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Introduction to the Book of Isaiah

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Isaiah the prophet

Isaiah's name means "Yahweh is Salvation", the most appropriate name to fit the overall message of the book.

He was raised up by God to be a prophet to Judah and Jerusalem, during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah. He had a long ministry lasting at least thirty-nine years, from the death of Uzziah (740 BC), until at least 701, the year of Sennacherib's invasion of Judah. The fall of Samaria occurred during the period of Isaiah's ministry. The last historical event in the book is Sennacherib's murder in 681 BC (37:38), so Isaiah may have lived into his eighties, and was a prophet for at least sixty years, but we have very few details of his life. Isaiah was a contemporary prophet with Micah, who also prophesied to Judah.

Isaiah, the son of Amoz (this is not the prophet Amos). Jewish tradition indicates that Amoz was the brother of king Amaziah, father of Uzziah, making Isaiah the cousin of Uzziah, and therefore part of the royal family. This would explain how Isaiah was able to have such easy access to the different kings.

He was married, and his wife is referred to as the prophetess (8:3), she may have had a prophetic ministry herself. They had at least two children, possibly three, who were signs and portents in Israel (8:18):
Shear-Jashub (7:3), meaning "A remnant returns" - a prophetic sign of judgement and hope to the people.
Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:1), meaning "Speed - Plunder - Haste - Booty", or "the spoil speeds, the prey hastes" - a prophetic sign of God's judgement on the northern kingdom. Israel and Syria together had plundered Judah during the Syro-Ephraimite war, they in turn will soon be plundered by Assyria.

He was probably raised up near Jerusalem and was certainly an educated man. Spending most of his life in Jerusalem, he had access to high priests (8:2) and to kings (37:1), including king Ahaz, who knew both Isaiah and his son, Shear-Jashub, and even knew the meaning and significance of the son's name. He was very aware of international and diplomatic events.

Jewish tradition from in the "Ascension of Isaiah" also says that Isaiah was martyred during the reign of the wicked king Manasseh, by being sawn in half with a wooden saw (Heb 11:37 may refer to this). The tradition says that he was hiding in a hollow tree, and the tree was sawn down with Isaiah hiding in it. This tradition was well-respected by some of the early Christian writers.

Authorship of book

Traditionally, the book was written by Isaiah the prophet, son of Amoz. Some of the book is written in the first person (ch 6), other narratives are in the third person (ch 7). Some prophecies also involve the prophet himself (eg. 16:9, 21:3-4). The Jews, the New Testament authors and the early church without question always attributed the whole book to Isaiah. However, the authorship of Isaiah is one of the most controversial issues in Biblical scholarship, even among evangelicals.

It is very easy to notice the distinct changes in tone and themes from chapter forty, and again following chapter fifty-six. Each of the three sections also has some unique vocabulary and theological concepts.

Critics say that chapters 40-66 were written later, after the exile to Babylon. On of their main objections to the traditional view is that Cyrus, King of Persia is mentioned by name (44:28 and 45:1), 150 years before he lived, and that the exile is spoken of as a past event. They would date the second half after 539 BC.

Many scholars (probably the majority!) suggest a division into two. This was first suggested by Döderlein in 1775: First Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-66), otherwise called Deutero-Isaiah, or Isaiah of Babylon

Some scholars suggest a division into three. This was first suggested by Duhm in 1892: Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1-39) (740 - 701 BC), known as Isaiah of Jerusalem; Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55), written during during the Babylonian exile, around 550 BC, also referred to Isaiah of Babylon; Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56-66), written after the return from exile, around 500 BC, also referred to another Isaiah of Jerusalem, a disciple of Deutero-Isaiah. Both say that only chapters 1 - 39 are by Isaiah the prophet, living in Jerusalem in the eighth century BC (700's). Some say that only parts are by Isaiah, excluding the apocalyptic section (ch 24-27).

Chapters 40 - 66 are pseudonymous, written by some unnamed prophet (or group of prophets) who was a disciple of Isaiah, living in Babylon during the exile in sixth century (500's), and who could see Cyrus coming. Many scholars suggest there was a school of Isaiah, who continued to think and write in the style of Isaiah. However, there is no evidence for any such school existing. There is great disagreement between scholars, and the theories of authorship become more and more complex.

