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Introduction to the Book of Isaiah

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Isaiah the prophet

Isaiah's name means 'Yahweh is Salvation', which is 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 (1:1). 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 and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel (722/1 BC) 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 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 the 'Ascension of Isaiah' claims 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.

"On account of these visions, therefore, Beliar was wroth with Isaiah, and he dwelt in the heart of Manasseh and he sawed him in sunder with a wooden saw. And when Isaiah was being sawn in sunder, Belchira stood up, accusing him, and all the false prophets stood up, laughing and rejoicing because of Isaiah. And Belchira, with the aid of Mechembechus, stood up before Isaiah, [laughing] deriding; And Belchira said to Isaiah: 'Say, "I have lied in all that I have spoken, and likewise the ways of Manasseh are good and right. And the ways also of Belchira and of his associates are good." And this he said to him when he began to be sawn in sunder. But Isaiah was (absorbed) in a vision of the Lord, and though his eyes were open, he saw them (not). And Belchira spake thus to Isaiah: "Say what I say unto thee and I will turn their hearts, and I will compel Manasseh and the princes of Judah and the people and all Jerusalem to reverence thee. And Isaiah answered and said: "So far as I have utterance (I say): Damned and accused be thou and all they powers and all thy house. For thou canst not take (from me) aught save the skin of my body." And they seized and sawed in sunder Isaiah, the son of Amoz, with a wooden saw. And Manasseh and Belchira and the false prophets and the princes and the people [and] all stood looking on. And to the prophets who were with him he said before he had been sawn in sunder: "Go ye to the region of Tyre and Sidon; for me only hath God mingled the cup." And when Isaiah was being sawn in sunder, he neither cried aloud nor wept, but his lips spake with the Holy Spirit until he was sawn in twain. This, Beliar did to Isaiah through Belchira and Manasseh; for Sammael was very wrathful against Isaiah from the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, on account of the things which he had seen regarding the Beloved. And on account of the destruction of Sammael, which he had seen through the Lord, while Hezekiah his father was still king. And he did according to the will of Satan." (Ascension of Isaiah 5:1-16)

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. One 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), otherwise called Proto-Isaiah, or Isaiah of Jerusalem
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 views would claim that only chapters 1 to 39 are by Isaiah the prophet, living in Jerusalem in the eighth century BC (700's). Some claim that only parts of chapters 1 to 39 are by Isaiah, particularly excluding the apocalyptic section (ch 24-27).

In both views chapters 40 to 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 to 66 are set in a completely different historical situation from chapters 1 to 39. Chapters 1 to 39 are set in the eighth century BC, with Israel and Judah still existing as independent nations, ruled by a Davidic king, but under threat from Assyria. Chapters 40 to 66 are set in the sixth century BC, towards the end of the Babylonian exile. Assyria no longer exists, and has been replaced by 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 to 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 placed together in the OT, 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 NT more than any other OT 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, Luke refers to the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, "He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him." (Lk 4:17).

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 OT prophets to be written by 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? "Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, so that we may consider them, and that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter; that we may know that you are gods ..." (41:21-23). Throughout the second section of the book, God repeats that he, and he alone, can predict the future, in complete contrast to the idols (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. This does not fit the situation in Israel after the exile, when idolatry was not a major issue any more.

In the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), the hymn in honour of our ancestors includes a description of Hezekiah and Isaiah: "Hezekiah fortified the city and brought water into its midst; he tunneled the rock with iron tools, and built cisterns for the water. In his days Sennacherib invaded the country; he sent his commander and departed; he shook his fist against Zion, and made great boasts in his arrogance. Then their hearts were shaken and their hands trembled, and they were in anguish, like women in labour. But they called on the Lord who is merciful, spreading out their hands toward him. The Holy One quickly heard them from heaven, and delivered them through Isaiah. The Lord struck down the Assyrians, and his angel wiped them out. For Hezekiah did what was pleasing to the Lord, and he kept firmly to the ways of his ancestor David, as he was commanded by the prophet Isaiah, who was great and trustworthy in his visions. In Isaiah's days the sun went backward, and he prolonged the life of the king. By his dauntless spirit he saw the future and comforted the mourners in Zion. He revealed what was to occur to the end of time, and the hidden things before they happened" (Ecclesiasticus 48:17-25). The author refers to passages in both parts of the Book of Isaiah, making no suggestion that it was a different Isaiah comforting his people, from the Isaiah who encouraged Hezekiah to trust God.

