refrain from rebellious acts, and to pay tribute. When the Israelites and Syrians jointly attacked Judah for refusing to join the anti-Assyrian coalition (Isaiah 7:1-9; Isaiah 8:1-15 ), he deplored the dangerous policy of purchasing protection from the Assyrians. In 711 B.C. when the city of Ashdod rebelled against Assyria, Isaiah assumed the garb of a captive for three years calling on Hezekiah not to take the fatal step of joining the rebellion. No doubt he was instrumental in influencing Hezekiah to reject the seditious plot (Isaiah 20:1-6 ). That same resolute policy assured Isaiah that Jerusalem would not fall to Sennacherib in 701 B.C. despite the ominous outlook the Assyrian envoys forecast (Isaiah 36-37 ). Isaiah soundly castigated Hezekiah for entertaining the seditious Babylonian princelet whose real purpose was to secure military aid for a rebellion in south Babylonia in an effort to overthrow Sennacherib (Isaiah 39:1 ).
Literary and Theological Pronouncements Israel made no clear separation of church and state; accordingly most of the utterances of Isaiah are religious and political in character in spite of their literary diversity. Underlying his conceptual world was his inaugural vision: Yahweh was the ultimate King; His nature was infinite holiness or transcendence; His holiness manifested itself in righteousness (Isaiah 5:16 ). Yahweh was the electing, endowing, forgiving God, possessing plans and purposes for His servant Israel by which they might secure the Abrahamic promise of world blessedness. The vision of Isaiah indicated the resistance this program would encounter but concluded with the certainty of its performance.
With this theological perspective Isaiah inveighed against the errant nation of Judah (Isaiah 1:2-9; Isaiah 2:6-22; Isaiah 3:1-4:1 ) even using the guise of a love song (Isaiah 5:1-7 ). He pronounced six “woes” on the immoral nation. His wrath also attacked Israel (Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 28:1-29 ). Among other travesties, Judah was rebellious, evil, iniquitous, alienated, corrupters, a sick people, unfilial in attitude, purposeless in their excessive religiosity, idolaters, proud ones whose land was filled with esoteric charlatans, brass in their defection, thankless and unappreciative, drunkards, monoplists of real estate, wise in their own eyes, morally indiscriminate. The character of true religion was absent; they needed to desist from evil, to learn to do good, to seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17 ).
Though the indictments were severe, Isaiah still held out the hope of forgiveness to the penitent (Isaiah 1:18-31 ) and pointed to days coming when God would establish peace (Isaiah 2:1-4; Isaiah 4:2-6 ). He promised the Messiah, the son of David, who would assume the chief role in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic-Davidic covenantal promises (Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9 ).
Isaiah is remembered for his magnificent conception of God. The thrice-repeated term “holy” is equivalent to holiness to the nth or infinite degree ( Isaiah 6:3 ). Yahweh is Lord of all, King of the universe, the Lord of history who exhibits His character in righteousness, that is, in self-consistent acts of rightness (Isaiah 5:16 ). The prophet criticized the vanity and meaninglessness of religion's pride. He demanded social and religious righteousness practiced in humility and faith. He strongly affirmed God's plans that would not lack fulfillment, announcing that the Assyrian king was but the instrument of God and accountable to Him. He stressed, too, the Day of Yahweh, a time when the presence of God would be readily discoverable in human history. Isaiah was certain that a faithful remnant would always carry on the divine mission (Shearjashub, Isaiah 1:9 ). The messianic hope was considered the blueprint of history fulfilled, the hope of humankind toward which all creation moves.
The Disciples of Isaiah During the ministry of Isaiah when the Judeans discounted his stern warnings, he ordered that his “testimony” and “teaching” be bound and sealed—no doubt in a scroll—and committed to his disciples until history proved his words true (Isaiah 8:16 ). Most people did not accept Isaiah's message, but he had disciples who did. They formed the backbone of a prophetic party in Judah who preserved his writings, sustained his political and religious power so that he had access to the person of the king, and arranged the final form of his preaching in written form as can be seen by constant referral to the prophet in third person rather than first.
