Position in the Hebrew Bible
In the Hebrew Bible the book of Isaiah initiates a division called the Latter Prophets (for the Former Prophets see Introduction to Joshua: Title and Theological Theme), including also Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets (so called because of their small size by comparison with the major prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and not at all suggesting that they are of minor importance; see essay, p. 1341). Thus Isaiah occupies pride of place among the Latter Prophets. This is fitting since he is sometimes referred to as the prince of the prophets.
Isaiah son of Amoz is often thought of as the greatest of the writing prophets. His name means “The Lord saves.” He was a contemporary of Amos, Hosea and Micah, beginning his ministry in 740 b.c., the year King Uzziah died (see note on 6:1). According to an unsubstantiated Jewish tradition (The Ascension of Isaiah), he was sawed in half during the reign of Manasseh (cf. Heb 11:37). Isaiah was married and had at least two sons, Shear-Jashub (7:3) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (8:3). He probably spent most of his life in Jerusalem, enjoying his greatest influence under King Hezekiah (see 37:1–2). Isaiah is also credited with writing a history of the reign of King Uzziah (2Ch 26:22).
Many scholars today challenge the claim that Isaiah wrote the entire book that bears his name. Yet his is the only name attached to it (see 1:1; 2:1; 13:1). The strongest argument for the unity of Isaiah is the expression “the Holy One of Israel,” a title for God that occurs 12 times in chs. 1–39 and 14 times in chs. 40–66. Outside Isaiah it appears in the OT only 6 times. There are other striking verbal parallels between chs. 1–39 and chs. 40–66. Compare the following verses:
Altogether, there are at least 25 Hebrew words or forms found in Isaiah (i.e., in both major divisions of the book) that occur in no other prophetic writing.
Isaiah’s use of fire as a figure of punishment (see 1:31; 10:17; 26:11; 33:11–14; 34:9–10; 66:24), his references to the “holy mountain” of Jerusalem (see note on 2:2–4) and his mention of the highway to Jerusalem (see note on 11:16) are themes that recur throughout the book.
The structure of Isaiah also argues for its unity. Chs. 36–39 constitute a historical interlude, which concludes chs. 1–35 and introduces chs. 40–66 (see note on 36:1).
Several NT verses refer to the prophet Isaiah in connection with various parts of the book: Mt 12:17–21 (Isa 42:1–4); Mt 3:3 and Lk 3:4 (Isa 40:3); Ro 10:16,20 (Isa 53:1; 65:1); see especially Jn 12:38–41 (Isa 53:1; 6:10).
Most of the events referred to in chs. 1–39 occurred during Isaiah’s ministry (see 6:1; 14:28; 36:1), so these chapters may have been completed not long after 701 b.c., the year the Assyrian army was destroyed (see note on 10:16). The prophet lived until at least 681 (see note on 37:38) and may have written chs. 40–66 during his later years. In his message to the exiles of the sixth century b.c., Isaiah was projected into the future, just as Ezekiel was in Eze 40–48.
Isaiah wrote during the stormy period marking the expansion of the Assyrian empire and the decline of Israel. Under King Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 b.c.) the Assyrians swept westward into Aram (Syria) and Canaan. About 733 the kings of Aram and Israel tried to pressure Ahaz king of Judah into joining a coalition against Assyria. Ahaz chose instead to ask Tiglath-Pileser for help, a decision condemned by Isaiah (see note on 7:1). Assyria did assist Judah and conquered the northern kingdom in 722–721. This made Judah even more vulnerable, and in 701 King Sennacherib of Assyria threatened Jerusalem itself (see 36:1 and note). The godly King Hezekiah prayed earnestly, and Isaiah predicted that God would force the Assyrians to withdraw from the city (37:6–7).
Nevertheless Isaiah warned Judah that her sin would bring captivity at the hands of Babylon. The visit of the Babylonian king’s envoys to Hezekiah set the stage for this prediction (see 39:1,6 and notes). Although the fall of Jerusalem would not take place until 586 b.c., Isaiah assumes the destruction of Judah and proceeds to predict the restoration of the people from captivity (see 40:2–3 and notes). God would redeem his people from Babylon just as he rescued them from Egypt (see notes on 35:9; 41:14). Isaiah predicts the rise of Cyrus the Persian, who would unite the Medes and Persians and conquer Babylon in 539 (see 41:2 and note). The decree of Cyrus would allow the Jews to return home in 538/537, a deliverance that prefigured the greater salvation from sin through Christ (see 52:7 and note).