Historical background

Isaiah prophesied to Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of (1:1):
Uzziah / Azariah (781-740) - a good king (2 Kg 15:1-7, 2 Chr 26)
Jotham (740-735) - a good king (2 Kg 15:32-38, 2 Chr 27)
Ahaz (735-715) - a very evil king (2 Kg 16:1-20,2 Chr 28) and
Hezekiah (715-687) - a very good king (2 Kg 18 - 20, 2 Chr 29 - 32).

Isaiah was called 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 Jesus: 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) during a 'golden age'. However 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, and invaded Israel, but died during the siege of Samaria

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

Sennacherib (705-681)
Forty-six cities of Judah and 200,000 people were 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.
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 Assyrian invasion Sennacherib (Assyria) invaded Phoenicia, Philistia and Judah (taking 200,000 people and 46 towns), Jerusalem miraculously delivered. The setting for Is 27-38.
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

The Theology of Isaiah

The book of Isaiah probably contains the most profound theology found in the OT, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the fifth gospel. The unity of its theological thought is powerful evidence for the unity of the book.

Isaiah is a book of contrasts, in which total opposites are brought together and seen in opposition to each other. He shows the great contrast between the greatness of God and the corruption of humanity. These include divine glory being contrasted with human degradation and sin, judgement and redemption, height and depth, and God’s wisdom contrasted with the stupidity of idols. Fertility, prosperity and abundance are contrasted with barrenness and desolation, a garden contrasted with a desert. Pride and arrogance are contrasted with humility.

These contrasts show the paradox that if humanity would lay aside its pretensions to deity, God will raise us to fellowship with himself. “For thus says the high and lofty one, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in Spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Is 57:15).

I. Isaiah’s portrayal of God

Many important aspects of Isaiah’s presentation of God are first seen in his initial vision of God and call to be a prophet (ch 6). This experience certainly shaped his ministry and message.

Isaiah gives a magnificent portrayal of the wonder, grandeur, power and majesty of God.

Isaiah first saw God ‘high and lifted up’, and ‘the whole earth is full of his glory’ (6:1,3). The powerful empire of Assyria is merely a tool in God’s hand, ‘the rod of his anger’ (10:5). Even without his knowledge, Cyrus the Great of Persia is fulfilling God’s instructions and his conquests are only for the sake of his servant Israel (45:1-5). For God, the nations are like a drop from a bucket (40:15). Compared with God, mighty Babylon has to sit in the dust (47:1f). Heaven is God’s throne, and the earth is his footstool (66:1).

God is the all-powerful Creator, and therefore the Lord

One of the strong themes of Isaiah is that the God of Israel is the Creator of the universe. Isaiah has more references to God the Creator than any other book in the OT. They are found particularly in the second part of the book. If he is the Creator, then he is all-powerful, and he is the Lord of the earth, the supreme ruler, sovereign over all the nations. Because he is the Creator, he is superior to any world ruler, and in a totally different category to them. Because he is in control of creation, he has the power and authority also act in judgement and destruction.

“For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create a chaos he formed it to be inhabited)” (45:18). In this one verse, Isaiah uses all three Hebrew words for creation. The first is bara - to create. In the OT only God creates, no one else is able to create out of nothing. The other two are yatsar - to form, and asah - to make.

He brings out the host (stars) and numbers them, none are missing because of his strength (40:26). Because he is the everlasting creator, he gives strength to the weary, so those who wait on him will rise up like eagles (40:28-31). He created the heavens, spread out the earth, gives breath to those who walk on it (42:5). He is the creator of Israel, as well as their king and their redeemer (43:1,15). God is the maker of the skies, and of Israel so earthen vessels should not strive with their potter.

God also reveals himself as the Creator to Cyrus, the heathen Persian king. He says this to Cyrus: I form light, and create darkness ... I the Lord do these things (45:7). I made the earth, and created humankind on it, it was my hands that stretched out the heavens and I commanded all their host. (45:12). As Creator, he has roused Cyrus to set his exiles free (45:13).

He reminds Israel that he is the Creator, who laid the foundation of the earth, and spread out the heavens (48:12-13). He comforts Israel, urging them not to fear a mere human being, and not to forget their maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth (51:12- 13). Israel’s maker is their husband, and redeemer (54:5).

Isaiah’s message is that if we humans could catch a glimpse of God’s true greatness and glory as the Creator, the human problem would begin to be solved, which is a timeless message for all generations.

