The prophet Isaiah, in Hebrew Yeshayahu (יְשַׁעְיָהוּ), is the longest of the prophetic books. His words are both prose and poetry, with his imagery considered among the most beautiful in the Bible. Isaiah prophesies during the reigns of at least four kings of Judah in the second half of the eighth century BCE: Uzziah (769¬733), Jotham (758-743 as regent), Ahaz (743-733 BCE. as regent; 733-727 BCE.), and Hezekiah (727-698 BCE.); and probably into the reign of Manasseh as well. During his lifetime, Isaiah sees the fortunes of the two kingdoms in Israel, Samaria in the north and Judah in the south, decline dramatically. When he begins, the two kingdoms live in prosperity, harmony, and stability. Within fifty years, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom are a distant memory, exiled to the edges of the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. The southern kingdom of Judah barely fares better. Most of its cities are destroyed in the Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE. Isaiah is given the task of explaining why the tragedies are occurring and advising what changes need to be made. However, Isaiah is most famous for his prophecies of consolation and hope. Despite the bleak circumstances of the present, Isaiah is always able to describe a brighter future which features return and redemption with the Jewish people living peacefully in their land. These images remain an integral part of Israel’s consciousness until today.
The political quiet that exists at the beginning of his life is disturbed with the emergence of the rapacious Assyrian Empire in the east. The kings of the region face two options – to either submit to the might of the Assyrians, or attempt to form alliances among themselves to oppose the behemoth rising against them. In fact, the kings of Aram and Israel invade Judah in 733, trying to pressure King Ahaz into joining their coalition against Assyria. Instead of supporting them, Ahaz chooses to ask Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria for help, a decision that would prove nearly fatal for the Jewish people. Isaiah condemns this decision. More important to Isaiah, however, is changing the people’s focus from politics to morality. While they are engaged in political intrigue, the people perform their ritual obligations almost robotically, without passion. Additionally, they fail to maintain a just and moral society, crimes that his contemporaries (Micah, Hosea, and Amos) rail against. If the people can improve their personal lives, live in justice and peace with each other and serve God in sincerity, then the political turmoil will disappear.
The structure of the book reflects these messages. The first section (ch. 1-6) serves as an introduction to the entire book, contrasting the present sinful state of the people with the wonderful potential future that awaits them. The next section (ch. 7-12) describes the immediate threat of the Assyrian invasion, and then its ultimate defeat by a son of David who will bring peace and righteousness to Israel. Chapters 13-23 describe a series of judgments against the nations, and 24-27 describe judgments against Judah. After eight more chapters of woes against Israel and the nations, there is a four chapter historical summary of the events of Isaiah’s time (ch. 36-39). Finally, there is a long section of prophecies of consolation that spans the immediate troubles and the future beyond the horizon, when the people of Israel will return from exile and dwell in their own Land.