Isaiah: An Introduction
The historical background for the book of Isaiah spans more than two centuries, beginning with the ascension to the Assyrian throne of Tiglath-pilezer III in 745 B.C. and concluding with the return of the Jews from their exile in 520 B.C. and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple which was completed in 516 B.C. From the perspective of Jewish history, these years divide into three major time frames:
• The period prior to the Babylonian exile. This period is associated with chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah, which warn of God’s judgment if the people place their trust in secular rulers rather than in God. Chapters 36-39 are quite similar to 2 Kings 18-20.
• The Babylonian exile, which began in 586 B.C. and ended in 539 B.C. This period is associated with chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah, which lift up the promise of redemption for a people who are experiencing the judgment about which the prophet warned in the earlier chapters.
• The years following the exile, when the Jews returned to Jerusalem and began reconstruction of the temple and the city. This period is associated with chapters 56-66.
The historical background includes the interaction of Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) with four major empires, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Egypt—as well as with several lesser but still powerful nations.
Assyria was located in the northern part of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley (modern-day northern Iraq). Its principal city was Nineveh.
• For a number of decades prior to the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, Assyria was ruled by weak kings. During this period, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. The people of Israel, under King Jereboam, tended to interpret that peace and prosperity as a sign of God’s pleasure. God sent the prophets Amos, Hosea, and Ezekiel to tell them otherwise, but the people refused to change their ways. During this period, Judah, under King Uzziah, tended to be more faithful than Israel—but their faithfulness was far from complete.
• Under Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 B.C.), Assyria achieved clear dominance.
King Ahaz asked Tiglath-pileser to help Judah repel attacks by Israel and Damascus on Judah, and Tiglath-pileser accommodated Ahaz by conquering Damascus and annexing most of the kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 16:5-9; Isaiah 7-8). However, as a result of this action, Judah became a vassal of Assyria and its people were required to recognize Assyrian gods (2 Kings 16:3-4).
It was during this period that Isaiah began his ministry. He said, “The faithful city has become a prostitute!” and “Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves” (1:21, 23). He warned, “The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low; and Yahweh alone shall be exalted in that day” (2:17). He gave counsel that Judah should not look for security to Assyria or any other nation but to God.
• King Shalmaneser V (727-721 B.C.) of Assyria defeated the northern kingdom, Israel, and carried its people into exile in 721 B.C. (2 Kings 17:3-6; 18:9-10)—thus bringing the northern kingdom to an end—permanently.
• During the period that King Sargon II ruled Assyria (721-705 B.C.), King Hezekiah of Judah allied himself with Egypt instead of Assyria. Once again, Isaiah counseled reliance on God rather than foreign nations, but once again he was ignored. Hezekiah’s alliance backfired when Sargon defeated an Egyptian-led coalition near Ashdod, which is located on the Mediterranean Sea not far from Jerusalem. Then Sargon defeated Babylonia, achieving true world dominance.
• Upon Sargon’s death, Hezekiah allied himself with Judah, Edom, and Moab. Once again, Isaiah counseled faith in God rather than foreign entanglements, but once again, he was ignored. Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.), Sargon’s successor, began a campaign against Judah. He besieged Jerusalem in 701 B.C., but “It happened that night, that the angel of Yahweh went out, and struck one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. When men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and lived at Nineveh. It happened, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. Esar Haddon his son reigned in his place” (2 Kings 19:35-37).
• Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.) defeated the Egyptians at Memphis in 671 B.C.
• However, under Assurbanipal (668-626 B.C.), Assyria was weakened by internal strife, and in 612 B.C., Chaldeans from southern Babylonia, led by Nabopolassar (625-605 B.C.), succeeded in taking Nineveh and bringing an end to Assyrian dominance.
Babylonia was located in the southern part of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley (modern-day southern Iraq). Its principal city was Babylon.
As noted above, Nabopolassar brought an end to Assyrian dominance. Under Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadrezzar II (605-562 B.C.), Babylonia extended its dominance. In 605 B.C., Nebuchadrezzar defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish, gaining control of Syria and Palestine. In 597 B.C., he besieged and conquered Jerusalem but did not destroy the city. In 589 B.C., responding to Zedekiah’s alliance with Egypt, Nebuchadrezzar once again besieged Jerusalem. In 587 B.C. he destroyed Jerusalem, killed many of its people, and took the remaining populace into exile in Babylonia (2 Kings 24-25). He thus brought an end to the southern kingdom and the Davidic dynasty—but only temporarily.
This brought a crisis of faith among the Jewish exiles who had survived the sacking of Jerusalem. Perhaps the Babylonian gods were the true gods—or perhaps they were more powerful than Yahweh—or perhaps Yahweh had abandoned them.
The second major section of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) addresses this issue. It begins with words of reassurance: “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins'” (40:1-2). It promises a highway through the desert to facilitate their return to Jerusalem (40:3-4). “Then the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it” (40:5). It promises that, just as Nebuchadrezzar had been God’s instrument to bring judgment to sinful Judah, so also Cyrus of Persia would be God’s instrument to bring Judah deliverance (chapters 45-47).