In Isaiah's time the great military power that threatened the Palestinian states was Assyria. In much of the book that now bears the name of Isaiah, the reigning power was Babylon, which did not rise to power until after 625 B.C., over 50 years after Isaiah's death. Some Bible students think that the writings that reflect the Babylonian period may be the work of the disciples of Isaiah, who projected his thought into the new and changed situation of the Babylonian world. Others would say in the Spirit Isaiah was projected supernaturally into the future, thus able to know even the name of Cyrus, King of Persia (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1 ).
The Prophetic Critique of Foreign Affairs Israel's prophets such as Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah devoted considerable attention to political pronouncements regarding foreign nations. Those thus singled out included Babylon (Isaiah 13-14 ), Moab (Isaiah 15-16 ), Damascus (Isaiah 17:1-14 ), Ethiopia (Isaiah 18:1 ), Egypt (Isaiah 19-20 ), and Tyre (Isaiah 23:1 ). The importance of these prophetic utterances are historical, though political and religious principles can be profitably drawn from them.
Every national capital hosted embassies of other friendly nations with their diplomatic staffs. Such visiting ambassadors were responsible to their home governments to report the relevant news. These prophetic speeches to the nations proved significant in that they represented a strong minority group feeling, the religious and political thought of a traditional Yahwistic block with strong backing from the right wing of the government. The speeches of Isaiah or his disciples would be relayed to the foreign capitals as a significant utterance on foreign affairs. They also informed God's people of His world plans, giving encouragement of final victory.
The “Little Apocalypse” (Isaiah 24–27 ) Midway between prophetic prediction and apocalypticism are these four chapters. Apocalypticism is an expressive term which denotes the unveiling of the future. Portions of Ezekiel, Joel, and Daniel are written in this style marked by cosmological orientation, proximate pessimism, symbolism with few historical allusions, suprahistorical perspective—that is, the future was so bewildering and the events so vaguely perceived that the writer penned his forecast in the symbolic language of faith, pointing to a resolution of world history. In Isaiah 24-27 two opposing forces were pitted in conflict: they were presented as two cities. In the tension of history when the city of chaos triumphs, the city of God laments; when it suffers defeat, the city of God breaks forth into song. Some four hymns are in Isaiah 24-27 . Ultimately, the kingdom of God is victorious with such blessing as the removal of national hatred, the overcoming of sorrow, the overcoming of death, the resurrection, in short, the resolution of history as the kingdom of God.
A Collection of Prophetic Oracles (Isaiah 28–35 ) Since five in this series of prophecies commence with an introductory “woe,” it suggests that much of this block of materials will be negative in its criticism. Thus in Isaiah 28:1 the inebriated aristocracy of Israel failed to discern the fading flower of their nation; and they were supported in their dereliction by the priests and prophets. Indeed, they mimicked sarcastically Isaiah's plain speech as childish prattle, to which he retorted that if they did not understand simple Hebrew, Yahweh would speak to them in Assyrian! Yet, those that trusted in God stood on a firm foundation, a foundation laid in righteousness and justice. It alone would stand ( Isaiah 28:16-22 ).
Isaiah 29-35 are largely directed to Judah; elements of severe censure are often followed by oracles of comfort. The Judeans were reproved for their rejection of the authentic voice of prophecy, their defiant atheism, their meaningless parade of religion, their rebellious plotting with the Egyptians, and their buildup of the military. Such passages as Isaiah 28:5-6; Isaiah 29:5-8 ,Isaiah 29:5-8,29:17-24; Isaiah 30:18-33; Isaiah 31:4-9; Isaiah 32:1-5 ,Isaiah 32:1-5,32:8 ,Isaiah 32:8,32:15-20; Isaiah 33:2-6 ,Isaiah 33:2-6,33:17-24 contrast with these passages. The conclusion of this segment includes the juxtaposition of a negative oracle against Edom, here symbolic of evil, with a paradisiacal contrast involving Israel ( Isaiah 34-35 ). Much like the theme of Isaiah 24-27 , it forecasted the ultimate fulfillment of divine purposes in history.
The Historical Appendage With the exception of Isaiah 38:9-21 , an original thanksgiving song of Hezekiah after a severe illness, the rest of Isaiah 36-39 duplicates 2 Kings 18:13-20:19 . A similar insertion of historical materials from the Book of Kings (2 Kings 24:18-25:30 ) concludes the Book of Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 52:1 ). It provides the reader of the prophet with an historical background for the understanding of the book.
