The Kingdom of Judah faced successive existential dangers: first the allied forces of the Kingdoms of Aram and Israel and then the mighty Assyrian Empire. The Davidic kings were tempted to look to Assyria or Egypt for help and did not fully trust in YHWH their God. God sent Isaiah to speak directly to these kings and the people of Judah at the time, warning of the consequences of foreign alliances, God’s judgments to come, and hope for renewal.
Isaiah is the twenty-third book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible, it is part of the Nevi’im, the “Prophets.” Isaiah is also considered the first of the “major prophets.” The book of Isaiah is the collection of God’s visions and words to Isaiah son of Amoz from the days of Uzziah through Hezekiah kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1; ca. 750-690 BCE). The material found in Isaiah 1:1-35:10 is spoken and written for Isaiah’s contemporary audience; Isaiah 36:1-39:8 is parallel to the historical account of 2 Kings 18:13-20:19 with an additional psalm of Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:9-20). Isaiah 1-39 presents the word of YHWH through Isaiah warning Judah and surrounding nations about the judgments to be rendered through the Assyrians, later judgment on the Assyrians, and hope for the future restoration of Israel in the Branch of David.
Isaiah 1:1-12:6 are a compilation of Isaiah’s messages to Judah from the end of Uzziah’s reign until the immediate aftermath of the Assyrian invasion (ca. 750-695 BCE). Judah kept sinning despite their near total devastation by Assyria (Isaiah 1:1-9); God hates their sacrifices because they persist in injustice (Isaiah 1:10-19); Judah will become ashamed only after cleansing by fire (Isaiah 1:20-31). All nations will come to Jerusalem in the latter days, but Jacob will also have to learn about God’s ways (Isaiah 2:1-21). God is coming in judgment upon Judah for their excess in prosperity and describes the depth of the horrors they will experience (Isaiah 3:1-4:1). Yet in this purge God is cleansing Judah and Jerusalem and it will be again reckoned as holy (Isaiah 4:2-6). God brings His case against Judah in terms of a vineyard and its destruction (Isaiah 5:1-7). Isaiah then denounces the wickedness of the injustice of the wealthy in Judah and describes the Assyrian army on the march (Isaiah 5:8-30). Isaiah 6:1-13 records Isaiah’s vision of God in heaven and his commissioning; Isaiah 7:1-25 records Isaiah’s confrontation of Ahaz regarding the dangers of becoming an Assyrian vassal in order to thwart the Syro-Ephramitic alliance against him. An additional sign of a child born to Isaiah confirms the impending destruction of Aram and Israel, and Isaiah is told to seal up at least part of the message God gives him (Isaiah 8:1-22). Isaiah 9:1-12:6 feature warnings about the Assyrian menace soon to come against Judah, the ultimate judgment of Assyria by God, and the assurance of the reign of the descendant of David in prosperity, righteousness, and justice.
Isaiah 13:1-23:18 feature the word of YHWH to Isaiah regarding the nations, likely given before 722 BCE. Isaiah 13:1-14:28 famously feature the judgment upon and lament of Babylon, perhaps actual Babylon or as a way of speaking about Assyria. Isaiah also provides messages of judgment against Philistia (Isaiah 14:28-32), Moab (Isaiah 15:1-16:14), Damascus (and Aram by extension; Isaiah 17:1-14), Cush (likely Nubia, perhaps Ethiopia as well, Isaiah 18:1-7), and Egypt (Isaiah 19:1-15, yet holding out hope for the unification of Assyria, Egypt, and Israel in serving YHWH, Isaiah 19:26-24). Isaiah is told to go naked and barefoot for three years as a sign to Egypt and Cush regarding their Assyrian exile (Isaiah 20:1-6). Isaiah then sees Babylon’s fall at the hands of Elamites and Medes (Isaiah 21:1-10) and a warning to the Arabs (Isaiah 21:11-17). Isaiah’s vision of the destruction of Jerusalem is then recorded, as well as his denunciation of Shebna for building a rock-cut tomb for himself (Isaiah 22:1-25), and then the judgment upon Tyre and Sidon (and all Phoenicia by extension; Isaiah 23:1-18). Isaiah 24:1-23 features a gloomy picture of judgment on earth on account of sin.
Isaiah 25:1-35:10 record additional messages of YHWH through Isaiah primarily to Judah. Isaiah 25:1-27:13 praise God for fulfilling His purposes in restoring Judah, speaking as if it has already happened. Until then God will render judgment on the rebellious, both of Ephraim in Israel as well as on Jerusalem herself, spoken of as Ariel (Isaiah 28:1-29:24). Isaiah warns Judah against an alliance with Egypt, for such would be rebellion against trust in Him, for He alone can strike fear into Assyria (Isaiah 30:1-31:9). Isaiah sees a time of righteous rule and true nobility (Isaiah 32:1-8), but that is not the present; the complacent are condemned, but God will reign (Isaiah 32:9-20): there will be devastation and destruction, first for the wicked in Judah, then for Edom, but there will be restoration in righteousness, and the desert will bloom (Isaiah 33:1-35:1-10). As seen above, Isaiah 36:1-39:8 present the historical narrative of Hezekiah’s day as a coda demonstrating the beginning of the fulfillment of what Isaiah saw.
Isaiah 1:1-39:8 vividly illustrates the distress and yet hope of YHWH’s message through Isaiah. In times of prosperity the people of Judah commit injustice and oppression; even when they are humbled by the Assyrian invasion they persist in idolatry and injustice. God’s impending judgment through Babylon will be just, yet both YHWH and Isaiah wish it were not necessary. Nevertheless, even if Judah proves faithless, God is faithful; God will establish a Kingdom in justice and righteousness, and we see that promise fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Let us practice righteousness and justice in the Kingdom of Jesus, the Branch of David, and through faith in Him be cleansed of sin!
Ethan R. Longhenry