Because God is the Creator, he has the power to make predictions come to pass. He is in control of the whole world, and will bring all things to a conclusion. “For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth ... Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating, for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy” (65:17-18).

God is holy

Isaiah’s most frequently used description of God is ‘The Holy One of Israel’ (used 29 times through the book). Again in his call to be a prophet, Isaiah realised the total otherness of God. God is of a completely different order from his creatures, described by him being high, or removed from the world. God was “high and lofty” (6:1). He calls his people to let God be their dread and fear (8:12-13). Assyria haughtily lifted their eyes against the Holy One of Israel (37:23). God asks, “Who is my equal? ... Lift your eyes on high and see” (40:25-26). “As the heavens are higher than the earth, my ways are higher than your ways” (55:8-9).

No one else has the right to be called Holy, except the Lord, the Creator of the earth. The seraphim call out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts ...” (6:3). People will look to their maker, the Holy One of Israel, not to idols (17:7). He asks, “Who is my equal?” and “Lift up your eyes, who created the stars?” (40:25-26). “I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King” (43:15). “The Holy One of Israel, and its maker” (45:11). “Your maker is your husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called". (54:5).

God is holy ‘otherness’, being set apart from creation by his moral and ethical perfection. Before a holy God, Isaiah saw he was unclean, defiled and corrupt, like the rest of his people. They were morally filthy before the morally pure (6:5). “The Lord of hosts is exalted by justice and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness” (5:16).

God’s holiness, perfection and purity is seen in contrast to the corruption of his people. Their sins and corruption are an insult against the nature and holiness of God: The sinful nation had forsaken the Lord, and despised the Holy One of Israel (1:4). The adulterous and impure city, full of injustice will face the wrath of the Sovereign, Lord of hosts, Mighty One of Israel (1:21-24). The anger of Lord is against those who call good evil, and evil good (5:20), and those who reject the word of the Holy One, trusting in oppression and deceit (30:12).

Because God is majestic and all-powerful, he is infinitely superior to any idols. Hence worshipping idols is an offense to God. Trusting in religious activity is also an offense against God’s holiness. Participating in both of these effectively bring God down to the level of any other god. God hates and is offended by empty religiosity (1:11-15). Ritualistic hypocritical fasting is also rejected by God (58:1-5).

When people fail to trust in God and turn to religiosity, the result is arrogance and faithlessness. Pride is one of the main themes of Isaiah, and one of the major sins that the prophet speaks out against. The pride of everyone will be brought low, Lord alone will be exalted (2:11,17). There is a great contrast drawn between the faithlessness of Shebna, and the faithfulness of Eliakim (22:15-25). It is fools that speak error concerning the Lord and oppress the poor (32:5-7).

Because God is faithful, and he alone is their maker, and he will always do what is right, he can be trusted to redeem. Isaiah brings together the Creator, the Holy One of Israel and their redeemer. His redemption is an expression of his holiness. “Israel will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (10:20). “Your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (41:14). The Lord who created you, and has redeemed you has also called you by name (43:1). God introduces his words describing himself as, “Your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of Israel” (43:14).

The Lord will redeem those who are humble, not those who are proud. “The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel” (29:19). The nations will bow down in the city of the Holy One of Israel (60:14).

Refusing to trust God is a denial of his holiness. His rebellious children are rebuked for rejecting the word of the Holy One (30:11) and trusting in Egypt rather than looking to the Holy One of Israel (31:1).

God is contrasted with idols

Because God is great, and he alone is holy, the worship of idols is the uttermost stupidity. Isaiah uses great sarcasm in his description of idol worship. How foolish is it to use half of a tree to burn to cook food, while worshipping the other half (44:9-20). Worshipping idols is described as bowing down to the work of their hands, which they have made themselves to worship (2:8,20).

The worship of idols is linked with a desire to magnify human beings (pride), but in reality only show the helplessness of humanity before God (2:6-22). Idols cannot explain the past (41:22), and cannot predict the future (41:23, 47:12-15), or affect the present (45:20-21). Only God can do all three of these. Idols did not create the world, so they do not control the world. They do not transcend the world, but are merely part of it. Therefore they cannot control destiny, but are helpless in the flow of events. In contrast, God is separate from his creation and not controlled by it. Therefore God is qualified to be its maker, sustainer, director and judge. God can explain the past and foretell the future (41:26-29, 44:7-8, 45:21, 46:10, 48:3-6).