Persia was located in modern-day Iran, although at its height its rule extended eastward to the border of India and westward to Ionia (modern-day Turkey).
In 539 B.C., Cyrus II of Persia (559-530 B.C.) defeated Babylonia, and Persia replaced Babylonia as the dominant power, and Cyrus allowed the exiles to return to their homeland. He published his policy as follows: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he has commanded me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of Yahweh, the God of Israel (he is God), which is in Jerusalem. Whoever is left, in any place where he lives, let the men of his place help him with silver, with gold, with goods, and with animals, besides the freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem'” (Ezra 1:2-4)
However, the exiles soon found that returning to Jerusalem was no easy task. They soon found themselves opposed by the local people. While they had envisioned rebuilding the temple, they soon became discouraged with the difficulty of the task. They abandoned the work for a period of years, and it wasn’t until 516 B.C. that the new temple, a pale shadow of Solomon’s grand temple, was completed. Many more years passed before Ezra and Nehemiah provided the leadership to inculcate in the people a sense of their destiny as the people of God.
Chapters 56-66 were written to speak to these people. These chapters call the people to “keep justice, and do righteousness” and promise, “for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed” (56:1). They promise a place in God’s esteem for even “foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh” (56:6). They speak of the corruption of Israel’s rulers (56:9-12) and Israel’s idolatry (57:1-13). They promise help and healing to the contrite (57:14-21). They call the people to true worship (chapter 58), and promise punishment for those who are guilty of injustice (chapter 59). They promise that the dispersed peoples will be gathered in (chapter 60), and proclaim deliverance to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners (chapter 61). They promise the salvation of Zion (chapter 62) and vengeance on Edom (63:1-6). They recount God’s mercies (63:7-14), and offer a prayer of penitence (63:15—64:12). They speak of the righteousness of God’s judgment (chapter 65), and the humble and contrite worship that God demands (chapter 66).
The first verse of the Book of Isaiah says: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1). This Isaiah lived in the 8th century B.C.
THE TRADITIONAL THEORY
The traditional theory is that Isaiah the son of Amoz wrote the entire book of Isaiah. Scholars who advocate this theory find no problem with the fact that the events of the book span a period that is much longer than Isaiah’s lifetime. They assume that God gave Isaiah a vision of future events, and Isaiah recorded these. The fact that these events occurred as envisioned serves to authenticate that Isaiah’s vision came from God.
THE HISTORICAL-CRITICAL THEORY
During the past two centuries, there has been widespread acceptance of the theory that three authors were involved in writing the Book of Isaiah. Scholars base this theory on the fact that the book covers three distinctive periods: (1) Pre-exilic (2) The exile (3) Post-exilic. They also note that Isaiah is mentioned as the author on numerous occasions in chapters 1-39 (1:1; 2:1; 7:3; 13:1; 20:2; 37:3, 6, 21; 38:1, 4, 21: 39:3, 5, 8) but not at all in chapters 40-66.
This theory gives us the following authorship scheme:
• First Isaiah: Isaiah 1-39. Covers the period prior to the Babylonian exile. Written by Isaiah the son of Amoz during the last several decades of the 8th century B.C. Based on the list of kings in Isaiah 1:1, the first Isaiah is thought to have accomplished his ministry between the years of 742 B.C. and 701 B.C.
• Second Isaiah (also known as Deutero-Isaiah): Isaiah 40-55. Covers the exile. Written about 540 B.C. as Persia was rising to power.
• Third Isaiah (also known as Trito-Isaiah): Isaiah 56-66. Covers the years following the exile. Written about 520 B.C. when the Jews began to return to Jerusalem.
AN EMPHASIS ON THE UNITY OF THE BOOK OF ISAIAH
In recent years, scholars have begun to re-emphasize the unity of the Book of Isaiah. They do not reject the possibility of multiple authors, but instead acknowledge that:
(1) There is no evidence that the book ever circulated other than in its completed form.
(2) None of the three sections of the book stands alone. Each successive section builds on that which has gone before.
(3) There are certain themes and phrases that are found frequently throughout this book and seldom elsewhere. A good example is “The Holy One of Israel,” a title for God that occurs 29 times in the Bible—26 times in Isaiah (13 times in chapters 1-39 and 13 times in chapters 40-66) and 3 times in the Psalms (71:22; 78:41; 89:19) (Oswalt, 19 & 295).
“What we see is not an external, artificially imposed organization based on an alleged tripartite structure but an organic development based on a process of careful exegetical amplification and a straining to hear the word of God across several centuries” (Seitz, 6).
“Ultimately the entire book is an appeal to abandon the folly of human pride, to accept God’s lordship, and to experience the wonder of life as it was meant to be (11:1-16; 65:17-25)” (Oswalt, 42).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Kaiser, Otto, The Old Testament Library: Isaiah, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Scott, R.B.Y. (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 1-39); Kilpatrick, G.G.D., (Exposition of Isaiah 1-39); Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Tucker, Gene M., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33 (Dallas: Word Books, 1985)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan