Isaiah is a difficult and, therefore, often-neglected book. Outside the Psalms it is the most quoted book in the New Testament, with most apostolic writers drawing a wealth of material from its source. Isaiah takes us from history to eschatology, from creation to the new creation, introducing us to the Messiah whose road to glory will be paved with suffering and death.
The book is broken up into three major sections: chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. The early section refers to events related to the Assyrian crisis facing Judah around 740-701 BC. The second half of the book details the return from exile in Babylon in 539 BC and beyond, with chapters 56-66 having particular reference to the period of restoration following the return.
Isaiah ministered in Judah around 740 – 680 BC. Assyria, the invincible super-power of the day, was threatening Jerusalem with conquest (2 Chron 26-32). Isaiah’s message is that this is the culmination of God’s judgment against the widespread apostasy of Judah under King Ahaz. Isaiah predicted the fall of Jerusalem (which finally happened in 586 BC). The only hope for escape, Isaiah declared, was God’s intervention, not political alliances, material wealth, or religious pretense. The second half of the book focuses on events 150-200 years after Isaiah’s day, foretelling God’s deliverance of his people from their Babylonian captors (in 538 BC) and prefiguring the greater deliverance from sin and death through Christ.
Isaiah weaves together many grand themes, each shedding light upon the others. God is introduced as the Holy One of Israel and both Isaiah and his people face the crisis of how God can look upon their sin. Jerusalem is the subject and recipient of this vision from God and Isaiah will describe how the city under judgment will be transformed into the heavenly Zion. The picture of judgment is tempered by the promise of a purified remnant who will enjoy a renewed creation. Out of the destruction God reaffirms his covenant promises to install his messianic king. However, in the latter part of the book the king takes a back seat to another figure – a servant who will lay down his life to purify the remnant. And a closer look reveals that the king and the servant are, in fact, one and the same person. Kingly glory for the servant, and for God’s people, will come about through suffering.
Although the book as a whole is not well-known, many individual passages are familiar and loved. In Isaiah we find:
- hard-hitting criticisms of empty religion;
- panoramic and extraordinarily impressive views of God’s coming day of judgment and the everlasting joys which follow it;
- some of the most famous Messianic prophecies;
- dramatic narratives of times of national crisis;
- honest exposures of a rotten society and a heartfelt cry for revival;
- the famous story of Isaiah’s call and mysterious commission and meditations on what it means for us to be trustful, faithful servants of God;
- robust assertions that God is the world’s only Saviour with worldwide purposes we are to carry out;
- many passages full of pastoral comfort.
ISAIAH THE MAN
Isaiah lived through turbulent times. He was called to his work at the time when a famous Assyrian king was building his empire into the largest and cruellest that western Asia had ever seen. He saw the neighbouring kingdom of Israel crack, collapse and vanish. For forty years Isaiah walked quietly in the corridors of power challenging a knock-kneed king to trust God even when he could see the campfires of the apparently invincible Assyrian army right outside his own city’s locked gates and hear the threats of the general coming over the walls.
We know nothing of his wife, but Isaiah had two sons with names which were signposts to coming events. Isaiah was a social critic, remorselessly applying the yardstick of God’s law to what he saw. He was a prophet—not an astrologer with cunningly ambiguous forecasts but a man who saw both the present and the future in an eternal light. He was a pastor, looking with compassion on his fellow citizens and feeding them by teaching them. He was a poet, seeing the same events more fully, more deeply, more sharply.
We can read his words, and meditate on what he said, in order that we too might trust God more. “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength'” (Isa 30:15).