Context of the Book of Isaiah
The book of Isaiah offers hope and healing in the midst of oppressive circumstances. The prophet Isaiah served as a political and religious counselor in Jerusalem from about 750 to 700 B.C. under the reign of four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Tradition says that he survived Hezekiah and was martyred under King Manasseh.
Isaiah was born under the stable and prosperous reign of King Uzziah of Judah, which developed into a strong commercial and military state. Under Uzziah, Judah experienced a “false sense of complacency” marked by decline in Judah’s spiritual purity. During Jotham’s rule, Assyria began to rise in power and became a growing menace to the smaller kingdoms such as Israel, Judah, and Damascus. The temptation arose to form unhealthy political alliances for protection against the Assyrian threat. Oswalt writes,
These events provided the catalyst for the first great public phase of Isaiah’s
ministry. From his point of view Judah should be neither anti-Assyrian nor
pro-Assyrian but pro-God! He saw Judah turning away from trusting God
and becoming caught up in the trappings of human pomp, politics, and power
(Isa. 1:21-23; 2:12-17). All of that could only lead to the same apostasy
which was now enmeshing Israel.
In spite of Isaiah’s strong warnings against such a move, Ahaz’ reign brought a pro-Assyrian foreign policy initiated when the king appealed to King Tiglath-pileser for help against a Syro-Israelite threat. This Assyrian alliance reduced Judah to the status of unwilling vassal and initiated the beginning of the demise of Israel. The Assyrian king later summoned Ahaz to the ruined city of Damascus, requiring him to enter a more binding treaty that included the introduction of a pagan altar, which he set up in Solomon’s temple. Hezekiah’s reign brought reformation and resistance to the Assyrian kingdom. Judah was finally devastated by Senaccherib in 701 B. C., resulting in many of her people being deported.
Isaiah prophecies in the midst of this politically charged context. Regular fears and threats of the enemy made for an atmosphere of oppression. The kings of Judah feared the wrath of mighty Assyria and on a smaller scale the backlash of not aligning with the smaller states. The people lived under the hardship of Assyrian domination. This oppressive context provides the setting for the book of Isaiah chapters one to thirty-nine. Isaiah stands as a voice for the Lord calling the people to put their trust in God during difficult times.
Years after Isaiah’s time period, a coalition of Babylonian and Medo-Persian forces toppled the Assyrian Empire, and Babylon rose for a season as the dominant world power (650 – 539 B.C.). Jerusalem was ramsacked and destroyed with severity by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., beginning the Babylonian captivity for the people from Judah. God’s chosen people, for the first time in the monarchy, experienced slavery and the complete loss of their homeland. Isaiah and other prophets had warned of such a judgment coming if God’s people did not put their trust in him and turn from their substitutes.
In the midst of such devastation, the Jews experienced oppressive circumstances unknown to them for generations. God’s people found themselves the victims of a horrible form of abuse. As a result of their abuse, many of them faced disillusionment. Oswalt writes,
“[M]any came to the conclusion that their faith had been a farce, while
others, still convinced that God was real enough, concluded that he
had abandoned them. Thus they were in danger of succumbing to the
attractive Babylonian religions and losing their existence as a people,
no longer to be the vehicle through which God’s self-revelation could
come to the world.
Scholars who agree with the continuity of the book of Isaiah, attributing the work to one author, believe that the Spirit used Isaiah the prophet to pen words that would provide comfort for God’s people in exile years later.
The book of Isaiah can be divided into two main sections, with a historical interlude in-between. Isaiah followed the theology of Deuteronomy that taught punishment would come for failure and blessing would follow obedience. Chapters one through thirty-five deal with God’s judgment on his people. Then Isaiah provides a brief history regarding Hezekiah and Sennacherib. The third section of the book, chapters forty through sixty-six, also known as the Book of Consolation, reveal the comfort and salvation that will come after suffering. Another way of approaching this book is seen through which generation to which the prophecies are directed.
The first thirty-nine chapters are directed to Judah facing Assyrian dominance. Chapters forty through fifty-five are spoken for the Exile in Babylon. Chapters fifty-six through sixty-six are words for the postexilic era. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The move from establishment to exilic displacement is the story line that concerns the book of Isaiah.”
This second major section of Isaiah, chapters forty through sixty-six, offers many words of hope and healing. Chapters forty through fifty-five offer hope to a people in exile; chapters fifty-six through sixty-six “speak to a returned people who face both old and new problems.” God’s words of comfort to these generations have three applications. First, they have meaning to the people of those particular time periods. Then they have fulfillment in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. Finally, they have application to the abused today and the issues they face.