The Book of Consolation (Isaiah 40–55 )
Its Historical Background. The setting of these chapters is incontestably that of the later years of the Babylonian Exile when Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1 ) was beginning his conquests which would ultimately overthrow the Babylonian power (550 B.C.). The city of Jerusalem and its Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., and a considerable segment of the upper classes had been forcibly exiled to Babylon. The writer hailed Cyrus as the shepherd of Yahweh who would build Jerusalem and set the exiles free (Isaiah 44:26-45:1 ). For some forty years the Judeans had lived as hostages in a strange land; they were discouraged by the seeming unimprovable situation. Was it their unforgivable guilt; had God forgotten them? The stunning victory of Cyrus over the mighty Babylonian power (538 B.C.) and his decree of liberation for the Jewish exiles were events too joyous to recount. But what of the long, arduous journey through the desert with its multiplied dangers? The prophetic voice assured the exiles that God would prepare a level highway for their journey, provide for their sustenance, and lead them back to their homeland (Isaiah 40:1 ). The exiles were assured of divine pardon, comforted in every major problem area, and promised the restoration of Zion and its Temple.
Its Literary Structure. The prophetic voice of Isaiah 40-55 affirmed the purpose of God in the dark days of the Babylonian Exile. Most of the chapters articulate the various theological affirmations designed to comfort, challenge, and advise the hostage people. However, arising from the messages of comfort and dialogue are four so-called Servant Songs ( Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-9; and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 ). These songs reiterate the role of Israel as the chosen servant of God, the nation that would evangelize all nations, whose endowment by the Spirit would provide the enablement for that mission and the concomitant suffering attendant the people of God addressing a sinful society, and the ultimate success of the divine mission by his faithful servants. There can be no doubt but that the authentic Israel was the servant the prophet had in mind (Isaiah 49:3 ). While these songs unquestionably identify the Suffering Servant as the godly in Israel, they find their ultimate fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. The cross-bearing Christian church (Galatians 6:14-16 ) carries on the Servant's mission.
The religious affirmation of Isaiah 40–55 . The overwhelming majesty of these chapters have ever impressed the faithful with its sublime consolation. Against the gloom of Exile, the prophet portrayed the One Sovereign God, Creator, incomparable, unfailing, the Lord of history. What a sorry contrast was the Babylonian idolatry with its vaunted pretensions (Isaiah 46-47 ).
The prophetic announcement disclosed the movement of God in history—the Exile was over. The Persians were about to take over the Babylonian power; they would be trustworthy and friendly to the exiles. The difficulties of the journey would be provided for by the God who programmed the Exodus and would once more duplicate that performance in the release of the exiles from Babylonian tyranny. It was Yahweh who had stirred up Cyrus, and through him His purpose would be secured. Assured of divine forgiveness and comforted in their grief, the exiles were exhorted to identify with their ancient role in the blessing of the earth's population through the dissemination of the religion through which the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:3 ). The Servant Songs were the blueprint for Israel's devotion and adherence—to love, to serve, to suffer, to teach the knowledge of God for the salvation of humankind.
The Concluding Prophetic Oracles (Isaiah 56–66 )
Its Historical Setting. Here is a change of venue from Isaiah 40-55; no longer was Babylon the focus; Palestine was, with the Temple restored and sacrifice and worship being conducted. Many scholars place this collection sometime around 460 B.C. and attribute the diverse fields of interest, style, and religious affirmation to prophetic voices of this period addressing themselves to major issues of their day. Others think God transported the eighth century prophet into the fifth century setting.
Its Literary Structure. The subjects handled in this section include an oracle on sabbath keeping (Isaiah 56:1-8 ), censure of civil and religious leaders (Isaiah 56:9-57:12 ), an analysis of the meaning of fasting (Isaiah 58:1 ), the dilemma of the unfulfilled divine promises (Isaiah 59:1 ), hopeful encouragement to be anticipated (Isaiah 60-64 ), the grievous sin of Judah and the blessedness of the righteous remnant (Isaiah 65:1 ), and brief fragments on a number of subjects (Isaiah 66:1 ).