The presupposition of many scholars is that God cannot predict the future, they deny the supernatural, so they say the prophetic passages must have been written after the event.

Facts used to question single authorship

Chapters 40 - 66 are set in a completely different historical situation from chapters 1 - 39. Chapters 1 - 39 are set in eighth century BC, with Israel still existing as a nation, ruled by a Davidic king, but under threat from Assyria. Chapters 40 - 66 are set in the sixth century BC, towards the end of the Babylonian exile. Assyria no longer exists, and has been replaced with Babylon as world power. It is written from the perspective of seeing the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile as a past event. Jerusalem is in ruins (44:26), her people are far from home (eg. 43:14). The exiles are complaining about their situation (eg. 40:27). A new world power is rising - Persia, led by Cyrus (eg. 44:28).

Other prophets predict the future, but do not normally address their words to people who are living 150 to 200 years into the future, as chapters 40-66 do.

There are significant literary differences: chapters 1-39 are condemning and pessimistic, and this changes in chapters 40-66 to consolation and hope, where the language is more lyrical and exalted. There are also biographical differences: chapters 1 - 39 contain many biographical references to Isaiah personally, but he is not ever mentioned by name in chapters 40-66.

People have commented that if the two parts of the book were not together in the O.T., probably no one would ever think they were written by the same author.

Problems with multiple authorship view

There is absolutely no evidence that any part of the book ever existed on its own. All manuscripts are of the complete book as we have it. The copy of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls contains the complete book. The passage we now call chapter forty continues without the slightest hint of a break from the passage we now call the end of chapter thirty-nine, two lines from the bottom of a column.

The book of Isaiah is quoted in the N.T. more than any other O.T. book. These quotations are from both parts of the book without any differentiation. John quoted from both parts of Isaiah (Jn 12:37-41), quoting Is 53:1 and 6:9-10 and attributing both to Isaiah. Mark quoted the prophet Isaiah (Is 40:3) in Mk 1:2-3. When Jesus read from Isaiah chapter 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:17), Luke refers to the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Late dating cannot explain away the predictions of Jesus, five hundred years later (ch 7, 11, 53 etc), even though they may attempt to explain away predictions of Cyrus.

There are significant similarities in language, style and content in both halves of the book. The phrase "The Holy One of Israel" is characteristic of Isaiah, found twelve times in chapters 1-39 and fourteen times in chapters 40-66, and only seven times in the whole of the rest of the Bible.

We are also left with the question of how would it be possible for what is normally considered to be the greatest of the O.T. prophets to be an unnamed person, unknown by the Jewish people descended from those he preached to?

Conservative scholars would say that to question the unity of Isaiah questions the accuracy and inerrancy of scripture, especially because of the quotation in John's Gospel referred to above.

Evidence for the unity of the Book of Isaiah

In response to the question about the difference in historical setting, if chapters 40-66 were written during the exile, it would defeat the whole purpose of the setting of the book. The change of viewpoint is precisely because the book is prophetic. Isaiah projected himself into the future, describing future events as if they had already taken place. The exile was predicted to show that God is superior to the other gods and is able to predict the future. Also, to prove to Israel that he is causing the exile, and that he is God. In chapter 41, there is a law-court scene. God challenges the nations to present their case, can they predict the future? (esp v 21-23). Throughout the second section of the book, God repeats that he, and he alone, can predict the future (45:20, 46:9-10, 48:3).

It is also significant to note that the description of idol worship in chapter 57 is that of pre-exilic Canaanite religion. It does not fit the situation of after the exile, when idolatry was not a major issue any more.

Historical background

Isaiah prophesied to Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of (1:1): Uzziah (781-740) - a good king, Jotham (740-735) - a good king, Ahaz (735-715) - a very evil king, and Hezekiah (715-687) - a very good king.

Isaiah was volunteered to be a prophet (Is 6), in the year king Uzziah died (740 BC). Uzziah's reign had brought a period of stability and prosperity for Judah. During this time Samaria was deep in sin and rebellion in its final years as a nation. Also, Tiglath-pileser III rose to make Assyria the dominant world power from 745 BC. The time of Isaiah was the beginning of the period of world powers ruling the then known world, which continued until the birth of Jesu: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome.