Because idols are part of creation, they are powerless to do anything, like delivering Israel from exile. They are bound by natural cycles, and therefore merely repeat them. In contrast, God is free to do anything, including new things, which achieve his sovereign purposes (42:8-9, 43:18, 46:11, 48:6-8).

Much of this criticism of pagan idols is made in chapters 40-66. There is implicit comparison with idols in chapters 1-39, which becomes more explicit in chapters 40-66, where it becomes a major theme. In a world full of idolatrous worship, any statement of the sovereignty of God is an implicit criticism of idols. Brief criticisms of idols can be found in chapters 1-39 (eg: 2:8,20, 17:7-8, 30:22, 31:7, 37:19).

God is the sovereign ruler of history

Again in contrast to the idols, God has plans and purposes for humanity, centred around his people Israel. God has plans to break the power of Assyria in the land (14:24-27). God also has plans to act against Egypt (19:12), and plans to defile the pride of Tyre (23:8-9). God is praised for the plans he formed of old (25:1). God planned the Assyrian invasion from days of old (37:26). God as the potter, making clay vessels (45:9-11). The Lord created the earth and formed it to be inhabited (45:18). God also plans to call a bird of prey from the east, Cyrus (46:10-11).

God’s plan for history will come to a climax as all the nations come to a purified, redeemed and glorified Zion, where they can share in the divine character. The mountain of the Lord’s house will be raised up so all nations will come to it (2:1-5). The whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord (11:9). The Lord will swallow up death forever, wipe away tears, and the disgrace of his people (25:7-8). He declares that your light has come, the glory of Lord has risen, and nations come to the light (60:1-3).

However, the historical events of Isaiah’s time seem to contradict the idea of God’s sovereign control of history, as first Israel and then Judah are overrun by pagan armies, and become part of an idolatrous empire, firstly of Assyria, and then of Babylon. Isaiah’s message is that even these pagan empires are under the control of Israel’s God, even if they do not acknowledge him. Mighty Assyria is merely a tool in the hand of Yahweh (10:5). Cyrus is the unknowing instrument of redemption (45:1-7). Pagan nations are accountable to Yahweh, and will come under his judgement (ch 13-23).

In contrast to the popular understanding that battles between nations were a contest between their gods, Isaiah sees that God is the Only God, transcendent from the world, who directs all things. So therefore, the issue is not conflicts between different gods, but human rebellion against a sovereign God. God is the Only God, there is no other God besides him (26:13, 44:8, 45:14,22) God is transcendent from the world. He calls people to hide from the terror of the Lord, and glory of his majesty (2:19). Isaiah sees God as high and lifted up (6:1-3). The Egyptians and their horses are flesh, while God is spirit (31:3). God asks who is my equal, and who created the stars? (40:25-26).

Isaiah’s message to Israel and Judah, is that their God is no regional god, but the Creator God, sovereign over all nations. Their nation is not the not the only place where God is working, but Zion is the place of God’s throne, and the nations will stand before him.

Isaiah’s understanding of humanity and the world

Isaiah brings the correct balance in the understanding of humanity, where the world tends to go to one of two extremes. Either humanity is seen as the ultimate reality, the measure of all things, or otherwise humanity is nothing, with no meaning. Similarly the world is either made god, the spring of life, the mother of all, or otherwise is merely a collection of random forces.

Isaiah makes a connection between these two contradictory viewpoints. If we assume the universe and humanity is ultimate, experience proves the opposite. Instead of being the ultimate, humanity experiences death and its transitory life. Values which are admired the most, such as love, justice and peace, are those which are the most denied in actual practice. The pride, wealth and strength of Jacob which they trust in, will be brought low (2:6-22). The pride of Babylon will be brought low (14:4-21). The boasting of Chaldea in their security comes to nothing (47:5-15). God breaks down all pretensions, boasting and pride. If people or nations try to build themselves up while ignoring God, then their attempts are doomed to failure. The harder we try to make ourselves special, the more like nothing we become. God is too real to be excluded.

Only as God is given his true significance, will humanity and the world find any significance. The result of ignoring God is to reduce man and the world to insignificance. Isaiah consistently gives humanity and the world great significance. Only when the Lord, the Creator is exalted as the Holy Lord does the universe become a place of value and significance. Humans have value because God chooses to make them reflections of his glory and to share his holy character. All failures and atrocities are the results of a refusal to let God be Lord. When we give God his proper place, then we receive redemption, exaltation and glory.

Humans claim to achieve things, but their works are destructive (eg 1:2-8). When we admit our helplessness before God, we are able to achieve great things in his strength.

I have 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.