Isaiah’s place in his time
The heading of the book (1:1) dates Isaiah’s prophetic ministry to the reigns of four kings of Judah—Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah—a period spanning about one hundred years, from the 790s to the 680s BC Historical detail can be found in both Kings and Chronicles, which helpfully explains the background to Isaiah’s work. After his calling in 740 BC, the year that Uzziah died (6:1), Isaiah’s early ministry focused on the hidden, unacknowledged sins of Judah at the end of a long reign of peace, prosperity and security. (See 2 Kings 15:1–7 and 2 Chron. 26:1–23 for the details of Uzziah’s 52-year reign.) For the last eight years of his life he was a leper, and his son, Jotham, ruled as regent, after which he succeeded his father for a further eight years (see 2 Kings 15:32–38 and 2 Chron. 27:1–9). Most of Isaiah’s ministry was exercised in two contrasting reigns: Ahaz, who ‘walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations’ (see 2 Kings 16:1–20 and 2 Chron. 28:1–27), for sixteen years; and Hezekiah, who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the LORD just as his father David had done’ (see 2 Kings 18–20 and 2 Chron. 29–32), for twenty-nine years. Both Ahaz and Hezekiah feature in historical events in the first half of Isaiah’s book, which the history writers fill out in further detail. Isaiah’s own ministry may well have spanned fifty of those hundred years, from 740 BC onwards. Hezekiah’s death is usually dated in 687/6 BC.
Isaiah’s place in the world
What was going on in the wider world during that century had a profound effect on Isaiah’s message, as it was destined to do on the whole nation of Judah. To tell the story in one word, it was Assyria. With the accession of Tiglath-Pileser III (Pul) in 745 BC, the nation began to stir itself, solve its internal problems, build up its formidable war-machine and, under its able and powerful leaders, fill the power vacuum in the whole region. The glory days of comparative prosperity and independence enjoyed by Israel and Judah, along with all the other smaller nation states, were numbered. Menahem, king of Israel, became Assyria’s vassal (2 Kings 15:17–20), as did Ahaz, king of Judah (2 Kings 16:7–9), in events which Isaiah deals with in chapter 7 of the book. But this was only the beginning. Assyrian incursion into Israel increased during the reigns of Pekaliah (Menahem’s son), who was assassinated by the usurper Pekah, who was himself killed and usurped by Hoshea (see 2 Kings 15:29). In 722 BC, after a three-year siege, Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, fell to Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17:3–6), and the northern kingdom was finished. 2 Kings 17:7–23 provides a very important theological perspective on this enormous tragedy.
But Isaiah’s primary concern was of course with the southern kingdom, Judah, and its capital Jerusalem. Here too the Assyrian incursion would be felt, in all its remorseless, invasive power. Isaiah warns of ‘the mighty floodwaters of the River—the king of Assyria with all his pomp. It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck’ (8:7–8). This culminated in the attack on Jerusalem by the armies of Sennacherib in 701 BC, recorded in some detail in chapters 36–37 of Isaiah’s prophecy. Yet as 39:6 makes clear, immediately after that account, it was not Assyria that Jerusalem and Judah needed to fear, but Babylon. God miraculously delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians (37:36–37), but an equally terrifying conqueror was waiting in the wings, albeit over one hundred years still distant.
The second half of the book, from chapter 40 onwards, has its focus firmly on the Babylonian exile, which took place in stages, but climaxed in the destruction of the temple and city and the mass deportation of the people in 587 BC. Nevertheless, Isaiah predicts a political deliverance when proud Babylon will bow to the conquering forces of the Medo-Persian armies, under their leader, Cyrus, whom God identifies as ‘my shepherd’ (44:28–45:4). The restoration of at least a remnant of the people to the land is clearly prophesied, but a greater servant-shepherd dominates these chapters as the political rescue of Judah pales alongside the spiritual rescue of a righteous remnant, from all over the world, created and redeemed by the work of God’s suffering servant-Messiah.
David Jackman, Teaching Isaiah: Unlocking Isaiah for the Bible Teacher, ed. Robin Sydserff, Teach the Bible (Ross-shire, Scotland; London, England: PT Media; Christian Focus, 2010), 22–25.
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