Themes and Theology
Isaiah is a book that unveils the full dimensions of God’s judgment and salvation. God is “the Holy One of Israel” (see 1:4; 6:1 and notes) who must punish his rebellious people (1:2) but will afterward redeem them (41:14,16). Israel is a nation blind and deaf (6:9–10; 42:7), a vineyard that will be trampled (5:1–7), a people devoid of justice or righteousness (5:7; 10:1–2). The awful judgment that will be unleashed upon Israel and all the nations that defy God is called “the day of the Lord.” Although Israel has a foretaste of that day (5:30; 42:25), the nations bear its full power (see 2:11,17,20 and note). It is a day associated in the NT with Christ’s second coming and the accompanying judgment (see 24:1,21; 34:1–2 and notes). Throughout the book, God’s judgment is referred to as “fire” (see 1:31; 30:33 and notes). He is the “Sovereign Lord” (see note on 25:8), far above all nations and rulers (40:15–24).
Yet God will have compassion on his people (14:1–2) and will rescue them from both political and spiritual oppression. Their restoration is like a new exodus (43:2,16–19; 52:10–12) as God redeems them (see 35:9; 41:14 and notes) and saves them (see 43:3; 49:8 and notes). Israel’s mighty Creator (40:21–22; 48:13) will make streams spring up in the desert (32:2) as he graciously leads them home. The theme of a highway for the return of exiles is a prominent one (see 11:16; 40:3 and notes) in both major parts of the book. The Lord raises a banner to summon the nations to bring Israel home (see 5:26 and note).
Peace and safety mark this new Messianic age (11:6–9). A king descended from David will reign in righteousness (9:7; 32:1), and all nations will stream to the holy mountain of Jerusalem (see 2:2–4 and note). God’s people will no longer be oppressed by wicked rulers (11:14; 45:14), and Jerusalem will truly be the “City of the Lord” (60:14).
The Lord calls the Messianic King “my servant” in chs. 42–53, a term also applied to Israel as a nation (see 41:8–9; 42:1 and notes). It is through the suffering of the servant that salvation in its fullest sense is achieved. Cyrus was God’s instrument to deliver Israel from Babylon (41:2), but Christ delivered humankind from the prison of sin (52:13—53:12). He became a “light for the Gentiles” (42:6), so that those nations that faced judgment (chs. 13–23) could find salvation (55:4–5). These Gentiles also became “servants of the Lord” (see 54:17 and note).
The Lord’s kingdom on earth, with its righteous Ruler and his righteous subjects, is the goal toward which the book of Isaiah steadily moves. The restored earth and the restored people will then conform to the divine ideal, and all will result in the praise and glory of the Holy One of Israel for what he has accomplished.
Isaiah contains both prose and poetry; the beauty of its poetry is unsurpassed in the OT. The main prose material is found in chs. 36–39, the historical interlude that unites the two parts of the book (see Author). The poetic material includes a series of oracles in chs. 13–23. A taunting song against the king of Babylon is found in 14:4–23. Chs. 24–27 comprise an apocalyptic section stressing the last days (see note on 24:1—27:13). A wisdom poem is found in 28:23–29 (also cf. 32:5–8). The song of the vineyard (5:1–7) begins as a love song as Isaiah describes God’s relationship with Israel. Hymns of praise are given in 12:1–6 and 38:10–20, and a national lament occurs in 63:7—64:12. The poetry is indeed rich and varied, as is the prophet’s vocabulary (he uses a larger vocabulary of Hebrew words than any other OT writer).
One of Isaiah’s favorite techniques is personification. The sun and moon are ashamed (24:23), while the desert and parched land rejoice (see 35:1 and note) and the mountains and forests burst into song (44:23). The trees “clap their hands” (55:12). A favorite figure is the vineyard, which represents Israel (5:7). Treading the winepress is a picture of judgment (see 63:3 and note), and to drink God’s “cup of wrath” is to stagger under his punishment (see 51:17 and note). Isaiah uses the name “Rock” to describe God (17:10), and animals such as Leviathan and Rahab represent nations (see 27:1; 30:7; 51:9).
The power of Isaiah’s imagery is seen in 30:27–33, and he makes full use of sarcasm in his denunciation of idols in 44:9–20. A forceful example of wordplay appears in 5:7 (see note there), and one finds inversion in 6:10 (see note there; see also note on 16:7) and alliteration and assonance in 24:16-17 (see note there). The “overwhelming scourge” of 28:15,18 is an illustration of mixed metaphor.
Isaiah often alludes to earlier events in Israel’s history, especially the exodus from Egypt. The crossing of the Red Sea forms the background for 11:15 and 43:2,16–17, and other allusions occur in 4:5–6; 31:5; 37:36 (see notes on these verses). The overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah is referred to in 1:9, and Gideon’s victory over Midian is mentioned in 9:4; 10:26 (see also 28:21). Several times Isaiah draws upon the song of Moses in Dt 32 (compare 1:2 with Dt 32:1; 30:17 with Dt 32:30; and 43:11,13 with Dt 32:39). Isaiah, like Moses, called the nation to repentance and to faith in a holy, all-powerful God. See also note on 49:8.
The refrain in 48:22 and 57:21 divides the last 27 chapters into three sections of nine chapters each (40-48; 49-57; 58-66; see Outline).