During Isaiah's ministry, Assyria was expanding westwards, conquering Syria and Israel and threatening the existence of Judah. Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah are set under Assyrian domination. Chapters 40-66 have a viewpoint of Judah already exiled in Babylon and looking forward into the future from then.

Events in Assyria

The period of Isaiah's ministry covered the years from 740 - 701 BC. This was the final period of Assyria's greatness, which was finished by the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, and the final destruction of Assyria by the Medes and Babylonians in 609 BC.

Preceding this period of greatness, the Assyrian empire had been weak for seventy-five years (823-745), ruled by weak rulers. During this time, the neighbouring nations were relieved from Assyrian expansion and had a time of prosperity. Judah (under Uzziah) and Israel (under Jeroboam II) were strong and prosperous, living in peace (810-750) - a "golden age". But they were complacent, believing that they were living in God's blessings. The prophets, Amos and Hosea, challenged their religious apostasy, describing their idolatry as prostitution and adultery.

Kings of Assyria

Tiglath-pileser III (745-727)
His real name was Pul, but he took the throne name Tiglath-pileser, after one of the most powerful and warrior kings from the earlier part of Assyrian history. He usurped the throne and re-started Assyrian expansion and domination. He built his capital and palace in Calah outside Nineveh.

Shalmaneser V (727-722)
Conquered Syria, invaded Israel, but died during siege of Samaria

Sargon II (722-705)
Most barbarous and vicious, even hated by Assyrians. Completed siege of Samaria, and took the northern kingdom of Israel into exile.

Sennacherib (705-681)
Forty-six cities of Judah and 200,000 people taken. He besieged Jerusalem in 701 BC, but failed to take it.

Significant dates

745 Accession of Tiglath-pileser III, Assyria again rises as world power
740 Death of Uzziah (Judah). Jotham becomes king. Isaiah's vision and call (ch 6)
739/8 Hamath subdued by Assyria
735 Ahaz becomes king of Judah. Syro-Ephraimite war: Israel (Pekah) allied with Syria (Rezin) against Judah
(Ahaz). Ahaz called on Assyria for help. This is the setting for Is 7-12. (There is an article on the Syro-Ephraimite War in the OT Background pages)
734 Tiglath-pileser III (Assyria) invaded Gilead & Galilee. Pekah (Israel) dethroned. Hoshea made king as Assyrian puppet. Judah becomes vassal of Assyria.
732 Fall of Damascus (Syria) to Assyria. Transjordan tribes: Reuben, Gad, and eastern half of Manasseh deported
727 Shalmaneser V becomes king of Assyria
727-722 Shalmaneser V blockaded Tyre
722 Siege of Samaria. Accession of Sargon II (Assyria)
721 Fall of Samaria (Israel) to Assyria, under Sargon II.
715 Hezekiah becomes king of Judah
711 Sargon II (Assyria) invaded Syria. Ashdod captured
709 Babylon captured by Assyria, Merodach-Baladan expelled
705 Sargon II (Assyria) murdered. Accession of Sennacherib
703 Sennacherib (Assyria) defeated Merodach-Baladan (Babylon)
701 Sennacherib (Assyria) invaded Phoenicia, Philistia & Judah (200,000 people & 46 towns), Jerusalem delivered.
This is the setting for Is 27-38. (There is an article describing the events of 701 BC in the OT background pages).
687 Accession of Manasseh
681 Sennacherib (Assyria) assassinated (Is 37:38)

Invasions of Judah and Israel

734 First invasion of Judah by Tiglath-pileser III
732 Transjordan tribes: Reuben, Gad and eastern half of Manasseh deported by Tiglath-pileser III
722 Capture of Samaria and deportation of north and half of Benjamin, land repopulated with mixed races. Started by Shalmaneser, and finished by Sargon
701 Invasion of Judah - Sennacherib

Other pages connected with the Book of Isaiah

There are several other pages on this site which contain information useful for the study of the Book of Isaiah.

Syro-Ephraimite War

701 BC

I have also written a guide to the Book of Isaiah, called Trust and be Saved, which explains more of the historical setting, as well as an explanation of the text.