Its Theological Affirmation. This portion of inspired Scripture contains some very remarkable and advanced concepts. It places the reader in the midst of a discordant community where the righteous struggle against their powerful opponents. It censures the moral depravity of rulers, of those who succumb to pagan practices, of those who practice external rites without true identification with their meaning. A most interesting affirmation regards foreigners and eunuchs (Isaiah 56:3-7 ), they would no longer be excluded from the Temple worship. This injected grace and hope into the law of Deuteronomy 23:1 . Other choice verses praise humility (Isaiah 66:1-2 ), announce the new heaven and the new earth (Isaiah 66:22 ); and report the anointing by the Spirit (Isaiah 61:1-4 ). This remarkable conclusion to the Book of Isaiah discloses the struggles and aspirations of the post-exilic community. Without it we should be impoverished in our knowledge of that period.
I. God Knows His Peoples' Sins But Calls Them Back to Himself (Isaiah 1:1-12:6 ).
A. Though your sins are many, forgiveness is possible (Isaiah 1:1-5:30 ).
B. People need God, but God also needs people to call His people (Isaiah 6:1-13 ).
C. National leaders may refuse God's help (Isaiah 7:1-8:15 ).
D. Waiting for God to act is part of serving Him (Isaiah 8:16-22 ).
E. With God the future is bright (Isaiah 9:1-7 ).
F. Fallen nations teach lessons (Isaiah 9:8-10:4 ).
G. Pride destroys individuals and nations (Isaiah 10:5-19 ).
H. God can do His work with a righteous few (Isaiah 10:20-23 ).
I. Faith in God conquers fear of all else (Isaiah 10:24-34 ).
J. An ideal age is a human dream, but a divine accomplishment (Isaiah 11:1-16 ).
K. Anytime is the right time for thanksgiving (Isaiah 12:1-6 ).
II. God's Sovereignty Extends to All Nations Whether Acknowledged or Not (Isaiah 13:1-23:18 ).
A. God's judgment is real (Isaiah 13:1-21:17 ).
B. God's judgment is impartial (Isaiah 22:1-23:18 ).
III. God's Triumph Over Evil Means Deliverance for His People (Isaiah 24:1-27:13 ).
A. God's judgment time is a time of mourning and singing (Isaiah 24:1-23 ).
B. God's judgment time is a time of thanksgiving (Isaiah 25:1-12 ).
C. God's judgment time is a time of victory (Isaiah 26:1-27:13 ).
IV. God's People Must Be Different (Isaiah 28:1-39:8 ).
A. Tragedy strikes when leaders fail (Isaiah 28:1-29:4 ).
B. The power of God overshadows the power of nations (Isaiah 30:1-35:10 ).
C. A triumphant faith is a faith that will not let go (Isaiah 36:1-39:8 ).
V. God's Word for His Confused People (Isaiah 40:1-55:13 ).
A. God comes to His people when judgment has passed (Isaiah 40:1-31 ).
B. God holds His people by the hand (Isaiah 41:1-29 ).
C. Send the light of truth to those in darkness (Isaiah 42:1-25 ).
D. God alone is Savior of His people (Isaiah 43:1-28 ).
E. Homemade gods can never save (Isaiah 44:1-28 ).
F. God may use an unbeliever (Isaiah 45:1-25 ).
G. False gods make life's load heavier (Isaiah 46:1-13 ).
H. Ruin follows wickedness as night follows day (Isaiah 47:1-15 ).
I. Let the redeemed of the Lord proclaim it (Isaiah 48:1-52:15 ).
J. Healing comes to many through the suffering of One (Isaiah 53:1-12 ).
K. God keeps His promises (Isaiah 54:1-17 ).
L. God's finest invitation: Return to Me (Isaiah 55:1-13 ).
VI. God's Word to His Imperfect People (Isaiah 56:1-66:24 ).
A. Salvation is for all people (Isaiah 56:1-12 ).
B. Idolatry is an ever present temptation (Isaiah 57:1-21 ).
C. Worship and right living are inseparable (Isaiah 58:1-14 ).
D. Repentance brings reconciliation with God (Isaiah 59:1-21 ).
E. Light from God brings life (Isaiah 60:1-62:12 ).
F. Prayer brings God's help (Isaiah 63:1-65:25 ).
G. Judgment and deliverance are rights of God alone (Isaiah 66:1-24 ).
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Isaiah'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​i/isaiah.html. 1991.