Part 1: The Book of Judgment (chs. 1–39)
- Messages of Rebuke and Promise (chs. 1–6)
- Introduction: Charges against Judah for Breaking the Covenant (ch. 1)
- The Future Discipline and Glory of Judah and Jerusalem (chs. 2–4)
- Jerusalem’s future blessings (2:1–5)
- The Lord’s discipline of Judah (2:6—4:1)
- The restoration of Zion (4:2–6)
- The Nation’s Judgment and Exile (ch. 5)
- Isaiah’s Unique Commission (ch. 6)
- Prophecies Occasioned by the Aramean and Israelite Threat against Judah (chs. 7–12)
- Ahaz Warned Not to Fear the Aramean and Israelite Alliance (ch. 7)
- Isaiah’s Son and David’s Son (8:1—9:7)
- Judgment against Israel (9:8—10:4)
- The Assyrian Empire and the Davidic Kingdom (10:5—12:6)
- The destruction of Assyria (10:5–34)
- The establishment of the Davidic king and his kingdom (ch. 11)
- Songs of joy for deliverance (ch. 12)
- Judgment against the Nations (chs. 13–23)
- Against Assyria and Its Ruler (13:1—14:27)
- Against Philistia (14:28–32)
- Against Moab (chs. 15–16)
- Against Aram and Israel (ch. 17)
- Against Cush (ch. 18)
- Against Egypt and Cush (chs. 19–20)
- Against Babylon (21:1–10)
- Against Dumah (Edom) (21:11–12)
- Against Arabia (21:13–17)
- Against the Valley of Vision (Jerusalem) (ch. 22)
- Against Tyre (ch. 23)
- Judgment and Promise (the Lord’s Kingdom) (chs. 24–27)
- Universal Judgments for Universal Sin (ch. 24)
- Deliverance and Blessing (ch. 25)
- Praise for the Lord’s Sovereign Care (ch. 26)
- Israel’s Enemies Punished but Israel’s Remnant Restored (ch. 27)
- Six Woes: Five on the Unfaithful in Israel and One on Assyria (chs. 28–33)
- Woe to Ephraim (Samaria)—and to Judah (ch. 28)
- Woe to David’s City, Jerusalem (29:1–14)
- Woe to Those Who Rely on Foreign Alliances (29:15–24)
- Woe to the Obstinate Nation (ch. 30)
- Woe to Those Who Rely on Egypt (chs. 31–32)
- Woe to Assyria—but Blessing for God’s People (ch. 33)
- More Prophecies of Judgment and Promise (chs. 34–35)
- The Destruction of the Nations and the Avenging of God’s People (ch. 34)
- The Future Blessings of Restored Zion (ch. 35)
- A Historical Transition from the Assyrian Threat to the Babylonian Exile (chs. 36–39)
- Jerusalem Preserved from the Assyrian Threat (chs. 36–37)
- The siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib and the Assyrian army (ch. 36)
- The Lord’s deliverance of Jerusalem (ch. 37)
- The Lord’s Extension of Hezekiah’s Life (ch. 38)
- The Babylonian Exile Predicted (ch. 39)
Part 2: The Book of Comfort (chs. 40–66)
- Jerusalem Preserved from the Assyrian Threat (chs. 36–37)
- The Deliverance and Restoration of Israel (chs. 40–48)
- The Coming of the Victorious God (40:1–26)
- Unfailing Strength for the Weary Exiles (40:27–31)
- The Lord of History (41:1—42:9)
- Praise and Exhortation (42:10–25)
- The Regathering and Renewal of Israel (43:1—44:5)
- The Only God (44:6—45:25)
- The Lord’s Superiority over Babylon’s Gods (ch. 46)
- The Fall of Babylon (ch. 47)
- The Lord’s Exhortations to His People (ch. 48)
- The Servant’s Ministry and Israel’s Restoration (chs. 49–57)
- The Call and Mission of the Servant (49:1–13)
- The Repopulation of Zion (49:14–26)
- Israel’s Sin and the Servant’s Obedience (ch. 50)
- The Remnant Comforted Because of Their Glorious Prospect (51:1—52:12)
- The Sufferings and Glories of the Lord’s Righteous Servant (52:13—53:12)
- The Future Glory of Zion (ch. 54)
- The Lord’s Call to Salvation and Covenant Blessings (55:1—56:8)
- The Condemnation of the Wicked in Israel (56:9—57:21)
- Everlasting Deliverance and Everlasting Judgment (chs. 58–66)
- False and True Worship (ch. 58)
- Zion’s Confession and Redemption (ch. 59)
- Zion’s Peace and Prosperity (ch. 60)
- The Lord’s Favor (ch. 61)
- Zion’s Restoration and Glory (62:1—63:6)
- Prayer for Divine Deliverance (63:7—64:12)
- The Lord’s Answer: Mercy and Judgment (ch. 65)
- Judgment for False Worshipers and Blessing for True Worshipers (ch. 66)
© Zondervan. From the Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Used with Permission.
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