Background to the Book of Isaiah
Isaiah is a remarkable book because of its grand prophecies and its well-documented place in history. Isaiah is the prophet of the redemption of God’s people. His book is the second most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. It is good for Christians then to understand the context from which those quotes come.
Isaiah’s name means “Yahweh is salvation,” and it is a good summary of what Isaiah is about. He is called the Messianic Prophet because of how often the Messiah is mentioned and described in these prophecies. “These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him” (John 12:41).
Isaiah’s work as a prophet covered about 60 years, spanning the reigns of four kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1). His work as a prophet centered in Jerusalem. He started near the end of Uzziah’s reign, and continued through Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah’s reigns. Isaiah 37:38 records the death of Sennacherib, which we know historically occurred five years after Hezekiah’s death (January 681 BC), so Isaiah’s life did extend into Manasseh’s reign by a few years. Thus, Isaiah covers the period from 741-681 BC.
Dating the reigns of the kings of Judah is difficult because each king tended to bring in his successor prior to the end of his reign. For example, Jotham became king when Uzziah was struck with leprosy about eleven years before Uzziah’s death (II Chronicles 26:21-23). Ahaz likely started reigning before Jotham’s death and Hezekiah started reigning before Ahaz’s death.
Kings of Judah
|Uzziah, also called Azariah||783-742 BC||Good king. He had a long and successful reign
(II Kings 15:1-7; II Chronicles 26:1-23)
|Jotham||742-735 BC||Good king. He was a co-regent with Uzziah
(II Kings 15:32-28; II Chronicles 27:1-9)
|Ahaz||735-716 BC||Very wicked king
(II Kings 16:1-20; II Chronicles 28:1-27)
|Hezekiah||716-687 BC||Good king
(II Kings 18:1-20:21; II Chronicles 29:1-32:33)
|Manasseh||687-643 BC||Very wicked king
(II Kings 21:18-26; II Chronicles 33:1-20)
Kings of Israel
|Jeroboam II||786-746 BC||Long, prosperous reign, but idolatry was rampant
(II Kings 14:23-29)
|Zechariah||746-745 BC||Assassinated by Shallum
(II Kings 15:8-12)
|Shallum||745 BC||Reigned one month
(II Kings 15:13-15)
|Menahem||745-737 BC||Extremely brutal
(II Kings 15:16-22)
|Pekahiah||737-736 BC||Assassinated by Pekah
(II Kings 15:23-26)
|Pekah||736-732 BC||Captivity of northern Israel occurred during his reign
(II Kings 15:27-31; 16:1-5; II Chronicles 28:5-15)
|Hoshea||732-721 BC||Samaria fell resulting in the end of Israel
(II Kings 17:1-18:12)
Isaiah was from the upper class of Judah. Jewish tradition is that he was a cousin of King Uzziah. His father, Amoz, was believed to have been the brother of King Amaziah. Thus, Isaiah would be the grandson of King Joash. His wife was a prophetess (Isaiah 8:3). He had at least two sons (Isaiah 7:3; 8:3-4). Jewish tradition, which is not inspired, states that Isaiah was sawn in two by Manasseh because he resisted the idolatry Manasseh introduced and is thus the person referred to in Hebrews 11:37.
Isaiah was probably among the prophets recording events in I and II Kings (II Chronicles 26:22; 32:32)
About 150 years before Isaiah lived, Assyria was expanding its borders. Early in Isaiah’s life, Israel was carried away into captivity by Assyria. It took about 13 years for Israel to fall. Assyria then threatened Judah but was stopped by an angel of God at Jerusalem. Even after its withdrawal, it remained a threat. Isaiah’s whole life was lived under that threat.
Until 1947, the oldest copy of Isaiah that we had dated back to A.D. 900. In 1947, scrolls were discovered, including two complete copies of Isaiah that are dated back to 200 B.C. Of interest is that despite the 1,100-year difference in age, the manuscripts are not all that different.
The Organization of Isaiah
The book has two distinct sections: chapters 1-39 and chapters 40-66. This has led some to say it was written by two different people. However, though the first 39 chapters focus on the past and present and the last 27 chapters focus on the future, the style of writing throughout the book is very similar.
In truth, the reason for the argument is that Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1 names Cyrus 150 years in advance of his reign. Some people can’t believe any prophecy is possible, so they seek an explanation that doesn’t include the divine. They argue that the latter part of Isaiah had to have been written after the reign of Cyrus. It isn’t because they have evidence. It is only to avoid accepting proof that Isaiah made an impossibly accurate prophecy. But these people can’t explain Isaiah’s detailed prophecies about the Messiah. We have copies that predate Jesus by 200 years, so they can’t claim that Isaiah was written after Jesus lived.
Bruce Wilkinson in his book Talk Thru the Bible points out that Isaiah has 66 chapters, just like the Bible. The first thirty-nine chapters deal with righteousness, holiness, and justice of God and Israel’s just condemnation – just like the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. The last twenty-seven chapters deal with God’s glory and compassion and discuss the Messiah's role in salvation and give a message of hope – just like the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
Most of Isaiah’s prophecies are in the style of poems.